Monday, February 18, 2013

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Tulli Rev 2

Jude Tulli
YA Fantasy
Smoldering Ember


As a little girl I always wanted to be Princess Salandra, but now, as I hold her and her tears trickle down the back of my neck, I don't even want to be me anymore. I didn't think princesses were allowed to cry.

"I won't let anything happen to you." I don't know where the words came from, and she'd be wise not to believe them. She turned seventeen a month ago, and I'm a quarter of a year behind.

I'm not ready for any of this.

The bunker is tiny and smells like worms; a single room with a large door carved into the hillside, hidden with a layer of grass and mud and held fast with remnants of a rusted lock. I crush a handful of toadstool gills and cast them at the wall. A pale white glow throws long shadows and I snuff out the torches before the smoke venting out the top gives away our location.

I brush Salandra's hair back from her drowning brown eyes. I'm struck by the courage that wells up behind her tears, even in the midst of terror. She wants to ask, "Why me?" but she doesn't. She is far braver than I.

I shouldn't be here. I would thank my mother, but I don't expect to visit whatever wonderland the wicked inhabit in the next life. She claimed I could handle this, but then she was always pushing me into trouble. From the very first day I snapped my fingers to light a candle, she began selling my gifts for wealth and social status.

"You've never heard of Ember Ahti, the Girl with the Flaming Curls who turns gold into fire?" Mother had a way of making sure it was never her idea that they should pay. "She is tired," she would pretend to resist, and they'd offer twice as much. A big shrug to distract, a little sleight of hand and the gold went in her pocket and a few toadstool gills went foof into flames. Old money is so easy to fool.

I don't know why it surprises me that her dying wish will be the death of me, too. If only it were swift and final.

The magic light on the wall flickers and fades as if a breeze blew it out, yet the air inside is still as lead. My heart prickles and turns cold. Blackness swallows us. It's got to be darker than a world with no sun.

"What's that?" A touch of panic captures the princess' voice.

I snap to light my face and gesture for us to remain quiet, but the light doesn't come. Toadstool gills again, then, though I didn't want to use them all up so soon. They spark but refuse to glow.

Fairy dust! I burn through a few gold's worth and the dark refuses to yield. Whatever we're up against, it's got magic, too, and shadow spells to best my light.

Salandra finds me with her outstretched hands and clasps me tight. She whispers, "I don't want to die."


Something's tapping on the wall from outside. The princess shivers, or maybe it's me. My hands are shaking.


It's testing the hill, listening, I suspect, for a hollow sound. A sound like that the door will make just before the lock surrenders.

"Is there any other way out?" I try to sound like I'm not desperate. "A secret tunnel, maybe? Please say yes."



"Perfect! Where?"

"Up through the--"


"--ventilation shaft."


"It's getting closer to the door. How long can you hold your breath? Please say a minute."

"Longer. Why?"


"Perfect! Take a deep breath and hold it until I tell you to breathe again. If you breathe it'll break the spell." I take the princess' hand, then drop a djinni tear and smash it with my heel. Pity; I'll probably never get another one.

The princess' hands turn to smoky wisps in my wispy smoke. I stay beneath and shepherd her toward the vent above; of the two of us I suspect I've got the most experience in navigating as a puff of smoke. Mother made me do it once at a party.

BOOM! The sound of the door breaking off its hinges is unmistakable.

The princess gasps.

"Nooooooooooo!" I reach for her hands with my tendrils, but they turn back to hands too late, and she falls before me. I hit the ground and feel in all directions.


Hooves stomp the ground and a shrill neigh echoes through the bunker. I have to cover my ears. Whatever it is storms out, leaving me untouched but for the scrapes on my knees from the fall.

"Your Highness?" I whimper. "Please say something." I know she's gone, but I don't want to believe it. Mother was right. She's been kidnapped, and it's all my fault.


The darkness recedes and I am left alone with regret. This can't be it. There must be something more I can do.

