Deleted Scene: Laith describes a mage’s view of pregnancy

This little scene is mainly interesting for a mage’s perspective on the magical theory of pregnancy in the Lethemian world. It turns out that neither this particular pregnancy, nor the magical facts about it presented here, remain valid. It was a wrong turning in magical theory and in story that I eventually had to cut.

The mage Laith Amar is the narrator for this scene:

As I descended into aethertrance, I swept my magestone over my hand on Lujayn’s abdomen. And there it was: a pinprick of mauve light in the center of Lujayn’s vibrant crimson plexus. A female spark, no more than a few days old. I bent to look closer. Damnation. The little fleck of life was barely attached in the network of Lujayn’s aetherlight, hanging by a single thread. I’d never seen an embryo so close to being unmoored. I’d heard many theories about why some pregnancies worked better than others—the mage I’d trained with at the Conservatoire said the ones that were not securely woven into the mother were unwanted by her. I didn’t believe that—I’d seen enough of the unwanted fetuses of whores—they often asked me to remove them—to know that whether a child was wanted has little to do with whether it was fixed well in the Aethers.

My own theory was that it had to do with the characteristics of the aetherlight of the parents. Most Conservatoire-trained mages paid no attention to the subtleties of aetherlight colors, how they melded or did not. Most mages did not have clear enough aethersight to see such nuances. When I examined a pregnant woman, I could easily see that the color of the child’s aetherlight was connected those of the parents, to varying degrees. But sometimes the parental aetherlights did not want to blend, and when that happened, the resultant embryo looked like this little one inside Lujayn Arania.

Experience told me not to bother with a repair—the little speck would never hold. But since it was my own brother’s child, I had to try. I pulled threads from my own aetherlight to stitch the little mauve speck into the crimson network more securely. Flashing the requisite sigils, I did the best I could, but even so, I worried.

As I came up out of the trance, I met Lujayn’s wide eyes. “Did you see?” she asked. “Will I have a baby?” her voice still held that cool and rather insouciant tone.

“Yes,” I said. “I saw the light within you. I made a working to fix it better. But Lujayn—” she glowered at me as if she didn’t like my casual use of her first name—“you must be very careful. I have done what I could, but the aetherlight was very fragile. I’d recommend bedrest for the next sidereal, at least.”

“Bedrest!” she cried, clearly annoyed. “But Jaasir and I are headed to Lysandra in three days!”

Deleted Scene: Palace and Pillar Description

Last week’s deleted scene was very long, this one is just a couple of paragraphs. Fun fact: the material described here for the Black Star Pillar is based on a two different minerals  I saw at the American Museum of Natural History: stibnite and a meteorite.

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This scene is actually from Book 4, Mage & Source, and so I will refrain from telling who the narrator is. Suffice it to say, the narrator was greatly affected by the Fall of Magic in Lethemia, and is examining the Palace’s crystal pillars hoping for a sign of magic’s return:

I tackled the easiest of my questions about the pillars’ aetherlight first, heading out of the Palace into the rarely-used walled ornamental gardens that separated the Galatien grounds from the public street. Each pillar served as a point in the hexagon-shaped grounds as well as a point in the Palace’s six-pronged star.

From the gardens, I could examine the outer surface of the Moonstone Pillar, the same surface anyone could see from the street. I dashed past yew hedges and silver lamb’s ears interspersed with dead tulips—before the Fall, magical spellwork had kept white tulips ever in bloom in this garden, but no longer.

The Moonstone Pillar soared upwards, sheer and imposing. At their bases, the pillars were probably more than fifty spans in girth, though they all narrowed as they rose. The white stone was cool to my touch. I stared into it deeply, but I gleaned no sign of the aetherlight that had glowed within its walls so clearly inside the garden. I frowned and hastily traversed the boxwood maze to have a look at the Black Star Pillar. Throughout all this, I had yet to examine it closely.

Of all the pillars, the Black Star was the strangest—every mage had always agreed on that fact. While the other pillars resembled the gemstones after which they were called, the Black Star Pillar was composed of a substance unlike any other. The closest comparison was found in star-rocks, bits of material not of this earth but fallen from the heavens, and thus had the pillar received its name. But even star-rocks were not really like the material that comprised the Black Star Pillar. It was fully opaque, and yet blacker in it’s inside layers than it’s silvery outside layers.

