I’ve finally started drafting an opening to my tale that reflects the latest changes in plot, and I thought I’d post it up to share. It is, course, pretty rough; I’ve cleaned it up just enough to keep myself from going crazy, but I don’t want to get too bogged down with edits.
I’m trying not to get too attached to the scene (once I’ve written the first draft of the book, I know I’ll have to slash and hack and murder my precious babies), but I think I can confidently say that I like this. Without further ado, here is Chapter 1, Scene 1: “The Dream.”
Title: “Path to the Peacock Throne,” Scene 1: “The Dream”
Word Count: ~3350 words
Summary: Liandre, princess of Peridion, grapples with strange nightmares, clashes with the royal wizard, and has a few quiet moments with her beloved older brother before the funeral rites for their father, King Roland, begin.
Notes: The inspiration for Liandre’s dress can be seen here.
It was the most perfect of days, one that invoked all of the senses. The ear was overcome by the roar of powerful ocean waves, and both nose and tongue by the salty tang of the sea breeze. The body luxuriated in the warmth of the sun’s rays, and the eye delighted in the enchanting sight of a dozen sea birds turning and diving like a team of trained aerial acrobats.
The child felt all of this, standing on the promontory that soared high above the shore. She was little more than three or four, a cherub-cheeked girl with laughing violet eyes and a head of dark curls. She spun happily, bare toes digging into the grassy earth, arms reaching for the sky. Her laughter was sweet and warm, the perfect counter against the birds’ shrill cries.
“Would you like me to show you how to call the birds, Princess?” The child looked up to see a woman’s smiling face; in her outstretched hand she held a plain wooden flute, smoothly polished and gleaming in the afternoon light. The child nodded in excitement and the woman sat down beside her and gathered her to her lap.
“Hold it here, gosling,” she whispered, arranging the girl’s fingers on the holes. “And now blow.”
Suddenly there was music and the rustle of wings — dozens of tiny birds dancing upon the wind, their flight timed with the song’s tempo. The child’s excitement and glee were practically tangible, the power that she invoked humming through her tiny body. She played the song again and again, all the while blind to the danger that lurked, hovering just beyond, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
It was a faceless darkness that encroached upon them. It came slowly at first, tendrils of smoke that insinuated itself like wispy threads across the brilliant blue sky. Anyone watching would have failed to see that anything was amiss; as the smoke grew, spreading with increasing speed and mounting malice, it was obvious that something was very wrong. It was too late to stop it. The darkness silenced the precious birds, blocked out the sun’s rays, eclipsed the woman’s loving face. The child stood in the midst of this swirling abyss, the final survivor against a foe she could never hope to understand. When the void finally closed upon her it swallowed everything — even her screams.
Liandre awoke with a strangled cry, arms flailing in sudden panic, and the young maid standing beside the bed stumbled back a step in fear.
“Your highness, please,” the girl said timidly. “It’s time for you to awaken.” She paused. “You… you were screaming in your sleep.”
Liandre stilled and forced herself to return to the present, though her heart pounded with adrenaline. The sheets were sodden with sweat, twisted and tangled around her limbs; her cheeks were wet, though whether from sweat or tears she couldn’t say. Swallowing hard, she sagged against the pillows, willing herself to composure. When she finally spoke, her voice was hoarse and trembling.
“Thank you, Madeline. I apologize for any… worry I may have caused you or the other servants.”
Madeline shook her head forcefully, blue eyes innocent and wide. “Oh, no your highness, don’t apologize!” she exclaimed. “We know how hard it is for you, with the King gone…” She lowered her gaze respectfully. “He was a very great man.”
Liandre’s eyes fell closed as she tried to ignore the pang in her heart. Father is dead. She was reminded of the fact dozens of times a day, and yet Madeline’s simple use of the past tense struck her like a hammer’s blow. “King Roland was the best of men,” she murmured quietly, “and he will be missed.”
“Shall I send for your breakfast?”
“Please, Madeline. And tell my ladies that they needn’t wait on me until after I’ve eaten. I… I wish to have some time alone.”
“Very good, my lady.” With a curtsey, Madeline scurried out of the room, no doubt to tell the rest of the castle staff what she had observed.
