***Just a disclaimer that there's a short sex scene in this chapter, but I don't think it's too explicit. I'm hoping I struck the right balance for the audience to know what's happening without it being too graphic.***
Hi everyone, some of you have already read a previous version of this novel. Last year, I got feedback from a reputable agent that made me decide to overhaul the premise completely. It's essentially the same story, but with a different motivation and a different premise. I'm prepping these pages for the query trenches, so I'd appreciate any line edits, but the main things I'd like to know are:
1. Is the character's voice strong enough? Is it believable, and does it engage you throughout the piece? Are there any areas where you think the voice falls short?
2. Does the story start in the right place? If you were an agent, would you want to keep reading?
3. Is it too racy at the end for a YA story?
Thank you!! And feel free to read my query letter for a general idea about this story.
Yesterday’s riot has left piles of rubble in the agora, and Zeus’s men are still angry. Our houses remain standing, and in that way, we’re lucky. In a thousand other ways, we’re not.
The sun hangs in a clear blue sky, pouring warm spring light onto the demolition around me. Beneath my feet, a black scar runs across the stone where the lightning struck. Dust fills the air around the fallen columns of the bathhouse that was destroyed, all because a few people were brave enough to protest the Maiden’s Harvest.
Amid the destruction, one of Zeus’s disciples guards a large wooden dais. A black, stemless kylix the size of a boat sits in the middle of it. Painted on the bowl’s outer rim are depictions of Zeus throwing lightning and casting down the Titans. As if they couldn’t muster up enough pomp and grandeur with the giant banners emblazoned with his face everywhere.
As we wait in line to hand over this year’s tithing, I’m as stiff as a bowstring held taut. My gaze locks on the collector, violent and unbidden memories flowing through my mind at the flicker of his gold cape and the glint of his ruby-encrusted bracers. My knuckles go tight around my cart.
“You look like you want to murder someone.”
Eleni’s comment snaps me out of my thoughts. I tear my eyes away from Zeus’s disciple. Eleni’s gaze flashes from me to him. Her mouth twists in amusement.
I lean into her so no one else can hear. “Tell me you haven’t thought about it—burying them all under the piles of grain we slave away for all year.”
She shakes her head, and her auburn waves shimmer in the sunlight. “Unless you can match them in speed, and strength, and their ability to throw lightning at will, you won’t be burying anyone.”
The line moves forward with only one person between us and the collector. As we draw closer, I let my voice drop low.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned from years of hunting, it’s that even the most powerful beasts can be killed.”
Eleni tosses me a lighthearted—but careful—glance. “I don’t think you want to kill Zeus.”
“What if I do?”
She presses her lips together in a half-smile and raises an eyebrow. I mask an oncoming smile with a serious, deadpan look. Her mouth twitches at the corners. We stare at each other for a few heartbeats. Finally, I break into a grin and laugh.
“Maybe one day someone will take one for the team.” I jab her arm with my elbow. “But it won’t be me.”
“Good to hear, Seph. You’re hilar—”
“Shh.” I look up to see if the gold cape heard her. Eleni knows she’s not supposed to say my real name—even my nickname—in public. If Zeus’s followers knew about me…
Through the narrow slits in his face helm, the collector is staring right at me.
My heart spears into my ribcage. He heard.
“You,” he barks, raising a hand at me. “Stop right there.”
I freeze. My entire body locks into a panic that makes me want to flee or fight. Somehow, I manage to stay calm.
“What did I do?” I ask, my voice steadier than I feel.
He cocks his head, and his hand flickers with pulsing white light. A jolt of fear shoots through my chest. On impulse, my hand inches towards the bow slung across my back, then stops. Arrows are useless against the disciples of Zeus. But aside from that, the look on his face tells me if I unsheathe my bow, I’m a dead girl.
“You approach the Cult of Zeus armed with a weapon.” His voice cracks into me like a whip, his eyes running up and down my chiton. “Do you wish to die?”
Beside me, Eleni stiffens. I stare at him, plainly stunned that he’s threatened by me. Looking down at myself, I realize that my dress is stained with the blood of the buck I killed and skinned this morning. Straightening up, I meet the collector’s accusatory gaze with sharpness.
