The following is a list of the Top 24 final pitches.
Simply click on the title of the manuscript below to view that pitch, or the link to the name of the pitch under the Categories menu!
Agents and Publishers, to vote for your favorites or request a full manuscript, comment on the individual blog with the corresponding title. If you request further materials, please include the email address and a list of materials you would like to see!
Court Sci Fi
By Sir Jared Agard
THE YEAR OF PERFECT SIGHT
By Sir George Anderson
THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS
By Sir Yusuf Baldick
By Sir Myles Christensen
TO KISS THE SKY AGAIN
By Lady Candace Davenport
IDOLS OF PARADISE
By Lady Shianne Edelmayer
THE RED DIVIDE
By Lady Nicole Garcia
By Lady Talynn Lynn
By Sir David Neuner
By Lady Morgan Watchorn
By Sir Trevor Williams
By Lady Diamond Wortham
NO REST FOR THE WICKED
By Lady Phoebe Darqueling
THE GRIMOIRE’S HEIR
By Lady C. Ashwinne
THE HERON KINGS
By Sir Eric Lewis
By Sir Thomas Macolino
PAST STORM AND FIRE
By Lady Christy Nicholas
By Lady Mattea Orr
THE ISLE OF EXILE
By Lady Erin Peters
THE WOLF QUEEN AND THE DRAGON
By Lady Sahar Rahimi
THE BRAVEST OF THEM ALL
By Lady Lorelei Savaryn
THE LILY OF GRACES
By Lady Cristal Thompson
THE DEATH OF CALETTE LANDON
By Lady Bree Wernicke
SHATTER THE SHIELD
By Lady Latrice Willis
Two 12/year-olds are press-ganged into being the protagonists of an unfinished fantasy novel: one to be the hero, one to die. #PitProm
I am seeking representation for my metafictional middle grade fantasy novel, TITLE PENDING, which is complete at approximately 84,000 words.
Twelve-year-old Main Character and Dead Boy forgot their real names when they were summoned to be the protagonists for an unfinished fantasy novel. Scared and confused by this new world where everyone is named after their role in the story, they just want to go home. Except that's not possible, not until they defeat Villain and the plot is finished. At least, that's what Traitor Figure tells them, and who knows if he's trustworthy or not.
But when Villain unexpectedly abandons his invasion of The Good Kingdom and sends the rising action downhill, the kingdom is thrown into a panic. Without a good antagonist they can't make a plot worth reading, and their world will fade away into the obscure nothingness that awaits all forgotten stories. So our young heroes‒‒along with a disturbingly ladylike Feisty Princess, a Mentor Figure with a false beard, and several other supposedly 'traditional' characters‒‒are sent off on a quest to find Villain and fix the rapidly unraveling plot.
Readers who enjoy the satirical comedy of BROODING YA HERO: BECOMING A MAIN CHARACTER (ALMOST) AS AWESOME AS ME and the fantastical world and narrative style of THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING will appreciate the much shorter title of TITLE PENDING and probably the contents within as well.
As for myself, I am a Philadelphia native with a B.A. in English Writing from Wheaton College. A few my short stories have been published in literary magazines such as Sun & Sandstone and Kodon. Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Ten Pages:
In which something sinister, violent, and vaguely supernatural happens as part
of the book's hook, which compels you to read the rest of the actual novel.
Plot Hook woke up that morning, as always, with a vague sense of dread. However, this was perfectly natural when the ultimate purpose of your life was to die in some nasty, horrible way, so the dwarf didn't think much of it.
He got out of his cot and shrugged on the dented steel breastplate and greaves that composed the entirety of the uniform he'd been issued before being packed off to the lonely watchtower at the edge of the Dark And Scary Forest. Plot Hook didn't mind being alone. He'd been allowed to bring his personal book collection with him, and the solitude provided him time to read. Even so, when he'd heaved the enormous trunk onto the boar-cart, his mother had shaken her head sadly, sure that all those expensive books would be lost or destroyed in the inevitable carnage. Nobody knew exactly how the dwarf was going to die, but everyone was sure that it would be fittingly shocking, and that meant violence on a grand scale.
Yawning, Plot Hook walked down the steps from the loft where he slept and made himself a pot of coffee. The room below his loft was a simple kitchen with a small table and only one chair. Plot Hook never got any visitors. Once the coffee was brewed, he poured the entire pot into a mug the size of a flower vase, along with two sizable dollops of cream and a single teaspoon of sugar. He checked to see that the thermal enchantment on the mug was still working. The last time the enchantment had given out the coffee had grown cold within an hour, spoiling both the coffee and Plot Hook's entire day. But there was nothing to worry about today. The enchantment was still running hot.
Plot Hook tucked his book under his arm and, mug in hand, made his way up the winding staircase, past his loft and up to his post at the top of the tower. The building where Plot Hook lived and worked was small by watchtower standards, just a rough stone column thirty-five feet high and twenty feet around. But when the dwarf opened the trapdoor and stepped out onto the viewing platform, he had a clear 360-degree view for miles around, both of the Dark And Scary Forest in front of him and the Peaceful Buffer Zone at his back.
Plot Hook settled into the armchair in the center of the otherwise empty roof. The military-issue canopy, complete with the latest in anti-weather enchantments, kept the normally chilly air quite cozy and snug, something for which he was constantly grateful. He swiveled his chair so it faced the forest, away from the rising sun, and opened his book to where he'd left off last night. Nothing ever happened in the buffer zone, just rabbits frisking, birds singing, that sort of thing.
Nothing much happened in the forest either, for that matter. Although there was occasional roar of a troll, and at night the wolves could make quite a racket howling at the moon. But all in all, Plot Hook's life at the watchtower was as peaceful and relaxed as the day he'd arrived over a year ago.
However, like all forms of earthly peace, this one was only temporary. As the yellow rim of the sun crept out from the underside of the earth, Plot Hook spied something over the pages of his book. It didn't look like much, only a black dot in the distance. At first the dwarf wasn't even sure it was there at all; it could have just been a trick of his imagination. But the more he stared, the more he was convinced that this was no trick of the eyes. He watched the speck for some time, the seconds turning into minutes, the minutes chugging along into hours. It was definitely growing larger. Occasionally he would try to resume his reading, but his eyes skimmed over the written lines without actually absorbing their meaning. So eventually he gave up and watched his doom approach.
At first Plot Hook thought it might be a dragon. A dragon would certainly qualify as a kingdom-destroying disaster. But as it drew closer, he saw that it was flying far too slowly to be a dragon. Moreover, it didn't have wings. It actually looked more like a lump of coal. Plot Hook realized that he was annoyed. This was taking a really long time, and he couldn't even get a proper look at whatever this thing was. He didn't have a field glass, though it seemed obvious in retrospect that he should have been given one. As it was, he just had to content himself with squinting and waiting.
After another hour had passed Plot Hook decided he had the shape of it. It was a giant floating Evil Lair. The approaching object looked like a castle hewn out of a single black rock the size of a small mountain. And as if the ominous black coloring wasn't enough to give it away, Plot Hook could now see the outlines of several pointy towers. The dwarf figured it was about time he made his report, so he reached under his chair and pulled out a small wooden box. He pressed his thumb against the side of the box, which sprang open at his touch, revealing a small crystal orb. Plot Hook took the orb out of the box and held it to his lips.
"This is Guard Whose Death Is The Signal Bad Things Have Started to Happen And The Plot Has Begun." Considering the gravity of the situation, the dwarf had decided to use his proper name instead his less formal nickname. A few seconds later there was a crackling noise from the orb, and a small voice, echoic and distorted like someone speaking from inside of a church bell, answered.
"We hear you, Plot Hook. What's the situation?"
"It looks like today's the day," Plot Hook said. "I've got a visual on a giant floating castle. Never seen anything like it before. Looks like an Evil Lair if you ask me. At its current speed, I'd say you've got perhaps ten days before it reaches the castle."
"Any hostile activity?" The voice, distorted though it was, still sounded disturbingly eager to Plot Hook.
"Nothing yet. But if I haven't checked back in with you in an hour, assume the worst."
"Will do!" The orb fell silent.
Plot Hook set the communication crystal down and looked back to where the Evil Lair loomed. It was close now, less than a mile. For a moment Plot Hook considered running. If he ran down the stairs and legged it across the Buffer Zone he could probably find shelter somewhere before the Lair reached him. Nothing that big would land just to search for one measly dwarf. And besides, he'd done his official job. He'd warned the kingdom.
Yet Guard Whose Death Is The Signal Bad Things Have Started To Happen And The Plot Has Begun hesitated. If he didn't live up to his name, then what was his purpose? He glanced at the book in his hand, only thirty pages left. Surely his death could wait until after that?
But when he stood up, and something caught his eye. Now that the Lair was close enough, Plot Hook could see what looked like a half-dozen polished tree trunks protruding from niches in the stone walls. It was such an odd sight that, despite the imminent danger, Plot Hook stopped in his tracks to take a closer look.
The bolt of olive lightning that hit the tower was almost as big as the tower itself. There was a boom of thunder that set the creatures in the Dark And Scary Forest to howling in fear. The Evil Lair passed over the smoking crater where Plot Hook's tower had once stood and glided steadily on towards the defenseless Kingdom With A Name That Is Just A Random Series Of Syllables That The Author Thought Sounded Cool.
In which the main characters are introduced and characterized, followed by something dramatic and unusual, and you decide whether or not you want to keep reading this book.
In the grand tradition of these things, this particular story begins Once Upon A Time. As for the location, it began in Vaguely Midwestern Small Town in the USA. It was Friday in late May, and even in the early morning the spring day was showing summer tendencies. It was the kind of day that sweats sunshine and pants a hot breeze thick with the scent of newly blossomed flowers.
Our protagonists were walking to School Named After Some Long-Dead White Guy. Before the plot starts back up, a brief description of the heroes is warranted. The one on the right is Main Character. You can tell because he's taller. (That's not the name he goes by right now, but to keep things from getting confusing later on, we'll stick with calling him Main Character from the beginning). He's a decent-looking kid, just enough to be admired but not enough to alienate him from the reader. Perhaps a little too skinny, but that's normal for a seventh grader. He's got tousled, sandy hair and soft, blue eyes. Fate has decreed him to be a hero, though he doesn't know it yet.
The boy beside him is shorter and a little out of shape. He's baseball player fat, like Babe Ruth. We'll get to his name later. (It's awkward, but it's only until chapter 2, so bear with it). He's got thick, black hair, the kind that never really needs combing, and brown eyes so dark they may as well be black; these eyes are hidden behind a set of square-rimmed glasses. He's very funny. He's also fated to die before the end of this book.
The boys arrived at school fifteen minutes before the bell rang, just enough time to weave their way through the crowd, hit up their lockers, and settle into their usual seats in homeroom. Or it would have been.
"Hey, dweebs!" The postpubescent boom of Generic Bully's voice parted the crowd of children like an Old Testament miracle, leaving Main Character and his friend in direct line of sight.
(Of course his parents were not quite horrible enough to name their child Generic Bully. But that is what he is. So, that is what we shall call him until the Author does enough research into baby names to pick one. Now, back to our tale).
Main Character groaned aloud, cursing their bad luck. Usually their tormenter was late to school, but today it appeared he'd been waiting for them. Generic Bully was a large boy, with stooped shoulders and a potbelly already starting to bulge from underneath his shirt. He marched toward the pair, palm extended.
"Where's your lunch money?"
In silent response, the boys held up their bagged lunches.
Bully frowned, as if he found the idea of bringing a lunch from home personally offensive. "Okay then, hand it over. Not you!" He glared at Main Character. "Your mom's a terrible cook. You, what do you have?"
The dark-haired boy glanced inside his bag. "Sorry," he said, an edge of defiance in his voice, "just pig's feet today. Ow!" He rubbed his shoulder where Bully had punched it. "Fine. Egg rolls, cheesy potatoes, and oxtail soup. Oh, and a Capri Sun," he added, somewhat wistfully.
Main Character seethed as his friend's lunch was placed reluctantly in the bigger boy's hand.
Generic Bully opened the bag and inhaled like an addict breathing in paint fumes. "Smells delicious. See ya later, dorks."
As Bully turned away, Main Character took an unconscious step forward, paper bag clenched in his fist like a weapon. But at the last moment he came to his senses and stopped. "You know," he muttered as Bully vanished in the crowd. "One day I might just kick him in the nuts. That'd show him."
His friend patted him on the shoulder. "We both know that wouldn't end well. Besides, he'll be heading off to high school next year. Let's just keep our heads down and stay out of his way until then."
Main Character shook his head. "That's not good enough. What he's doing is wrong."
His bespectacled companion just shrugged. "Well, until you decide to grow a bigger spine and fight him, or lose what little you have and tattle, you're in the same boat as the rest of us."
Ms. English Teacher's class was the last period at the end of a very long day. Finals started next Wednesday, and the kids were beginning to feel the anxiety that comes with all big tests. Aware of this, Ms. English Teacher had set aside the last twenty minutes of class for any review questions the students might have.
Main Character sat in his chair by the window, wishing that she had just let them leave early instead. The sun was bathing the world in white-gold light. A breeze stirred the emerald leaves so that Main Character swore he could hear them rustling through the thick glass of the window. He sighed. He wanted to feel the sun on his skin. Instead there was only the nasal intonations of Teacher's Pet.
"Excuse me, teacher, but could we go over Freytag's Pyramid again?"
Ms. English Teacher smiled. "Of course we can." She took up a piece of chalk and quickly sketched a design on the board and labeled several points.
Teacher's pet continued to talk as Ms. English Teacher's chalk scrapped along the board. "So, I know exposition is the part where the author sets up the story for the audience." But what about stories that aren't told chronologically?"
Main Character stopped listening. They'd already gone over this stuff a long time ago, multiple times. She was just trying to suck up to the teacher by asking questions that made her look smart. The questions she was asking definitely wouldn't come up on the final. He looked over at his friend, who was making a great show of paying attention while actually doodling a Chinese dragon in the margins of his notebook.
The hefty boy noticed his look, and an unspoken message passed between them. He adjusted his glasses and looked around the room. It didn't take him long to notice Nervous Classmate Number Eight. Nervous was staring dejectedly at his notebook, mechanical pencil tilted in his limp hand, the picture of resignation. He'd asked so many questions this year that Ms. English Teacher had started passing over his upraised hand in favor of other, faster students.
The dark-haired boy tilted his head ever so slightly in Nervous' direction. Main Character nodded, and during the next lull in the lecture, he raised his hand.
"Could we go over the difference between colons and semicolons again?"
Everyone groaned. Except for Nervous, who looked unabashedly relieved. He'd been confused by colons and semicolons ever since Ms. English Teacher had gone over them in February.
This was a game Main Character and his friend liked to play. Whenever Teacher's Pet got carried away with asking useless questions, Main Character would ask about a subject another student was struggling with. It wasn't a very exciting game, but it helped to pass the time before the final bell.
Generic Bully was waiting for them by the front door after school ended.
"Thanks for the lunch, doofus." He tossed the paper bag back to its original owner, who caught it against his chest and looked inside. It was empty except for some dirty containers. "Make sure you get those back to your mom now," Bully said with a deep guffaw. "Wouldn't want her asking any questions about her missing Tupperware. See ya Monday." And he walked away with a bounce in his step that belied his heavy body.
The boys watched Bully leave with dull, sullen eyes. Then they turned and walked down the front steps toward home. Birds were singing, the sun was shining, and all around them their classmates were chatting about their weekend plans. Several of them waved, mostly Main Character's friends from the baseball team. The boys barely noticed. Bully had put them both in a foul mood.
"What a tool." Main Character looked around angrily. His gaze settled on a tuft of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. He destroyed it with a single savage kick. It didn't help much. The feeling of helplessness he'd felt in front of Bully still clung to him like a foul second skin.
His friend watched as the green stems flew up into the air then drifted down to the concrete. "Forget about it. How about we just head back to my place and get something to eat?"
Main Character agreed, but he couldn't resist pointing out that he had offered to share his own lunch.
His friend wrinkled his face in disgust. "I'd rather starve."
Main Character winced. "She's not that bad of a cook."
"She made you tuna casserole with raisins and Cheetos. Come on, let's cut through the woods to my house. I'm hungry."
The Grove Named For A Local Folktale stood between the cul-de-sac where the boys lived and school. Legend had it that twenty years ago some students had tried to cut through the woods after vandalizing the school and were never heard from again. Like most folktales, it was utter nonsense, disguising a different kind of danger. But the boys did not know about the danger, because it was disguised. As often as not, they avoided the grove, not because of any story, but because it was filled with insects and undergrowth that made for an uncomfortable journey. But it did cut their walk from twenty minutes to ten, and they were eager to get home.
There were three things one noticed when entering the Grove Named For A Local Folktale. First, the light faded, as if God had turned down the sun's dimmer switch. The second was the smell. There was no trace of hot asphalt or gasoline in the air of the grove. Instead the rustling breeze carried with it the earthy scent of mulch and the lighter aroma of new leaves. And lastly, so subtle that it almost went unnoticed, there was the absence of outside noise. It was as if the trees absorbed the sound of cars and pedestrians. All of these things combined to turn any trip through the grove into a surreal experience. Even though the boys knew that civilization was just a few hundred yards away; it was as if they had stepped into another world.
Which perhaps explains why it took them a few minutes to realize that was exactly what they had done.
Banished on a quest to test her claim to the throne, Ravana must free a dragon from enslavement to stop its attacks on her people #PitProm
The king is dead, leaving the Wolf Tribe without an heir. The elders, blinded by greed and ambition, seek to seize power for themselves until a dragon attack forces them to change their plans. As they cower in the castle, leaving the people to fend for themselves, rumors abound: have they angered the ancestors?
RAVANA isn’t one to sit idly by while others suffer. She is willing to risk the wrath of the ancestors themselves if it means saving her brother from his foolish attempt to contend for the throne. But in doing so, she never meant to contend herself. Or win. And while the choice of the ancestors is clear, the elders are determined to punish her for it. Instead of crowning her, they accuse her of witchcraft and send her on a quest to defeat the dragon—though Ravana knows it’s not the true enemy.
Along the way she befriends DRAYCEN, a mysterious stranger with his own score to settle against the beast. Together they journey into the heart of the Eagle Tribe, which has been at war with the Wolves for as long as anyone can remember. They risk discovery and death at every turn, but Draycen seems to blend into this foreign environment a little too convincingly…
THE WOLF QUEEN AND THE DRAGON is a 90,000 word coming-of-age story that can be read as a standalone, but I’ve already written and begun revising the sequel, The Witch’s Revenge, which is set a few years later. Fans of Tamora Pierce, Shannon Hale, Laini Taylor, and Marie Rutkoski will enjoy my novel’s enduring friendships, diverse characters, humor, and romances.
Thank you for your consideration.
First Ten Pages:
“That’s impossible, girl! Dragons don’t exist.”
Ravana blinked at the old man. She pressed her lips together and nodded once, slowly, her black eyes masking her irritation.
Perhaps he was right. After all, what did she know? She’d only spent the past day treating the wounded. She’d only spoken to tens—if not hundreds—of burn victims, each of whom had described the fire-breathing creature in the same vivid detail. She’d only heard a first-hand account from her best friend, who had actually helped guard the city from the beast. But yes. Perhaps they were all wrong.
Her eyes moved from the man to the tent around them. Healers and volunteers rushed between the wounded, who lay in rows of blankets on the ground. The cries of infants and children pierced the air as mothers and fathers tried to soothe them while tending their own wounds. The heat within the tent, radiating from their burns, was almost unbearable. But perhaps it was all an elaborate scheme to deceive the skeptical man.
Ravana closed her eyes and sighed. She wasn’t there to convince him. She was there to care for him.
She knelt at his side and took his pale white hand in her bronze ones. “What do you remember?”
His brow furrowed, and he stared, not really seeing her, before he shuddered. “There was screaming outside… And then my roof… My roof collapsed…”
Ravana nodded slowly. “I’m told you don’t have any serious injuries. You are one of the lucky ones.”
His eyes narrowed. “You were told? You’re not a healer?”
“I’m a shepherdess. I’m just a volunteer.”
“Why didn’t they send me a real healer?” the man bellowed.
“Because you don’t have any real injuries,” a familiar voice said.
Ravana looked up to see her best friend, Phoenix, dressed in a leather tunic and leggings, a sword strapped to her belt. Her once-white shirt and her tanned skin were covered in soot.
Before the man could respond, Ravana pushed a small vial into his hand. “You’ll want this for the smell.”
He plastered the peppermint ointment under his nose and breathed in deeply before settling back down against his blanket.
Ravana returned the vial to a pocket in her leather dress and rose to greet her friend.
“Have you rested?” Phoenix asked, offering her a water flask.
Ravana shook her head, suddenly parched, and took it gratefully. “There hasn’t been time.”
While others had abandoned their homes and villages and flocked to the city of Alliam for protection, Ravana had sought to be of assistance. Despite her parents’ pleading that they stay home, she’d arrived at Alliam with her brother the day before and fallen into work, changing bandages, giving comfort, and taking water to victims of the creature’s attacks. The healers hadn’t even questioned what she was doing or offered her anything beyond the briefest instruction.
“You need to make time,” Phoenix insisted. “Or you’re going to end up on one of those disgusting blankets yourself.”
“I’ll be all right.”
Phoenix narrowed her eyes. “It’s just like that time...”
Ravana held up her finger. “Don’t say the hail storm.”
“I was thinking about the bridge and the boy, but since you mentioned it, the hail storm.”
“You risked your life for a lamb.”
“For a lamb,” Phoenix insisted, pressing her fingers together for emphasis. “For a lamb.”
“I didn’t risk my life...”
“You broke your leg.”
Ravana shrugged and wove her long, straight black hair into a braid. “It wasn’t my leg; it was my arm. And I saved the lamb.”
“No one cared about the lamb.”
“I cared about the lamb.”
Phoenix shook her head, clearly not recovered from the incident.
“You have to get over that,” Ravana said. “We were ten. It was seven years ago. And what does it matter? You found me. Everything turned out fine.”
Phoenix narrowed her eyes. “You know, you wouldn’t need as much rescuing if you weren’t so keen on getting yourself into trouble.”
Ravana felt a sting at the accusation. She gestured around the tent, then said in a forceful whisper, “You know who needs rescuing? These people. Someone has to help them, since the elders won’t. And a little hunger and tiredness isn’t going to stop me.”
Phoenix cocked her head. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Forget about that.” Ravana brushed the question aside with a wave of her hand. “Is there any word?”
Phoenix accepted the change in topic with a resigned sigh. “No one has seen the dragon again today. It might have moved on. But I heard reports of more villagers heading this way.
You should take a moment to rest before they arrive.”
Ravana glanced around the tent, which was already teeming with activity. Beyond, other tents had been set up end-to-end, each as full as the last. “There’s barely any room to walk in here!”
“There’s nowhere else to go.”
“Nowhere else?” Ravana echoed through clenched teeth. “We’re in the shadow of the castle. These people should be inside its halls, not out in the open where the dragon can so easily attack them again.”
“You know full well the elders are using the castle to prepare for the choosing ceremony today.”
Ravana looked down at her friend. “And you know full well I don’t care about the choosing ceremony. And why by the Moon do they need the castle when the ceremony is by the river?”
Phoenix shrugged. “Preparations?”
“And why the rush?” It made Ravana’s blood boil that the elders would be so frivolous as to hold the ceremony while the Wolf Tribe was under attack. They had delayed the event long enough while it suited them. But to use it as an excuse to avoid helping their people…
“Maybe they think a king would be better able to protect us from the dragon,” Phoenix suggested airily.
Ravana grimaced. If the new king were to be anything like the old one, she would rather be ruled by the dragon. It was just as well he hadn’t left an heir. For years, even before his illness, he’d given the elders free rein to act as they wished—to the detriment of his people.
The tent entrance flapped open and more injured people flooded in. The sight of their blistering wounds made Ravana grateful for the scent of peppermint.
She rushed forward to a man she recognized as the grandfather of one of her friends.
“Thank you,” he said weakly as Ravana helped him, careful to avoid contact with his burnt arm and chest. He hissed in pain as he settled against the ground on a newly abandoned blanket. Ravana didn’t allow herself to dwell on why it was vacant.
“The healers will be with you soon,” she said with a smile.
He returned the gesture. “I know you,” he said, his voice strained. His face hardened as he stared intently into her black eyes. “Remember this day, child,” he said, waving his finger.
“Today is the darkest day in the history of the Wolf Tribe.”
Ravana’s brow furrowed.
“The elders have closed the gates to the city. They said no other villagers can be supported.”
Ravana’s eyes widened. “You can’t mean…”
“People behind me were turned away,” the man confirmed. He added bitterly, “Wolf people turning away Wolves. I expected as much from Owls or Foxes…”
“But Alliam can support all the Wolves. Isn’t that why the elders insisted so much of the grain and produce be sent here for safekeeping? In case the outer villages were attacked?”
