Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Excerpt: Checking the Talent

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Sorry Sunday posts have been a bit sloppy. I was working up to finishing Riverboats and then life decided to pull dick moves on me. Sigh.

Another excerpt here. Seriously considering writing this book for NaNoWriMo. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo before. Thought I am a bit reluctant to throw myself into another book when the last one isn’t Good Enough yet…

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Cherie had taken half an hour to choose her outfit for the day. Most mornings she woke with a feeling for what would suit her that day, and today her feelings had screamed ‘Red!’ while her logical mind had picked that wish apart, along with every other compromise she tried to make. She had to make a delicate balance: it had to be decent, suitable for daytime and not overdressed, and yet she had to be noticeable, and her outfit had to be sexy. Not subtly sexy, in an unapproachable way (as she often liked to be), but sexy-sexy, “come and get me” sexy, in a way that was still appropriate for sunlight. In the end she decided on an old red and white striped dress with a full knee-length skirt, with girlish pumps and a wide-brimmed red hat. The neckline was slightly lower than what was respectable, and she liked that, only wishing that she had the cleavage required for its full effect, instead of her stretch of lightly mounded pale chest.

This was a delicate and important mission, after all. Three weeks had passed since Hugh had last contacted her. He never answered his messages and he was always out of the house when she tried to visit. He wasn’t ill or away on business, as Ms Raeline mentioned him whenever she came for her fittings – oh yes, he was still out in society, probably with some other woman. The blow to Cherie’s ego was harder than she would have liked. A whisper in her ear said it was because she was lacking, said that she was socially below him and somehow deficient and that was why he had dropped her. And of course she had to prove it wrong, didn’t she?

‘How do I look, honey?’ she asked Belle once she reached the kitchen. Her sister was reading over a score, alongside what looked like a history book. Without looking up, she pushed a plate with toast and marmalade in Cherie’s direction, then a glass of apple juice. Cherie took one bite from the toast, and waited for Belle to look at her.

‘Belle, Belly, how do I look?’

Belle’s eyes flicked up, ran up and down the outfit, and turned back to the score.

‘What’s it for?’

Why couldn’t her sister just tell her she looked pretty?

‘I’m going to visit Randi at the base. Do you think it’s too much?’

‘You’re getting dressed up to visit Randi?’ Belle asked with a smirk. Cherie took a swig of apple juice in irritation.

‘As a matter of fact I am, and I’ll have you know that I look wonderful this morning, thank you. I’ll see you later. Have fun at school.’

With that, Cherie grabbed her bag and left the house, not noticing how her sister sighed and pulled the nearly untouched plate of breakfast back towards herself.

She took a dress box, neatly tied with ribbon and a handle as she always made them, but unusually empty. It was for her ruse, if she needed one. She had never been to the new Court Base, so she didn’t know how strict they would be on letting her in; at the Docks, of course, they asked for proof of invitation and seemed immune to her charms, but she had always found that the closer to the Palace one came, the softer the men were. The Court Base was repurposed from the old Embassy building, and so was large and white and remarkably pleasing to the eye, indistinguishable from all the Court buildings except for the uniformed men and women walking around outside. Cherie smiled at everyone she saw and was able to walk through the front door by only flashing her identification. The lobby was cool and dark, and at the large front desk there sat only one person: an older woman who shared the same approach to fashion as Bernadette. Damn.

‘Hello,’ Cherie said, walking to her immediately though the woman was facing her files. ‘I’m looking for Officer Randi? Artemis Randi?’

The woman looked at her and rolled an appraising eye over Cherie and her ensemble.

‘What is your purpose?’ she asked, returning to her paper.

‘It’s very important, see, I have a commission to deliver to her and she was most insistent that it came today so –’

‘Officer Randi is currently training a squad in the East Quadrangle,’ the woman said – a rote speech, considering how little effort she put into it. ‘Very dangerous training involving gem refraction.  Absolutely no civilians are permitted.’

Cherie took a moment to judge how much this woman would permit, and took the chance.

‘I see. Well, this is very urgent – could I possibly drop it off at her locker or somewhere near about?’

‘Check your I.D.’ the receptionist said. After the briefest of glances at Cherie’s card, she nodded at the door behind her. ‘Rooms are on the left. Hers is 221.’

Cherie thanked her and walked away as quickly as she dared, quietly unsettled by the shoddy security even though it worked in her favour. Must be because it’s a new base, she thought to herself. Or, she added as she walked past one of the several mirrors along the wall of the corridor, it’s because a base so close to the Palace doesn’t need much security, since the Queen is nearby…

She calculated which way was east, and walked in that direction, smiling and nodding at every soldier who passed her, certain to make eye contact. All three of them stared after her as she walked past, and her confidence returned with that gaze. Thinking happy thoughts, she soon found the East Quadrangle. A few windows looked out onto it from this side, and her smile grew as she saw row after row of bodies standing in lines – predominantly male.

