Peer Review by Breanna Jury (New Zealand)()

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The Offseason

By: lindazhang

    Aurelia held the waterskin tentatively. She knew it was discourteous to refuse to drink during the First Season in the presence of the Aries, but she hardly believed it was an appropriate time to celebrate.

    “Go on, drink,” urged Sherstos, who was seated closest by Aurelia around the bonfire, “it is Taurusian wine. Would be a shame to waste it.”

    Aurelia shifted against the dry grass grazing her thighs. She knew the Aries are a proud people, and signs of weakness would only soil their sentiments towards the Pisces even further. She brought the waterskin to her lips, letting the liquid inside slip past her sharp teeth. The spiced wine was a welcomed comfort on her tongue, the hint of honey delighted her tastebuds—as it was the only pleasing flavour she has tasted in the past few weeks. She allowed herself another sip, this time swallowing with no hesitation. She lifted the waterskin once more, only to feel the container ripped from her grasp.

    “That’s enough,” another Aries, Merinos, declared, “we offered you one sip, out of courtesy.”

    Aurelia wiped her lips with the back of her scaled hand. “Apologies, sir. My thirst overcame my senses. The First Season is not my celebration—thank you for your generosity for allowing me to drink your wine.”

    “Yes, I suppose you would be thirsty,” another Aries, Baran, remarked, “I’d imagine that’s how a fish out of water would feel.”

    His comrades burst into bouts of laughter. Aurelia moved her head to the side to avoid Sherstos’ horns slicing through the air as he shook his head between laughs. She had gotten used to the japes, she had endured many of them since her escorts had joined her once she crossed into Ariesia.

    “Wine is a poor drink for us!” Baran declared, “Ale is a much better-suited drink for the First Season.”

    “Aye, that I agree,” Sherstos nodded, “we would all be drinking all the ale we would want, if we weren’t here, doing this.”

    Merinos looked at Aurelia accusingly. “If your people would learn to abide by the rules, none of us would be here.”

    Aurelia looked down from the trajectory of his onyx slitted pupils. Her eyes landed upon the basket that laid beside her feet. The item inside was bundled in her shawl—a Pisces newborn’s skin was still highly sensitive to heat, especially to the fire that flickered before them.

    Aurelia should hate the infant. And she did—at least, in the beginning. It was the product of a heinous crime; it was an Offseason. Since it was birthed during the First Season, it belongs with the Aries. It was only fitting for the Piscean Elders to decide for the sister of the mother who committed the crime to deliver the infant to Ariesia. The journey had left the bottom of her feet littered with blisters, and her scales to flake from the prolonged absence of water. Nonetheless, Aurelia can’t help but feel a sense of dread as the journey was nearing to an end. By midday the following day, the infant would be handed off to an orphanage for the Aries Offseasons. Aurelia wonders if she would return home in time to witness her sister’s trial.

    “I asked you a question,” Merinos said, snapping Aurelia out of her reverie.

    “I do apologize,” Aurelia started, “I wasn’t lis—”

    “Well, I’ll say it again,” barked the Aries, “why do you people feel the need to deny your hands in murdering our prince?”

    Aurelia sighed. “We deny because we are not to blame. It was an unfortunate thing, what happened. The late Ariesian prince fell in during the night. No one was around. If there were, I promise you, the tragedy would have been avoided. Us Pisces are a genero—”

    “It was witchcraft! The Sea Witches drowned our prince!” Baran cried.

    “The Sea Witches are nothing but stories,” Aurelia stated, “our ancestors invented them to scare off possible invaders.”

    “Witchcraft or not, your people are to blame!” Merinos exclaimed.

    “We are not!” Aurelia shot back. She did not know why she did not hold her tongue—perhaps the wine had loosened it.

    “Liar. The whole lot of you, liars,” Merinos fumed, “maybe you’re lying about the Sea Witches, too. You’re all witches and whores, nothing more.”

    The Aries’ slit pupils darted to the basket by Aurelia’s feet as he spat his insult. Aurelia felt her cheeks grow as hot as the flame before her. Without thinking, she leaped to her feet, glaring down at the sneering Aries. The others started to chuckle, although Aurelia can sense their confusion. Pisces were not known to be confrontational.

    Merinos stood. “How does it feel, knowing that your sister is nothing but a whore.”

    Aurelia clenched her fists, her nails digging into her palms. Her lungs heaved, ready to bellow out the insults she had been bottling up since she began her journey.

    “Did you know, Pisces have the most Offseasons?” Merinos jeered as he approached Aurelia, “only behind those darn Scorpios, of course.”

    “That is nonsense,” Aurelia said, her eyes never leaving his glare.

    The Aries towered over Aurelia. “It is true. Your sister is a fool to give birth during the First Season. She should have waited until the Seventh. The Libras treat their Offseasons better than most, or so I’ve heard.”

    “And I’ve heard your precious, poor prince, was an Offseason himself,” spat Aurelia.

    The Aries’ nostrils flared, his countenance set ablaze. He grabbed Aurelia’s face, his fingers digging into her jaws. “You do not get to talk about our prince!”

    Oh, but I do, Aurelia thought, fighting back a smile, he was no Aries at all. He was a coward. I watched him drown. After all, I spoke those incantations myself.

    Aurelia pried the Aries’ fingers off her face. “I’m going to sleep. Wake me when the sun rises.”

Aurelia picked up the basket as she walked away. With her back facing the fire, she allowed the corners of her lips to pull up in a grin.

Peer Review

I loved how you based it on the astrology signs - imagining something familiar in a new way. It really helped to build the world even in such a short space.

The main character, Aurelia. I love the reveal at the, though I'd like to see a bit more hints about that earlier in the story. She seems a bit docile at the beginning given what you find out at the end, so maybe show a bit more of the fire at the start.

I think you could explain what the offseasons are a bit more - is everyone from one culture expected to give birth in the same month? I'd like to see a bit more explanation on how this works and the cultural norms around it. I'd also like to see a bit more description on how the characters look, especially at the beginning. And maybe a little more on why she, as the sister, was the one who had to deliver the child?

This is really good! You build the story really well and keep the characters limited and different enough that I feel like I know them even with such a short excerpt. You build the atmosphere and world really well - it's really immersive.

Reviewer Comments

I really love the action at the end, could you add a bit more into the beginning? Maybe introduce the prince a bit earlier in the story?