He shook in outrage as a healer stepped forward to assess his wounds. As she worked, Ravana fumed over the complete disregard the elders had shown for the people in the months since the king’s death. And in the wake of the dragon’s attack, they’d done nothing to ease the people’s suffering. They hadn’t even arranged for the healers’ tents. Villagers and city dwellers had made those offerings. The people were left to fend for themselves while the elders were distracted with ceremonies.
She was shaken from her musings when the healer handed her a balm and squeezed her arm as she left.
Ravana gently applied the scented lotion to the man’s wound. It numbed the skin and provided temporary relief, but had no healing properties. She’d learned in the brief moments she’d spent with the healers that none of them had seen anything like the blisters inflicted by the dragon’s fiery breath.
Ravana started when Phoenix gripped her shoulder.
“I have to go!” Phoenix said, eyes wide. She gestured toward the entrance of the tent, where a familiar tall, broad-shouldered youth walked in. Phoenix slipped through a slit in the back of the tent to stand just outside. She peered through the opening as Finn looked around, pushing his glasses back up his nose with the tip of his index finger.
Ravana’s lips betrayed her in the faintest hint of a smile.
Phoenix removed a hair clip, smoothed down her straight, light-brown hair, and slid the clip back into place. “I’ll wager he’s going to ask me to join him at the ceremony again…”
Ravana tilted her head to study her friend. Phoenix was well on her way to becoming one of the youngest members of the Wolf army, and on the field, no man could fluster her. But in recent months, Finn had had a disconcerting effect on the Wolf girl, treating her with a tenderness she apparently found unsettling.
Phoenix glanced back at the tent entrance and yanked the slit closed to conceal herself as Finn paced over to them. Ravana tried to appear aloof, but all thoughts of Phoenix left her when she caught Finn’s gaze. His brow was creased in concern, sweat beading on his rich brown skin.
“What’s happened?” she asked, standing up and stepping forward instinctively.
“It’s Ryker,” he said, not waiting to catch his breath. “He’s contending.”
Her eyes widened as she grasped the significance of his words about her brother. “Where is he?”
“He was on his way to the river.”
“That’s impossible,” Phoenix said, parting the slit and stepping back into the tent. Finn didn’t seem surprised to see her. “If he’s not too young, he’s smart enough to know he could die.”
“He turned twenty-five last week,” Ravana said, looking at each of her friends. “He’s old enough.”
“Did you know he wanted to be king?” Phoenix asked.
“He would need to be sponsored by one of the elders,” Ravana protested. “My grandmother would never allow that. She knows the risk.”
“She was the elder who sponsored him,” Finn said, his brown eyes serious.
Ravana shook her head as they turned to leave the tent. She had to get to him. She had to stop him. Ryker was going to get himself killed.
Finn led them through Alliam’s eerily deserted market place and farther from the towering, cold gray stone of the castle. Empty stalls lined the streets. Vendors hadn’t even bothered to set up their wares or produce, either on account of the dragon or the choosing ceremony.
When Ravana and Ryker had parted at the city gates, he hadn’t even hinted he was contemplating contending. She’d assumed he had wanted to help victims of the dragon’s attack, as she had. But she couldn’t remember anything from their conversations on the road to confirm her assumption. She had come to Alliam to help strangers but had accompanied her own brother to his death.
What would she tell their parents? Had they known? No. They wouldn’t have let them travel alone if they had.
She tried to clear her thoughts as Finn led them out of the city, past clay-tiled wooden homes as empty as the market place, and then along the forest path. Even the birds were silent.
As they neared the river, Ravana gasped at the number of people congregated for the ceremony. From her vantage point, she could see Ryker on a grassy stretch before the forest, on the other side of the bank. Her pulse quickened as she squeezed between the onlookers, ignoring the grunts and hissed protests as she made her way to the front of the crowd. She only stopped when the river rocks crunched under her boots and the water lapped around them.
She felt a poke in her ribs and heard a woman behind her complaining. But her voice sounded like it was a great distance away. “You, girl. Move. You’re too tall to stand in front.”
“Her brother is contending,” Finn said gently.
Ravana didn’t spare a thought for the woman’s reaction. She didn’t care. Ryker was beyond her reach. She wanted to call out to him, to beg him to abandon his folly. But she was too late.
He and two other men stood beyond the sparse reeds on a patch of grass, facing the crowd. An elder paced behind them, dressed in elaborate robes and chanting the verses of the ceremony in an ancient tongue, calling to the ancestors to select the most worthy sovereign to lead the people of the Wolf Tribe to prosperity.
History told that many men had perished in their attempt to be king, punished for their arrogance to assume they were worthy to lead the people. Ravana had never imagined that was a risk her brother was prepared to take.
She watched his stoic face as three white marble-like vests were brought forward, each carried by two men. He knelt with the other contenders so the jewel-studded stone could be fitted like armor around his chest. The stone was heavy enough on the surface, but it would soak water like a sponge and be an impossible weight for any man to bear.
As the leather-clad soldiers helped Ryker to his feet, Ravana bit her lip and looked around, desperately searching for a way to reach her brother.
Phoenix held her back. “It’s too late,” she said, her blue eyes heavy. “I’m so sorry.”
“Trust,” Finn said calmly.
There was silence as the elder addressed the people. “These fine men represent the very best the Wolf Tribe has to offer. They are brave and true, and they are prepared to sacrifice their lives to prove their worth. Aymesh of the House of Elya, Ryker of the House of Ilma, Tau of the House of Makin. It is my honor to deliver you now into the hands of the ancestors.”
There was a moment of calm, a moment of hesitation, as the men were still. It felt as though all the Wolves—contenders, elders, and onlookers alike—were frozen in time. Ravana clung to hope. There was yet a chance. They could still turn back.
But then Aymesh stepped forward, and the other two followed.
Phoenix’s hand tightened on Ravana’s arm as the contenders strode into the water.
Ravana held her breath as they disappeared under the surface, as if gripped by a beast beyond. Her heart beat faster and faster, competing with the rhythm of the ceremonial drums, which was building into a crescendo. But still none of the men rose to the surface. The elders exchanged glances.
Something was wrong.
According to legend, the ancestors would select the most noble and kingly of the three to defy the laws of nature, and he would float to the top despite his load. But as her lungs burned, she knew they weren’t coming up. And as much as she loved her brother, she couldn’t hold her breath any longer. She surrendered and gasped for air.
Phoenix released her grip on her arm, and Ravana didn’t hesitate. Forgetting herself and an ageless tradition, she rushed out onto the river until she stood between the banks, looking down at the murky water, frantically seeking a sign her brother was alive. But she found nothing. The water was too deep.
An oppressive silence settled around her. The ceremonial drums stopped. A hush fell over the people on the banks. She looked up to catch Phoenix’s gaze, her eyes wide. She was gripping Finn’s arm; his brow was furrowed in concern. Behind them, the crowds of Wolves stared at Ravana. People she had known her whole life and strangers all looked at her as though she had done something unforgivable.
Confused, Ravana looked down at the water, and stepped back in alarm. She was standing on the surface. She spun around to look at the elders, who stared at her with mixed expressions of anger and awe. Her fear for her brother was momentarily eclipsed by a stab of panic for herself.
She wanted to run. To escape. To save herself from their gaze, their judgment, and their punishment. But as her eyes fell to the surface again, all thought of herself melted away. Ryker was down there.
She dropped to her knees and tried to reach under the water, but while it moved freely, it was as solid as ice to her touch. And she couldn’t save him.
“Please,” she begged of the elders, her voice sounding unnaturally loud in the silence. “Please release them.”
The men and women exchanged glances, and the elder who had performed the ceremony stepped forward.
“Please,” Ravana repeated. She willed her voice not to crack. “They’ll die…”
For an agonizing moment the Elder Babak regarded her before he waved his hand, ordering his soldiers to rescue the contenders.
Ravana stood, watching helplessly as the men entered the water. Moments felt like hours as they bobbed to the surface for air and dived back down to continue looking. She had almost given up hope when they dragged two limp bodies from the river. Ravana ran across the water, her boots leaving ripples on the surface.
She dropped to Ryker’s side as the soldiers tried to revive him. His black hair was plastered against his face and shoulders like a shroud. She held her breath until he finally spluttered and coughed up water. She leaned forward, but his gaze swept past her and settled on the nearest soldier. Between bouts of coughing, he managed a single word. “Who?”
The soldier looked to Ravana skeptically, and the creases of confusion on Ryker’s brow smoothed out as his face hardened. “What have you done?”
The coldness in his voice startled her, and she stood and stepped back.
“Seize her!” Elder Babak cried.
Ravana didn’t have a chance to react. Guards grabbed her from either side. She struggled at first, but the accusing look on her brother’s face had a sobering effect on her, and she allowed herself to be led away.
Behind her, Phoenix yelled across the river in protest.
When a fairytale shine hides a deadly curse, Ameryst will do anything to save her sister’s life, before she falls victim to it #pitprom #YA
In YA Fantasy THE BRAVEST OF THEM ALL, Syrendale citizens find their mate at the Maiden Night Ball, and sparks fly through the air each time a match is made. But at the age of eighteen, life for one daughter from each family holds a very different fate. The daughters selected as their family’s Maiden give themselves to the sea and transform into the noble creatures that guard Syrendale’s cliffs.
Ameryst has always longed to match, and is thrilled to learn her beloved younger sister Verabelle has been chosen as the family’s Maiden. But when a young man from the world outside calls the Maiden Night tradition into question, she finds a long-forgotten path to the shore in hopes of finding affirmation that the Maiden magic is real. That’s when she discovers the disturbing truth.
There is no transformation. Only bones and tarnished Maiden brooches litter the shore. Terrified, Ameryst hatches a plan to save her sister’s life. She will protect Verabelle, even if it means forgoing her chance at matching and leaving Syrendale forever. Or if it means sacrificing her own life to save her.
After timid, bookish Verabelle is pinned their family’s Maiden, she struggles to summon the bravery she will need to jump off Syrendale’s cliffs when her time comes. When Ameryst suddenly and without explanation disappears into the night, Verabelle is left searching for answers as to why. As Maiden Night approaches, Verabelle discovers an eerie connection between Syrendale and the world of one of the stories her father left behind before he died. A story of a world trapped under a curse, where a sacrifice of women’s lives is hidden under a fairytale sheen. When Ameryst returns and confirms her worst fears are true, Verabelle must find the courage she never thought she had. Because when Syrendale’s lies are laid bare, Verabelle might just be the only one who can save herself from the Maidens' macabre fate.
THE HAZEL WOOD meets THE GIVER with a hint of CARAVAL, my story combines the trials of love and sisterhood within a dark fairytale conflict and setting. It is told through the viewpoints of Ameryst and Verabelle, and is complete at 84,000 words. I hold a B.A. in Creative Writing, work as an instructional coach in urban schools, and am a wife and mother to three.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
First Ten Pages:
“Are you destined to be a Maiden,
Or to find your love so true?”
I was not destined to have adventures, but still I sought them. Made of ink pressed to paper, I had thousands of companions, and I joined them on journeys to distant places far outside the border of Syrendale’s wall. I stood beside them, unflinching, as they faced the trials of danger, through love found and lost, and as strength overcame their weakness. In these ways I had seen and experienced more than many through the pages of my books.
“What world are you lost in today, my dear Verabelle?” Iradella had entered my room without notice and plucked the book from my hands. She paged through it with false interest and placed a finger on her chin.
“Oooh, is this the one where a handsome prince comes to sweep away a helpless maiden, leading her to everlasting bliss? Oh my, Verabelle,” she said, her words sickly sweet, “you do prefer such fanciful tales.”
My muscles clenched and I grabbed to retrieve it. “Give me back my book.”
Iradella twirled away from me, her dress puffing out as she spun, her snow-white curls catching the light. “Not until you tell me how you want to style your hair.” I reached up and touched the wig I had remembered to place atop my own mousy strands and knew it sat askew, and that it was tangled from neglect. We all wore hair the color of snow when venturing outside our homes, but some of us embraced the tradition more tightly than others.
Before I could respond, Ameryst burst through the doorway and pursed her lips at our oldest sister.
“Iradella,” she said, her voice edged in irritation. “Give her back the book.” When Iradella didn’t move, Ameryst made a lunge for it. Iradella lifted my book high above her head, a sly smile on her perfectly polished face.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “We can’t let her go to The Pinning like this,” Iradella nodded towards me.
The Pinning. I had apparently lost track of the hour.
Ameryst looked me over and sighed in quiet agreement with our oldest sister. “We might still have time to do something.”
Iradella tossed my book to the floor where it slid into a corner and pointed to the bench at the foot of my bed. My cheeks grew hot, but I stayed silent. It wouldn’t have made a difference to complain. In the end, Iradella always got her way.
“After all, love,” she said. “We all know Syrendale women’s hair is perfectly white in any light!”
So few people saw us, and only the merchants employed by Lord Hagbarth himself interacted with the outside world, it was rumored that all those outside the wall believed our hair to simply grow the color of snow. To them, we were a pristine people in a far away kingdom. Some of the girls at school had wigs so expensive and of such a high quality they could claim it to be true. But the fat belly of the owner of the wig shop told a different tale. And however the tradition had started, we, all of us, whether rich or poor, willingly played the game.
Scowling, I fought the urge to scratch the itch produced by stiff netting and false hair pulled too tight and plaited with grey ribbon to match my dress. Iradella smiled, clearly pleased with herself at my reflection in the looking glass before flouncing back downstairs to wait with our mother.
The fate of a daughter in Syrendale rested on the outcome of today’s ceremony, held when a family’s eldest daughter reached the age of seventeen. The decision was made behind closed doors between the parents, who knew the girls best, and the Elders, who were trusted to be wise. We would not know who was chosen as our family’s Maiden until an Elder pinned the brooch upon the collar of one daughter’s dress only a short time from now. I counted on The Pinning to define me. To tell me who I was called to be. But I was also terrified. Terrified my call would ask too much of me. More than I was able to give.
Ameryst rested her hands on my shoulders. “Don’t be scared, Belle. I’m certain it’ll be me. I’m the one who runs headlong into any situation. Why would they doubt I’d take the noble leap when my time came?”
I tried to still the sound of my heart beating as it echoed in my ears. Ameryst was right. She was by far the boldest among us. She would be a good choice. But her voice betrayed uncertainty, and the words she spoke lacked the usual spirit behind them.
“I’m sure it won’t be Iradella.”
“No. I would think not,” Ameryst said. “She’s far too eager to match.”
“Well I’m eager to keep all of us here, in the same house. Like always.” I blinked back the tears I had been holding at bay for weeks, but they began to fall anyway. “I don’t want you to go away. Is becoming the Maiden what you truly want, Ameryst? Do you feel it as your call?”
“My dear, sweet baby sister. We don’t all shout our heartsong from the rooftops. For hearts are fragile things.” Ameryst wrapped her arms around me from behind and pressed her cheek close to my own, meeting my eyes in the reflection of the looking glass. “And we rise to the call we are given.” She wiped away the narrow stream of tears that wound their way down my cheeks. “Besides, the Maiden doesn’t give herself to the sea until the age of eighteen. We’ll still have years together. And, if it’s to be me, when the time comes for my transformation, you can visit me on the cliffs and know I am numbered among the noble creatures who keep you and all those we love safe.”
My sister’s warmth slipped away as she let go and turned me away from the looking glass and knelt so her face was level with mine. She tucked a curved finger underneath my chin. “Head held high now. This is your first chance to be seen by the boys’ parents. It won’t do to sniffle.”
I pressed my lips and brows together. A reminder we would be on display was not a comfort. The couples who had given birth to Syrendale’s sons would be in attendance at the hall. We had yet to see their young men, but today was the adult’s first opportunity to take stock of the ladies who would soon be eligible to match them.
“Girls!” My mother called. “It’s time.”
“Let’s go,” Ameryst pulled me up and smiled as though everything was certain to be fine.
I took a deep breath and forced my shoulders back as my chest expanded. I grabbed my book where it had been flung and tucked it into the front pocket of my dress before following Ameryst down the stairs. Whatever the outcome of today, I had another world to escape into the moment it was over.
We walked in silence through the cobbled streets, past row upon row of stone cottages with ivy creeping up the walls and curling around the doorframes and windows. Our family joined with the dozens of others whose eldest daughter made them eligible for The Pinning today. My mother walked in front of me, her dress hanging loosely on her narrow frame. My dress, a hand-me-down from my two older sisters, had required a meticulous search for buttons to replace the originals which had come unstitched and fallen victim to a dustpan or a cobweb-ridden corner. Though she was a gifted seamstress, things had been difficult for my mother in the years since Father passed, and she saw to the needs of her daughters before tending to her own.
The sound of shoes clacking on the cobblestones echoed against the buildings and filled the otherwise quiet spaces between us as we approached the town square, the dividing line between the homes of the families who gave birth to daughters and the families who gave birth to sons. At its head, almost aglow in golden sunlight, stood the formidable Town Hall, a building which, as a child, I liked to imagine was a castle. Sculpted dragons guarded its corners and three spires reached to the clouds in an attempt to prick the sky. The face of a giant clock looked ever eastward to the lawn, Syrendale’s most expansive park and curated garden, dotted with the twisting branches of ancient trees. The site of the Maiden Night Ball. The far edge of the park ended at the Syrendale cliffs, beyond which was an endless and shimmering sea.
Inside the hall, Iradella gasped as she looked up, her eyes wide with a level of wonder I knew reflected my own. Elaborate columns framed the spaces between corridors extending in all directions, and in front of us a grand spiral staircase spun upward toward a domed ceiling, painted in a background of midnight blue and hundreds upon hundreds of bright and brilliant sparks. I had not yet seen the sparks that flew above lovers’ heads on Maiden Night, but I had seen pictures in the stories from our land. The ceiling made me feel as though I was in a moment frozen in time, the sparks mid-burst, contrasting the dark sky beyond. We followed the flow of people around the back of the stairs, our faces to the heavens.
The dim lighting of backstage offered us the ability to observe each other and otherwise shuffle our feet. My mother smiled and squeezed my hand before tucking a strand that had broken loose from my snowy braid back into place. All the daughters wore their most sensible dresses. Iradella had begged our mother to add just a thin trim of lace to her sleeves. This was an important event, but, as my mother had so often reminded Iradella in the days leading up to The Pinning, it was not a party.
Some of the families present accompanied only one daughter. These were the families who had lost a child to sickness, or who could not afford multiple mouths to feed. Those families had only raised a daughter in order to satisfy their requirement to provide Syrendale with a Maiden. One year from now, when the girls turned eighteen, their parents would return home in relief at Maiden Night’s end, knowing their stomachs would each day be just a little bit fuller and that they had made their contribution. The daughters from those families knew from an early age what their destiny would hold, while I, on the other hand, counted on the result of the ceremony to tell me who I was meant to be.
The drape on the side of the stage opened without warning and the stage master, an aged man composed of innumerable points and angles, ushered us into rows behind the deep blue curtain separating us from the rest of the auditorium. Ameryst was placed in the middle between myself and Iradella. Our mother took position behind us. Once settled, the seven Elders of Syrendale moved directly in front of our family, followed by Syrendale’s ruler, Lord Hagbarth himself, at the very front and center. He wore a black velvet coat and tails lined with silk, the sea blue shine of which I could just see when he billowed the coat out behind him like a cape. He did not look back at Syrendale’s daughters.
The curtain parted just enough to allow Lord Hagbarth and the Elders to walk through, and as it closed behind them a hush fell over the room.
“We have gathered today to participate in one of the most solemn of Syrendale traditions,” Lord Hagbarth began, his voice confident and crisp, reaching even to where we stood behind the curtain. “The time has come for each of these families to select their choice for Maiden.
“The women they designate as Maiden will hold the greatest honor of all Syrendale’s children. To take the leap off our hallowed cliffs at the age of eighteen, and to transform into the noble creatures, the Sea Maidens, who ever guard Syrendale’s shores. Their responsibility is great, and their bravery unmatched. Each family, which will soon stand before you, has made their choice as to which of their daughters shall hold this highest honor. From today on, those designated as the Maiden shall wear the Maiden Brooch as a sign they are set apart and destined for that purpose.” He paused, allowing the drama of the moment to build to completion. “And now, the newest daughters of Syrendale.”
The curtains parted with a flourish and Lord Hagbarth and the Elders stepped aside. My sisters and I now stood at the front of a cavernous auditorium facing the crowd, a mass of murmurs and moving shadows beyond the glare of the stage lights. I swallowed, but found my throat dry as a bone, and I clutched Ameryst’s hand as my eyes blinked in an attempt to find focus. My free hand moved to where my book rested in the pocket of my dress and I pressed against it, wishing I were home, the pages of my story washed in sunlight from the window and hidden away from these eyes I could not see beyond the lights and these people I did not know.
On a black velvet tray in the hands of Lord Hagbarth now sparkled row upon row of The Brooch of The Maiden. Each identical, the snow white silhouette of the profile of a young woman raised up above a jet black background. Ornate, winding silver tendrils formed the border of the brooch, each ending in a silver flower, at the center of which was a clear and sparkling precious stone. Partially visible behind the woman and atop the background was a thin and curving silver letter M. Underneath the M, in small and scrolling print, was a number. A number a clerk would record on a list, tying the brooch indelibly to the Maiden’s name.
After the crowd again quieted, each Elder removed a pin from the tray and approached the families standing in the front, including mine. Their shining shoes clapped against the planks of the stage floor and echoed across the hall.
My chest rose and fell in a series of shallow breaths. My nostrils froze in a permanent flare. I stole a glance at my sisters. A smile played at the edge of Iradella’s lips and her hands remained at her sides. I wasn’t surprised, for she relished any moment she could be on display. Ameryst’s face was filled with more conviction than pleasure and her grip on my hand was solid. She had prepared well for this moment. Far better than I.
“And which daughter shall have the designation in your family to be the noble Maiden?” asked the Elder before us. Bile crept up in my throat and my stomach turned with a fury. The moment was here.
My mother shuffled behind me. My eyes were on Ameryst as she held her breath and braced herself for the weight of two hands upon her shoulders, signaling she had been our family’s choice.
Instead, I felt weight on my own shoulders and an increased pressure on my right hand. My body turned to ice. Ameryst’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped a moment before she thought better and pressed her lips shut. I turned back to see pride exuding from my mother’s face.
It wasn’t meant to be me. Ameryst said it wasn’t going to be me. For so long I had wanted to know my call. But now, I wished I could go back to before. Before the heat of these lights. Before the sweat on the back of my neck. Before my mind froze on the image my body, falling through the air. Before knowing my family’s honor depended on my fall.
The Elder leaned in as he secured the heavy pin and spoke to me, his warm breath hitting my ear.
“Maidens are noble. Maidens are brave. It is you who is called to keep Syrendale safe.”
He lifted his eyes to our mother. “Congratulations, Mrs. Chetworth. We look forward to the day when Verabelle receives the ultimate honor and takes the noble leap.”
One daughter from each family, now bearing the insignia of the Maiden, stepped forward to the edge of the stage and the shadowed figures beyond the lights applauded for us all.
“Ameryst?” I lifted my eyes and whispered to my sister. “Do they really think I’m brave?”
My sister drew her arm around me and pulled my body close. “Oh yes,” she whispered back, her eyes trained on the roar of the crowd. “You must be the bravest.”
And I wondered how many of those standing with me, how many who had gone before me and wore the pin felt the same turning in their stomach the moment they were chosen. The moment they realized they would have rather had a choice. But we donned our precious wigs and covered our fear with plastered smiling faces as we stared down a life planned out for us. Our endings, already written. Our stories, carved in stone. I looked down at the brooch, lifting my fingers to it and running them along the raised contours of the profile of the snow white woman and the letter that now marked my fate.
A disillusioned nun quits the cloister, unwittingly taking leadership of a peasant insurgency against a brutal dynastic war. #PitProm
Sister Alessia swore to take no part in the dynastic wars raging across two kingdoms. But when a warlord slaughters her patients and forbids her temple hospital to care for victims from the “wrong” side, she throws off her bloodstained habit and quits the cloister rather than submit.
Still determined to save lives, Alessia attracts a gathering of brutalized peasants, smugglers and deserters fleeing the conflict. Except many also crave vengeance, using her roaming forest camp to launch guerrilla raids against the forces of both sides— to steal, to survive, and to get some payback. Alessia struggles to temper their fury as well as tend wounds, finding herself consenting to ever greater violence to keep her new charges safe.
Both warring factions unleash spies, mercenaries and mass crucifixions to exterminate the lowborn insurgents. While fighting to keep hidden, Alessia uncovers a foreign conspiracy to prolong the war by financing both sides. Trapped between two armies, she’ll be forced to risk the lives she’s saved in order to present proof of the plot to the very forces hunting them; determinedly seeking to convince all sides to bring the bloodshed to an end.
