Friday, February 27, 2015

What That Dress Can Tell Us About Diversity in Literature

If you've been on the internet at all in the past 24 hours, you've seen this dress:

I looked at the dress and saw white and gold, clear as day.  The white was made up of shades of blue, but the gold was gold, the end.  The headline suggested that others saw the dress as blue and black, so I squinted.  I tilted the screen.  I blurred my vision.  But no matter how I tried, I could not see the dress as blue and black.  Clearly, this was a hoax, and I berated myself for falling victim to a prank.  I’m smarter than that, right?

That thought didn’t last long.  It quickly became evident that plenty of people all over the world saw the dress as blue and black.  For real.  No hoax.  They squinted, tilted their screens, and blurred their vision, but could not see the dress as white and gold like I did.  They suspected a hoax and berated themselves for falling victim to a prank.  They’re smarter than that, right?

So, good and honest people all over the world saw this dress in one of two ways.  I turned to science, hoping to make Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye proud.  I read all about how our eyes perceive color and considered myself prepared for another try at that dress.  Surely, since I now understood how eyes worked, I could make myself see that dress as blue and black.

Nope.  It stayed gold and white.

The only way that I have to understand Team Blue and Black is their words.  I must rely on what they’re willing to share with me about their experience looking at the dress.  The most I can hope to gain from this is an academic knowledge of the way they see the dress, since I will never personally be able to see it in any other way than gold and white.  But even though I can’t see the dress in the same way as they do, I have no right to discount their experiences.

At some point it hit me that this dress was a metaphor for diversity.  I only have my own experiences to fall back on.  I see the dress as gold and white.  I am white, female, American, middle-class, Army brat, straight, adopted, religiously raised, nonreligious now, childless by choice, and adult.  I don’t understand what it is to be anything other than white.  I don’t understand what it is to identify any way other than female.  I don’t understand what it is to be anything other than American.  You can see where this is going.

The uncomfortable truth is that, as hard as we may try to see the world through the eyes of people different from us, we cannot, through any amount of squinting, screen tilting, or blurred vision come to any personal level of understanding of their experiences.  We have to face this hard truth and accept it if we’re going to make any progress in equality.  If we continue to cling to this idea that we can understand completely how another person sees the world, then we’ll continue getting in our own way.

But we can listen.  We can read.  We can rely on what others are willing to share about their experiences, and we can be willing to share ours.  From this conversation, we can gain an academic knowledge of the way others see the world.  And even though we can’t understand by personal experience how others see things, we can remember that we have no right to discount their experiences simply because we haven’t lived them ourselves.

This is the reason we need diverse books.  The more stories we have featuring characters of different races, ethnicities, countries, genders, social classes, sexual orientation, family types, religions, etc. etc. etc., the more knowledge we can have of those different from us. These stories are some of the best exercises in empathy that we can offer ourselves, our children, and our students.  Reading widely and stepping into the shoes of someone different will help create leaders who will seek the greater good rather than a selfish agenda. 

Talking can do that.  Books can do that.  But first we need listeners and readers.

Because I believe that even the people who see the dress as blue and black deserve to be seen, heard, and understood by the white-and-gold crowd, at least to the best of our ability.  We owe it to each other, don't we?

Purchase diverse books.

Request diverse books at your public and school libraries.

Read diverse books.

Give diverse books.

Donate diverse books to schools.

Recommend diverse books to specific readers.

For more about the need for diverse books, visit

Friday, June 20, 2014

Characterization Through Interaction--Showing Our Characters' Souls

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. 
–Mahatma Gandhi

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him. 
–Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. 
–J.K. Rowling

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good. 
–Samuel Johnson

It’s really no secret that watching how a person treats others, both human and animal, reveals a great deal about that individual.  How many times have we heard stories about how someone thought their date was a wonderful human being, but then watched him/her talk down to the server at the restaurant?  Or how a different date was elevated in the hierarchy of humanity when he/she left a generous tip after noticing that the server was waiting on six other tables and was clearly stressed out and struggling?

Showing our characters doing and saying things to those who are in some way inferior is a powerful tool for characterization.  The inferiority might be ingrained into a culture, such as in a caste system or in a situation of slavery, or it might be temporary, as in the case of a restaurant server or other customer service worker.

First, some examples:

In Game of Thrones, (spoilers coming) Cersei proclaims herself a villain to be reckoned with when she orders 12ish-year-old Sansa’s direwolf pup to be executed in answer to a crime neither Sansa nor her direwolf had anything to do with.  How much evil does that one scene contain?  How much do we hate Cersei?  All because she abused her authority and power in order to punish a child and her puppy.  CHILD!  PUPPY!  BOTH INNOCENT!  This happens early in the series, and readers thirst for Cersei’s comeuppance from that point on.