“I’m a hunter. My family yields a portion of sacrificial game for—” the next words taste like ash—“for His Power, Lord Zeus.”
The collector’s gaze stays hinged on me, suspicious and guarded. Next to me, Eleni’s eyes dart between me and him. Blood pounds through my temples so fast I can hear it. I hold absolutely still.
An eternity passes in seconds of silence. Finally, the lightning fades from his fingertips. I let a breath go at the same time he reaches out and draws open one of the sacks in my cart. With his mouth set into a grim line, he assesses a stack of deer pelts that I’d stuffed in there this morning. He opens another bag filled with cured meats wrapped in cloths, and another filled with bones and hooves.
Stepping back from the cart, he nods in acceptance. He pulls out a thick scroll from his belt. “Name?”
“Lena Soliman,” I mutter. As the momentary fear of being incinerated by lightning passes, I glance around and realize that everyone in the square is staring at me. How humiliating.
Ignoring the stares, I push my cart up the dais when the collector scrawls a line through my name. I grab each sack of meat and animal parts and toss them carelessly into the kylix. I try not to let my heart fall as I give up at least a month’s worth of food for someone who doesn’t even need it.
I shove the empty cart off the dais and retreat from the line. Eleni comes up just after me, hauling a few sackfuls of apples from her family’s orchard into the bowl. Looking straight ahead, I try to keep my face blank—I can still feel everyone’s eyes on me.
Eleni joins me, softly brushing her elbow on my arm as we push our way out of the square. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” I lie. “I’ve faced worse.”
Eleni brow wrinkles with sympathy. She was there when we buried my sisters ten years ago after they came looking for me, and when I lost Yiayia to Zeus’s cruelty years before that. I give her a tight smile.
“Really, it’s all right,” I say. “There’s nothing like the degradation of tomorrow to put today into perspective.”
“Zeus has at least a thousand women to choose from,” Eleni says. “It’s not going to be either of us.”
Doubt creeps up my spine. There may be at least a thousand of us, but there are two things that Zeus’s concubines all have in common: they’re always mortal and they’re always beautiful. I’m confident enough in my looks to know that I’m pretty, and that’s what terrifies me.
Eleni is beautiful, too. With her rare auburn tresses, blue-gold eyes, and her tall, willowy frame, I’d be more worried.
“Your degree of not caring is one that I aspire to,” I say.
“Why worry about one day when there’s so much more to look forward to?” She touches the strap holding down her harp to her back. “If I win my places with the Muses next spring, I won’t even be here for the Maiden’s Harvest anymore.”
“True...” I trail off, admiring her dedication and her hope for a better future. Something I lost a long a long time ago. She’s been practicing her whole life to perform at the Summoning Ceremony.
Seeming to sense my dejection, Eleni flashes me a considering look. “You know, you could join me.”
The mere suggestion makes me laugh. “I’ll leave the singing to you. I don’t think Euterpe would be impressed by my voice unless she likes torture.”
“Not for that.” She hits my shoulder. “I’m just saying the Summoning Ceremony could be a chance at freedom. Isn’t that worth something?”
I go quiet as her words spoke a dormant flame inside me. Freedom is the only thing I’ve ever wanted. But after what the Cult of Zeus did, the gods are the last people I’d dare to seek it from.
Thoughts of my sisters poke at an old wound in my chest. Eleni squeezes my arm. She’s known me long enough to know when terrible memories flood into my mind without invitation.
“Come on,” she says. “Let’s go buy me a new…”
She falls quiet as we round a corner heading for the shops, staring at something ahead of us.
I look up, and my heart plummets to my feet.
Pulling a wheeled cart stacked with wheat behind him, he’s squinting against the sunlight, his dark hair drenched with sweat. He isn’t wearing a shirt, and it’s a little distracting. I forget for a moment that he hasn’t said a word to me in days.
As he walks by, our eyes touch briefly. His face flushes red, and then he quickly—awkwardly—looks straight ahead.
