by R.J. Vickers
Publication date: March 14th 2015
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Tristan Fairholm is one of 15 juvenile delinquents selected to learn magic…for a purpose that is kept secret from them. When they at last learn that the magic they have harvested causes death and ruin in a bid to keep the world from collapse, they must make a choice: do they fight it? Or do they use it?
Tristan Fairholm stood before his brother’s grave, the shadow of the disciplinary officer stretched across the moss by his feet. He had been in juvie for three months, and his parents hadn’t been to see him in all that time. They hadn’t even let him attend Marcus’s funeral. Of course not—they thought Tristan had crashed the car on purpose. They thought he had murdered his brother.
Tristan fingered the broken watch in his pocket. Marcus had given it to him just days before his death, a beautiful gold wristband with a few gears that had rusted through. Tristan loved to fix things—bikes, old clocks, splintered furniture—anything he could get his hands on. It made up for everything he couldn’t fix. His parents’ divorce. Marcus’s weak heart. And now the ragged, rusting hole his brother had left behind.
But Tristan hadn’t been allowed near any proper tools since his arrest. The watch remained broken.
Footsteps crunched in the bark behind Tristan, and the officer’s shadow receded. He was probably off to smoke another of his foul-smelling cigars. Without looking over his shoulder, Tristan knew he was alone for the first time in three months.
I could run for it.
The thought crossed his mind like a spark, unbidden, but he hurriedly stomped it out. He didn’t want to be a fugitive. He just wanted his family back.
The late afternoon shadows lengthened as Tristan stood there, hands in the pockets of his orange slacks, until the gravestone was half bathed in golden light and half in icy blue shadow. He didn’t turn when he heard footsteps shuffling towards him, but it was not the officer. Instead, an unfamiliar woman spoke.
“You must be Tristan Fairholm.” Her smooth voice was clipped.
Tristan grunted noncommittally. Were there any other bright orange delinquents wandering about the graveyard?
The woman took a step closer. “Your brother’s death was not an accident.”
“Who are you?” Tristan shot back. When he’d continued to insist on the earthquake story in court, he’d been hauled off for several rounds of questioning—once with an actress trying to convince him she could spring him free if he told the truth—to see if he was mentally unstable or just a very convincing liar. This woman had to be another questioner.
Tristan was still staring defiantly at the headstone when something shifted at his feet. He blinked. Was it a mouse? No, something green was poking from the moss, and as he watched it began to grow taller. It was the stem of a plant, which shot higher and unfurled leaves in a matter of seconds, finally slowing when it reached Tristan’s knee. He stumbled back a pace and shook his head to clear it as a drooping bud began to swell at the highest tip of the plant. An instant later the bud burst into bloom.
Tristan whirled to face the woman. “What’s going on?”
She was tall and young, with narrow glasses and brown hair pulled back in a bun. “I can give you answers,” she said with a thin-lipped smile. “My colleagues and I know exactly what happened. We know more than most. If you want to share in our knowledge, take a leap of faith and come with me.”
“What happened that night? Why did I kill my brother?” His voice cracked on the last word.
“There are some who would say the death was necessary.” The woman removed her glasses and polished them on her sleeve. “But a tragedy nonetheless. I beg your pardon—my name is Darla Merridy.”
Tristan and Darla Merridy stared at one another in silence. Tristan knew she was examining the scars that gutted the left side of his face; even with a fringe of dark hair drawn low over one eye, the disfigurement was plain. Ever since the crash, Tristan had been treated with revulsion and fear; all but the most sympathetic detention officers shrank from the sight of his scars.
At last Darla Merridy slid her glasses back into place and said once again, “Come with me.”
Tristan cast a final glance at Marcus’s name and turned to follow her down the path. He was learning to obey orders without question.
Even when they broke from the evening shade of the pines, Tristan could not see where the disciplinary officer had gone. Ten steps down, they left the graveyard behind and came to the curb where the officer had been parked. His car was no longer there. A moment later a taxi pulled up beside Darla Merridy. When she stepped back, waiting for Tristan to climb in first, he just stared at the taxi.
“Where the hell are we going?”
Darla Merridy’s mouth tightened. “The airport. All will be explained presently.”
Tristan stuffed his hands into his pockets. “You’re taking me to an asylum, aren’t you?” He had been terrified of this. If someone had decided he was insane, his life was over. He’d never be let free.
