by Debra Spiegel
140 Character Pitch:
Secretly dancing underground saving cursed lords. Easy. Stopping her father's deadly competitors from finding out. Much harder. #PitProm #ya
Dear wonderful Agents and Publishers,
Every night, seventeen-year-old Eliane and her sisters sneak away from their controlling father and disappear to an underground enchanted kingdom of boiling waters and jeweled trees. Only they can awaken the six cursed lords who were damned there, frozen as silver statues and locked in pain. Six sisters, six lords — the perfect balance.
With a seventh lord about to be banished underground, that balance is threatened, leaving one doomed to be frozen forever. Eliane vows to find a way to help the lords — including her oldest friend, Cadian, who holds her heart even when he infuriates her.
But her plan could be thwarted by her father, the relentless ruler of Aponia. Determined to learn the source of his daughters’ tattered dresses and shoes each morning, he offers a challenge: Anyone who can solve the mystery will be heir to his throne. But if they fail to uncover the truth, they’ll be executed.
When an orphaned merchant and a young girl enter the competition, the merchant’s growing relationship with Eliane’s sister, and the girl’s mysterious knowledge of the curse, threaten their secret. If their father discovers the truth, the passageway connecting the worlds will close. Eliane must find a way to end the curse before she loses Cadian forever.
A STORM BENEATH THE STAIRS, complete at 80,000 words, is a young adult fantasy retelling inspired by the Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Mysterious Palace. Told in three alternating points of view, its mysterious, romantic tone and thrilling competition will appeal to fans of Reneé Ahdieh and Stephanie Garber.
I was a contributing author to the Encyclopedia of North American Sport and am a member of SCBWI. This novel is the culmination of twelve years of teaching students who regularly reminded me of the power and humor in the teenage voice.
Thank you so much for reading.
First Ten Pages:
The third night was always the hardest. When all that stood between life and death was the haze of sleep.
Eliane searched the room. The beds sat untouched, the doors and windows sealed shut. There was no sign Prince Demir was following them, or that he was even conscious.
Her stomach turned. Tomorrow he’ll be dead.
The sky below cried out in a thunderous roar. Streaks of lightning pierced the darkness, illuminating the staircase. Her sisters’ voices were distant now. Lost to the underground forest.
Eliane shivered, unable to calm her racing heart. She pulled her torch closer and rushed down the stairs, into the black abyss. Each step brought her closer to her five older sisters and the forest.
And closer to the lords.
Before she could relish the tingling anticipation, another rumble shook the sky, and she ran even faster. Her sisters had already disappeared between the trees. The sapphire leaves twinkled, deepening to rich crimson as she passed. She didn’t slow down until she was clipping Batia’s heels.
“It’s going to rain,” Eliane murmured, lifting the hem of her scarlet dress to avoid the gold dust billowing from her sister’s footsteps.
“What did you say?” Batia pivoted back precisely as Eliane ran into her.
Eliane rubbed her shoulder. “I think it’s going to rain.”
Batia looked up into the abyss of darkness.
Eliane followed her gaze. There should be stars. But of course, there weren’t.
Batia took a step closer to her sister. The crimson and sapphire leaves around them crashed into a brilliant amethyst, the gold branches arching over them.
“It’s not going to rain.” Batia’s voice was gentle as she reached for Eliane’s arm. But she paused, her gaze drawn again to the sky, eyes squinting as her lips moved ever so slightly. Counting. “No. It can’t be time yet.”
Another clap of thunder and both girls jumped, the silk of their dresses swishing around them. A flash of lightning made their torches obsolete.
Eliane patted the silk skirt of her gown, tucking a wisp of chestnut curls behind her ear.
Batia’s dark eyes locked on her sister’s fingers. “Why are you so nervous tonight?”
“I’m not nervous.”
“Really? You’re jumpy. You’re talking about rain.” She leaned into Eliane and whispered, “And you just tucked your hair behind your ear.”
Eliane sighed, her shoulders falling. “What if he followed us?”
