Books: river secrets
  Chapter 1, early draft

Here’s another example of how a book changes through rewrites. This was the first chapter around draft 3. The main changes I made were to tighten, intensify, and build relationships. First chapters are extremely tricky. I think they’re the most important, as well as the hardest to write, which is why my first chapters receive many more rewrites than any other part of the book.

Chapter 1

Razo crept behind the columns. He was searching for a place where he could see something besides other people’s backs. Soldiers, courtiers, and servants lined the room, craned their necks, stood on toes. And everyone was taller than him.

“Lovely,” he said to himself.

An elderly woman in pink turned to him and smiled.

“What? Uh, oh, yes, very lovely,” he said, gesturing to her gown, and she blushed. Let her think he was talking to her, he thought. Someone should feel good today.

He ground his back teeth with a satisfying rasp. The rumors had buzzed that something weighty would be announced today, but even with friends as high up as the throne itself, Razo had not been able to squeeze out the secret. He knew he should have arrived early to get a good spot, but he’d lingered in the stables currying his horse. She was shamelessly fond of the attention, and he just could not abandon her when she began to drool.

Would that he were in the Forest and only need climb

a tree to get a better view. He looked up. Then again... Razo squeezed to the outer wall and leapt at a tapestry, just catching the lower fringe, and began to climb. A brief sound of tearing, quick as the squeak of a mouse in a trap.

“Eh.” He dangled there above a hundred heads, waiting for a terrifying rip to send him down. The tapestry shivered, then held, so Razo crossed his eyes once for luck and continued up. He hoped he had not done too much damage, or that the tapestry was not terribly valuable, or at least that Geric did not find out. Geric was a good sort, but Razo had begun to notice that kings get huffy about unexpected things, like late frost and muddy roads and torn tapestries.

At the top, he pushed his feet against the wall and sprung onto the decorative shelving. Easy as climbing a Forest pine. He was pleased to find an impressive layer of dust. Everything else in the palace was ridiculously clean. Razo had discovered that many of the courtiers bathed as often as once a week, even in winter. He shrugged. His ma always said that fancy folk were as peculiar as pig bladder balloons and not quite as fun.

Razo scooted to the edge and the expanse of the throne room unrolled before below him. On the dais at the far end of the crammed room, he could now see Isi and Geric, Bayern’s queen and king, seated two steps below their thrones in less formal, and less intimidating, chairs. And beside them, the three Tiran emissaries. The Tiran all wore white and pale blue, drab colors in the vibrant sea of Bayern green, blue, orange, and yellow. They also stood out with their pale hair, shades from yellow-white to sunny brown. Except for yellow-haired Isi, the Tiran were the only people Razo had ever seen without dark hair and dark eyes.

One of the Tiran, the woman, was speaking.

“…years of animosity cannot be forgotten with a handshake and a smile. Yet it is our wish to form an acquaintance with Bayern as we have not for many hundreds of years. With time, that acquaintance might evolve...”

Yack, yack, yack, thought Razo, yawning. He had been hearing this kind of talk for months. He wished they would get on with whatever was so important about today’s gathering. Some of the Tiran soldiers had proposed mock sword battles later at the barracks, and he was anxious to see his friend Finn thrash them soundly.

“It’s our wish as well to embark on a season of friendship,” said Geric. His voice, as always, was natural, engaging, but now it had a practiced tone to it. Razo guessed that whatever Geric was about to announce had already been argued and battled about behind closed doors. “And so we propose an exchange of ambassadors. This spring, we’ll send one of our own south to live in Ingridan and know the Tiran people.”

“By the authority of the people of Tira, our assembly, and our prince,” said the Tiran woman, “we accept Bayern’s invitation and likewise will send our ambassador to live and work in your capital.”

There was a mild grumble from the Bayern crowd, and there were no shouts of joy coming from the Tiran either. One of them, a lean soldier, glared at the Bayern and tapped the hilt of his sword as if fantasizing about slicing off a few northern heads.