Jagged silver lines made a crackled pattern all over the pillar’s outer surface, but I saw no illumination of the telltale lights within. Had the Black Star Pillar not been ignited by binding-magixe? Or like the lights captured in the Moonstone Pillar, were they occluded from this angle?

I sighed turned away from the Pillar. So many questions, so few answers. I was a blind man tripping through unfamiliar terrain.

Seven Questions: Mark A. King

I am very happy to welcome Mark A. King to my blog for a round of seven questions, featuring his debut novel Metropolitan Dreams. Mark is one of the founders of FlashDogs, a global community of talented flash fiction writers. His flash fiction stories have been published in a number of anthologies and magazines. Mark was born and raised in London, works in Cambridge, and lives in Norfolk, England.

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1-Pitch your book in three sentences or less.

M.A.K.: In the aftermath of a violent crime we follow the connected stories of an injured nightclub bouncer, an ageing crime-lord, a conflicted police hacker, a traumatised Tube-driver and a vulnerable twelve-year-old girl as they fight for survival, purpose and redemption in the fractured city of London. Along the journey we discover lost rivers, abandoned underground stations, mysterious forces and angels (perhaps).

2-Is your book indie-published or traditionally published? Tell us a little about that journey.

M.A.K.: Indie published. Having monitored the progress (and success) of many FlashDogs on their various publishing adventures, it became clear to me that traditional publishing can be a long, hard and often frustrating experience. Self publishing offers choice, power, flexibility and responsiveness in terms of being able to get the book in front of readers. Some misguided voices that say self publishing has lesser quality, but a fair number of the finest books I have read over the last few years have come from indie authors and traditional publishing is no guarantee that you will like a book anyway, as everyone has their own reading preferences. Indeed, the indie path can often offer a wider variety of material to the reader. Neither is better, it’s just that indie suited me at this time.
The kind and talented host of this blog helped me almost every step of the way, from story transformation through to last minute logo creation. Should you be able to find someone as marvellous, I highly recommend you seek their magic as a priority early in the process.

3-What are your favorite genres/books to read, and do you think this affects your writing? How?

M.A.K.: I enjoy speculative fiction, which covers genres as diverse as science fiction, horror, fantasy, magical realism and new weird. I find myself always looking firstly to ground my stories in the lives of my characters and the journey they on on, but I’m fascinated by the worlds that science, faith and spirituality hint at, which are just beyond our current understanding. So I always try to find an undercurrent of otherworldlyness in my stories (not a real word, but it probably should be).

4-What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

M.A.K.: I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something like ‘Write the way you want to write. Try not to be someone else as there is only one you.’
I’m starting to learn that it’s important to tell the stories I want to tell in the way that I want to tell them. It might sound obvious, but it’s not, well not for me anyway, I’m fairly conformist in my real life, my writing in many ways is an outlet for something more creative.
However, I realise that this approach is likely to mean that I have less success in terms of potential sales.
It would almost certainly be easier to create a firm genre fiction, following the paths of proven formulas, but that wouldn’t seem like success to me. I’ve waited all my life to write a novel. Success, I think, is creating something different and unique, being true to the stories in my imagination and in my heart, and all I can hope for is that readers will appreciate something slightly different and connect with it in some way.

5-How do you fit your writing into a busy life?

M.A.K.: It is incredibly hard. Like many writers, I have a full time job. I have a reasonable amount of responsibility in my job and when I come home there are numerous demands on my time and energy. I juggle a number of social media accounts (my personal one, my writer one/s and the FlashDogs one)–I wouldn’t make a good spy, as this is too many identities for me already. I tend to squeeze stolen minutes and hours between other tasks, or use my work breaks wisely. My favourite writing experience was when I had to drop my daughter at a horse riding experience which was in in a neighbouring county. Too far away to come back home, so I looked at the map and realised that Rendlesham Forest was nearby, so I took my laptop and wrote some of Metropolitan Dreams from the middle of the forest where UFO sightings have been reported (the UK’s very own Roswell incident, only with more witnesses and recorded evidence from military personnel).
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It was a magical place to write from, it wasn’t just the history, but being outside surrounded by the energy of the forest was inspiring in itself. So, while finding time is sometimes hard, it does also lead to wonderful opportunities.

