The Empire is ruled by priestesses who follow the mandates of the gods, but a teen girl discovers that something darker lurks underneath the floating city where she lives. Read on for an excerpt from Riwenne & the Mechanical Beasts, a YA steampunk fantasy novel with a twist on magical girls.
Chapter One: Choosing Day
I waded forward into the surf, ignoring the cold water rushing into my boots and soaking my stockings. Something had called me here. I squinted against the setting sun and searched the empty ocean for any sign of life.
I heard my name, but there was no one there. The disembodied voice sounded like the sighing of the wind.
"Who's there?" I shouted over the pounding waves. "What do you want from me?"
An enormous wave rose up from the sea, and I took a step back, afraid of being knocked down and dragged away by the tide. But as the wave rushed toward me, the sea foam transformed into flowing hair, and an impossibly tall woman stepped out of the water.
She was inhumanly beautiful, with an ageless face and a dress that rippled like the ocean surface. She smiled down at me, and the expression filled me both with joy and terror. This must be Sawycha, the sea goddess.
I fell to my knees, soaking my dress up to my waist, and clasped my hands above my head. "O Divine One!" The prayer slipped out before I realized what I was saying. "Did you call on me?"
The goddess nodded silently. I found myself staring into her eyes. They shifted colors like the restless sea, one moment a warm blue, the next a steely gray. I trembled at the thought of making her angry.
But she said nothing, so I took a deep breath and risked speaking to her again. "Please, tell me what you want from me. I'm your humble servant."
Her eyes flashed a brilliant silver, but she said nothing. She lifted her long, slender arm and pointed at the shore behind me.
I struggled to get back to my feet on wet sand, and turned to look.
A mechanical beast stood just above the waterline. The contraption was shaped like a wolf, but it towered over me larger than any animal I'd ever seen, and it was entirely made out of metal. Gears whirred and clanked as the wolf crouched on jointed legs, preparing to jump at me. A menacing growl came from its throat.
I gasped and stumbled backward, but my feet splashed in the water and I realized that I couldn't go any farther. "Help me!" I said, looking around for the goddess—but a huge wave struck me. I fell face-forward into the water, and the salty brine filled my mouth and lungs.
I sat straight up, my heart pounding from fear of drowning. Water! There was no water. My blanket covered my legs and the feathers inside my mattress poked up into my backside. I blinked into the gray gloom. I was safe in my own room. I'd been fooled by a dream.
Dreams were for children, and I thought I’d grown out of them. But this one felt different.
I heard my name again, but this time I recognized my roommate Nexita's voice calling to me. She was standing at the door, already dressed with her blue hair neatly braided. She also looked very annoyed.
Outside the window, the sky was turning gray with the approaching light. I'd overslept again. I groaned and forced myself to get up.
My clothes were laid out from the night before: a long, shapeless gray frock with a black sash at the waist. Today was the last day I'd have to wear that hideous thing. I tugged the frock on over my white slip and ran my fingers through my hair.
I rushed to the door and grabbed both of Nexita's hands. "I just had the weirdest dream, but I think it was important."
She grimaced and pulled me down the hall. "We don't have time to talk right now, Wen. Hurry or we're going to miss breakfast.”
I stopped short and opened my mouth to protest. "It'll just take a minute—”
"We don't have a minute!" She cut me off with another hard pull. "If you don't eat, you'll be cranky all morning, and I can't handle that today."
I gave in and let her drag me downstairs to the dining hall. Nexita knew me better than anyone else. We’d been roommates for five years, but she was more like my sister. I didn’t know what I’d do without her.
We were the last students for breakfast at St. Jenatta’s Secondary School. We both stood on tiptoes and craned our necks to see if any of the tables still had food left. Students on server duty were bustling back and forth to take the empty dishes away, and some of the others were already standing up and leaving. There, in a corner, I spotted a few plates of food that were only half empty. With Nexita in tow, I wove my way through the crowded room.
I plopped down onto the last empty bench and grabbed a maize flatbread with each hand. Not a moment too soon, because the teacher at the table glared at me and nodded to the girl sitting on her left, who was on server duty for the meal.
"Breakfast is over," she said coldly. "Please take the food away."
The serving girl licked her lips and stood up. But she hesitated long enough for me to grab some more flatbread and a dragonfruit before she picked up the plate. I gave her a grateful smile before she left.
Nexita sighed with relief when I handed her half the food. "Thank you, but can you stop making goo-goo eyes at every girl in school?” she whispered.
“I wasn’t making goo-goo eyes, I was just being friendly. I mean, she’s cute, but she’s not my type. You know I like tall, dark, and mysterious.”
The image of the sea goddess flashed into my mind. Sawycha was all three of those, she was a lesbian, and she had taken human lovers before. Could that be what she wanted from me?
“Your type is anything in a skirt!” Nexita said, interrupting my train of thought.
The teacher rapped the table. “Since we are short on time, I suggest less gossip and more eating.”
I stuffed most of one flatbread into my mouth and swallowed it dry. "Can I at least get some juice?"