Batia’s eyes swept over the empty path behind them. The gold dust glittered on the ground in the dim torch light, surrounded by trees with gnarled branches and sparkling leaves. The forest seemed to go on forever in either direction.
Batia gave a confident nod. “I think we’re safe. If Prince Demir followed us, we would have noticed by now. You’ve got to stop worrying so much. You’re going to turn those curls silver.”
The girls exchanged a meaningful smile. For while their eyes were mirror images, brown pools punctuated with flecks of bronze, only Batia’s hair and lashes had turned silver. Eliane couldn’t remember a time when her sister’s hair wasn’t the color of a Tendar coin, because it happened just after she was born, when their mother was sent away. Once a sign of heartbreak, and then a source of shame, it had become as much a part of Batia’s identity as her name.
Eliane stood up a little taller, but Batia still towered over her. She drew her shoulders back regardless, trying to breathe in confidence. “We should be going then. We’ve fallen behind. And the lords are waiting.”
Batia squeezed her arm before she turned.
Their four older sisters were already approaching the dock. Six boats bobbed in the swirling silver pond before them, each covered in glimmering gemstones. Emeralds. Sapphires. Rubies. And stones so rare, even their father would have stopped to admire the boats, mouth agape. Tanzanite. Alexandrite. Musgravite. They had learned their names from each boat’s captain.
The young lords.
They were scattered across the pier. Silver statues with amber eyes.
Two lords stood frozen, gazes locked on the forest. Three more crouched beside the boats, staring over the silver liquid bubbling and steaming before them. The furthest statue was bent mid-stance, eyes gazing up, mouth opened slightly, as if stuck in the middle of a conversation. Forever waiting for the response. Cadian.
Eliane quickened her steps, weaving past her sisters. Their hands rested on silver shoulders or hands or cheeks. Gusts of air escaping their lips, breathing life into the statues.
Amber eyes blinked, mouths twisting into smiles. One by one, the lords awakened. They shifted and stood or bowed slightly.
She left Batia at the sapphire-encrusted boat with a nod.
“Have fun,” Batia said from behind her.
Five more steps, and Eliane finally reached Lord Cadian. Her stomach flipped, as it always did, when she looked into his eyes. But there was no trace of recognition, only an empty stare. She frowned, the sting of their argument from the night before still fresh in her mind.
She stared at him for a moment, and then rested her trembling hand lightly on his shoulder. The cold silver chilled her fingers.
She took in a deep breath, exhaling it out in a gust. For a moment, nothing happened. She tensed as the wind picked up. And then Cadian blinked once, turning to the wood post. He wound the rope with the ease of an action that had become habit. When he finished the knot, his eyes flicked up.
A slow, amused smile spread across his lips. Her cheeks warmed under his gaze.
“You didn’t need to run.” Cadian’s eyes narrowed as he reached out his hand to her. “I would have waited. All night if necessary.”
Eliane took his hand as he guided her into the small wooden boat adorned in rubies. His hand had the ability to offer comfort, and set each small hair of her neck on end. It was the only hand she had ever held, and yet the cool touch of the silver skin was one she could never get accustomed to.
She sat across from him and stretched out her legs, her hands resting on the bench. “Oh, so you’re talking to me again?”
“Well, tonight it doesn’t seem like you’re in the mood to go on about handsome competitors coming to rescue you from me.”
The blush traveled across her shoulders and up her long neck before settling into her cheekbones. She turned to look over the water.
Ahead of them, five boats were moving across the silver lake, billows of white steam spiraling into the air. The ships’ gemstones sparkled in the light from each sister’s torch. Eliane inhaled the damp air tinged with the smell of rain.
“What’s wrong?” Cadian dipped the oar into the water. A ripple of silver liquid formed in their wake. Heat radiated from the water sloshing against the wood and rubies. “Why are you so quiet?”
The sky thundered, and Eliane stiffened. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Ha. You proved my point. You are still mad at me.”
“If I recall, you were the one who ended our last conversation in a terrible mood.”
He glanced down at the oars in his hands, the thick wood hardly moving as he propelled them across the lake. “If this is really about our last conversation, then I’m sorry.” His eyes rose to meet hers, but Eliane couldn’t hold his gaze. She perched on the edge of the bench and looked back to the shore. “Eliane?”
