We have, at long last, reached what I hope will be the rough draft of the first chapter I am keeping. (Please imagine trumpets here, or something. I feel like I deserve trumpets after this many drafts.) After this I may rearrange lines or paragraphs, alter sentences, send it through a workshop, et cetera, but I will not be rewriting it. I’m done with that. Finished! Caput!
Sounds like a firm decision, yeah? You may even be asking yourself, why this one? The fact of the matter is I could probably keep rewriting this single chapter for the rest of my life. There comes a point where making the decision to stick with a draft is not so much a matter of good writing vs. bad writing as it is a matter of courage vs. cowardice—am I doing eternal rewrites because I’m scared? I would like to deny it outright, but I can’t. My first book, Lady of the Veils, met with limited critical success. There have been times when I was worried its follow-up would not be as successful. How many times have you read a review that said, I loved the first book in this series, but the second one is terrible? Not even blockbuster hits are immune to this. I read that about The Hunger Games a week ago. That’s a lot of pressure for a writer.
Now that The Storm Prince has been accepted by Gypsy Shadow, maybe I feel as if that fear has been defused a bit-the second book, even though it is just an expansion of the first book, is already set to hit the presses. Good, bad, right or wrong, it’s out of my control. Maybe that book gives me the courage I needed to finish this one. Whatever it is, I feel confident in this chapter. Now all I need is a title. And, you know, all the other chapters besides the first one.
Even so, I would love to hear some feedback from readers. Since this will be my last first draft, I need to make it as wonderful as possible, so if you have any ideas I would love to hear them.
For your reading pleasure, the final first draft.
Karen MacGregor shifted from foot to foot and rubbed her palms against the scratchy lace of her skirt. The weight of fear bowed her shoulders and made a cold knot in her belly. The people outside the courtyard screamed their epithets for her. The high walls of the palace muffled their words, but not enough. Hate, it turned out, carried.
A heavy hand rested on her shoulder and she looked up. Geordie Harris wore the midnight blue uniform of the Royal Guard. A man the size of a small mountain, Harris’ tattoos swirled across his bald scalp. His expression was ever-tranquil. When they split up this morning, he wore leather both scuffed and grimy. Now, his massive chest and shoulders gleamed with medals and silver cord. A tooled scabbard hung from his belt, the pommel of his ceremonial sword jutting from it. If the hollows of hunger and stress shadowed his cheekbones, they could be overlooked in favor of his splendid clothing.
“You’re screwing up your dress, Mac,” he rumbled. “You want to go out there with sweaty lace?”
Karen looked down at her dress as if she had never seen it before. When she last checked her reflection half an hour ago, she loved her clothes. Her dress was blue satin with a lace overlay. The sleeveless bodice clung, and the skirt flared out to just above her knee. She had paired it with silver, peep-toe flats and tied her hair in a twist that almost tamed her wild curls. She had even put on a little make-up, tinting her lips pink and darkening her eyelashes. When she spoke her words shook. “I’m scared, Geordie.”
“Don’t try to sell me that. You’ve never been scared of anything in your life. There’s no room for fear in a body as little as yours.”
Shaken as she felt, she smiled. “I’m not a Chihuahua.”
Harris shrugged. “Could have fooled me.” She elbowed his side.
The air in the south courtyard smelled of unseasonable magnolia blooms and pine. The grass grew in a luxurious carpet and the hedges that hid the security wall from view were clipped to perfection. A cherry tree drooping with fragrant blossoms shaded a bench of carved stone. Karen stepped off the path and sat, smoothing her skirt under her.
The ogre occupation had not been good for the garden. When Karen had first made her way through after retaking Avalon, it was a tangled jungle of climbing roses and ivy. Irises hid among the overgrown grass, peeking out like feral children. A body with swollen hands floated in the Koi pond. Now, after an army of gnomes with pruning shears had done battle with entropy, it was suitable for a royal ceremony.
From the other side of the wall, a high-pitched voice screamed loud enough to be heard over the angry rumble: “Filthy half-breeds! Our kingdom is defiled!”