On the other hand, the same process can be used to make someone the good guy.  In the Harry Potter series, the half-giant Hagrid could use his size and strength for great evil.  Yet he dedicates his life to caring for animals, no matter if they’re cute or ugly, snuggly or deadly.  While not considered “human,” Hagrid becomes human to the reader, and when he leaves his beloved dog Fang in Harry’s care, that says a lot.  The Scorpio Races also does this very well.  (Read that book if you haven’t!)  It features water horses, predatory sea creatures that migrate onto an inhabited island every autumn.  The occupants of this island have a tradition of capturing, training, and racing these water horses in November, an event that usually involves the death of at least one rider.  Maggie Steifvater introduces Sean, a character whose love, respect, and compassion for these animals allows him to understand them in a way that no one else can.  We have to root for this guy, simply because of the way he treats an animal that most others fear.

Some observations I’ve made with characterization done this way have led me to a few key guidelines.

1.  Our characters know this rule, too.  Keep characterization for the reader separate from characterization for other characters.

Sometimes we have to hide character truths from our other characters.  Thinking that the serial killer is a great humanitarian will build suspense, so don’t let your hero see the villain berate the barista because the latte isn’t hot enough.  And don’t let the guy see the girl help the baby ducks out of the gutter if he needs to believe that she’s a shallow gold digger.

2.  What characters do when alone is far more meaningful than what they do when there are witnesses.

We need to get our characters alone to show the reader what they are really like, especially for characters who are smart enough to avoid revealing their true selves in public.  Some really great examples of this are found in anti-heroes like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan and Barry Eisler’s John Rain.  It’s hard to root for a serial killer (Dexter Morgan) or assassin for hire (John Rain), but one way these writers help the reader to accept them is by having them make morally acceptable choices when no one’s watching.

3.  Make it part of the story.

We can't write an entire scene at a restaurant just so a character can leave a great tip.  Characterization can always be paired or grouped with other storytelling necessities.  We can use the restaurant to world build and allow the conversation to further the plot.

4.  Trust your reader to pick up on it the first time.

Cersei didn’t need to keep killing direwolf pups to prove her nastiness, and Hagrid didn’t need to create an activist group and magical wildlife preserve to prove his compassion.  Readers get it, so we need to move on.  That doesn't mean that we stop characterizing.  We just make use of the many other ways to provide characterization.

5.  Trust your reader to understand the interaction.

One of my favorite “overshares” in writing is when two or more characters discuss an action that occurred, with the obvious purpose being to explain to the reader what it all meant. 

Take for example an early (and successful) scene in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone in which a traveling Bible salesman kills a dog.  The dog is snarling at him, but he’s not threatened by the dog.  In fact, he calmly waits by the door wearing a friendly smile until he knows there’s no one home.  Then he sprays teargas into the dog’s eyes and kicks it.  To death.  While selling Bibles.  Because he’s a…well, only swear words will really do him justice, but for the purpose of keeping it clean, let’s just say he’s a giant jerk with no soul.  He’s cruel, dangerous, and a darn good faker.

Now imagine the nosy neighbor lady had witnessed the exchange, and she immediately picks up the phone and calls her friend down the street to describe what she just saw:
  • ·         Nosy Neighbor: [describes situation]  Can you believe that?  What do you think about that guy?
  • ·         Friend: Wow.  That guy’s really a giant jerk!
  • ·         Nosy Neighbor: And he doesn’t have a soul!
  • ·         Friend:  How could he have a soul?  Only giant jerks with no soul can be cruel to animals like that!
  • ·         Nosy Neighbor:  And while selling Bibles?  How ironic!
  • ·         Friend:  He must have two faces, don’t you think so?
  • ·         Nosy Neighbor:  Oh, yes.  He’s got to be dangerous.  And how would anyone know?  He was all smiles and Bibles until he thought he was alone.

Thankfully, Stephen King doesn’t subject his reader to that.  It’s a prevailing image, one that we won’t likely forget.  And when the salesman runs for political office, there is no need for any conversations to remind the reader about the incident with the dog and what that might imply about what’s in store.

6.  Separate yourself from the characters’ actions.

Stephen King got a lot of angry mail over the death of that dog.  Some readers saw it as an endorsement of animal cruelty.  The good news is that most readers understand that writers don’t endorse every action of every character—that to create a good story, characters necessarily have to make bad or evil choices.  When King had the salesman attack the dog, he intended one thing: for the reader to understand immediately that this character was a giant jerk with no soul who posed a great danger because of his ability to blend in.  The scene, though disturbing, did just that. (He goes into some detail about this in On Writing.)

