So, as I've mentioned before, I'm in the plotting stage on a bunch of different potential books. It's going well, and by "going well", I mean "nothing's crashed and burned to the point that I don't ever want to even think about working on it again." ^_^ The one plot I have complete and ready to write is a new Shiloh & Alexi story, and that's where this week's entries come from.
The S&A story takes place ten years after the two main characters first meet, and a significant event happens at that first meeting. For plot reasons, I have to get everything about that important event across in the first chapter, and also, y'know, start the actual story. I wasn't sure how I could manage this without massive amounts of recap and "as you know" dialogue, and that's neither fun nor interesting.
Then I thought, why not write it as a short story? Then I could know everything exactly as it happened, and if I wanted, I could use that story as a prologue in the book. I still haven't decided if I'll do that (need to write the book first), but I think the story turned out well, so I'm sharing it.
Hope you enjoy it. I will post part two, appropriately enough, on Valentine's Day.
First and Foremost
Shiloh didn’t care what her parents said. Twelve was far too young for any engagement, especially an arranged one.
But when House Figaro gestured skyward, her own house jumped, as did any who wanted to deal with the merchant family who turned airships from a pastime for the rich into a thriving cross-continent business. For all the time Shiloh spent learning of the noble merchant houses and their businesses, she’d never thought her own family would deal with one of the most notable.
Especially not with herself in the bargain.
“It’s how House Figaro works, Shiloh,” her mother said, towering behind her as she pinned another strand of Shiloh’s unruly hair into something vaguely resembling a fashionable style. Shiloh’s mother looked every inch the matriarch, her dress simple but fashionable, her hair already done perfectly, her blue eyes fixed upon her work. “They require a marriage for significant deals, to ensure both sides keep to their word.” She put one hand on Shiloh’s cheek, her touch gentle and familiar. “But it’s only a betrothal. No one expects you to marry him tomorrow.”
“But you expect me to marry him,” Shiloh said, then set her mouth in a frown, her own reflection glaring back at her. Pale and blonde and still waiting for the growth spurt her older brother and sister both enjoyed, Shiloh doubted she looked like anybody’s dream engagement. “I don’t want to.”
Her mother, of course, had anticipated the protest. “There’s a five-year waiting period written into the contract. You’ll be seventeen by then, and--”
“And I still won’t want to,” Shiloh interrupted. She met her mother’s eyes in the mirror. “Why does it have to be me? Why not Bethany? Or Anders?”
“Bethany’s too old, dear,” her mother said, utterly calm. She tugged back another lock of hair, making Shiloh wince. “The Figaro sons are sixteen and fourteen, and a nineteen-year-old is out of their house’s limits for these arrangements. And Anders isn’t an option because House Figaro expects heirs.”
Shiloh tried to turn and look back at her mother, but hands on the sides of her head stopped her before she got too far. “I’ve read stories of the gods making men pregnant,” she said, a smile creeping onto her face. “Perhaps we could pray to--”
Shiloh’s mother took hold of Shiloh’s shoulders and spun her around, then looked her in the eye. “Shiloh Donovan, this conversation is over,” she said, her voice brooking no argument. “We need this contract. It’s the best hope for our house, the only way we’ll be able to join the noble houses.” Her expression softened, though the lines around her eyes never went away. “And you might like the Figaro boys. A great deal can change in five years.”
Shiloh scrunched up her mouth, and stifled another protest. She doubted she’d ever like a boy, and couldn’t understand why all the girls in her classes kept gushing over them.
Better get used to staying quiet, she thought, if she was going to be around noble merchants. They always seemed to think they were better than everyone else just because they had more money. Which was why they so rarely offered large contracts with the lower houses . . . which was why she was in this miserable position in the first place.
House Figaro, being so rich and powerful, had the clout to demand marriages as part of their deals. And the deal they brought was so significant that yet another family was involved with it.
“When will House RiLeon’s people get here?” Shiloh asked, and turned around for her mother to finish arranging her hair. “Do you know who’s coming?”
