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The Heart Is a Universe

October 10, 2017
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The Heart Is a Universe

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On the remote planet of Pax Cara lies the greatest secret of the universe. Once every generation, the inhabitants must offer up an exceptional young person—the Chosen One—who sacrifices his or her own life for the sake of that secret, and the planet itself.

But Vitalis, the current Chosen One, is desperate to break free of the yoke of destiny. An unexpected invitation to an aristocratic courtship summit seems to be the perfect opportunity for her escape. As soon as she arrives, however, she receives a proposal of marriage from the most eligible prince in existence.

Eleian of Terra Illustrata can have any woman he wants. Why has he set his sight on Vitalis, who, unless she manages to flee, will die in sixteen standard days? Is it as simple as he declares, “To know you as I’ve always wanted to, but never had the chance?”

Or is he hiding an ulterior motive, one that could put her plans, her life, and her heart in jeopardy?

And can Vitalis truly say no to the man she has secretly loved all her life?

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The Story about the Story

Back when life first left the ocean and crawled on land—circa 2008, that is—Sherry decided, for no apparent reason, to organize an anthology of romantic novellas.

Her proposed anthology was to have been called the One Beginning anthology, after its conceit, which was that all the authors in the anthology began with the same 3-paragraph opening.

Here’s part of the email she wrote to Meredith Duran, Bettie Sharpe, and her critique partner Janine Ballard:

Herewith the proposed beginning for our tales of love and woe and wonderment.

They met at the ball.

He was the beau of the ball, if there was such a thing: the undisputed Adonis, the one who shook hearts as easily and carelessly as a spring storm savaged the darling buds of May. 

She was not a darling bud of May. She thought of herself as one of those trees that grew on sheer cliff faces, a stubborn, lonely thing, not beautiful but splendid, because her entire existence hung on the edge of a precipice.

Is it workable for everybody? Meeting at a ball is trite as heck but since we are writing across time and space and subgenres, I thought a more generic beginning would work better.

Let me know if you have any specific difficulties and I’ll revise accordingly—esp if your heroine’s existence doesn’t hang on the edge of a precipice!

Sherry intended her story to be space opera, Meredith’s would deal with a woman suffering from memory loss, Bettie’s would be steam punk with zeppelins, and Janine’s a story-within-a-story, i.e., a contemporary romance in which the heroine is writing about this ball as a part of an epic fantasy.

Don’t you want to read that anthology? Sherry still does! Alas, Janine was the only person to actually finish her story, the rest of the authors got pulled away by life, work, and other pursuits.

Sherry doesn’t write very fast so she has to prioritize paid work over speculative work. And in speculative work, she has to prioritize titles with a better chance of remuneration than a space opera romantic novella.

In spite of all that, in the nearly a decade since she first conceived of the novella, she would pull it out at least several times a year and work on it a bit more. (Not a lot more because besides its seeming lack of commercial prospects, she also had no idea where the story was going.)

And came the email from Judith at Open Ink Press. Judith was putting together an anthology of novellas and wanted something from Sherry that Sherry didn’t normally write. This practically never happens in publishing. Publishers—and readers, too—want an author to write more or less the same thing as what they’ve come to expect. Authors usually have to push to expand their own boundaries. (And this is actually not that different in self-publishing, where doing something different means an author has to take time away from her bread-and-butter books and face a potential reduction in income).

At the time Sherry had written about a quarter of the novella. She was delighted to have a deadline so that it would get finished and didn’t hesitate at all in saying yes.

Then she had to do the work.

Remember how she had no idea how the story would end or how she would give the couple their happily-ever-after? When she finally hit on a denouement that resonated with her, she went back and took a look at what she had already written. And it was all there, bits of seemingly inconsequential banter that now served as perfect foreshadowing.

There’s no better feeling than guiding a story to become what it was always meant to be.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

The story began long ago, before the birth of the universe.

The Heart Is a Universe

Before the births and deaths of many older, greater universes.

This is not, however, a narrative of the births and deaths of universes—though it might be that too. In the main it is about a man and a woman, their lives and circumstances.

They met at a ball, an opulent affair held on a luxury liner. He was making his way to her and she was pretending that she hadn’t noticed, when his every move was eagerly followed by the entire gathering. 

The beau of the ball, if there was such a thing, the one who shook hearts as easily as a spring storm laid waste to the tender blossoms of May. 

She was not a tender blossom. She thought of herself as one of those twisted trees that grew on sheer cliff faces, a stubborn, lonely thing, not beautiful but splendid, because her entire existence hung on the edge of a precipice.

Or rather, she had thought so, when she had believed wholeheartedly in her destiny as the Chosen One. 

Her existence on the edge had since become an exercise in desperation: each and every moment she felt as if she clung to a fraying rope, swamp beasts gathering in the ravine below, devouring one another while they waited for her to fall.