Karen flinched. She should be angry instead of afraid, shouldn’t she? She should fight back, because she had made herself into a person who fought back. She had learned to fight, to stand tall and take up her space. So why did she feel so small? Why was she so afraid, not that the racists outside would harm her, but that they were right? What if her humanity really was a spreading, fatal virus and the best thing she could do for everyone involved was to fade from sight and leave them all alone?
Geordie swallowed. For the first time it occurred to her he might be as hurt as she. Though his shoulders could hold a world still if they had to, Harris had grown up the same as she, half-Fey and unwelcome in a land that called their births treason. Maybe the noise of Avalon’s prejudice was loud enough to make even him feel small
“What time is it?” Karen asked.
Geordie glanced at his watch. “A minute later than the last time you asked.”
“Dave is going to be late.”
“Probably,” Geordie agreed. “He usually is.”
A door slammed against a wall, and they both startled as they looked toward the palace. Harried, David Thoreau dashed toward them, still shrugging his uniform jacket on over his white shirt. He had skin the color of light chocolate and curls cut very close to his scalp. His eyes were golden and sharp as an eagle’s, though now his face was more concerned than intense.
“Am I late?” he gasped, accent thick with Texas.
“Not yet,” Geordie said. He slapped Dave’s shoulder hard enough to make the smaller man dance for balance. “Lookin’ good, son.”
Dave regained his composure and granted them a wide, white grin. “Yeah. It hurts to be this fine, but somebody has to do it.”
Karen laughed. “We’re all very grateful for your sacrifice.”
Thoreau raised both eyebrows in her direction. “Damn. You’re almost attractive in that outfit, Mac.”
Karen snorted, then hoisted her middle finger in a gesture with which they were all familiar. “I’ll never look as pretty in a dress as you.”
Thoreau didn’t take the bait. He spoke to Geordie as if she could not hear him: “She even painted her fingernails. It’s like she thinks she’s a girl.”
“She’s a girl who’s going to bust you in the face,” Geordie said.
Thoreau threw his arm around Karen’s shoulders and rubbed his knuckles across the top of her head. Karen squealed and bit him. Dave jerked away, shaking his wounded hand.
“Ow! What’s wrong with you?”
“Don’t mess up my hair,” Karen panted. “Geordie, does it still look okay?”
Laughing and shaking his head, Geordie said, “Imagine you two jokers as knights. Jesus.”
A throat cleared, and the three half-Fey looked up. A page in blue livery bowed from the waist and announced, “The time is come, gentles.”
The three straightened and sobered. Karen stood, brushing imaginary wrinkles from her skirt. They were about to make history. Or they were about to die in a hate crime, which would, come to think of it, also be pretty historic given the circumstances.
They followed the page down a shaded path that curved past a wide lawn. Chairs were arranged on it in rows. Roughly a hundred people stood as Karen and the others appeared. Cameras flashed, light brief and dazzling despite the sunny day. She scanned the crowd and located her family: her brother Julian, his fiancée Dahlia, and her parents sat in the first row. Dad nudged Julian and grinned from behind his auburn beard. Mom tipped her chin up, green eyes shining with…could those be tears? Dahlia waved. Karen smiled back and flapped her hand near her hip, hoping it was too subtle for the reporters to notice.
Four wide, shallow steps led to a clear pond. At the top of these steps stood a group of Sidhe, luminous and graceful, three male and one female. Each was tall and slender. They, too, wore dark blue with silver accents. Jewels glinted from fingers and throats. Intricate braids twisted their long hair, and their faces were serene.
A long line of Royal Guards in the same dark-blue uniforms Dave and Geordie wore flanked the nobles. Physically, each was different from the rest, but their identical proud stances and fierce expressions made it clear they were a unit. Karen looked away from them. She knew what they must be thinking of her. Half-Fey can never be real knights. She wondered if they were right.
High King Beriani Quintinar stood in the center of the top step, dressed in his blue robes of state. The platinum of his crown bound pearl-colored braids and his skin glowed with a faint bioluminescence that was almost invisible by daylight. Tear shaped sapphires dripped from the earlobes of his delicately pointed ears. His lips were full and his eyes were storm-cloud gray. He held a thin sword of silvery metal.
Karen drew a breath and found she couldn’t release it. He was not beautiful. He was as terrifying as an Old Testament angel. Had he looked like that when he kissed her forehead goodbye this morning? He had seemed more…familiar then. He had also been wearing less clothing. Maybe that was the difference.