“What?” she murmured, eyes still fixed on the dock.
“Are you going to tell me what’s troubling you?”
She let out a long sigh. “I’m just worried he followed us.”
“Again?” He groaned. “How many times are we going to have this conversation?”
Eliane bristled. “This competitor was different. He seemed smarter.”
“And what made him seem smarter?”
“I don’t know. He had books.” As soon as she said it out loud, she realized how silly she sounded. There were many things Eliane aspired to be. Silly was never one of them. “That came out wrong.” She sat up straighter in her seat, her fingers tracing the delicate details of her skirt. When she looked back up, she met his eyes with the conviction of a woman trained to rule.
Cadian watched her for a moment before his lips broke into a smile, his silver skin glistening. “Your sisters know what they’re doing,” he assured her. “That poor soul is sleeping the night away, probably drooling on his pillow in a bliss of dreams.”
Eliane shifted in her seat. “It’s his third night.”
His eyes clouded over. “I know.”
Silence filled the air between them. For a moment, they were lost in their own thoughts, the realities of their worlds pressing in on them from every direction.
The silver liquid splashed over the side of the boat and sizzled beside Eliane.
“Hey, watch it,” she protested, just as Cadian was on the brink of saying, “Sorry.”
His eyes glinted, and he thrust the oars towards Eliane’s hands. “Well, since you’re so full of concerns tonight, why don’t you row?”
Her laugh pierced the still air and echoed across the pond. She felt her sisters’ eyes on her, and when she leaned out to scan the boats, there they sat. Necks craned, trying to catch a glimpse of what she and Cadian were up to this time.
When she turned back to Cadian, a smile played on his silver lips.
“Fine.” She placed the torch into the groove between the bench and the side of the boat and snatched the wooden paddles from him. “Some lord you are.” Her strokes were quick and strong. A wisp of hair fell into her eyes, and she blew it away with a single puff of air.
He tried to keep the smirk off his lips, but they curled up at the edges. His eyes twinkled as he stared across the boat at her. “Some lady you are.”
The castle rose out of the silver liquid as if it was a mirage of steam. Smooth white walls reaching into the air, interspersed with silver towers and gold turrets that gave the impression of a walled fortress. But its strength was an illusion, like everything else.
Tall candles greeted them, burning in their sconces at the gate, as the boats passed by to enter the castle. The air was filled with a distant melody. Eliane’s nose crinkled at the familiar, foul scent of the smoky wax.
Cadian took the oars back as they moved through the gates.
“What? Are you worried about what your brothers will say?” she teased.
“No more than you’re worried about what your sisters will say,” he shot back, winking. At this, they both laughed. Because her sisters would have something to say.
They were always quick to reprimand Eliane. How loud she laughed. How she spoke. How bold she was. She wasn’t sure if she embarrassed her sisters or if they just didn’t understand her. They blamed her youth. Her impetuous soul. In quiet whispers, they spoke of her mother.
Everyone except Batia that was. And it was only because Batia was even more headstrong and passionate. And she shared the same mother.
The young lords and ladies before them had already exited their boats, and were walking across the smooth white stones that led to the ballroom. Columns lined the hall, whose only function was to hold the torches lighting their way. Above, the darkness served as the ceiling.
Eliane watched the parade of gowns disappear down the hall, the murmur of voices and clicking of heels drowned out by the rustling silk.
A bolt of lightning crackled, splitting the night sky, and Eliane jumped up. “Did you see that?” she asked Cadian.
“Of course.” He tried to hide the worry in his voice, but his silver brow creased, his eyes finding the sky. He stepped off the boat, and reached out his hand to help Eliane.
She didn’t need his help, but she accepted it anyway. Just as she accepted each step of this nightly ritual. “It’s going to rain,” she insisted as she passed him on the dock.
Cadian bent down to tie up the boat. He pursed his lips together into a tight line. “No.” He shook whatever idea was plaguing his thoughts from his head and stood, placing his hand on her back. “We should go inside.”
