Monday, February 17, 2014

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Dagher Revision 2

Name: Helene Dagher
Genre: YA Fantasy
Title: Reborn

Ever had it been that the young woman knew darkness. She was hardly of age; bony, bare legs sticky with blood. It had trickled into the chamber pot below, and melded with the stench of her prison. With her neck chain bolted to one wall, her flea-bitten hands grasping at air and feet teetering on a narrow beam, she could not adjust her position without penalty of death. She would suffocate on her collar, the fate that had befallen the four rotted men decorating the cavity where she hung.

She chose to survive. Sleeping while standing, testing the limits of her reach, gobbling what food and water was provided. To pass time she depended on the strength of her imagination. She was often disappointed.

All that remained was memories of her brother. His crooked smile, regal posture, jutting chin; how he paled at the sight of blood and stuttered before crowds but fought for peaceful change —

The rusty door squeaked open. She tried to shield her eyes from the sudden light but lost her balance and flailed like a newborn still attached to its cord. Callused hands restored her to that damned perch, and searched her knee-length tunic despite her disadvantage. Were her mind focused, she would not attack nine men.

When she was freed, she hesitated; her jailer did not. The behemoth lifted her to the floor, wet with excrement. Her legs wobbled — had he not seized her arm, she would have fallen to her knees. Throat dry and heart shivering, she was too weak for self-defense, for any assault. Strategy could not unmake these cold facts: her wrists and ankles manacled, soldiers towering over her. Swords readied, daggers hidden.

Her past was well known.

Light sliced across the crest of dancing lions on their plated armor. A royal contingent. If she had been summoned, they would not risk harming her. The king did not tolerate disobedience. Where logic normally comforted, a dead calm settled. She would need to draw on her reserve to counter whatever tactic al-Fat'h used next.

Enclosed by the troop she clanked past the moaning of other prisoners, the criminal stacks of hardened bread and shriveled dates. Several times they had to stop so that she could catch her breath—and sneak glances at their surroundings, though her aching joints and blisters were a distraction. Her training had not conditioned her to the pain.

Trudging through the courtyard was an onslaught of sensation. Immaculate grass crunched beneath their boots and stabbed her feet. A sea-breeze whipped through the ivy and reed ridden towers and into pine trees, their needles budding in the recent spring. Over the murmur of water, the slap of sandals on stone, the jeers echoed; a dishonored prisoner so loftily escorted! An officious gaggle of veiled women and men in coats of mail laughed from beside a fountain of a dragon, its eyes scorched with fire.

She stared. The statue held her gaze while she was dragged past cultivated gardens and stationary knights. Finally they reached a familiar lavish room.

The morning glinted through the stained-glass windows, a mockery of all that she had lost and would find in these sun-favored soldiers. Intricate arrangements of bluebells draped the long chamber, leading to a stately man with blonde hair seemingly fresh from a chamomile oil wash. Robed in red and gold, the prince reeked of hyacinths.

Already much too like al-Fat'h, al-Hashim had led several of his father's conquests. Before she had been imprisoned, he was known to have journeyed to the farthest edges of Albinar where the borders were not enforced. Villagers had whispered of his adventure and the treasures he would bequeath upon his return, earning their loyalty without the taxing choke-hold that his father had embraced. Certainly his guards looked well-fed and unwavering beside the north exits, stairwells and alcoves tucked twenty paces beyond their arches. Al-Hashim leaned forward so that his curls concealed his broken nose while she stood on her cold feet, waiting.

It appeared that he, not his father, was to interrogate her. Either al-Fat'h had grown into an invalid since she had last seen him, wheezing, or a fortunate event had occurred. She would confirm her suspicion.

"Sahar," al-Hashim said.

She considered his calculated tone, his palpable impatience. He watched his men for the slightest reaction to the false name. Most Albinariyye citizens knew what she had done but not who she was. He was searching for her accomplices among his trusted soldiers, for she could not have committed treason without extraordinary help.

"O wise and generous prince?"