The king’s voice carried over the distant sound of chanting and the rustling of fabric, clear and bright as a trumpet’s note. “Kneel, Geordie Harris, David Thoreau, and Karen MacGregor.”
For a second, Karen’s knees froze and she found she couldn’t bend them. She had been knighted once before by the late Lord of the Host, and she had not been asked to kneel then. Prince Rhyn had taken control of her body and forced her onto her knees at his feet. Dave tugged her hand and she remembered how to work her legs. She lowered herself to the ground.
“Geordie Harris.” Beri’s voice still held its resonant, clarion quality. Was that tone magic or court training? “You have lent your sword in our attempt to retake our homeland from those who would usurp us. You have valorously risked life and limb in service to the High Throne. Do you swear, here before these assembled nobles, to do so until your mortality takes you?”
Karen swallowed. He had changed the words. If he were knighting a Fey, he would say do you swear to do so always?
“I do so swear,” Geordie said, voice so low Karen could hear it vibrating in the ground under her knees.
She looked sideways at her kneeling friend as the king placed the flat of his blade against first one of Geordie’s shoulders, then the other. Geordie’s eyes squeezed shut, as if he was afraid the sword might slip and he didn’t want to watch it happen. A lump formed in Karen’s throat. She thought of Lillia, the long-faced girl who had loved Geordie and died in his arms. There was nothing Karen wouldn’t give to see Lillia’s face in the crowd beside her own parents. Maybe ghost stories came true in Faerie, and Geordie’s fiancée was somehow there to see this even without her body.
“Arise, Sir Geordie, Knight of the High Court,” the king said.
Karen looked back down. Beside her, the words began again.
“David Thoreau. You have lent your sword in our attempt to retake our homeland from those who would usurp us. You have valorously risked life and limb in service to the High Throne. Do you swear, here before these assembled nobles, to do so until your mortality takes you?”
Dave’s voice was hoarse, as if he, too, had come near tears. “I do so swear.”
“Arise, Sir David, Knight of the High Court.”
In Karen’s peripheral vision, Dave stood. She could see nothing but the hem of his pants and the high gloss on his black shoes.
Suddenly, the edge of the robe was in front of her. Karen’s heart kicked into overtime.
“Hey,” the king whispered. Karen looked up to find him smiling at her. He had a gorgeous smile, full of perfect teeth and affection. “Are you well? You look as if you are about to be ill.”
Karen swallowed. “I’m scared, Beri.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And when did you learn how to be afraid, when you have never known before?”
“I don’t know,” Karen said. Where did these people get the idea she was fearless? “Everything. The people outside. The people up there.” Myself. I’m not ready for this. I’m not a real knight; I’m just a half-human girl with a sword.
Beri’s face was so bright with pride it lifted her and calmed her all at once.
“You are worth an army of them,” he said. “Are you ready? Or are you going to back out like a sissy?” The word ‘sissy’ did not translate well into High Fey, so he used English instead.
“I’m not backing out.” She said it even as she decided. “Just get it over with.”
He raised his voice again, so it carried away from her and out to the surrounding crowd. “Karen MacGregor. You have lent your sword in our attempt to retake our homeland from those who would usurp us. You have valorously risked life and limb in service to the High Throne. Do you swear, here before these assembled nobles, to do so until your mortality takes you?”
Karen swallowed and looked up to meet his eyes. “I do so swear.”
A frightened cry rose behind her like a startled bird and Karen spun, still crouched at Beri’s feet. Julian stood, leaning heavily on his new cane and pointing to a spot on the wall. “Karen!” He shouted “Eleven o’clock!”
Light caught the silver metal hidden among the hedges. A gun’s report thundered off the garden walls. Beri dropped onto the top step. Karen shrieked. The world screamed around her, voices climbing in a confusing cacophony. She threw her body over his as cover and her mind jabbered: too late, too late.
Beri groaned; she oriented on his face. His lips peeled away from his teeth with pain.
“Where are you hurt?” Karen asked.
“Belly,” he gasped.
Karen drew away from him. She couldn’t see the color of his blood against the blue robes, but moisture spread further across his abdomen with every heartbeat. Her dress was wet, too, and clung to her. Beri’s white fingers, speckled with red, knotted in her skirt.