“Huh,” said Razo to himself. “Ambassadors. Sticky business.” Geric had been negotiating terms of peace with various Tiran emissaries since the war had ended almost a year ago, and now, finally, some headway. Razo suspected the ambassador exchange had been Isi’s suggestion. Many Bayern would be uneasy at having Tiran living in the capital so soon after their failed invasion, but Isi was adamant about peace.

“They don’t know us,” she was always saying. “It’s easy to believe a stranger is an enemy. If they knew us...”

A clever plan it was, though risky. At times, people on both sides seemed to be looking for a reason to wipe out the other side once and for all. Razo was not one. He had been in the middle of that whole mess of a war. He was not eager to return.

After the official announcement and the accepting-of-the-official-announcement was over, there was a small celebration. Very small. Bayern drummers, a few wedding dancers. Then it was the Tiran’s turn to pretend that all was fun and festivity.

“I will sing so old,” said the Tiran woman, “it has never been written down and is only performed at night when all is obscured.”

The Tiran music lack drums, using only string instruments and a high, lonely flute that gave Razo goose bumps on his neck. The woman’s voice mimicked the flute, trilling high and dropping suddenly low as if telling of something that falls and is lost under water or deep in the ground.

Weave the tale of the place of woe
Sow the fields where no one plants
Chant the river out of dust
The song trickled words until they built into a story of several villagers--a tanner, a pigherd, a miller’s daughter, and a shepherdess. Razo felt dreamy, lost in the music, but he looked sharp when the song told how the shepherdess breathed fire like a dragon. The young girl scorched her own flock when she meant to kiss their heads, and when she opened her mouth to say she was sorry, she burned her village black.

The singer had a knowing gleam in her eye, and many in the crowd bent to whisper to one another. Razo had not doubt that with her song, the woman was saying that Tira had not forgotten how a Bayern soldier burned one tenth of their invading army, and this gesture of trading ambassadors would not easily salve those wounds.

Razo smirked. What a laugh, Bayern’s enemy of late singing about an anonymous fire-speaker and completely clueless that Enna, the fire-speaker herself, was not five paces away.

Enna was standing behind Isi’s chair, slouching just a tad, as though trying to communicate that the gathering was killed and done for already. Her black hair was growing unchecked to the middle of her back, her formal tunic was deep red and sparkly with beads around her neck, a bit more showy than normal. Occasionally, her lips moved and her eyes glanced sideways as if she were whispering something droll to Finn beside her.

Razo made sharp gestures with his hand. When Enna glanced up, he pointed at the singer and mouthed the words, “That’s you.”

Enna scowled at him and mouthed, “Get down,” pointing emphatically to the floor.

Razo made an offended expression as if to say, “What am I hurting?” She glared as if she would fry him on the spot, so he rolled his eyes and scooted back. He supposed he had to be a good example or something, being part of Bayern’s Own and all.

An hour later, Razo was napping on the floor of Geric’s antechamber when the others finally sauntered in—Enna and Finn, then Talone, the captain of Bayern’s Own, and other ranking soldiers and ministers. While Razo yawned, Geric led the discussion of the ambassador exchange. Razo half-listened, seeing as he did not have anything to add and there was scarcely any chance he’d be chosen to go anyway. There were some benefits to being a dud, he supposed.

Isi had changed into a simple blue dress (which to Razo’s mind looked loads more comfortable than the stiff, green stuff she had been prancing around in before) and was now holding Tusken, her three-month-old baby. She was smiling and cooing and staring at him as though he were a festival day, though he was asleep and did nothing but occasionally twitch his lips or rub his nose.

The purpose of babies eluded Razo. He liked his nieces and nephews right well, once they grew up a bit and could talk and wrestle. He supposed it would be different if he were a father, though that would require finding a wife, and there was little hope of that with his heart’s true love, Bettin, married last year. To someone else.

“Ha,” said Razo, though he did not mean to say it aloud.