6-How and when did you first know you were a writer?

M.A.K.: I find it odd to think of myself as a writer and I have a cheeky small-boy grin when someone suggests that I might be one. For most of us, writing is unlikely to pay the bills, so for me, it is only ever a secondary role to; being a father, husband, good employee/manager, community contributor etc.

7-What’s your secret superpower?

M.A.K.: What is it now? Or what would I like it to be? If now, then people say that I am generally very calm under pressure. But if I had to choose a real superpower, it would be teleportation. I’d click my fingers and return to the warm sands of Shark Bay on Heron Island which sits atop the Great Barrier Reef. I’d click my fingers again to visit family or friends I don’t see often enough. Click to visit the many friends I have not yet met in different parts of the world.

Many thanks to Mark for answering seven questions!

You can learn more about Mark and his writing at his blog: https://makingfiction.com/
Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Making_Fiction
Get Metropolitan Dreams: https://goo.gl/EsXA3I

Deleted Scene: Leila and Miki after the shipwreck

I missed Deleted Scene Monday last week because I didn’t have enough time to sort through my material and find an appropriate snippet. Here’s a piece cut from a very old version of The Gantean.

This scene takes place after the shipwreck that separated Leila from her daughter, Tianiq, and the other Ganteans. In this older version, Leila, Miki, and Tiriq ended up on an island instead of being picked up from the wreckage by a following ship. They think the island is where a group of refugee Ganteans have settled, a place called “new Gante,” but it turns out it is inhabited by Lethemians.

I cut this material for several reasons– one, to cut words; two, because it only added world-building, not story; and three, because it ultimately distracted from the plot and slowed down the narrative.

Leila is the narrator:

Barely able to pull our bodies out of the umiaq, Miki and I stumbled ashore. We found an inlet with a thin strand of sand, hiding between outcrops of black rocks. I had tucked Tiriq under my sealskin cloak for the journey, and spirits be thanked, he had slept, lulled by the steady rocking from the sea and the rowing. As we came ashore, he began to whimper.

“Soon,” I told him under my breath, as I helped Miki drag the craft ashore. “We’ll get back to her soon.”

It was too dark to find our way much farther onto New Gante. Miki and I collapsed at the farthest edge of sand, curling close like sled dogs in winter. It was not especially cold, but the storm had left us with a deep chill, from trauma and temperature alike.

Tiriq rooted around at my breast. I drew the throat of my shift down, to give him access. He ate furiously, as if he too had rowed leagues yesterday.

Lush trees provided a backdrop to the beach. The waters before me were still and tranquil, with no trace of the fury of yesterday. The shore could only be the northern face of the island; as I faced the sea, the glow of sunrise emerged from the horizon off to my left.

Miki sat up, and brushed a coating of sand from his face. He rummaged in his pack and drew out two skins of water, and a couple lengths of jerk-dried meat.

“Which way should we walk?” I asked, peering into the dense greenery that lay behind us.

Miki groaned. “It would be better to go round the island in the boat. Surely, if we follow the shore, we will come upon people. We won’t have to leave the boat behind.”

Of course. My mind was disheveled from the events yesterday. All I could think about was Tianiq’s helpless form sinking beneath the waves, the horror and the helplessness of that moment. For Miki’s sake, I pushed it back, and agreed to keep paddling.

Though our muscles screamed their agony, we made time on the calm waters. The island was unvarying in its lush vegetation. Where there were inlets, small patches of beige sand collected, but never the long, wide deposits I had seen at Murana or Orioneport. The island appeared deserted. Many times Miki and I exchanged wondering looks as the panorama of greenery continued. The sheer volume of life springing forth staggered me. How did the New Ganteans know what to do with it all?

Dark freckles sprouted on Miki’s face from the sun. My own skin felt tight and dry, and I kept my cloak loosely draped over Tiriq’s head to give him some small amount of shade. After two days of following the coast, our supplies began to run low. We decided to stop and stay ashore for a day, and see if we could find fresh water and food.

