Submissions Needed—just one for next week in the queue. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.
The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.
Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.
What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.
A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.
Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.
Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.
- Story questions
- Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
Karyne sends the first chapter of Magic Despised. The rest of the chapter is after the break.
It always started with a spell. Something simple, like a cup of ale. But her power had its limits. Every time they asked for magic, Julana knew how it would end.
“Be a dear and fetch us some stew,” Luna said.
Julana paused, arms raised to remove her apron. The blue sky teased her from the tiny window. So much for a free afternoon. It wasn't worth refusing them. When she was fourteen they killed her pet goat because she rebelled. It would take longer than three years to get over that lesson. Luna shifted on the wooden settee covered with straw pillows and narrowed her eyes. Did the pillows really aid Luna’s comfort or was her large backside cushion enough?
“Yes, Aunt Luna,” Julana said. She tied her apron back in place and made her way across the main living area to the kitchen. Luna wasn't really her aunt, but in order to keep up the facade the Klups insisted Julana practice at home.
“And Julana…” Alazer’s deep voice stopped her in her tracks. She didn’t turn to face him; she knew what he would say. “Be sure you use magic. There’s no reason for you to make us wait all night.”
Julana’s stomach dropped. “Yes, sir.” It was a test. Why did they always test her limits? They had just as much magic as she did. That never changed. And unlike her, they enjoyed using it.
Were you compelled to turn Karyne's first page?
Were you compelled to turn Karyne's first page?
I do like the writing and the voice, and there is tension in the scene. Yet there’s not much in the way of story questions raised, nor a sense of jeopardy to her or consequences. The next page has a greater sense of that and, considering that in fantasy an author is often granted time to set up the world, it might have done the trick. Here’s the stuff that would be nice to see on the first page:
The stew was easy enough. She drew energy from her blood to summon water from the well. The sight of water soaring through the air made her grimace. If anyone happened to see, they would all be hanged for witchcraft.
There is a clarity issue here, though—I thought the well was outside, and it may be, so I thought this was happening there. But a little later she goes outside, so the water is coming into the kitchen from outside. That isn’t clear, and needs to be. Having it soar through the kitchen window rather than the air is all it would take.
The voice and the world are good, but, since this opening could be stronger, I’m giving it an almost. But read on, there are interesting things to come and clear and serious danger to her ahead—and you’re going to despise the “aunt” and “uncle,” bad guys through and through. Notes:
It always started with a spell. Something simple, like a cup of ale. But her power had its limits. Every time they asked for magic, Julana knew how it would end. But the reader doesn’t, so this doesn’t mean much. This is an opportunity to introduce tension and jeopardy. For example, what it this sentence ended this way: Julana knew how it would end—with her blood. Wouldn’t that crank up the tension a little?
“Be a dear and fetch us some stew,” Luna said.
Julana paused, arms raised to remove her apron. The blue sky teased her from the tiny window. So much for a free afternoon. It wasn't worth refusing them. When she was fourteen they had killed her pet goat because she rebelled. It would take longer than three years to get over that lesson. Luna shifted on the wooden settee covered with straw pillows and narrowed her eyes. Did the pillows really aid Luna’s comfort or was her large backside cushion enough? A few things here. I didn’t feel that her wearing an apron contributed sufficiently to story or character. “It wasn’t worth refusing them” sounds like she’s being inconvenienced, but the following line suggests far more. Instead, how about something to the effect that it was dangerous to refuse them? I cut the description of Luna because I’d rather have a little more setting of the scene. Are they in a one-room hut? Farmhouse?
“Yes, Aunt Luna,” Julana said. She tied her apron back in place and made her way across the main living area to the kitchen. Luna wasn't really her aunt, but in order to keep up the facade the Klups insisted Julana practice at home. Don’t need the apron.
“And Julana…” Alazer’s deep voice stopped her in her tracks. She didn’t turn to face him; she knew what he would say. “Be sure you use magic. There’s no reason for you to make us wait all night.” “stopped her in her tracks” is a cliché, look for a fresh way to show it.
Julana’s stomach dropped. “Yes, sir.” It was a test. Why did they always test her limits? They had just as much magic as she did. That never changed. And unlike her, they enjoyed using it.
