So… I noticed a little uptick in people following my blog, which I have neglected to the point of abuse so I’m sashaying in to offer SOMETHING new. I don’t understand “plug-ins” and other vagaries of this medium, so forgive me while I think about these things… and probably ignore them yet again…
Anyhoo, for all who are interested, here’s a pretty big excerpt from my WIP fourth, Crosstide:
Xanthe scanned the crowd for Peter, on edge because she assumed he was here somewhere. Despite having the man almost constantly in her thoughts – both here and while she’d ruminated on land – she’d successfully avoided him these past two months, and never mind how their years apart hadn’t ever seemed as consequential as the past eight weeks, the time between her revelatory visit to him in North Carolina and her return to Shaddox. She’d had to work hard to keep her focus away from Peter Loughlin.
The undercurrent established during their last exchange had altered their dynamic, however. Now she feared their progression was out of her control, which put her in an uncomfortable and unprecedented position of not being in control.
If she’d been able to avoid attending today, she would have.
But Aiden’s wedding to Maya had been cast as a state affair, a coming to terms by all of siren society with its new, more individualistic definition of normal. The celebration was to mark the ending of difficulties, community troubles resolved, and the advent of a happier future for all. If she’d declined to participate, she would have worried everyone, perhaps her friend, the queen, most of all. With difficulty, she’d set her selfish preoccupations aside and agreed to show up.
Even the invitation had rattled her composure. Because there she’d been, quietly brooding in the middle of some forest in Appalachia, tending to her existential issues under the shelter of solitude when a junior courier from the palace had appeared before her. She’d dropped into a defensive stance and hissed at him like a savage, hadn’t sensed him at all as he’d tracked her, and what did that say about the decline of her perceptions?
It said, she was sure, they were as dull as any human’s, which further underscored her lack of suitability as a senior siren government official, as if she needed more proof. The depth of her self-absorption surprised even her, though.
Apparently, having spent so much time alone, she longer recognized herself in company.
Her messenger, it seemed, had trouble recognizing her, as well. His expression alone told her everything she would have intuited had she been even a little aware – how wild she looked, how bizarre her affect. She reached outside herself enough to catch the nuances of his assessment of her… and she cringed. Her hair, she realized, was a tangled mess, her face and hands grubby. Her visitor’s eyes were wide, and he seemed unwilling to come closer. She realized he thought her crazed, unsafe.
She understood why: unable to fight the disintegration of her public persona, she fought a different convention, the one mandating a manicured and composed look no matter the circumstances. It was a petty stand, but she’d allowed her appearance to reflect the chaos roiling inside her and it had gratified her to do so, although she didn’t expect others to understand her logic. She’d also never expected anyone else to see her this way. She barked at her visitor to hide her humiliation.
“How did you find me?”
“P-Peter Loughlin sent me,” he stuttered.
Her distress escalated. She hadn’t been in contact with anyone, Peter least of all. Because after that last, excoriating self-review he’d gifted her with, she wanted nothing to do with him, reasoning in some dim part of her brain she could still, if she dissociated from him, un-have the epiphany he’d forced upon her. She frowned ominously at her messenger, reflecting on how easily their former prince had located her, and by proxy yet. What a galling obliteration, both of the front story she’d created to disappear, and of her belief in her own ability to stabilize.
She coached herself into a more graceful demeanor in spite of herself, meaning by the time the courier relayed the information he was sent to give her, he was slightly – slightly – less alarmed.
His news – Aiden and Maya were to be wed at the palace at the behest of the queen – hadn’t surprised her. The community needed such a celebration, and Xanthe’s presence was explicitly required for a show of bureaucratic unity. So of course someone had been dispatched to locate her. Given her unkempt exterior, she felt absurd as she did it, but she smiled regally, inclined her head… then swatted back a hank of matted hair as it fell forward. “Tell Carmen it will be my pleasure to attend,” she managed.
The courier had almost certainly reported to everyone back home the state in which he’d found her. Which meant Xanthe had taken extraordinary care with herself in preparation for today’s wedding reception.
