Update: Since writing this first draft, I've written a variety of other things but I keep coming back to it. I'm starting the 6th serious draft of this (with about 30 sweeps through for errors) with a plan to finally move on to writing its sequel. I truly believe what's posted here reflects the finest writing I've ever done...and I also truly believe that it's not good enough, given very mixed feedback from the few people IRL who've made it through. I'm posting the last draft here in hopes that those on the Freedom Stone, once the greatest source of feedback and critique I've ever received, may give me some final insight before spending the next several years having it rejected from agent after agent.
To new readers, I've left the original chapter in place so you can see what it was and what it's become. The differences 3 years and 6 drafts make will become markedly more apparent by the 5th chapter so I'd encourage you to give it a chance until then. In the meantime, please accept my heartfelt gratitude in advance if you choose to say anything at all, even "Good chapter" or "Not good chapter".Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. 65th Street and Central Park West, New England Conglomerate. 22:01. May 8th, 2078
When Tseng Chen stood in a church, it always reminded her of God's mercy. It was easy to think of sin when one stood on holy ground. The Chinese woman found it easier than most, though.
Some Christians took wearing a cross or walking in a church for granted, going through the motions and rituals of a Christ-centered life without thinking. She always remembered the gift of mercy, the reprieve of sin and the grace of standing among God's worshippers. Any Christian might.
Any Retainer would.
"Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, keep you in his light and truth and love now and forever," the priest said as the wedding concluded.
The ancient throb of the organ filled the vastness of Holy Trinity and the Recessional began. Her hand unconsciously gripped the small gold cross she wore around her neck, just as her other smoothed down the rich red-brocade pattern of her gold dress. Despite what she was, God permitted her entrance to His church and this holy wedding ceremony.
She stood with the rest of her family as the bride and groom left the altar. The young beaming Caitlyn Tseng looked ecstatic with her new husband. Caitlyn Alister now, just as it should be. Chen smirked slightly as her grand-niece stopped to collect her five year old son, Matthew. Not everything was the way it should be but chastity had vanished even in Chen's youth. A youth that was a very long time ago.
"You are not so old, elder sister
A wrinkled old hand enfolded hers as she looked down. Chen patted that hand and put an arm around its owner. "How do you know what I'm thinking, younger brother
?" she asked in Chinese.
"I have many children, lots of practice
It was true. Old Man Tseng Huang was the patriarch of this large family. Two of his three sons sat with their families here in the back of the church. Six of the grandkids and their families were spread out in front of them, more than two dozen of them in total. A huge collection of the Tseng family had turned out for the wedding of Huang's granddaughter and it made Chen happy and heartbroken, all at the same time.
Michael, Huang's oldest son, stood right in front of her, his hair gray now. Despite the difference of generation and age, there was nothing distant or reserved in the way Michael treated Chen. She knew she seemed the distant relative, presumably too busy with a career to spend much time or start a family. If they only knew.
"Michael looks very proud
," Chen said.
"Your grand-uncle is
," Chen said.
"Why does calling him that bother you so much
"Because it's not true
"You've been his aunt, then his niece and now his grand-niece. Aren't you used to it by now
"Can we just enjoy the wedding
," he said, blinking a few times as he settled down.
Old Man Tseng sat down with a weary stiffness and Chen made sure he was comfortable. A long time ago, he'd had the same thick black hair Chen had. It was white now, thin and worn. His skin color had pallor similar in shade to hers but it looked a lot worse on him. Tseng Huang was a wrinkled, gray old man who probably wouldn't live to see 100. Doctors had licked cancer, Alzheimer's and infection but the richest person could only live so long without augmentation. Huang refused...and in staying mortal, he could only live a mortal's lifespan.
"I'm happy you came. I don't see you very often
." Despite his age, it was the same smile she'd always known.
," Chen said, pressing her hand over his. Then she noticed Michael giving his father's jacket pocket a meaningful look. Chen knew the cue. "Huang, are you taking the medication still
"You're like a rat
." His grumble faded into a fond look. "You nibble and never stop. Michael's just as bad as you are
Chen put her arm around him and gave him a firm hug. "Huang...I know you don't like it but please take it. I need...
" Chen dropped the pitch of her voice, "...I need my brother. You're the only one I have. What am I going to do when you're gone
"Watch my kids
," he said, closing his eyes and leaning back wearily in his chair. Then, in English, he said, "Maybe meet a boy."
Chen laughed, the sound disappearing in the murmur of the crowd. "Perhaps, Huang. It's not for lack of trying, you know. I just haven't found the right man for me."
"What about that Darius?"
"He's just-it's complicated," she said, feeling her face color.
"That boy loves you." Chen bowed her head as her cheeks heated further. Then she looked up when Huang's dry old hand enfolded hers, age touching age but only one of them showing it. The wick of his life flickered in embers now, yet he still felt so alive. More than she did.