With tight shoulders, I turn away. When he passes us, I look over my shoulder at him. He doesn’t give me a second glance.
“I know you don’t want to talk about it,” Eleni says. “But I still don’t understand why you said no.”
I sigh. I’ve barely seen him around since I turned his proposal down. It’s been a whole week. Between hunting and worrying about tomorrow, I haven’t given myself enough headspace to think about it. But it still hurts that he hasn’t spoken to me at all when the Maiden’s Harvest is so close.
“You’re right,” I tell her. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“All right,” Eleni relents. “I won’t mention it again.”
We push our way through an alleyway in the clothing market, where the shops have been stocked with white dresses for weeks. As a sea of ivory linen ebbs and flows around us, a surge of nausea wraps itself around my stomach at the reminder that we have to wear white for this damn thing. Young women flood the streets, some buying their gowns out of compulsion. Others because they want to be chosen.
Another tide of sickness threatens to make its way up my throat. I’ve had enough. This is the last place I want to be right now.
“I’m getting out of here,” I tell Eleni. “I don’t feel good.”
“What?” her voice hitches with surprise. “You said you’d help me buy a new harp.”
“I know. I’m sorry—I’m not in the mood.” My skin prickles with an oncoming wave of restlessness. I’m anxious about tomorrow and I know I’m not going to get any sleep tonight. Aside from that, I’m still fuming about the way the collector treated me. There’s nothing like being threatened in public and not being able to do anything about it to make you feel crushed and powerless.
Something volatile is stirring inside me, and there’s only so much I can do to contain it.
“Where are you going?” she calls after me as I push my cart ahead of her.
“I need fresh air,” I mutter.
“We’re already outside!”
“In the woods—I need to hunt. The tithe has wiped our meat stores clean.” My grip tightens on my cart. “And I really need to kill something.”
By the time I emerge from the hunt, a blue and gold blanket of dusk has fallen on the hills. Under the canopy of glimmering starlight, an ocean of sprawling farmland and dense villages cascades from the forest to the shore of the Agean sea. The smell of incense fills my senses, burning under the statues of Zeus that dominate the path to my village. Along the way, I see a few people paying homage at the altars with money and fruit.
With sadness, I look away. I suppose, if people are afraid enough of something, worship is a natural response to that fear. But that isn’t me.
The last rays of sunlight are dead by the time I reach my house. A pheasant hangs from my belt, the only thing I managed to kill within the few hours left in the day. My body is tired from all the running, but my mind is as sleepless and turbulent as a storm.
I drag myself to the front door, then freeze when I see who’s sitting there.
Hearing the sound of my approach, he looks up.
My breath stops short at the sight of him. The light from the sconce by the door spills over his handsome face, bright with relief. He lets out a tensed breath and rises to his feet.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” He holds out a hand as he steps toward me.
My heart clamors with an onslaught of emotions. Relief that he’s here, fear about why, and anger that he waited until the night before the Maiden’s Harvest to come see me.
He stops just a breath away from where I stand. We stare at each other, neither of us speaking. The last thing I want to do is let my emotions out on Adrian. But I have a feeling if I open my mouth, it’ll only be angry words that come out of it.
His eyes flit across my face. Trying to decipher my thoughts. I look askance, at the cracks in the dry ground.
Adrian and I stand a breath away from each other, a heavy silence stretching between us.
I fold my arms over my chest, biting my lip. Do I speak first? What do I say? Do I explain myself? Do I owe him an explanation, when he didn’t even bother to discuss it with me first?
“Adrian, what were you thinking” —I start to ask.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been speaking to you”—he says at the exact same moment.
I bite my lip. I don’t know what to do with his apology.
“I thought it was what you wanted,” he explains, holding his hand out in a plea. “Your family made it seem that way.”
My hands fall to my sides in exasperation. “Adrian, my family wants nothing more than to keep me from the Maiden’s Harvest. They never asked me what I wanted.”
He blinks, realization sinking in. “Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“You would have, if you’d bothered to talk to me at all.”