THE HERON KINGS is a 111,000-word fantasy that will appeal to fans of Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country and Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky. My short fiction has been published in Nature: Futures (SFWA-qualifying market), Electric Spec, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Allegory, the anthology Into Darkness Peering, and other venues detailed at https://ericlewis.ink/.
First Ten Pages:
A fresh spurt of blood spattered into Alessia’s face, painting a smear across her cheek. She didn’t flinch this time, barely noticed it with all her attention focused on the task at hand—the sharp instruments, the rent flesh, her own precise movements. The soldier lying before her howled, and the walls of the temple chamber echoed it back tenfold.
“Mother of gods, stop—!”
“Oh, shut up,” said Alessia, bracing her elbow against his clavicle to try and stop the squirming. “And hold still, you’re only making it worse.”
“You’re makin’ it worse! It hurts!”
“Good! That’s how you know you’re not dead. Which is probably what you deserve, but not… quite… yet.” She stabbed her needle around the jagged hole in his side again. One last time and it’d be over, one last time he screamed.
“Aargh! Damned evil witches, damned temples—”
Alessia slapped her victim, hard. “Insult me all you like, but you will not blaspheme against the Polytheon in here. There, done. You’ll live, for what it’s worth.”
With the bleeding stopped Alessia turned away, bone-weary. Across the nave a dozen and more like scenes played out— some with screamed profanities, some with moans, and some in silence. The sisters flitted about like angels of death, praying for the lost souls of some and sending others back into the world for another measure of misery. She dipped her hands into the basin set in the midst of it all, the water near scalding though she’d been scrubbed too numb to feel it. A young acolyte rushed past to replace the pink rags on the altar with fresh before disappearing again.
“You enjoyed that.” The accusing voice behind made her flinch, even after three years. Still, she tried and failed to hold back a little grin.
“Is it not proper,” Alessia said, turning slowly, “to take joy from one’s work, Mother?”
“Don’t play clever with me girl, you know very well what I mean.” Mother Tanusia was herself covered in gore that lent her glare of disapproval an unsettling aspect.
“Well why not? Hard to drum up much sympathy— these men are the lucky ones. Those they killed not as much.”
Tanusia shook a gnarly finger in Alessia’s red-streaked face. “That is not your concern, nor mine! Nothing outside these walls is, I’ve told you a thousand times.”
“I know, I know. Where’s this lot from, anyway?”
“Who can say anymore,” Tanusia sighed, “some pointless skirmish not far away, come to us from both sides. Hard to believe, but it was less savage when it was professionals doing the fighting. These poor fools know nothing but to hack at each other like lunatics. This war has to end soon, they’re running out of men to fight it.”
“Maybe they’ll start drafting women.”
“Don’t you even think that! You just try to find new reserves of patience, and sympathy. Be a shame for a bright thing like you to turn cynic so young.”
“And remember, this temple serves as a hospital, not a torture chamber. Try to find some feverfew, or willowbark, something before you cut men open again.”
“Yes, Mother.” As Tanusia turned away to some other task, Alessia’s patient put an emphasis on the point by crying out anew.
“And will you please shut him up!”
Alessia and a few other sisters dozed on benches in the corner, too tired even to stagger back to the dormitory. Those who were going to die had mostly done so, and the ones who weren’t lay unconscious on the cots that littered the space. Fatigue only somewhat blunted the shock when the temple’s wide double doors boomed when struck from outside, then rumbled open. What now? she thought with consternation.
Two columns of armed men marched into the nave led by an aged, grim-looking brute with black sable draped over his shoulders and dull mail armor from neck to knee. He carried a high-crowned helm in his right hand while the left cradled the hilt of a long, ugly sword at his hip. “Who’s in charge here?” The warlord wrinkled his nose at the stench of putrefying viscera while scanning the long nave, taking in the rows of wounded, the sisters, the acolytes, the bits of discarded bandage strewn about.
“Go fetch Mother,” Alessia whispered to Sister Livielle, “quickly.” She stepped forward. “May the gods light your path, Lord...?”
“Taurix,” the man spat. “High Marshal to King Pharamund.”
“Taurix. Welcome to the temple of the Artameran Polyth—”
“Whatever. I’m told that piece of cack Ludolphus what calls himself a general passed this way. Is that so?”
Alessia curtsied as she’d been taught to do before the high and mighty, ridiculous in her cold blood-drenched habit. “I’m sorry, but we don’t ask the names of those who visit, only that they come and go in peace.”
Taurix sighed. “He would’ve left some wounded men with you.”
Is he serious? Alessia looked him square in the eye. “As you can see we get wounded with some regularity; you’ll have to be more specific. There is a war on, you know.”
Taurix stared back down at her unblinking, and for a few seconds Alessia was sure he was going to run her through with that nasty sword. Oh, that was stupid, she thought. Instead he broke into a hard chuckle. “It’s well that you keep that mouth behind these walls, girl. Few live to speak that way to a lord of the Marches a second time.”
“What goes on here?” Mother Tanusia’s voice boomed as she strode from the rectory office. “So, has the royal struggle finally spread across the sea to Holy Artamera that an army invades a house of the Polytheon?”
Taurix turned to the woman, noted the stripe on her habit that signified her authority. “Not at all, Mother. At least not yet. In fact we’re grateful for the care of His Grace’s soldiers! Your house should look to be richly rewarded once these treasonous rebels are put down.”
“That we should live to see that day is all the reward we desire, my lord,” Tanusia replied with barely-concealed sarcasm.
“Yet, it seems you’ve made an unfortunate mistake,” he said with an evil sneer, his tone suddenly become lighter and even more terrifying.
“Indeed! For I see that in addition to the king’s loyal defenders, you have among you a number of those very traitors.” Taurix tossed his helmet to another of his company, then stepped slowly over to a fellow with an amputated leg lying on one of the cots, insensate from the brandy it’d taken to calm him. Though blooded and torn, his tunic still bore the green badges of General Ludolphus and Countess Engwara—the “treasonous rebels.” “Allow me, Mother, to lighten your burden.”
Before any could react he plunged his sword through the man’s belly and the cot, the tip stopping just short of the stone floor. The man jerked, eyes wide. Alessia let out a short, shrill scream and the acolytes and most of the sisters scattered from the nave in horror.
“No! How dare you!” Tanusia roared with such fury that some of Taurix’s own men took half a step backward. She ran to the doomed patient just as he slipped away into death, gurgling blood. “This house is sacred ground, you’ve no right—”
“Don’t lecture me, woman. Your temple’s inviolate only so long as you keep your oath to take part in no wars.”
“We’ve taken no part!”
“No? Look around— giving aid and comfort to the enemy seems to me to be very much taking part.”
“It’s an absurd world we live in, Mother.” Taurix moved to the next patient and raised his sword again. Alessia moved to dive between him and his victim, and with the barest thought the lord turned and struck her across the jaw, sending her flying backward. “Go among them,” he said to his retinue, “root out the traitors.” While Taurix dispatched the man beneath him the others fanned out across the chamber, checking each patient for identifying badges or marks. A few wounded tried to crawl away, succeeding only in making themselves targets. Screams rang out anew.
Powerless to stop the slaughter, Tanusia crept along the wall to where Alessia lay dazed, watching helpless as nearly half the lives they’d fought to save were snuffed out. “You...sick butcher,” the Mother hissed.
“Spare me the dramatics. As that cheeky bitch on the floor pointed out, there’s a war on! If you dare harbor criminals again, expect to be considered a military target. Next time it won’t be a smack in the mouth. Understood?”
Tanusia glared up at Taurix as she cradled Alessia in her arms. “Yes,” she spat with bitterness.
Alessia spat into the cloth, the blood her own this time. The whole right side of her face throbbed. Punishment from the gods for enjoying my job too much. The damage seemed limited to one lost tooth— a far lighter penance than her patients had suffered.
Livielle touched her gently, like she was a drifty snowman to collapse at the barest mishandling. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Alessia answered, trying a weak smile and feeling another trickle on her chin. “Fine enough.” They’d finished the disposal of the new-made corpses, and the dark work weighed on them both. “I just can’t believe Mother groveled before that bastard, said ‘yes, lord’ like some fellating harlot...”
“What else could she do? What could anyone do?” For once Livielle forgot to pretend shock at such crude language.
“I don’t know. Something.”
“Like get her face bashed in? Didn’t do you much good.”
“That was dumb. But I couldn’t just stand there and watch those people get stuck like pigs.” Alessia flung a blooded rag into a bucket, very tired all of a sudden.
“Best not think on it anymore,” said Livielle. “At least no other sisters were hurt, though a few acolytes had nightmares, poor dears.” She leaned in closer. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but...you already have a bit of a following.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Charging a monster like that, are you kidding? Sister Evandri’s calling you ‘the warrior priestess.’”
“Just a little one. The gods won’t mind.”
“Well it’s stupid,” Alessia scowled. “Tell her to stop it. Anyway the question now’s what to do about—”
“Sisters!” The cry came from Eudo, a simpleton who tended ground at the temple, and the only male with leave to come and go without escort. He tottered into the nave with a trembling lip.
“Eudo,” Alessia asked, speaking softly to try and calm him, “what frights you so?”
“Peoples is come!” He danced from one foot to the other and whined.
“More soldiers, like yesterday?”
“No, lowfolks. Some looks hurted.”
“No rest for the wicked,” sighed Livielle. “Very well Eudo, open the doors and we’ll get—”
“Wait.” Mother Tanusia appeared between them. “We must know where they come from first...who they bend knee to.” Some light, some strength had gone out of the woman since the confrontation. She would not meet either of the sisters’ eyes, nor even Eudo’s.
“What’s that matter?” asked Livielle.
Alessia already knew the answer, and her stomach churned at it. “Because we can’t risk the wrath of the great warlord a second time. That’s it, isn’t it?”
Tanusia nodded. “I’ve no choice. I won’t endanger the lives of the sisters and acolytes.”
“But charity is one of the gods’ commands,” Livielle insisted, “doubly so in time of war! How can we not—”
“If that beast decides to pay us another visit we won’t be providing charity to anyone at all. It seems this war has elevated a very different breed, and we must navigate them as best we can.”
Alessia felt bile mixing with the blood in her mouth. “So we pick sides and turn away whoever happens to be on the wrong one? What happens when Engwara gets herself one of these breed, comes and says the exact same thing? Who do you obey then? Or will you just shut out the world entire and wait for them to burn the temple down around us?”
Tanusia’s face reddened. “What would you have me do? What course would you suggest, sister?” Alessia just quivered in wordless, impotent rage. “Then hold your tongue and be content.”
She sent Eudo to a high window to question them. The peasants were the few to escape Taurix’s latest raids, and they piled against the door crying “Help us, by the gods!” because they’d been preached to all their lives about the charity of the Artameran Polytheon.
“That’s it then,” said Tanusia when Eudo brought an answer, defeated. “They’re Baroness Brathilde’s landbound. Whether they will it or no those people are enemies of Taurix, of Pharamund. We mustn’t let them inside.”
The gathered sisters stared at Tanusia as if she’d grown horns. “You can’t be serious,” Alessia said. “You’re condemning—”
Tanusia cut her off with a swipe of her hand. “The doors stay shut! That’s final.”
“Aye,” growled Alessia, “well gods damn us then.”
The wounded pushed higher and harder against the doors and pelted the building with cries, with curses and finally with rocks. Tanusia shut herself inside her cell with fists tight against her ears. Two days it persisted, and more than once Alessia moved to unbar the doors only to find Eudo parked there like a stone gargoyle, even to sleep. If she tried to sneak past he’d pop an eye open and whine, “Mother said no,” obedient to Tanusia’s command even if he did not understand it.
The pleas outside faded, then were gone. Tanusia emerged from her cell red-eyed and ordered the bar lifted. The doors opened and the late-day sun poured in orange light carrying with it a too-familiar smell, and as they swung inward bodies stiff with rigor mortis dropped to the ground. The outsides of the doors were riddled with gouges matched by splinters buried under the fingernails of the dead.
Tanusia closed the door to the tiny cell behind her. “There, now tell me what was so important it couldn’t wait until chapter.”
Alessia took a deep breath, steadied herself against a night table. “I would not speak of this in chapter, Mother. I…”
Tanusia frowned. “What is it child? If you’re still angry about what happened with the villagers, I’m sorry but I’ve already—”
“It’s not that. Or rather, it’s not just that.”
“Then spit it out.”
Breathe. “Mother, I find I cannot obey both your commands in this and those of the Polytheon as I understand them. So I’m here to beg for my release.” The silence between them screamed in Alessia’s ears. Tanusia stared at her, unmoving. For a terrible moment Alessia was afraid she’d not been clear. “I mean—”
“I know what you mean, I heard you. If this is some attempt at coercion…”
“It’s not. I know you won’t change your mind. If the screams of those people couldn’t do it… But I can’t— I won’t endure another day like yesterday. Innocents suffer every hour and no one does anything about it. ‘It’s war,’ they say as though that makes enough excuse, and move on. The one refuge they have is the temple, and now you say we only welcome folk lucky enough to fall on the right side of some damned line on a map? How can I accept that?”
“You can’t,” Tanusia nodded, “not being who you are. I admit I feared something like this. I was hoping it’d pass by…but no. You must do as you feel the gods demand. You have that luxury. I’ve more complicated responsibilities.” She gave a wan smile. “To think, only days ago it was I chiding you for being too ungentle, now here we are. Your knife cuts deep, child. Are you absolutely sure of this? Where would you go? It’s not safe out there for anyone, nevermind a woman alone.”
“I…I hadn’t thought much of that, I was so dreading this moment.”
“Ah, then I suppose I should be flattered.”
“Carsolan, or Murento, somewhere I can practice physic without restriction—”
“There’s no such place! Oh, you haven’t thought this through at all, have you? This damnable war’s left its mark on every corner of Argovan and Bergovny both. It’s not just battles anymore. If temples are no longer sacrosanct, then nowhere is. You may come to regret this decision, sister.”
Alessia set her jaw, determined. “I’m full of regrets, Tanusia. I can bear a few more, but not like yesterday’s. Call me sister no longer.”
“Very well. Take a day to gather your belongings and make your goodbyes, but no more. I can’t have your choice infecting the others. They’ll miss you terribly, especially the acolytes. And Livielle. And…I will miss you.” She drew Alessia into a tight embrace, tears welling up. “I do hope you know what you’re doing.”
That night the temple sisters sang their evening prayers. It was a dour melody, made haunting of late and no less so for being one voice the weaker.
A knight of the church & a heretical forger must put aside past enmity to steal the Church's holiest relic & save the last city. #pitprom
For centuries, the Lily of Graces has protected Brighton from an unnatural wilderness bent on the city’s destruction, only now, the Perimeter is failing. Devout Church Knight, Eli St. John, is certain that the only way to regain precious ground is to bring the artifact closer to the frontlines, but the Church isn’t exactly going to hand the Lily over. If he’s to pull off the heist of the century, he’s going to need one hell of a magical counterfeit to fool them. That means calling on the Forger, an unsanctioned enchanter in a city where Church officials persecute rogue magic.
When Eli knocks on Cole Danziger’s door one stormy winter night, she knows he’s trouble, even before he gives her a bad fake name and asks her to commit high treason. He may not know who she is—yet—but Cole hasn’t forgotten the last man to see her sister alive. If he wants her help, he’s going to pay dearly for it: with answers or his life.
To save the last city in the world, Cole and Eli must confront their pasts, expose a centuries old political conspiracy, and contend with a magical artifact who just might have a mind of her own.
Set in a post-apocalyptic, post-restoration secondary world, THE LILY OF GRACES is a character, relationship, and suspense driven work that tackles the complexities of place, memory, family, and home. With retro world-building and a well-balanced cast of characters including underrepresented identities and own voices, LILY explores difficult themes such as trauma, grief, and broken family dynamics with humor and hope.
Complete at 122,239 words, THE LILY OF GRACES is a standalone novel with series potential, and the first book in a proposed seven book series Forgeries of Grace. Three books have been completed.
The full manuscript and a brief synopsis are available at your request. Thank you for your consideration.
Cristal G. Thompson
First Ten Pages:
History was liar, and so was Eli.
The small brass tile beneath his foot read Brighton Historical Landmark, or it would have, if not for a century's worth of sea green tarnish. He didn’t know when the last time anyone from the Historical Society had been on this side of the city, but he was willing to bet it hadn’t been in his life time, or that of his parents. History had never been en vogue, not even with the bicentennial closing in. No, in Brighton, history rotted like a two day old corpse before it was forgotten.
Too much had been forgotten here. Or maybe not enough. The overhead lights shone dimly through hobnail glass. The fixtures had been white once, but not for a century. Maybe more. They cast the hall into shades of sepia, just another unkindness heaped atop the worn-down brownstone to which Eli had been directed. The carpet was threadbare and musty, pattern and color as faded as Dockside, and in as much need of demolition as the rest if anyone had asked him.
Not that anyone would.
Eli counted doors as he passed, listening beneath the roar of winter storm for sounds of occupancy, sounds of trouble. The late evening news crackled with static behind the first, fading to silence halfway down the hall, but the next three held back only echoes of emptiness. It was hard to feel alone in a city of a million lost souls, but by the time he reached the half-glass door at the end, he felt as abandoned as whatever good sense he might have once claimed.
The door was freshly painted—a crisp practical navy—and the air was sharp with resin and solvent, the scents stronger than the rain or the rot. Ripple glass gleamed, not a smudge or fingerprint to be found on its cold surface. Nothing in this part of Brighton was clean anymore and Eli had to pull his fingers back from the single word etched faintly in the center.
Eli stared down at the heavy slip of vellum in his hand. The business card was embossed with an address and no more. He glanced at the iron number and letter above the door. 3D. He was in the right place. If such a place could ever be the right one. He slipped the card into the inner breast pocket of his coat and wondered for the hundredth time what he was doing here.
A foghorn shattered the still night. The plaintive sound was much too close and Eli startled, feet planting from long habit as he reached for his gun. On hot days when the wind hit just wrong, he had smelled the dank sea rot, heard the distant noise of that same horn, but that was as close as he had ever come to Dockside. This was not the part of town a respectable person found himself in under any circumstances.
But then, Eli wasn’t respectable anymore, and his circumstances had spun far beyond any that he might once have imagined.
The voice that called through the door was rich and sultry and tactile. A most treacherous brand of female. That low mezzo traveled through the thin glass, revealed cracks in the seal around the door. Eli stood, one hand inside his jacket, fingers brushing the composite grip of his favorite gun.
Creator’s light, he needed to get himself together.
Eli dropped his hand as the door knob began to turn. He took a step back and to one side as the door opened. There was no point in giving anyone a bigger target than he already was.
“Are you coming in, sugar?”
She was tall. Eli saw her eyes first, great pools of limpid near-violet framed with sweeping lines of black and expertly thickened lashes. She must collect secrets, he thought, with a quick frown at the sudden fancy. Her eyes were crowded with the shadows of them and they were too numerous to have been all her own.
“Or are you going to stand out there all night waiting for the trash collectors?” she continued in a slow drawl that touched places in him long quiescent. She dropped her g’s, but the coarse accent didn’t quite match the rest of her. He wondered how often she used it, what it would take to have her speak to him in her own voice.
Eli mumbled an apology as she stepped back in invitation. She had the face of a painted Canova, cool marbled perfection, gentle serenity ruined with the application of ruthless color. Her hair fell softly to her shoulders, loose waves too rich to be what so often passed for strawberry blonde. Eli thought the sharpness of her makeup a blasphemy, but it was her face, she could do as she wished. She was not for his gaze for all that she hung in the doorway framed by the colors of stained parchment and night sky. The exaggerated curves of fine crimson wool turned the lines of her suit into something almost obscene. He found himself staring inanely at her feet. The sensible black pumps were of quality leather, but the nearly transparent wash of silk that shimmered down her calves turned them into something deadly.
“Benedict sent me,” he managed to mutter as he followed her into the room.
The office was small, nearly barren, and fastidiously clean. The walls were the same whitewash as the hallway, but fresher. A steel desk dominated the center of the room, battleship grey paint mostly worn through.
“Not me.” The woman nodded toward another half-glass door on the adjacent wall. “You want Cole. I’m just the secretary. Can I take your coat and hat?”
Some secretary, Eli thought, ashamed of his appreciation. He handed her his hat, shrugged out of his wet trench and passed that over with care for the water dripping all over the floor.
“’Just the secretary’ my ass.”
The door swung open and a woman stomped out, a dervish of agitation and impatience in every step. She wore grey slacks with brown suspenders and a white button down shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up strong, tanned arms. Beneath a scattering of freckles, she had the most honest scowl Eli had ever seen.
“You are killing me with that draft, Tandy,” she complained. She brushed between them, tread heavy, and closed the main door to the office with mostly restrained ire. “Killing. Me.”
“Sorry, Cole.” Tandy smiled, sounding anything but. She crossed the small office in long, rolling strides, sat with effortless grace on the edge of the small ladder-back chair behind the desk. The antique was as unexpected here as she was. In Brighton wood was for the wealthy and the Church. Tandy inclined her head slowly in Eli’s direction. “You have a visitor.”
Cole deigned to notice him then. Eli wondered how many men came to the office so late at night that she could afford to overlook one. When she snapped her gaze to him, it was all he could do not to flinch at the demand.
“Benedict sent you?”
She wasn’t quite hostile, but he was definitely under the impression she wasn’t glad for the possible work.
Her brown hair was longer than was fashionable; she gathered the waving locks into a merciless twist while he tried not to gape down at her. Benedict had led him to believe he would be welcome.
“Go on then.” Cole shoved a pen from Tandy’s desk through the knot at the nape of her neck and nodded toward the partially ajar door she had just come through. “I’ll be along.”
A gust of wind pushed the storm in through the open windows behind Tandy, rattling horizontal blinds and casting glittering raindrops against the warm light of the office. Eli didn’t believe himself to be a superstitious man, but he was having a hard time not seeing the weather as a portent.
“Don’t touch anything,” Cole added in clear dismissal.
Eli obliged reluctantly, offering Tandy a polite smile and nod of farewell as he stepped into the other room. It was easily three times the size of the outer office, and not so much an office itself as a live-in library, with floor to ceiling bookshelves taking up most of the walls, and a large window seat that pulled obvious double duty as a bed. The light was dimmer here than in the reception area. There was but a single weak bulb in the fixture overhead and the ceiling tiles were the same navy as the front door, cluttering the room with secrets and shadows.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait and have me walk you home?” Cole asked from the other room.
“Oh, darling,” Tandy demurred, a smile in the words, “you know I’m the most dangerous thing out there.”
Cole laughed. The sound was low and smoky and Eli suddenly felt that he was intruding even though there was no way the conversation was intended to be private. He stepped farther away from the open door, squeezing past a large desk of ancient carved wood, conspicuously clear in a room of almost pleasant clutter. There were scars across the leather top, stains of ink and paint? They could have been blood, he supposed. She was the Forger.
“I’ll see you for breakfast, wench,” Cole said. There was a rustle of movement, then another refrain of Cole’s dark laughter. “Was that for me or for him?”
“Whichever one of you needs it,” Tandy retorted pertly. “Be careful.”
“I always am.”
“Liar.” The accusation was fond and then Tandy’s heels clicked across the hardwood floor.
Eli heard the door open and close behind her and quickly finished his circuit of the room, narrowly missing, in his unease, the pot-bellied stove in the corner. There was a large sack of peat on the floor beside it. The scent of scorched earth mingled with notes of lemon and sage as they wafted from the copper pot atop the stove. A kettle simmered beside it, over-filled to a faint, watery whistle.
“Careful,” Cole said from the doorway. Beside her mouth was a perfect print of Tandy’s red lips. “It’s hotter than it feels on a night like this.”
Eli jolted and spun fully toward her, nearly falling over the back of an overstuffed velvet armchair.
“You could move something out there, you know,” he groused, sidestepping to the narrow perimeter of the room and glaring at the bookshelf closest to him rather than at her.
“I could,” Cole replied. “But then I would have only myself to complain to for the constant interruptions.” When she spoke again she was closer, and Eli had to fight every instinct not to reach for his gun again. “If Benedict sent you, you didn’t come to borrow a book, so what do you want, Mr…?”
He turned to face her, giving the name so easily that anyone else would have believed him. It was common enough, but certainly nothing so trite as Smith or Doe. Cole’s eyes narrowed, something dark shifting in the muddy, mossy green and despite having her by at least six inches and fifty pounds, Eli nearly took a step back.
Two centuries ago, there had been forests around Brighton. Great towering hardwoods with deadly shadows. The early city had been built from those trees, and the Church had beaten back those shadows with the ordinance of their Creator. Eli’s great-grandfather had been one of the first lumber barons, and in his parents’ salon hung landscapes from those early years, vast, moody forests of emerald and ochre. The kind of mysteries that even the young knew killed. Eli had nearly forgotten those paintings, and the accompanying wash of cold shame that had always followed that first fearful leap of his heart.