But what? Not a hoof-print to be found. Whatever it is, it covers its tracks.

Mother! She knew I would fail. She set me up to fail!

"Promise me," she said just before they found her. "Promise you'll stop the plot to kidnap a princess from each kingdom." That's what I'm supposed to do with a few parlor tricks and all that potential she never stopped blathering on about.

"Protect first," she said with that one-sided smile that meant something awful was about to happen to me but she wouldn't be there to see it. "Then rescue any you've lost. They won't hurt any until they have all." That's what Mother told me, and it's clear she knew enough to be worth killing. "Follow the kingdoms south to north and west to east," she said. "If you fail, get moving before they charge you with treason or put a bounty on your head."

When I emerge from the princess' not-so-secret-after-all bunker, I've missed the sunset but the stars lend me solace, twinkling with joy as if the world wasn't any different from a moment ago. Though there's a chill in the air, it's so much warmer than the magical night the enemy cast upon me.

I check my pockets to make sure my spell components didn't go up in smoke. Fairy dust has a way of disappearing on you when you need it most. Not that I have that much left anyway.

I rip the last eye of peacock feather from my bodice and hope they have peacocks in Quakkao as I toss it up toward the rising moon. It hisses and twists and grows into a gloriously plumed firebird.

"Lovely streaks of blue in your wings." I hop upon his crackling back and he lifts me up, high above the rolling countryside. This is the best parlor trick I know.

"If Mother was right, Quakkao is next. Princess Mercy will be in danger."

He nods and lifts me above a thin layer of cloud cover. The stars shimmer so cheerfully they lighten my heart despite my wishing I could snuff them out one by blissful one. The land below looks peaceful in the scant moonlight. Any other night I would never guess a war was brewing.

I tell the stars and earth together, "I will not lose another princess, nor will I rest until Princess Salandra is safe at home." They don't seem affected by my resolve, but it feels good to say out loud what I've been feeling since that dreadful moment the door burst open.

The firebird continues to rise and I feel lighter than air, drifting at speeds ships only know in the chaos of storms. I'm mesmerized by the sight of the treetops passing below, and I hold tight to the bird's fiery neck as I begin to nod off.

I'm not sure how long I've slept before I awake to the sensation of falling. The bird's flames spout all around me. I look down.

On the ground ahead runs a mass of pitch blackness. Flying at top speed, we're gaining!

The dark overtakes us. Even the burning form beneath flashes not a sliver of light inside my eyes. I snap my fingers. Nothing, just like last time.

"Remind me to learn some new spells if we get to Quakkao, please."

The firebird dives. It's a good thing I haven't eaten since yesterday morning or I'd lose my stomach.

"Don't attack it! Are you trying to get us killed?!"

I hold on and squeeze my useless eyes so tight I'm forced to smile.

Stomping hooves. A high-pitched neigh that makes me wish I could close my ears. The whoosh of burning wings setting fire to the air.

Something sharp pierces my thigh. Blood trickles like rain down my leg. Now it's a downpour. I'm being sucked dry!

"Up, you fool! Up! This is why I hate relying on magic!"

We speed ahead, out of range of the creature's pall of darkness. I welcome the return of the light though it stings almost as much as my wound.

"Wait! Down!" There's a boy facing the black as it hurtles toward him. He's just standing there, like a crazy person. Is he trying to get himself killed?

"Swoop!" The bird does and I grab the idiot by his armpits and he climbs up behind me as the dark overtakes us all. "Up! Faster!"

The light returns. The dark behind us slows to a stop. The enemy must need to rest, while my bird can fly all night while I sleep. Finally an advantage.

I regain some control of my nerves and lose all restraint of my tongue. "What's the matter with you?" I'm more than a little angry that he almost got himself killed, and not just because he could have gotten me killed trying to save him. "Are you blind or stupid?"

"The first one," he replied. "How about you?"

"Oh. Sorry, I didn't--you don't have a--" I turn my head to catch a look at his face. Honest nose. Kind brown eyes, which he leaves open. Guess they're good for something.

