This is the first chapter of a new novel I've been working on. I'm using in order to get detailed critiques, but I've found that fictionpress is better for overall impressions. So, please, feel free to point out any errors or nitpicky things you want, but I'm more looking for general thoughts.
If you read Roanoke you might notice that I totally stole the term Aether and stuck it in here with a completely different meaning. Roanoke's magic system will be changing dramatically in the rewrite, so I felt like I could steal from myself.
Jane wasn't certain she would survive the night. And she hated her dress. Other than that, it was a pretty fantastic party. She weaved her way through the sky lobby, surrounded by men and women decked in the latest fashions and making their way through an endless supply of Dom Pérignon. With the exception of the catering staff and live band, each and every guest was an elite member of the Second Court.
Well, almost every one of them.
Pausing in the middle of the crowd, Jane took several deep breaths and slipped into the Aether. Reality swept away in that moment. The sounds of conversation dissipated, replaced by the furtive humming of the spirit world, like white noise from a broken television.
She pushed away from her body for a second, taking in her surroundings. The men and women around her remained as colorful and resplendent as their designer party clothes, only now it was due to their aetheric forms. Men in tuxedos were replaced by knights in full-plate armor, warriors in face-paint, and lords in resplendent robes and jewels, with the occasional clown thrown in for good measure. Sparkling gowns covered in gold and jewels put the Vera Wang ball gowns they replaced to shame.
She wasn't the only person in the Aether, of course. Anyone invited to this party was at least as capable as Jane—most more so. Several solid, aetheric forms passed her, contrasting sharply with the vaguer and ghostly forms of those who only occupied their physical bodies, at present. Most of them ignored her. At the edge of the throng of Court-members, the Archduke's aetheric form shone brighter than anyone else's. Jane avoided that part of the room, knowing that she was going to have to face him soon enough.
A hand clamped down on her shoulder. Startled, Jane snapped back into her body a little too quickly. She reeled from the impact, seeing stars for a moment.
"Don't do that," she snapped, not bothering to look at the man standing behind her.
"It's almost time," Greasy said in his thick, French accent. He let go of her arm.
Jane downed her champagne flute. "Ready," she said, although she didn't feel ready.
The Archduke of the Second Court rarely missed an opportunity to throw a party. But for Jane, this annual event served another primary purpose that had nothing to do with getting dressed up and drinking to excess.
She checked her hair using a nearby serving platter and adjusted her awful dress. Mrs. Travert had picked it for her, claiming it would have been too presumptuous for her to show up in a ball gown, but as far as Jane could tell, no one else looked like they were getting ready to attend a homecoming dance. As if she needed any more reason to emphasize that she didn't belong here. At least, not yet.
Greasy reached across her and plucked the glass out of her hand. She hadn't even realized she was still holding it.
"You look good in a tux," she told him, as they crossed the sky lobby. He didn't respond, although she didn't expect him to. He generally didn't speak to her any more than necessary, even though she'd known him since she was little.
The music from the live band quieted and the crowd thinned as they approached the Archduke. There was no mistaking the man. He opted for traditional Court garb in place of the modern, designer wear everyone else favored. The outfit included a white, high-collared and double-breasted coat over gray trousers. Completing the look was a pair of knee high riding boots, which he currently had propped up on a table beside him.
A small, select group stood around him. He was laughing at something someone had said, until he was interrupted by a woman whispering into his ear. The group grew quiet and his gaze redirected onto Jane.
Jane dropped to one knee, once again wishing for a longer dress.
The Archduke kicked his legs off the table and stood up in a fluid motion. At once, Jane felt self-conscious in her school-girl party dress. She felt the strand of hair that had come loose from its up-do and was now hanging down her back. And she was clearly aware of the scars that marred her cheek and chin.
He flicked one finger and Jane. She stood up and approached, smoothing her dress back down.
"Countess, is this one yours?" he asked. He knew very well who Jane was, of course, but everything here was a show.
An arm settled onto Jane's shoulder. She looked back to see Mrs. Travert standing behind her, appearing casual and using her shoulder as an armrest. "That she is, Archduke," she said, checking her nails. "This is Jane."
The two Court royals stared at each other for a moment, silent just long enough to draw further attention of the party-goers around them.
"She should have been presented to this Court years ago," the Archduke continued, breaking the silence.
