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Adult Fantasy - Zachary Sherman - Daughters of the Golden City


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Opening scene/first chapter. Introduces protagonist and one of her antagonists (twin sister). Also, tries to highlight the two different segments of society that the two are about to inhabit. The protagonist, has a desire that is thwarted, and must then come to terms with that colossal failure.

Chapter One

The sprawling metropolis that was Acragas stretched before Evelyn, the building sparkled like fallen stars that had taken up residence on the earth. Evelyn looked over her shoulder at the massive spire that stood in the center of the city. It strained towards the sky like a finger pointing the way to heaven. To ascend. To be even a little like one of the ancient gods was the dream of every citizen of Acragas—of every human on the planet. Today, that dream would come true for Evelyn.

It was the day of Ascension.

Everywhere, flags depicting the golden bear of the Ursus line flapped in front of buildings, like friendly waves. It was as if they were all waving just for her, saying You did it, Evelyn. You did it. Evelyn couldn’t keep from bouncing on the balls of her feet as she walked along the city’s thoroughfare.

Gwen shot a glare her way. “That is no way for a princess to act. We must be collected and dignified.” She rolled her eyes at her sister’s bouncing. 

Evelyn couldn’t believe how poised Gwen was. Her twin was only a minute older, but her air of confidence and authority made her seem years beyond Evelyn—who felt as though she would burst from the excitement within her.

“You be collected and dignified, I’m going to be excited,” Evelyn said.

As Gwen and Evelyn passed through the streets, their practical army of soldiers kept them hemmed in, keeping to the tightest of formations. Evelyn wondered if she could move erratically enough to get them to leave even the smallest crack in the circle of protection that surrounded her and her sister. Somehow, she doubted it. Leave it to Dad to not even trust us to walk across the city without an armed guard. Thankfully, once they were joined with an aspect, she and Gwen would both enjoy more autonomy.  

“I hope I'm joined with life. Oh, I hope it’s life,” Evelyn said to herself, repeating it like a mantra. She knew that it was likely that she be joined bond with the aspect of life, but nothing was guaranteed during the Ascension.

“Ugh, so you’ve told me every day for the past eighteen years. Really, Ev, you need to stop worrying so much. It will either happen or it won’t, talking about it incessantly won’t change a thing,” Gwen’s eyes roved the spaces between the streets, marking every flaw in a building, and noting any potential strangers or dangers in the area. Gwen always knew what was happening, which meant that Evelyn didn’t have to.

“Look,” Gwen said, with a disgusted shake of her head, “there are Scabs on the streets. Why do they let them in on Ascension Day? It just ruins everyone’s mood.” She pointed to a group of twelve ragged people. They clustered together, pulling the gray cloaks that revealed them to be Rassa tight around themselves, almost as if for protection.

“Don’t call them Scabs,” Evelyn chided, her cheerfulness dulled for the first time since leaving the Spire. “Weren’t you just lecturing me about setting an example as a princess? When you’re queen, you’ll need to represent all your people, even the Rassa.”    

“Fine,” Gwen said. She tilted her chin into the air, her long red braid lifting with her head ever so slightly. Her hair, even braided, stretched the length of her back and shone like a flame brand. Evelyn envied Gwen’s hair. It was distinct, purposeful.

“I’ll call them what they are; the Rassa shouldn’t be allowed in the city on Ascension Day because it makes the hopefuls nervous and could only serve to bring up bad memories for the Rassa who didn’t make it.” Gwen emphasized the word twice just to annoy Evelyn.

“You know why they’re here,” Evelyn whispered. She eyed the group of Rassa with pity. “They just want to help the people who… you know.” It was hard to say aloud what everyone feared so greatly. During the Day of Ascension, young hopefuls were joined to the aspect of magic that would guide them through the rest of their life. But those who were not joined with any of the six aspects would become anathema. These outcasts were known as the Rassa—the derogatory term was Scab, since such individuals were seen as a wound on the face of society.

Evelyn peered closer at the group of grey-cloaked stranger. One of the Rassa was seated in a makeshift wheelchair, her legs missing below the knees. The chair itself was a shoddy wooden contraption, cobbled together from spare parts, cockeyed, with one wheel entirely missing. The man pushing the wheelchair had to tilt it back, almost like a wheelbarrow in order to even move the object. To be a Rassa and crippled. Evelyn couldn’t even imagine. 