Hard fingers grasped her bicep and yanked her up. Karen resisted even as she realized a wind sprite in a blue uniform held her. His skin shifted color like the rainbows on the surface of an oil slick and his mouth was a hard line.
“Come away, Lady,” he said.
“You are not a medic. You are a knight. Come away.”
The sprite clutched both of Karen’s arms, hard enough to hurt. “The shooter, Lady. Healers aid the wounded. Knights apprehend shooters.”
His words cut through her panic. People ran around them, hid under chairs. Knights attempted to scale the wall with only the hedges for handholds. Karen ripped open the Veils and yanked her sword back through. Before the wonder on the sprite’s face could fade, she opened another way. Hard wind picked up as she did, tugging at her hem and the other knight’s immaculate silver cords.
“I’ll be right back,” Karen said. The Way glittered before her like a piece of star-specked night, and she stepped into the spangled darkness.
She held all her destinations in her mind even as she traveled. The first step through the Veils brought her to a park in California. She stayed just long enough to see honeyed sunlight filtering through a lacework of leaves before she opened another Way back to Avalon. The noise hit her first. The protesters still shouted at the wall and waved their insulting signs, but a few closest to where Karen opened her Way fell back with startled squawks. Karen went up on her toes, straining to see over the sea of heads. There, only a few yards ahead of her, was a person using the butt of his rifle to beat his way through the mass of bodies.
She thought he’ll be gone by the time I get through, and without another moment of hesitation dove into the crowd.
“Excuse me!” Karen cried, voice strangled by the hot press of bodies around her. “Please, this is an emergency!”
She flung out a sharpened elbow, then stomped an instep. Someone cried out with injury, and suddenly she could see a way through the press. She barged into the negative space created by their movement and found herself on the broad marble steps at the front of the palace. Ahead, down the cobbled road, a person with a gun ran from her.
She could chase him, but it was obvious from his long-legged stride she wouldn’t catch him. She was fast in a fight, but being five feet tall had its disadvantages. Instead she tore open another Way and placed herself at the mouth of an alley at the base of the hill. As the wind from her casting died, the gunman sprinted toward her. Karen crouched, and when her prey passed she tensed and leapt. They tumbled over each other, sliding against the sidewalk as people dove for cover. The gun skittered into the street. A civilian shouted alarm.
They landed; Karen had clawed her way on top. The world went red with her fury and she drove her fist into the gunman’s face, then again. His nose crunched under her fist. She realized she had broken her knuckle open on one of his teeth and stopped.
“Who sent you?” she snarled.
“My master wishes me to deliver a message.” He spoke English, his voice breathy and hollow, as if he were standing at the bottom of a very deep hole.
For the first time, Karen calmed enough to get a good look at the shooter’s face. His nose listed sideways, but the only blood smearing his skin came from her hand. He was human, with tawny hair expensively cut, and he wore a Western-style suit with a blue tie. His skin was pasty, almost gray, and his gums were mottled. He smelled of antiseptic.
“Who’s your master?”
“The only master there is. Death.”
Karen sucked in a breath even as her skin rose into hard bumps.
“The Master says you have broken the world by allowing life to a dead thing. Give him back, or we will dismantle this city marble slab by marble slab.”
Allowing life to a dead thing. There was only one person she knew who had ever come back from the dead. Her hands shook. She buried them in the gunman’s shirt, pulling him up to meet her gaze. Something dark rode his breath; his cloudy eyes did not focus on her. She knew he was listening anyway.
“You go back to Hell and tell that arrogant bastard he’s already been paid. Quay died to save Beri. No one owes him anything. Do you hear me? We’re even!”
The gunman nodded his understanding, then his head sagged backward and his eyes rolled up behind his eyelids. Karen released his shirt and the back of his skull thudded against the sidewalk.
“Hey,” Karen said. “Hey, are you all right?”
The gunman didn’t respond. She reached around for his wrist to check his vital signs and found his skin cold and rubbery. There was no pulse. The certainty that she straddled something long-dead flooded her. Appalled, Karen jumped away from him and skittered backward until she bumped into a car parked against the curb.
Only then did she wonder what the talking corpse meant when he said we.