“I’m sorry for that,” he says softly. “When my father told me you said no, I didn’t know what to do. He told me you wanted me to ask for your hand.”
I sigh, turning my eyes toward the sky. I know why he thought that. My mother. How stupid of me to think I could tell her I had feelings for Adrian without her thinking I wanted to marry him. My anger at him evaporates like raindrops under a hot sun.
“I guess that was my family’s doing. I had no part in it,” I tell him in a slightly gentler tone.
He runs his hand roughly through his hair, lets out a dry, humorless laugh. “Families complicate everything.”
He cocks his head, and his deep brown eyes meet mine. A slight friction in my chest makes my lungs expand like wings opening and retracting.
This has been happening rather often lately.
We’re the same height, which makes it easy to look into his eyes—deep-set and dark, velvety brown. He’s slim, like me and all the other farmers in Aphora, with skin tanned by the sun and muscles defined by days-long stretches of work. His hair is an artful nest of brown waves, his face gaunt and hungry, like mine.
“We’ve always been friends,” he finally says, and for some reason, he can’t seem to look at my face. “But I always thought there was something more between us. Clearly, I was wrong. And for that, I’m sorry.”
I shift my feet. This is the first time Adrian and I have ever talked about this. That we’ve ever acknowledged the changing dynamic of our friendship. He’s completely misunderstanding my rejection.
I’ve never been good at expressing my feelings. I’ve always had a deep fear that, if I love someone too earnestly, the gods or some divine force would rip them away from me.
But the Maiden’s Harvest is tomorrow. Anything can happen. He needs to know how I feel.
“Adrian,” I say softly, mustering up some courage. I stare at his feet. With my eyes stuck on his worn, frayed sandals, I take a step closer to him. Another step.
I reach out with a shaking hand to touch his forearm.
“You weren’t wrong,” I whisper.
He goes completely still. With a deep breath, I take a second to find the right words.
“I have a feeling my mother arranged this whole thing.” I tear my eyes away from his sandals and look up at him. “But it’s because I told her I have feelings for you.”
All I hear is a sharp intake of breath. Three heartbeats pass.
And then his hand finds the back of my neck, his fingers twining into my hair. Pulling me closer to him.
Our foreheads touch. His skin feels hot against the cool night air. My lungs expand and contract again at his nearness, and the newness, of the way he’s touching me.
He holds the side of my waist with his other hand, his fingers as light as a hummingbird’s wings.
For a few moments, all we do is breathe. I close my eyes, inhaling the smell of him. He must have just bathed—his hair is slightly damp, and the light scent of olive soap clings to skin.
“Lena,” he whispers.
My eyes fly open, the sound of my alias on his lips shattering the heady daze.
Adrian doesn’t know what my real name is. He can’t know. But it feels like I’m hiding a huge, integral part of myself from him.
“You have feelings for me?” he asks, as if to ascertain what he just heard.
“Yes,” I breathe.
“But you don’t want to marry me?”
I bite my cheek. “No. At least…not now.”
A slow, half-smile appears on his lips. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to get married out of fear. Besides…do you even love me?”
“I could. Very easily. And I could protect you.”
“I don’t want to be protected,” I tell him, and I suddenly feel that it’s very important for him to understand. “I want to be free.”
The word hovers between us like a dove in flight. He purses his lips, thoughtful. His eyes drift over my face. My mouth.
And then, suddenly, my hands travel further up his arms. Across his shoulders. Over the hard muscle in his lower neck.
“Lena,” he breathes. Again. And it jars me. Again.
That’s not my name.
I can’t tell him. Not now. Not ever. He can never know who I really am.
His breath wafts over my skin, scattering my thoughts and leaving me with nothing but sheer physical sensation.
I’m the one who closes the distance between our lips.
If I can do nothing else with Adrian now, I can at least kiss him. And with what I have to face tomorrow, the need to kiss him seems more urgent than ever.
With my mouth planted firmly against his, I close my eyes and breathe him in, folding my arms around his neck. I feel his eyes fluttering open with surprise at my intensity, at my insistence. But he quickly catches on, leaning into the kiss. Presses the length of his body into mine.
