Category Archives: Outtakes

Where did my GMC go?

 

Or rather, what not to do, writer edition.

If you’re a writer, I’ll bet you’ve had Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict** recommended to you as a necessary read. I mean, I know I have. As of right now, I’ve not yet made the jump and purchased it. And for the last few years I’ve – Well, I’ve not actually finished anything, have I, so perhaps that hasn’t mattered.

But now? Well, I’ve set myself a challenge – I don’t get to work on anything else until I finish the first draft of my current project. I mean, I’ll never be a published author if I don’t finish anything, will I?

And I’ve managed some really good scenes – scenes that started from a sentence or a thought or an impression, but weren’t mapped out before hand. Some of those, I’ve shared here; some I have kept to myself.

Today is about what not to do, however. Yes?

Yes. And this scene I’m sharing with you today? A great big rambling word vomit. I knew I wanted to introduce my character and hint at her problems, but I didn’t achieve any of that. Never mind that this meek girl does not exemplify my Heroine at all. It’s more than that. At least, that’s the impression I was left with upon a read through.

I’m sharing this with you because (a) I’ve completely scrapped it and (b) I think it’s a great lesson on why we need to learn and understand GMC.

What do you think?

* Of note, that is a straight link to Amazon – I am making no money on sales if you decide to purchase that book 🙂

Stokesbridge Manor
Mayfair
1812

“The music room must be opened and cleared, of course.” Lady Stokesbridge swept gracefully from the library. In the large entry hall, she glanced to the room in question, but did not enter it. The double doors, imposingly large (type of wood) and carved by hand, were flung open to air the room, but the few remaining contents were shrouded beneath (holland?) sheets.
Trailing behind her, Mary Frances recited the instructions as she noted them upon a stray bit of paper rescued from the mess that passed for Papa’s desk. “Open the music -” She stopped just short of stumbling into her mother’s back, looking up for the first time. “You cannot mean that, Mama. You cannot open the music room.”

“Why ever not, child?”

Fanny blinked rapidly as her brain fought to retrieve a plausible excuse, for she surely could not admit the truth. When she could find none, she said simply, “Must we really clear it out, Mama? The drawing room has served us well for our balls, even the magnificent crushes when Thomas was searching for a bride. ”

Where would she hide her music sheets if the room were cleared and used, she wondered. She cleared her throat. Perhaps she could bribe one of the maids to tuck the case of sheets under the bottom layer of her wardrobe. Mama hadn’t looked there yet.

Lady Stokesbridge, for her part, ignored the odd behavior of her eldest daughter. After six years of such outbursts, one became used to it. Waving away Jenkins, the butler who had come running at the outburst of voices in his silent domain, she said, “Do not be daft Fanny. Where else would we hold the ball to announce your sister’s betrothal to Braithwaite?”
Fanny blinked. Had she not already suggested the perfect location? “The drawing room, Mama,” she said, as if speaking to a small child. “Surely it is to be a small affair, after all.”
Lady Stokesbridge paused, one foot slipping down to the third step of the polished staircase that wound around the corner of hall. From that great height of three steps, she actually towered over daughter, something she had not done for ten years. She steeled her spine, as if gearing up for an argument. One dark brow quirked up, and she said, “A small affair?”
“The Duchess of Malham is having a ball that night, Mama. I told you to choose a different night.’ Her mother’s eyes narrowed, and she immediately regretted the words.

“Yes, you did, but I did not imagine that you…” Lady Stokesbridge trailed off, words failing her for the first time in many years. She tried again, but still came up with nothing more than, “That is, I -”

“I know, Mama. Justin is back in town for the season, and her grace wishes to find him another wife.” The list, long since forgotten, fell from her numb hands. Even just saying his name hurt. After six years, one would expect a girl to get over the boy who broke her heart, but Fanny had not.

“But how did you -”

“The invitation, Mama. You left it in the morning room, and Eliza showed it to me. She was quite excited to be invited to the Malham ball.”