“Hm?” Finn, who stood beside him, leaned over as if believing Razo had whispered something to him. “Nothing, never mind.” Though he counted Finn his best friend, Razo could never confide in him his love woes, not if he wanted any real sympathy. Finn was completely smitten with Enna. It seemed all she had to do was twitch a lip or rub her nose and Finn would sigh the day through. Geric was not much better with Isi. What a laugh, those strong men volunteering themselves as slaves to their women. Never Razo.

“The delegation will leave at spring thaw,” Geric was saying. “The queen believes trade is one way to pacify animosities, so we’ll send a party of tradesmen on the journey as well. Bayern has always produced an abundance of dyes, something the Tiran lack.”

The queen? Razo wondered who Geric was talking about as there was no queen in Tira. Wait, he means Isi. Using titles meant the conversation was getting all stiff, so Razo looked for something more amusing. There appeared to be a small hole in the rug. He stuck in his finger and, sure enough, it was a hole. Now it was a slightly bigger hole. He wondered how big he could make it without breaking any threads.

“As for a guard,” Geric was saying, “I’d like Captain Talone to lead. I’ll name someone to fill in for your duties as captain of Bayern’s Own at home, but I think we’ll need your leadership in Ingridan. This is delicate business.”

Talone assented.

“We can’t afford to send any hotheads down there, but we do need strong lads, good fighters. Who can guess what troubles you’ll face? And since we can’t dispatch an army to protect the ambassador, I’d also like Enna there.”

Enna simply nodding, for once having nothing to say. It made Razo wonder.

“I’d argue,” said Isi, “if I thought anyone would listen to me.”

Several people laughed, and Razo guessed they had all been in on some earlier conversation regarding Enna. Isi and Enna smiled at each other as if sharing a secret joke, though the conversation became serious.

“If the Tiran people realize that you are the dreadful fire-witch…” Isi began.

Enna shrugged. “Most of them never saw me.”

Isi continued in a hopeless tone, knowing that Enna would not take her argument seriously. “You spent weeks in Eylbold—”

“In a tent, with mostly just one other person—”

“Who’s dead now, but other people saw you, Enna—”

“Other people who I’m not likely to meet in a city of one hundred thousand people—”

“There were soldiers in Eylbold you might see in the barracks.”

“They were disgraced, Isi, I seriously doubt they’d be retained in a royal company, if even in the army.”

Isi sighed and looked at Geric as if for support. He smiled sweetly at her, then frowned as if realizing that she expected something, then looked behind his chair to see if there was something there she wanted.

“What? You’d ask me to throw myself between you and Enna? I may be an old man of twenty-five years, my wife, but I’m still sane.”

“Captain,” said Isi, turning to Talone, her friend from years past and her only other countryman in Bayern. Often when speaking to him, her voice strayed from her adopted Bayern accent to the stiff, punctuated tones of Kildenree. “You must see the danger—if she is discovered, not only her safety but all of yours will be compromised.”

“I see a thousand dangers in this enterprise, my queen,” he replied in his natural Kildenrean accent. “We cannot take an army, but in Enna we have a secret army. If Enna is willing, I believe we would be wise to accept her help.”

“I’ll take the risk, Isi.” Enna toyed with the fringed edge of her tunic, as if the argument were casual play. “You know that this is the best use of my skills.”

Isi nodded. “I know.” She smiled down at her sleeping baby, but Razo thought her expression still seemed troubled.

The conversation tumbled on. Talone named soldiers he would invite to join the company, including Finn, and those present voiced their willingness to make the trek and stay in Tira for the next year or as long as it took to formalize peace.

Razo had stopped paying attention when he heard his own name.

“What?” he said, looking up from the hole in the carpet.

“If you can spare him, my queen,” said Talone, “I believe we will have need of Razo’s skills.”

Razo stared. If Talone had ever made a joke in his life, Razo would have called his bluff, but this was Talone speaking—stone-faced, tight-shouldered Talone.

Finn as a choice made sense. He had become one of the best swordsmen in Bayern’s Own and was as dependable as nuts in autumn. Enna made sense—she was more powerful, he supposed, than fifty soldiers and any other person, saving Isi. The other soldiers Talone had called were all the best at something—sword or javelin, grappling or horse mastery. Razo was the best at nothing. Why would he want him?