"King. My father has finally passed, thanks to you." He noted her smile, and his jaw clenched. "Impudence will not aid your cause. What do you know of Ibn Shaddad?"

Aside from the guards, she had had but one visitor. He had shared kindness, not information. For once she could plead ignorance—it was unlikely that an enemy of the king would have access to her cell. Sahar shook her head.

"You have no knowledge of him?"

Al-Hashim gestured, rings gleaming in the shards of light. Ridiculous trinkets. Albinariyye commitments were consecrated with firmer means. Rubbing her palm, she stared into his dirt-colored eyes even as her own watered from the hyacinth-heavy air.

"Why," said Al-Hashim, steady, studying her face, "just last night the rogue pillaged the castle kitchens."

This royal persistence was more ridiculous than those rings. Once she had shared his arrogance, keen to fulfill her unrealized potential. She had yet to earn her freedom after that folly.

"I watched my brother and his advisers die." A deep breath; she would not show weakness. "In the prison that your father had designed for me. Tell me, my fanciful friend, when I would have had the chance to meet Ibn Shaddad or plan this crime."

His expression hardened. "Well then, tell me of my sister."

"What of her," Sahar croaked, "O merciful savior?"

"Where is she?"

"Rue for both of us." Sahar lifted her chains. Her wrists were sore, and well could she remember previous beatings. Rarely did her dishonesty please these foreign sovereigns. "As I told your father, your sister may have drowned for all that I know."

"You dare—" He clutched the knobs of his elaborate throne, studded with sapphires and rubies and stained crimson from the windows. "And what of your brother's body? Shall I burn his remains? Will that ensure your cooperation?"

Had his father not intervened, she would have joined her brother. She could never forget how his cheeks had puffed, his arms had flapped and his bulging eyes had met hers across the putrid prison air: green slashed with red. Staring at his body—and the other three—was revenge from al-Fat'h, punishing her for the months that he had spent in pain before dying, his daughter still missing. No one, even al-Hashim, knew what to do with Sahar.

Above his right eyebrow curved a claw-shaped scar. Staring heightened her focus: the three paces between her and the nearest guard, and the fifteen paces needed to pierce his regal throat with a well-thrown dagger. Killing al-Hashim would satisfy the anger that she had learned to bury, but his death would not honor her brother.

Al-Hashim expected her meek, likely disobedient. Though she had ensured that he could not kill her without dire consequences, he could return her to that eternal torment. She would need his favor.

"How may I please you, O compassionate crusher?"

Like an eagle among rukhs, al-Hashim glided toward her in a monstrosity of trailing cloak. He had the build of a military commander but the finery of a fat sultan. "I want peace. I want my sister returned. Most of all, I want to know the extent of your foolishness. My father locked you away. Perhaps that is not the answer."


  1. Helene,
    Well, I'm glad she has a name and I'm impressed with how far you've come in making this accessible. It feels like a really good start, filled with interesting clues and suspense. Good work!

  2. I agree that it really makes a difference to know the MC's name! Ahhh. Now, one more suggestion along those lines. What if the jailer called it out so we know even sooner? Just something simple, a la "Sahar, you will come with us." In reading your pages this time, I noticed that wondered whether a line or two of dialogue might connect us to the MC earlier. Even a line like that might help.

    Somehow the conversation with al-Hashim lost a bit of the clarity of the previous revision for me, starting with this line: "Already much too like al-Fat'h, al-Hashim had led several of his father's conquests." At that point, I don't know who either of those people are, so this line means nothing to me as a reader. I'd rather hear how these people matter to the MC. Next, we hear, "Before she had been imprisoned, he was known to have journeyed to the farthest edges of Albinar where the borders were not enforced." I wasn't sure which of the two names was the "he," or again, how this matters to the MC.

    A bit later, this part didn't pack quite the same great punch the previous version did (for me, anyway) with the detail of the scar: "Aside from the guards, she had had but one visitor. He had shared kindness, not information. For once she could plead ignorance—it was unlikely that an enemy of the king would have access to her cell." Like I said last time, I loved the intrigue and specificity of the visitor, but without that, I'm a bit confused and have no idea who it is or why the MC would care.