“Yes, so she said. And when I explained we would not be attending, she was so crestfallen that I suggested we hold her betrothal ball the same night. Braithwaite might not have much of a title, but the family is well connected.”

Fanny felt a chill slither down her spine. Despite the actions of six years prior, she counted the duchess a good friend, as did Mama. And regardless of Braithwaite’s connections or her father’s money, they were not a well-connected family. She set to pacing the width of the stairs, forward seven steps, then back. “We cannot be seen as slighting your oldest friend, Mama. This will not do.”

“You’re being daft again, my dear. Charlotte will be here for the first hour, and then everyone will make their way to the Malham townhouse for her grand to-do.” Lady Stokesbridge pointed to the fallen list. “You’re much too agitated for my nerves today, girl. Take that list and get started. “

With a disdainful glare through the open doors, she added, “And do get that wonderful artist who chalked up the floors of Tindall House last week.”

From the corner of her eye, Fanny caught the barest glimpse of pale pink. That would be Mary Elizabeth, in from the garden and hoping to escape the attention of another never-ending lecture. She said the first thing that popped into her head as distraction. “I am not certain we can afford that particular artist, Mama.”

A pale blond head poked around the drawing room door, well out of sight of their mother, and tossed her a wink.

Lady Stokesbridge stilled, her rigid spine inching further erect, thought Fanny could not say how that was possible, and turned her full attention to her eldest daughter. “Not afford him? Don’t be daft. It doesn’t become you. If the Tindall’s can afford him, so can we.”
Quite true, of course. And irrelevant. Her mother would go into debt to give her younger daughter anything she desired. There was no arguing it. “Yes, Mama.”

Advertisements

Where did my productivity go?

I mean, seriously. I started this whole Bullet Journal thing because it’s supposed to help. And it does help me focus on what needs done. I’m just not doing everything. Because with or without this damned thing, I’m still a slacker.

And I have to stop. I mean, who cares if I note that I’m going to do these 5 things if I don’t actually do them? Well, I do. With school coming up, I need to be back in productivity overdrive.

Did I mention yet that I cannot wait to start my fall classes? I’ll be taking two tax classes. EXCITED!!!

Yes. Seriously.

So, it’s Wednesday, and that means it’s Work-in-Progress. Over on Jude Knight’s website, she’s talking about servants. Specifically, the servants of her characters. Jude is a wonderful historical romance author – and I’ll be hosting an event for her 16 July. Let me know if you’re interested in attending. I can probably link the Facebook Event on here.

But see, I switched my focus from historical romance to a cozy mystery set right here in Springfield, Illinois during the early 20th Century. We open in 1918, although the series will veer into the 1920’s. Turns out, my fair city has a rich history of gangs and bootlegging.

So, while my main character comes from a wealthy family, she is peacefully estranged from them, and has no servants. Oh, she’s well enough off – and receives a stipend from her father – and she owns her own book shop. She does, after all, have to be able to travel and investigate the murders. Plus, as I was writing her, she revealed that she owned this shop and did not talk to her family. Running from a tragic event, of course.

But if we don’t have servants, what do we have? Well, mob bosses have hired muscle, naturally. And they don’t play an important part in my book, but the exist. I mean, I’ve written the confession (no tells, sorry) but not much more than that, so perhaps they do play an important part.

Anyway. Here’s a hint at what’s to come. (Naturally, I’ve already changed a bit of this, so I feel fine sharing!) And please remember this is 100% raw, unedited nonsense scribbles!

I briefly admired the Pullman attached to the end of the train, but it was nothing to get too excited about. Daddy had one, and mama always tried to get me to use it for my buying trips. I preferred the anonymity of a public car.

Two more men in that public car. I found the last public car almost completely empty. Two large men sat at the rear, largely ignoring each other. Each read the morning paper. Rather, they pretended to.

Hired muscle, each of them – likely for the owner of the Pullman. I recognized the air of self-importance about them almost immediately.

Lefty stared at me over the fold of his paper, careful to avert his eyes when I dared meet his gaze. Righty had no such subtlety. He put the paper down and stood. With a grace not usually seen in one so bulky, he moved to where I stood.

