The Proving – Chapter 1

Greetings All!

Here is the first chapter of THE PROVING for review by anyone curious about the new (and hopefully final) form of the book’s beginning. Feel free to offer comments, positive or negative, or to ask for more if you aren’t already an advanced reader.

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1 Rhythm in the Night

Kir’Ana awoke with a start moments before crashing to the floor of the dark flagstone courtyard. She gasped but could not scream as every muscle in her body tensed.

Instinctively, she threw her hands before her face as if to somehow block the sudden death that awaited her. As Kir’Ana closed her eyes for what she knew would be the last time, she still saw the broad Erin courtyard of the castle stretched out in her mind’s eye. Kir’Ana pictured the triangular plaza in enormous detail, she realized ironically; shouldn’t she instead be seeing her life – all sixteen Summers of it – flash before her eyes while she faced such a brutal death?

Kir’Ana had always known that an assassin would one day bring about her death, but how had they managed this?

She felt cold stone on her hands and cried out as her forehead and knees smacked the unforgiving pavement. Kir’Ana 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.

Her eyes stung. Was it sweat? No, blood ran down the bridge of her nose from her forehead. She used the hem of her nightgown to wipe 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 —

Kir’Ana froze as the dizziness faded and her mind snapped into order. Her eyes widened 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. Kir’Ana knew that there was neither balcony nor battlement on this side of Coradine Castle. There had not been a way in or out of the building above the east-facing Erin courtyard for nearly forty years.

Yet there she sat. Bleeding, confused, and suddenly 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?

Kir’Ana’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, Kir. Stay in rhythm… stay in rhythm! She repeated to herself as she stumbled to her bare feet. She remembered Sir Jason’s strong voice repeating the words. Stay in rhythm… Stay in rhythm. The knight had drilled Kir’Ana 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 during combat or the delivery of a speech. Stay in rhythm.

“I have to get back inside,” Kir’Ana 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 rang. Kir’Ana 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 words again rose to the surface of her thoughts. One thing at a time. Live in the moment.

Kir’Ana tied the long white sleeve around her brow like a sweatband, wincing at the pain of her raw forehead.

“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. “My bloody knees and toes are likely leaving a trail that anyone-,”

Stay in rhythm.

Kir’Ana 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 into the castle.

A group of three guards stepped into view from across the Steward’s courtyard, talking quietly. Kir’Ana dove behind a stack of barrels just a few feet from the Foyer and held her breath. Her heart pounded and her wounds throbbed painfully along with it. Panic rose within her throat. The troop walked to within feet of her hiding place, then continued their march into the Erin Courtyard. Kir’Ana exhaled, then crept over to the ten-foot high wooden door that barred passage into the Steward’s Foyer and the kitchens beyond.

Kir’Ana placed both hands on the cold wood.

Okay… just like last time. You can do this, Kir, she thought 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, Kir’Ana closed her eyes.

And landed with a thud on the stone floor inside the Steward’s Foyer.

Kir’Ana 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 sliced off. She could feel her feet on the other side of 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, Kir’Ana felt nothing when she passed through the solid door as if it were made of nothing more than smoke.

Stay in rhythm.

Kir’Ana 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 every guard station and hidden passageway. More importantly, she knew which guards were most likely to be dozing.

If I can just make it to the kitchen rear stairs, she thought, and if either Hunlon or Pistarak are on duty and napping…

“Kir’Ana, is that you?” came an intense whisper from the shadows. Kir’Ana 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?” Kir’Ana whispered back.

The tall, redheaded Jerine crept out of the gloom and into a shaft of moonlight let in by the narrow windows near the staircase. She wore a long, dark nightgown and slippers.

“What are you doing sneaking around without me!” Kir’Ana cried in a whisper, stepping out to take her friend’s hand and pull her away from the silvery light.

“What happened to you?” Jerine breathed in a worried whisper. “You’re bleeding! Were you sleepwalking again? What-,”

“I can’t explain right now,” Kir’Ana interrupted quietly but firmly. “Yes, I think I was sleepwalking.” That much was probably true, she thought. “I got locked out of the castle. I had to sneak back in.”

“Locked out? How? Look, never mind… when we sneak around for fun, that’s fine. 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!” Kir’Ana breathed furiously. “I can’t.”

Jerine stepped even closer.

“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.”

Kir’Ana sighed quietly, realizing that she had little choice. Besides, she might need help with what she must do next.

“You must promise to tell no one. Especially my mother or any member of the royal guard. Swear to secrecy, right now, and… and I’ll tell you everything.”

Silence. Kir’Ana knew that Jerine was slowly beginning to understand that there was a lot more going on than met the eye. 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, Kir’Ana reconsidered what had happened, and again wondered how she could still be alive.

Stay in rhythm.

“Swear it, Jerine Masterson!”

Kir’Ana could hear Jerine swallow dryly.

“I swear it. I will tell no one.”

Kir’Ana sighed again, leaning back against the cool stone wall.

“I leave for Pallas in just a few days,” Kir’Ana 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 going the apprenticeship. I’m leaving, and not coming back. Ever.”

“Stop it, Kir’Ana. Just stop it. That makes no sense at all. What do you mean you’re not coming back? Where would you go? How would you go? Why would you want to? Your mother-,”

“I am doing this for my mother,” Kir’Ana replied. “And for the good of the Protectorates. I have to go.”

“Why?”

Kir’Ana rested her swelling forehead in her hand. 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, putting the kingdom at risk. I can’t let that happen.”

The truth of those words stung Kir’Ana as she uttered them aloud for the first time. If a Touran Queen’s only child were to die or go missing, by law she must give birth or adopt a new heir. But Kir’Ana 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. However, there was no cure for Emergence. With all of the other problems plaguing the Protectorates, both foreign and domestic, a leadership crisis could be disastrous.

So Kir’Ana 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. Kir’Ana found Jerine’s hand in the dark and led her out into the hallway.

“Follow me back to my rooms,” Kir’Ana said. “I could use some help with these wounds. And I’ll answer every question you have.”

***********

Thanks for reading!

~Kevin

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