Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Story Snippet: The Secret of Stardust (Chapter Two), and a Farewell (Heather)

Merry Christmas, everyone! 

You made it.

I made it.

Together, we made it through 2020! 

That in and of itself is a gift, is it not? I am thankful for all of the ways I have witnessed God's gracious hand and provision despite a difficult and trying year, both personally and on a global scale. I have relished my time of advent this year, anticipating the promise of Christ's birth and the new beginnings that it represents.

The "Christmas Star" (Jupiter and Saturn) above my house (to right of center) on 12/21/20

Beyond the crisis of COVID-19 and the mess of our presidential election, I've also been caring for my mother who had a stroke at the beginning of the year, and recently went to stay with my middle daughter and her husband after her first baby arrived in November. In the midst of these life events, I've also been *trying* to write the fourth book in The Tethered World Chronicles, called The Secret of Stardust

Until recently, I've had little time to write. And what time I did have was wrought with a silent muse and faltering plot. I've started over three times. It's been neither pretty nor easy, and I have a deadline approaching in the new year.

Therefore, I feel I must sit out this upcoming year as a contributor to the Lands Uncharted blog :( 

Though I'm sad to step away, I believe I must use my writing time to focus exclusively on reaching my deadline. I've truly enjoyed the easy and diverse schedule at Lands Uncharted, and appreciate each of the other author's insights and contributions. It's been a positive experience and I will be reassessing a return in the future.

For now, I leave you with my final contribution for 2020 and this week's Story Snippets post! You can read chapter one at this link, first (recommended). Please remember that the same caveat applies here: this is a first draft and subject to editing and plot changes :) 

If you'd like to keep up with the latest on my books, please consider signing up for my newsletter, here. Also, check out this post to learn a little more about my trilogy--especially since my first book, The Tethered World, is perma-free as an eBook and ready for you to explore. 

I hope you all have a very blessed Christmas and New Year filled with hope and health and happiness! Do you have any books on your wishlist? How are you feeling as you look back on 2020? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

The Secret of Stardust

Chapter Two

Alex felt as cold and impassive as the stone wall against his back. Sitting on the expansive window seat in his bedroom, he attempted to disconnect from the fuss and formality of a day spent mourning the King of Calamus. The royal family had been the churning eye of the hurricane whose arms of mourning encompassed dozens of dignitaries, hundreds of his grieving, loyal subjects, and thousands of curious onlookers. Alex had nearly scaled the palace walls to escape the commotion for the solace of his room. 

Outside his window, the palace vineyards stitched neat rows between the back pasture and the foothills of the Kinleigh mountain range. The soaring crystal skydome above had dimmed to its dusktime hue of burnt honey, casting the far-flung, craggy peaks into violet relief.

With eyelids shuttered, Alex saw none of the familiar scenery. Instead he bobbed his head to an alternative band pipping unrealistic ideas into his earbuds. Their lyrics promised that speeding down the highway in a convertible was the tonic to any tribulation. A breezy, summer day with the ‘top down and volume up’ was the simple solution to life’s complexities. 

A bittersweet message. Alex knew he had plenty of complexities, but his station in life left him lacking a motorized vehicle or a license to drive it—let along a convertible. He lacked a single paved road—let alone endless miles of highway. And he lived in a land with an appalling lack of breeze or sunshine. The golden geode skydome might be a suitable substitute for daylight, but expansive blue sky and cottony clouds were treats as nonexistent as ice cream and airplanes in this world beneath the world.

In his palm, Alex cradled an antiquated smartphone. It had been his mother’s back in the day. Though it was completely incompatible—nearly unrecognizable—with current topside tech, he loved having a selection of music at his fingertips. Even if every song was older than himself.

Wasn’t as if he needed to call or text anyone. He lived in a land without electricity, cell towers, or WiFi. Technology newer than the 19th Century didn’t exist until his Uncle Brent had transported a generator to Calamus shortly before Alex was born. This allowed the family the convenience of a few topside necessities, like charging the old smartphone—arguably more of a luxury.

But Alex treasured this rectangular dinosaur with its cracked screen more than any of his other things. It made him feel like an actual Topsider. And he longed to be just that. To live topside and be a person of no consequence. Not the grandson of the king. Not the namesake of a legend. Just another seven-foot-tall guy. 

Since he’d been old enough to understand the concept of moving, he had planned to relocate to the land of breezes and sunshine and convertible automobiles. Yearly jaunts with his mother’s family left him yearning to go back, but not on an impulsive whim. He couldn’t just trek topside and hope for a job and home to fall out of that brilliant blue sky. 