We skirted the edges of the jungle at first, searching for an outlet of water running down into the ocean. On an island as green as this, Miki and I both knew we would find fresh water. It was not long until we were rewarded with a small trickle, cutting down through porous black rocks to a ledge that overhung the sea. We followed the path of the stream upwards, until it grew fast and plentiful. Miki knelt, sipping at the water to taste it, then refilling our two skins. We sat down together on rough black rocks, and sipped water from cupped hands.

Privately, I nursed a doubt that the island we had found was New Gante, but I debated confessing my fears to Miki. He was adamant that he had set the heading right, but the further we progressed, the heavier my doubts grew. Merkuur had told me New Gante was so tiny you could walk around the entirety of it in one afternoon. Yet Miki and I had traveled nearly two full days by boat, and we hadn’t yet rounded the northeastern tip of this island.

“Miki, do you think…” He grabbed my arm with fingers like strangler vines.

“Shhhh!” He pointed to an overhang of rocks and tree branches weirdly melded together above our little creek. Some of the more slender branches had begun to move, slithering down the face of the rocks like rivulets of thick water. Miki drew an ulio from his sack. His crouched with each muscle taut but still, only his eyes following the creature’s passage down towards the water. The snake slid gracefully into the waters, flowing towards us.

We tried to remove ourselves from its path. I had never seen a living serpent, but I had a visceral loathing for it. Miki seemed to know better how to treat it, and I could feel his fear and caution coming over me in waves. The snake made its way up the bank, straight towards us. It bent its black body into an s-shaped curve, retracted its head, and opened its mouth wide. Two fangs dripped with sticky white fluid. Miki pressed into me, his body cueing mine to creep backwards away from the snake. The snake sat frozen with its gaping mouth, and did not follow us. Once we were a good ten spans away, we bolted back down our trampled path through the foliage, racing towards the open visibility of the beach.

“Do you know what kind of serpent that was?” I asked Miki as we collapsed onto the sand next to our umi.

“Not exactly. But my master said the islands in the Parting Sea were full of snakes. He said they lived in the trees, and they could jump down onto you and bite you in the face. The venom’s deadly.”

I shuddered, imagining if the snake had chosen to strike. I hugged Tiriq and let him pull at the stretched out neck of my tunic to get to my milk. Tiriq had been eating nearly double since Tianiq was gone, as if trying to make up for her absence.

“Maybe the New Ganteans were chased out by snakes,” I said.

Miki pulled our last biscuit from his waist pouch. The biscuits were some invention of the Hutre: hard, twice baked breads that lasted forever. He broke it in half and handed me my share.

“I don’t think this is the isle of New Gante,” he said. “It’s just too big.”

I nodded my agreement. “But what is it?’

“It must be one of the Amarantinas. They’re the only islands of any size in the Parting Sea. The storm blew us off course.”

“What about the others?” I said, sitting upright. Tianiq. “If the course we set was the same as they, do you think they would have made it here?” I often forgot Miki had only twelve winters.

“Leila, the only reason we made it here was because we changed our course,” Miki said. “You went into Yaqi and flew, and found an island for us.”

“Merkuur would have done the same,” I said quickly. He too had a bird for a tormaq. “Pamiuq and Atanurat were with him.” I didn’t even know who Atanurat’s tormaq was, for he had lost his tormaquine.

Miki nodded. “I guess all we can do is keep going. If this is one of the Amarantinas, we’ll have to find some sort of community.”

“How so?”

“The Amarantinas. They’re where people like Cerio’s mother go to learn how to serve the gods.”

“They do?” I didn’t remember anyone ever mentioning that.

“Yes.” Miki rolled his eyes. “Cerio said his mother was gone for almost six sidereals. And when she came back, he had to pretend he wasn’t her son, cuz they don’t allow the servants of the gods to make young.”

I stood up, and tightened the lacings that held Tiriq against me. “So now we’re looking for priests and priestesses? We may as well keep going. We can try to find food on the waters.”

We made too much disturbance traveling through the water, and my line caught nothing. Suddenly, the coastline shifted as the sun dropped. Something about it seemed…inhabited. There were no boats moored at the water’s edge, nor any buildings. Maybe it was the clean line of foliage that approached the beach, different from the overgrown masses of green we had grown used to seeing.

“Let’s stop here,” I told Miki, sitting in front of me. The modest waves did little to help bring us into shore, so we paddled until Miki could hop out and drag us in the rest of the way.