For good or evil, our characters can interact with other characters and animals to show us a bit of their souls (or lack thereof).

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What Makes a Great Villain

I've always liked the bad guys in stories.  I love hating them, and I love how they force the main characters into life-changing challenges.  But sometimes, they just don't make sense, and when that happens, the story suffers.  The villains drive the conflict!  And they can drive that conflict right over a cliff if they're inept.

The Big WHY:
Villains need motive.  They can't just be evil because that's what the story needs.  They need a reason to be evil.

Take the witch in Rapunzel, for example.  In the original tale, her neighbor sneaks over her wall to steal lettuce for his pregnant wife, and she decides that the appropriate price for this crime is handing over their child?  Nevermind that these parents (who've been yearning for a child) agree to this arrangement.  Why in the world does an old woman want to become a single mother to an infant?  And if she wanted to be a mother so badly, then what was the point of the tower prison? 

The writers of Tangled completely rewrote her role.  Mother Gothel wants something that women in our society have been culturally programmed to want--endless, youthful beauty.  (Take a look in the cosmetics aisle, and you'll see by the battle terminology that we've declared war on aging.  You'll see words like defy, battle, defense, erase.)  Mother Gothel doesn't want to take on the responsibilities of motherhood at her age, but she needs Rapunzel to maintain her youthful appearance, which is the most important thing to her.

So you can see how motive can make a villain more relatable and strengthen a story.  We don't like Mother Gothel, and we take serious moral issue with her kidnapping a princess and locking her up in a tower, but we understand why she did it.  And we also understand why she won't give that up without a big fight.  She really is a great villain in the Disney collection. 

The Little Why and How:
I call these little because they're important, but probably shouldn't take up a lot of time or attention.  This is villain backstory.  We're fascinated by the nature vs. nurture argument.  We're frightened of that side of ourselves that leaps out and surprises us with its ruthlessness.  Even if we don't act on it, the fact that we thought it is enough. So we wonder how someone can be so selfish, uncaring, belligerent, dishonest, or whatever the villain happens to be. Whenever there is an especially troubling news incident involving a human being terribly victimizing other human beings, our first question is why?

We go searching into the "villain's" backstory, the media overturning the tiniest stones in an attempt to answer these questions.  This happens at such a rate that it threatens to overshadow the tragedy the person caused by sensationalizing the bad guy.  But there's something within us that urges us to try to make sense of horrible events by understanding the person who caused it.

So readers need backstory for the villain.  As the story isn't about the villain, and the villain will likely be overcome in the end, there doesn't need to be a huge focus on it.  But be sure to give your readers enough to make sense of the villain's choices.  In the case of Mother Gothel, she was minding her own business and staying young with the magic flower until the jerk palace guards came and stole it.  She doesn't seem to be a horrible person at the beginning, just a vain one.  It was her commitment to her vanity that turned her into a villain.  And there we have it--a touch of backstory.

Villains Aren't Robots (unless they're Cybermen):
Finally, villains need a little bit of humanity.  Something that reminds us that they're people, too.  No one is purely evil, and only the most melodramatic of melodrama villains look into their mirrors, twist their long, curled mustaches, and consider themselves evil. 

Good villains have codes and values.  They have things that they cherish.  Let's look at Mother Gothel some more.  She could lock Rapunzel in the tower with nothing but a blanket, a pitcher of water, and a loaf of bread, because all she truly needs is to sing to Rapunzel's hair every few days or so.  But Rapunzel is clearly well taken care of.  She has comfortable furniture, ways to entertain herself, nice clothes, and even a nifty pet chameleon.  On her birthday, Rapunzel asks Mother Gothel for paints that would require three days of travel.  Now, I know there are some loving parents reading this, so be honest with yourself.  Would you drive a day and a half, pick up some paint for your child's birthday present, and then drive a day and a half back?  I'm thinking you'd expect your child to make do with whatever paint you can find within about a half-hour radius.  Yet Mother Gothel agrees to it, and it's clear from their conversation that she's made the journey before.  While she has a short fuse and stellar skill for manipulation, Mother Gothel has a soft spot for Rapunzel. She can look at her youthful face in the mirror each morning and say, "I've done bad things, but I'm not evil." 