“Just the master and his second daughter,” her mother said, setting to work again. “Cordobrae’s hours away by airship, but House Figaro was kind enough to fly them out for this. Only the two of them, so as not to cost Figaro too much.” Her voice went flat on that last line, Shiloh noted; she didn’t think much of the matter either.
“But we’ll meet them at the betrothal?” Shiloh asked. “I’ve never met anyone from Cordobrae. Do they really have marks on their foreheads?”
“Everyone born there does.” She tapped Shiloh’s head. “Don’t stare when you meet them.”
“I won’t,” Shiloh said, sulking a little. It wasn’t like she needed the warning. She had classes filled with all kinds of folk, most of whom weren’t human like her. She’d long outgrown staring at someone just because they looked different from her.
With a few more twists and another half-dozen pins, Shiloh’s mother arranged Shiloh’s hair so it looked oddly elegant, instead of the usual waist-length carpet of curls. Shiloh smiled, probably for the first time that day. Not that she wanted any of this, but it was always nice to get dressed up.
Even if it was for yet another formal merchant function. One that concerned her entire future. A future she didn’t want and thought she never would.
She sighed, her smile disappearing. It wasn’t often she felt pretty, but today’s events took all the joy out of it.
“If all goes according to plan,” Shiloh’s mother said, sorting through a small jewelry box, “the RiLeons will arrive soon. House Figaro’s people will arrive in an hour or so, and they’ll want to go through with the ceremony and signing without delay.” She half-turned to Shiloh and smiled. “Can I count on you to go that long without sneaking off to the library again?”
“Since you asked,” Shiloh said, then stuck her tongue out when her mother frowned. That was one of Anders’s favorite phrases lately, and for some reason, it seemed to irritate both of their parents. “Yes, I’ll be good,” she said. “Can I go now?”
“One moment.” Her mother pulled two small sapphire earrings and a gold chain necklace from her jewelry box, and gave them to Shiloh to put on. The dark blue jewels matched Shiloh’s dress. “Just a few small touches. No rings, of course.”
Of course, Shiloh thought. That would come later. One of the Figaro boys – she didn’t even know which one – would put a ring on her finger, chaining the two of them together for five years, to be followed then by another ring that would bind them for life.
Shiloh’s skin went cold at the thought, and she forced herself to stand in place, to not run off and never look back. Deep breaths, she told herself. This was for her family. They wouldn’t get another opportunity to work with House Figaro. And this contract would leave them all set for life.
All it asked was her life.
Once she was properly adorned, Shiloh excused herself and fled her parents’ bedroom as quickly as she could. She ran down the short hallway, turned away from dashing into her bedroom and locking the door by an act of sheer bloody willpower, and hurried down the wide staircase that led downstairs.
To the kitchen, she thought. She’d have a cup of tea, that always seemed to calm her parents. Bethany too, though nothing ever seemed to bother her. Yet Shiloh was sure she’d be bothered if she was facing down the prospect of being shackled to someone she didn’t even know for the rest of her life–
The sound of heavy knocking echoed through the house, and Shiloh froze. The RiLeons were here. The butler would answer the door, and then – and then–
Shiloh stood at the base of the staircase, and took a deep breath, fought to compose herself. She’d done all this to look presentable, best to present herself to someone, even if it was just another lower merchant family. Talking to someone might help. And RiLeon’s daughter – what was her name, Shiloh couldn’t remember – was in the same situation. Talking to her would definitely help.
She listened to the familiar sound of the house’s main door opening, followed by the butler’s muffled voice; the man rarely spoke much above a whisper unless making an announcement. A louder voice followed, proud and imperious. That would be Master RiLeon, Shiloh thought, and it sounded like he was yelling at the butler to speak up. She already didn’t like him.
A moment later, the aged butler led two people into the main entry, then stood aside and announced them, his voice going hoarse as he raised it.
“Khalid RiLeon, master of House RiLeon, and his daughter, Alexi RiLeon.”
Khalid was tall and swarthy, broad of shoulder with copper-brown skin and a mustache that hung in two neat points down past his chin. Narrow eyes peered out from above a large nose, and he wore some sort of long, flowing tan coat over loose pants, both of fine silk, and cuffed black boots for travel. His hair, black with an odd pale blue sheen to it, was parted at the center, and hung down past his shoulders. A red symbol marked his forehead, five curved lines sweeping together to meet at the center.
