THE FIRST CHILL OF AUTUMN has officially entered phase two!
What I mean by that, of course, is that it’s in the competent hands of a set of very lovely people who have agreed to beta read for me. I’ve already had some amazingly useful feedback, which means I’m plotting and cogitating on changes (or non-changes).
This is the first time I’ve had beta readers (apart from my wonderful Sis and Ma), so it’s been interesting and slightly nerve-wracking in terms of wondering what they’ll come back to me with (like ‘your book sucks and should be burned alive’). As I said a blog post or two ago, my MC, Dion, is fairly different from the heroines I usually have, so I was particularly interested to see what the reaction to her would be.
All in all, the publication time-line is coming along nicely, and if it keeps on going this swiftly, I might even be able to move up the publication date. Maybe. (I’m hoping so, because I really want to share this one with you all, not to mention it being the culmination of my Very First Trilogy!)
The First Chill of Autumn
Until she reached the age of seventeen there were four certainties in the life of Dion ferch Alawn.
The first was that her parents were always wise, always right.
The second was that her life would always fall into the same orderly rhythms as it had thus far.
Thirdly, she had no doubt that she would one day be queen.
The fourth thing of which Dion ferch Alawn was absolutely certain was that the tall, ebony-skinned man she often saw in her bedroom mirror meant her no harm.
As it turned out, this was the only thing in which she was entirely correct.
Dion was three when the Fae arrived. She didn’t understand much about it at the time, except that these tall, graceful people with their beautifully tragic faces were exotic and exciting. She wasn’t allowed to be excited about it, of course: Crown princesses were expected to be sedate and regal at all times, and even a three year old heir couldn’t gape in excitement. Dion’s twin sister Aerwn wasn’t similarly restricted: she gaped and gasped and bounced to her heart’s content.
The Fae came in small numbers at first, fleeing from a peril in Faery that was talked about in hushed tones. They each asked for and were granted an audience with the King and Queen, and most were settled in Harlech. Dion heard, but didn’t understand the mutters around the castle when it became known that the Crown—and by proxy the people—was paying for their resettlement and daily food.
Before long there was a steady stream of Fae arriving every day. Some of them were settled in Harlech, some in other Llassarian cities, and still more of them seemed to settle right in the castle itself. Soon the maids were all Fae, swiftly and gracefully performing their duties. The footmen morphed from a group of well-trained and orderly men, into a regiment of perfectly starched, perfectly beautiful Fae.
By the time Dion and Aerwn were five, their tutors were all Fae. Aerwn, naturally graceful and quick to learn, blossomed beautifully under their tutelage. Dion, who always felt clumsy and awkward around the Fae, became stiff, careful, and silent. The Fae had a great deal to teach, however; and though Dion grew neither more graceful nor more silver-tongued, she did gain a remarkable proficiency in magic.
Dion had become so used to the constant presence of the Fae in her life that when the tall, black Fae first appeared in her oval dressing mirror, she didn’t think more of it than to feel in a vaguely embarrassed way that she was intruding. She had only recently turned seven, and her Fae instructors had taught her so well that she knew not to question or challenge the Fae rudely.
Fae thoughts are high and wise, she knew. A Fae always has a reason for what the Fae does. It is not for mortals to question or upbraid.
And so Dion hurried past her mirror whenever she was in her suite, hastily averting her eyes whenever she saw that the tall Fae was back. She was so used to being observed and tested by then that being watched even in her suite didn’t seem unusual. And the Fae, apart from the fact of his actual presence, wasn’t intrusive. He didn’t do much more than stand there, though sometimes he seemed to be talking. Since no sound came through the mirror, Dion assumed that he was talking to the Fae on his side of the mirror, and still abashedly avoided the mirror as much as she could.
They would quite possibly have continued in this way for the next few years if Dion hadn’t sprained her ankle a few months after her seventh birthday. If it came right down to it, as with most things in the twins’ young lives, it wasn’t so much that Dion had sprained her ankle, but that Aerwn had sprained it for her. It was Aerwn who bullied a terrified Dion into climbing into the saddle of their father’s horse; Aerwn who confidently asserted that she could and would climb on right after you, you scardy!; Aerwn who had opened the stable door for them both; Aerwn who seized upon Dion’s foot when their father’s horse charged grimly for freedom, dashing herself and her sister to the unforgiving paving-stones of the stable.
Be that as it may, it was Dion who finished the day in bed, her face whiter than usual and her foot very carefully elevated. The Fae were too sensible to heal human injuries quickly without reason—Dion herself had been taught how dangerous it was for the human immune or reparative systems to be brought to rely upon magic for its healing—and the young princess was put to bed for the afternoon with the promise that she would be better tomorrow.