That is until he met Cole’s suspicious stare.
“You might want to try something less obvious.” She rolled those green eyes heavenward as she turned away, and they were no more dangerous than his, if more mocking in her irritation. “Mr. Williams.”
If Cole was betting, and she did so on occasion, she would put money on Mr. “Williams’s” name being something proper and stalwart, something old and blue from the lost continents, maybe a forgotten king or a revered saint. The hat and jacket Tandy had taken from him were cheap, but the quality of his shoes put him from Old Towne—how the hells had he made it to her door without trouble, Cole very much wanted to know—and if he couldn’t trace his lineage right back to the Arks she would eat one of hers.
“So what are you?” Cole asked, pulling her handkerchief from her pocket and scrubbing Tandy’s lipstick from her cheek.
She turned back to him, took a step into his space to see if he would give ground and how easily. He was tall, with broad shoulders and a powerful build that his nondescript, but still too expensive, suit did little to hide. Another man might have been clumsy with the bulk or arrogant, but despite his difficulty navigating her cramped office, Cole could see that he was neither.
“What am I?”
He might have seemed a bit too fascinated by Tandy, too uncertain in his interactions with the beautiful singer, but he wasn’t nearly so uncomfortable with his body. He had settled somewhat now that they were alone.
“Warden?” she asked, more to rattle him than in any true guess.
He stepped back against the armchair he had nearly fallen over, sank his fingers into the faded green velvet as Cole slipped past him to turn on one of the lamps.
Cole jerked her chin up, snapped her eyes to his like a punch as he blinked in the sudden illumination. Dirty marshal maybe, but he didn’t have the look of corrupt law enforcement. His stare was at once too direct and too fluid. He didn’t think he had anything to prove so he didn’t bludgeon her with his gaze.
He stared blankly over her shoulder and she brushed by him again, crowding to test. He was graceful and cool. Blonde and blue like a warrior angel, jaw chiseled just so. His skin was light, dusted faintly with sun and five o’clock shadow. She might not have noticed the tension beneath it if she hadn’t been looking for it, but he smelled of blood and death and she knew he wasn’t clergy—at least not one of the sanctimonious bureaucrats most common to the Church nowadays—and he wasn’t smooth enough to be a politician.
The last was thrown half in jest but his glance shifted almost imperceptibly as he turned again to face her. Cole smiled; Williams didn’t. His stare shifted from summer to winter, suddenly cruel and empty. Oh, he was a knight, alright. She knew that look far too well.
Cole hopped up onto her desk, pushed back to center and folded her legs tailor fashion before her. “You…” She paused to let him wonder. “...have just become my most interesting client, Mr. Williams.”
He smiled then and she wasn’t expecting it, not with such brittleness in his eyes, but his lips curved almost against his will, something rueful, as bitter as the night outside.
“And here we haven’t even gotten started,” he replied.
Cole nodded toward the chair before him, reached behind her for one of the desk drawers. “Drink?”
“Perhaps,” he considered, blue eyes warming to cool distance as he stepped around the chair and sat. He settled back against the velvet, dark suit adding shadows where Cole preferred light. He studied her at least as hard as she was studying him, but she had the advantage. She knew what he saw.
“Yes.” He nodded politely. “I believe I will. Thank you.”
The mannerisms were definitely Old Towne. Benedict always did send her the most interesting work, but she could have done without the hassle tonight. Cole pulled a bottle of bourbon from the drawer, top shelf stuff, a gift from Zeke that had been more for him than her. She set it on the desk before her, reached back for two mismatched glasses.
“The bourbon will have to do,” she said, deliberately seeming to misinterpret Mr. Williams’s look of surprise as disapproval. “I save the whiskey for second dates and real names.”
She poured them each two fingers of liquor, slid his glass toward him so that he would have to reach to retrieve it from the edge of the desk. Cole watched his hands. He hadn’t offered his when Tandy introduced them, nor she hers. There was a lot to be learned from a person’s hands. Hers told the story of her entire life, but only one or two could read it. Mr. Williams’s were steady, his fingers calloused with too familiar wear. She waited until he had the glass in his grip, waited another breath for him to lift the edge to his lips.
“So, what’s an axeman doing on this side of town?”
To his credit, he didn’t flinch, and he didn’t deny her deduction, which meant he wasn’t a fool. He met her carefully bored stare with something like challenge as he savored his first swallow of bourbon.
“I need a forgery.”
The words echoed deep against the bottom of his glass and he took a second sip as if he were waiting for the sarcastic quip that teased her tongue. Of course, he needed a forgery. Cole raised a brow, but not her glass. He scowled when she didn’t ask again, but Cole had learned long ago not to beg anyone for their secrets. Like as not, they would heap them at her feet in their own time. She waited while Williams finished his bourbon in one elegant gulp. He set the glass back on the edge of her desk without a sound.
“The Lily of Graces,” he said, not quite meeting her eyes through the harsh light of the reading lamp. “I need an exact copy.”
He wasn’t the first to want a copy of the holy relic, but he was certainly the first affiliated with the Church, and there was something dangerous in his addendum. An exact copy, as if he knew what that meant.
“Why?” Cole smirked. “Someone steal it?”
“Yes.” He took her untouched glass from the desk, knocked the contents back without asking. “I did.”
Dreams of hist Iceland R more vivid than Val’s bad marriage. They turn real & shes caught b/t 2 brothers & their sorcerer father #HR #A #PitProm
Dear Sir/Lady PitProm:
PAST STORM AND FIRE (98,000 words) is a completed historical fiction/timeslip novel with a romantic narrative which weaves between modern Miami and medieval Iceland. I hope to explore this book’s series potential with you[D1] .
Val and Karl’s house is destroyed by a hurricane, which inspires her to write a historical romance novel set in Iceland rife with sorcery, sexy Vikings, and a volcano. Val’s dreams reveal historical facts later proven true, which both frightens and intrigues her. Her obsession with writing puts a strain on her already troubled marriage, but she’s terrified of being on her own.
In her novel, Val becomes Vigdis. She evades two amorous brothers and their drunken father. The brothers fight a duel, forcing her to make a very public choice between them. Their father refuses to bide by her choice and tries to use black magic to enchant her. A volcanic eruption throws their entire world into ash and fire. The line between past and present grow blurred as Vigdis lives everything Val dreams of – true love, children, and family.
An attractive Icelandic professor of history helps Val investigate the history behind her visions, but her husband draws the line – give up her writing or he’ll leave. Val must decide whether to resurrect the shambles of her marriage or take her chance in Iceland to discover if her dreams truly do come from the past.
I’ve previously published nine novels, including The Druid’s Brooch Series published by Tirgearr Publishing. I’ve been a presenter at the Steuben County Library Writers Conference for the past two years, and have given presentations on historical fiction research at several other venues. I’m active on several social media platforms. Feel free to visit my author website, www.GreenDragonArtist.com, to learn more.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration, and I truly look forward to hearing from you.
First Ten Pages:
August 24, 1992, Miami, Florida
No window or door let in a breath of air, and Val grew entombed within a sarcophagus of sweaty doom. The central air conditioner kicked on with a whine, working overtime in the hot, humid August night.
Karl entered with her glass of white wine. She smiled and gulped most of it down, savoring the sharp, cool liquid. “The news just upgraded the hurricane to a hundred and fifty miles an hour.”
“Thanks, Karl. I really needed that update.”
“We’ll be okay, Val. It’s not like we’re on the coast or anything.”
She flashed him a brave smile. They sat silent for a long time, staring at the talking heads on the news wax poetic about the impending disaster.
Val had considered evacuating, but leaving was like giving up. Besides, where would they go? Her father’s house? He summered in Vermont and his house in west Florida stood empty. She had no guarantee her father’s house would fare any better, and panicked refugees choked all roads north.
The wind rattled the boarded windows, making her shudder and wish she had checked them once again before the storm hit.
Val wished someone would tell her everything would be fine, but she was used to being the strong one, the effective one, the motivated one. At least Karl brought her booze. Alcohol helped a lot.
She resisted the temptation to crack the door open to look outside. The sky would be dark and she wouldn’t be able to see much. For now, they still had power.
The weatherman’s words became hypnotic, and Val drifted into a semi-dozing state from the constant drone of his voice. Her mind shaped the meteorological terms into exotic meanings, sentences that made a certain surreal sense. Puzzled, she jumped from half-understood statement to nonsense.
She startled awake when the sound stopped, along with all the light and the hum of the air conditioning.
“Damn it.” She stood, fumbling to find the small flashlight she’d kept by her chair. No, that’s a pen. Where did the stupid thing go? Something fell on the floor; probably the drink coaster. Ah, found it. She gripped the heavy cylinder, fresh with four new batteries, and clicked the light on.
“Karl? Are you awake?”
Neither of them had gone to bed as they’d propped the mattress against the sliding glass doors. They both sat in their living room chairs. Karl lay reclined in his, snoring. Val decided to be kind and let him sleep. She made her way to the breaker room in the garage and flipped each off. She didn’t want any fires starting when the power came on abruptly.
The howling outside didn’t sound like wind. Instead, a train rumbled next to her house. The walls rattled and shook and, suddenly, Val wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Any place but here in this stifling space, waiting for Mother Nature to pluck this laughable cardboard box from its flimsy foundations and toss her into the air like a demented Dorothy.
With a gulp to keep from crying, Val walked to the bathroom and glared at the bathtub, the most secure spot in the entire house. They’d filled the tub with water so they could flush the toilet if they lost power. Unless she wanted to strip down and take a bath, the tub wouldn’t be a good hiding place.
At least the bathroom had no windows. No place for the glass to shatter, covering her with a thousand shards, creating a sucking vacuum and pulling her out into the fury. The white noise of the storm outside became a blanket, a shield between her gibbering soul and the panic which threatened to burst through.
She sat on the bathroom floor and curled her arm around the pipes under the sink. They seemed secure and strong, and the comfort kept her tears at bay. She envied Karl his slumber and ignorant bliss.
A crash made the house shudder, and she whimpered. Val hadn’t been a religious person for many years. However, her Catholic childhood resurged through her fear, and she prayed under her breath. Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of--
Another crash heralded shattering glass somewhere. Had a window broken? They’d covered all the windows except the tiny ones in the back of the garage. They hadn’t found enough wood, and the outside of the garage was stucco. To nail anything over that would have damaged the wall. If that window broke, not much would be damaged in the garage—unless the break let wind get in and yank their house from its foundations.
Val wished Karl would wake. She wanted him to hold her and tell her they’d be fine. But rousing him would be unfair. Let him sleep through the worst.
Crash! Slam! Val cried unashamedly now. She gave up trying to identify the sounds or analyze what they meant. She only prayed over and over they would survive this horrible storm.
With a bizarre suddenness, the noise halted. The pressure still pounded in her head, but the wind ceased. The stillness and quiet became unnerving.
Val kept waiting for something new to happen, but the stillness grew until the pressure became an oppressive weight upon her soul. The soundless air became a living thing, wrapping around her like a stifling wool blanket. The silence grew worse than the storm’s din had been, more suffocating than she’d ever experienced before.
She needed to escape, to be outside. Surely the eye of the storm had arrived. With a curse at her idiocy, she searched for the small transistor radio they’d bought and turned the dial until the crackling resolved into sound.
The first station aired nothing but prayers. She moved the dial into the FM range and tuned to her favorite rock station, WSHE. They should be broadcasting news on every local frequency rather than music.
After fiddling with the dial, past the ironic tunes of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and “Riding the Storm Out”—what psychopathic DJs had chosen these?--the somnolent tones of an older weatherman said something about pressure and storm surge, and she fine-tuned the dial until the signal came in clear.
“The eye just passed over Homestead Air Force Base…” Homestead lie miles south of her. Could the eye be that large? The eye marked the greatest swath of destruction from a hurricane. The sudden increase of full-speed winds on the opposite side of the eye-wall would be devastating, much worse than the gradual increase in wind speeds on the other side. If no wind blew outside, she must be in the eye. But how far from the edge? If they sat near the northern edge, the winds would return with ruinous speed at any time.
As much as she needed to get a breath of fresh air, she didn’t want to risk opening her sealed house to the danger of the monster storm.
Instead of stewing about a decision she’d already made, she paced. Val walked from boarded window to boarded window, flashing her light on each one to ensure each board remained firmly in place. Thankfully, she’d double-checked Karl’s work on the boards on Saturday; otherwise she’d worry herself sick over the possibility of them coming off. She would still worry, but at least she had confidence in their sturdiness.
She should have left the radio on, something to fill the dead silence. No, we should conserve the batteries. The power may not be on for days.
When the tempest returned, the storm roared with furious vengeance, pummeling the wooden sides of the house with violent rage. The freight train returned, barreling toward her with mindless menace. With a sudden panic, Val ran back to the bathroom and almost jumped in the tub, wet clothes be damned.
Another object slammed into the wall outside. The sickening screech of wood and metal filled the room.
Damn! How the ever-living hell did Karl sleep through this cacophony?
She’d best go wake him and bring him into the safer room.
With great trepidation, she emerged from the small, dark room and found Karl, still snoring in his lounge chair.
“Karl? Karl, wake up. We need to go to the bathroom.”
He didn’t open his eyes but mumbled. “What? What do you mean, we? I can go to the bathroom by myself. I don’t need your help.”
She shook him again. “Wake up, Karl! The storm is getting worse. We have to move somewhere safer. Get up!”
Reluctantly, he grumbled and tumbled out of the lounger, not bothering to push the footrest down. He stumbled into the bathroom with her and they sat on the cool tile floor.
He squinted at the full tub. “You woke me for this?”
A crash and a sickeningly long creak shut him up.
More crashes, and the freight-train wind hit again. A huge whomp made them both flinch, and they laughed off their reaction with a slight tinge of hysteria.
Karl held Val’s hand and squeezed. “We’ll be fine, Val. This is a good, sturdy house.”
She sincerely hoped so, but neither of them were experts in housing construction. She worked as an accountant in a second-chance college, and he worked as a janitor at a different college.
Yet another horrendous crash and ripping sound snatched Val back to reality. Boards creaked and groaned and she smelled something which made her shiver despite the mugginess.
The scent of fresh air.
Somehow, somewhere, the airtight seal had been broken in their house. She held her breath, waiting for all to be blown away by the indiscriminate fury of the storm, away to some place in another world, like the Wonderful Land of Oz. With luck, she’d get dropped at Disney World, or better yet, Key West. They had plenty of parties and alcohol in Key West. She’d party her troubles away and forget stress from work, a destroyed house, and a marriage with more stress than love.
The air increased, and she squeezed Karl’s hand more tightly. Why hadn’t they evacuated? They might have headed north to safety. Karl’s ex-wife, Marjoree, and his son, lived in Georgia. Val detested the manipulative bitch, but better staying with them than dead by drowning or a house crashing on their heads.
The wall of sound seemed to be moving away from them. She breathed a little easier.
Hours later, she painfully uncramped herself from a sitting position. More time passed before she mustered enough courage to open the bathroom door and survey the damage. Before she did, she sent up a brief prayer of heartfelt thanks for their survival. They weren’t out of the woods yet, but they hadn’t been blown away, either.
The wind had died to an almost inaudible whine. Did she want to see the damage? Did she want to open that door and see everything she owned in tatters? Perhaps nothing more than a couple roof tiles cracked, or the door from the garage broken open. She knew the window of the garage had broken earlier.
With a deep breath, she put her hand on the bathroom doorknob and twisted.
The door wouldn’t open.
With a grunt, she shoved shoulder on the door. She gained an inch. Her panic rose. “Karl, I need help!”
Together, with several curses and yells, they pushed the bathroom door open about a foot and squeezed through the crack.
The rain fell in the house.
To be fair, the rain fell outside the house, too. But since she could see the clouds above, the difference seemed irrelevant.
Val didn’t know why the bit of ceiling remained over the bathroom. Possibly the braces attaching the tile walls stayed stronger than those to the wooden outside walls. She didn’t know and didn’t care. The wind still blew, but the rain had almost stopped as she turned in a slow circle.
Ruin surrounded her.
Val crossed herself. “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy.”
As far as she could see, nothing stood higher than her head, except for random wooden planks sticking up at rakish angles out of piles of trash. Her mind refused to grasp the swathe of destruction. Nothing looked familiar. Her living room didn’t exist. Instead, a pile of furniture, bright swatches of clothing, naked wood, roof shingles, leaves, and unidentifiable debris cut a swath around her and beyond. She glanced down and realized she stood in a pool of water, the strong breeze making it ripple slightly in the dim iron-gray light.
Karl’s recliner lay on its side, impaled by a large branch of wood. Val shuddered.
A gust of wind almost pulled her off-balance, and she grabbed Karl’s arm. He stood, mesmerized by the complete transformation of everything they had known.
“Where’s the car, Val?”
She glanced toward the driveway. Then she remembered she’d parked their car next to the garage for safety. With dubious hope, she gingerly picked her way through the junk to see around the piles. A gleam of red rewarded her. While it didn’t look destroyed, the car remained buried under countless chunks of house. The debris might be hers; it might be someone else’s.
Her purse. She should find her purse. What had she done with it? Right. They’d put the valuables in safe, presumably waterproof places. The dishwasher, the refrigerator, the stove. Without a proper iron safe, they’d gotten creative.
She searched for the kitchen. Nothing looked the same; she had no frame of reference for the rooms. A pile of electronic spaghetti next to the recliner might have once been the television. There, that looked like the fridge, under that fabric. She’d never seen that pattern. The garment had been ripped in many places, but the old-fashioned flower print flashed bright in the dim light.
She yanked it down and patted the fridge, thankful to find something where it should be. Next to the fridge stood the dishwasher, which she jerked open. She found her purse inside, safe and sound. Her wallet, social security card, passport, credit cards, car keys; all she needed to get by in modern life. If she’d been thinking more clearly, she would have kept her purse close.
She handed Karl his own wallet and surveyed the area. She couldn’t even see their bed. It should have been twenty feet that way, under a pile of branches.
“Karl, I think we should excavate the car. If we can get out of here, we should head north. There’s no way we can sleep here tonight, so we need a hotel room.” Karl looked at her dubiously, frowning and wrinkling up his eyes. He always did that when he thought hard. “What?”
“I don’t think we’re driving out of here.”
She turned to look where he pointed and let out a low whistle. He didn’t exaggerate.
Country Walk had been full of tall trees. All of those trees, it seemed, now lie in the road. Big, thick pines crisscrossed the roads in all directions.
Val tossed her hands into the air. “Great. Just great! I have no idea what we should do.”
She sat on the ground, squishing in the water, and burst into tears. Val sobbed hard, unable to stop, even when Karl came over and put his arm around her in awkward consolation.
She cried in frustration and fear. She cried for her future. She cried for all the things she had just lost, so many things she couldn’t even take a mental inventory. Everything gone—everything. All her furniture, toys from her childhood, her photographs, her mother’s favorite shirt. Everything destroyed in a thunderous maelstrom.
When she finally felt cried out, voices intruded upon her misery.
Her next door neighbors, Jerry and Clara, picked their way over. “Hey, Val! Are you two okay?”
She nodded, pulling herself to her feet. Her bottom got soaking wet. She didn’t care. Everything had gotten soaking wet. She gripped Karl’s hand. “Safe and sound, at least our bodies. Our house, on the other hand… well, our bathroom is still standing!”
Her quip elicited laughter tinged with more than a bit of hysteria from them all. It went on much too long.
Val noticed Jerry held Clara’s hand tightly. “Our garage came through fine, and we had that weird little cellar we used for wine. That’s where we hid. Luckily, it’s tile-lined, so no water came in.”
Val surveyed the surreally blank horizon. “So, what’s the plan?”
No one said a thing. They glanced back and forth at each other with blank expressions.
Clara snapped her brightly-manicured fingers. “Well, they have to send FEMA in, right?”
Karl asked, “What’s FEMA?”
Val rolled her eyes, but Jerry saved her from answering. “It’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They take care of folks after disasters like this.”
Val looked around, spreading her arms. “How the hell are they going to get anything to us?”
Clara smiled. “Good question. They’ll probably set up some central distribution center. Maybe someplace like the Walmart down the road. Something with a big parking lot and easy access.”
Karl’s eyes lit up. “Maybe they’ll send in helicopters!”
Val glared at Karl. “Easy access. Right.”
With a chuckle, Clara shrugged and raised her hands, palms up. “Okay, relatively easy access. Sure, there will be a lot of work clearing the roads, and it may take a while for them to get out to us. But… can you hear that?”
They all listened while the unmistakable roar of a chainsaw cut through the neighborhood.
In 1871, a reluctant medium reenters the fray to solve her partner’s murder as her criminal past comes back to haunt her…literally. #pitprom
VIOLA “VI” THORNE’s days of grifting and running errands for the dead should have ended years ago when she left Peter eating steam on a Chicago train platform. No one in California knows she can speak to spirits, yet there’s a dead stranger at her doorstep begging her to recover his buried gold in order to pay his debt and save a life. The unlikely companions find themselves racing horses, cheating at cards, and tangling with bandits, and that’s just before lunch.
Once Vi finds out who is responsible for telling the ghost her location, she must face the past she thought she’d buried. Peter appears as a spirit to bring her a warning of those who want to lure her back to New Orleans and are willing to kill for it. Vi may play the damsel in distress when it suits her, but she won’t let herself be rescued if she can use her “special talents” to earn Peter’s forgiveness and atone for the only deception she’s ever regretted. During the journey, her long-repressed powers begin to grow in unexpected ways, threatening her mind as well as her body. She stops in Chicago to get help from an estranged and recalcitrant aunt with knowledge of the supernatural and unwittingly gives her enemy's ghostly assassin the opportunity to strike.
Historical fiction gets a paranormal twist in No Rest for the Wicked, which is 94,500 words long and intended for adult fantasy readers looking for a complex female protagonist at the helm. It is the first installment in a planned 5-book series that will take Vi and her companions across gaslit America in 1871.
When I’m not penning speculative fiction, acting as co-editor for SteampunkJournal.org, and sharing articles with my fellow writers on OurWriteSide.com, I am the Creative Director for a creativity competition for grades 5-8. I love attending conventions and have been a frequent guest speaker at events like the International Steampunk Symposium. You can find my Gothic short story, "The Vigil," in the Chasing Magic anthology, as well as my contributions to the novel Esyld's Awakening, which were both published by the Collaborative Writing Challenge in 2017. I coordinated and contributed to a Steampunk fantasy novel called Army of Brass that launched April 2018. My latest short story, a horror retelling of Pinocchio entitled "The Marionette," can be found in The Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales anthology published earlier this month.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
First Ten Pages:
September 30, 1871
About two miles as the crow flies from Sacramento, California
Viola Thorne preferred to bathe by moonlight. Perhaps it was the quiet chirps of the crickets or the splash of stars above, but something about the nights here at the end of the world called out to her.
After weeks of aching muscles, she’d managed to reinforce the natural hot spring with stones from all over the ranch to build the perfect niche for soaking. Sulfurous steam rose off the water and eddied around her head and shoulders while the rest of her luxuriated in the gentle currents of heat.
A half-empty bottle of whiskey kept a waxed paper parcel company on the edge. She reached inside the package and pulled out a fragrant hunk of soap—the last of what she’d brought from back East four years earlier. No telling when she’d be able to get more, but she worked the bubbles through her hair and scalp with gusto. The smell of lilacs rose from the lather to combat the reek of rotten eggs emanating from the spring. Vi breathed it deep into her lungs as she closed her eyes against the tide of foam.
A sensation as light and dangerous as hornet wings fluttered on the back of her neck and slowed her hands. Miles away from anywhere anyone might possibly want to go, she should have been safe from prying eyes here in the pool, even in broad daylight.
All the same, someone was watching.
Unwilling to let the peeping Tom know she was on to him, Vi went back to washing her hair. She listened for the telltale crack of a twig or the whisper of cloth to indicate the direction of the infiltrator’s approach. If it came down to it, she could always reach out with her other sense, but that was reserved for special occasions these days.
She leaned her head back to rinse, the lather floating around her tinged a dull red from the henna she used to muddy her identity. Though the chance of being recognized way out here remained remote, Vi favored distancing herself from her old life wherever she could. Her chestnut hair was a small sacrifice for obscurity.
The frontier night stretched out quiet and undisturbed before her, yet the prickling awareness spreading across her shoulders told her the invading presence somehow drew nearer. Beneath the water’s surface, she brushed her fingers against her garter and the knife she always kept strapped to her calf. Having a jack rabbit for a stalker would be far more likely than encountering some poor soul wandering the prairie, but naked and alone (and if she was being honest, more than a little inebriated) out in a distant corner of her ranch, she couldn’t take that risk.