For what it’s worth.
Submitting to the Flogometer:
Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):
- your title
- your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
- Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
- And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
- If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
- If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.
Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Karyne
Was it really worth it to the Klups? That same energy brought the water to a boil. The cupboards were well stocked with carrots and potatoes and Julana sighed in relief. Very little magic was needed.
“Where is the meat? We want venison stew,” Alazer said. He pushed away the bowl she served, his mouth twisted in a scowl. “Honestly, you can be so dense.”
“Sorry, Uncle Alazer,” Julana said. Tears pricked her eyes, but not over his reaction. She would have to make an unecessary kill. His beefy hand shot out to grab her wrist and the familiar sense of invasion swept over her. His tracking spell.
“Be back before the sun’s sleep.”
She pulled her cloak around her shoulders and grabbed her bow and quiver. A blast of cold air hit her face, but she found it refreshing. The sun defied the wind and enveloped her in its rays. In a few weeks it woud be warm enough to leave her cloak behind.
A twinge of pain flashed across her foot. Her time was limited by his spell. The Klups had been her guardians for as long as she could remember. More like her prison guards. They used their magic to control her, but they used her magic to get what they really wanted: money, power, revenge. It didn't matter they were only requesting venison stew this time. She'd seen them use her magic for unspeakable things, and she refused to be caught in their web of desire. She would never use magic by choice.
It only took moments to reach the forest's edge. The shade folded around her as she stepped between the trees. She strapped on her armguard and pulled an arrow from her quiver. With a sigh, she nocked the arrow and anchored her hand at her cheek.
She closed her eyes.
The loss of vision encouraged her other senses to take over. Crisp mountain air with fresh pine scent flooded every breath. Birds twittered and trees creaked. Warmth surged through Julana's veins as she called the creature in her mind. She hated that they trusted her. Soft footfalls crunched in the remaining snow. Tears snuck past Julana's lids and crept down her cheeks as she loosed her arrow.
The arrow met its mark. She didn't need to look to know for certain. She couldn't bear to look. Instead, she studied the fresh green foliage poking through the slush as she approached the fallen doe. She dropped to her knees and laid her cheek across its still chest.
"Forgive me," she whispered. "Today should not have been your day. There was no need. May the Stars bless you for your sacrifice."
Julana propped her bow against a tree. Her hands shook. She was reaching the limits of her magic, but she drew the power back to her heart anyway and flooded it out to her muscles. With a slight groan, she lifted the deer in her arms and carried it back to the house. With the last of her magic, she skinned, portioned, and cooked the venison. She wouldn't let the deer's sacrifice go to waste. Conflicted relief flooded through her. Her magic was drained and it would take time for her blood to draw more energy from the sun. They couldn't force her to use her magic at this point. But there were other things they could do.
"That's more like it," Alazer said. He inhaled the gamey steam but didn't bother taking a bite. He set the wooden bowl next to his cup. "I should like some entertainment with my meal."
Luna rose from her chair and made her way to the table. "I should like some new clothes," she muttered.
"Fine, whichever you'd like to do first." He waved his hand as though the generous choice should put Julana at ease.
"I've used all my magic. You know my limits," Julana said.
"Foolish girl," Luna said. "You know those aren't really your limits." Her lip curled.
Julana shuddered. This was where the test always ended.
"Hold out your hand, Julana," Alazer stood, his face passive. She tried to match it, but her eyes darted between her wrist and the knife in his hand. Her own hand was like lead as she lifted it, palm up. "Now your other hand."
She frowned and met his unrelenting gaze. He'd never asked for both before. How much blood would he need? In the past, when they took her starblood and used it to strenghten their own magic, it left her too weak to move. If they took more, would she survive? She clenched her jaw and raised her other arm. To her surprise, he placed the knife in her open hand. Uncertainty settled in her chest.
"What am I…I don't understand," she whispered.
"It's time you learned to do these things on your own," Alazer said. "It's not like we enjoy drawing your blood. It's not kind for you to make us bear the burden every time." The lie only solidified Julana's hesitation. They enjoyed it far too much.
Luna's eyes narrowed. "Our soup will be cold if you don't hurry." Greed leeched from her words.
