Today we get to dive into another new blog feature that I’m really excited about. I don’t think any author would claim that their work is ever perfect—there are always things to tweak, be it word choice, sentence structure, or even bigger things like pacing and characterization. I’ve been anxious about a lot of things in my first book since I very first published it, so much so that I’ve spent way too much time agonizing over my failures. All writers improve with time, but sometimes that only makes it harder to look back at one’s debut.
When I brought this up to a friend of mine reading my books for the first time, she came up with an interesting idea: rewriting scenes I was unhappy with and posting them on here. Almost like publicly editing my own work. I thought it sounded pretty awesome—so here we are!
For this first post, I decided to tackle a scene I’ve long been unhappy with: when Aria and Casimir meet for the first time in The Ice Queen, Chapter 5. The pacing has always been a bit off—I think I found the idea of Aria as a rebel queen more interesting than Aria’s past in Tower of the Moon, so I rushed her right into the situation I really wanted to write. That’s pretty sloppy, of course, since her time in Tower of the Moon shaped her quite a bit, and the setting itself is pretty cool.
There’s also the split with Weston, which Aria takes a lot more gracefully than she probably should have, considering he was leaving her all on her own with a bunch of men she just met. She’s bold, certainly, and not easily intimidated, but she kind of just lets Weston go without a second thought. Neither of them cared enough about each other to make a huge deal about it, of course, but yet the scene still feels a bit off.
I took some time out of my other projects to rewrite Aria and Casimir’s meeting until it conveyed much more of what I was going for. Enjoy the post below, and see you next week for Fantasy Friday!
Aria jerked awake to oppressive silence and pitch black. She could barely see Weston, though she felt his warmth on her right side. The fire had burnt out, and the wolves had stopped howling.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“A mage’s spell,” Weston muttered. “It’s been like this for twenty minutes. I thought I had looked for all the signs…”
He fell silent. Aria glanced up—the stars themselves had been snuffed out.
“I think he’s just messing with us,” Weston said. “Otherwise he would have already attacked. Maybe he’s trying to scare us away from the pass.”
Aria and Weston remained awake and alert until dawn, when the spell lifted abruptly; the birds made an obscene racket after the muffled, artificial silence of the previous night. Weston packed up their camp, his eyes darting around more than usual, and slid Aria’s sword through a loop in her belt before allowing her to mount Shadow.
“Just in case,” he said, pulling himself onto Storm.
Aria donned her hood, her brow furrowed.
Oran lay only six hours away at a gallop, and thus, Weston and Aria moved towards the Northern Pass with caution. Aria found herself following Weston’s gaze as he anxiously searched their surroundings, her stomach knotting up with unease the farther they rode. An increasingly urgent desire to turn back shortened her breath.
The mountains closed on either side as they entered the pass. Thousands of years of rain and snow had worn the rock into sheer cliffs; on Aria’s right, a waterfall tumbled over the face into a small pool of crystal clear water. Lavender and mountain flowers surrounding the pond encroached on the road and narrowed the path even more oppressively than the cliffs. Uneven cobblestones forced Aria and Weston to ride in single file.
Aria glanced up at the trees topping both sides of the cliffs and realized with a jolt that there was room enough for men to stand; when she blinked, she could nearly see them crouching there. She knew instantly—and implicitly—that they had walked into an ambush.
“Weston,” Aria hissed. “Stop your horse.”
He looked back at her, confused, but halted at her tone. “What is it?”
“Just wait,” she said, her skin prickling. “They’re coming.”
Sure enough, the brush above them rustled, and two or so dozen men moved into kneeling positions with their bows drawn.
Weston raised his hand commandingly. “Hold. I’m the prince of the Forest Realm. We’re just passing through.”
“No one passes through this way anymore,” a man in the hooded black robes of a mage said. He stood beside the archer with the clearest shot at Weston.
“You’ve closed the pass?” Weston asked.
Aria wrung her hands around Shadow’s reins as the mage said, “You should have turned back. I tried to warn you.”
The scene stilled, and Aria had trouble breathing, as if the air had all vanished; the mage lifted his hand to signal the bowmen to fire.
“Wait!” she called, tumbling from Shadow only semi-gracefully. She barely felt the jolt as her boots hit the cobblestones.
Weston jumped down, too, and grabbed Aria’s shoulder to keep her from stepping forward. The mage considered them with his head tilted.
“What are you doing?” Weston whispered urgently. “They’ll kill you!”
“I don’t know,” she said, slipping from his grip. “Just trust me.”
With one hand, Aria swept her hood back to let her black hair tumble freely over one shoulder. The desperate desire to turn back and her shortness of breath evaporated as the mage lowered his hand and the archers abandoned their shots.
“Why are you holding the pass against travelers?” Aria asked, with more confidence than she felt.
The mage jumped from the cliff—a fall that would have broken a normal man’s legs—and pulled his hood back from his face. Onyx hair, icy blue eyes, pale skin—he was of the old blood, too.