I was unable to suppress the smile that spread across my face. Lefty remained unknown, but I had known Righty most of my life.

“Newton Jones. What a pleasure.” It would not be. Newton only worked for one family since leaving our small town up north.

“My apologies miss, but this car is full.”

I detected the moment recognition set in. The tough guy act shattered, and he flashed a quick smile. “Surely it’s been too long, Miss H – ”

“The car is empty, Newton.” I gestured widely – we had yet to be joined by another person, and the ticket girl had indicated this car was fully available.

“It’s for your own good, miss.”

Of course it was. But I was tired of being told what was good for me. In the end, I won – but only because the train started moving, and there was nothing to be done. I was stuck in the car closest to my uncle’s biggest rival – the man who most hated me and my family.

So there you have it. The first official excerpt from my newest piece. It’s rough, but it’s fun. I hope you enjoy!

Tell me, what are you working on this week?

 

What a Week!

Happy Valentine’s Day. I hope you enjoyed yourself – spoiled your significant other if you’re in a relationship; spoiled yourself if you’re single because you still deserve it.

My great beastly Bearded Rogue was supposed to work today (he’s a bartender, holidays are, typically, out for us) but due to a snow storm, he got off early and we braved the lines at the store. Not because of the storm, but because Sunday’s are for shopping in our house.

It’s a day for kisses, however, and I just happen to write stories in which kisses make frequent appearances. Except, I have yet to write one… I have a scene that is ripe for a kiss, however, so you give me a few minutes and let me see what I can come up with…

“You are leaving.” The question – no, it was decidedly not a question – came from the door, and she paused her packing, hands frozen in midair.

Their eyes met across the length of the bedroom. Briefly, she wondered if he could see the evidence of her tears, but quickly dismissed it as of no matter. Newly engaged women often shed tears of joy, after all.

She owed him an explanation, and opened her mouth to provide one, but found she could only say, “I am.”

Her shoulders dropped, and she leaned against the window, letting the cold seep into her hot skin. She owed him everything, but could give him nothing. “We cannot be, Rupert. It does not work, and you know this.”

He closed the distance between them, sweeping her into an embrace. Before she could protest, his lips crashed down upon hers. Despite an outward appearance of calm, she was eager for the kiss, for it would be the last they shared, and she wanted to savor every moment of it.

He took his time, slowly parting her lips with his tongue, and she knew she would relive this kiss for the rest of her days. When his lips left hers to trace the vein that led to the pulsing hollow at the base of her throat, she thought she would catch fire. Surely the frost upon the window panes would be melted from the contact.

All too quickly, the embrace ended, and she was cold again.

He laughed at her obvious discomfort, a bitter sound so unlike the laughter she had coaxed so many times over the months of their acquaintance. His eyes grew hard, and the temperature in the room felt as if it had dropped several degrees. “You would kiss me like that, then tell me nothing lies between us, Fig? You could lie to me? To yourself?”

She pushed away, unable to face the censure in his eyes. She desperately wanted to cave in, to confess all, but she could not find the words.

Shocking – Two in One Week!

In between the stress of my full time day job and a 16 hour course load via SIU online, I am still plugging away at Fig and Rue’s story. Hopefully I’ll have time tomorrow to knock out at least one more chapter (about 3 scenes), even if just by hand and not in a document…
 
Alas, I have an exam (and an exam quiz??) plus a lab/lab quiz and a reflection paper. I can do some of it Sunday while pretending to watch the Superbowl, but not the exam, so time is limted…
 