The knife clacked against the stone floor before Julana realized she'd dropped it. She took a step back and shook her head. Alazer closed the distance between them.
"You do not say 'no' to us, girl." His voice was soft, but the hard glint of his eyes made Julana's stomach clench.
"It can't be right," she whispered. "The Stars would never ask—“
"What would you know about what the Stars would want? When is the last time you communed with one?" Luna's sneer set Julana on edge.
“Just because they don’t meet with us face to face doesn’t mean—“
“It means plenty!” Luna raised an arm and Julana flinched, but instead of being struck, the knife flew back into her hand, nicking her finger. Once they decided to use their magic, her time was short. Blood trickled into her palm and panic set in. Alazer’s grim face brightened at the sight. She wanted to drop the knife again, but instead her bloody hand tightened around the hilt of the knife against her will.
“No!” she said. She clawed at the grip with her free hand, but Alazer already channeled the magic from her blood. Within moments she would go from his puppet to a puddle of blood. “Stars release me. Stars protect me.” She muttered the words over and over. But her grip only tightened and her attempts to remove the knife put her free wrist in perfect striking distance.
The cool metal sliced her skin. Julana gasped as blood flowed down her arm and the pain hit a moment later. Alazer and Luna rushed forward, inhuman desire crossing their faces. Alazer released Julana’s hand from his control and once again the knife clattered to the ground. But it was too late. They caught her blood in their hands and squealed like children catching candy thrown from the sweet shop. Eventually they would come to their senses and collect the blood in a jar. After all, it needed to reenergize in the sun. But then it would be theirs to use, to magnify their own power. To steal, to control, to wound, to kill. Magic was a temptation that led them astray. Her knees buckled and for the hundredth time she hoped the cut was fatal. That she would never be used for their selfish gain again.
Spots danced in her vision and hope flooded her soul. They'd never taken this much blood before. With her eyes closed, the flashes were almost like Stars streaking across the night sky. The way she always envisioned them in her dreams. Something firm pressed against her wrist. “That’s enough, Alazer,” Luna’s muddled words saddened Julana, but she couldn’t remember why.
Julana woke with a kink in her neck and her mouth dry as cotton. She was slumped against the wall of the sitting room. Blood covered her blouse and skirt and she groaned at the sight of more on the floor. Of course they would leave her lying in the mess. Why would they put her in her loft just for her to climb back down to clean up? Especially after she’d lost so much blood. They probably thought they'd been kind. Bandages barely clung to her oozing wrist. It was a wonder the saturated scraps stopped the bleeding.
She sucked a breath in through her teeth as she rose and tested her limbs, her balance, her vision. She was weak, but capable enough to do her job by Alazer’s standards. The Klups were nowhere to be found, but if history was repeating itself, they were passed out on their bed, drunk from their success at whatever deed they deemed worthy of magic. Out of habit she tested the front door. A small shock spread through her already weak body and she held back a cry.
The disappointment that knifed through her was embarrassing. Of course he set a perimeter spell. In the six years since her magic surfaced, Alazer had only forgotten a perimeter spell once. Once. She was fourteen and just as scared of the world as she was of her guardians. Alazer woke with a moan, shouted the name Nessa, and ran out to find Julana sitting on the front step in indecision. It was the only time she’d seen true fear in his eyes. She regretted that hesitation every day of her life. And wondered about that name just as often.
She was surprised it was past the sun’s morn. This was the longest she'd been unconscious after they took her blood. How much did they use? Five shaky steps took her to their room. Two monstrous lumps rose and fell beneath the disheveled covers. She sighed. The rest of the room bore evidence of their celebration. Food and drink for an army rested on the table near the door. Jewelry fit for Cherans and silks spun for nobles spilled from the trunks that lined their walls. There was hardly space to walk around the bed because their thievery had been so complete. Bile rose in her throat at her unwilling role.
It could be hours before they rose. She shut their door and leaned back against it. Their house was surprisingly modest, but that was a front to hide their means of survival. The rest of the living space lay before her in one open room. The kitchen held food and water she desperately needed, but her stomach still hadn’t settled. The ladder to her right led up to her loft. The space was hers, but she only slept in it. The thought of climbing to her bed was exhausting. Instead she turned to the sitting area on her left.