Miki scanned the forest around us in the fading light. Tiriq began to fuss and whimper.

“What’s that?” Miki pointed up into the verdant hillside. I looked up, and saw the distinct shape of a roof, strangely familiar, with upturned eves, a line of red glowing against the green leaves.

“It’s a building.”

Miki began to trudge up the beach, and I followed. We found a narrow path cut up through the forest, strewn with rounded black pebbles so that the plants would not take root upon it. Steps led up the hill paved with flat, smooth stones. We followed the staircase up at least forty spans, and the path took a sharp left, widening into an open garden with islands of moss and stone.

Miki froze. The path turned to black sand, and the sand was raked into neat designs. It seemed wrong to marr them.

“Who’s there? Iduma, is that you?” A voice floated through the gate of hewn cedar that walled in the garden. The voice spoke in Balethemian, and spoke it well, with an accent that would have put the speaker in good standing in the High Court.

Miki and I just looked at each other.

“Iduma, the Prioress says we aren’t allowed to go out into the gardens after they have been swept. Honestly, don’t you…” The cedar gate swung open, and a girl stood before us, draped in pink linens of varying tones. Her honey-colored hair was pulled back from her round face and braided down her back. She froze for a moment, long lashes fluttering round her wide brown eyes.

“Oh!” she finally said, as her eyes flicked down at the curving patterns in the sand. “No one’s allowed in the garden after it’s been swept.” She stayed frozen on her side of the sand, and we on ours.

“We came up from the beach,” I told her. “Our ship was wrecked in the Parting Sea. We’ve been paddling for three days looking for people.” At this point, Tiriq began to squall.

The girl’s eyes grew yet larger. “Oh, Lord Amasis!” she said. “I’d better go and get the Prioress.” With that, she turned and fled, leaving Miki and I marooned on the far side of the black sand.

Miki gave me a look. He mostly loathed the Lethemians, and I knew he was happier alone in the wilderness than in their company, even taking viperous snakes into account. He was thinking we would do better to run back down to the boat and flee before the girl came back.

I shook my head at him. “I can’t, Miki. Not with Tiriq. And we have to find out if the others might have come by here, or if there are other islands where they might have landed.”

I had to believe we would find Tianiq and Atanurat and Merkuur. The alternative did not bear imagining.

Goals: February 2017

January was long and cold, which is generally good weather for accomplishing writing goals. I progressed pretty well, despite feeling a bit mentally distracted by political issues and discontent.

My goals for January were:

  1. FINISH ToB&L Book 5 revision–CHECK. Book 5 is now stewing nicely.
  2. REVISE River Running with Tamara based on beta reader feedback.-CHECK. We just finished the revision this past weekend.
  3. START musical magic co-write: No CHECK for this tentative goal, as Tamara and I couldn’t make our schedules jive for this until next month. Instead I began a revision on ToB&L 6 and got about 2/3rds of the way through.
  4. Other. I guess my ToB&L 6 revision counts as my other this month.

My goals for February are:

  1. FINISH ToB&L Book 6 revision.
  2. REVISE Mage & Source based on new reader feedback.
  3. START musical magic co-write.
  4. READ through newly revised River Running and send to beta readers.

 

 

 

Deleted Scene/Lethemia side story: The Writings of Lord Ronin Entila

One of the sometimes-frustrating things about creating a multi-book fantasy world is how much extra world you build that never actually ends up in any book at all. This excerpt is one of those situations. Lord Ronin Entila made a brief appearance in Tales of Blood & Light Book 2, The Cedna, in a flashback explaining how the Cedna herself came into existence. Lord Ronin Entila was her sayantaq father, an explorer/conqueror from the southern lands. At some point in my writings, Lord Ronin wanted to have his perspective known, and so I gave him the opportunity to narrate a travel journal–though it was always pretty obvious to me I wouldn’t use it in any book, and after edits, events in The Cedna ended up contradicting his tales, as in his journal he spends a long time with the Ganteans, while in the book, just a single fateful night. So here are the opening entries of the impossible journal…

A Travelogue, by Ronin Entila

Those who know me well know I am not much of a writer. I am a man of action rather than words, but it seems if I am to explore these cold lands, I must record my impressions, for I have so many thoughts I cannot hold them all tightly in my head. I came north with the blessing of His Highness, King Tryphon I Galatien, in this fine year the 804th of the nation of Lethemia, domain of the Holy Amassis. I came to discern what prospects these lands held for us, if they had any merits for trade or cultivation, and to finally bring the Ganteans under the shroud of our holy country. Too long have the residents of the northern isles been practicing unholy ways. I shall write more of these ways later. But we have long known they practice some strange magic up here.