Anyway, even as I plug away at Under the Mistletoe, I have thoughts of Sarah and Stratford (With This Kiss) swirling in the background. Well, today, I was listening to a song, and a sentence unfurled in my mind. I sat down tonight to sketch out some notes on the scene, and it just poured out of me, including notes for the following scene. Inspiration. Yes! 
So, I’m going to give you a special glimpse into the world of Sarah and Stratford, another fairy tale revisioning. Can you guess which one?
Silver moonlight flooded the worn path from the stone terrace, through the beds of hibiscus, and down the manicured lawn, but Sarah had no need of it. She knew the lawns and paths and gardens of Raven’s Nest as well as she knew her own, despite the passing of years. She could walk the land blindfolded, and she would know every step just by the scent hanging in the air. Her bare feet sank into the thick carpet of grass, blades tickling the bottom of her feet, when she veered to the left, heading through the canopy of wisteria, straight for the folly.
Built more than a century before she was even born, it was designed to mimic the the great house, down to the ornate door knocker. As children, they often escaped here to hide from the governess the boys allowed her to share. She snorted rather indelicately at the idea of being allowed the education the boys gladly shirked.
The snap of a branch close by caught her attention, and her head snapped up, memories forgotten. She froze, heart racing in her chest.
Was it a poacher?
Carefully she inched toward the stone building, glad to see it looming ahead of her, and not fallen into disrepair and ruin. Rupert had cared for it after all.
No, she reminded herself, he is home now. The responsibility lies at his feet.
She was just a few short feet shy of the thick door when a flash of movement at the corner of her eye alerted her that someone was close. She sucked in a large breath of air, head swinging to the sides as she sought escape. She needed to hide.
Or run. Yes, that would be…
Her thoughts trailed off as a figure stepped from the small copse of trees that led to the bond. Stratford. Her heart, that feckless creature within her chest, cried at the sight of him, drinking in every detail. She found herself unable to look away from the rigid muscles of his lean, bare chest; her eyes followed the trail of dark hair to where it disappeared in the falls of his trousers. The moon, full and bright above, cast a silver glow across his bronzed skin, and she swallowed, throat suddenly dry.
“Hello, Red.” He tossed her the cheeky grin she remembered so well from their youth.
“Do, do not call me that, my lord.” Her heart might be a traitorous beast, but at least her brain was sensible enough to put an icy distance between them.
He tsked. “When did we let such formalities grow between us, Red?” He came to a stop before her, cupping her chin with the hand not grasping his boots. She looked into the unfathomable depths of his muddy eyes, calling herself ten times a fool as she wished and hoped and prayed he would lean down and sweep his lips across hers.
Wrenching free of his grasp, she twisted away from him. “There is more than just formalities between us, my lord. There is time, and – and…” She trailed off, unable to finish the accusations her brain would fling.
“And? Time and – what, Sarah? Surely not time and distance. I am here, in the flesh. In the now.”
“You left me, damn you.” She hid her face, lest he think her tears caused by longing or anything akin to it. Lest he think them caused by anything other than the mounting frustration. “We had a deal, my lord. Crossed our hearts, and swore it would be forever.”
He closed the distance between them, and she felt the warmth of his flesh through the thin muslin of her nightrail as he enveloped her in his strong arms, crushing her to his chest. The whisper of his lips against her fevered brow sent a frisson of heat through her.
“I had no choice, Sarah. Surely you see that now?”
“I see nothing but the man who swore he would rather die than leave me. The man who slipped away in the dead of night just hours after leaving my bed. You left me with no one.”
“Rupert was -“
“At war, my lord. Rupert left the next morning, thinking you just sleeping off a hangover, and I was alone again.” She allowed herself the comfort he offered, resting her wet cheek against his chest. In a small voice, one she hoped he did not actually hear, she added, “It was never him anyway. Only you.”

Excerpt

I’ve just cut a swathe through the few pages of With This Kiss that I’ve managed to write. By huge swathe, I do mean I completely rewrote the first scene. It remains familiar, but I think it has been improved upon tenfold. Now, since it is Wednesday, and I do not really have a blog for you – just those niggling feelings of guilt for not posting…

Enjoy!

3 March, 1811

Sarah Grace Patterson tucked her long legs underneath her skirts, settling into the deep leather seat of her father’s favored leather chair. She turned the page of her newest purchase slowly, savoring the build-up of spine-tingling terror, and putting off the romantic save which would end The Right Hand of Darkness. M. Rakoczy was a new author, but the thick gothick romance had yet to disappoint.