Her feet were heavy as she made her way to the bookshelves. To a visitor they appeared to be cupboards that might hold linens or dishes. Instead they were filled with Vendaran folklore and Thlieven textbooks that her guardians collected. They'd stolen enough goods from the wealthy; there was bound to be a new book. And those were always placed immediately on their shelves for safekeeping. She flung the doors open and gazed at the precious bindings. Books were reserved for the priests and noble. And even the noble mostly collected them to show off their wealth. She ran a hand along the familiar volumes. She would never condone the actions of the Klups, but she loved the books. Familiar guilt crept beneath her skin. They took these books using her magic.
There. A tiny new book rested between Histories of Lentans and Songs for the Stars. She pulled it out and studied the Thlieven words: Maps of the Great Land. She frowned at it for a moment. She’d only heard The Great Land referenced in the History of the Stars, a book that seemed more legend than truth. She opened the book to a center page and let out a gasp.
Color like she’d never seen before bled on the pages. Drawings with exquisite detail filled every corner. And sure enough, there was a single continent pictured. One great land that was shared between all the people. Could it be true? Her mind filled with the image of eager brown eyes and a lopsided grin. Cyrus would be thrilled at this new find. She bit her lip and glanced back at the bedroom door. There was only one way to get it to him. It would take a fair amount of luck and a lot of work, but she regularly depended on both.
By the second half of the sun’s rise she'd cleaned the blood, bandaged her wound, and prepared food. She quenched her own thirst and hunger, but made sure there was plenty left for the Klups. The weariness faded with the added nourishment, and a walk in the sun would finish her recovery. She swung her cloak around the fresh blouse and skirt she’d donned and tucked the book of maps in the inside pocket. She held her breath and pushed open the bedroom door.
"Uncle?” she whispered. She prayed to the Stars that he would only wake enough to grant her request.
“Uncle Alazer?” she tried again a little louder.
A grunt from the bed made her wince. “What?”
“I wish to receive the priest’s blessing at the Stargazer.”
“I would seek atonement for the blood magic.”
He sat up and squinted at her. “If you speak of our magic to the priest you know what he’ll do. And you know what I’ll do.” Of course she knew. They told her on a daily basis they would kill her if she revealed their magic, unless they thought the magistrates would make it more agonizing by deeming it witchcraft.
“Yes, Uncle. I would speak of it only to the Stars.”
“The Stars aren’t even out to gaze upon right now,” he muttered. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his fat fingers. “Very well.” He waved his hand at her and she felt a slight lift in her heels as he extended her leash enough for her to gain entrance at the house of worship. Relief flooded through her veins and she rushed out the door before he could change his mind. It was a small freedom he afforded her on a regular basis. She would never understand why such a wish was granted. And she would never dare question it.
The walk to the Stargazer was a few miles. Julana didn’t mind, even in her weakened state. The longer she was in the sun, the more her health improved. There was another one in town that was closer, but Alazer preferred her to stay out of sight as much as possible. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so afraid of the public if he didn’t leave signs of their mutilation. She gave a rueful glance at her bandage. It would have been better to heal it with magic, but as usual, she couldn’t bear to use magic if she wasn’t forced to.
She couldn’t keep the smile off her face when she crested the last hill before Galden Valley’s Stargazer. Much of the valley was covered in snow, but the perimeter of the Stargazer was kept meticulously clear by the priest-in-training. The building was made of simple stones. Several small rooms were enclosed and held the rooms of the current priests and their few servants. The largest room of all was the Stargazer itself, and its roof was left wide open to give worshippers a constant view of the heavens. A man in a priest’s robe worked outside, pushing snow off the path to the front door. A shock of red hair peeked out from beneath his hood. Cyrus.
Julana broke into a run and let the slope into the valley carry her the rest of the way. The events of the prior evening still haunted her, but every step closer to the Stargazer, and Cyrus, lightened her load. Her cloak flapped behind her and the hood fell, letting her long hair spill out. She gripped the book in her hand, and remembered to pull the sleeve of her blouse over her bandaged wrist just before colliding into Cyrus’ open arms.
