A totally new addition here, friends. One of the solid pieces of advice that I received from an established agent/editor was to dramatically increase the role of my female lead character. I had always planned equal roles for my male and female leads, but the long-and-twisty plot that I originally designed focused on the men dozens of chapters before the women. But no longer.
The Crown Princess Darian Touran is now introduced in Chapter 3… as she is falling to her death from the heights of Coradine Castle. I am tempted to make this scene Chapter 1; I really like how it reads.
Have at it!
* * *
Darian awoke with a start moments before crashing to the floor of the dim flagstone courtyard. She gasped in the cold night air but could not scream as every muscle in her body tensed.
Instinctively, Darian threw her hands before her face, as if hoping to somehow lessen the sudden death that awaited her when she hit. As she closed her eyes for what she knew would be the last time, she still saw the broad western courtyard of the castle stretched out in her mind’s eye. She was plummeting incredibly fast, and therefore must have fallen from very high in the castle. Darian was picturing the courtyard and the tall walls surrounding it with an enormous amount of detail, she realized ironically; shouldn’t she be seeing her life – all twenty Summers of it – flash before her eyes before facing such a brutal death? She then wondered who her killer was and how they had managed to eliminate her. Darian had always known that an assassin would one day bring about her death, but how had they managed this?
Darian felt cold stone on her hands and cried out as her forehead and knees smacked the unforgiving pavement. She rolled onto her back as a wave of dizziness struck. Clutching her forehead and panting as pain shot through her body, she sat up, opened her eyes, and fought to orient herself.
A painful sting stabbed at her eyes. Was it sweat? No… blood ran down the bridge of her nose from the split skin on her forehead. She used the hem of her sky-blue nightgown to clear it away, ignoring her torn knees and toes, then looked around at the deserted courtyard filled with moonlight. The ever-present sea breeze brought the brackish smell of the bay to her nose. She would have to —–
Darian froze as the dizziness faded and her mind snapped back into order. Her eyes widened in shock as she quickly examined herself, patting her face and torso rapidly, and took stock of the obvious truth.
She was alive, and this was no dream. She looked up at the high castle walls looming above her, having no idea what she was expecting to see. Even if there had been windows that could open on the heights of the castle where her apartments were, she would not have been able to spot them by moonlight. She knew very well that there was neither balcony nor battlement on this side of Coradine Castle. There was, in fact, no way in or out of the building above the east-facing Erin courtyard and hadn’t been for nearly forty years.
And yet there Darian sat. Bleeding, confused, and suddenly very, very worried.
An assassin! It must have been! She thought with a mixture of terror and fury. I was pushed, or thrown, from the heights of the castle’s roof. After being drugged maybe?
Darian’s heart sank. She realized that there was another potential explanation for her fall of hundreds of feet from a part of the castle with no easy access to the outside; an explanation that did not involve foul play.
Don’t panic, Darian! Stay in rhythm… stay in rhythm! She repeated to herself as she stumbled to her bare feet. She could hear Sir Jason’s strong voice repeating the words. Stay in rhythm… Stay in rhythm. The knight had drilled Darian since she was a child to focus on the immediate, rejecting distractions of any kind. Keep your mind and body immersed in the rhythm of the moment, he would say, whether it be during combat or the delivery of a speech. Stay in rhythm.
“I have to get back inside,” Darian whispered aloud as she crossed to the inner wall of the courtyard. “I have to stay out of sight, not be noticed… and I have to bandage this wound.”
She put all other thoughts out of her head as she followed the curve of the wall. None of the royal guard had seen her, she was certain, since no alarms had been sounded. Darian tore the left sleeve from her nightgown as she crept towards the Steward’s Foyer on the north side of the castle. That was the only entrance that might be open at this hour. Late night deliveries of food or beverages to the royal kitchens were rare, but not unheard of. If the gate was closed—
Stay in rhythm. Sir Jason’s voice again, his training rising to the surface of her thoughts. One thing at a time. Live in the moment.
Darian tied the long white sleeve around her brow like a sweatband, wincing at the pain of her raw forehead wound.
“Even if I do make it back inside without being noticed, and make it back up the upper floors unseen, how do I explain my wounds?” she whispered into the shadows. “And my bloody knees and toes are likely leaving a trail that anyone–,”
Stay in rhythm.
Darian peered around the castle’s northeast corner, crouching low. There were no guards in sight, but there was also no light streaming forth from the Steward’s Foyer. It was closed.
“Nightwings!” she cursed under her breath, then slid around the corner anyway. As much as she feared it, there was another way to regain entrance to the castle; a way that involved a great deal of risk.
A group of three guards stepped into view from across the Steward’s courtyard, talking quietly. Darian dove behind a stack of barrels just a few feet from the Foyer and held her breath. Her heart was pounding, and her wounds throbbed painfully along with it. Panic began to rise within Darian’s throat.
Stay in rhythm!
The troop walked to within feet of her hiding place, then continued their march into the Erin Courtyard. Darian exhaled, then crept over to the locked ten foot high wooden door that barred passage into the Steward’s Foyer and the kitchens beyond.
Darian placed both hands on the cold wood.