She pushed open the door and patted the top of her hat as she looked around. About thirty people stood in the quadrangle: two-thirds male. All were dressed in the royal blue shirts and trousers of the sky-mage troop, their signature fingerless gloves weighing heavily in their hands. A few recruits turned and saw her, and nudged their neighbours to look. Nudging and staring was all they could do, since someone at the front was speaking to them in a commanding tone – surprisingly effective, considering Randi’s husky and relatively high-pitched voice.

Cherie walked around to the side of the group with the self-conscious grace of a princess, until she saw the officer herself. She had never seen Randi in her work outfit before, and marvelled at how well she suited having her hair scraped back into a high ponytail – though of course if it was up to Cherie then she wouldn’t be allowed to do anything with such marvellous hair. Randi had said it was a common in the North for people to have naturally white hair, but surely it couldn’t be common for hair to flash rainbow colours in the light? It was like the sun when refracted through a clear crystal; which, funnily enough, was similar to what Officer Randi was teaching that day.

‘You all know the basics of projection,’ Randi said to the soldiers. ‘It’s very important that you make sure your aim is correct before you project – and remember to compensate for the increased weight in your hands from the crystals. You may not think it’s much now, but when you’re trying to aim quickly, it can make a big difference. Now, in order to be an effective soldier, you need to make sure your blasts work with each other, and with your body – you’ve gotta have them in harmony, else you’ll blow yourself one way more than the other. And there is one very effective way to teach yourself to keep the four projections in balance.’

She changed her posture, putting one leg ahead of the other so they were slightly ahead and behind her torso. Palms down, she spread her hands away from her body on either side and, without any visible effort, four rippling, translucent pillars of colour erupted from her gloves and boot soles, pushing her up and off the ground. Cherie’s heart beat a little faster at the sight of Randi hovering two feet above the grass, at such a simple demonstration of the power of the crystals that Artemis Randi – the first sky-mage – had discovered. The recruits forgot about Cherie (that was fine, she forgot about herself) and snapped to attention, eyes shining with the wish that had brought them to this troop: the desire to fly. Randi smirked as she settled back on earth.

‘If you can’t balance the projections, you’ll fall immediately. Don’t think that this is like swimming, or standing slightly higher up – there is nothing to support you but your crystals, and gravity is always waiting for you, so every little movement requires a balancing of effort. Without the same weight on them and support underneath them, your feet can easily slip away from each other – and believe me, you don’t want to fall to the ground doing the splits!’ (Everyone winced, including Randi) ‘Don’t neglect your hands either – they’re essential for support, otherwise you’ll fall right onto your side. And always, always make sure they’re pointing downwards when projecting – you could seriously hurt someone if you don’t. So, today I want you to try what I just did – lift a little off the ground, and then come down. Split into groups of five, and try your best.’

Cherie leant against the wall and watched as the recruits formed teams. With all the movement, everyone who hadn’t previously noticed her now immediately spotted her red-and-white ensemble (she knew trusting her instinct for red was a good idea). Many of them whispered to each other and glanced at her, and she tried to return the gaze of everyone who laid eyes on her. There weren’t any truly handsome men here, only average-looking ones, but a few had cute features or genial eyes or straight and confident posture and that was all she needed. The true test, though, was which men would have the guts to approach her.

Of course, being so visible meant that she did not escape the notice of the commanding officer. Randi saw her and gave her a questioning look, and Cherie merely waved at her in reply, wondering whether she would come over and talk. No. Randi had a job to do, and she wasn’t going to waste her attention on this strange not-friend she had in Cherie. She turned to the teams and watched as they arranged themselves, one of the five preparing to make the hovering attempt, the other four surrounding them, ready in case something went wrong. Within a few moments, one man jolted himself high in the air, flipping over backwards and nearly falling on his neck, barely saved by his teammates.

‘Too much power,’ Randi called to him. ‘Be gentle at first! Just a few feet, remember?’

The next person was more successful, initially pushing herself too high then sinking down to hover above the grass. She looked as if she was on an invisible ice rink: her legs wobbled and threatened the splay apart at any moment, while her arms waved around her body. After a few seconds, she fell onto her back with a smack.

‘Good, everyone see that? Just balance your hands a bit more, and make sure your weight is centred. Good.’

So they continued, and with all the mistakes and falls it was very fun to watch. Many of the recruits glanced at Cherie, and she liked to think that some of those falls were caused by men trying hard to impress her, and choking spectacularly. The shouts of surprise and talk of technique were compounded with low muttering about the spectator. Cherie was happily engaged, watching it all, when Artemis Randi came over to her, pink-cheeked and angry.

‘What are you doing here?’ she demanded. ‘You know civilians aren’t allowed in the base. If I didn’t know you, I might think you’re a spy.’