    Nice hook at the end in any case! I do wonder what's in store for Sahar next!

  3. I like what you’ve done with the beginning, giving us more of her internalization. I think it works well to introduce her brother in this way – it makes things clearer during the interrogation scene since he's already in the picture.

    “Her past was well known” is still my favorite line, and I like what you’ve done with the guards drawing their weapons. Shows us why her past was well-known, gives us a sense of intrigue about her dangerous skills. Well done. Even more of that would be fantastic.

    You’ve made improvements during the interrogation scene. But I’m afraid it’s still confusing to me. Perhaps others will disagree, but I worry that agents/editors will glaze over during this part, having to work too hard to figure out what's going on. There are still quite a few people introduced. And this time I had a hard time with your use of “his” and “he” at a few points, not knowing who the pronoun referred to. The first time it could have been al-Fat’h or al-Hashim, for example.

    I also got confused when you used “Sahar,” not sure if that was her name, a sarcastic salutation, and insult, or something else. And then when you mention that it’s a false name, I got more confused. Does she never use her real name due to some religious thing? Or does the prince actually not know her real name (she's hiding it)? Maybe consider introducing her name during the prison cell scene, which could help clarify this.

    Similarly, when you introduce Ibn Shaddad, I wasn’t sure who that was. Even saying "What do you know of Ibn Shaddad, the dirty thief?" would help.

    “Had his father not intervened”: I wasn’t sure at first if this was in present or past tense.

    These may seem like small issues, but all together, the piece left me feeling that still more clarity would be beneficial.

    So overall, I’d love to see you continue streamlining, perhaps figuring out a way to make the interrogation scene shorter, with still fewer people/concepts introduced. Just my opinion, of course.

    I do think you have an intriguing setup with a lot of potential. Good luck!

  4. You can definitely see the improvements, and it is obvious how hard you have worked on this. I feel like the scene is taking shape and becoming clear. I just have a few more areas that I think could use some clarification.

    I love that we have a name, but I am confused by the part where she confirms this is a false name. Later, she refers this way. Not sure if this is an alias, or why she would need one. I am also still tripped up by the mention of Ibn Shaddad and the raid on the kitchen the night before.

    For me, I think it would be helpful to know what the King is trying to accomplish with this interrogation. He has summoned her, as she said. So what is he truly trying to learn? Is it even possible for her to know the things he is asking? How long has she been in prison? I feel like he is trying to get some information out of her, but for some reason he is going about it in a roundabout way. Is it possible for him to just ask flat out? Right now, as a reader I feel like this is intentionally vague, as if your characters know more than is being shared with the reader. I realize this technique works to raise questions and increase tension, but it can also backfire if the reader becomes too confused. I don't want to encourage you to make a big backstory dump here, but I think knowing a bit more of the situation and the characters involved would help.

    Good luck with this!

  5. This is really coming along, I'm impressed at how much work you've done.

    My main critique is there is still a lot going on in the dialogue between Sahar (love the name!) and the king. I would love a more straight-forward dialogue between them that isn't trying to add in so much backstory. What does he want? What does she want? What is in their way? I still had to stop and figure out their relationship by what was inferred.

    You have these beautiful descriptions but I would suggest focusing on story, maybe do a hard wiring draft of just plot for these pages, as I still am struggling to figure out the situation. I have the characters (I think) and the setting but the context of the why/how all this is happening is still hard for me to grasp.

    I am impressed at how much work you've done, I look forward to more. :) Good luck!

  6. AMAZING revision! I love that you've made her more human and relatable. The memories of her brother, the name, it all helped. :D One tiny thing: "Were her mind focused, she would not attack nine men." threw me for a moment. It makes it sound like she did attack because we know her mind isn't focused. Just a simple rewording would fix it. Otherwise I really like it. Good luck!