At last, however, Alex had turned seventeen—recognized as an adult in Calamus—and he could begin to make the move. This next year was his chance to get a workable plan in motion, and by the time he could make the leap he would be eighteen. Legally an adult in the United States and Ireland—both places in contention for his potential destination. 

In theory. 

There was the pesky matter of his being heir to the throne. But, that was a far-future event that should not dictate his near-future objective, right? Until the recent turn of events, he had spent a lot of mental energy on his exit strategy. But the official functions, funeral prep, royal protocol and blah-blah-blah had droned on, occupying every nook and cranny of the past seventy-two hours to the exclusion of all else. 

The  itinerary had culminated in a long, mournful day with a horse-drawn funeral procession plodding through the streets of Calamus so the citizens could bid farewell to their king. There were dignitaries and their wives who wanted to hug Alex and draw him into teary-eyed conversations. Not to mention the formal clothing, long-winded speeches, elaborate funeral rituals, and the ongoing business of comforting his little sister. It had been exhausting, yet he felt as wound and tense as coiled wire.

Despite the blaring music, he still found it hard to dispel images of his grandfather’s sunk-in cheeks and deep-set eyes. Or the wig, made from his shorn dreadlocks, woven into a semblance of what had once been his hair. It had been like looking at a caricature of the king. Like the mannequins he’d see in the stores when his family went topside to Portland. 

Not real. Or maybe surreal. One of those words that meant it felt like life was playing on a movie screen, disconnected. The parts everyone played didn’t fit, weren’t quite recognizable, not even his own. It was all so extra and over the top. 

Things had been this way for the past month, Alex realized. He had barely gotten to enjoy his Feast of Ascension—the big bash signifying his ascension into adulthood at seventeen. He had used the gathering to make an important announcement—something he’d been planning for months, when he wasn’t thinking about moving topside.

His first act of independence was to ask for—no, demanded—a name change. 

Born Brady Alexander Aviel Tuatha de Nuada, he had been named after his mother’s heroic dead brother…followed by the names of his father and grandfather per tradition. 

But Brady had announced that he wanted to be called by his middle name, Alexander. Shedding his deceased uncle’s moniker felt like a symbolic way to also shed the expectations everyone placed on him to live up to his Uncle Brady’s stellar, sacrificial, superhero character. An awe-inspiring trifecta that Alex always fell short of achieving. He’d overheard as much on many occasions, not to mention his own accusing voice when he looked in the mirror.

As expected, everyone had been aghast at this near-blasphemy. Why wouldn’t he want to use his Uncle Brady’s near-sacred name?

But Alex’s little speech was cut short when the king fainted, leaving the feast on a stretcher. The partygoers insinuated that Alex—or Brady—may have been the cause of the king’s condition. They left the gathering in a collection of scowls and sidelong glances, murmuring among themselves. 

So much for celebratory milestones. 

Alex should’ve been strutting about the palace as a freshly-minted man with a new name, enjoying leftover birthday cake. Instead, it had been a four week endurance test for both his grandfather and the family, as they kept a bedside vigil. And now that the funeral was over, plans for his father’s coronation ceremony would begin. 

His grandmother, Zeta, kept reminding everyone that King Aviel left her in charge to carry out his wishes, and continuously put a stop to plans that others presented which might conflict with her agenda. What that agenda was remained a mystery, however, blanketed by the promise to discuss it after the whirlwind funeral.

Thankfully, Zeta-zilla had behaved like the perfectly sorrowful widow she probably wasn’t. No doubt she believed her temper tantrums would only serve to complicate the series of rites and mourning, rather than bring it all to a swift conclusion. Whatever her motivation, at least the family didn’t have to deal with her drama on top of everything else. 

Only a matter of time, Alex knew, then gave his head a little shake. Wasn’t he trying to distract himself from the craziness of the past few days? The music wasn’t doing its job.

Alex’s gaze fell on his purple and black cape which he’d thrown on top of a growing pile of clothing at the foot of his bed. Though the royal family had servants and attendants like a hive of bees, Sadie insisted that the kids keep up with their own rooms. “Builds character and teaches responsibility,” she claimed. Xander joked that, for Alex, it only built mounds of clothing the size of haystacks. 

A touch on Alex's arm startled him. He turned to find his mother beside him, eyes red-rimmed and tired, mouth pressed into a grim line—all-too familiar features on her face these days.

Popping out his earbuds he said, “Sorry. Didn’t hear you knock.” 

She shrugged. “Your door was cracked, so I peeked in.”