Cherie raised an eyebrow but decided it would be low to make the obvious response. No-one knew why or how Randi had so quickly turned from spy to Queen’s favourite, or how she had managed to beg forgiveness at all from the monarch. It wasn’t a mentioned thing: only those who had been at the Lowlight Ball knew that she had been a spy, and luckily upper-class gossip normally went ignored by the military. The memory of that night grated on Cherie’s good will, as she remembered how the sky-mage had smashed Bernadette’s jaw and left her permanently scarred. No matter the Queen’s favour and Bernadette’s forgiveness, Randi was forever tainted in her eyes.

‘Oh, don’t mind me,’ she said, making her voice as light and casual as possible. ‘I’m just checking the talent.’

Randi looked confused, so Cherie helped her by looking at the recruits, finding one who was staring at her, and waving at him with her best smile. As the realisation grew on Randi, so did the disgust in her expression.

‘Get out,’ she said.

‘What?’ Cherie said. ‘I’m not hurting anyone, am I? I’m only standing here–’

‘I will not have you distracting my recruits just so you can window shop!’ Randi cried, far louder than she likely intended, since most of the students stopped and turned to them. ‘Get out, and if I ever catch you here again I’ll report you to the Royal Guards!’

Time to accept defeat. Cherie patted the top of her hat and called out to all the trainees watching.

‘I’ll be outside at Maxwell’s Café if you want to see me, boys!’

Randi looked as if she would hit her.

Cherie walked over to the doors back inside, soaking up the whispering as she passed. Before she had shut the door behind her, she heard Randi shouting at the recruits to shut up and concentrate.

She wasn’t going to leave yet. Watching the training was far too fun. So Cherie knelt by the window that looked onto the quadrangle and stayed until the end of session, watching as the group gradually learnt how to balance themselves above ground. As their faces flushed with success and happiness, Cherie couldn’t help but feel a little jealous at their defiance of gravity – the same jealousy she had whenever Belle did something amazing by Singing, a jealousy that would quickly dissipate when she remembered how different her wants and talents were from those she envied. As singing all day and being obsessed with music did not appeal to her, running around all day and being trained to risk your life was opposed to all of her interests. No, better to stay at home with her pins and material, and set her own schedule, even if it meant she could not calm someone with a note or divorce herself from the ground.

At the end of class, Randi gave another speech – this time facing the other direction, so Cherie could see her back and hear her clearly from the window.

‘So today you’ve learnt the basics of balancing in the air, and it’s good to see that most of you got it in the end. I’ve got one important thing to say, though, about conduct. While I applaud your situational awareness, you cannot let yourselves get distracted by every good-looking idiot who comes into your view.’

A few people tittered but Randi did not move.

‘I’m serious. The projections that come from your refraction are really, really dangerous. Yours probably aren’t too powerful yet, since you’re just starting, but once you get in full control, you absolutely cannot let yourself get distracted. Understand?’

A few half-hearted assents were muttered, and that wasn’t good enough for her. Randi raised a hand to the side, and with a crack, a blast of colour erupted from the circle on her palm and slammed into the wall on the other side of the quadrangle. Everyone watching her jumped in fright. Cherie had to move to the other side of the window to see the white plaster of the wall crumble to the grass, leaving a large circular dent in the stone.

‘That was not full power,’ Randi said, as the recruits goggled at her destruction. ‘Get it now? The projections can burn straight through a human body, killing you instantly. This is not a game, guys, so never let yourselves get distracted, or someone could die. Understand?’

The trainee sky mages straightened to attention and said ‘Yes, officer!’

‘Good. You are dismissed.’

Cherie took that as her cue to leave. She was surprised at how shaken she still felt as she walked back along the corridor, past the uncaring receptionist, and out into the sun. Randi’s words – and the implications behind them – had unsettled her, and she wondered if she could have possibly been hit by a stray beam. What would Belle do without her? And their mother…Cherie hated to think what havoc her birth mother would create if she held any wrath against the capital. One war was enough.

‘Ms Cherie, you look great today,’ Augusta said as she reached Mawell’s Café. Cherie’s shoulders dropped, as if those were the magical words she had needed all day.

‘Thank you,’ she said to the waitress as she sat down at her favourite outside table and threw her empty dress box onto her neighbouring seat. ‘Oh, I tell you, I need some creamy tea. Something hot and sugary.’

‘Had a hard day already?’ Augusta said with a suppliant smile. ‘It’s not even midday.’

‘Oh yes, there’s a thought,’ Cherie said, realising it was nearly lunchtime. ‘Be a dear and bring me some cake – a big slice to share. I’m expecting visitors.’

‘Of course,’ Augusta said, before disappearing inside.

Cherie took off her hat, and patted her hair where she could still feel its pinch. She told herself to forget about Randi, and her crystals and flying and treachery. She was alive and safe, unharmed by projections, and her birth mother would never have an excuse to go against the Queen. And, she thought as she spotted three royal blue outfits walking towards the café, it seems my adventure may have been worth it in the end.

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Written by G.J.

24/10/2012 at 12:46 pm

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  1. […] Excerpt: Checking the Talent (swylce.wordpress.com) […]


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