A fire burned in the grate behind her, the flames licking at logs and kindling. Sarah, as she was known to family, allowed the warmth to envelope her rather than pile on more blankets to ward off the winter chill. She turned to the next page and reached for her tea cup. She grimaced when a sip of tea told her it had long since passed over tepid, coming to a full stop at stone cold.

Rather than put the book down to top off her cup, however, she set the cup back down. It would be ignored for another half hour anyway, she rationalized.

“Did you hear about Elyza Joy?”

The words, spoken in Livvie Stenson’s breathy voice, broke into her concentration. Sarah looked up, blinking away the words of her novel. Confused as to when her cousin had arrived, she asked just that.

“Oh, I’ve been in here for ages,” Livvie said. She flung herself into the chair opposite Sarah with a loud sigh. “I’ve been waiting for you to acknowledge me, but you’ve been stuck in that silly book the entire time. ‘Tis a dreadful bore, all this reading you do.”

Unable to politely ignore the unspoken message, Sarah reluctantly closed the leather bound tome, and set it to the side. Lord Diego would be there when she returned, after all.

“I must admit, Livvie dearest, that I am surprised you sought me out,” she said. Or that you could even find the library, she thought. Remorse immediately swept through her. Olivia Stenson was her best friend, even if not the most intellectual person.

Livvie turned to stare out the uncurtained window that looked over the snow-blanketed terrace to the south of their Berkeley Square manor, but Sarah could see that her gaze remained unfocused.

  She suppressed a sigh. Each week, their families met at Marylebone Old Church for service. After service, everyone returned to Preston House. Tea and gossip could be found in the morning room, cigars and port in Lord Preston’s office. The relaxing day of familial joviality would be completed with an informal dinner. For Sarah, the library brought solitude, escape from the trivial discussions her female relatives so favored.

Livvie spoke in that childish voice she had perfected at the command of her mother, once again breaking into Sarah’s thoughts. “Our mothers are talking the marriage mart again,” she said, “and I overheard the most delicious gossip regarding Elyza Joy.”

A maid brought in a fresh tea cart in response to a tug upon the bell pull. Both girls held their tongues until she had gently shut the library doors behind her.

Sarah poured new tea for herself, but Livvie declined with a brief shake of her golden curls. Instead, Livvie shoved away from her seated position to pace the length of worn carpet set before the fireplace. Her movements were agitated, restless even. The air was thick with… a sadness almost palatable, Sarah decided. She regretted her annoyance at the intrusion, and stood to offer comfort.

“We are hardly friends with Elyza Joy,” she said. “What news could have upset you so?”

Livvie rebuked the embrace. Anger shone in her eyes. “Have you – have you ever thought your world so shattered it could never be put right?”

“Here, drink this.” Sarah thrust a cup of steaming tea into Livvie’s hands. She was not sure how to answer the question. Melodrama was Livvie’s secret weapon, not hers.

Livvie swallowed the tea quickly. “I – I know I sound silly, but this news has sent my mind swirling in new directions. It has been very thought provoking.”

“And we know how little you like that,” teased Sarah.

“Most women do, Sarah. It is only you ape-leaders who wish to indulge in serious thoughts.”

Sarah ignored the barb. Livvie had not meant it as an insult. She never did. “Tell me what has you so upset that you would seek my counsel, Livvie.”

“Elyza Joy seems to have gotten herself into trouble,” said Livvie. “And the dreadful creature has placed the blame at Banleighton’s feet.”

Silence stretched between them. There had been rumors about an alliance between the Preston family and the Banleighton clan for several years, but Sarah never took it seriously. Her parents would force her into nothing. And yet, learning that the man she might have sought happiness with had seduced a rather shy debutante gave her pause.

‘Perhaps it is a love match, and they anticipated the vows,” she finally said to break the silence.

Livvie dismissed the idea with the wave of a hand. “Love? Bah.”

“It is not unheard of.”

“You are such a provincial girl with your odd notions of true love and happily ever afters, are you not? Especially for one raised in London.”