Once the door was closed Liandre sat back against the pillows, her lips pressed tight, eyes dry and sandy. It was strange — her tears only flowed while she slept. In her waking hours she was granted little beyond an aching head and red-rimmed eyes, signs that set the tongues at court wagging over the princess’s most terrible grief and inconsolable sorrow. It was little wonder that nobles and servants alike watched her with mingled curiosity and pity. Once the story of her terror-filled dreams emerged, she would face a whole new level of scrutiny.
Steeling herself, Liandre slid from the bed, sliding her feet into plush slippers and padding across the room. Splashing a bit of cold water onto her face helped her feel more alert, and she sank into her favorite overstuffed chair, a pillow clutched to her chest.
“Today is Father’s funeral.” Uttering the words aloud didn’t make the fact of his death any more real than it had been for the past week, and yet there was a finality to them, a simplicity that she knew she must accept. “Today we send him to join the ancestors.”
Stranger still was what would come after the king’s death rites. “Today Edric is crowned king.” She frowned at this, the thought of her brash, impulsive, but loving older brother wearing the crown of Peridion even harder to reconcile.
Six years her senior, Edric Xavier had been her champion and hero when she was a child, and she had idolized him the way that all girls adore their older brothers. She saw him still as that same mud-soaked scamp, forever scheming ways to steal fresh pastries from the kitchen or to escape from his tutors, always devising ingenious ways to free her from the ever-present gaze of her governess. They had been inseparable in those days, the half-siblings in blood but fully united in heart. Though they had grown up and now occupied separate spheres as befit a young prince and princess of the realm, she faced his coronation with a heavy heart. He would be taken away from her almost completely, and once he was king, there would be no one for her to turn to.
And then there was the dream. Above all things she feared thinking about it. It was an old one, one that had plagued her as a child. The birds, the music, the devouring dark — all of these were mysteries. Even the seaside cliff was an enigma, for she had lived her whole life within the walls of Delny, located in the midst of the wide, flat grasslands of Cormare Plains. The closest seaside town was countless leagues away, and she only had fleeting memories of visiting there when she was five or six.
A knock sounded at the door. “Come in,” she called. A maid entered with her breakfast and she accepted it gratefully. A cup of tea warmed her, though she couldn’t stomach more than a few bites of her food. Her ladies-in-waiting arrived mere moments after she rang for the tray to be taken back to the kitchen, and with a silent sigh, she steeled herself for the demands of her day.
Daughters of six of the most noble families in Peridion, the corps of young women had served Liandre for the past three years, since she had turned sixteen. They were lovely young women, all of them sweet and good-natured, but they were also silly, flighty, and frivolous; their endless prattle about gowns and shoes and eligible noblemen set Liandre’s teeth on edge, but she did her best to humor them, engaging in their banter with wit and savvy. Privately, though, she longed for companions who could converse about politics and literature, her topics of choice. Such subjects were deemed inappropriate for young ladies, however, and so Liandre had learned to content herself (or, at the very least, to mask her boredom) with their company.
It was clear that they had heard of her nightmare from the servants, for as each one filed into Liandre’s bedchamber they offered her a hug and a few whispered words of support. The gesture was surprising and touching, and she offered them a genuine smile in return. They may have been silly and frivolous, but her ladies were also loyal. For that, Liandre was grateful.
“Thank you, all of you.” Liandre’s voice was soft and infused with warmth as she met each of their eyes. “I have not passed the most peaceful night, as Madeline no doubt told you. It is… a difficult time, but I am grateful for your love and your support.”
“I have something to cheer you up!” Arabella, the eldest the six, exclaimed, a box in her hand. “As I was on my way Lord Ambrose handed this to me and bade me to give it to you.” She smiled brightly, convinced that this trifle could wipe away the grief that held Liandre’s heart captive. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Open it!” The chorus was deafening, but Liandre did her best to offer a gentle smile.
“Very well,” she murmured, fingers unlacing the delicate ribbons. Inside layers of tissue paper was a pendant in the shape of a small bird, sparkling with tiny jewels of green and blue — thoughtful, though most certainly not the most impressive show of wealth that Ambrose, heir to one of the largest fortunes in the land, could manage. Still, Liandre’s ladies gasped and squealed excitedly. Arabella snatched up the card that had gotten lost in the wrapping paper.