"Sarah was the light of my life. I want you to love someone like that."
"I do," Chen said. And she kissed his cheek.
"Grandfather, are you coming?" a woman's voice asked.
It was Caitlyn, who looked wonderful in her pristine wedding gown. It wasn't a Chinese dress or a Chinese ceremony but Chen understood. Caitlyn's grandmother Sarah had been white. Michael, Caitlyn's father, had also married a white woman. It was a little unsettling sometimes that Chen looked so different from the rest of her family but she'd had decades to grow accustomed to it.
"Coming in a minute. Receptions, all that fuss, what is that to family?"
"Is this someone I should know, grandfather?"
"Of course, of course, this is my grand-niece Chen," Huang said as he waved magnanimously at his older sister. Chen ducked her head and brushed away the straight black locks that fell across her eyes. "Don't be shy, Chen, you came to see your cousin wed."
"I..." With effort, Chen met the tall statuesque blonde's curious eyes and forced a polite smile.What can I say? We've met? We've met many times and you'll forget this time too, once you look away? Only Huang and sometimes Michael ever remembers me when Darius isn't around? I'm so tired of lying about who I am.
A wail went up nearby, just a single pew over, thankfully interrupting the unpleasant moment. Everyone arched their necks to see. Grandkids, eight and nine respectively, looked guilty as a cousin cried loudly and cupped his head. Parents flocked like battlefield medics, breaking up the pack of kids playing too roughly and assessing the wounded. Chen smiled at the heated remarks her nephews' wives exchanged over their children...and stopped when one of them hoisted onto her hip a boy with a bloody nose.
The globules of rich red glowed like lit wax candles in the dimness of the church. Her stomach cramped reflexively and her mouth watered. Chen didn't wait for it to get worse. Instead, she pulled open her purse and pawed through it for her noseplugs.
"Oh, you poor thing," Caitlyn said, touching her arm. Chen trembled with the effort it took not to react. So much life, just an inch away. "Allergies?"
"They strike swiftly," Chen said, finding the case and snapping it open. The plugs were pale lavender, a special medical filter designed to fit in the nose and stream out allergens. They also greatly diminished one's sense of smell. Chen took a deep breath once they were in place. Just the barest hint of the blood scent crept through before inhalant automatically fired, drowning it out. The nascent thirst in her stomach died before it fully woke.
"You should come to Dad's party this week," Caitlyn said. "You're family."
Chen simply nodded until Caitlyn turned away. "Congratulations!" she said in a swift rush. The blonde bride glanced back and smiled at Chen.
"You should come
," Huang said to her from his seat at the pew. "Bring your boy
"Darius Winterblood is not my boy. Younger brother, you know I work for him. Even if he likes me, it would be awkward. Is seeing me with a man so important to you
?" The way Huang grinned was all the answer she needed. Matchmaking again. "You just want me properly married off with a family of my own, even though I've told you how impossible that is
"Would marrying that boy be such a bad thing
"Marriage and children are never bad
." She patted her brother's sleeve. "But I cannot offer Darius that blessing. What I am makes that impossible and I-I do not love him enough to be a bride worthy of him. Thank you but I am content with how things are
"Until I pass away
," he said. Those old black eyes were still sharp, about the only thing left to her younger brother that was. "They'll forget you, even the few who remember you now. Just like the last two times. Promise me you'll come back to them. Not good being so alone, sister. You may endure a long time on this earth. Endure it with your family
"I will," Chen said. "I promise."
Then her headset chimed. The antique-looking earring beamed sound into her ear and it could pick up her voice when she wanted to talk without a visible receiver. These days, it was old tech, ancient tech, but implants were not an option for a Retainer. Chen tapped the earring and heard the quiet, surprisingly sharp voice of the phone's software say "Mayor Sara Winterblood."
Just like that, Chen felt the Geas in her blood light to life.
Most nights she could forget she wasn't like other Chinese women. All it took to destroy that illusion was a serious thought of ignoring a Winterblood, in defiance of her Sovereign's will. Obey the Winterblood Family
, the Geas whispered, its cool fire roping through her bones. And Chen had to. It wasn't pretty, she wasn't proud of it, but none of that mattered.
Inside that lovely golden dress that matched her complexion so well, Tseng Chen was a slave.
"Sir?" she asked as she answered the other woman.
"Hi, Ms. Tseng, I know we haven't spoken before but I'm on Broadway, heading to the Queensboro Bridge East and I'm taking fire. My guards are dead so if you could spare a little help, I'd appreciate it."
The Mayor voice was a warm alto that managed to sound apologetic about being shot at. It didn't matter if she was. The Geas wrapped itself through every muscle and bone.
"On route, Sir." Chen cast her elderly younger brother a sorrowful look, then took off at a dead run. The Expressway was 200 feet above street level. And she had likely no more than a couple of minutes to save the life of the New England Conglomerate's Mayor.