She scowled. "There's no juice left, but you may pour yourself a glass of water." She held up her hand when I tried to reach across the table. "Ask someone to pass it to you. Late or not, you still need to use your manners."
A younger boy handed me the water pitcher before I asked. Since the cranky old teacher was glaring at me, I sipped the water politely and forced myself to take smaller bites of the food.
The cute girl finished clearing the dishes away, and the other students around the table started to stand up, but the teacher shook her head. "We're not leaving until everyone has finished eating," she said, looking at us pointedly.
Nexita glanced over her shoulder. Almost all of the other tables were empty. At this rate, we'd be the last ones out.
My mind wandered while I ate. Today was the biggest day of my life. I had to make sure I didn’t screw up anything else.
Finally, we managed to eat the rest of our food, and were allowed to stand up. We lined up behind the teacher and followed her out.
By now, the rest of the school was deserted. The shoe room had nothing but empty shelves. I slipped on my flats and hurried to follow the others.
Our shoes clicked as we hurried down the cobbled street to the corner, then climbed up the rickety stairs of the cable car stop. We made it to the top of the small tower, where only a few groups of stragglers waited. The rest of the neighborhood had already left.
My eye caught a brightly-colored bulletin pasted on another building. A picture of Amena, my favorite singer, with her bright yellow hair and huge smile. She was wearing her signature copper five-pointed star with the word 'Freedom' written in big letters. The rest of the announcement was too small for me to read.
I tugged on Nexita's arm and pointed. "Look, there's Amena's concert! When is she gonna be here?”
Nexita pushed her glasses up higher on her nose and squinted, then shook her head. "I can't make out the date, and we don't have time. Here comes the car."
With barely a squeak of its well-oiled gears, the half-full cable car came sliding down the suspended cable. The lamps hanging around the outside were still lit, making the brass fixtures of the vehicle glow in the darkness. The car glided to a stop in front of our platform with a hiss of steam from the engine.
I shot one last hopeful glance at the bulletin, but I still couldn’t see. I'd have to read it later. We'd both followed Amena during the Star Search competition for months, when she competed against dozens of other singers. Now she was on her victory concert tour through all the cities. I had to make sure Nexita and I both got tickets to finally see her in person.
Nexita grabbed my hand and squeezed us through to a couple of empty seats in the back. She sat down with a sigh of relief. "We can't be late now," she said. "I have no idea what would happen if we weren't there for our own Choosing. Would they send us down to the mainland?"
I shrugged. "Don't worry about it. Besides, we still have to get through the dawn ceremony. We're late to that all the time."
She elbowed me sharply in the ribs. "We're not outside this time!" she said. "We'll be inside the temple. Lots of people will notice us, including how messy your hair is, Wen. Here, turn around and let me braid it for you."
I turned obediently in my seat and braced myself by holding onto the back of the seat in front of me. Nexita didn't have the patience to be gentle, and I winced as she yanked a comb through the tangles, stinging my scalp. I stared out the window to distract myself and gritted my teeth against the pain.
Buildings rushed by underneath the cable car. The city's streets were narrow and crowded with traffic during most of the day. The fastest way to get anywhere was on a car, suspended above the city on a network of cables. I could dimly see the street in the gray light of predawn, but there were no people bustling below us now. Everyone was on their way to Damon Temple for the morning ritual.
We rarely got inside the temple, and my excitement mounted the closer we got. Space was at a premium in the floating capital city, with even the enormous temple able to hold a fraction of the residents, so only a few sat inside while most people prayed in the square. We only went inside on a few special occasions, like our commencement from nursery school to primary, and later to secondary.
That reminded me of my dream that morning, and what I hoped it meant. I whirled around in my seat, pulling the half-finished braid out of Nexita's hands.
“Wen!” She grabbed my head and firmly pushed me around again so she could reach my hair. "Hold still."
I tried to hold my head still. If she was almost done, I might as well let her finish. "But I have to tell you about my dream last night, Nex. I have a good feeling about it."
She tied off the end of the braid and finally let me go. I shifted in my seat to face her and described the whole dream in detail.
Nexita was frowning in disgust before I'd finished. "That sounds really freaky. Why would you tell me all that when we're about to face The Choosing?"
"That sounds like wishful thinking to me," she said with a shake of her head. "You've been obsessed with Sawycha forever, so it's no surprise that she'd show up in your dream. And don’t let anyone else hear you talking about that. Most of us haven’t had a dream in years.“
I shook my head again. I couldn't let anything destroy my hope this morning. "I'm just saying that I've got a really good feeling about today. We're both going to make it, Nex. I promise you."
The cable car lurched to a stop at its final destination—the street across from the temple complex. I bounced to my feet and offered her a hand up.
Nexita sighed and took my hand with a reassuring squeeze. "Well, we're going to find out soon enough."
Usually when we were running late, we stayed at the back of the crowd and couldn’t see anything past the sea of heads. But today we met with the headmaster from St. Jenatta’s to check in. He pushed us through the crowd and up the wide steps into the temple itself.
