After much deliberation, the winner was declared to be Mzeusia, and below is their winning entry.
It was an exceptionally strong field of entries, but Mzeusia's stood out, in the end, owing to their original use of description. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did -
Erinor, Minister of Regional Affairs and Competition Judge.
A Tale of Two Summers
The pastry shop hadn’t been very busy when Mikos had entered, and half an hour later, business still hadn’t picked up. Fladlovia, the man sitting opposite the Mzeusian nodded and stood, putting on his jacket. The stiff professionalism Mikos had come to expect from this man was laced with the tension of their recent conversation but Mikos stood, extending his hand for a shake. They shook and despite the efforts of the muggy summers day to eviscerate any good spirits, what had been accomplished here had been fruitful.
“After you,” Fladlovia said, gesturing with a freshly gloved hand.
“Thank you, but I think I’ll stay a little. I’ve heard the Rashka is particularly good here and my wife has been wanting something to keep her company while I’m gone.”
There was a brief smile from the man. “Yes, the Rashka are very good.” He nodded, saying “I’ll leave you to it,” before walking out. Mikos watched the man go before turning to the café counter. It didn’t take long before he was walking back to the embassy, a warm pastry swaddled in greaseproof paper tucked under his arm.
The lamp was dim and occasionally flickered, pasting Mikos’s hunched shadow on the drab wallpaper as if attempting to show images from a broken Zoopraxiscope. Mikos sat at a desk, tie lopsided, suit slightly rumpled, pale hands zipping in tandem across a typewriter. The near-unbroken clacking of keys drowned out the solemn chatter beyond the door. His frantic motions came to an abrupt end, and after a glance at his watch, Mikos read over the report. Satisfied, he snatched it from the machine’s grasp with a crisp tear and folded it inside an envelope.
Within a few minutes, it had been delivered to the head of the embassy and would shortly begin the journey to Mzeusian territory. Inside that envelope was a detailed account of the day’s events, including the conversation in the café and its many implications. After handing it over, Mikos took a seat at the desk again. He adjusted the typewriter and placed his fingers on the keys. This time he took longer. Several moments were spent in thought, with many more punctuated by sighs and grinding teeth.
Thank you for your last letter. It’s wonderful to know that the repairs are going well. I can’t wait to be back to you. You must be enjoying the warmer summer. I’m glad the weather’s so good over there because the summers here are nasty things. Far too hot for my taste. Maybe it’s all these buildings trapping the heat in? I am sorry I can’t tell you when I’ll be back. The work at the embassy has only intensified since my last letter, but they tell me I’ll be home before the end of next month. At least that’s something, eh?
I’m constantly thinking of you walking in the woods beside the house. The nearest woods from the embassy is an hour’s drive, and from the hotel it is even longer. Still, when I can get out there, I always end up remembering our own walks. Again, I’m sorry things had to happen this way. Send my regards to the village when Yitnos come,
P.S. I have it on good authority that what I sent you is good. I hope you enjoy.
With all my love,
Mikos mopped his forehead with a handkerchief, pursing his lips and grimacing. Allowing his desires to rule him would be the height of carelessness so he wrote no more. By relaying the wrong information, he could be putting not only his life in danger, but quite possibly the lives of many of his comrades. The Mzeusian intelligence agency hadn’t gotten such a fearsome reputation by employing lackadaisical agents, and his years of training had steeled him to the prospect of telling half-truths and outright lies.
The city outside was a mixture of grey, black and beige. Mikos looked away, gripped the handle of a desk drawer, and pulled. The smooth sound of wood against wood calmed him, and he took out a photo. The photo depicted himself and his wife on a walk. They had gone halfway up one of the mountains, the rest of which could be seen charging ever upward and out of the frame. To the left of the photo, the mountain dropped away, and a forest could be seen, its vibrant green dazzling in the morning light. Out of the shot, the couple’s home slept, its wood fire not yet lit, the knifes and forks
laid out for breakfast.
The trees of the forest were evergreens, so despite the current season, there would be little change on a surface level. On the other hand, the embassy Mikos was cloistered away in was surrounded by the spread-eagled mass of an unchecked, unplanned city. The sun there was still occupied with the business of clawing its way through the clouds. Acting as swiftly as a monarch restored to the throne after a civil war, it had taken hold of the city upon its rise, casting unrelenting heat down every cowering alley, ripping through each windowpane and barrelling into the unairconditioned city. In response, the populace moaned and gritted their teeth, preparing for another sweltering day.