And really, isn't that what we all do to varying degrees?  Maybe we haven't kidnapped a princess and locked her in a tower, but part of being human is racking up our pile of regrets.  We generally think of a good person as someone who tips the scales to the side of virtue, the good deeds outweighing the bad.  The thing is that we're our own judges, so we can nullify and justify whatever we want.  So Mother Gothel might admit that it was a bad thing to kidnap the princess, but she had no choice.  And sure, she's locked this girl in a tower for eighteen years, but really, all Rapunzel has been deprived of is the joy of cute shoes.  Rapunzel has no idea what she's missing out there in the real world, anyway.  Mother Gothel would not call herself evil.  Good villains can justify their actions with noble-sounding rationalization.  They just have a skewed world view.

Being Uncomfortable in a Villain's Skin:
As writers, and hopefully decent human beings, it's difficult to slip into a villain's skin and take a walk.  (Did that conjure up "It puts the lotion in the basket" thoughts?  Sorry.)  Anyhow, when we're not evil ourselves, and we're taught to abhor evil, something about getting into the head of an evil person just feels wrong.  But I'm going to encourage you to do it anyway.  As writers, that's what we do.  We write characters and experiences that come from our imaginations.  Think of it as no different than an adult writer getting into the mind of a teenage character, a male writer writing a female character, a stay-at-home mom on an Arizona ranch writing about a high-powered business executive in New York City.  We wouldn't flinch at making these characters believable and relatable and human, so don't flinch at doing the same for the villains.

Because remember:  Strong villain = Strong conflict = Strong story.

Up next: Antiheroes!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Art of Slashing Word Count

I’ve been busy polishing up my first novel and preparing to query agents and publishers.  That process should begin in a couple of weeks, and it seems surreal to think that I’ll be building my very own collection of rejection notices.

So I won’t write about that anymore because it makes me angsty.  I’ll write instead about how I’ve managed to cut 127,000 words to 103,000 with 100 pages still to edit—without losing plot content. I’m confident I’ll reach my goal of getting below 100,000.

Like any writer, I have my pet words.  When writing from first person, I'm always writing I know:
·         I know Sally is a gifted artist. 
·         I know Blake’s parents expect him home by dark.
·         I know the assembly will go long.
The thing is, if my first-person character says something, that means it’s already in her head.  So I get rid of a whole lot of I knows and save two words every time.

My characters also start to and begin to way too often.
·         I start to walk faster so I’ll beat the tardy bell.
·         Larry begins to speak.
Unless these characters are going to get interrupted, then they don’t need to start anything, they can just do it.  I save another two words by being direct.

I write a lot of sentences like this:
·         “We looked up the address,” I say, adjusting the weight of my backpack.  “It’s about three miles away.” 
I have a thing for dialogue tags, but I also like to add action to my dialogue.  It’s pretty easy to save a word by getting rid of say and letting the action define the speaker. 
·         “We looked up the address.” I adjust the weight of my backpack. “It’s about three miles away.”
Even at merely a single word a pop, I’ve probably saved a thousand overall with this trick.

I’m a just junkie.  I refuse to even search the word just in a manuscript until I’ve edited for it, because I’m sure it will be in there hundreds of times. 
·         I set the table just right. 
·         It’s just a toy. 
·         She just turned it in. 
I’m only slightly better at related words like only and barely.  I often have to replace the word, but when I can remove it completely, it saves a word on my count.

Finally, I try to be efficient with words.  Come back becomes return.  Very loud becomes rambunctious.  Not to mention the linking verbs.  I’m fairly decent at using strong verbs from the get-go, but there are still plenty to send to the Text Sea during revisions. 
·         We were nervous about not waking up, so we set three alarms.
·         Nervous about sleeping in, we set three alarms.
I just cut four words!

Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t cut all 24,000 words through bits and pieces like this, but I’d say the majority did come a word or two at a time.  Some of my bigger word cuts involve:

·         Getting rid of backstory—even if it’s insightful, cute, intense… If it’s important, I can find other places for it that don’t require so many words. (Perhaps it will involve a character just knowing something later on, and I can cut two more words in even later revisions.)

·         Making my characters get to the point.  They like to argue and have Q&A time with each other.  When they’re direct, I save a lot of words.

·         Cutting unnecessary action.  It might be exciting, even entertaining, but if it’s not serving a purpose and I have thousands of words to cut, it either goes completely or undergoes some major lipo.

Those are just a few of my biggest tricks.  I have more up my sleeve.  One thing that the editing and cutting process has done is open my eyes to my personal writing tendencies.  (How many times can I use the word emerge?)  So even though I’m a little depressed that I haven’t spent a lot of time creating new story over the past couple of weeks, I can’t claim that I still haven’t made decent strides as a writer.

I’ll have to remind myself of that when the rejections start pouring in.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Publisher's Weekly review for my novel!