With a deep breath, she reached into herself and quested for the feelings that always tickled at the edges of her awareness. Reaching out with her mind, she washed through the waiting embers of her long-repressed senses. They flared to life, hot and sharp despite her years of denial. Vi allowed the unexpected feeling of satisfaction to curl the corner of her mouth before she returned to the task at hand.
Her audience stood behind her, his decidedly unrabbitlike outline burning bright and blue inside her skull. In one fluid motion, her blade flashed moon-bright and hurtled toward the place he stood. A hollow “thunk” told her it had hit the tree behind him, just as she’d expected from the color of his aura.
“Are you crazy?” the ghost cried, patting his chest where the knife had passed straight through him. “You could kill someone like that!”
He took a few noiseless steps away from the offending blade, as if it intended to jump out of the tree and bite him.
“You’re already dead,” she mocked. “What are you so worried about?”
“What if I wasn’t?”
With a shrug and a few splashes, Vi made her way over to the makeshift stone bench beneath the water’s surface and settled upon it. “I knew what I was doing.”
“Then what, pray tell, did you hope to accomplish with your little trick?” The insubstantial form crossed his arms and peered at her from under the brim of his transparent bowler hat. Even in death, the fine cut of his clothes marked him as an outsider the same way his accent marked him as a New Englander.
Vi twisted her hair into a coil at the top of her head before breathing out a contented sigh and resting against a pillow of moss. “I was hoping it would make you go away. So, if you don’t mind?” Her fingers fluttered in a gesture of dismissal and she closed her eyes.
A few silent seconds ticked by, and she dared to hope he’d go. Then his curiosity shattered the quiet again. “Where did you even pull that knife from?”
He craned his neck as if he could see beneath the silver ripples of the pool. Vi’s head snapped forward, face red from more than the heat of the spring. “It was strapped to my leg, you degenerate! Now go away. I want to finish my bath in peace.”
The ghost removed his hat and simpered, “Please, I must speak with you.”
“No. What you must do is move on and stop bothering the living. I’m out of the business of running errands for the dead, thank you very much.” Her hands traced shallow furrows in the water.
“But you don’t even know what I want.”
“It’s my wife, you see—”
“There are these men and—”
“We owe them some money—”
“I can keep this up all night,” she warned.
“But, they’re going to—”
Vi raised her hands above the water and moved them like a conductor as she sang to the tune of a new song that had been making the rounds. “I’m not interested in helping, all the live-long day.” She let her hands drop back into the water with a splash.
If he could breathe, his chest would have been heaving in anger. In his current state, the ghost had to settle for pulling a sour face. “Well, I had to try. My wife is—was—my whole life.” He donned his spectral hat and turned to leave, mumbling to himself, “He warned you she wouldn’t help.”
“Yep, he was right,” Vi called lazily. Then the water surged around her as she sat forward with sudden interest. “Wait. Who warned you I wouldn’t help?” After the lengths she’d gone to to disappear, there shouldn’t be anyone for hundreds of miles who knew about her “special talent.”
“Will you help me if I tell you?” the ghost asked, hope written in the lines of his gently glowing face.
Vi squinted and sniffed. “I can guarantee I won’t help you if you don’t.”
The spirit smiled and waved his hands in imitation of her earlier display. “I’m not interested in telling, all the live-long day.”
She glared at the ripples on the pool. Not knowing the identity of her referrer was going to eat at her, but the information alone wasn’t worth the price of dealing with this guy.
Hat in hand, he tried again. “Forgive me. Please? I promise, I’ll tell you the whole sorry tale of how I found out about you as soon as you agree to help me.”
“No wonder you’ve gotten yourself into trouble,” she spat. “You shouldn’t offer to pay someone up front; you need to hold onto whatever it is for leverage.”
“All right. Then I promise to tell you after you help me.”
“Nope. Still not interested. It would take a lot more than that to get me involved.”
His face fell for a moment before he brightened. “Well, there’s always the gold.”
Vi’s smirk returned. “You didn’t say anything about gold before.”
“You didn’t let me get that far!” The spirit took a few eager steps in her direction as he began, but his restlessness kept him pacing as he spoke. “I spent all I had getting out here. So, I owed money for my prospecting equipment, but I wasn’t having any luck panning. When they came around to collect, I told them I’d go out again and try farther up the river. They gave me until noon tomorrow to pay my debt, but I don’t think anyone really expected me to find anything.”
“Of course, they didn’t. The big strike in these parts happened when I was a girl.”
He stopped walking for a moment. Even in his insubstantial state, greed glinted in his eyes. “But I did! I found enough to pay them back and make up our losses from the trail.”
“And then you died. That’s a poor stretch of luck.”
“Yes! I was jumped a few hours’ walk from here by some bandits.” He pointed out into the distance behind Vi and her hot spring. “They took my equipment and my mule, but they didn’t take my gold.”
She chuckled. “They must not have been very good bandits, then.”
“No, you see, I buried it,” he said with a hint of satisfaction. “I knew there might be people like them roaming around, so I dug a hole before I went to sleep and stashed it there.”
“And we see how well that worked out for you.”
“Well, yes, they were rather unhappy when they saw I was a prospector but wouldn’t give them any gold.” He allowed himself a gratified laugh, but the next memory sobered him again. “They beat on me for a spell, trying to get the information, but I knew if they took the gold, that was the end for me anyway. You see, ma’am, if I don’t get that gold to Salty somehow, they said they’d kill her. They’re going to kill my wife! I can’t let her pay for my mistakes.”
“Ugh, of course. Another man, another woman caught in the crossfire.” Vi gave the water another contemplative splash. “That sounds like Salty all right.”
“You know him?”
“He puts on airs like he’s some sort of businessman, but there’s a big difference between business and his way of doing things.” She wrung the final drops of water out of her hair before letting it spill loose across her shoulders. “Even so, we have an understanding of sorts.”
“So, you’ll help me?”
“No.” She stood, water streaming down her torso. “But I’ll help your wife.”
The ghost turned away in a flurry of embarrassed splutters. No surprise there—the frontier always ate up and spat out the honorable ones like tobacco. If he were an ordinary man, she’d have been more self-conscious about her nudity, but as ghosts are generally limited to looking and nothing more, she tended to treat them like furniture. The air was cool after her long soak in the spring, and she climbed onto the bank to retrieve her clothes.
“Well, if we’re going to be working this job together, I suppose introductions are in order.” The final button fastened, she grabbed her whiskey and took another swig. The world tilted and blurred pleasantly as she moved to retrieve her knife from the tree. “I suppose your mysterious informant told you I’m Vi, and you are…Oh, sorry. And you were…?”
He whirled back, a pained expression on his face. “I don’t see what is so funny about all this.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, making a show of shoving her foot into an oversized boot to avert her eyes. “This isn’t my first time talking to a ghost, but I suppose this is the first time you’ve died.”
“Obviously,” he retorted, a giggle bubbling up and receding into weary sigh. An uncomfortable silence followed, and Vi cleared her throat. “Ah yes, my name. It’s Tobias.”
“Okay, Toby, this ‘buried treasure’ of yours, it’s marked with an X or something?”
“Not exactly…I’ll have to lead you there.”
Vi pulled on her second boot and straightened. “When do we leave?”
The song of the prairie night disappeared, banished by the blush of morning.
Though picturesque, it was definitely not a time of day Vi usually considered possible. This went double for mornings after a late night full of whiskey and steam.
“Wake up, Vi!” Tobias called for what seemed like at least the thousandth time.
She dragged her stiff tongue around her sour mouth before groaning, “I heard you.”
“It’s about time,” the ghost grumped. “We need to get moving if we are going to get to the gold and back before twelve.”
“Is there time for coffee?” Vi pinched the bridge of her nose.
Her ability to glare remained unaffected by the hangover. “Let me rephrase that: There is time for coffee.”
Tobias fussed while she lit a lamp and built the fire in the stove. As Vi poured the dark powder into the pot, she frowned; it was almost gone, too. Unlike her favorite soap, coffee was a cargo hauled by the regular steamboat traffic on the Sacramento, but the price varied depending on supply and demand, and she hated to haggle when she didn’t have any power. After all, if she didn’t buy it, someone else definitely would.
Vi took stock of her other supplies. With her spartan approach to existence on the ranch, it didn’t take long. One cup, one plate, one fork—one person making an effort to make as small a dent in the world as possible didn’t need much. Her place in town was nicer if she needed creature comforts, but sometimes whiling away the long nights, she had to admit a partner for cribbage wouldn’t have gone amiss. Of course, it was safer for everyone this way.
When steam rolled off the water, she tipped the contents of one pot into the other and leaned into the fragrant plume. The very smell of coffee helped clear away some of her whiskey-induced cobwebs, and she almost remembered how to smile again.
While her breakfast steeped, Vi gave yesterday’s shirt a quick sniff and deemed it passable. On the other hand, the skirt she’d been wearing wouldn’t be the best for horseback, so she pulled out one of the pairs of trousers she’d picked up after meeting some gauchos on her way around the horn. The chiripá over-layer may not be flattering, but it sure kept a body comfortable in the saddle.
She started toward the door, then remembered her uninvited guest. The poncho she pulled over her head made her voice come out porridge-thick. “I’m going to go get my horse ready while the coffee’s brewing.”
“I’ll come with you. I could use a stroll.”
She grabbed the lamp and went outside, the ghost trailing behind. A barn slouched a few paces away, appearing as perturbed by the earliness of the hour as Vi. The only one happy to be awake was Smithy, who nickered a greeting when she pushed the barn door aside. He got a pat and a smile before she started checking the tack. Though no stranger to riding, she’d only learned how to take care of the equipment herself when she’d come out West. Now, the soft feel of the oiled leather and the clean glint of metal in the lamplight gave her a swell of pride.
“Any chance you’ve got two horses?”
“No, I’ve only got Smithy.” Vi gave the black gelding’s broad back a few strokes with a brush before grabbing a saddle blanket from the railing where she’d left it to air out. It cracked like a whip as she flapped it, sending a cascade of black hairs dancing. “But even if I had another horse, you can’t ride.”
“How would you know?” he whined. “I did fine on my mule.”
She shook her head, sending the room into momentary, bleary haze. It was hard to keep the annoyance out of her voice with last night’s excesses pounding inside her skull, but she tried to treat his inane question with patience.
“It’s not personal. It’s spiritual, er, or scientific, or something. I don’t actually know the specifics.” Vi massaged the space between her brows and the pain receded a few paces. She smoothed the saddle blanket across her mount, then turned around to retrieve the saddle. “That is to say, I had someone try to tell me about it, but I wasn’t a very good listener. But you must have realized you can’t touch things, right?”
A little groan escaped her throat as she heaved the saddle up onto Smithy. Despite the weight dropped unceremoniously onto his broad back, Smithy remained still and obedient under her touch.
“Well, of course,” Tobias chuckled. “If I could dig up the gold myself, I wouldn’t need your help. I’m not completely incompetent!”
Vi made her adjustments and looped the leather straps into place. Once she tested the cinch, she gestured between the ghost and the waiting saddle. “Okay. Hop on.”
With a sniff, Tobias walked into the stall and reached for the pommel. Inevitably, his hand passed right through it. Next, he tried a stirrup, but his fancy, posthumous boot never made contact, sending him toppling through Smithy and onto the ground at Vi’s feet.
The only thing stopping her laughter was the pounding between her eyes. “I’ll keep the ‘I told you so’ to myself, shall I?”
The ghost got to his feet, his head sticking up through the saddle just enough to see the surprise in his eyes. The horse gave a twitch at the sensation of having a phantom pass through his midsection.
Tobias took a step backward to view Vi across Smithy’s back rather than through it. “What about those stories?” he demanded, voice reedy with embarrassment. “The ones in the monthly. Ghosts knock on walls and move things. And people can see them.”
She shrugged and took the bridle from its nail. “Sure, some ghosts can do plenty. The longer it takes you to cross over, the more likely you’ll figure out how to move things. Not that it would be a good thing if you could, mind.”
“Why not? That seems like a pretty fine consolation prize to me. I could at least write messages.”
Vi sighed. “Honestly, it doesn’t happen often. And it would mean it is harder to pass over when the time comes. Getting yourself seen by the living without some help is even rarer.”
Tobias stroked a neat, semi-transparent mustache. “What kind of help?”
“Some ghosts learn how to crawl inside of objects,” she evaded. “Heirlooms and the like. Though for some reason, there are certain materials that they never touch.”
“Could I do that? Haunt something and then you carry me?”
Vi gave an exasperated, theatrical shrug. “Like I said, none of this is common. And believe it or not, I’m no expert. As far as I know, ghosts just sort of wander about, occasionally making demands of the living.”
The bit clacked against Smithy’s teeth as he took it. Vi rubbed his velvety, black snout with one hand as she drew the bridle over his ears with the other.
“Are you sure I have to walk all the way back out there?” the ghost bellyached.
“Well…” She smirked. “You could always run, instead. It’s not like you’ll ever get tired.”
“Nice to know death has some advantages.”
“Absolutely! Think of all that pesky eating and belching you won’t have to do anymore.”
The dead man sulked while she finished getting ready to leave. With a broad-brimmed hat on her head and her supplies stowed in her saddle bags, Vi mounted up. Smithy had never gotten used to the slow pace out West, so he pulled at the reins, eager to be given his head. She kept him to a walk for the long miles to keep from leaving her guide behind.
The twitter of cardinals and towhees joined the horse’s heavy footfalls as the morning progressed. Using her hand to shield her eyes, Vi squinted at the pale streak of the rising sun as it struggled over the Sierras and under her hat brim. The rainy season was due to return within a few weeks, but at the moment the rolling foothills were covered with parched grass and the occasional clump of stunted trees. The rain would be good for the prairie, but her body had been through too much to favor the cold. She planned to close the ranch house again for the season in the next few weeks. There was less protection from gossips and prying eyes in town, but it was a small price to pay for the heat of a radiator during the damp winter months.
“So.” Tobias broke the silence. “What brought you all the way out here?”
“An annoying dead guy, about yay high.” She passed her hand through the top of his head and he lurched away. “Anybody you know?”
“No,” he said with a laugh. “I mean what brought you to California?”
Vi returned her gaze to the horizon. “How far did you say we need to go? I’ve got things to do, you know.”
“We’re getting close…I think.”
“You think?” The reluctant medium hit him with a glare before reaching into her saddlebag and retrieving her flask of coffee.
“Yes, we’re getting close. But you didn’t answer my question.” Vi focused all her attention on unscrewing the top and taking a long swig of the gritty brew. “Come on,” he prodded. “Why are you in California? Were you born here or…?”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, savoring the freedom to behave so poorly. “My life story is both terribly interesting and something I have no intention of telling you.”
The ghost stopped walking and crossed his arms in consternation. “And what’s wrong with me, then?”
Vi pulled Smithy to a stop, twisting in her saddle to face him. “I like my privacy.”
“Uh-huh. So, you’re saying it has nothing to do with me being a spirit?”
She made a show of acting hurt and surprised. “How dare you? There are plenty of spirits I like. Whiskey, for instance. Rum…”
He grimaced. “You obviously don’t like ghosts, though I can’t really see—”
“Look,” she snapped. “When I finish this little errand of yours, you’re going to pass over anyway. Why do you even care?”
His ethereal face didn’t have any blood in it to start with, but he grew paler and stuttered, “Pass over?”
Despite her better judgment, Vi felt sorry for him. “Well, sure. That’s the point of all this, isn’t it? To finish your unfinished business?”
“I guess I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” Tobias said sheepishly. “I only wanted to help Bonnie.”
Vi turned away from the longing in his voice and gave Smithy a squeeze to get them moving again. “That’s your wife?”
“Yes,” the ghost sighed, falling in step beside her. “She’s an amazing woman. Dropped everything and came out here with me on this damn fool enterprise. Now, she’s going to be all alone….”
The pause stretched on for too many footfalls. Vi finally blurted something to break it. “Malaeska.”
“Um. Bless you?”
“It’s a name,” she chuckled. “Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. It’s a dime novel I read as a kid.”
“I’m answering your question. It’s what inspired me to come to California.”
“What, didn’t think I could read?”
“No, that’s not it.” He thought for a moment. “It’s, well, a rather romantic thing to do, following a book. You don’t strike me as the sentimental type.”
She snorted. “Ah well, Malaeska is why I chose California, but it has nothing to do with why I left in the first place. That wasn’t sentiment, it was one hundred per cent pragmatism. It was time to move on.”
They crested the hill they’d been climbing. Tobias pointed to a clump of trees at the bottom of the trough and they meandered their way through the scrub. As they reached the edge of the copse, a huge snore ripped through the morning calm.
“Were you traveling with anyone else?” Vi hissed, tightening the reins and bringing them to a stop.
“No!” Tobias whispered back. “And I didn’t see a single house between my strike and town.”
The sun was high enough now that a trickle of sweat ran down the back of her neck. “Well, shit. You know what that means?”
“It must be that gang! The ones who killed me.”
“Yep,” she drawled, leaning forward to pat Smithy’s neck. “Things just got a whole lot more complicated.”
Nelle defies her family to save the kingdom & princess she loves from a traitor’s poison SLEEPING BEAUTY w/ 100% more crossbows #PitProm
Dear Royal Advisors,
My YA fantasy, SPUN, is a darkly funny 80,000 word adventure centered on a diverse cast of characters and a f/f feminist romance. It’s sure to appeal to fans of Gail Carson Levine and C.J. Redwine.
Nelle, the miller’s daughter, dreams of taking over the family business. However, her plans to become the royal miller of Lointaine and win her independence are threatened when she’s attacked by a rejected suitor and her confidence disappears. Bebe, a mysterious stranger, repels the attack with a few well-placed shots from her crossbow. Nelle falls hard for her rescuer, but before she can discover if her feelings are returned, Nelle learns that Bebe is actually the Princess Aube—who, to Nelle’s dismay, is engaged to Prince Ehrhart in order to secure an alliance and sidestep a brewing war.
When Nelle learns of a plot to kill Aube, she rushes to help, even if it means watching the princess marry Ehrhart. Armed with her trusty crossbow, she defies her father’s wishes and risks their livelihood to sneak into the castle and save her beloved. Inside, everyone is succumbing to what looks like a resurgence of the terrible sleeping sickness that devastated the kingdom seventeen years ago. Nelle is terrified, until she realizes Ehrhart is poisoning everyone from the kitchen maids to the king in order to steal the throne and divide Lointaine up as spoils. Nelle must stay awake, escape the castle, and overthrow Ehrhart to save her family name, her love, and the entire kingdom.
I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. Most recently I've had a short story accepted into the upcoming anthology Dreams, Nightmares, Visions, Hallucinations from Transmundane Press. Thank you for considering my novel.
First Ten Pages:
“Roust yourself, Nelle! The cock's crowed an hour now. It won't do. People need to make their bread!” Marguerite Moulin shouted toward Nelle’s loft.
Nelle listened to her mama’s footsteps hurry away as she finished reading one more forbidden sentence aloud. “On the other hand, the miller might need to raise the runner stone; if the grain is milled too finely it will be unfit for baking.” Nelle whispered it three times, trying to commit the information to memory. Papa still wouldn’t let her do more than make deliveries at the mill, but when she finally convinced him, she needed to be ready.
She slammed the book shut, wrapped it carefully in a flour sack, and hopped down the ladder. After her deliveries were over she’d have to sneak the book back into her father’s office at the mill.
In the kitchen, her mother stood skimming cream off the milk in a large white pan. “Tom’s about to start his deliveries. Lay abed, you'll get behind. The sun waits for nobody. And on this of all days, Nellie. You know we can’t afford a late delivery at the castle, not with the heap of guests they have to feed. Here’s your lunch. Don't forget—”
“Okay, okay, I’ve already got my water skin, Mama. Thanks for lunch.” Nelle dropped a quick kiss on the back of her mother’s head where her dark hair was speckled with gray. “I'll go directly to the castle from Tabbott's and be back by supper.”
Her mama smiled and smoothed a stray lock of Nelle's thick dark hair behind her ear. “Okay, but don't lolly. We're having roast chicken tonight and only warm biscuits melt butter.”
Mama's cheek felt cool under Nelle’s lips. She snuck a pancake from a stack on the counter and burst into the barnyard at the side of the house. Moppet, their grizzled wolfhound, trotted over and nuzzled his cold nose into her hand. Though certainly he'd already been fed, Nelle handed him a sizable chunk of her pancake.
Midsummer sun swooped down hard on the little yard, and hurried her along to the barn. After a brief struggle with the barn door, she slipped into the dusty, cool interior, that smelled of beasts and grain. The dicky cart sat waiting for her with their donkey, Sally, already hitched to the small wagon. Nelle looked around in surprise. Tom, stuck his head in through the opposite barn door. Past her brother, she spied the big draft horse, Gus, hitched to the larger wagon.
Her brother grinned. “The usual? I’ll take the far farms and the western stops if you manage the town and castle, Needle. That is, if you think you can make it up the hill in time?” Tom teased her, using his pet name for her since she was little.
“I’ve only been doing it every day since I was thirteen. I’m not a skinny little child anymore.” Nelle stowed her lunch, water skin, and the illicit book under her seat in the dickey cart. She wedged them beside a long thin package wrapped in sacking. It was her companion on all deliveries and she gave it a quick pat for luck.
Tom tucked his books and fishing gear in the big wagon and waved as he pulled away.
The lazy slouch will probably bang off early to the stream for reading and fishing. She rolled her eyes and led Sally out of the yard. When they were little, Nelle paddled after her big brother as he wore a triangle path between the stream, woods, and town lending library.
Out in the street, the cobbler’s apprentice raised his hand as she passed. “Better get a move on, Nelle. The roads are fair clogged this morning.”
A dozen steps later a second man, a local tinker named Bernard, winked at her. “Wait till you see the castle road, Nellie.”
“Moulins like a challenge!” Nelle called over her shoulder, hurrying away before Bernard could talk her ear off. She wasn’t that late, but she wasn’t early, either. If she brought in her flour late on such and important day Mistress Jamison would cut down the castle’s flour order with the Moulins to a pittance and their hopes of earning the royal seal would be gone.
However, Nelle didn’t get far before someone called her name again. After that, the greetings didn’t let up. As a child, Nelle had assumed she and Tom drew such attention because their father, John Moulin, owned a local mill. Everyone ate bread. They were famous. When she was seven Tom called her out for being a dunce.
He had placed a finger between the pages of his book to mark his spot and looked at her with pity. “Do you see many other kids about, Needle? Listen, nobody likes to talk about it, but you know our older sister Katie?”
“The one who died?” She’d whispered, fearful and hopeful that Tom might finally tell her what had happened.
The echoes from the past faded into the morning sunshine as the dark bent of Nelle’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted. Her best friend, Annie, had caught up with her. A heavy basket of plums perched on Annie’s narrow hip. “Morning, Nellie. Bit late today, aren’t we?”
“Bloody hell, not you, too.” Nelle picked up her pace, but Annie followed suit.
The little blonde woman huffed. “I’m just saying, you won’t have time to chat with Charles if you’re hurrying off to the castle.”
“You know plain well I don’t want to chat, or do anything else, with Charles Eaves. He’s mean as a gibbet, and just as hard.” Nelle stepped over a large pile of dung already drawing flies.
“Nelle Moulin!” Annie clucked her tongue. “Hard to catch is all well and good—”
“I don’t want to be caught!” Nelle interrupted.
Annie went on as though Nelle hadn’t spoken. “—but men are liable to have their minds changed by anything that tents their trousers. This town is fair dripping with Eaves.”
“Or someone married to an Eaves. Though that part’s still a mystery. All the Eaves’ being varying degrees of unpleasant.” Nelle brushed a fly from Sally’s face.
Annie, whose cousin was married to the baker, Augustus Eaves, narrowed her large eyes. “Be that as it may, there are lots of them, and every one of them wants flour.”
Nelle scoffed. “Like I care a fig for what an Eaves thinks.”
Inside, however, Nelle wasn’t so confident. So far the Eaves’ all bought flour from her father, but things not always need be so. Three years ago, the largest mill in the kingdom and the former royal supplier, had burned down. Now, every miller in Lointaine was scrambling to fill the void. Annie didn't know everything, though. She was sweet, but she was a bit of a loose lipped know-it-all when her man Walter got her tipsy.
Nelle hurried to change the subject. “How’s Walter?”
Annie took a deep breath and launched into a kiss-by-kiss account of Walter’s latest attempts at courting. It was far more than Nelle wanted to know about any man. She had no fear of getting into trouble with the young men about, not for her own part anyway. Though by seventeen she’d had a few offers, there wasn’t anything about them that tempted Nelle. Her own Mama had been fourteen when she’d grown heavy with Katie, but it was much more than that. Nelle liked children fine, she just couldn’t countenance the way you grew one. This might spell trouble for her in the future, but she was still young enough that it didn’t matter so much.