As he shifted on his chair, Mikos frowned, his attention caught by the incessant buzzing of a fly that was perched on the photo frame. With a grimace, he waved the fly away and shut the photo in the drawer.
With his work done for the day, he drove to the hotel. The anguished faces of the hotel staff and guests greeted him as he stepped inside. Mios ignored them all, heading for the elevator and up to his room. All seemed as he had left it, that is to say, clean but bugged. It was to be expected of course. Every embassy staff member had their hotel rooms bugged but nothing could be done. To get rid of the bugs would have only raised suspicion. Instead, meetings were conducted in a secure room in the embassy or at in a local business.
Mikos undressed, the cool air relaxing him as he stood in just a pair of boxers and a string vest. He lay upon the cool covers and exhaled. The Mzeusian festival of Yitnos was just around the corner. His wife would be in attendance no doubt, but Mikos himself would have to miss it. It was one of his favourites, and he had made his wife promise to tell him about it in a letter. Memories of party games, food and drink, prayers and stories were finally allowed to emerge from behind the mask Mikos had constructed for his work. Although his current assignment was a risky one and the most dangerous parts still had yet to come, he pushed that aside, willing the gentle thoughts of warm summers in Mzeusia to take him away.
Six days later, in Mzeusia, Anna peeled off the rubber gloves and dropped them by the door. She wiped her shoes on the mat and looked towards the garden. After an hour, the stinging nettle patch had been thoroughly eradicated and the plants watered. Now, lying by her feet were the broken carcasses of the fallen nettles. She would prepare and boil them into tea later on. For now, a shower was more important.
It was the cool water thundering onto Anna’s back that drowned out the clang of the letter slot opening and closing. Consequently, she only noticed the letter and package many hours after the shower. She read the letter while standing by the door and read it again and again. She moved into the kitchen, set the letter aside and opened the package. The wrapping was thick and the pastry she discovered inside was undamaged. A note was included in the box. Her husband’s handwriting.
Apparently, it’s a local specialty. I thought you might like it. Always thinking of you.
Anna smiled, the memory of Mikos’s face on her mind. She looked at the pastry, sitting amidst the wrapping, fluffy, golden and coated in icing. Despite being on opposite sides of a continent, she smiled, knowing Mikos’s familiar hand had touched the paper the pastry had been wrapped in. She stretched her arm out, fingers brushing the top of the pastry. It felt to her that they were almost touching again. So close, with only a thin paper barrier between them. Her fingers came away with a few flakes of icing stuck to them. As the golden light of a Mzeusian summer evening gazed into the room, tears gathered at the corners of Anna’s eyes before falling.
I’ve just received the letter and pastry. I’m sorry things are so horrid where you are but at least we have a rough date for when you’ll be back! I haven’t tasted the pastry yet, but I will do soon. Sorry, but I’ve already had dinner and couldn’t wait to write back. I hope the work eases off and the weather improves. The weather forecast here says the summer is shaping up to be ideal for hiking in the next week or so. I bet you miss hiking. We can hike every day when you get back.
Al is fine here. I’m sure you’ll be missed at the Yitnos Festival but I’ll pass on your regards to everyone. I’d send a little bit of our summer to you if I could!
Loving you loads,
Several weeks later, Mikos took a seat in the same café. Fladlovia was late, which wasn’t like him, so Mikos watched the street beyond. The heat had refused to disperse, and the pedestrians voices their anger in quiet grumbles, faces screwed up in sweaty discomfort as they passed. A mother dragged her moaning child along the street, a man rushed the other way, a bead of sweat traversing the terrain of his wrinkled temple. Five minutes passed and Fladlovia appeared in the doorway. He removed his hat and stepped into the room, making his way to Mikos’s table, and taking a seat.
“Was there a problem?” Mikos asked.
"That’s good to…”
“Mikos,” Fladlovia said, cutting the Mzeusian off. “Mr Pholitas, my government is getting…anxious. I’m not sure how long I can stave off their suspicion.”
“What are you saying?”
Fladlovia wetted his lips, eyes flicking to the entrance. “I need to be extracted or my cover will...” His look conveyed a fear Mikos had only seen a few times before. Fladlovia continued. “I need to leave the country. How soon can your government do this?”
Mikos was silent for a minute, staring at the broken portable fan he could see over the shoulder of the other man. “I can’t be sure. Maybe within a week.”
Fladlovia nodded. “Well, let’s hope that will be soon enough.”