As a quarterfinalist in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award contest, my manuscript was read by a Publisher's Weekly reviewer.  The written review, which I can use to query agents and publishers, is the award for making it to the quarterfinals.  So, even though I didn't make the cut to the semifinals (they cut 95% of the quarterfinalists), I'm happy to have this review.

In this engaging yet overly lengthy science fiction adventure, a group of rebels work to bring down a society that prizes intellect above all other qualities. Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth is one of many students furiously obsessed with studying, praying that she’ll pass her tests and make the cut, knowing that failure means she’ll be eradicated -- her intellect drained away, turning her into a Reg, a common laborer. Succeed, and she’s one step closer to becoming part of Gent society, where she can dedicate herself to a great purpose of her choosing. But when she ends up slated for eradication, she’s instead smuggled out of the city by the Awakened, a secret organization comprised of Gents and Regs determined to overthrown [sic] the New Establishment’s intellocracy. With nowhere else to go, Elizabeth joins the Awakened, becoming a vital part of their plan. But with traitors in their midst and the New Establishment cracking down with increasing accuracy and frequency, the Awakened must move quickly. But can Elizabeth trust anyone as the revolution kicks into high gear with her in the middle? Though fast-paced and compelling, there’s enough going on in this epic tale to fuel several books; read all in one go, it tends to drag and meander from one major twist to the next. However, with its richly-developed society, high stakes, and memorable characters, there’s also a lot to enjoy. Fans of the Hunger Games may just find their next heroine in Elizabeth as she proves infinitely adaptable, resourceful, and admirable. Readers looking for a deeper meaning might appreciate the ongoing debate about nature vs. nurture, families vs. a controlled environment. Everyone will likely enjoy the mixture of world-building, action, and character development.

The reviewer is right about the length.  I didn't reach my goal to get the manuscript down to 100,000 words before submitting.  I started at 127,000 and got it down to 113,000 after trimming only the first half, so I can (and will) shorten it.  I'm thrilled to be compared to The Hunger Games.  That's a compliment that warms my little writer's heart.  I'm also very happy that the reviewer enjoyed the various themes I put into the story.  In all, I'm over the moon with this review.

So my next step is to continue cutting and start querying agents and publishers--and racking up the rejection notices while I'm at it.  For now, I'll not worry much about the reviewer's comments that the storyline is too epic and meandering.  If a publisher/agent has the same concerns, then I'll look at dividing it up or trimming plot.  The way I see it, reviewers need to look for both the good and the bad, and if that's all this reader had to criticize (aside from length), then I'll run with it.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Matters of Tense

I write in present tense.  I’ve tried to write in past tense, but by the second or third paragraph, I migrate back into present.  Writing in past tense feels “dead” to me.

Now before you jump to defend all your own or others’ past-tense novels, let me clarify that this only refers to my writing tense.  As a reader, I hardly notice tense.  I will enjoy a good past tense novel just as much as a good present tense novel. 

But as a writer, I’m discovering my story, and it’s unfolding right in front of my eyes as the words fill the page.  To write in past tense is to write as if these events have already occurred, that the events I will write are a foregone conclusion, and that the end is historical fact.  But how can that be when they don’t exist yet?

Writing in present tense makes me feel like anything can still happen.  Often, my characters prove this to be true as they make their own decisions and take the story in an entirely unexpected direction.

Writing in present tense makes me feel like part of the action.  I become my characters in those moments, seeing their world through their eyes. 

And it’s all happening.  Right.  Now.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A First Chapter

It's been nearly a year since I posted here, so perhaps it's time to start up again.  I was trying to blog once a week, and that got overwhelming, so I just gave up.  One or two posts a month will be my goal for now.

So here's the first chapter of something I'm working on.  My working title for this is Everborn.

The sound of the downpour drowns out all other noise as Raine tucks the squirming newborn under his cloak and sprints through the streets. I chose this place, this desert, to be safe. Why would it rain tonight of all nights? As Raine pushes past pedestrians seeking shelter, electricity snaps in the air, a minion gathering power from the moisture. Instinctively, Raine looks back. He finds the minion in the light streaming from an inn window, yet it somehow remains in shadow and barely discernible. Raine can only make it out because the drops do not touch it.

            Raine races through muddy puddles and sodden horse manure, his beautiful new boots forever ruined. All this for a bloody girl, he thinks. I should just leave her to the minion. Thalen will reincarnate in nine months as a proper boy. But centuries of protecting this soul will not allow Raine to leave Thalen to the minion. He cannot allow its master, the numaelon Oren, to win yet again.

            With another look behind him, Raine sees the shadowy figure melt away, leaving in its place a distraught peasant woman. Raine knows this trick. The minion, in the guise of an innocent victim, will gain support from the local law enforcement to slow Raine down. In this sense, the storm is on Raine’s side. It will take Vastaria’s knights longer to rally in response to whatever story the minion tells them.