“The earth comes to life and teases me with fresh dirt and green sprigs.” He brushed her brown locks before stepping back to look into her eyes. It was his standard greeting ever since he decided the growth of the valley’s foliage was a reflection of the depth of her eyes. As her green eyes fluctuated, so did the trees. At first it made them laugh, but over the last month it had carried a sentimentality that made Julana uneasy. Even though they'd spent the last two years growing up together, he was still a priest-in-training. He was like a brother.
"Fire drew me in so I must quench my thirst." She tugged his hair back before taking the customary drink of water at the gate. Everyone that came to worship the stars drank the water blessed by the Chosen priests. The rare ones that actually communed with the Stars. Or so they said.
"It's good to see you, Jules," Cyrus said.
Julana smiled. “I have something for you." His amber eyes lit up and an infectious grin split his freckled face.
“You come bearing gifts? For me? What about the Stars?” he said with mock rebuke.
She punched him in the shoulder with her good hand and relinquished the book. “You can only look at it for the day.” His face was already slack from shock as he thumbed through the colorful drawings. She eased passed him and headed to the atrium of the Stargazer. Entering the place of worship was not something she took lightly. Her wound burned and itched with her guilt as she stepped over the threshold.
It was said the Stargazers on the lands of the noble had glass roofs, to keep out the elements. But Julana couldn’t help wondering if that hindered the nobles' worship. How could they see through a pile of snow? Or sense the Stars' presence? Fresh air kissed her lips and soft sounds of the valley’s creatures met her ears. These were the things that would please the Stars. Their creations.
The sun neared its peak, which meant there were no Stars out to worship. But Julana still knelt to pray. She uttered words of confession and shame. A green stem grew from the dirt floor by her knees and Julana held her breath. Had it been there when she entered? It was too early for much growth, but within the Stargazer's atrium, anything could happen. She bit her lip and glanced around. With her in the Stargazer, anything could happen. She closed her eyes in frustration and resumed her prayers.
She was twelve when she first made a flower grow. She'd thought it was such a fun coincidence that she wished for a daisy and then found one growing by her foot. Luna's eyes took on a greedy glint when she asked for Julana to wish for another. And another. They told her she had magic, and the magic resided in her starblood.
Now, Julana peeked between her lashes and saw yellow petals unfolding. She squeezed her eyes shut. It was all supposed to be legend. She'd read of the Vendaran creatures that were half-human, half-stars in their books, but everyone else spoke of them as folklore. Everything had changed that day. It was the only day the Klups willingly answered her questions about magic.
"The sun energizes your blood and your blood's energy supplies whatever you will it to," Alazer had said. It was limited, but they watched her as if one day it wouldn't be. As if one day she would unlock the key to controlling it.
That was also the first day they took her blood.
"Just a smidge to enhance our own magic," Luna assured her. Suddenly the consistent high yield from their crops, and the unending supply of money made sense. All those years they'd been using magic to meet their needs. Julana had squirmed under the weight of the discovery. The deception. She cried as they bottled her blood, but she'd been too overwhelmed to resist. The next morning she discovered they used the power to seek revenge on a merchant they claimed cheated them. Most of his belongings filled their room and his oldest child was dead.
The horror of it washed over her anew in the atrium and fears of the dark spirits left her cold. In the last year she'd read more of the histories and texts thanks to Cyrus' work at teaching her Thlieven. The blood magic invited the presence of dark spirits, and Julana feared it was too late for her to make amends with the Stars for the use of her blood.
Without warning, the image of Cyrus’ lifeless body floating just out of reach danced across her vision. She paused in her prayers, eyes open wide. The recurring nightmare plagued her. For over a week she'd had the same dream. But why would she think of it now? It meant nothing.
The daisy was in full bloom at her elbow. She continued to pray, her lips moving even faster.
The sun was well past its peak before she rose again. Her cheeks were stiff with tear stains and her heart felt lighter with the forgiveness she sought. Cyrus would never disturb her worship, but he would be desperate to discuss his findings. She rushed back out to the grounds.
“Where in Rystahn did you get this?” he asked, his voice filled with awe.