A family of our own kind, of an evening, might gather together, and the father might read to his brood from the Book of Amassis, or of our history, or even, were he liberal, from one of the great poems. But the Ganteans do not gather to talk at night, or if they do, they do so out of my presence. What I feel from them all is this tightness, this secrecy, this wall of silence. I know we call them barbarians, but that is because of how rough and dirty their life appears, isn’t it? They have no plumbing, no steel, no bitumen, no engines. They live up here in this blasted cold. But it seems to me they have a deep and complex society, full of all kinds of rules and niceties I can barely discern. There are times I feel the fool.

The role of the woman they call Cedna is unclear to me: a queen, a soothsayer, a goddess? All three? To be sure, she holds their magic more than any other, and is often inebriated with their foul plant broths. So, I think, she is a shamaness, a soothsayer, more than anything.

But then I see how she lives, with those around her giving her deference and space, much as we would do with the Queen. She is cared for more than any other, and in a place where life is cold and hard, she is given more: her food is prepared and brought to her by others, her fires made in her stone house before she arrives. These are not a deferent people: each and every one does their own work, and such work it is to keep them busy just to keep themselves alive. (I cannot help but admire the stout and hardy dispositions of the Ganteans. They do not complain.) And so when Cedna sits idle when all those around her scurry about with the exhausting business of her survival, I think of a queen, more than anything (no disrespect meant, of course, to our Majesty Halcyone, whose wisdom precludes any notion that she does not deserve her leisure!)

But there is something more in the way her people treat her, something I have never seen before except in our temples of worship in Lethemia. A heady combination of fear and awe—as if Cedna was to her people as the dread god Amatos is to us. Holy, yes, but terrible, too. A goddess then, in the minds of her followers.

The woman herself is something to remark upon. Her hair is such a glimmering auburn I could best only compare it to a flame, but such cliché would cheapen the reality. She is youthful and yet old beyond her years, she speaks little and watches everything. ‘Twas this young thing who greeted me when I made land, and offered me warmer welcome than I had come to expect. I suspect the other tribal leaders put up with me only because of her apparent liking, but I find it strange she has no lord of her own. No one stops her when she takes me into her stone house at night (and I do not stop myself, though Amassis knows I should! What can I say? Her flesh burns even warmer than her hair, and I have never been one to turn away a willing woman!) Even so I can see the tribal leaders do not like that we share a bed, but they are too in awe of her to put a halt to it.

Every third sennight they perform a ceremony of some kind, and Cedna is away the whole night through. She returns in a drunken state and pale as snow, looking weak, almost bloodless. I cannot explain the strangeness of these nights. There is a flavor to the woman’s kisses that fills me with dread, and yet I hunger for it even more than the touch of her flesh. A bitter, strong flavor, I believe it is the plant drug they imbibe to worship their gods, or whatever it is they do. I know I ought not taste the plant, but I cannot help myself, and following her kisses I spend a sleepless night, wandering in dreams I cannot be having. I can barely recall the elusive madness the next morning, but I know I see her, Cedna, in those dreams. She carries a flame in her bare hand, and holds it against me, so warm in all this ice. Ah, but her tears! So many tears. A thousand tears to wash away the warmth.

Deleted/Reworked Scene: Sterling Prologue

My friend and reader Christine requested a deleted scene from Sterling, Tales of Blood and Light 3, and so this next one is for her. Book Three had fewer purely deleted scenes and many more “reworked” ones, so this scene may have familiar bits, for those of you who have read Sterling. This was the Prologue I had in the first draft, which was reworked and rewritten and massaged into the shorter and less wordy Prologue I used in the final version.