"Cane? I dropped it somewhere. It's fine; I can make a new one. . .again," he laughed, then stopped suddenly. "Do I smell blood?"

"It's nothing." I press my robe into my leg and wince not just because it hurts but because it was a new robe.

"Shouldn't I be hot? I hear the crackle of flame."

"The firebird is safe when you're with me. Magic, of course. Don't try to ride one alone."

"Good idea. Where are we going?"

"I'll drop you off with your family if they're close."

"No, but thank you. I was a burden they could no longer shoulder."

Pity. He seems about my age. Much too young to be cast out from family. "Where would you like me to take you?"

"With you."

"Out of the question! Besides, you don't want--You don't even know me, let alone where I'm going. It's too dangerous. I'd never forgive myself if you got hurt because of me."

"Sounds like a nice way of saying you don't trust me." He runs his hands along my hairline to my forehead, then lingers over my temples, rubbing. Tension melts; his touch is lighter than any healer's. He proceeds to trace the arches of my eyebrows, the outlines of my eyes, the slope of my nose that I've never before wished so hard was gentler. Even the indent between my nose and mouth, whatever it's called; I have no idea, and I can't exactly stop to think now. My heart starts to flutter when he touches my lips, and it makes no sense but I don't really want him to abandon them for my chin, though he does. "I know you now. . ."

"Ember," I finish his sentence. "Ember Ahti. I'm not sure that's all it takes to know someone, and either way, I don't know you."

"Sterling. Pleasure. What's that rider got against you, anyway?"

"That thing had a rider?!"

"Didn't you hear her whispering commands or were you too busy shouting your own? A bit obvious, aren't we? Light and noise are always less subtle than dark and silence. Wouldn't you agree?"

I don't know what to say. This is definitely a distraction I don't have time to deal with. "Wait, the rider's a her?!"

"See? You can't afford not to take me with you."

I lean back as we fly, exhausted, and he catches me and rubs my shoulders just where I hadn't even noticed they hurt. "They're headed for Princess Mercy."

"I know." Well, I'd been pretty sure up until now. Now, I know. "How do you know?"

"The rider said Salandra's been delivered and Mercy is next, and the way she said it made it sound like she has it in for the princess. You know, as opposed to making some grand plan to exercise compassion. What happened to Princess Salandra? Is she all right?"

"You can stay until the first time you cause trouble." I don't know if it's the right decision, but he's rubbing my shoulders again and it feels too good to ask him to stop. "Faster, firebird! To Quakkao."


  1. I still feel somewhat removed from Ember. I think it's because I don't fully understand some of thoughts (i.e. "I don't know why it surprises me that her dying wish will be the death of me, too," why she shouldn't be with the princess when she clearly admires her). Also, you explain her mother's dying wish later, so I'm not sure you need that first line.

    The conversation with the boy still progresses really fast for me. I can understand her saving him, but since she's following the rider/headed to Quakkao, why does she let him go with her? I don't understand that. She doesn't seem like a very trusting person either (after how her mother used her), so it just strikes me as off.

    I was also a bit confused at the kidnapping part. Until Ember said that she'd been kidnapped, I didn't understand what had happened. More description?

    I love how expansive your world seems :). Lots and lots of magic and a very promising premise!

  2. Some grand plan to exercise compassion. LOL!

    I really liked the opening scene of her with the princess in the bunker. It makes me wonder what kind of fantasy world this is, if they have bunkers and ventilation shafts. Makes me imagine some kind of Mission Impossible thing. But that's neither here nor there.

    Once we leave the bunker, I liked all her references to things her mother had made her do at parties and for various buyers.

    Picking up the blind guy flows a lot smoother now. He also talks a little more believably now. The sentence about touching the thing on her upper lip that she doesn't know the name of has bugged me in every draft, though. For one thing, it makes me want to yell "It's the philtrum!" every time--and why is it important enough for her to complain that it's not important?