“No.” Her eyes softened. “I promise you will never go anywhere near an asylum. Your records show that you are an intelligent, responsible young man who does not deserve to be locked away. Your criminal record will not accompany you to your new home.”
Tristan swallowed. “Are we going far?”
He would never get a chance to see his parents. There were a lot of impolite things Tristan wanted to say to Merridy, but he didn’t want to make trouble. If he had learned anything in the past three months, it was that a great deal of his future depended on this woman’s first impression of him. So he closed his mouth and slid into the taxi seat.
“Jamestown Airport, please,” Merridy said, joining Tristan in the back and slamming the door shut.
“I’d hate to be rude, ma’am,” the driver said, turning to frown at Tristan, “but I’m not usually in the business of shuttling criminals about. Not helping him run away, are you?”
“Of course not.” Merridy leaned forward and handed the driver a wad of cash through the plastic divider window. “There will be no trouble from us. Please, we have a schedule to keep.”
The driver cleared his throat. “That seems perfectly reasonable,” he muttered.
They drove for a long time, the sun setting as they passed beyond the city limits.
As the city fell behind, Tristan was left numb with emptiness. He had nothing outside of North Dakota—no friends, no relatives, no cities he would recognize. “Can I say goodbye to my parents?”
“You would impose yourself on them?” Merridy asked sharply. She sighed. “I apologize. That was unkind.”
But it was true. Tristan sank lower in his seat, wishing he could be alone.
It was a relief when the terminal loomed ahead of them. The taxi driver seemed equally relieved to be free of Tristan; he pocketed Merridy’s cash without a word.
Though the sun had vanished, Merridy bypassed the doors into the brightly-lit terminal, instead leading Tristan around a dark corner and onto the tarmac. Something didn’t seem right; surely the disciplinary officer would have warned him if he was about to be carted off to another state. And for what—tighter security? Compared with the other kids in juvie, Tristan was barely worth taking note of. What if Merridy was kidnapping him? No, that couldn’t be right. How had she known his name?
Tristan hurried to catch up to Merridy, who was hard to make out in her black dress. Though it wasn’t cold, he gave an involuntary shiver.
As they rounded another corner, Tristan saw a small plane, devoid of any company logo, standing in a pool of light near the parking lot fence. A ladder descended from an open door behind the cockpit.
“This is ours,” Merridy said. Slowing, she let Tristan lead the way to the steps.
“Who’s in there?” he demanded softly, trying to make out faces in the scratched-up windows.
“Young men and women just like yourself.” Merridy put a hand on Tristan’s shoulder and nudged him forward. “They, too, are getting a new chance at life outside bars.”
Tristan swallowed and raked his hair more firmly into place over the scarred left side of his face. The broken watch was heavy in his pocket as he climbed the stairs into the plane.
He hadn’t known what to expect from his fellow criminals, but he could tell from a look that they were just like the ones he’d taken pains to avoid at the detention center. A dozen pairs of eyes glared at him, hostile and arrogant.
“This is Tristan Fairholm.” Merridy put a hand on his shoulder and nudged him forward. “Make him feel at home.”
As she knelt to fold away the ladder, Tristan stumbled down the aisle, making for a pair of empty seats. He sank into the window seat, wishing Merridy had given him something to wear besides his bright orange jumpsuit. Only two others were still in their prison garb. Inadvertently he caught the eye of a beautiful red-head across the aisle; she gave him a sneer that turned his stomach.
Tristan looked quickly away and studied the heads of the two boys in front of him. One was still in his jumpsuit, and he had black hair that had been dyed an odd, pale yellow on top; the other’s was a messy brown. As Tristan buckled his seatbelt, the boy with messy brown hair turned and grinned at him.
Then the small plane roared to life and surged into the air. Tristan leaned back and watched the dark sky beyond the window, unexpectedly excited—he didn’t know where they were flying, but it had to be better than juvie.
Hours later, the plane descended through clouds and touched down near the faint speckling of lights that marked a small town.
“I have one final girl to collect,” Merridy said, getting to her feet. “This should not take long, as she was warned of my arrival.” Her tone grew icy. “Unlike you, Evangeline Rosewell is not a criminal. You must treat her with the utmost respect. Also—Eli, Ryan, and Tristan, your street clothes are at the back of the plane.”
“Have the damn clothes been there all along?” the boy in front of Tristan grumbled.