Evelyn signaled for her contingent of guards to stop, and made her way to the young, spindly girl. The guards wouldn’t let her through at first, and she had to shoot a few glares their way to finally get them to budge. Sergeant Bernard was the first to move.

“What are you doing?” Gwen hissed, “Don’t go over there.”

Evelyn ignored her sister’s protestations and made her way to the crippled girl. “What’s your name?”

“Daisy,” the girl replied cautiously. The other Rassa backed away, worry flashing in their eyes.

“Well, Daisy, your chair has seen better days, hasn’t it?” Evelyn smiled warmly. “I’m on my way to the Ascension, right now, so I don’t have long to chat, but why don’t you take this.” Evelyn slipped one of the rings from her finger and gave it to the girl. Daisy gaped at it, holding it almost reverently in her palm. The other Rassa crowded forward, gawking at the ring. It was probably the most valuable thing one of them had ever owned.

Evelyn turned to the group and tried her best to channel the stateliness and authority of her father. “I am Princess Evelyn; I insist that this girl use my ring to get her wheelchair repaired. After that, however Daisy decides to use the remaining funds is her choice. Who here will make sure this happens?”

The man who had been pushing the wheelchair raised a tentative hand. “I’m her uncle, ma’am. Name’s Teneb. I’ll see to it that what you ask is done.”

“Daisy and Teneb. I will check in tomorrow to make sure this occurs,” Evelyn said. Her heart was galloping like a prize stallion. She normally didn’t get to do things like this, to interact with the people. Evelyn scanned the faces in front of her, trying to appear as authoritative and serene as she could. When her gaze settled on Daisy, she couldn’t help but let her expression soften. “Good luck, Daisy,” she whispered. She wanted to put an encouraging hand on the girl’s shoulder, but knew that would be inappropriate. A royal shouldn’t touch a Rassa.

“You done, Evie?” Gwen growled, “or are we going to spend our whole Day of Ascension playing with Sca... with Rassa?” 

Evelyn flushed all the way to her ears. “Fine,” she mumbled, “let’s go.”

The guards ushed them onward through the city and towards the Temple of Ascension. If it had been any other day Evelyn would have sulked about Gwen’s treatment of her, but there just wasn’t time. Their entourage joined with the streaming lines of others entering the temple; they walked up the temple steps as one.

The temple itself was a circle—as all is. The design was such that the top of the temple looked like overlapping waves, each one etched with symbols of the six aspects. There was no way to trace the beginning or end of any of them in the tumult, for all influence the others. Other than the royal Spire, the Temple of Ascension was the largest structure in the city.

They entered the inner sanctum, and Evelyn’s heart leapt towards the sky. In the center of the room was a raised dais: the Wheel of Balance. The six aspects were inscribed on the dais with icons for each: life was depicted as a blooming tree, death as a sickle; fire, water, air, and earth were represented as well. The aspects were on the other side of their opposite, but in the center of the dais was an image of a scale, a reminder of the importance of balance.

The High Priestess of Life, Zoae, always presided over the ascension—much to the chagrin of the other priests. Evelyn thought it was fitting that this was the case, though. After all, what is the Day of Ascension if not a new birth?

But the most important person was in the center of it all. The king looked down with magnanimity and grace at all of the gathered hopefuls—a hundred or more, by Evelyn’s count. Evelyn couldn’t imagine a better ruler than King Theodore Ursus. And to think that she had the privilege of being his daughter.

The king rose to his feet to address the crowd, “Over one thousand years ago, the first joining happened here, in this very spot, in the Golden City of Acragas. Since that time, our society has flourished, our people have flourished. You are all about to become part of that great society, and even greater story, one that stretches back across centuries. You have all been trained in the ways of magic, but your abilities will increase greatly when joined. Do you swear to use these newfound powers for the good of all humanity and your kingdom? If so, say that by the six aspects we do swear.”

“By the six aspects we do swear!” The room cried out as one voice.

“Balance, more than anything else, is the foundation of our society. Speak to the center, for all your life, and you will bring honor to yourself and your people.”

King Theodore nodded to Zoae. “We are honored to have the high priestess of life here. Long have the priests of life overseen this sacred ceremony. Today, they give you a new life, use it well.”     

Zoae walked to the center of the platform. She removed a key from her belt. Its head was a hexagon, inscribed with images of all six aspects. Zoae placed the key in the center of the dais and whispered a spell. Then, the priestess stepped onto the icon of life and was bathed in a pale-yellow light. 