His hands travel across the back of my neck, my shoulder blades, all the way down to my waist. I shiver at the chills rushing up and down my spine, knitting my hands into his hair.
I’ve never kissed anyone like this before. I kiss him deep, and hard, tasting the salt on his soft, chapped lips. I kiss him until I can no longer breathe.
“Adrian,” I exhale when I finally pull back to give us both air. I open my eyes to find his half-lidded. He’s just as drunk, just as lost, as I am.
“Wow,” he breathes, blinking as if dazed by the sun.
I brush my lips against his. Teasing, playing, stretching this out for as long as I can.
“I’ve been wanting to kiss you like this for months,” I whisper into his ear, tugging his earlobe with my teeth. I kiss the side of his neck and hold him tighter.
“Y-you have?” he stammers. “I had no idea…”
I trail a line of kisses along his shoulder, then back up his neck again. Across his jaw. Find his lips once more. I twine my body tightly against his, every tension sweeping out of me.
I don’t want to think about the Maiden’s Harvest now. All I want is to be lost in and with Adrian, for as long as possible. All I want is to forget everything.
But more than that, I want to do what I wish I could have done today at the agora. What I wish I could do at the Maiden’s Harvest.
I want to resist.
Tonight, I want more than just a kiss. But there’s no way I can do this with him in my house, when my parents are home.
And so, when I pull away again, I press my lips into his ear, and say, “Take me home.”
His hands go still on the small of my back. He’s quiet but for a heartbeat.
“We’re here,” he finally says, clearing his throat.
“No,” I whisper. I pull back to look into his eyes. “Take me to your house.”
As the meaning in my words slowly sinks in, surprise flickers across his face. I hold onto his shoulders, a plea in my eyes.
“Lena…” he says, very seriously. “Are you sure?”
My only reply is to kiss him again. This time, slowly. Deeply. Taking my time. I let my leg twine around his.
“Does that answer your question?” I whisper when I break away again.
Without a word, he concedes, taking my hand and leading me down the path towards his house.
It’s not far, and it’s not long before we’re there.
He leads me through the back door, and soon we’re stumbling together through the door of his bedroom. He’s tugging me in and I’m leaning in, letting him pull me to the edge of his bed.
My clothes come off first. Then his.
We stand close together, naked with the hot spring air clinging to our bare skin. I can feel him shaking. Like I am. With his breath hot on mine, the blood in my veins surges through my body like a wildfire.
I take his hands and draw him onto the bed, on top of me. Following my lead, he runs his lips along my jaw, the hollow behind my ear, and down my neck. The air leaves my lungs in quick, desperate breaths, and the feel of his sculpted body on mine sends my heart throbbing against my ribcage. He kisses his way down my collarbone, my chest, my stomach, and then trails his way past my hips.
A gasp leaves my lips when he finds me, right there. Shivers rack my whole body, and my head rolls into the pillow at the sensation of his warm, tender mouth on me. My limbs tremble and tighten at every tingling wave that ripples through me. And then, just before he brings me to the brink of ecstasy, I lace my fingers into his hair and lightly tug him toward me.
In the moonlight, his eyes reflect the same ravenous fire that burns inside me. Grabbing a handful of his hair, I kiss him deeply, biting down on his lower lip. The groan that rumbles from his throat is voracious and animal, sending searing tremors across my skin. I sit up and let my legs fall around his waist, wrapping my arms around his neck so that there’s no space left between us.
He presses the side of his face against mine, and I whisper into the darkness, I’m ready.
In the silver light that paints the walls, the shadow of our bodies merges into one. A sharp breath cuts through my lips at the unfamiliar sensation of another person inside me. But soon, the pain disappears, leaving no room for hesitation. No room for fear.
We move like the languid waves of a sultry summer sea, coming together and apart, again, and again, and again. As each tide of pleasure brings me closer to that final explosion of bliss, I feel alive for the first time in years. At this moment, nothing else matters. Not even the Maiden’s Harvest. Before I face tomorrow, all I want is to be lost with Adrian in every way possible.
All I want is to be free.