He stopped inside the door and pointed to the rows where we were supposed to sit. "Only a few seats left," he said in a low voice. "Find a place quietly, but first I have something for you.”
The headmaster reached into a satchel and pulled out several small objects wrapped in plain white tissue paper. Students' names were written on each packet. With only a few left, he quickly found one for each of us. "Hold onto this, but don't open it until you're told to," he said sternly.
Through the thin paper, I could feel a hard, lumpy shape. Nexita and I looked at each other, but she looked just as confused as me. I slipped mine in my pocket and hurried to sit.
Damon Temple, the heart of Lyndamon City, was an impressive sight. Everywhere I turned, there was something new to marvel at. The walls were made of pure white marble, carved with sun glyphs and icons of the sun goddess, Chysa, shining with gold gilt. Huge glass windows stretched up to the vaulted ceiling. Luxurious fabrics draped over the rows of seats where all the fifteen-year-olds sat. We waited for the priestesses to appear.
The altar stood on a dais in front of an enormous window that faced east. I watched the sky lighten from lavender to peach on the horizon. As the light grew stronger, so did my excitement, and I tried not to bounce in my seat. Everyone else was solemn. How could they stay calm?
Music swelled from the steam-powered organ at the northern wall. I stood up with the rest of the worshippers and bowed my head respectfully as the priestesses filed out onto the dais. They all moved gracefully with slow, even steps, clad in their long flowing robes with their hair hanging loose down their backs. A blazing red sun was embroidered on the front of each robe. Novices in their white robes came out first, all of them teenagers, followed by the red-robed junior priestesses. Then were the seniors, old women in dark gray robes that matched their graying hair.
I held my breath in anticipation of the head priestess: Mother Lyda herself, the leader of the entire Central Province. Everyone turned to the aisle for her entrance. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of her. She stood out in her multicolored robes that were bleached white at her neck, flowed down into red and finally ended in black at her feet. She was in her late forties, but she still seemed young, with smooth skin and beautiful dark red hair that hung in heavy curls past her waist.
Watching her glide up the steps to the altar, I wondered how she felt at my age. On her Choosing Day, did the gods tell her that someday she would rule in their name?
Lyda went behind the altar and turned to face us, then lifted her arms in front of the eastern window. The growing light framed her perfectly. The organ music ended. The head priestess, flanked by eight black-robed high priestesses, began a low, droning chant in mysterious Old Ursan that only they understood.
At the climax, Lyda reached down to the altar and picked up a clear crystal the size of her fist, and lifted it over her head. The first sun's rays hit the crystal and split apart in the prism, sending little rainbows dancing all over the temple.
When Lyda lowered the crystal again, it glowed with its own golden light: she'd channeled the energy of the sun into it, creating a sunstone. She beckoned to a man standing in the front row of the crowd.
When he stepped up onto the dais, I recognized Minister Rennu, the head of the Ministry of Research and Development, by his icy blue hair. He accepted a square of cloth from a priestess attendant and held it open for Lyda to hand him the sunstone—protection for his hands, because sunstones burned with heat. The magic in the crystal could power any engine by heating the water to create steam. Rennu bowed his head and went back to his place.
When the exchange was completed between the most powerful woman and man in the city, the dawn ritual went on. Other priestesses held up smaller crystals to the window to create more sunstones. The organ started up again, and we lifted our voices in the morning prayer.
O Beautiful Chysa, shine your guiding light
Onto our daily work and devotion
Brilliant Chysa, the highest of the gods,
We ask for your blessing and guidance
So many voices, echoing up to the temple's high ceilings. Outside, more people sang the prayer. The swell of emotion took away my nervousness about what would come after.
All too soon, the ritual came to an end. Most of the priestesses turned and glided out again. The elite in the front rows emptied out, except for the few leaders who stayed behind for our Choosing. Behind us, the crowd in the courtyard was also leaving, going off to their jobs for the day. Our teachers would be leading the rest of the students back to our school, where classes would go on as usual.
For a moment, I felt a pang of longing. As much as I hated school, it would be so much easier to go back and sit through a dry history lesson than to face the ceremony ahead of us. But there was no turning back now. Today was Choosing Day, and every fifteen-year-old in the city would be assigned to their new apprenticeships. We were growing up.
To my surprise, I realized that more people were coming into the temple, and not all of them were the head of a ministry or a business. They looked like ordinary men and women, mostly middle-aged, and they were eyeing us curiously.
I nudged Nexita and pointed to them. "What do you think they're doing? Did you know we were going to have an audience?"
Nexita shrugged. "I don't know. It's really weird."
The ordinary people weren't allowed to sit in any of the seats, so they lined up standing in the back of the temple, hovering behind the students. It was uncomfortable to have them staring at the back of my head. I kept twisting around, trying to figure out what was going on.
Nexita tapped my shoulder. "Pay attention, it's starting!" she said in my ear.
I turned back and tried to focus. Mother Lyda was standing up to speak again.
This article was written by Kristen S. Walker.
Kristen S. Walker is a YA fantasy author and blogger, also known as a book hoarder. Check out more of her work by clicking on any of the covers below.