Annie and Nelle made plans to meet at the midsummer festival later in the week, and parted ways when Nelle stopped for her first delivery. After emerging from the baker’s, Nelle was jostled by the flood of traffic pouring down the high street of Lointaine. She’d never seen anything like it. Navigating the streets demanded all her attention, but Sally knew the way well and Nelle’s first few deliveries were uneventful. Usually, most days were uneventful, but she tried not to dwell on it. At least the celebration at the castle promised a little excitement.
Once past the blacksmith's and tailor’s, Nelle had to stop to let a long entourage of high-walled carriages pass. She chafed at the delay and hurried on to The Knight's Inn. Though, only out-towners and the inn's owner, Dave Tabbott, called it that. A knight had stayed there once upon a time, but it was over a hundred years ago. Everyone had called it Tabbott's, before and since. The people of Lointaine knew the history of their own folk, without room for change.
Nelle headed for the loading yard at the back of the inn, down an alley behind the buildings on the main street. The yard appeared empty, but when she hopped down a large, meaty hand clamped onto the back of the cart. Nelle gritted her teeth. Charles Eaves delighted in taking her unexpected, like a snake striking.
His voice was soft. “Why, Nelle Moulin, bright as the sunshine this morning, aren’t you?”
“Good morning.” Practice kept distaste out of her voice.
Charles took two long strides toward Sally's bridle and grabbed hold, using his large fingers to stroke the animal's head. His hard blue eyes fixed onto Nelle's bodice, and it was clear from the slow way he pawed at the curves of Sally's cheeks that his mind was imagining choicer bits under his grasp. The donkey was too dumb to move away. Sally stretched her neck up and whickered at Charles' pockets for a treat. Heat from the rising sun brought a small trickle of sweat between Nelle’s shoulder blades, but she didn't move.
Charles offered a bit of grass to Sally. “Bit late this morning, Nelle. I hope nothing disturbed your beauty sleep last night.”
Nelle narrowed her eyes. She didn’t like him thinking of where she lived and where she slept, up in the loft. It made her come over cold despite the bright sun. “Not a bit. I just offered Mama some help this morning. You know how hard she works, what with my being gone all day and nobody to help out at home.”
Charles flushed a little ruddy around his collar.
She grabbed the first bag of flour, choosing the largest on purpose. Delivering for her father’s mill was hard work and Nelle had the strength that came from lifting fifty pound sacks of flour and grain daily. “I'll bring these round to the kitchens.” Nelle hoped this would move the man out of her path. She didn't have time to waste sparring with Charles.
But he only stood there with his hands still exploring Sally's head and neck. His blond hair was cropped close to his head except for a longer shock on top he swept to the side. Sally, seeing no more food on the horizon, had lost interest, and blew about in the dirt at her feet.
Finally, he moved. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Nelle.” Charles grabbed two bags and hoisted them to his wide shoulders.
Nelle was so surprised at the sudden apology that the cat caught her tongue and sat on it. She nodded, and followed him to the kitchen door.
A blast of warmth wavered in the air around the open door along with the clink of dishes from inside. The cook, Gordie, yelled something fierce at one of the under servants before he noticed them standing in the door. “Nelle! I'm down to my last cup. We’ve laid on a few more visitors than usual, well-wishers for up at the castle who must have missed their invitations in the post. I don't suppose you've anything to spare this morning?”
Nelle often carried extra bags as customers sometimes changed their orders at the last minute, but the larger delivery to the castle today meant she only had a few.
“I have a fifty and three tens, a couple of fives. How much do you need, Gordie?” Nelle took the small slate she used for accounting from the pocket of her apron.
Gordie blew out a gust of air that ruffled his thin mustache as he considered Nelle's offer. “I guess I'll have the fifty and one of the tens. Just put 'em up with the rest.”
As they unloaded the flour Nelle tried to avoid Charles, but despite her best efforts he managed to be behind her whenever she turned or directly in her path as she crossed from kitchen to cart so that she had to squeeze by him. As a result, the delivery took twice as long as usual. Nelle eyed the swiftly rising sun warily, feeling desperate to head for the castle road.
When she was finally ready to leave, Nelle led Sally away quickly, but Charles ran in front of her.
“Nelle, are you going to the midsummer festival?” He stepped closer, using Sally to mask his movements. Charles grabbed Nelle’s hand to stop her leaving. “Unless you’d like to see me tonight?”
She flushed with anger and ripped her hand out of his grip. Luckily, she was saved from saying anything she couldn’t take back by the arrival of the wagon from Wermer’s breweries.
The drivers, Dickie and Bert, waved at them as their wagon trundled past. “Oy, Charlie, how about a hand, lad? You're sure to get a bit of something to wet your whistle with us. Flour only leaves you stiff and dry.” Raucous laughter bounced off the high walls of the inn yard, like a murder of crows hopping around their dinner.
Charles followed the beer wagon, his pale cheeks now blotchy and red, before throwing her a glance over his shoulder. “I’ll see you later, Nelle.”
“I deliver to Tabbott’s everyday.” Nimbly, Nelle mounted the cart and clicked at Sally. They were both eager to be gone.
The shade under the trees was a relief after the sun of the open road. However, this was the fourth time she’d had to pull off into the grass. It was getting old. Large carriages, some with as many as six horses, kept forcing her to take shelter at the side of the road while they blew past. At this rate, it might be faster to walk the flour up the hill herself. Nelle took a long draw from the waterskin in her cart, then dragged Sally into a break in the traffic.
Five minutes later, the tell-tale clopping of hooves brought Nelle’s head around.
“Horse piss. Not again.”
With an aggrieved sigh, Nelle led Sally off the road. This time she wasn't alone, though. A small group of merchants sat under a cluster of nearby oaks. In the center of the group sat Edgar Wermer, her father's oldest friend and owner of a large brewery.
He waved her over. “Come on, Nellie, might as well stop with us a minute while yonder overdressed, pompous beggars rip up the hill.”
Nelle steered Sally under the trees where the donkey whiffed about in the grass for crab apples. Nelle settled onto a large rock, but before she could open her waterskin Edgar stuffed a small pewter mug into her hands. The fizzy scent of hard cider made her mouth water. Wermer’s was famous for its ales, beers, and spirits, though Nelle didn’t have much taste for those. The truth was, after her sister’s death, Nelle wasn’t supposed to take drink from anywhere except her family’s own well. She loved cider, however, as Edgar well knew.
His dark eyes and skin crinkled as he smiled. “Not much call for it up at the castle, so there’s plenty more where that came from.”
“Thanks, Edgar.” She drank deeply, and let the cool, heady buzz dance in her mouth for a moment before swallowing. She was breaking her mother’s most important rule, but nobody had ever proved that tainted water was the source of the illness that had killed her sister, along with half the kingdom. Besides, Edgar was a family friend and had never had an issue with his breweries.
From the shade of the trees Nelle scanned the road. Three huge carriages rushed past and a dozen mounted soldiers thundered in their dusty wake. Nelle swore inwardly and squashed down her frustration at the passage of time she didn’t have. She tried to distract herself with the familiar faces around her. A wine merchant, a handful of farm delivery men, and some musicians chatted about the enormous celebration at the castle and how wonderful it was for their businesses.
Humphrey, a dairy delivery man, removed his pipe from his mouth and smiled. He was a stooped older gentleman who drove a special cart more like a walking closet with special ventilation grilles, and shelves lined with fresh hay. “Second load of butters and cheeses today alone! Why I’ve not had this much custom since the princess’ christening. That was the first time I’d smiled since the sleeping sickness took away my Sara.” Humphrey’s smile faltered.
The group stayed quiet for just a moment too long, before one of the musicians shouted, “Give thanks now, as tomorrow might be nothing but the tarnished underside of today’s shining platter!” The men laughed and they didn’t stop until their mirth built into a harsh frenzy.
Nelle didn’t join in. She shifted uncomfortably on her rock and gazed at the steep ridges of the surrounding valley. It was always like this when the people of Lointaine gathered. She heard her younger self asking Tom, again. The one who died? Two years before Nelle’s birth, a terrible sleeping sickness had swept old and young alike from the land. Her older sister Katie was one of the first victims. Even up at the palace they'd lost the young prince and princess.
Nelle shivered at the idea of that terrible time. Never having seen it herself, it was usually a bit thrilling to pull out these dark stories and look inside them at her pleasure. Their kingdom had suffered a great loss, and its pall seemed to settle over everything since. Nobody had ever given them an answer. Not the priests, and not the doctors. Neither the hedge witches, nor the oldest legends could account for the sight of lively sons and daughters lying down to sleep never to wake again. Their bodies wasting into skeletons, their souls lost wandering who knew where?
All of this had passed Nelle by. She wasn’t even born when the sleeping sickness slaughtered the townspeople, killed her older sister, and left Lointaine a creaking carcass of survivors. The men beside her had fallen quiet again. The silence stretched around them, took shape and unfurled its dark cloak before slipping away into the trees beside the clearing.
Edgar cut into Nelle’s musings. “I’m off to meet with the master of the king’s cellars. There’s a fresh crop of dandies dropping by every hour up there ahead of the big announcement. Nobody wants to feel the snub of being left out. Word is, the prince arrives today.”
Nelle, only listening to Edgar with one ear, finally spied an opening on the road. “Thanks for the drink, but I can’t keep stopping, I’m late enough as it is!” She hurried over to Sally and grabbed the reins. When she turned Edgar stood in her path.
He glanced at the others over Sally’s brown neck. “A quick word, Nellie. Do you still carry a dirk with you on your rounds?”
When a nomad excels in the army she only joined to face the guard that killed her mom, she must pick revenge or her own prosperity. #PitProm
Audacious young Mika isn’t afraid to fight a kingdom guard, especially when they spy on her nomadic tribe without reason. And when she's accused of scamming marketplace patrons, she readily defends herself against the arresting guards. Her actions result in the deportation of her tribe. But the xenophobic commander of the king's army chooses a much harsher punishment—slaughtering the group, including her mother.
Mika flees to another kingdom where she meets Amblyn, a female commander and the ex-lover of her mother. Craving retribution, she plots to kill the man that destroyed her life. But she needs the right skills for the task. With Amblyn's help, Mika trains to become a kingdom guard.
Determined to be a formidable opponent, Mika fights to maintain her cultural identity as she tackles a new language, new weapons, and bigoted peers. Her friendship with Amblyn, and a secret romance with a top commander's son provides a solace she unknowingly longed for. She becomes rather content with guard life. But Mika discovers the man responsible for her tribe's demise is a guest at the Olympics-style games she will compete in. And she'll have to decide if getting the vengeance she desperately wants is worth risking the friendship and love she desperately needs.
At 92,000 words, the adult fantasy SHATTER THE SHIELD is the first in a series. This story blends the “legendary person” concept from THE NAME OF THE WIND with the training and female relationships of RED SISTER. I have a degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. When it comes to writing, I like to infuse my experiences as a Black woman into my work, and challenge perceptions of race and gender.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Ten Pages:
Something moved through the woods.
Mika craned her neck to the left, bobbing her head to get a better look. Even through the dim firestone lanterns spread around the Sanga camp, and the woods a few feet away from her, she saw the rustling of wide bushes and tree branches. And what appeared to be a figure.
She glanced at the crowd in front of her, an intimate group of just over thirty people, all family and friends. Their eyes were on Mika and the two close friends standing next to her, Lewa and Malani. She shot another look at the woods, which were now still and dark. Had she really been the only one to see something out there? No one else made a move.
The plucking of the linti strings floated through the soft drumming and a melodious voice. Mika snapped to attention. Despite the small knot of concern in her stomach, her arms moved in tune with each lyrical inflection. Spinning around, she thrust her arms upward, and accentuated each rotation with the stomp of her right heel. She leaped into a split, her arms up again as she landed. The only sound from the crowd was the shifting of the bodies that sat on blankets in front of her.
She stepped back, now in line with her friends. The voices of the crowd rose and hands came together as the drum thundered. With leaps, body rolls, foot stomps, and shaking hips, they made use of the small area between the crowd and the musicians. The tiny, bright red beads attached to the sides of Mika’s black drop crotch pants slapped against her thighs, and her thick braids bounced around her head. The drum beat grew louder and louder. She launched herself into the air one last time.
With one final pluck of the linti and a softening drum roll, Mika’s feet hit the ground. People rose off the blankets, shouting praise and whistling at the three friends. She soaked it all in as she tried to control her breathing.
Malani backed away, leaving the two girls alone. The drum started again, its tempo creating a stir among the crowd. The familiar beat could only mean one thing: a rutha game. Anticipation set in as everyone returned to their spots on the blankets.
Rutha games were reserved for solstice events; this was just a going away party. The tribe leader Haki selected the rutha masters that would have the honor of putting on an exhibition match to show off their skills. Mika and Lewa had only spent three years learning the swift kicks, elbows, flips, and cartwheels of the traditional martial art. Initially, Haki wouldn't even allow them to train, insisting “women had more important duties than fighting.” But he only changed his mind after a nasty tongue lashing from the girls' mothers and pleading from his son, who didn't appreciate his outdated thinking.
But since this going away party was for one of the most skilled rutha masters in their tribe, Mika and Lewa convinced their leader to let them perform. It only took the promise of collecting and distributing the water buckets for the next month.
Mika faced her friend, crouching slightly, and look her up and down. Like her, Lewa was seventeen years old, standing about five feet, three inches tall. She had the same plump lips and dark amber colored skin. Both girls had the most common trait of members of their tribe: bright green hair and eyes, the color of malachite. Mika’s hand-painted headband did little to prevent the sweat from dripping down her forehead, and her tunic clung to her shoulders. Stains covered Lewa’s own tunic. Fortunately, Mika talked her friend into braiding her tightly, coiled hair for the night. Who knows what the humidity and dancing would have done to it.
The two girls rocked back and forth, putting one foot behind the other. Tiny goosebumps formed on Mika’s neck. All eyes were on them. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone also included a mysterious someone or someones in the woods. She resisted the urge to look in that direction again. Lewa picked up on Mika’s uncertainty.
What’s wrong? Lewa mouthed to her.
Talk later, Mika mouthed back. Lewa pursed her lips in an exaggerated fashion; her signature move whenever Mika hesitated to tell her something. Mika responded with an eye roll and shook her head.
"Amijo!" Malani shouted. Lewa made the first move with a spinning kick aimed for Mika’s right shoulder and chest. Her friend’s leg brushed her hair as she ducked and retaliated with her own spinning kick targeting the shoulder. The series of kicks between the girls continued. That was the choreographed part of their routine, simply for the crowd. Once Lewa backflipped away from Mika, they would have to rely on their ability to read one another's moves.
A few people in the crowd jumped to their feet, shouting, and chanting the girls’ names. Mika and Lewa fought furiously, grunting, and yelping with each hit. One-handed cartwheels and flips targeted the upper body, and sweeping legs aimed for ankles and shins. Mika regretted putting the beads in her hair as they smacked her in the face, blinding her temporarily. Lewa took advantage of the moment and struck her right side with a knee.
Only five minutes into the fight, the girls slowed down as their bodies grew fatigued. Mika wasn’t going to last too much longer; they hadn’t fought this long before. Lewa struggled to keep up. Her kicks and elbows lost their ferocity.
Time for the take down.
Mika dove feet first, opening her legs just enough to envelope Lewa’s left leg. With the slight twist of her body, she used her weight to pull her friend down to the ground. Lewa groaned as she fell face forward in the dirt.
"Mika bota!" Malani declared Mika the winner. She extended a hand to Lewa, who glared at her for a second. Mika smirked. One of them had to lose, obviously it had to be her friend. But Lewa’s glare didn’t last long as a smile soon spread on her face.
The cheers spread through the group as Mika and her friend put their arms around each other and limped away. A voice rang louder than the others, and Mika's face flushed. She couldn't resist a smile as she looked in the direction of the voice. He stood to the far right of the group, covered in the shadows from the trees. But there was just enough light to see the look of pride on his face as he'd just watched his two best trainees perform their first rutha game in front of everyone. Mika missed him the first time she looked around as she was more concerned with the movements she had seen moments before their performance.
The thought of the ghostly figures in the woods wiped the smile from her face. The goosebumps returned.
Mika and Lewa made their way over to a blanket near the food table, where Mika's mother sat. A small, overturned box with a large ceramic pot of ootuga paste, gauze, and flat string were set up. She had the foresight to prepare the area while the girls performed. Next to the first aid items sat a wide, intricately designed gold bracelet, a gift from Mika's late father. Mika had taken it off just before their dance routine, fearing it would slip off.
"You two looked great out there," said Mika's mother, Alaya, in a hushed voice. Her eyes sparkled as she removed the lid from the jar. Many people outside their tribe assumed Alaya was Mika’s sister. They were the same height, but her mother’s green eyes turned slightly upward on her youthful face.
“You were amazing,” Alaya gushed. “You know I call you keta oluma for a reason. You proved to everyone tonight you’re a standout.”
Mika narrowed her eyes at Lewa, who snickered. Her mother started calling her keta oluma—"little leader”—when the girls first started their training. “You really shine out there,” Alaya had told her one day. “You know, I have yet to see a female oluma, Mika. You can be the first. You’re my keta oluma for now.” Mika usually just shrugged at her mother’s declaration that she would break barriers to become the first female leader of a Sanga tribe. But that was the first time her mother used the nickname in front someone else. Lewa definitely wouldn’t let this one go.
“Ahama,” Mika addressed her mother, “Did you see—”
Alaya shushed her daughter as tribe leader Haki moved to the front of the crowd. Mika opened her mouth again, but the warning glance from Alaya changed her mind. Wait until after, her mother’s eyes said.
Mika pointed to the pained areas of her body while her mother carefully spread a thin layer of ootuga paste on them. She flinched when the cold, ivory colored concoction hit her arm. The pains from her fight slightly dulled as the thin layer took effect. Mika slipped her bracelet on after her mother finished and moved on to Lewa.
Alaya didn’t seem bothered as she beamed at the speaking Haki. Neither did anyone else in the group. Maybe what Mika had seen was just a weird breeze through a group of thin tree branches. And not a figure looking at them.
"...for our younger generations," Haki was saying, "Malani, Lewa, Mika, thank you all for that performance. You all are the pride of the Sanga. We are looking at you young ones to keep our traditions alive. Thank you for showing us such passion and dedication tonight." A few people looked in their direction as they received another smattering of applause.
"And now," Haki continued, "Datani, will you come here please?"
Mika perked up as Datani joined the older man. Datani was Mika’s rutha trainer. He was twenty-two years old, and over six feet tall. His well-toned body was achieved through years of rutha training and construction jobs around various kingdoms. He had at least an inch of hair on his head though he preferred a close-cropped style. Even though some of their interactions were of him yelling at her bad form and wild kicks during training, that didn’t stop her from the prolonged looks she gave his body and handsome face.
"Tonight, is Datani’s last night with us," Haki began, "He’s decided to move on from the group and explore on his own for a while. He’s like a son to me, and brother to Malani. My wife and I have taken care of him since the passing of his parents. I’ve watched him grow into a bright, strong young man." He turned to Datani to conclude his speech. "Datani, you are Sanga. You will always be Sanga. And we will always support you. We'll always welcome you with open arms." He then pulled Datani into a group hug with his surrogate family. Tears and cheers spread through the crowd.
Datani announced his plans to leave the group nearly a month ago. This was a rather normal practice for members of the Sanga tribe, one of the nomadic groups that originated from the southern regions of the Khalavan continent. They travelled throughout the countries as no one place was home. Mika and her mother had been a part of this tribe for the past five years, spending the past year just outside the northern kingdom of Eladon. People would come and go, and families would grow and shrink. Undoubtedly, Datani’s departure hurt more than anyone else, but Mika hoped he would return one day soon.
The music started up again. Dinner and the performances were over; time for dancing and drinking. People jumped up, pulling the blankets off the ground, and tossing them into a pile to make room for dancing. A few ran over to Datani to offer good luck and hugs. Some others let the upbeat music take over their bodies, despite the sticky night air. The light from the firestone lanterns and bonfire bounced off the sea of bright green hair and clothes painted with blues, reds, and whites.
Mika's mother got up from the blanket. “You two sit here for a moment and rest up,” she said. She left the two girls alone. Mika reached up for the food table. Most of the meats and fruits had been devoured before their dance performance, but there were a few pieces of bread left in an asymmetrical ceramic bowl, and plenty of wine. The girls received an occasional compliment and congratulations from people that picked at the last of the items on the food table. The more Mika watched people laughing and dancing, the more she felt at ease.
“You know I let you win,” said Lewa. “I know you wanted that bony man to pay attention to you.”
Mika smacked her lips. “Nobody wins a rutha game,” she shot back, chomping on the bread. “And he’s not bony!” But she did giggle at Lewa’s needless insistence on calling Datani’s lean frame “bony.”
“Fine, he’s not bony, he’s just too skinny.”
“You keep saying that, but you would stare at him in training too!”
“So? He can be cute and bony. He was harsh sometimes, but I’ll miss him. What are we going to do now? It’s just a bunch of old men left to train us and half of them didn’t even want girls to learn rutha.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what’s going to happen now. Haki gave us that compliment, But I bet the second Datani is gone, he'll make us care for the clothes all day." Mika reached up to the table to grab another piece of bread.
This time it was definitely there. Moving.
Mika jumped up from the blanket, startling Lewa. “What’re you doing!?” Her friend exclaimed.
“I see something,” Mika said. She ignored Lewa's questions as she darted into the woods, leaving the light and music behind her.
Mika moved through the woods, ducking under a few low hanging branches. Months of living in the area made her familiar with the woods. She knew where branches had fallen and where the mud puddles were the worst after a heavy rain. The upbeat tunes and laughter faded the further she went into the woods. She slowed as a small wave of fear washed over her. What was she really going after? Lewa was the only one to see her run out there. Whoever it was could be attack her at any moment. She squinted as the woods grew darker.
The sounds and figures heading away from the woods were in front of her. She sucked in her breath. Even with just moonlight guiding her now, the flash of silver quite recognizable.
The uniform of Eladon's kingdom guards.
Large, sweaty hands wrapped around her arm and mouth before should could let out a scream. “Don’t go after them.” The familiar voice kept her from thrashing to get away.
“Datani,” said Mika as she turned towards him. The pounding in her chest only slightly decreased. The moonlight caught his face, realizing a scowl. “Were those Eladon’s guards?”
Datani yanked her arm again, pulling her back in the direction of the party. “We don’t need to deal with this tonight,” he said. Datani was someone Mika had a strong attraction to and greatly admired. But that didn’t stop her from wanting answers.
She dug her heels into the ground, snatching her arm away from Datani. “Those were guards,” she stated. “Why were they at our party?” She moved out of Datani’s reach, a bush scratching her arm. She twisted her body slightly in the direction the guards had gone, daring Datani to come after her.
After a few seconds of silence, Datani gave in. “Don’t tell anyone else this,” he said. “Yes, they were there. I’ve seen them before. So, has Haki and a few others. They spy on us. They want to see if we’re causing trouble.”
“What trouble would we cause? We’re just having a party.”
“It’s not about the party, Mika. You know this isn’t our land. King Vance hasn’t ordered them to do anything. As long as we keep our heads down and mind our business, they won’t do anything to us. We didn't let anyone know because we don't want any paranoia and confrontations. They could remove us if we do anything they don't agree with. But they’ve never been this close to our camp before, they usually stay farther out.”
Mika tried to wrap her head around what Datani told her. How long had the guards been spying on them? The group have lived just at the edge of the kingdom for quite some time. Did the guards watch them sleep? Did they watch Mika and Lewa bathe in the nearby river? As her anger grew over the situation, Datani made use of the opportunity to grab her arm again.
“Stay away from them,” he warned as he leaned in. “Don’t talk to them or look at them. In fact, you don’t even interact with them in Eladon unless absolutely necessary. Don’t ever associate with them.” He added a slight pressure to his grip, indicating he wanted a clear answer from the teen.
“Fine,” Mika promised. “I won’t have anything to do with the guards.” The pressure lifted as Datani led her back to the camp. A small shiver ran through Mika as her mind flashed to just how dark her crush looked and sounded only moments ago.
“Let’s get back to the party,” A happy tone spread through Datani’s voice. “It’s my last night with you all, and I want to have fun!” They returned to the joyous event. Her friends wildly danced with each other, arms and legs flailing around. Mika's mother laughed with a group of women while shaking her hips. Mika and Datani's short disappearance went completely unnoticed.
“I need to talk to Haki for a moment,” Datani said as he let go of Mika’s arm. “When I get back, we've got to have a dance!” Mika couldn’t help but laugh as Datani shimmed away from her. He was a skill rutha master, but a terrible dancer. He headed over to Haki, who was with three elders of the camp. Datani’s demeanor changed once their conversation started. She kept her eyes on him, watching his lips and hands moving at a rapid pace. Seeing the guards in the woods had completely rattled him.
And as much as Mika wanted to enjoy the rest of her night, knowing that guards spent time watching them had rattled her, too.