From the bed it was impossible not to see the dressing mirror, and Dion was in an agony of embarrassment in her attempts not to look at it. First she gazed at the gauzy sweeps of her canopy, then toward the window; now at her bedposts and then at her toes. Looking at her toes had the unfortunate result of bringing her into direct eye contact with the man in the mirror, however, and Dion looked away awkwardly. At last she settled on pretending to read a book, her face carefully shielded from the mirror; and began to feel the stiffness in her cheeks relax a little. Dion liked reading, though if poetry were excluded, there weren’t really many books to read for pleasure. Previously popular books, with their old prejudices and ancient enmity, were frowned upon by the king and queen. The castle had once had such books, Dion knew, but with the Fae had come the Cleansing: the washing away of all previous conflicts and anything that could be used to incite unrest. It was necessary. But Dion remembered some of the tales that had been read to her when she was younger, and the new, correct books didn’t hold quite the same sense of wonder or adventure.
By and by, Dion began to notice a golden glow to the edges of her book. It haloed the wrist and the hand that were holding the book aloft: a soft, magical luminosity that made her reach out to touch it with her other hand. It was ethereal but somehow heavy in the air. Dion caught a breath in her throat and dropped her book, her eyes flying at once to the man in the mirror. He was looking right at her, and on the mirror was an embossing in the same gold that formed curlicues up and down the glass. Dion, her mouth as wide open as her eyes, watched in fascination as the curlicues gained form and structure, and became words.
The words in the mirror said: Don’t they teach you about sound?
“Sound is vibration,” said Dion doubtfully. She wasn’t unsure about what sound was: she was unsure why it mattered. She had been right at first: this was a test. “I haven’t seen– that is, the magic is beautiful. How do you– do you mind telling me how you’re doing that?” He waited so long to respond that she had flushed and added hurriedly: “I’m sorry! Of course, you can’t hear me. How silly of me,” before the golden curlicues reformed to add: What does that tell you?
“You c– can hear me!” said Dion foolishly. “Well, vibrations. You speak, which makes the air vibrate, and then those vibrations play against– oh! Oh, I know!” The glass in the mirror was stopping the vibrations from coming through and getting to her ears. That’s why he seemed not to make any sound though his mouth moved.
Dion wriggled painfully toward the edge of her bed, a pale reflection of herself grimacing and haltingly stumbling forward in the mirror. The Fae, who somehow seemed more real than she did in that reflection, simply waited. Dion’s ankle ached and throbbed, but she continued doggedly on until she could place her palm on the mirror. She wasn’t yet proficient enough with magic to affect things she wasn’t touching, and she regretted it more than ever now.
The Fae waited for her, impassively. He didn’t seem to be concerned with her pain, though Dion thought that he watched her very carefully; and when she at last laid her palm against the mirror, damp with sweat, he gave her a single, short nod. It said well done, though the mirror didn’t.
Vibrations, thought Dion, and sent a tracery of raw magic into the mirror. In the mirror, the Fae spoke, and she felt the vibration of it against her veinwork of magic. The mirror was too thick to allow the vibrations through, and Dion was wary of softening it: Fae though he might be, she wasn’t sure she wanted him stepping through the mirror along with his voice. She left her tracery of magic where it was, and ran a small thread of it through to her side, where it was easy enough to transmit the vibrations again.
It wasn’t until a deep, rough voice said: “Good technique,” that Dion was sure it had worked. The curlicues disappeared, and for the first time she got a really good look at the Fae, unfestooned by gold or seen as a flicker in the corner of her eyes. He was very tall and broad in the shoulders, with a scarred face and a huge broadsword that was bigger than Dion was. It occurred to her, belatedly, that despite the colour of his skin, he didn’t at all look like a Fae. She’d thought of him as Fae by default, for what could an ordinary man be doing in her mirror, after all?
“Your magic is strong,” he said.
Dion, both embarrassed and hot with pain, said: “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” he said. “You’ll regret it, in time.”
Dion didn’t like to contradict him, but she was quite certain she would always be glad for her skill in magic. Since that thought verged on rebellion, she quickly pushed it away and said: “Are you here to protect me?”
“Yes,” he said. “And no.”
“Are you here to teach me?”
“Yes. And no.”
That was certainly very Fae-like. Dion, daring one more question, asked: “What will you teach me?”
“Two things,” said the Fae. “How to use your magic. And how to die.”