    I have a hard time buying that the blind kid heard all this information from the rider as she was galloping toward him. I know blind people have really good hearing, but he just keeps on divulging more and more plot-centric information. Besides, Ember already knows where the rider's going, and she doesn't need the blind kid telling her what she already knew.

    Aside from that, though, the story's really starting to come together. I'd keep reading because I like the world. Hopefully I'd come to like Ember, too. (Always pet the dog!)

  3. I'm impressed! You've done exactly what I was hoping - lined up the events so I'm following along, even somewhat clearing up the whole mother/daughter issue. I found myself racing through this read, only tripped up by a few things on the line-edit level. :) A few examples, just so you'll know the sort of thing to look for on your next round - "BOOM!" is not a "tapping;" the phrase "I'm being sucked dry" still makes me think "Where's the vampire, etc.
    But I am loving this revision... until we get to Sterling. There's something I don't quite believe about their interaction. The whole touching thing - it's so intimate, and this girl should know better than to trust strangers, right? She seems pretty smart... At the least, she would wonder more at allowing him into her space...
    The relationship seems rather instant, with a line like "I'd never forgive myself if you got hurt because of me" coming out a bit too soon. I mean, it's the sort of thing you say to someone near and dear.
    Also, I second Kessie's comments above about the plot-reveals in the Sterling scene.
    So, that said, I have to admit these chapters are really shaping up! You've made the stakes clearer, I love the scene in the bunker with Salandra, and I feel for Ember.
    Bravo! I think if you continue on this way, revising for action and clarity (and maybe making sure to keep Ember likeable? Give us her inner feelings?), this manuscript will get a lot of attention! (BTW, if you haven't read Jennifer Neilson's A FALSE PRINCE, and Leigh Bardugo's SHADOW AND BONE, find them now! Great comp titles, and very well done.)
    Have fun!

  4. I like how the dark fights the light. That makes sense. I love that the bad thing is testing the hill for hollow spots and I loved "smells like worms". I don't actually know how worms smell but I can imagine that they smell like the dirt so I get it.

    If you take out the cliche "with joy" on how stars feel I believe that would be a stronger statement.

    The conversation between the two characters at the end still does not ring believable. Here's why. You start this fantastic rewrite with chaos and you end with a massage. If Ember is anxious, she needs to remain anxious (even if she falls asleep because that can be a reaction to anxiety and doesn't detract here). The massage stops the action dead. If you want to convey any special talents Sterling has you can do it later. You can also have the discovery that he is blind in the next chapter.

    I think you need to get the boy picked up quick and have Ember furious with him. The conversation here doesn't convey that. Furious doesn't even need conversation. In fact, you could have the firebird pick him up with its beak and fling him onto its back where she can keep him from falling off. If he is the same size as she is I don't see how she can pull off picking him up off the ground from the back of the bird. I know I'm being picky but kids are picky, too.

  5. Love that you showed us what happened with the princess. Very nice. I have to agree with Nikki (again) I guess I'm a big Nikki fan! There's something not quite believable in her trust of this stranger. But all in all, really nice work. :D

  6. Thank you all. I will fix the part with Sterling, I promise!

    I might be late giving feedback this week. Sorry! But I don't want to gloss over anything and I won't have enough time till the weekend.

    You all rock!

  7. Like Lisa, I'm a Nikki fan. She nailed it again. And you have done amazing things with this revision!

    One thing I would like for you to do is slow down and let us SEE this amazing adventure you're taking us on. Make it more visual so that we are always clearly grounded in a setting and you always have something to work with and use to help your characters express emotion and theme. The comps that Nikki suggested are brilliant. Go through them and see how they handle that.

    I'm so excited with how far you've come with this!!!! It's going to be amazing.

    1. You're absolutely right, Martina! That's probably going to be one of the things I need to make sure to paint in after getting the rest of it down as I go.

      Thanks so much for all your insightful feedback, and for hosting us through this wonderful process!