“What’s up?” He swung his legs off the sill but continued leaning against it in a half-twist. He noticed his mother still wore her full-skirted charcoal and silver dress from the funeral, though her hat had been removed, leaving a faint impression in her chestnut, shoulder-length hair. 

He hoped there wasn’t some forgotten function he had to dress up for. He’d experienced a small thrill to shed his royal raiment for basketball shorts and a muscle shirt.

Sadie’s eyes crinkled in concern, tiny crowfeet just beginning to map their imprint upon her face. She seemed to focus on his chin, rather than meet his eyes. 

“Mom?” Alex felt a scratch of frustration. Hadn’t he dealt with enough negativity the past few days? Was there more? Couldn’t it wait?

“Brady, I—”

“It’s Alex, Mom, remember?”

She gave her head a little shake, her gaze flitting to his as if waking from a stupor. “Sorry. It’s a seventeen-year habit.”

He nodded, knowing it wasn’t the best time to show any irritation. 

“Can we sit?” She nodded toward the tufted wingback chairs which flanked the fireplace.

Alex followed her over, tossing an inside-out pair of jeans out of the way while avoiding his mother’s reproving eye. She arranged her full skirt and took a seat, dwarfed in the Nephilim sized chair. Alex noticed she gripped a rolled-up piece of paper in her left hand. A scroll, he realized, when he spied the crimson wax seal between her fingers.

She followed his gaze and shifted the small cylinder between her thumb and forefinger, twisting it back and forth. “How are you doing, Br—Alex?”

He cocked an assessing eyebrow from her face to the scroll and back. “I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’re not actually here to check on my welfare. What do you have? Who sent that?” Since Calamus’s official seal was deep purple, he knew the scroll must come from elsewhere. 

Her gaze ran across his features, as if looking for an answer to her question anyway. “No really. I want to check in. Things have been plowing ahead and there’s been little time to reflect. I’m glad you were able to unwind a bit here in your room.”

The last thing he wanted was to talk about his feelings. “I’m fine. Just ready for all of the pomp and circumstance to be over.”

She nodded, but the set of her mouth and wary gaze revealed she wasn’t convinced. “I’m sorry you’ve been rather lost in the mayhem of your grandfather’s sickness. What a way to bring in your birthday, right? You should be—”

Mom,” Alex cut in. “I said I’m okay. Let’s leave it at that.”

Sadie swallowed and gave a curt nod. “Very well.” She glanced down at the scroll then back at her son. “It appears that not long after your grandpapa took ill, he spoke to your grandmama about the future of Calamus. He…” she trailed off and looked at the fireplace as if the rest of her thought might be crouching inside. 

Alex leaned his forearms on his knees and tried not to look too impatient. 

“They made some decisions together. About you.”

Now Alex scowled. “Me? Why me? They barely acknowledge my existence. Grandpapa doesn’t even like me,” he added, realizing too late that he was speaking about his grandfather in the present tense.

“That’s not true.” Sadie shook her head. “They…He—”

“Fine. I’ll pretend he liked me so you can get to the point.”

Sadie gave him an exasperated huff. “Fine,” she echoed, leveling her gaze on him. “Have it your way. Your grandfather, knowing his time was short, was thinking about the longterm future of the realm. Obviously, you’re to be king one day. But in the meantime, your grandfather understood there might be a challenge to Xander or,” she gestured at him, “yourself. From your Uncle Magnus.”

“So, what are you saying? He’s going to like off dad and me and proclaim himself king?”  

Sadie gave him a slow, tolerating blink. “That’s a tad blunt. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

“And what does this have to do with me?” He pointed at the scroll. “And that?”

Sadie pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut. Alex could see her stress level rising like mercury, and wondered how it had fallen to his mother to be the bearer of this mysterious news.  

“Your dad wanted to have this conversation with you,” she said, as if reading his thoughts. “But there are still a few dignitaries bending his ear, and time is of the essence in this matter.”

“O-kay.” Alex drew the word out, wondering if she might get to the point before Christmas. “Still not clear on what, in fact, is the matter.”

“Yeah. Well, it’s not exactly easy to say. Even though, we, uh. That is, your father and I…we happen to agree with your grandfather in this instance.” She ran a hand through her hair and left it there, her elbow braced against the curved wing of the chair. “Oh, boy.”

His pulse spiked. What sort of news-bomb was about to be dropped? “Just say it.” He made a swiping motion with his hand. “Like ripping off a bandage.”

His mother nodded. “Alright. I will.” She took a deep breath and leaned forward, her gaze tired but intentional. “Before King Aviel died, he arranged for you to be married.”

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