“Where else?” she muttered. Cyrus knew her guardians had questionable means of income, but he also knew better than to ask for details. And as long as he was in the dark about her magic, he was safe. “What have you learned?” She turned the question back to him to avoid discussing her guardians. He could go on for hours about Vendaran history and the legends all priests valued. Although she’d never met one quite as obsessed as Cyrus.
“These maps…” he shook his head. “They’re just…”
She laughed. “Find your tongue, Cyrus.”
“They show the Great Land before the Divide. Before the barriers were put in place.”
She sobered a bit. She had assumed as much, but it was hard to believe. “Could they just be someone’s guess?” she asked.
“I don’t think so.” He sat on a bench and opened the book. She hid her arm behind her cloak and peered over his shoulder. “These markings are consistent with the original Songs for the Stars.” He pointed at symbols bordering the same map she’d studied earlier.
“That’s impossible,” she said. That would place the text’s origins before the Divide, which wasn’t even a certain historical event. According to the folklore in the Klups’ books, the humans used to live in the Great Land, among the fabled Vendarans, Lentans, Giants, and Littles. The Stars grew concerned over the wars and treachery, so they separated the people. The Great Land itself was divided into portions for each group, and barriers were set in place for their protection. Hardly anyone believed in such stories, but the magic running in Julana’s blood was proof that Vendarans existed. So despite her resistance, she was forced to believe. Cyrus’ knee bounced with excitement beneath his robes. He needed no proof. He’d been a believer long before she knew him, and things like this only whet the appetite of his curiosity.
“Why do you have no faith? You come here to worship, but when there is evidence right before your eyes, you scoff.” His words were gentle, but it was an ongoing debate. She supposed the side of him that trained to be a priest couldn’t resist.
She sighed. “I don’t know. I wish I had your faith.”
He turned to face her, his boyish grin lightening the mood. “But then you wouldn’t bring me such fascinating books, because we would rely only on our hope. I like having the best of both worlds.” He studied her a moment longer and she grew uncomfortable with his scrutiny. “You look tired,” he said.
She gave a laugh. “That’s never the right thing to say to a girl. You might as well say I look ugly.” She didn’t meet his gaze as she sat next to him.
He didn’t laugh back. “Brother Keef said his offer still stands.”
Julana played with the cuff of her sleeve. “I haven’t forgotten it,” she said. “I’m just not sure it’s possible.”
Cyrus snorted. “What does that mean? You come of age in two weeks, you enter the service as a priestess. What’s not possible?” His words should have brought her hope, but a deep sadness coated her insides. She didn't know what the Klups had planned after she came of age, but it wouldn't include letting her out of their grasp.
“It’s hard to explain.” She cringed, knowing he’d be insulted.
“Fine! Don’t even bother trying.” He stood and ran a hand through his hair. His hood fell back but he didn’t seem to notice. “Forgive me, Julana. I shouldn't raise my voice."
She stifled a laugh. Even after he completed his training she was certain he would be a loud and opinionated priest.
He paced and his hands twisted in agitation. "You realize that we’re trying to help you? That maybe this is the Stars answer to your prayers? You don’t tell me what the Klups do to you, but you come here with such sorrow in your eyes, and I’ve heard you pray for escape.”
Julana stilled. What else had he heard in her prayers?
“You come here day in and day out. It’s a natural suggestion for a woman with such devotion and no marriage prospects.” His face turned red. He glanced over his shoulder and this time Julana couldn't hold back her smile. Brother Keef was forever warning Cyrus to tame his tongue.
“No need to worry. I’m the only one who heard your shocking statement. How do you know I don’t have any marriage prospects? It’s quite possible my guardians have already made some arrangement. They’re under no obligation to give me warning.”
Cyrus paused, brow furrowed and lips turned down. “That would never be good news for you. Not if they made the arrangement.” His voice was soft. It took her a moment to realize he was afraid for her. He’d met the Klups a handful of times and saw the way they treated her in public. It took nearly a week for him to calm down after each occurrence. She couldn’t imagine how he would react if he knew the depth of their abuse.
“Well I’m not worried. They like having a personal slave too much to sell me off to a rich, lonely, old man.” She gave a light laugh and ran her fingers through her hair. Cyrus froze at the same instant Julana glimpsed bright red in the corner of her eye. Her bandage.