“May I read it aloud?” she asked in giddy excitement. An incline of the Princess’s head was all the permission required, and in her best voice, Arabella read, “Princess, I send a token to cheer you on this grief-laden day — one of the finely feathered friends you have always adored. I hope it brings you a glimmer of happiness, for the sight of your smile has been sorely missed. As always, I am yours to command as you wish. Your faithful servant, Nicholas Ambrose.”
“Will you wear it?” Marianne asked breathlessly. She was only fifteen, and as starry-eyed at the prospect of romance as one might expect. “It is such a lovely gesture!”
“Later, perhaps.” Liandre placed the bauble back in the box and handed it to Arabella. “Put this with the rest of my things, please. After the coronation I will write Lord Ambrose a note of thanks.”
Despite the sorrow that pervaded the day, the ladies couldn’t keep from giving voice to their natural exuberance, as though they had decided collectively that their princess required cheer rather than lamentation. They swept around her in a practiced dance, laying out slips and undergarments, gowns, jewels, and the other trifles she would require. Liandre was bathed and lotioned, laced into her corset and stays, and assisted into her gown. The dress they chose for the funeral was simple but elegant, as protocol demanded. It was a plain shift of midnight black silk, adorned only by black lace that covered her arms and bust. The skirts flared behind her, draping to the floor in a short train. She chose only a pair of earrings from the selection of jewels that were offered, a pair of diamond chandelier earrings that the king had given her the year before for her eighteenth birthday.
She sat at her dressing table like the eye of a storm, the sole point of tranquility and composure in the midst of barely-managed feminine chaos. Her long dark hair was brushed out and elaborately coiffed, leaving her slender neck bare; her face was painted and powdered, the cosmetics disguising the dark circles under her eyes and the sallowness of her skin. As Diana and Sophia finished pinning small clusters of diamonds and tiny seed pearls into her hair, a heavy knock sounded at the door. Arabella answered it, and an involuntary yelp left her lips when she saw that it was Leopold, the Royal Wizard, who stood in the doorway.
Liandre’s ladies fell silent immediately, trembling in fear. The wizard was a man who was respected and feared, for though his magical skill was prodigious, he was an enigma, a living legend in Peridion. Well over one hundred years old, Leopold looked half his age, with dark hair threaded lightly with silver, and a physique that was robust and strong. Somehow, Liandre had always felt chilled by the wizard’s presence, and today was no different. Despite the charming smile on his face, his dark eyes seemed cold and cruel. He was not a man to be trusted.
He strode into the room slowly, bearing a small bottle in one hand, unconcerned as ladies scattered out of his path. “Highness.” He offered her an elegant bow. “You are looking pale.”
“Good morning, Lord Wizard.” The old man made her skin crawl, but she did her best to hide her discomfort, standing to face him. Taller than most women, Liandre was almost Leopold’s height, and she did not hesitate to look him in the eye. “’Twas a night of restless sleep, little more.”
“Then you must take this calming draught that I have prepared for you.” He held out the bottle. “It will help to relax you. It would never do for our precious princess to have a fit at the king’s funeral, now would it?” He smiled, and Liandre ignored the shiver that coursed down her spine. “There are so many people who worry for you.”
“I assure you, my lord, I am well.” Her tone was pleasant, but it held a steely edge. “But I thank you for your concern.” She handed the draught to Marianne, who was cowering behind her. “Put this away, Marianne. If I feel poorly, I will make use of it.” She offered the wizard a curt nod. “Good day, my lord.”
But Leopold lingered, eyes fixed on hers as though he sought to penetrate the layers of her thoughts. The room was silent around them, the younger ladies frozen in place. “I strongly suggest you drink it now, child.” His smile grew wider, though his gaze were chillier than ever. “It would be most distressing were you to suffer a… spell… at your father’s funeral. The court is most worried as it is.”
Liandre’s nostrils flared slightly, and she fought back her rising temper. “Your suggestion has been duly noted, Lord Wizard.” She lifted one elegantly arched brow, undaunted. “Or was it intended as an order?”
“So very suspicious for one so young,” he murmured softly. “’Tis most unbecoming for a young woman.” He paused a moment longer before taking Liandre’s hand in his and raising it to his lips. “Very well, my dear. Do what you will.” With a perfunctory bow he swept out of the room, his black cloak billowing behind him.