Her return swim to Shaddox had relieved the better part of her dirtiness, and she’d worked through most of her hair with a skeleton comb along the way. She still entered the palace by stealth, choosing an infrequently used tunnel while most of the inhabitants were asleep. The night guards noted her presence without interest as she exited the central pool, and she proceeded unquestioned to her private chambers.
After a delicious bath and ten hours of undisturbed sleep in a real bed – she’d slept on everything from a rickety cot to a pile of leaves on the forest floor while on land – she arose better resembling the woman she’d once been. She ordered her favorite breakfast: cold-water oysters; poached eggs over black bread; and the darkest, richest cup of coffee the palace kitchen could brew. She savored the meal even as devoured it as if starved. When she finished, she dropped her napkin on the tray and reclined in her chair, feeling her worries lighten.
She summoned the palace tailors.
They arrived reluctantly, already crushed with demands from the other wedding guests. They begged lightly for her indulgence. Wouldn’t one of the many pieces they’d prepared for her in the past be suitable? She bullied them without compunction into service, and threatened them should she see another woman wearing so much as a scrap of the same material used in her own gown.
She questioned the palace hairdressers closely as well, planning her appearance with all the attention to detail she would have given a high-level diplomatic meeting. She was, after all, solving an image crisis, albeit one of her own making. Her appearance, at least, was one area of her life she could fully direct.
In the end she’d chosen a simple coiffure, a partial up-do secured with tourmaline pins gifted to her by the former queen, Kenna Loughlin. Xanthe had considered the merits of a more formal style that would reveal the graceful line of her neck, but her staff reported everyone else had that same idea. Her hair, outrageous even by siren standards, would show best if allowed to cascade down her back.
After her assistants proclaimed her ready, she inspected herself in the mirror and was glad for the trouble she’d put everyone through. No one who saw her tonight would accuse her of sartorial laziness or shoddy personal habits. Her gown, hair and make-up were impeccable.
She’d declined to attend the ceremony in order to ready herself for the after-bash… and to avoid Peter Loughlin for as long as possible. She’d also waited to enter the grand hall, hoping to blend in with the crowd and thereby avoid attention. Since peripheral entrances had been closed to maintain order, she’d had no choice but to approach publicly, however.
In spite of her discretion – and the ad hoc, occasionally distracting adornments sported by those who’d participated in the underwater portion of the day’s festivities – she still caused a stir, one she found superficially gratifying even as she hurried to remove herself from scrutiny.
The room quieted around her when she first appeared, the guests making way as she walked toward the throne, offering hushed compliments along with a heavy solicitation for interaction as she passed. She wondered if she shouldn’t have met selectively with some of them prior to today’s event, even though she suspected much of the awe she received was for how she looked, not her sudden return. Still, perhaps she could have demystified her absence better, maybe avoided some of the curiosity pouring her way now.
She couldn’t diffuse everyone’s focus on her, however, so she sidestepped it instead, setting her sights on her longtime friend, the queen. Xanthe knew her composure wouldn’t hold up under group questioning no matter how perfect she looked on the outside.
Carmen stood to greet her and shooed their onlookers away. “Back to celebrating, everyone,” she commanded. She extended her hands for Xanthe to grasp.
“Xanthe, my friend! You look magnificent. I’m firing the courier who said he found you a mess.” Xanthe laughed politely as they kissed each other’s cheeks.
“Don’t fire the poor boy. I wasn’t prepared for him. It was my fault.”
“But you’re back? And you’re well?”
“I’m well,” Xanthe assured her, and in one respect, she wasn’t lying. Carmen’s affection for her, as well as the familiarity of her surroundings, gladdened her. “I’m not prepared to resume my duties, but I have come to some conclusions.” Wariness colored Carmen’s regard. “Nothing for you to worry about, Carmen.” That was a lie, but one Xanthe needed to say given the occasion. “We’ll discuss these things some other time, not tonight.” She tilted her head toward the party underway.