She moved to cover it, but he was there in an instant and she was too slow. “What is this?” Cyrus ground out each word, his grasp firm but gentle on her arm.
“It’s nothing. I just—“ the words caught in her throat as he removed the dressing. There was no way to explain away such a deliberate cut. She should have used magic to heal and hide it.
“Another accident?” His eyes burned with anger. “Don’t lie to me, Jules!” His whispered words made her flinch. She focused on the front of his robes. The drab brown was considered a sign of his choice to take a humble position, despite the fact that priests were among the elite. It always brought out the warmth in the eyes she was so carefully avoiding.
“I can’t speak of it,” she finally whispered back. She was tired of lying to him about her injuries, and this time she wasn’t able to hide the severity. His fists were clenched as she clumsily rewrapped the wound and hid it beneath her cuff.
“Brother Keef gave me another option for you,” Cyrus said. His normally playful voice was strained. “He said I could marry you.”
Julana’s eyes flew to his. “What? You’re a priest!”
Cyrus rushed on, as though afraid he wouldn’t have time to explain it all. “It doesn’t matter. He showed me records of priests that were married. It’s fallen out of practice, but there’s no sin in it. The Stars relish companionship, so they would not deny it of their servants, even if we have made it our own strange custom to avoid it. There were even records of priests that had married priestesses. You would only be two years behind me in your training. It would be a good match.”
“Even if all that were true, I would not ask it of you,” Julana said. He would die at the hands of the Klups, by the magic of her blood if she made any attempt to follow through on his suggestion.
“Well then it’s a good thing the man traditionally does the asking.” His eyes danced with mirth. How could he be so blissfully ignorant? She sighed. How could she keep him that way, forever?
“Cyrus, you don’t love me.”
“Of course I love you!” His brows furrowed.
“Not the way a man should love a woman.” Her face heated. She never expected to have this discussion with her only friend. And favorite priest.
“It's true we're better friends than lovers, Jules, but it could grow. At least it could for me.” He placed a hand under her chin, as though testing a more intimate proximity. She felt like a deer before her flying arrows.
“And what if it’s not enough?” she whispered. Marriage would not hold her guardians at bay. This discussion was pointless. But Cyrus took her words the wrong way.
“If it doesn’t grow the way I anticipate, then we maintain a marriage of companionship. A priest and priestess that serve the Stars for life under the same roof.”
She shook her head, choking back a sob. His kindness tore her in two, and the secrets she kept threatened to spill over. Why hadn’t Brother Keef minded his own business?
His hands moved to her upper arms, his grip more urgent than usual. “Can we at least seek out the Stars before you dismiss such a suggestion? We have several days before you're of age to marry without your guardians' consent.” He was hurt.
“It’s not the thought of being with you that deters me,” Julana said. That wasn’t entirely true. She loved him like a brother, and treating him any other way wouldn’t feel right. But the real concern was the Klups.
“Then what is it?”
“They would kill you,” she whispered. Her heart quickened. She’d never spoken of the lengths they would go or the depths of her fears.
“All the more reason we should seek out the Stars.” He pulled her into the atrium and they knelt in the center. After their discussion, Julana found herself uncomfortable. They’d prayed together before, but not often. Cyrus spoke with ease, beseeching the Stars for wisdom, guidance, and protection. Her heart broke over his sincerity, and the knowledge of the extent he was willing to go for her safety. Perhaps he really did love her.
He paused in his prayer, offering her the chance to speak. She opened her mouth, but couldn’t find the right words. Doubt plagued her like it never had before. Surely the Stars were there and cared for her. But she wanted answers. She was tired of praying to the Stars without any real hope of hearing back from them. “Show me,” she whispered. “Please just show me what to do.”
Light flashed in the room and she and Cyrus rose in shock. Julana's heart pounded and her eyes attempted to adjust. Cyrus placed himself in front of her as the golden figure of a woman materialized before them. The rest of the room dimmed in her presence, or perhaps she drew the light into her magnificent glow. It hurt Julana's eyes to look, but the pain couldn't draw her gaze away. They were communing with a Star.