He glanced around the room, and when his eyes found Shiloh, he said, “Master Donovan sends only you to greet us?”
Shiloh folded her hands before herself and bowed, precisely far enough to indicate respect between two houses of equal standing. She wasn’t sure of the exact standing of their two houses, but they were both involved in this deal, so she figured equals was good enough. “My parents will be down presently, Master RiLeon, and--”
“Oh, give her a moment, would you?”
Shiloh raised her eyes at the sound of Alexi’s voice, and her breath caught in her throat. Her heart gave a single hard pound.
Alexi stood half a head taller than Shiloh, with straight hair cascading down to her waist, black with a purple sheen. Her skin matched her father’s, as did her nose, though her eyes were large and dark, gleaming faintly in the light. She wore a dress of purple silk that hugged her gentle curves, and gold bracelets adorned her wrists, both with chains that linked to rings she wore on her middle fingers. The symbol on her forehead reminded Shiloh of a swirling orb of fire.
She met Shiloh’s gaze, and smiled, as though they shared some secret. Shiloh tried to say something, but found she’d forgotten how to form words. A tiny noise escaped her throat, and she blushed.
Khalid snorted, and blew at the ends of his mustache. “There, she’s had her moment. Now where are your parents, girl?”
“Upstairs,” Shiloh squeaked, then forced herself to look away, willed her heart to stop beating so fast. She cleared her throat, for all the good it did. “I’m sure they’ll – they’ll be down in a moment, Master RiLeon,” she managed. “I – I can offer you refreshment, surely it’s been a long trip--”
Shiloh’s father’s voice boomed down from above. “Ah, Khalid, good to see you,” he said, walking down the stairs. He wore a suit of dark grey in the current fashion, and his blonde hair and beard were cut short, against the current fashion but he was adamantly against growing either long. Shiloh had always thought her father took over any room he entered, and she found herself profoundly grateful that he’d come along to take attention away from her.
Then she glanced back at Alexi and met the girl’s eyes again, and knew Alexi hadn’t looked away from her at all. She ducked her head, then raised her eyes, saw Alexi smiling at her and felt her whole face turn red.
This was not how today was supposed to go.
“How was the flight?” Shiloh’s father asked, clasping hands with Master RiLeon. “I’ve heard Figaro’s new model is a great deal more stable.”
“Quite, actually,” Master RiLeon said. “The rising and landing still suffer from shaking, but it’s a solvable problem.” He chuckled, an utterly self-serving sound. “I think a great many problems will be solved today.”
“That’s my hope.” Shiloh’s father cleared his throat, and she looked over to see him giving her a sidelong glance. “That’s what we all hope.”
“Of course, Master Donovan,” Alexi said, her voice smooth and mellow. “I’m sure this will all go as planned.”
Please keep talking, Shiloh thought. But Alexi only bowed to her father and said nothing more. Shiloh tried to think of something to ask her, anything that would give them a little more time together. Nothing came to mind, and she winced. Something, anything that wasn’t stupid would do–
Shiloh yelped at her father’s voice, and looked to him. “Y-yes, Father?”
“Check to see everything’s in order in the temple,” he said, his thick brows drawing together. “The Figaros will be here within the hour.”
“Of course,” she said quickly, then bowed to everyone and hurried off, her dress swirling about her ankles.
Better to get away from them all, she thought, her heart pounding again as she sped away. The longer she stayed there, the more likely she’d say or do something she’d regret. And the way Alexi was looking at her. . . .
No one had ever looked at her like that, Shiloh thought, fighting back the warm, giddy feeling spreading through her. Once she was out of everyone’s sight, she grinned, and covered her mouth to hold back a giggle. The ceremony would take a while, with all the proper gods to invoke and ask for their blessing. And Alexi would be there the entire time.
Would that they’d be together for so long under other circumstances . . . would that the entirety of today was other circumstances. Shiloh lost the spring in her step by the time she reached the family’s temple.