Empress Addie is exiled for having a seizure. She discovers tech degrades her magic blood and she must go home before it kills her #PitProm
Adelaide DusBeco is the heiress to Pangea, a medieval empire which sends its sick, disabled, and criminal citizens to the remote Isle of Exile to die. After Adelaide beats her brother in physical contests to win the throne, she’s struck by a seizure on her coronation day.
Now banished to the Isle of Exile by her own father, Adelaide reclaims some of her health thanks to an elderly man named Luca. Luca explains Adelaide may have magic, but since her magic is rooted in growth, she must find true happiness to wield it.
Adelaide travels to modern-day Nor, but their technology degrades magic and the health of those with magic blood. Nor does not allow Adelaide to leave, and she must commit crimes in order to escape, making her wanted in both areas of the world. Adelaide must choose a life of exile, hiding, and dodging assassination attempts or fight to the death to reclaim her throne.
THE ISLE OF EXILE is a 98,000-word young adult fantasy novel that will appeal to fans of Red Queen and Graceling. The novel does have series potential. Adelaide’s illness was inspired by my battle with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
Thank you for your time and consideration,
First Ten Pages:
I would do anything to keep my younger brother off the throne. Which was why I hurtled toward the finish line of the Bulee even though every muscle in my body burned.
“I’m…winning…today!” Frank grunted next to me. Thankfully, he sounded like he was struggling.
By the last water station, black dots invaded my vision. Discouraged, I drank water until it sloshed around in my stomach. It did not help. With each breath, I inhaled air so warm and humid it could’ve been soup. Pushing against the pain, my heart soared when Frank fell a few paces behind as we turned the final corner of the race.
Normally I could finish an hour before him. What is wrong with me? What would my father do if something was wrong with me?
Nola, the capital of Pangea, whispered of my under-performance all week. I still won the hand-to-hand combat and fencing but barely. I excelled at the budget balancing and history tests, but that did not please the people. Thank the Great Dog this was the last event.
I ran, propelled by the gaunt faces that lined the streets. My brother would continue to starve them just like my father. I pushed harder and inched in front of Frank. The last ten minutes were normally my favorite because of the stands of spectators chanted “A-de-laide!” But today, “Franc-o!” mixed with my name, fueling my exhausted body farther in front of my wheezing brother.
I ripped the ribbon as Cleaver bellowed, “Adelaide! Adelaide DusBeco clenches the crown!”
Someone shoved a glass of ale into my hand. People I didn’t know shook my hand, thanking me for being strong for the realm. Instead of black spots, my vision began to fade completely black.
“Water,” I mumbled, unsure if anyone could hear me. I pushed through the crowd of people to the shade of a tree and promptly laid down. Whispers began, but I didn’t care, even though my father would beat me for showing signs of weakness.
A tongue ran from my chin to my eyes. My orange and white hound, Beca, stood over me. She tugged softly at my hand, and I sat up. My older brother, Greggory, stood with a bucket and a wooden cup. Greggory failed to complete his Bulee when he turned eighteen, so he was not eligible for the throne.
“As you requested, your majesty.” He handed me a glass of water but did not wear the smile I expected him to have after my victory. I downed the water gratefully.
“She should be drinking ale and celebrating with her people,” Pevely’s nasally voice said. Pevely Moor, Prince of Dakota, had been a constant presence in my life since birth. He was also my mother’s first choice for my husband, but that did not mean I liked him. “Not hiding behind a tree.”
“She ran for five hours!” Greggory faced Pevely, blocking him from my view.
“She should be strong. The emperor—”
“I do agree with Prince Moor. Adelaide knows better.” My father’s voice caused my feet to catapult my body upright. Black spots sprouted in my vision, and I leaned against the tree for support.
“The blame is not hers. I insisted she rest.” Greggory stayed between my father and me.
“Adelaide, my final exile is in less than an hour. After you address your people and show how strong you are.” He walked away, cradling his black wolf pup under his arm. Two guards followed him in clanking armor.
“Thank you,” I said to Greggory before heading to the podium.
Thankfully, Beca stayed right by my side, and she was the perfect height to lean against. I felt so woozy; I could hardly walk straight. The spots in my vision seemed better when moving. I needed to figure out how to stand on the podium.
I was so concerned about how sick I was feeling that I did not see Daron, the captain of the estate guards, flanking me until I reached the podium.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Your father was displeased you went to the Bulee without a guard. He has asked me to stay with you until you return to the estate.” I rolled my eyes. A family of warriors surrounded by guards. As I climbed the platform, my heart threatened to pound out of my chest, and I almost doubled over by the time I reached the top. What in the Great Dog’s name was wrong with me today?
I sat down out of instinct, placed my hands behind me, and leaned back. I acted as if I was enjoying the tiny bit of sun peeking through the clouds. The act of someone being on the royal podium caused the square to soften from a rolling boil of conversation to a whisper.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming to celebrate the Bulee this year. It was marvelous yes?” The crowd cheered, but my chest was starting to tighten. I had to finish this.
“My father’s last act as emperor will take place at the docks in one hour,” I shouted. More cheers. The thunder of the crowd stamping their feet. “My first trial as Empress will follow in the Hall of Justice.”
The crowd jumped up and down, looking like a brown wave of commoners spotted with the gray of nobles. As I started to climb down the podium, the crowd converged, some faces wore smiles, but others wore scowls.
“Beca, home.” I grabbed the dog’s neck and let her pull me through the crowd.
“Brothel-snocker!” someone yelled.
“Sticky legs!” another joined. This one elicited laughs from the crowd.
A hand grabbed my right shoulder and spun me to one side of the crowd. Beca snarled and lunged at the man, her teeth snapping. The man retreated, and Beca’s abdomen pressed against my thigh. My lack of walking caused the spots to return in front of my eyes.
“Citizens, the empress has urgent business with the emperor father. Clear a path!” Daron spoke with the same authority as my father, and the crowd settled down.
I kept walking, but when I got to the hill, I ended up putting half my weight on Beca. She slowed and occasionally turned to lick my arm.
“Do you need me to carry you, your majesty?” Daron matched pace on the other side of me.
“No.” I was more out of breath now than I had been in the middle of the Bulee. He saved me from one public disaster, and I didn’t want to create another one by being carried to my chambers.
My father waved his hands in the air to quiet the two marble grandstands packed with commoners that sat on each side of the dock.
"I, Emperor Franco the Third,” my father boomed, “sentence you to banishment on the Isle of Exile for the following crimes: having a shaking disease and breeding with a disease. For the punishment of breeding, you will take your daughter with you."
I stood at my father’s right hand clad in the navy pants and shirt of a royal. I fanned my golden cape to try and cool myself. A forge burned inside me that I could not snuff out, and the wooziness from earlier had still not disappeared.
As the guards marched the blacksmith toward the schooner, the grandstands erupted, and the nobles stomped along. But not all the nobles. Pevely and the entire Moor family stomped and whistled of course. The Dolos and the dark-skinned McGlones stood stoically with their hands behind their backs.
When the guards and the blacksmith came near us, the baby's wail cut through the noise as if she understood exile. The blacksmith stopped so suddenly the guards behind him ran into him. This man wasn’t a blacksmith from an outlying kingdom. He was from here in Nola, and Moloki made my own armor. He taught me to spar and shoot when I was only a child. My stomach twisted. I had been watching these exiles as long as I had been alive, and when I knew the person, it was always ten times worse.
Moloki’s hands spasmed around his daughter. Moloki’s eyes focused only on me. “You can do better than this, Addie.” My heart pounded in my throat, and my right hand found Beca’s fur for comfort.
Thankfully, the crowd was too loud for anyone other than my family to hear. “Your shaking disease prevents you from completing your duties as a blacksmith, and you are therefore a burden upon Pangea.” My father stalked up to Moloki, making every word sting.
Moloki spat toward my father. The last act of rebellion of a dead man. My father sidestepped. The guards dragged Moloki away and onto the boat.
“I have now completed my last act as Emperor.” The crowd stomped slowly as a sign of respect. “Empress Adelaide’s position will be official in one hour with her first trial in the Hall of Justice.”
My father turned and left with my mother on his arm. The crowd stared at me, expectant. “Board and sail, good men. May the Great Dog protect you on your journey. The next trial is in one hour,” I said to the crowd, “Please enjoy the festivities in Jerden Square in the meantime.” I spun around causing the embroidered hound and wolf heads on my cape to billow.
The royal assistant and herald, Cleaver, shouted to the crowd. “All hail Empress Adelaide! May she be forever strong!”
“May she be forever strong!” the crowd chanted back.
I hated that line. If rulers were forever strong, we wouldn’t need a Bulee to choose the next member of the royal family to rule.
Beca hopped into the carriage after me, followed by a small, brown terrier. I sighed in relief as Greggory climbed in after his dog and shut the door.
I sank into the red velvet cushions of the carriage bench. I hadn’t had a single day of rest from physical exertion this week, and every muscle in my body pounded.
“Why did it have to be Moloki today?” I asked.
Greggory shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. We do it for a good reason: to—”
“Keep the pain and suffering out of Pangea. I know.” I said.
“You’ve got to get better at hiding what you are thinking. You looked like you were in pain out there.”
“Did you hear what Moloki said?”
“Yes, Addie. But focus.” Greggory scratched the back of the terrier who sat next to him on the bench. “You have to be a beloved ruler to make big changes. Right now, you barely won the Bulee, and many would still prefer Frank.”
He was right. Without his training, I would never have won the mental contests. I put my head in my hands, and Beca put her nose between my arms and licked my face. I scratched behind her ears and stared out the small window. The driver took us through the capital homes of the nobles, three-story structures placed back to back, creating a maze of narrow cobblestone roads and black-iron balconies.
Navy and gold banners hung from them for the Bulee, all the contests I won over the past week to prove the crown should be on my head and not my younger brother’s.
“What can I do to fix it?” I asked.
Greggory looked at his chubby hands instead of at me. “Start by creating a relationship with one of the suitors.”
I glared at my brother. “You promised. You promised you would have a child I could name heir, so I wouldn’t have to.”
“And you know I keep my promises. But alliances make or destroy empires. If an entire kingdom wants the crown specifically on your head, it will make it harder for Frank to rise to power.”
I scowled. “You know I don’t look the way men want.”
“Oh, forget what mum says. You have more muscle, not fat. You wouldn’t be able to finish the running or hand-to-hand combat or any other part of the Bulee without it.”
I kept stony and silent. I hated being social and felt much more comfortable studying than entertaining suitors.
“If you were seen pursuing a suitor, the commoners might stop calling you names,” Greggory said.
“I’m Empress. What the commoners say shouldn’t matter. And I’m the one trying to help their ungrateful asses. My first act as Grand Duchess was to send the Bulee entry fees from the nobles to the poor houses instead of the crown vault.”’ My father whipped me for announcing that publicly without asking him. The scars on my back had faded, but the indentations remained.
“You know why they want Frank on the throne. He already has a bastard.”
“He’s thirteen! He lost every fight, every contest—”
“Just act, Addie!” Greggory said, throwing his hands in the air. “It’s okay not to be truthful all the time. Once the people settle down, you can marry me off and name my child your successor.”
“Then what suitor would make the best ally? What country would stand up to father?”
“Other than Coosa…” Greggory excluded them, as they had only a princess rising to power. “Caribe.”
“And how do I find Prince McGlone?”
“Leave that to me. Promise me you will try?”
My brother tried so hard to help with everything. Since the day he knew he would never be physically strong enough to rule, he made sure to pass his knowledge to me. He was my greatest ally and best friend.
“I’ll try. And thanks, Greggory.” I gave him a small smile.
The carriage crested the hill and meandered through the oak trees and Spanish moss. We came to a halt in the brick cul-de-sac outside of the royal estate. Daron opened the door and offered me his hand.
“Quit that gallant nonsense,” my father ordered from outside the carriage behind us. Daron dropped his hand. “The Empress does not need help climbing out of a carriage.”
My father marched off into the white-pillared mansion while stroking the black retriever by his side. My maid, Quilla, passed him and scurried out to me.
“Wait here,” Greggory said, “and I’ll bring you McGlone.”
“Is there anything I can get you?” Quilla asked as Greggory strode away.
“Put my hair up.” I felt stifled by the humid air ever since I crossed the finish line of the last race this morning. I took off my cape and copper tiara, which left me in the plain navy pants and shirt that indicated a member of the royal family. I sat on the steps of the mansion where Quilla started twisting my hair to keep it out of my face and off my neck. My younger brother, mother, and servants entered the mansion. Stable hands came to attend to the horses and carriages.
“Are you excited for your first trial as Empress?” Quilla asked.
“I am a mouthpiece, nothing more,” I replied.
“But you are—”
“Announcing the decisions. The council of elders has more power than I do,” I explained. Hopefully, Quilla will spread that to the other commoners. Then, maybe they won’t hate me so much when I start exiling my own people. But after the way the crowd taunted me this morning, I wasn’t keeping my hopes up.
I leaned up against the white marble, closed my eyes, and tried to use crawfish gumbo to motivate myself to get through this. Another trial, likely to result in another exile. Moloki’s eyes floated in my mind.
“You tired, Adelaide,” a sneer caused my eyes to shoot open. “Not as strong as everyone thinks.” Frank, my younger brother, looked incredibly like my father as he mocked me. He had a pointed face, much like the greyhound that followed him. It also looked like it had been slammed in a door one too many times.
More disturbing was the girl Frank was pulling by the hair. He had a fistful from the top of her head which caused her to walk forward bent at a painful angle. She looked closer to my age than Frank’s.
“Let her go this instant,” I said.
“No. I am going to walk in front of the nobles with her at the next trial. Send a message.” Frank’s smile sickened me.
Quilla knew me so well; she tucked the strand of hair she was twisting behind a finished braid. I stood up and slammed the blade of my hand into Frank’s elbow, causing him to release the girl’s hair, but the girl did not stand up as I expected. Frank reached back, but I hit his forearm this time. Frank’s greyhound growled, but Beca stepped between me and it.
“Stand up,” I said. The girl lifted her head, but not the rest of her body. Her eyes were worse than scared. They were blank, vacant. What had Frank done to her this time?
“Back down,” Frank growled. The girl obeyed.
“Girl, you will leave the estate before any noble sees you. If you were smart, you’d leave Nola and find work elsewhere.”
“No! You will—”
Most magi bond with a familiar, but others have a familiar thrust upon them. Rae Fairclough’s is a demon, and she wants a refund. #PitProm
After twelve years of estrangement from her abusive father, August, teen witch Rae Fairclough is lured back to her childhood home under the pretense of inheriting her father’s grimoire. Instead of gaining the tome, Rae finds herself thrust into a bad fairytale as she finds herself on the receiving end of a generations-old demon deal. As the Fairclough firstborn, Rae is set to inherit August’s demon familiar upon his death. The demon Belfnir, brings with it immeasurable magical power, all for the low cost of her immortal soul.
Racing against the threat of damnation as August’s life slips away, Rae turns to unexpected allies for help in succeeding where every other Fairclough has failed. Among them is the sly sorcerer Cassius Vale, whose crooked smile and cabal of spirit-calling mages attempt to help Rae break the curse once and for all. As cracks start to appear in her friends’ façades she isn’t sure who exactly she can trust, though the demon isn’t shaping up to be such a bad choice.
THE GRIMOIRE’S HEIR is complete at 80,000 words and falls in the young adult contemporary fantasy genre. It will appeal to fans of THE HAZEL WOOD, TV’s Supernatural, and readers who love to place themselves in houses and factions and teams. At its heart, THE GRIMOIRE’S HEIR is a story about how mental illness and addiction affect families and those afflicted, viewed through the lens of the fantastical. It’s a novel about the ties that bind us to others, and how trust affects relationships.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
~ C. Ashwinne
First Ten Pages:
To my heir,
As my time of death draws closer the discussion of inheritance and the Fairclough grimoire becomes a necessity. I’m certain you can understand the implicit approval of the Council given their delivery of this letter. Above all else, their sanctions preserve my line of succession. I hope the past decade has beaten enough intelligence into you to realize this is mandatory…
Rae Fairclough crumpled her father’s letter and tossed it to the floor of her car, hands quivering as she watched it fall with the smallest tap. It had been twelve years since the last time that she spoke with her father, and yet just the thought made her stomach churn.
She opened the car door and stepped out, her black boots landing on a combination of dead leaves and ancient fast-food wrappers. The autumn wind whipped her black hair into her face and chilled her straight to the bone.
Her father’s house had been the backdrop for her childhood trauma, the place where she had earned the spiderwebbed scars on her back, where the trajectory of her life had been changed permanently.
Rae trudged her way through the yard, knee deep in damp leaves probably swimming with ticks, and paused in front of the porch. The wood was sagging and green in places, but she couldn’t turn back. After all, despite her father’s jeers, she was intelligent enough to know that this confrontation had been planned since childhood.
She put one foot on the step to test its weight and immediately the wood buckled beneath her weight. Rae stepped back on the grass and held her hand out over the stairs, a frown playing at her lips.
“Umbris fortifico.” Rae mumbled. Deep purple light enveloped her hand, a miasma of spiritual smoke which spread to the set of steps. She tested the step once more, then walked up to the front door.
Rae jammed the doorbell several times, half-expecting it to be as broken as the rest of the house. Her heart was racing near out of her chest, adrenaline pooling in her veins as old memories threatened to bubble forth, but she had been waiting years to spit on his legacy, to show him that she wasn’t someone he could push around.
“Hey old man!” she screamed as she punched the button some more. After a moment she turned to leave, but jumped straight out of her skin when the front door slammed against the side of the house.
“Is that any way to greet your father?” August Fairclough asked, a scowl on his face. The years had not been kind to her father, as he managed to look near-geriatric as opposed to his actual forty-nine. Greying hair, sagging skin, a glaze over his ice blue eyes.
“You didn’t answer.” Rae shrugged.
“There are other matters that pull my attention, Raven. Not everything is about you.” August sneered. She felt like she was a child again, helpless, vulnerable, unable to escape his clutches.
A loud yowl broke the silence as a lanky black cat stepped out of the shadows. It sat at its master’s feet and licked at its paw. Despite the fact that it was a cat, an ugly one at that, she felt like it was staring straight through her.
“You were the one that called me here.”
“The Council called you here,” August corrected, “anyway, there’s no use in dawdling. You came here for a reason.”
Rae nodded and followed her father into the house. She kept her eyes on her boots, watching her step as she navigated the narrow path through piles upon piles of garbage. She slipped her hand into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around a mana store, a cut of tanzanite that buzzed with residual magical energy.
“Custodiam animarum invoco.” Rae whispered. She felt a buzz in her hand, the feeling of pure magic slipping through her veins. Purple smoke oozed through her fingers and slipped out of her pocket, but before it could coalesce into a solid form her father’s voice broke through the air.
“Retexo.” he snapped. The sound reverberated through the room, despite the mountains of trash that should have muffled the sound, and the smoke that she had conjured dissipated into the air.
“A protection spell? Are you insinuating that I would harm you in my own home? During a Council-sanctioned meeting?” he said, voice dripping with mock hurt.
“Precedent states that you’re not above torturing me in your own home.” Rae spat. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets and kicked at a mound of trash, which let out a disconcerting yelp.
“Is that what your mother told you?” August asked, an eyebrow quirked at such an odd angle that it looked like it could just fall off.
“Mom didn’t tell me anything. I remember it all. I still have the scars you gave me!” Rae shouted, her voice cracking even though she tried her hardest to keep herself from breaking.
“Are you sure? Your mother is an Exterus mage. Memory alteration is child’s play to a caster of her skills. Consider the factor of your young, plastic mind and even a novice would have succeeded.” August said, his voice a flat monotone.
“M–mom wouldn’t do that.”
“Believe what you want, Raven. There are more important matters to discuss. Come.” he said as he waved her down the hall.
Her head started to pound, and her vision faded at the edges as she followed him down the tunnel-like hallway. The misery of the house, the old memories bubbling to the surface, it felt like her entire body had been sapped of energy. She couldn’t decide if it was a spell, or just the familiar feeling of being helpless.
Despite her years of magical studies, Rae could never understand what her father had done to her, the intent of the scars his spells carved into her flesh. As she grew and learned, she searched in her studies for reasons, explanations for what he had done and came up blank every time.
Rae studied under the school of Anima, just as her father had. Souls, spirits, the spooky stuff that lurked just beyond the veil all called to her in a way she couldn’t describe. She was largely self-taught; her brief stint with a tutor hadn’t stuck, but despite her natural talents, the gaps in her knowledge made it harder for her to pin down exactly what August’s angle was.
Her current theory was that he was just a sick bastard that got off on hurting her. It made enough sense, considering he’d have succeeded in whatever else he might have tried. August didn’t do half-assed. Particularly when it came to torturing his own daughter.
The house felt as if it was trying collapse on top of her, choking the air out of her lungs as she wandered deeper inside. The whole place smelled like the inside of a whiskey-drenched ashtray. It was the smell of her childhood, the smell of the years that she spent trying to escape from her father’s twisted clutches.
August’s footsteps echoed on the rotting wood floors as the cat darted in and around his legs as he walked; ugly, grotesque partners prowling down the hall. She felt like the house was breathing — rising and falling with some sort of invisible heartbeat. All the shadows shifted as she walked past hoping and telling herself that their uncanny shapes were distorted by the garbage littering the inside of the house.
Her knees were still shaking, her eyes darting to and from the basement door as they passed. He didn’t acknowledge it as they walked by, but her palms were starting to sweat, the sick nauseous feeling in her stomach back at full force. It was such an eerie thing to her, and yet it was barely a footnote in her father’s eyes.
He led her into the kitchen, a dank cave of a room. Piles of dishes toppled out of the sink, and Rae swore that she could see some sort of rodent dipping in and out of the stack. The cat let out a meow more like a deflating bicycle horn, then hopped up onto the counter next to where her father stood, its exaggerated purr vibrating in her ears.
“I’m here. Are you going to hand me the grimoire so I can get out?” Rae asked. She peered around the mess in the kitchen, her breath held to avoid having to breathe in the air’s stench. Everything in the house seemed to have some sort of pulse to it, like the whole thing was alive.
She was trying to make a point to keep from touching too much, partly because of how filthy everything was and partly because she was worried that the whole house was booby trapped.
August cleared his throat and glanced at the cat. Rae’s eyes were drawn to it as well. The poor animal looked wrong. The cat’s face looked like a goblin’s with thin amber eyes and the largest ears she had ever seen on an animal. The cat arched its back, and then hissed at her, as if it knew what she was thinking.
“Not yet, Raven,” August said, “I’m dying, not dead. Have some respect.” Rae could feel his gaze on her, but her eyes were glued to the greying linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor.
“Respect? You don’t deserve it. And, if you’re not giving me the grimoire now why call me here? Send the check and the book in the mail and I’ll see you next time when I spit on your grave.” Rae turned around to leave, but he reached out and grabbed her wrist.
His touch stopped her in her tracks, her entire body froze over, her stomach threatened to force its way out of her throat and leave her choking on the floor again. Even though he wasn’t using any magic on her, she still felt like the world was falling out from beneath her feet.
“I wasn’t finished, Raven Anne,” he said. Behind him a shadow grew, rising like thick black smoke until it solidified into a material being.
The thing that stood behind August was twisted and broken and wrong. Its body was black and lanky, the elbows and knees bent the wrong way, and its head tilted at a peculiar angle. Its face was composed of a stark white horse skull, the empty eye sockets stared out in opposite directions. Despite the being’s lack of eyes, its gaze still felt oppressive.
“What the hell?” Rae stepped back, breaking her own rule, and crashing against the rotting drywall. It stuck to her, keeping her trapped in place. A few more gemstones tumbled from her pockets, plinking against the ground one by one as scenes began to flash in front of her eyes — old memories that she had tried to keep pressed deep inside.
“Come here, Raven...”
“I’m just trying to help...”
“You’ll thank me one day...”
Rae opened her eyes just a crack, not realizing just how tightly they had been screwed shut. She could feel her scars prickle with phantom pain, a ghost of everything she had endured as a child.
“W–what is that thing?” Rae asked, closing her eyes again. The wall slowly relinquished its grip, letting her slump to the grime-covered linoleum.
“I don’t appreciate being called a thing, you know,” the creature said, its voice carrying an inky, slimy quality that made her skin crawl. It was unlike anything Rae had ever heard. The creature had an unplaceable accent. It was foreign but didn’t belong to any one country or region.
Mind your manners, Raven,” August said. She looked between her father and the figure from her spot on the ground. Even though the creature wasn’t moving, she could sense it was grinning. The entire scene sent shivers down her spine.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was hurting that abomination’s feelings. I’ll try to be more considerate in the future!” Rae shouted. The creature laughed, and the sound seemingly came from everywhere around her, like a warped echo.
“Frankly, I’m offended,” it said, dissolving back into shifting shadows. They eventually coalesced into the form of a man with dark hair and creamy tan skin. He was wearing a black business suit, hair slicked back with old Hollywood, Marlon Brando flair.