Mrs. Travert took a step back and folded her arms. "She was too young."
"Apparently not. You've had her working for you full-time for some time now."
Mrs. Travert smiled, but said nothing. And the game was on. The Archduke would have nothing to gain by accepting his rival's protégé as a full member of the Second Court. Not being accepted was not a viable option.
"You must make an impression. Enough that the Archduke will have no option but to accept you in front of the full Court. He can't afford to publically sabotage me," Mrs. Travert had said to her.
Easier said than done. Jane gripped her necklace and pushed through into the Aether. The Archduke and Mrs. Travert were both already there. As Crosswalkers, they didn't need to separate from the physical world in order to interact with the Aether—they were there already and could be in both at the same time. See both at the same time. She didn't have that luxury. Strike one against her.
The Archduke's aetheric form was like a sun. Looking at him made it difficult to see anything else. Jane resisted the urge to raise a hand to block him out.
Mrs. Travert, in contrast, looked more-or-less like herself. She was taller, with sharper angles and eyes that burned a bright blue, but still recognizable. Not for the first time, Jane wondered what she herself looked like. Did she still have a scarred face? Mirrors didn't work the same way in the Aether.
The Archduke said something. Jane couldn't hear voices in the Aether, but Mrs. Travert could. Whatever it was, Mrs. Travert was now frowning.
Jane pressed through the Aether, which had become more crowded. The guests were hoping for a show. She hoped she could give them one. Her abilities as an Aetherian were still limited. She could leave her body and enter the Aether, but she had no ability to interact with aetheric forms. A Visitor only. It should have been enough to earn her a place in the Court, but not with the Archduke looking for any reason to deny her.
She reached the edge of the room. Windows didn't work the same in the Aether, either. Their nature was to allow light through, and here that turned into allowing everything. Outside, the Chicago skyline glowed. Some skyscrapers appeared as they did in the physical world. Others turned into fortresses or appeared twisted.
The ground rushed up at her. Gravity still worked. Jane couldn't make wing Constructs, but falling twenty stories didn't have the same impact on the spirit as it did on the physical body.
But, damn. It still hurt like hell.
Wincing, she picked herself up off the ground and stared up at Winter Tower. It was a castle, of course. A thirty-story castle, but a castle nonetheless, complete with watchtowers and fortifications. She wouldn't be able to get back in through the Aether.
Golden light shone from where she'd jumped. She gave him a half salute and grimaced. Her body still hurt from the fall, but a deeper ache began to take hold. That was to be expected, this far away from her body. However, she pushed on, trying to put a brave face on for the Archduke.
Something buzzed by her head. It was small, dim, and fully aetheric in nature. A Construct. She reached out to grab the tiny object, but it changed direction midair and circled behind her.
A monitor? It surprised her that the Archduke wouldn't follow her in person, or at least send someone after her. His range was at least as good as hers. Monitors were tricky Constructs. Even Mrs. Travert took hours to create one. They were useful tools for reconnaissance, since they could travel much farther in the Aether than a person.
The monitor swept in front of her vision again and then, as if realizing it had been spotted, sped off down Michigan Avenue.
Not the Archduke's, then? Or was he suddenly more interested in something else?
She sprinted after it, but found she was out of breath after only a few seconds. It was hard to convince her mind that her body was still standing in the ballroom. It kept trying to translate the pain her spirit felt this far away into something physical.
A distant sound like rolling thunder echoed through the Aether, clear enough to be heard through the continuous humming. Jane froze in her tracks. Not again. Not now.
Not everything in the Aether was pleasant. Not everything was human.
Jane squinted her eyes. The monitor floated above her head, only a few feet in front of her. Gritting her teeth, she took a giant leap and snatched it out of the air. She landed on her side with a thud. Score two for aetheric gravity.
Pushing up onto her knees, she inspected the monitor. It glowed with a faint green aura. Not likely the Archduke's, then.
The creature roared again, this time sounding more like a scream. It was hard to tell, surrounded by so many tall buildings, but it sounded like it was coming closer. She pictured it lumbering down Michigan Avenue toward her and her heart beat rapidly against her chest, both in her aetheric and her physical form.
Investigating the monitor was not worth having her spirit eaten alive, she decided. This had to be enough. Not many up in the sky lobby would have been able to follow this far.