Once the door was shut, a collective sigh flooded the room. “Such a horrible man!” little Diana exclaimed. “How could you bear to even look at him?”
Liandre sank into her chair, balling her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “Such talk is blasphemy, Diana,” she said, gently chiding the young woman. “The Lord Wizard is one of the most important men in the realm, second only to the king. Without him, you know, there would be no magic in Peridion, and the Astigale kings would never have unified the land.”
She faced the other ladies, a wry smile twisting her full lips. “I’ll be damned, though, if I’m going to take his stupid draught.” They laughed weakly at this, jumping when another knock sounded at the door. Liandre steeled herself for Leopold’s return, craning her neck curiously when Arabella gave a happy cry.
“Your highness! Er, that is, your majesty!” She pulled open the door quickly, almost tripping over her own skirts in her haste, and Liandre’s brother, Edric, entered.
“The coronation isn’t until this afternoon, Lady Hawthorne,” he said mildly, his warm, deep voice reverberating pleasantly, “so ‘highness’ is perfectly correct.” Arabella couldn’t manage more than a giggle, blushing prettily at his teasing words. She wasn’t the only one at a loss for words; the rest of Liandre’s ladies practically gaped at him. Liandre could only shake her head in dismay, for it happened whenever Edric stopped by for a visit. A very different reception than the one Leopold had received, to be sure.
If I didn’t know better, she thought to herself in amusement, I’d say he enjoys their attention. He stood in the midst of their adoring stares for a moment before offering a charmingly apologetic smile. “Ladies, if you will excuse us, I wish to speak with my sister.”
The six filed out of the room quickly, though with no shortage of backwards glances at Edric. Liandre’s gaze was fixed on her brother as well, but for completely different reasons. Her keen eyes caught the lines that creased his forehead, his tightly clenched jaw, the shadows darkening his blue eyes. She wasn’t the only one who was suffering. Edric had aged in the past week, grief over their father’s unexpected death and the responsibilities of state all taking their toll.
Wordlessly he pulled up a chair beside her and sat down, drawing her into a warm embrace. Liandre sighed and let herself relax, at ease for the first time in days. They sat together without speaking for a few long moments, content to remain silent.
“Nightmares again?” His brows were drawn in concern as he looked down at her. “I heard from —“
“The entire damned court, I imagine,” Liandre finished sourly, and Edric’s silence confirmed her suspicion. “Yes, if you must know, I had another dream.” She hesitated before adding, “It was the old one.”
“The old one?” he repeated in surprise. “It’s been years, Liandre.”
She pressed her lips together, feeling raw and cranky and fragile, all at once. It would have been a relief to spill her heart out to Edric, but the last thing she wanted was to add to his concerns. “Yes, well, with father and all, it’s no shock.” She waved one hand dismissively, her tone light. “It will pass, as always. You needn’t fret over me.”
He tsked softly, cupping her face in his hand. “Poor sister,” he murmured. “I’ve neglected you these past weeks, haven’t I?”
She swallowed hard, turning away so he wouldn’t see the tears glittering in her eyes. “I’m not a child anymore, Edric. I don’t need you to protect me from frightening dream monsters any longer. Besides, you’ve had much to do since father… since father passed.” She flushed, embarrassed that she was still unable to say a word as simple as “death.” “I’d say all those demands are much more important than your younger sister.”
The corner of Edric’s mouth quirked in the semblance of a crooked smile. “You might be able to lie to those foppish nobles at court, but you’ve never been able to succeed with me, you know.” Liandre rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t resist a small frisson of warmth. “We haven’t had a real conversation in ages, Liandre. That will change.” He squeezed her hand tenderly, underscoring his words. “I promise.”
Rising to his feet, he held out his arm gallantly. “Allow me to escort you?”
“Edric, you are so insufferable! As though we were going to a ball, or a masque, or — “
He frowned, tugging her up out of her seat. “We have to send our father home, Liandre.” His voice was serious, and she bit her lip to hold back her complaints. “It’s only right that we go together. It’s the way he would have wanted it, you know. ‘Watch over your little sister,’ he used to say to me. I’m not going to let him down now.”