“What else is there if not love, Livvie? How can I believe in anything but?” Sarah picked up her new book, caressing the soft leather cover. Lord Diego, he believed in love – even if he had trouble expressing it.

“Power. Wealth. Those are what matters in marriage, Sarah. Not love,” replied Livvie. “Like your shy little Elyza Joy, I shall marry where I am told. I will do anything to keep my position in society.”

“How sad that is Livvie,” Sarah said. A thought crossed her mind. “Do not tell me you have feelings for Banleighton. Had you hopes of catching him? I would not have minded, you know.”

Again, she was dismissed with the wave of a hand and a scolding glare. “Of course you would have minded,” said Livvie. “His grace is not only wealthy and powerful, but extremely good looking.”

“So you do hold him in regard?”

Ignoring the question, Livvie said, “Perhaps she just wanted to avoid another pointless season. Last year was what, her fourth?” She shuddered delicately at the thought.

“If the season is as bad as all that, why have one? Especially if you are so bent upon marrying where told?”

Livvie offered no reply, so Sarah allowed the silence to grow between them before picking her novel up from the low table next to her chair. She still did not know why Livvie was so bothered by this news, but she accepted her cousin would reveal all in her own time.

Outtakes part 8 million

OK, so I might have a wee problem with exaggeration. Whatever. As promised in my last post, here is an outtake of my (as yet unnamed) current project.

Do enjoy!

David Williams, fifteenth Duke of Mondragon, escorted Olivia to the Blue Parlor, near the front of the Winter Palace. The large room stood empty, silent – a constant reminder of my madness, for this is where I was toppled. The rumors of my death are, of course, greatly exaggerated, but we shall deal with that another day.

Pray forgive me. It seems I must be constantly reminded that this is Olivia’s story, and not my own.

The large room stood empty, silent. No reminders of mad queens or throne-stealing… Ahem.

The large room stood empty, silent. No fire burned in the grate to dispel that icy grip of winter. Outside the long wall of windows, snow fell upon the manicured green lawns. Snow in May. That definitely never used to happen.

“What is it sir? Are you not to escort me to the ceremony?” Olivia’s voice trembled. The fear evident gnawed at His Grace’s conscious.

A nobleman with a conscious. What an oddity. Regardless of the person upon the throne.

Lord Mondragon shifted from one foot to the other. The problem was obvious – how to allay her fears, prepare her for the trials of the Blood Court? Releasing the breath he did not realize he held, he realized nothing could prepare her for what was to come.

“Of course I am, child,” he said rather forcefully. Clearing his throat, he continued, “Before we descend, however, I want you to know that -”

The cloying scent of too much lavender filled the room, seeping through the walls, through the vents, sinking to my room below. “Not thinking of sharing Court secrets with the uninitiated are you, Your Grace?” asked Lady Woolverton.

Lady Woolverton. I growled, low in my throat, and the winds whipped into a frenzy, hammering at the windows of the Blue Parlor. That filthy courtesan who seduced my consort, setting into motion my freefall. All at the behest of Adaline, the usurper. My sweet Albert was rewarded with a new Queen and eternal youth while that treacherous bitch, Maud, was rewarded with the hand of a lowly baron.

Unaware of the sordid past of the court or her inhabitants, Olivia was intelligent enough to be wary. Pasting a smile onto her face, she turned to the older woman. “Well met, Lady Woolverton. Will Lilliana join me this night?

She refers, of course, to the sweet girl the old harpy managed to birth after years of lost babes. A plain girl with none of her mother’s flash – or coarseness, she was also one of the few to treat Olivia with kindness. And Lady Woolverton could not speak well, or often, enough of her.

No matter the cost of the silk trappings, a cow is still a pig. No. That isn’t right. You cannot make a silk purse with a… oh, nevermind. Lady Woolverton was gauche, and no amount of education since her elevation from tart to married tart would change that.