He had thought Talone would never trust him again. During the war, Razo had served under Talone as a scout, but he had taken Enna and Finn along on his scouting missions where they secretly performed burning raids, and later he had abandoned his duties to break into a Tiran camp with Finn to rescue Enna. Talone would have likely knocked him flat when he returned, if he had not already been injured.

And that unpleasantness was another excellent argument for his own uselessness. The last time Razo had been involved in a skirmish, he had taken a sword in the ribs and barely scraped by with his breath intact. He was not that good at anything. He did not have to hear the whispers to know what everyone was thinking—the only reason he was one of Bayern’s Own was because he was so tight with Enna, Finn, and Isi, and perhaps as a reward for risking his life a few times during the war.

He did not have to hear the whispers, but he heard them all the same.

“A brave fool,” one captain had murmured to another when they thought Razo was asleep in the barracks. And he had not been the only ill speaker. A child that fell into his armor and didn’t know how to get back out. A puppy dog with noble friends. The worst swordsman this company has ever boasted…and so on. And Razo had to admit that they were probably right. So, why did Talone want him to go?

Razo realized that everyone was still staring at him, so again he said, “What?”

“To go, Razo,” said Isi in her sweet, light-voiced manner. “To go to Tira. Geric asked if you would be willing.”

“But why do you want me there, Captain?”

Talone did not blink. “I believe I will find much use for you.”

Razo rolled his eyes. When Talone chose to be vague, getting more information from him was like shaking a walnut tree for apples.

“Of course I’ll go,” said Razo. “You know I will.”

“Excellent. And now that’s settled, give me my boy,” said Geric, reaching for the baby.

“Hush, he’s still sleeping,” said Isi, handing Tusken to his father as if he were made of glass.

“He’s been asleep long enough, and I haven’t seen those huge, blue eyes since early this morning, what with everything we’ve done today.” Geric bounced Tusken in his arms until the baby produced a huge, toothless yawn, opened his eyes, and stared unblinking at his father. “Hello, there he is! You see, I knew he wanted to wake up.”

Isi smiled and shook her head, as if saying that Geric was impossible.

Enna plopped on the floor cross-legged before Razo, and Finn knelt beside her.

“So, off we go.” Enna took Finn’s sword hand and rubbed the calluses on his palm. It was such a habit between them, Razo wondered if Finn noticed anymore.

“At least we’ll have the winter to rest up and prepare,” said Finn.

The two of them and Isi were only three months back from a journey of twice that length, which that had thoughtlessly undertaken while Razo had still been recovering from a sword in his spleen. “It could be good sport, and I don’t mind getting a peek of Tira and an ocean and all,” said Razo, “but why me?”

Enna looked at him with dead sincerity and said, “To give us a good laugh.”

“Enna, I’m serious...”

“Who knows? Who can read the mind of Captain Stoneface? But it’s bound to be an adventure and with you along, twice as fun as potato mush fights.”

“Sounds like sticky business.”

“Tira or the food fights?” asked Enna.

Razo rolled his eyes.

“We’ll be all right,” said Finn. He was looking at Enna and, no doubt, thinking that he would make certain they were all right, if he had to prod his sword through anyone who looked at Enna cross-eyed. Razo on the other hand held more confidence in the fact that Enna could burn troublemakers out of their boots. Not that she would. She had given up burning people, even in self-defense, so she claimed. But there was no reason to tell any enemy Tiran that.

“Of course we’ll be all right,” said Razo. He was not looking forward to the weeks on horseback, but he supposed there might be some new, tasty foods in Ingridan. “We always are.”

“We have been, at any rate,” said Enna. “More or less.”

“Yes,” said Finn. He took Enna’s hand and kissed the back of her fingers. “So far.”

Razo gaped at them. Were they trying to spook him? “Why shouldn’t we be all right?” They did not answer him, staring at the ground as if lost in tragic imaginations.

“Ha,” said Razo, hoping they were teasing him. “We’ll be fine.”

He rubbed his back against the wall. Cold chills always made him feel itchy.


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