            Best be safe, Raine thinks, conjuring a cloaking spell to make the baby girl appear as a basket of fruit. He shivers as the magic draws warmth from his body. In this weather, with precious little heat to draw from, he can’t change his own appearance, as well, or he’ll freeze.

            Raine keeps moving, going for speed and distance rather than stealth, since the minion can see well in the shadows and moves with a speed Raine hasn’t seen in two hundred years. Water is the numaelon’s element, giving him and his puppet the advantage in this desert kingdom which usually favors Raine’s heat-based magic. As he runs, Raine wonders if the numaelon’s power has increased so much. Could Oren have created this storm? Could he draw enough power to control more than one minion?

            The basket of fruit cries out. Raine holds it tightly to him, cradling it against his chest. A tiny lemon paws at him as an apple roots around attempting to nurse. The poor child, barely minutes from her mother’s womb, might never know the satisfaction of her first meal.

            Raine stops under an awning to catch his breath. Sustaining the cloaking spell on the child has sapped his body heat, and he feels his joints stiffening. No amount of training can prepare him to run far and fast with frozen muscles, so he lessens the spell, the top of the infant’s head now visible, along with ten tiny fingers.

            In front of him, a second minion steps out of the gale. This storm has indeed made the numaelon a powerful master, allowing Oren to control two of his marked souls. Raine sees through the creature’s human disguise, recognizing the tell-tale bluish hue of the woman’s face. She lunges for the fruit basket, covering the few yards in two long steps. Raine pulls away and runs, his boots and cloak soaked, his icy leg muscles brittle. The minion woman gathers the raindrops around her, and thrusts a swarming wave at Raine. He stumbles at it hits him in the back, but adrenaline keeps him upright. He can’t lose this soul again.

            In the town square, he sees the lights. Covered torches. Fire, heat, power. He runs toward them, but thinks better of it. The torches’ meager heat will not be enough.

            He turns again, down a dark alley that will lead him into the canyon where he has a chance to disappear. If he can hide long enough, wait out the storm, the desert heat will return, bringing with it his power and his advantage. He must only endure the night.

            Raine hurries through the alley, a river of a road. Rats leap from his path as his boots propel the sheet of water covering the dirt street, the packed soil too dry to absorb it. Raine sees the edge of the canyon in the distance through the alley’s end, and hope soars in his chest. He can escape with Thalen.

            A wall of water rises up, filling the alley and blocking his way. Around Raine’s ankles, the puddles swirl, gather, and envelop his legs. He turns, his only option to retrace his steps and head back toward town, but his path is blocked that way, as well, by a small, unimposing man.

            But Raine knows Oren, the numaelon, in any guise.

            He’s come here? Himself? To kill an infant? A girl? Oren has always sent minions after the children, only involving himself when Thalen’s current body managed to reach adolescence and became a true threat. Why is he here now?

            The water freezes around Raine’s legs, stopping him, and the liquid wall behind him swirls, encasing him in a flood. An eerie underwater silence surrounds him, and his cloak and long hair rise with the weightlessness of submersion. Raine can’t die, but the child he holds will certainly drown. He thrusts the fruit basket beyond his wet cage and into the open air, holding it at arm’s length, and releases the spell. The wailing fruit melts away, revealing the crying child.

            Oren strides forward and plucks the girl from Raine’s outstretched arms. He won’t kill her. Not yet. Oren will need time to prepare the enchantments that mask Thalen’s reincarnation from Raine, to hinder his ability to find and protect his friend’s latest form. That requires water, more than a storm. Oren can win this battle, but Raine will still have time to save the girl.

            Raine fights the urge to breathe within his prison. Even though he doesn’t necessarily need air, he’s never shaken the habit of breathing during his centuries as an immortal, and his body is accustomed to a steady flow of oxygen. At this moment, his panicking mind hits him with a thought. Thalen has never occupied a female body before. There is something about a girl that threatens Oren enough for him to come and destroy her himself.

            Raine draws on what little body heat he has left, weakening the ice binding his legs. If he can just break through his frozen chains, he can push through the water cell with physical strength alone.

            He breaks one leg free and focuses his attention on the other. The top of his boot is frozen to his trouser leg, and he strains as he pries them apart. Finally, he’s able to pull his foot out of the boot, leaving it frozen to the street, and falls, exhausted, out into the open air. Splashing onto his hands and knees, Raine can’t help sucking in breath, the sounds of the storm assaulting his ears once more. He forces himself to stand and uses the side of a building to push his stiff body forward. Between his staggering and his one bare foot, he looks drunk, but he doesn’t care. He won’t let Oren get away with the child, with his friend’s soul. Raine will end this now.