“Grand entrance,” he said, considering her incisively. “Who are you?”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“I don’t take my orders from Forest Realm brats.”
“I don’t tell arrogant mages my name without good cause.”
She could have sworn a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. Regardless, he shook his head and flicked his hand—and a foreign sense of peace washed over her, as if she could trust this stranger with her secret.
Before she realized what the mage had done, she blurted, “My name is Aria of House Kolenikova. My brother Alistair stole the throne from me when I was eight.”
Weston made a noise behind her, concurrent to the mage jerking his hand back; the spell lifted.
“Aria,” the mage said softly. “Alistair insisted that you were dead…”
She held his gaze defiantly as he stared at her for a few moments longer. Then, coming to a sudden decision, the mage looked up to the men on both sides of the pass and gestured for them to stand down. Aria held her chin high as the men tossed ropes over the edges of the cliffs, rappelled down, and surrounded her and Weston. The mage hadn’t killed her immediately, as a man of Alistair’s might have—he stood there evaluating her with a fiery, intelligent gaze, as if he sought answers in her posture or her clothing.
“You don’t answer to Alistair,” Aria said.
He flicked his eyes up and down the length of her once more. “You’re rather bold, you know.”
“How do we know it’s really her?” one of the men asked.
“Unless you doubt the potency of my mental manipulation,” the mage said lightly.
The man closed his mouth.
“My name is Casimir,” the black-robed man said, turning back to Aria. “I’m from the Southern Arm. What brings you back to us, Queen Aria?”
The name sounded wrong to her ears—just as Alistair intended. She glanced around to find Casimir’s companions all staring at her, some with curiosity, and some with awe. Her cheeks reddened.
“It’s as my companion said—he’s the prince of the Forest Realm, and we were riding for his kingdom. You were about the kill us for using the pass, weren’t you?”
Casimir smirked at her. “You have no fear, do you?”
“I don’t fear you.”
“I wonder if you’ve inherited all the royal grace your brother lacks. His destruction of the realm has been swift—thousands of years, crumbled in ten.”
“Were you about to kill us for using the pass?” she asked again.
“Your brother closed the pass a week ago. I was just following orders.”
“And yet you say it so disdainfully.”
“Anyone who wants to stay alive does his bidding. That doesn’t mean his orders are worth following.”
Weston regained his tongue, finally, and drew level with Aria. “Does my father know you’ve closed the pass?”
Casimir answered without looking at him. “It was done in secret. King Alistair is planning an assault on the Forest Realm.”
“The Ice Realm and the Forest Realm are natural allies.”
“The king disagrees, judging by his new alliance with the Wastelanders. They’re forming up to attack the southern reaches of your kingdom as we speak.”
Weston choked out a noise of incredulity. “How could—how dare—”
“Those of us with some pride for our kingdom feel the same way,” Casimir said.
“You can’t—what were you going to do about this?” Weston demanded. “Just let it happen?”
“Yes, that’s why I told you all about it,” Casimir said flatly.
Turning on his heel, Weston leapt atop Storm. “Let me pass,” he growled down at the men surrounding him. “I have to warn my father. Our people will suffer if they’re ambushed.”
“If you do, it will mean we’ve sparked a full-fledged rebellion,” Casimir said, picking an invisible bit of dust from his robes. “Alistair closed the pass so no news could reach your realm. If you’re ready for his assault, Alistair will know this group has betrayed him in favor of the Ice Realm’s ancestral alliance with the Forest Realm—and after the first rebellion for the Southern Arm, he’ll realize precisely what that means.”
“You didn’t have to pretend to nearly kill me,” Weston said. “I’ve heard the rumors. We’ll send troops. Just let me pass.”
Aria thought she saw a flicker of the truth in Casimir’s face—that killing her and Weston hadn’t been a ruse.
“For the troops,” Casimir said. “And will you leave our queen with me?”
“Whatever you want,” Weston said. He glanced down at Aria, who tried not to betray her shock. “If they’re against Alistair, you’ll be safe.”
Her mouth opened a fraction. He was trying to rationalize his actions—she recognized that immediately. Married men in the brothels had done it constantly to soothe their guilt after sleeping with courtesans. No excuse would stop them, but any excuse would dissuade their perceived culpability. Still, she didn’t expect Weston to leave her behind so abruptly—not after the price he had paid for her, the time they had spent together. Their feelings for one another.
“Go, Weston,” Aria said quietly. “This is my home. I can handle myself.”
To his credit, Weston frowned before he flicked the reins of his horse. Casimir and his companions stepped aside as Storm leapt into a gallop to carry Weston towards Oran.