Her panic did not show. She had long ago learned to keep her face smooth and her stance relaxed—no tight jaw or white knuckles to betray the inner tension. And her choice of attire further contributed to the image of the young heroine of Pax Cara:  she was the only woman at the ball not in a fantastic concoction of silk and film, but in her dress uniform, a crisp, slim, short black tunic over equally crisp, slim black trousers, the enameled thornrose of her office pinned prominently above her breast.

As she’d intended, the guests were agog at the sight of her. Yes, she played it well indeed, the role of the simple, serene martyr, giving up her life and all its brilliant promises to save her people from annihilation.

Once, she’d basked in such attention. Now she broiled in it. This had been the part of the Task she’d loved the most—that was, before she’d come to hate the Task itself. She still got shivers, even at this late stage, from the way some people looked at her, in sincere, head-shaking admiration. 

And then there were others who watched her because she was the freak, a dead woman walking. 

Sixteen days—before she marched to her doom.

“May I have this dance?” 

She turned around slowly. There were exactly nineteen mobilecams bobbing in the air about her.  Several represented media outlets from her home planet of Pax Cara, the rest bore logos of the interstellar communication conglomerates that were on hand to cover the glamorous goings-on at ConsortCon, the short-name for the once-every-three-standard-year courtship summit hosted by the thirty-seven princely houses of the Sector. 

The event had once been exclusively aristocratic. Now the proceedings had become somewhat more democratic. Princes and princesses still predominated—they were guaranteed attendance by virtue of birth—but a smattering of plebeians had secured invitations by dint of their achievement.

Or fame, as in her case.

The mobilecams had been trained on her as she gazed up at the dance sphere, her expression the tranquil wistfulness she’d long ago perfected for such occasions. She knew what the voiceover would say, above heroic music played at a muted volume: What is going through the mind of this young woman, knowing that the fate of her people rests on her shoulders, that her life will end before it has fully begun, yet her name will live on forever?

The man who had asked for the next dance had just as many mobilecams hovering around him. Eleian of Terra Illustrata, the most beloved prince in living memory, and the one person she resolutely did not want to meet.

The heir of a non-ruling house, he’d come of age during a time of great instability for his thirty-system principality. A long civil war that had begun before he was born had produced a dictator who held power by brutal oppression. After the dictator’s death, chaos had threatened to reign once again.

With almost unbearable courage—for his life could have been forfeit at any point—the young prince had stepped in and stood up to those who sought power solely for their own gain. Against all odds, he had guided his people back to their nearly forgotten tradition of representative government.

The Heart Is a Universe

“Your Highness,” she said with a searing admiration. And envy. And a resentment that almost choked her. 

His had been true valor, whereas hers was but the appearance of it. 

And he had survived.

“My lady.” He inclined his head. 

She was a commoner. But here the media had taken to calling her a prince of her people, and styled her accordingly.

The mobilecams swarmed close, eager to capture her reaction. What would they see? She had not practiced for this, for dealing with the one man whose very existence reminded her of the fraud she was—and the traitor she planned to be.

“Will you honor me with this dance?” he repeated his request.

“The honor will be mine,” she said. 

Mobilecams were not allowed inside the dance sphere. At least there would not be a record of the excruciating minutes she would spend in his company.

The dance sphere, fifty meters across, shimmered above them. From the outside it looked as if it were made of water, a giant, perfectly round drop, grey and pearlescent. Long pale shapes undulated inside, weightless dancers soaring and swooping.

She placed her hand on his arm. The mobilecams parted and they walked together toward the center of the ballroom, where couples from the previous dance were dropping out of the sphere in pairs, messily festooned—some fairly mummified—in ribbon streamers. Dancers and ribbon streamers both appeared shockingly vibrant, after the elegant but anemic shadows they had cast upon the surface of dance sphere.

A few dancers wobbled as they landed. One stumbled back a step. She observed the more successful exits. Future traitor or not, she was here as a representative of her people and she was not going to fall on her face.

A young male attendant with an awed gaze held out a tray of folded ribbon streamers toward her. She chose a brilliant red streamer and presented it to Eleian of Terra Illustrata. Light hues conveyed interest. Deep hues, respect—the deeper the shade, the greater the respect.

In return he presented her with a white ribbon. Instantly, the hum of conversation hushed. The mobilecams all but blocked out the light overhead as they jostled to get a better shot.

Like gravitational waves expanding outward from the collision of massive singularities, shock ripped through her. Of course she’d expected a light-colored streamer from him—a man did not ask a woman to dance to express his respect. And white, on its own, was but another light color of no greater significance. 

Except he was wearing white. When a man—or a woman for that matter—presented  a streamer the same color as his attire, it constituted a proposal of marriage.