            Emerging from the alley, he sees Oren striding toward the east gate of the city wall, a knight blocking his path several feet ahead. Not a knight, a Queensman, as indicated by his silver sword belt, trained to defend the kingdom from the supernatural. Stance wide, hand near his sword, the Queensman intends to fight. Raine considers shouting, warning the fool to stand aside, but killing the Queensman will slow Oren down and allow Raine a chance to recover the child. It’s the knight’s duty to die for the realm, isn’t it? And this child could be the key to ridding the realm, and the world, of Oren forever. Raine can allow that sacrifice, but it will be in vain if Oren escapes with Thalen.

            The stone arch of the gate protects four burning torches. They flicker in the wind, but it’s fire, heat. It’s not enough, but Raine must try. He calls on every muscle to burst into action. Lunging forward, he forces his legs to move, every agonizing step a victory, toward Oren, toward Thalen, toward fire.

            The Queensman unsheathes his iron knife rather than his sword. The man recognizes Oren as a creature of darkness, but he can’t know his opponent’s true nature. This Queensman might deal often with minions, but his iron will do little more than scratch Oren. Still, each second the Queensman occupies the numaelon’s attention is another second Raine has to reach the child.

            Only yards away now, Raine hurls himself forward as the Queensman swipes the blade at Oren, who merely laughs at the antics of a man no more threatening than a monkey with a spoon. But this knight proves a brave and experienced warrior. When Oren dodges the blade, his chest is open to attack. The Queensman takes advantage, stepping back and throwing his knife, imbedding it impressively in Oren’s chest. Raine watches helplessly as the infant splashes to the ground. A horrifying, silent second passes before the baby howls. She’s still alive, but she can drown in that inch of water.

            The Queensman flings himself over the child, protecting her as Oren pulls the blade from his chest. In the same instant, Raine finally feels the torches’ warmth. Their light fails as Raine draws heat from the flames, heat from his body, heat from the Queensman, but not the child. The man he can sacrifice. He pushes the spell, and all the heat he’s gathered, straight at Oren.

            Vulnerable from the Queensman’s blade, Oren succumbs to Raine’s banishing spell, dissolving into the storm. Raine has no idea where he’s sent Oren, but the minions will pose no more threat. For now.

Cold, exhaustion, and relief overtake Raine. He falls to the ground and drags himself toward the wailing baby, keeping his face above the shallow flood. The child lies face up, the Queensman’s frozen arm slung over her.

            Raine doesn’t have much time to prevent the infant from drowning before losing consciousness. He pulls the knight’s arm off of her, hearing the Queensman groan. He’s not dead. Yet. Raine can’t help but be impressed as he pulls the baby out of the water and rolls onto his back, laying the child on his chest and covering her with his cloak. He can only hope someone finds them before she freezes against his cold body.


            Raine feels the baby’s weight lifted off him and strong arms grasping his limbs. Has it been seconds? Hours? He can’t wake, can’t protest, but he keeps hold of his connection with Thalen. As Raine feels himself tucked into soft blankets, he knows Thalen is safe.

            Daylight assaults his eyes when Raine opens them. He turns toward a noise, startling a round serving girl who runs from the room. Raine tries to call after her, but his voice comes out a croak.

            Raine is naked under the heavy pile of blankets. Heat radiates from hot water bottles against his skin. He can tell by the servant, the linens, and his medical care that he occupies a room in a rich house. The high windows and intricately carved furniture confirm his assumption.

            Closing his eyes, Raine searches for Thalen’s presence and finds it nearby and in no danger. Satisfied, he nestles into the bed and enjoys the warmth, drawing just enough to heal his more annoying body aches and relieve the wooziness in his head. He could sleep for days here, and now that Thalen is safe, Raine hopes he can. All too soon he’ll have to take Thalen, in his baby girl form, and find the answers to last night’s questions before Oren comes after Thalen again. What about a female child threatens Oren? And how can Raine and Thalen use that knowledge to defeat him for good? Raine would rather not take the baby with him, though, and wonders what price would convince the master of this house to take her as a ward.

            The door opens and two knights enter, followed by an auburn-haired woman in a tight-fitting gown of rich green silk. Raine pulls his eyes away from her amply displayed cleavage, as she is clearly as important as she is attractive. He looks again at the knights, their woolen tunics emblazoned with a serpent coiled around her eggs. The ironic insignia of Nystra, Vastaria’s barren queen.