Aria watched him ride away with her eyebrows knitted together, acutely aware that she was losing something she might never get back. Even so, there were more important things to worry about—something greater than her relationship with Weston. The last time she had traveled through the pass, ten years prior, the driver of the carriage destined for Tower of the Moon had ignored her sobs and pleas—and when they had finally arrived in the north, he had kicked her mercilessly on the ground before leaving her at the brothel to begin a life of subservience. A surge of anger shot through Aria at the memory—but rather than push it away, as she used to, she latched onto it. If Alistair had abused the throne he killed for thoroughly enough to cause a civil war, and those who challenged him referred to her as the true queen, Queen Aria—then Alistair’s lies no longer had any power over her. She met Casimir’s eyes when both sight and sound of Weston had faded.
Casimir turned to the man on his right. “Send a messenger to Valtteri. I’ll contact him when we get back to camp, but we have to observe the formalities when it comes to gathering the force of the Southern Arm…oh, and send a messenger to Prince Dominik. He’s been waiting for the signal.”
“What signal, Casimir?” Aria asked as two men followed Weston’s path out of the pass on foot.
“Our first iteration of a rebellion has been dormant through the spring, and Alistair thinks he’s defeated our resolve,” he said. “But a few days ago, a messenger rode through for King Ezra—his heir was returning. When Alistair announced his intentions to attack the Forest Realm shortly after, I knew I had to be the one to guard the pass so we could intercept him.”
“But you tried to turn us back,” Aria said. “You—it looked like you were going to kill Weston!”
“Oh, yes,” Casimir replied casually. “I realized who he was after I cast the spell, but I knew he was too full of himself to be deterred from entering the pass. We needed a guarantee that the Forest Realm would help us take the other two Arms of the kingdom, and their heir being murdered on King Alistair’s orders was the perfect setup. Although this seems to have worked out just as well. We didn’t realize he would have a companion, or that it would be our deposed queen. It’s lucky I found you, you know—if you’d pulled that stunt in front of any men belonging to Alistair, they would have killed you before you finished speaking.”
Lifting the hood of his robes up again, Casimir gestured for Aria to follow him. The remaining men retrieved their supplies from atop the cliffs and returned to the road to move forward through the pass.
“It matters greatly that we’ve found you,” Casimir said. “Maybe more than you know. Not that the rebellion wouldn’t have gone forward anyway, but you’re going to be useful.”
Aria squeezed her hand around Shadow’s reins. “I was going to pass through here and pretend like none of this had ever happened, you know—until you used that spell.”
He glanced over, his face shadowed by the cloaking spell of his hood. “I see. And leave us all to rot under your tyrant of a brother?”
“No,” she snapped. “Originally, I thought that I couldn’t come back—not how I am now. I only spoke up to stop you from hurting us. Hearing Alistair’s misdeeds, though, and that the realm wants to fight back…he’s done enough to me, and all so he could crumble the kingdom. It’s time I paid him back for his cruelty.”
Casimir made a noise. “I can force the truth from you again, or you can just tell me what you’re being so cryptic about.”
Aria halted. Casimir took a few more steps before turning back to her and crossing his arms.
“Don’t you dare,” she said, glowering. “I have no obligation to tell you what I’ve been through, and if you force me, I’ll draw my sword.”
He laughed, though not mockingly. “Haven’t you ever encountered a mage before? I could kill you before your blade was unsheathed.”
Aria didn’t reply. Few in the Ice Realm would know what being a courtesan in Tower of the Moon meant—but regardless, the problem wouldn’t disappear, especially once Alistair got word of her return. Until Weston found her again—if he found her again—her position might depend on her secrecy.
The standoff with Casimir lasted nearly a minute before he uncrossed his arms, removed his hood, and closed the gap between them.
“The truth is as you’ve probably guessed,” he said. “We need you more than you need us. Certainly you could have gone to the Forest Realm and let us fend for ourselves in this rebellion, but now—who would take the throne when your brother died, if not the queen he deposed?”
“I’m sure you had some idea.”
He shrugged. “Well…there was some talk of allowing Prince Bohdan to hold it. He’s of the old blood, after all. But rebellions are only as strong as their figurehead. Hatred for Alistair will get us far—but to have the queen he stole the throne from at our head? We couldn’t lose.”
“I might not be the queen you’re looking for,” Aria said. “I can’t fight in battle—I’ve only been using a sword for a week.”
“And yet already so determined to threaten people with it.”
She held his gaze for a few seconds before grinning despite herself. “You’re really annoying.”
“My brother will be glad to hear you say so. He’s been in need of support on that front for some time.”
Aria grasped Shadow’s reins to move forward again; Casimir’s shoulders relaxed as she did so.
“Who’s your brother?” she asked.
“Captain Valtteri of the Southern Arm.”
“Weston knows him,” she said. “He said they don’t get along.”
Casimir laughed. “Ah, so Weston hasn’t changed.”
She didn’t ask what he meant. The men ahead turned off the road, and as Aria and Casimir approached, she noticed a small break in the cliff on the left side; a path as stony and uneven as the main road wound up into the wilderness of the mountains.
“It’s a few kilometers up,” Casimir said. “Are you prepared for a climb?”
“There’s no way to know, is there?” Aria said. “Not yet, anyway…”