Sterling, of course, is the narrator, albeit a bit younger than she ended up in the final prologue:

“Every girl has a fairy tale,” my sister Stesichore said. We sat on the sun porch off the fourth floor of our Shankar house, as grand a dwelling as any in Lethemia. “Why, there’s a fairy tale for any situation and any appearance. There’s Cinder and Ashe for a housemaid, and Rose Red for a girl whose mother has died. Clever girls have The Peasant’s Wise Daughter, and beauties can have their pick from Fair Ruslana or Pretty Poppy.”

Stesi’s musing came about because she’d found me out on the deck reading a book of such stories, and she’d asked me if I liked them. I’d told her honestly that they were silly and unrealistic, and she’d begged to differ. Now she had to prove herself, which I knew could be a tedious game. I sighed and put the book aside. Stesi, impossible to ignore, demanded attention. She couldn’t endure being alone; only through the eyes of others could she make sense of the world and herself. I was fourteen; she was twenty-two, but I was the sister with more sense. Not that anyone would ever recognize that.

I acceded to her overtaking my quiet afternoon. “So what would your tale be, Stesi?”

The Princess in the Tower, of course.”

I wrinkled my brow, trying to determine why “of course” tagged this sentence. I couldn’t reason it out. “Why that one? I would have thought Fair Ruslana more to your liking.” Fair Ruslana told the tale of a beautiful, fair-haired princess enchanted into a long sleep, only to be broken by the kiss of her true love, a prince.

Stesi patted at her hair, upswept into a fabulous arrangement that likely took several hours for her handmaiden to create. “Well, first of all, I have beautiful hair. Everyone says so.”

That was true enough. Stesi’s hair was long and heavy, the color of honey. She’d been chagrined when the pale blonde of her youth had changed to the darker hue. She’d begged for a year to be allowed to dye it, but my mother had said that “Only courtesans and loose women alter their appearance with artificial aids.” So Stesi, in typical fashion, had begun to believe that honey-gold hair was far more desirable than the pale locks I had never outgrown.

“And The Princess in the Tower is all about an unattainable woman. That’s me. I have rejected all my suitors thus far, and I shall wait until the best one offers for me.”

“Oh? And who will that be?” I couldn’t help asking, though I knew encouraging Stesi in this way could be foolish.

“Prince Costas, of course. I am going to marry him and become Queen of Lethemia.”

This plan, far-fetched as it sounded, was not beyond the realm of possibility. In fact, my parents were likely angling for the match. But there had been no word yet that Costas Galatien, a full three years younger than Stesi, intended to hold a Marriage Brokering anytime soon.

“So what’s my fairy tale?” I asked, knowing this question would shatter Stesi’s argument to pieces. There were no fairy tales for a girl like me.

The Ugly Duchess,” Stesi said without hesitation. Her selection of that tale for me came as no surprise, but her choice showed how little Stesi knew. The Ugly Duchess told the story of a fair-skinned girl born into a dark-skinned world. She grew up her whole life being called ugly, until her father married her off to a duke from a distant land. When she arrived in her new home, she discovered that there were other fair-skinned people, and the people of the fair-skinned world considered her beautiful beyond compare. Like most fairy tales, the message intended to be uplifting: that beauty could be in the eye of the beholder—but the message was wrong. I should know. I had the kind of ugliness that could not be remedied by a change in perspective. I’d been born with a wine-stain birthmark sprawling across the right side of my face and trailing down my neck. My mark would not be considered lovely anywhere in the world.

I had been an outsider my whole life, looking in at other people’s stories from a distance. Stesi’s story dominated my childhood. Her beauty and her importance as the heir to House Ricknagel eclipsed everything else in Mama and Papa’s eyes.

But that afternoon after Stesi flounced away from the sun porch to do something “more interesting than reading fusty tales,” I began to see that I had a story too, though it bore no resemblance to Stesi’s bejeweled fairy tale.

This was the first circle of my story, the truth on which the world agreed: Sterling Ricknagel was nobody, the ugly, shameful daughter of a great house. Any story is never only one story, one circle. Concentric circles lie beneath; even the tightest story has other tales creeping below, silent loops waiting for only a slight weakening in the first story to break free.

No one would remember me in the history books. The passage of my life would be forgotten, and I couldn’t help but think it would be a mercy if it were. I would make no mark upon the world.

I slammed the book of fairy tales closed.