“I can be quite handsome if the situation calls for it.” He dissolved and reformed again, this time into the form of a dark-haired woman with sharp white teeth, lips painted blood red. “Or is this more your speed? I can’t tell. Maybe you should make up your mind.”
Rae’s face turned red as she turned away from the creature. She didn’t like being taunted or toyed with, especially in front of her father’s prying eyes. He didn’t need to know about her preferences. That was her business alone. Despite turning away, she felt the air thicken again as the creature reverted to the shadow-and-skull form.
“N–neat party trick,” she spat, even though she could feel her heart racing in her chest. She was born and raised in the world of magic, and yet she’d never seen nor heard of anything like this.
I like her, even if she called me an abomination,” the creature said, turning slightly to August. “She’ll do nicely.”
Rae swallowed the lump in her throat, and her lips curled into a snarl. She opened her mouth to shoot back another smart reply, but the words wouldn’t come out. She’ll do nicely?
So, what are you? Some kind of ghoul or wayward spirit? A genie dad found at the bottom of a bottle?” Her words were weak, a childish stammer as the creature leaned forward. The air around it seemed heavier, and she struggled to breathe. It almost felt like the smoke sublimating from it was choking her from the inside out.
Part of her knew that she should know. She studied to become a magus of Anima, the school of spirits and shadows and things that go bump in the night, and here she was face to face with said something going bump in the night and yet she was at a loss.
“My name is Belfnir,” the creature said, “and I’m a demon.”
“Not a very good one if I haven’t heard of you,” Rae said. She looked away from Belfnir, attempting to focus on her breathing to keep from choking on the demonic smoke. As she spoke, she could feel the smoke getting thicker. Her father tutted her and took another step closer as she tried to back away.
There was no way that she’d find any of her gem stores amidst the heaps of bottles and trash in the kitchen. Instead, she dug her left hand into the collar of her shirt and fished out a pendant. The stone was a smooth tablet of natural amethyst, hung on a long silver chain.
“Te expello!” Rae shouted as she grasped the stone in her hand. Even with her eyes screwed shut again, she could still see the light from the spell sear through her eyelids.
Three days’ worth of mana stored in that stone, all gone in a flash and a bang. Rae cracked one eye open as she waited for the ringing in her ears to cease. Most of the garbage had been scattered, violently thrown away from the epicenter of her spell. August and Belfnir remained where they had been, stuck in the same poses from before the spell. Her father shifted his gaze from the demon to his daughter, expression flat and unchanged.
“You’re a bigger idiot than your mother if you think that a banishing spell would work on a demon,” August scoffed as he looked down at his daughter, “I would have taught you better than that.”
“Would have. But, you didn’t teach me anything.” Rae said. If you had, maybe the spell would have worked. She slowly began to try to rise to her feet, but her legs were shaky—too much emotion, too much demonic energy, too much expenditure of mana. Her head was starting to pound, and she was starting to get that nauseated feeling from running out of magical energy.
“You’re right. If I had taught you, you wouldn’t have attempted such a foolish feat,” he said, “look at you. Spent and it’s barely even suppertime.”
“Now now, August,” Belfnir said, stepping forward on its backwards legs, “be nice to the girl. You’ve left out the most important part.”
Rae could feel the sinister smile once more, even though the skull didn’t move.
She’ll do nicely…
“Did you invite me here just so that you could sell me to a demon?” Rae shouted.
“No one’s selling anyone today,” August said. He then pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket and put one into his mouth. “There’s no exchange of goods or services here.”
“Thanks,” Rae said as she pulled herself up to her feet, “I’m being gifted to a demon? Happy birthday to me.”
“Stop being melodramatic,” August said, “your birthday isn’t for another month.”
“How touching,” Rae snapped, “you remembered.”
Now that she was standing, albeit shakily, Rae finally made eye contact with her father. Her spell might not have worked on the demon, but it did something to him.
She could see that he wasn’t wholly a person anymore. His eyes were white and clouded, his skin was sallow and sagging. He looked more like a walking corpse than a living man, parts of his tissue wearing away. He even walked like a corpse, stiff as if he were locked by rigor mortis. Is this what would happen to her? Rae turned on her heels and tried to run, but Belfnir blocked her path.
“Sorry little Sage,” Belfnir said, “but you’re not getting out of this that easily. Or at all.”
The demon’s body pulled and twisted until the skull was in her face, and she could feel its hot and rotten breath on her skin. Why was this happening to her? She thought she had escaped all of this, but she was stupid enough to come crawling back. A grimoire wasn’t worth this.
“See, your pop’s time is running out, after that your soul belongs to me,” Belfnir reached a long, shadowy finger out and poked Rae in the center of the forehead.
“I never consented to this!” Rae shouted, and both her father and the demon laughed.
“Demons don’t barter in consent, Raven. You’ve been promised to him since before you were born,” August said. Belfnir just laughed.
“I love firstborns. Their souls are so pure, full of unadulterated mana,” Belfnir’s hand pulled away, but Rae was left with a pounding headache.
“Don’t look so glum, chum. You’re a powerful magus. Being pals with me would only make you stronger.”
“Don’t flatter me,” she spat, even though she knew he was right. She did have several generations’ worth of magic in her veins, and who knows what kind of magic she could achieve with a demon’s backing… but she’d end up like her father. Sad, cruel, and falling apart from the inside out. Damned. He said it himself. He was dying.
“Flattery will get you everywhere. If you inflate someone’s ego enough, they’ll do anything for you,” Belfnir said.
“No. No! I’m not doing anything for you. You won’t have me!” Rae shouted, before stepping back from the two again. This time, neither tried to stop her.
“The stupid girl will learn soon enough,” August said as Rae ran off through the door, “as if generations before her hadn’t attempted the same feat.” The floor creaked and moaned and groaned behind her, and Belfnir’s laugh echoed behind her as she escaped.
Rae’s body felt ten times lighter once she made it past the threshold of the front door. No longer weighed down with demonic smoke, with memories and pain of the past, she could breathe a little easier. Still, nothing was sitting right now that she knew that her soul had been promised to a demon.
he slammed her car door as she slid inside, cranking the heat and the music while she tried to contemplate everything that had happened. Had her mother known about Belfnir? She had married August, if only for a short amount of time. Rae had been around him longer and had no clue — hadn’t even an inkling that the creature had been lurking in the shadows during her childhood. Choosing to believe that her mother had been ignorant was the easy choice, the one that absolved her parent of guilt, but she had no way of knowing if it was the truth.
Rae rested her head against her steering wheel for a moment. Why this? Why her? There must be a way to change her fate—to escape this dark cloud hanging over her. She gripped the wheel so hard that her hands shook, her head clouding over with thought upon thought.
She assumed that generations before her have tried to break free from Belfnir’s bond and failed, but, this couldn’t be the end. Rae sat up and pulled her hands off the wheel, taking a deep breath to try to center herself. This was it. Do or die. She owed it to herself to fight, to overcome what her father had only dreamed of, to escape the Hellfire that loomed in the distance.
“This can’t be real,” Rae mumbled to herself as she twiddled with one of the rings in her ear. She swiped at her nose, careful to avoid the stud in her left nostril, and put her head in her hands.
She wasn’t fated to become her father, another horrible blight to society, a cancer to everyone around her. That had always been her worst fear, turning into him, and now it was closer than ever. Maybe there was a way she could change it, to shatter the contract and change her fate.
Maybe she could be more than what they wanted her to be.
Knock, knock, knock.
Rae lifted her head from her desk. She must have fallen asleep while reading again.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Rae? Still in there?” Her mother’s voice called from outside of the door. Rae peeled her face off the desk and shook her head a few times. Definitely fell asleep in the study again.
“Yeah, Mom,” she said as she got to her feet. There were still a few books on the desk, but most had fallen to the floor. She must have been dead asleep if she hadn’t noticed them crash to the ground.
“There are some muffins in the kitchen,” Mom said, “I could throw a pot of coffee on if you’d like?”
“Please,” she said, head starting to pound. There was already a massive crick forming in her neck from falling asleep on the stacks. She leaned down to start to pick up the books and heard the slow creak of the door opening behind her. Her mother stepped into the room, her silver bracelets clinking together as she moved.
“Are you okay, Rae?” she asked, walking over to her daughter. Alvena wrapped her arms around the girl’s shoulders and pressed a small kiss to the top of her head. Her gray-streaked black hair fell in Rae’s face, which tickled her nose. She held back a sneeze and shrugged her mother off her.
“I’m fine,” Rae said as she placed the books back on the desk, all volumes she got from the local library’s basement. Things that she thought would help her get out of being some demon’s puppet.
Demonology, A Complex Guide to Banishing, The Encyclopedia of Souls… Alvena could see the titles, and immediately she shook her head.
You’re researching some dark stuff, Rae,” she said, “I’m worried.”
“Yeah, well,” Rae put the books down and sat back down in the desk chair, “it’s not exactly by choice. How else am I supposed to break this?”
Alvena opened her mouth, then closed it once more. Instead of speaking, she placed a hand on Rae’s shoulder and sighed. Alvena’s warm tan skin was a stark contrast to her daughter’s cool-toned beige, one of the few traits she had gotten from her father.
Nice girls don’t steal magic. Nice girls don’t consort with crime bosses. If Eilanya wants to fly again, she can’t be nice anymore. #PitProm
Sixteen-year-old coffee heiress Eilanya Landon wants her magic back.
But her sister Calette—illusion prodigy, belle of every ball, and dirty lying magic-thief—has the audacity to die without telling Eilanya how she stole it. The only clue is a forbidden manual on magicianry discovered in a wall, leaving Eilanya determined to investigate where it came from, and find out how, exactly, one steals magic. Because if Calette did it, so can she.
Of course, it won’t be hers: her own magic died with Calette. But that’s just a technicality, right?
Off she larks to hunt down her sister’s secrets, when her poking around Cherryport—and her uncanny resemblance to Calette—draws the knife-edged attentions of the city’s grim underworld. To survive amongst flyer-assassins and smuggler-kings, she strikes a deal with a crime boss: masquerade as her sister the dread magician, in exchange for magic.
But playing Calette comes with the realization that the two of them are more similar than Eilanya wants to believe—they both turn deadly fast when something’s in their way. Eilanya has to decide if being able to fly again is really worth ripping away someone else’s magic, just like Calette did to her. And worse, if it’s worth wearing Calette’s face to do it—and even further blurring the line between them.
THE DEATH OF CALETTE LANDON is a 99,000-word dark YA fantasy set in a magical Gilded Age—think THE BEAUTIFUL ONES stumbling into SIX OF CROWS in a shady alley.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Ten Pages:
CHAPTER 1: IF YOU DON’T HAVE SOMETHING NICE TO SAY, DON’T SAY IT AT ALL
Eilanya stood at the church’s lectern and felt exactly nothing at all. The sun coming through the stained-glass windows painted her in shades of bright orange and aquamarine. The black-draped mourners hunched in the pews, like carrion birds waiting for another death.
“My name is Eilanya Landon,” she said.
They all knew that.
“Calette was my older sister.”
They all knew that too. She took a deep breath and went on:
“Besides being an accomplished illusorist, and a dutiful daughter to our dear mother and father, Calette was also my dearest friend. She touched the heart of everyone she knew, with her charm, grace, and warmth. My heart will be forevermore empty without her.”
Someone coughed, as if to say she wasn’t quite convincing enough.
“In one word, Calette was—“
Was that an error, peeking up at her from her hastily-scribbled speech? She almost laughed. She couldn’t have written--
The word tasted faintly of poison, but her mother, in the front row, looked pleased.
“Her virtues were countless,” Eilanya said, but ran out of virtues after only a minute or so. Hopefully nobody would notice that she’d only managed four for Calette: honesty (when it suited her), charm (because it suited her), caring (mostly for herself), and sincerity (with a delicate emphasis on the sin).
She could chatter on for days, if pressed, about how wonderful her sister had been, and none of it would ever come close to the truth. She filled the air with pretty words: joy, affection, prodigious. Hollow sentiments: she was taken too soon, she will find peace in Heaven. Invented anecdotes: she encouraged me to be a better person. It was the worst speech she’d ever given.
Calette would have scoffed through the whole thing. She was probably smirking, in the closed coffin up on the dais, beneath her white wreaths and cascading ribbons. She’d say, You liar, Lanya Landon.
Eilanya couldn’t go on. For Calette’s sake, she had to say something that was actually true.
She crumpled up her speech in a fist.
“And to conclude,” she said, “I would like to tell one story that I believe exemplifies my sister’s spirit. It is a memory that will stay with me until my own dying day.”
This wasn’t part of the approved speech, but her mother was still smiling.
“Last summer,” Eilanya said, “the cat had six kittens. Gray stripey things, mostly. Adorable, all of them, of course. But there was one white one, which my sister and I both wanted.”
Her mother was no longer smiling.
“Due to my sister’s generous spirit—which, erm, I’m sure we all remember so fondly—she allowed me to keep the kitten with little fuss. Now, this was highly unusual. You all may not have known this about Calette, but she was always planning how to get her way. And if she couldn’t have something she wanted, nobody else could have it either.”
Murmurs rose from the back pews. Her mother’s eyes had gone black with an involuntary illusion, and her brothers looked queasy. But nobody was stopping her yet.
“One day, she suggested we give my kitten a bath. We went out into the east garden, where there was a—“
“Stop,” her mother said.
The entire church looked at her sideways.
“You’ve finished,” she said.
Eilanya held her mother’s gaze for just a second. Still beetle-black. Not good. But the deep, willful part of herself that had started the story fully intended to finish it.
“There was a metal tub,” she said, “which we filled with water. My sister said—“
At once her mother rose from the pew, straight and dark in her mourning-gown. “I’m afraid you’ve run out of time, Eilanya.” Her voice was sweet, but her illusion-black eyes glinted with suppressed fury. “Do sit down.”
“I haven’t said what I wanted to say,” Eilanya said, though her voice was beginning to shake.
“You’ve said quite enough.”
“I haven’t finished!”
Her mother had hurled the name from her mouth as though it were something profane. It hung ugly in the air between them. The mourners, behind, froze in fascination.
“Sit down this instant,” Mrs. Landon said, voice tempered and reasonable once more. But when Eilanya didn’t move, she swept up the steps, seized her arm, and wrenched her down the steps. Eilanya tripped on the last one and nearly gasped as her mother jerked her up again.
“Let us all thank Miss Landon for her touching words,” the priest said, eyes flicking only briefly toward the front pew.
Voices rose in some invocation Eilanya didn’t hear. Her mother pried the balled-up speech from her hand and held it over the candle at the end of the pew. The paper caught fire and shriveled into nothing.
As they filed out through the solid darkwood doors of the church, Eilanya was all too aware of a buzzing in her ears. It filled her hearing, deafening, furious, like a swarm of huge flies. Someone said something to her, solemnly, and she could only nod in reply.
Eyes darted her way. Gloved hands lifted to mouths to hide whispers. Black lace parasols unfurled against the relentless Capprean sunshine.
The tide of mourners surged toward the open grave and left Eilanya behind.
She stood sweltering in the shade of the church, blinking back hot tears from her eyes. Not grief—rage.
Calette dead, and she was magicless still. She’d watched herself closely for two days and still there was nothing. The only thing she could feel flowing through herself was her own blood, in lethargic pulses at her temples and wrists.
There was something else at her wrist now too—her mother’s nails, digging in so sharply they might have pierced through her cuff and drawn blood.
The fans had come out amongst the mourners now, fluttering in front of faces, hiding the curious glances toward the delayed pair back by the doors.
So quietly Eilanya barely heard it, Mrs. Landon said, “Eilanya, are you feeling all right?”
Her mouth tasted like acid. She nodded.
“Then join the rest of us, please,” her mother said. “Or you may wait in the car.”
The coffin waited on the opposite side of the grave, shining, expectant. At any moment Calette could bound out of it, declare herself alive, and dig her sharp nails into Eilanya’s other hand. The world gave a sickening twist at the thought. It took some effort, but she managed to whisper, “I’ll wait in the car.”
Finally her mother released her hand. Without even a glance back, she took up her skirts and picked her way back across the grass, toward the waiting crowd. Eilanya shut herself in the car parked furthest from the cemetery, cranked the window down, and fanned her rising nausea away.
It was a full hour before the gathering scattered toward the cars, having sent Calette safely underground with prayers and chants and well-wishes. To Eilanya’s great relief, it was her brother Hartham who slid in next to her, followed by their brother Ailiam. Their parents had gone with the youngest, Rosbaigh; their sister Ennabel was back at home, still in the grip of a vidrosa delirium.
As the car lurched away into the sticky afternoon, Hartham leaned over to Eilanya. “Why’d you have to talk about the kitten?”
The rumble of the engine nearly masked his words, but they were crammed too close together for her to pretend she hadn’t heard him. She pretended anyway, turning her head pointedly to the jungle rolling past outside.
He elbowed her, quite hard. “Lanya, why do you have to keep bringing up that kitten? Couldn’t you have shut up about it for one day?”
He didn’t really want an answer; he was just trying to make her feel bad. But even though he was only a year younger than her, she never could take him seriously.
“Mamma’s going to be furious with you this evening,” he said, when Eilanya had ignored him long enough. “See if she isn’t.”
“I never said what actually happened,” she said. “Nobody can be angry with me.”
“That’s worse! Now they won’t know what to think. She could have beheaded it, she could have vivisected it, she could have gotten the foreman’s daughter to tie it into a tree so it would mewl and starve and you could only save it by flying up and untying—“
He yelped as Eilanya slammed an elbow into his side.
“You shouldn’t say such things about your own sister, Hart!”
Hartham shifted away from her. “You’re one to talk!”
She merely glared at him, and he turned the other way, toward Ailiam, who was staring out his window and hadn’t seemed to notice anything. Eilanya tried to stop the little tremors running through her body by sitting perfectly still. The coffee fields flashed past on the long drive up to the house.
Refreshments were an affair of hushed discomfort. Mrs. Landon circled the parlor, rearranging scores of overflowing vases and popping into conversations wherever they lagged. Eilanya, newly the oldest, had the dubious honor of fending off Riony Hallex, who seemed to have been assigned to pry about the kitten story. She prodded and poked at Eilanya, obviously thinking, being three years older and already engaged, that she was entitled to every bit of gossip.
“But why’d your mother stop you?” Riony said, for the fifth time. “It sounds like a wonderfully touching story. I do so love kittens.”
“I was taking too long,” Eilanya said, for the third time. “There was another service right after and we had to finish up.”
The doorbell clanged. She glanced toward the foyer but saw nobody.
“I don’t think it would have taken too long for you to finish it,” Riony said. “Have you still got the kitten? You have, haven’t you?”
Eilanya shook her head. “We gave them all away in the end. There were too many.”
Luckily, then, the Hallex matriarch materialized to pull Riony away. Riony said, “Oh, and Lanya, come over ours soon? Patricia’s just started flying and could use some help.”
The thought of having to watch somebody else fly put such a strong taste of jealousy in Eilanya’s mouth that she had difficulty replying politely, but she managed something bland as Riony whirled off.
Hartham sidled up to her. “That was the quickest I’ve ever seen anyone get rid of Riony Hallex,” he said. “Good work.”
“She’s implacable,” Eilanya said, fanning herself. “Hasn’t anyone answered the door?” The hush was curious. She followed Hartham’s gaze and found the entire party staring at the man in the archway.
Threads dangled from the cuffs of his shirt, in almost as much disarray as his hair, which looked as though he had tried to slick it forward rather than back. It drooped over purple-ringed eyes, nearly brushing his sharp, ruddy nose. His suit had gone out of fashion before Eilanya was born.
The girl at his side was as neat as her father was not, with her black hair done up perfectly, if a bit severely for her age, and skin the color of spoiled milk. Her eyebrows hovered high on her forehead, giving her an air of perpetual surprise. She was wearing yellow organdy and looked like a canary in a room full of vultures.
Mrs. Landon broke the tense tableau with a cheerful, “Ah, Parriam!” and drew them both into the room. Parriam Fasth kissed her on both cheeks and shouldered his way toward the coffee. His daughter Amajane spent a long, apologetic time with Mrs. Landon. Finally, little by little, everyone else in the room settled back into their previous conversations.
Eilanya and Hartham talked in circles around their mutual dislike of their uncle Parriam until Amajane sat down in the shell-pink armchair across from them.
“I am so sorry about your sister,” she said. Her gaze traveled to Eilanya’s hands and lingered. “Can I borrow your fan?”
Rude, Eilanya thought, but handed it over. Amajane fluttered it through the air faster than was polite.
“I must also give our apologies for missing the services,” she said. “We got the notice only yesterday as we’re staying in the city all summer and we did try to manage it but it’s such a long way and the train runs at such strange hours and I would have just come as soon as I heard and stayed the night with you but my father didn’t want me flying so far.”
“You weren’t much missed,” Hartham said. Eilanya gave him a disapproving look, but Amajane merely smiled, as though he’d said something polite.
“I’m still in shock,” she said. “I saw her not two weeks ago, at the end of school. She was perfectly—healthy.”
“Yes,” Hartham said, examining his fingernails.
“I’m sorry,” Amajane said. “I know how hard it is to lose a sibling, especially one you look up to. She was—so inspiring. She helped me more than she will ever know. It’s still difficult, of course, but at least she got me started and now things are better than they were.” She was staring at the parlor ceiling as though she’d never seen it before. Escaped wisps of hair fluttered with the movement of the fan.
“What are you talking about?” Eilanya said. “She helped you? With your schoolwork, do you mean?”
Amajane’s piercing laugh turned half the heads in the room, but she didn’t seem to notice. “No, not that,” she said. “It’s nothing. Nothing.”
“How’s your father?” Hartham said.
Parriam Fasth was hunched alone by the window, sipping his coffee with the determination of the chronically hungover.
“He’s fine,” Amajane said, as though asked about a distant cousin she hadn’t spoken to in years. “How’s yours?”
Hartham raised his eyebrows in imitation of hers. “He’s never been better.”
“Really? Where is he? I don’t see him.”
“Behind you talking to Little Lord Hallex,” Eilanya said.
Amajane craned her neck to determine that Mr. Landon was indeed crouched and speaking attentively to a small boy. She settled back into the armchair. “Well, isn’t he sad?”
“Excuse me?” Eilanya said.
“I should hope so,” Hartham said.
Amajane laughed again. “I only meant that he looks normal, that he doesn’t seem despondent or weepy. It’s refreshing. So often at funerals people can’t contain themselves.”
“You’ve been to more than we have, I suppose,” Hartham said.
Eilanya had a headache. It could have been caused by the mingled odors of so many different flowers, but more likely by the color of Amajane’s dress. She held out her hand. “My fan, please.”
“But I’m so sweaty—“
After a tense moment it settled back into her fingers, warm and slippery from Amajane’s grip. She laid it on the side table where Amajane couldn’t reach it. “If you’re going to be rude, Jane, you have no business being here.”
“I’m so very sorry,” Amajane said, horrified. “I didn’t mean—I just remember that at my mother’s funeral, everyone was so dour and unkind. It’s nice that people seem to be more cheerful here.”
“Yes, well, there’s a difference,” Eilanya said. “Calette died of vidrosa. Your mother shot herself.”
In a stroke of terrible luck, she spoke during a lull in the noise of the room. The silence stretched itself out; heads turned. She stayed sitting straight up with her chin held high, trying to pretend someone else had said it. Somewhere in the crowd, Riony Hallex murmured, “Oh no.”
Footsteps crunched over broken china; gasps rippled through the room. Parriam Fasth lurched across the floor toward her. A black coffee stain spread across his trouser leg. Skirts twitched away from him as he passed, but nobody moved to intervene—and he was on course to barrel straight into Eilanya. She half-rose, about to duck behind the sofa, or else about to open her mouth and protest that it hadn’t been her who’d said it, or she hadn’t meant anything by it, but he was still coming straight for her and she couldn’t move--
And then her father was there between them, holding up a hand. “Parriam,” he said, “why don’t we—”
Parriam struck him.
The party descended into chaos. Somehow three people roused themselves into action and wrestled Parriam out of the room, while somebody’s infant began to scream. Circles of guests tightened again to dissect the incident in loud whispers.
“I had no idea Joysa had—”
“But why would anyone say such a thing—”
“He’s a danger to society!”
“No manners, that girl, none—”
Eilanya sank back down onto the sofa, heart hammering. Hartham put a hand on her arm; she shrugged it off.
Amajane had not moved from her chair. Her face was even paler than normal.
“I’m sorry,” Eilanya said. “I thought you knew.”
“You’re a liar,” Amajane said, “and now you’ve upset my father. We came all the way up here to pay our respects to your sister, but if you’re going to spread horrible rumors, I think we’ll have to take our leave.”
Welcome to the final round of pitches!
Agents and Publishers,