The walk to the ballroom was silent, but Cadian’s shoes echoed with each step. The tone felt ominous. A warning. Only the swish of Eliane’s dress masked the sound. As if her very presence softened the danger. Which it did, of course. Just as it did every night.
Only tonight she wasn’t sure it would help.
Lightning streaked above the ballroom, and the candles flickered in air that should have been still. The melody floated in from nowhere and everywhere at once. What usually seemed magical, now felt eerie, putting her on edge.
The steps are too perfect, Eliane thought, watching the couples dancing.
And they were. Each movement was effortless for the pairs gliding across the floor, feet barely touching the white stones before they were onto the next step. Every twirl was perfectly balanced. Each dip just low enough, but never too far. The pivots and turns, every angle and curve, all perfectly following the rising notes hanging in the air before they crashed around them. Only to begin again. Quick. Insistent. With no beginning or end.
“Shall we dance?” Cadian murmured next to Eliane. His breath nipped at her ear.
She blinked, aware she’d been staring. She nodded and quickly found her hand resting in his cool silver grasp. A chill traveled up her arm. She covered her shudder with a smile as his other hand found the familiar groove of her waist.
Eliane’s wrist had barely rested on his shoulder when she stepped back, precisely as he stepped forward. He would have guided her to the side and then forward, if he had been leading. But their movements were too synchronized for anyone to lead. Their bodies bled into one. Each step and turn in perfect unison.
How many nights have we danced like this? Too many. She’d lost count. She used to try to keep track when she was younger.
At fourteen, it had been thrilling to join her sisters. To see the extravagance. The handsome young lords. The magic.
She counted each evening she disappeared into a paradise where the only expectation was for her to dance. And laugh. In a world, where none of the daily concerns from the Empire of Aponia mattered. When even her most uptight sisters were happy, and the open ceiling and walls reminded her she was free here.
But tonight, the streaks of lightning made each heart-pounding worry glaringly obvious.
Another low rumble shook the night sky, growing with each second until it crescendoed with the distant horns and strings playing in the air. A crack of lightning illuminated the entire room, the stone revealing specs of crystal shimmering on the floor and in the surrounding columns. For a moment, Eliane thought she found the missing stars. Rather than forming a canopy in the sky above, they surrounded her, bathing everyone in a soft glow.
“Is the night still troubling you?” Cadian led her to the table on the side of the room, and handed her a gold goblet full of wine. “Or is it my dancing? Too intimidating?”
She should have laughed, but Eliane just stared into his wide amber eyes. Their warmth was magnificent, but that fire faded a little more each night. Eliane shivered, fearing the moment when nothing but dulled metal would stare back at her. Leaving only a trophy of a young man. Beautiful. Tall. Proud. Just as intended.
“It’s just the storm. I guess it’s got me a bit rattled.” She put the goblet to her lips. The wine was too sweet. She put it down on the table beside her.
“Ah yes, I know the feeling.” His mouth opened again, but he stopped.
Eliane saw what he couldn’t say, for the last storm banished him underground, reuniting him with his cursed brothers. His loss felt like an empty weight settling in her heart. “It has to be time. Look at the sky. It’s going to rain any moment. And if your younger brother is turning fourteen —”
“Then we’ll figure it out.” He reached out and squeezed her hand. “It hasn’t rained yet, so there’s no sense in dwelling on it.” He pulled her closer to him.
But she couldn’t shake the sense of dread accompanying each thunderous clap. “There’s nothing to figure out. There’s six of us and six of you. If your brother is banished down here . . . if he’s fourteen and the curse is enacted . . .” She couldn’t say it.
He swallowed, his eyes finding hers. “Then one of us will truly be damned, with no one to wake us.” His voice was too quiet.
He wouldn’t say the rest. That someone would spend the rest of his life trapped in agonizing pain, as little more than a beautiful statue.
“What can we do?” she whispered.
“What we’ve always done. Live in each moment.” His eyes searched hers. “Be together. When it happens, there will be choices to make. But for now . . .”
She forced a brave smile. “For now, we dance.”
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