She stepped away from the dais and the light faded. Then, she gestured to Gwen and Evelyn. “Proceed,” was all she said, the singsong lilt of her voice glided through the air like a lullaby.

Of course, they would be going first; they were the princesses of the kingdom—Evelyn should have realized that sooner. Still, even though she was eager to be joined, the thought of being first in line made her stomach twist in knots. Thankfully, Gwen stepped forward without any hesitation. She made a beeline straight for fire. That was no surprise. Aspects were often determined by personality as much as the hopefuls skills or desires. Gwen was brazen, unyielding, unpredictable. Just like fire.

Gwen made it to the platform and stepped onto the icon of fire. Instantly, a red-orange glow enveloped her. It was so bright that Evelyn had to shield her eyes against the blaze. In seconds, it was done. Gwen had been bonded with fire.

Outwardly, she appeared no different than before, but Evelyn knew that her spirit had been touched by something magical. Her abilities would manifest within a few days, and she would begin the long process of learning to understand and direct those powers. It was an awesome responsibility.

Gwen stepped to the side of the dais and smiled encouragingly at Evelyn—or at least, as encouraging as Gwen ever was.

Evelyn stepped tentatively onto the dais, planting her foot down on the wheel as if it were thin ice, rather than solid stone. She knew that she should just head for the icon of life, but she wanted to stretch this moment out for as long as she could, to feel the full weight of its glory. After all, it only came once in a life, and she had looked forward to it for so very long.

She stepped onto the icon of death, knowing that it was the least likely for her to bond with. Then she moved to fire, earth, and air. She was zigzagging from icon-to-icon, and heard her father chuckle at her antics. But no one made a move to stop her. Being a princess had its privileges.

None of the first four icons lit up, which was no surprise to Evelyn. But water was a toss-up. She could see herself bonding with that aspect almost as easily as that of life. Thankfully, the will of the individual had something to do with the decision from what she had heard. Evelyn stepped onto the icon of water, paused for a moment, and then—when it didn’t light—made her way to the final icon, the one her heart desired more than any other: life. 

She hesitated, her toes on the lip of the icon, as if she was about to dive into the ocean, rather than simply step on a picture. The three-foot icon was covered in an intricate spiderweb of images; a blooming trees with pearl-like fruit was the central image.

 Evelyn moved onto the space. She waited for the yellow-white light of life to wash over her, imbuing her with its power and binding itself to her for the rest of her life. She waited with gleeful anticipation for the weight of that mystical glory to descend upon her, folding itself around her like a blanket; she waited for light, light, light…

But the light didn’t come.

Evelyn stumbled back in surprise, as mutters sounded through the crowd. Something must have gone wrong. She must have done something wrong. She realized. She walked quickly from one icon to the other, focusing on them, trying to get one of them to light—any of them to light for her! She had to be joined—even to death, if it came to that. She made it all the way back around to life with no success. Should she go around again? Was there something she was missing?

Then, she felt her father’s hand on her shoulder. The king wasn’t supposed to leave his throne during the Ascension. This was all wrong!

 “Evie, you have to move aside. Other people need to go now,” he whispered.

“But I… I didn’t bond with any aspect yet.” Her heart pounded like a deep drum. She felt far away, hollow.

“I know,” her father said. Gently, he took her by the elbow and guided her to the side of the dais. It was the opposite side from where Gwen was standing. It was the wrong side. It was the side that the failures were sent to, not people like her. That was when the terrible truth hit Evelyn like a tidal wave. She hadn’t been chosen. She would go her whole life without being bonded to an aspect. She was a Rassa now.

Evelyn was a Scab.     

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Your words on the page are an example of good commercial fiction prose, no question, but your dialogue feels too predictable, familiar, too quiet. There are no surprises. Consider this as the opening scene of a new movie or television show. Would it even work for Narnia? Certainly not for The Witcher.

Also, the tone and scene is relatively quiet. Make the failure to be chosen more dramatic, more flashy, more threatening. For example, have her seized by elite guardian demons or magically transmogrified to a raggedy Scab before everyone's eyes.

Perhaps consider using a Scab viewpoint to witness all this. Why not? It would require a whole different viewpoint, a darker filter on the proceedings. Perhaps the Scab hates the princess and once she loses out, he/she thinks, "Now, it's my turn to guide this little princess in the ways of Scabbery." (I'm being slightly humorous here).

But it could end with a sense of jeopardy, not simply a disappointment. Ramp up the emotions and suspense.

 

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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