Momentarily forgetting the duke’s presence – or perhaps choosing to willfully ignore it – Lady Woolverton snorted. “Heavens no, you simpleton. My sweet Lily was initiated into the Court on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, six months ago. As are all ladies of breeding.” Wrinkling her nose as if offended by the presence of Olivia, the great she-beast turned to Lord Mondragon and added, “Do see that the girl arrives on time. And no sharing secrets. Not all who are invited are chosen.”

With a shrug of one silk-clad shoulder, Lady Woolverton turned to leave. “Or even worthy,” she tossed out before disappearing.

The implication was clear: even the plain daughter of a lowly baron and his coarse wife had more value than the blind orphan girl of unknown origins. Olivia had made the mistake of allowing herself to believe the Court would actually welcome her, despite years of evidence to the contrary. The callous words of Lady Woolverton reinforced her worst fear: the invitation had only been extended because her foster father was the Queen’s only brother.

Were it not for that connection, she would still be stored away in the attic, a monster to be kept from society at all costs. And imperfection, a blight.

The Blood Queen would tolerate no imperfections, after all. Especially within her Court.

Had I not made the mistake when I presumed much the same thing? Damn that meddling bitch, and her need to poison everyone around her. And that worm of a foster father? That coward?

He reached out to squeeze Olivia’s shoulder, to offer some small bit of comfort, but the dear girl moved away from his touch. Allowing the small rebellion, he twisted a small statue of Neptune sat atop a marble pedestal near the empty fire grate. Across the room, an oak panelled wall slid away, revealing a dank corridor.

Taking Olivia’s arm, he led her into the dark alcove. Summoning a ball of aether, he used the blue flame to illuminate his way. “Come child. We have some stairs to descend. Left hand upon the railing and step down. There’s a good girl. Forty-two more steps of the same size, then.”

Olivia smoothed a palm down the front of her gown, the intricate black stitching a sharp contrast to the soft pink bustier. A massive dragon, in honor of her foster House, wrapped around the leather bustier, trailing down the weightless folds of orange and pink organza piled atop buttery yellow taffeta. Her white blonde hair curled softly over a bared shoulder, cascading to her waist.

Next to the duke’s severe black, Olivia was the golden dawn. Pride swelled his chest, though he had little to do with the vision at his side. Securing her hand on his arm, Mondragon led his young charge into the bowels of the castle, the sun into dusk.

At the bottom of the steps, Olivia stopped, waiting for Mondragon’s next instructions. She did not wait long.

“At the end of this hall, about ten yards, we will come to the entrance to the Initiation Room. Beyond that entrance, I can do nothing for you. Do you understand?”

Olivia could not stop the tremble that crept into her voice. “C – can you not not even guide me about the … Where, exactly are we, sir?”

“Beneath the Crystal Lake, child. I do wish you could see it, Olivia. It is best at dawn, but even under the light of the moon, it will be breathtaking.”

“I see more than you realize, sir. But, Crystal Lake, your grace? Is that not a myth?” As a child, she had been regaled with tales of a mythical lake deep within the cliffs into which the castle was built.

“No, but it is a place of great power. All the leylines of the Empire converge there, so it is a forbidden place. Queen Adaline will have her fun, however.”

“Yes, your grace. You did not answer my first question.”

His Grace sighed heavily, guilt sweeping across his face. “No, my child. I cannot escort you beyond this door.” He brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes. The gesture was familiar, as if he had done it a million times instead of one, calling forth comfort and love.

Olivia faltered. “Can you describe the room to me, sir?”

A smile tugged at the corner of Mondragon’s eyes. The Crystal Lake was once a special place for him, too. “The likes of this room cannot be found anywhere else. Not even outside of the reaches of the Empire. The water will cast the most amazing prisms of color and light across the floor.”

“I don’t understand. Where is the water in relation to the room?” Olivia interrupted.

“It is all around us, Olivia. Even now. The Initiation Room is within the waters of the lake. It is protected by magicked glass that rises from the lake floor to form a dome. Opposite this door, there will be the Queen’s dais. No other chairs are allowed, of course.”

“One does not sit in the presence of Adaline,” Olivia said, echoing a lesson she had learned early.

“No,” he agreed.