Okay… just like last time. You can do this, Darian, she thought to herself as she leaned harder and harder against the huge door. Blood was beginning to leak through her headband bandage, but she ignored it as she closed her eyes and focused on what she had done one week prior.
You need to get through. You need to get through this door. She pushed with even more intensity, putting all of her weight against the locked portal. You must get through! You must! Then, holding her breath, Darian closed her eyes.
And landed with a thud on the stone floor of the Steward’s Foyer.
Darian gasped as she lay there on the other side of the still-sealed door. Her feet were still not completely through. Her legs simply ended at the surface of the door’s planks, as if they had been cut off. She could feel her feet extending through the solid wood, the night breeze chilling her toes.
With a whimper-like yelp, she yanked both knees towards her chin and rolled to a crouch. Her feet and legs looked fine, as if nothing had happened. As before, Darian had felt nothing while she passed through the solid doorway as if it were made of nothing more than smoke.
Stay in rhythm.
Darian put the impossible act out of her mind and sped across the Foyer, through the empty kitchens, and into the castle proper. She had snuck around the great keep that was her home so many hundreds of times over the years that this part of her adventure posed no challenge. She knew where the guards were stationed, knew who was most likely to be dozing, and knew all of the hidden passageways.
If I can just make it to the back stairs, she thought, and if either Hunlon or Pistarak are on duty and napping…
“Darien, is that you!?” came an intense whisper from the shadows. Darien froze in a crouch, her hand instinctively at her side to grasp the rapier hilt that was not there. Then she realized that the voice was familiar.
“Jerine?” Darian whispered back.
The tall, red-headed Jerine crept out of the gloom and into a shaft of moonlight let in by the narrow windows near the back staircase. She was also in a long nightgown and bare feet.
“Jerine!” Darian cried in a whisper, stepping out to take her friends hand and pull her away from the silvery light. “What are you doing sneaking around without me!”
“What happened to you?” Jerine breathed in a worried whisper. “Were you sleepwalking again? You’re bleeding! Darian, what–,”
“I can’t explain right now,” Darian interrupted quietly but firmly. “Yes, I think I was sleepwalking.” That much was probably true, Darian thought. “I got locked out of the castle. I had to sneak back in. It’s hard to explain.”
Darian couldn’t see her friends face in the darkness, but she could imagine the confused look on her face.
“Locked out? How? Look, nevermind… when we sneak around for fun, that’s all well and good. But you’re hurt! Just go to the guards and let them get a physician! You are the princess! Your mother will not care about some harmless sneaking when your health is–,”
“NO!” Darian breathed furiously. “I can’t. There’s no way.”
Jerine stepped even closer, her voice dropping to an intense whisper.
“What is going on?! You haven’t been yourself in weeks, months even. You know you can talk to me. Tell me what’s happening.”
Darian sighed quietly, realizing that she had little choice. And that she might need help to do what she must do next.
“Okay. But you must promise to tell no one. Especially my mother or any member of the royal guard. Promise me, Jerine. Swear to secrecy, right now, and… and I’ll tell you everything.”
Silence. Darian knew that Jerine was slowly beginning to understand that there was a lot more going on than met the eye. More blood dripped into the young princess’ eye, stinging badly. Her throbbing head and the pain in her knees and toes was getting worse. With a start Darian reconsidered what had happened, and again had to wonder how she could still be alive.
Stay in rhythm.
“Swear it, Jerine Masterson!”
Darian could hear Jerine swallow dryly. When she spoke, her voice was raspy with fear and concern.
“I swear it. I will tell no one.”
Darian sighed again, leaning back against the cool stone wall.
“I leave for Pallas in just a few days,” Darian murmured.
“For your apprenticeship with the Grey Shields. Is there a problem? I know it took you forever to convince your mother to let you go.”
“I’m not just going for the apprenticeship. And I’m not going to actually make it to Pallas. I’m leaving. And not coming back. Ever.”
“Stop it, Darian. Just stop it! That makes no sense at all. What do you mean you’re not coming back? You can’t run away. Where would you go? How would you go? Why would you want to?! Your mother–,”
“I am doing this for my mother,” Darian replied. “And for the good of the Protectorates. I have to go.”
Darian rested her swelling forehead on one hand in the darkness. Then she dropped her voice even lower and leaned toward her old friend.
“Because I am Emergent. Because the Crown Princess of Touran is going insane. And if my mother finds out, she will move the foundations of Pasaron to try to help me. I can’t let that happen.”
The truth of those words stung Darian as she uttered them aloud for the first time. If the Touran Queen’s only child were to die or go missing, by law she would be forced to adopt a new heir. But Darian would soon go mad; all Emergents did, and often violently so. She knew her mother well. It would kill her to replace her only daughter if she still lived. But no Emergent had ever been healed. With all of the other problems plaguing the Protectorates, both foreign and domestic, a leadership crisis could be disastrous.
So Darian would disappear, allowing everyone in Touran to consider her dead. Freeing her mother to do what she must in the name of the kingdom.
Jerine said nothing. Darian found her hand in the dark and led her out into the hallway.
“Follow me back to my rooms. I could use some help with these wounds. And I’ll answer every question you have.”
* * *
Thanks for reading!