            “Your Majesty,” Raine stutters, sitting upright. He’s seen her once before. She’d been only five at the time, and has since grown into a graceful woman with a dangerously beautiful face.

            “Remain in bed,” Nystra says. “I know you’re not dressed.”

            Raine stays sitting, but pulls a blanket up to cover his chest.

            “How did you survive?” Nystra demands. “Your limbs were frozen through.”

            Raine has heard about the queen’s detached manner, but her bluntness still surprises him. It’s more difficult to distract such a personality from a straight answer, but Raine has to try, since he doesn’t have a decent explanation for his survival other than the truth. “Does my recovery anger you?”

            “To be honest, it complicates matters.” She ignores Raine’s confused look and continues, “Sir Roderick says you fought a minion alongside him to protect an infant. Who is the child?”

            Raine allows her to believe Oren was a minion. “The child is my daughter,” he lies. “Is she safe?”

            “She’s bumped and bruised, but keeping her wet nurse busy, so we’re confident she’ll be fine. Yet, you can’t be more than sixteen. A father? Are you married?”

            Raine feigns a shamed expression. “No, Your Grace. Felice and I wanted to marry, but her father wouldn’t allow it. We decided to wait until the baby came, then run away as a family.”

            “And how did you come to be involved with a minion?”

            “Felice’s father summoned it. We ran, but it found us while she labored.” Raine conjures tears for this woman he didn’t know, a pregnant widow whom he’d directed Thalen’s essence into and watched from afar. He now veers his story toward the truth. “She had twins. The minion killed my son and Felice, but the midwife cut my daughter out while I fought the creature. I grabbed my baby and ran.”

            One of the knights answers a knock at the door, and a woman carries in a bundle of blankets. Silver-blond hair peeks out the top. Thalen. The woman looks longingly at the baby as she hands her to Raine.

            “You do not intend to raise this baby, do you?” Nystra asks.

            Though an abrupt question, Raine hopes the queen will suggest fostering the child. Yet, Raine must play a distraught father and grieving lover. “She’s my daughter.” He bounces her in his arms. “All I have left of her mother. Of course I intend to raise her.”

            “What is your livelihood?” Nystra asks. “How will you provide for a child when you’re a child yourself?”

            “I’ll do my best, Majesty. That’s all I can do.”

            “I have a proposition, although I cannot offer it tastefully. This is my sister Lesene.” Nystra gestures to the woman. “She’s serving as your daughter’s wet nurse. Lesene has milk because she gave birth to a daughter one week ago, but Inara arrived too early and sadly passed away the night before last. But now we have a baby girl, practically orphaned, to take her place.”

            Raine conceals a smile. In fourteen or fifteen years, he’ll have to regain access to the palace, but he couldn’t have asked for a better arrangement. He puts on a shocked expression.  “Are you suggesting…” He fills his eyes with tears. “I couldn’t. She’s all I have.”

            You’re all she has, but you’re not enough. She could be raised here, a princess, heir to the Vastarian throne. Only a select few know about the death of my niece and adopted heir. Your daughter would slip right into her place.”

            Raine stares at Nystra, legitimately surprised. The heir? That complicates his plans. A ward he can steal away again, but a princess? He pulls the baby’s blanket away to reveal Thalen’s silver-blond hair, which appears in all his incarnations. “No one will believe she’s Vastarian.”

            “We’ll say the princess’s hair is a sign from the Great One.”

            Raine recalls one of Thalen’s previous lives when that didn’t work out well at all. Even so, Nystra’s proposition mostly suits Raine’s purposes.

            The queen continues, “Vastaria is in need of both inspiration and an heir. Last night’s storm swept away countless homes, claimed countless lives. As my people rebuild, this sign will raise their spirits.”

            “She’ll be a princess?” Raine asks.

            “She’ll be my own niece,” Nystra sits on the bed, placing a hand on the soft swaddling blanket. “Lesene will raise her here in the palace. She will be loved, educated, and provided for.

            Raine cradles the baby. He looks conflicted as he thinks. He can’t stay here, and hopes the queen won’t insist. After about three years, people notice he doesn’t age. Plus, he has to figure out what has Oren so scared. He must have prepared that attack for a century, storing up power. To spend it here, now. Raine can’t ignore the significance.

            “I hate to leave her,” he says, “but she’d be better off. I don’t think I can stay, though. It would be too painful.”

“It’s for the best that she stay and you go,” Nystra says to Raine’s relief. “But if you try to reveal this deception, you’ll both be executed.”

Raine nods his assent. “Her name is Felice,” he insists.

“Inara Felice.” Nystra takes the baby and kisses her head. “Princess and heir.”

And Oren’s bane, Raine thinks.