Carmen’s expression relaxed. “You’re absolutely right – no business talk here. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”
Xanthe chatted easily with Carmen and several other members of the Blake family. She stood with them when the bride and groom entered the hall to applause, and she shared everyone’s delight in their freshly made commitment, her joy on their behalf genuine. She even embraced the couple and offered her sincere best wishes, which she could tell endeared her to Maya if not Aiden.
Peter seemed not have come… although he cloaked so well, he could be beside her right now and she’d never know.
After she’d nibbled her way through caviar-laden crudités and was pleasantly careless from two flutes of champagne, the orchestra began to play, drawing dozens of couples to the middle of the hall. She eased herself against a bar at the periphery, secure in the knowledge she’d acquitted herself well tonight. Her obligation was met. She would stay for two songs, then sneak off.
Peter stepped into her field of vision from several yards away. Xanthe. His unspoken call commanded her attention. Meaning she could not now pretend to have missed him, drat it.
He looked glorious, of course – he always did – although tonight his beauty struck her differently. He’d been raised in a milieu where a flawless presentation was habit… so the picture he presented should not feel remarkable. Or assault-like. In the moment she met his eyes then looked away – to protect what she suspected was about three more seconds of self-directed choice – she felt as if he’d issued a personal challenge.
She drained the last of her champagne, intent on making an exit.
Peter was before her by the time she lowered her glass. He removed it from her fingers and set it on the tray of a passing waiter. “If I didn’t know better – and to be honest, I do know better – I’d say you were avoiding me, Xanthe.” She gripped the railing at her back but kept her posture casual.
“Why ever would I do that?” she asked coolly. She pretended to take an interest in the couples gliding around the center floor. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him.
“Because our last encounter was…” and here he leaned forward, “intimate.” He straightened and finished crisply, “Also, you are still at odds with yourself.”
Time to go. She pushed off from the railing and smiled blandly at a spot to the left of his face. “A pleasure as always, Peter.” She pivoted away.
“Moonflower,” he said quietly. “Stay. Talk with me.” She stopped, enthralled by the pleasure his entreaty birthed within her, the joy she took in his desire to be with her. They were both emotionally hungry, she most of all, perhaps; and she closed her eyes, let herself relax into the companionship of someone who cared for her, someone she’d known her entire life and who craved her company specifically. Not with any of the capable luminaries around them, not just for the common connectedness they all sought. She also intuited his indecision where she was concerned, about how their relationship might or might not proceed… and she pondered the futility of avoiding him.
Curiosity – his and hers – gnawed at her.
He deserved better treatment from her, she knew. Xanthe faced the man who had become synonymous with her inner lack of resolution and returned to stand in front of him, although she kept a greater distance. Peter frowned but folded his hands in front of him, staying back. She regretted disappointing him yet would not commit herself further to their interaction.
Still, she apologized. “I’m sorry, Peter. That… that was rude of me.” She studied his lapel. “And you’re right. I am out of sorts.” She hesitated. “I don’t know what to make of our last conversation. Aspects of it, anyway.”
“Is that the reason for your shining beauty this evening?” he teased. “Are you playing a part?”
She bristled. “Well, yes. Not that I wanted it to be obvious.” Once again, she found herself off-balance in Peter’s presence, and once again, she yearned to deflect the confusion he evoked. She cast a covetous glance toward the door, envisioning the safety of her suite. “Now I feel vulnerable, which I do not enjoy.” She met his eyes. “As I’m sure you know.”
He tilted his head, considering her, perhaps kindly. “No one else sees anything amiss, Xanthe, just me. And I expressed myself poorly, so allow me to rephrase.” He stepped back and bowed before her, then spoke with unnerving sincerity. “You are breathtaking, and I am mesmerized.”
She blushed. Blushed!
She hadn’t blushed in… she couldn’t remember how long. Decades.
She checked his expression… and lost herself in it. He kept her gaze as he extended his palm, a request for her hand. She gave it. “Will you dance with me?”
She opened her mouth to decline…
…and found herself in the circle of his arms, moving among the throng of other couples.