Her pounding heart served as a link to the physical world and helped her focus on reality, but despite her fear it was difficult to push through the barrier. She gripped the necklace, a Token that she wore in both the physical and the Aether. That did the trick.
Her spirit snapped back into her body, traveling back down the street, inside Winter Tower, and up twenty stories all at once. The impact left her gasping, and she found herself on all fours, the blue stone of her necklace hanging in front of her face.
The Archduke's voice was the first thing she heard. "Back so soon?"
Jane sat back on her heels, not trusting herself yet to stand up. Her rapid return had been less than graceful. She couldn't tell him she'd been afraid of the creature. The rest of the Court had either heard it or they hadn't—either way, trying to use its presence as an excuse wouldn't help her case any.
As her hearing and other senses returned to normal function, she realized that the nearest Court-members were all talking about her.
"And a rather impressive leap."
"For someone her age."
"Still using a Token, though …"
"Those shoes don't work with that dress."
Jane tried to pay attention to the murmur of voices, but at the moment they only gave her a headache. Greasy appeared behind her and hauled her upright. She pushed away from him, unsteady on her heels.
"Well, Victor." Mrs. Travert's voice was quiet, barely above a whisper, but Jane could have picked her voice out of any crowd.
The use of his first name was obviously no lost on the Archduke, even if no one but Mrs. Travert or Jane had heard her use it. He stared at them for a moment, his clean-shaved face clearly showing taught muscles in his face and neck. Then, all at once, he dropped cat-like, back onto his chair and waved a hand at them. "What shall we do about your pet? Countess."
Jane sucked in a breath and took a step forward. What should we do? You need to freaking accept her into the Second Court and not kill her. That was what wasn't being said here. It was all or nothing. The Court knew from experience that allowing just anyone run around with access to the Aether was dangerous.
"I found a monitor."
The Archduke's brow raised. "Jane!" Mrs. Travert hissed.
Oops. Mrs. Travert was supposed to be speaking for her. But it was too late now, and she needed validate herself before he made the wrong decision on the spot. She hoped she was right about the monitor's origins weren't.
He remained silent for a moment. "Where?" he asked at last, real curiosity in his expression.
"I'm still holding it." At least, she hoped that was true and she hadn't accidentally dropped it during her return trip.
The Archduke stood and walked over to stand in front of her. He folded his arms across his chest, but a chill passed through her hand. She noticed that his eyes had gone glassy, which suggested he had detached himself completely in order to look at the Construct. Was it that interesting?
Mrs. Travert frowned and placed a hand on Jane's shoulder. It was tempting for Jane to go into the Aether herself, but she wasn't sure she would be able to get back out again quickly. Not something she wanted to risk if that creature was still nearby, even if she was now safely inside Winter Tower.
The hand on Jane's shoulder stiffened. Mrs. Travert must have detached as well. It was chilling, the thought of these two conversing in the Aether over something she had discovered.
The sound of clinking glasses and laughter continued from the far end of the room, but the small crowd around them grew hushed. Many of them appeared to have followed the two royals into the Aether.
After what seemed like an eternity, the Archduke unfolded his arms and Mrs. Travert's hand dropped from Jane's shoulder.
The two rivals stared at each other, but the animosity seemed to have disappated. This was … concern? Anger? If it was, it didn't seem to be directed at each other.
Mrs. Travert's expression returned to neutral before Jane could puzzle it out. She was always difficult to read. The Archduke, less so. His eyes looked deep in thought and he waved his hand at them. "Take her, then. She found the monitor once, after all. Perhaps she'll stumble on it again."
Heart pounding and panicked, Jane glanced at Mrs. Travert. This wasn't one of the possible outcomes. It wasn't an admission into the Court. Someone would have been applauding. At least, Mrs. Travert would have looked more pleased. But, then, it wasn't an execution order either.
It's not supposed to happen like this!
Okay, so the biggest thing I'm struggling with in this opening chapter is how busy it is. There's a lot I feel I need to introduce right away. The Aether. Mrs. Travert. The Second Court. Mrs. Travert's rivalry with the Archduke. Jane's facial scars (did you even notice them?) Was it too hard to follow? Are there places you thought I could have slowed the pacing down? Did you get a good picture of what the Aether looks like?