The messy-haired boy who had grinned at Tristan jumped to his feet and let his seatmate out. “Hey!” he said brightly, sticking out a hand. “You’re Tristan Fairholm, right? Why’d Professor Merridy take so long to get you? We figured you were extra dangerous or something.”
Tristan snorted. “Well, I’m not.” He didn’t shake the boy’s hand.
“I’m Rusty Lennox, by the way. That’s Eli.” He nodded at the boy who’d gone in search of the new clothes.
“Catch,” Eli called from the back of the small plane, tossing a bundle at Tristan’s head. He already had his jumpsuit zipped down to the waist and his arms through the sleeves of a cleanly-pressed white shirt. Trying not to glance in the direction of the beautiful red-head, Tristan struggled into the new clothes and finally kicked his garish jumpsuit under the seat. The fabric felt stiff and grainy after the sagging orange uniform.
“Makes you feel like a person again, doesn’t it?” Rusty asked with a lopsided smile.
Tristan just nodded. Meanwhile, Eli stomped vigorously on his bedraggled jumpsuit before resuming his seat.
Leaning forward, Tristan asked in a low voice, “Where are we going, then? Has she told you guys?”
Rusty shook his head. “Some sort of school, I think, though she won’t say where. But it doesn’t matter, does it? I’m just excited we’re going somewhere new!”
“Right,” Tristan said dubiously.
Not ten minutes later, Professor Merridy returned with Evangeline Rosewell, who was hovering so close to the teacher that her face was at first lost in shadow. Tristan sat up straighter, and when he finally saw Evangeline’s pale, nervous face, he felt a surge of protectiveness. The look in her pretty, downcast eyes reminded him of Marcus returning to school after his first seizure. Clutching a ratty backpack to her chest, she looked completely lost.
At a nudge from Merridy, Evangeline shuffled down the aisle to the empty seat beside Tristan, where she sat stiffly and turned away from him.
“This is everyone,” Merridy said. “You will be spending the rest of the school year together, so I recommend you become acquainted. From this point onward, you may forget what happened in your past. You are equals here—each of you has been hand-picked for this school.”
Glancing left at the sneering red-haired girl, Tristan shook his head. ‘Hand-picked’ was not the word he would have used to describe the group. And what on earth were they doing? This couldn’t be a routine relocation, or anything the juvie court would have arranged.
Instead of answering the unspoken questions on the face of every student, Merridy returned to her seat just in time for the plane engine to grumble to life. Tristan crossed his arms, still unaccustomed to the stiff fabric of the new shirt, and watched Evangeline out of the corner of his eye as the plane turned onto a badly-lit runway and again took to the air.
Soon Evangeline’s ragged brown hair blurred to darkness, and Tristan was again reliving the final hours of Marcus’s life.
It had been a strange night. Tristan and his brother had been alone when the house started shaking, and they had fled as the roof began to crumble. But not even their next-door neighbors had reported feeling the earthquake. Tristan and Marcus had tried to escape to their mother’s home in the next town over, but they never made it.
Again Tristan heard the sirens, and that awful, flat voice that had haunted his dreams—he’s dead. The two simple words had ended everything.
The plane gave a jolt, wrenching Tristan from his thoughts. Feeling nauseous, he glanced at Evangeline, who was frowning determinedly at the back of Rusty’s head.
For a long time neither one spoke, and Tristan began to doze off once again. But that was dangerous. He didn’t want to think about Marcus, not here, not with so many strangers around him. Desperate for a distraction, he finally turned to Evangeline.
“So you’re Evangeline, right?” As if he could have forgotten. The expression she turned on him was just as achingly vulnerable as before. He wanted to comfort her, but he could not find the words. Fumbling for something appropriate to say, he settled on, “Can I call you Evvie?”
“No.” Her mouth hardening, she turned even more firmly away from him.
“I’m Tristan.” He endeavored to keep his voice pleasant. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Stop talking to me,” Evangeline said crossly. “I’m trying to sleep.”
“No, you’re just sitting there,” Tristan said at once. “Are you trying to meditate, or something?” A second later he regretted the jibe.
“Be quiet,” she snapped.
Tristan swallowed hard, trying to smother his temper, and his ears popped.
“You know what?” Evangeline said after a pause, fixing Tristan with a hard look. “I don’t like boys with long hair.” She flicked a strand of her own straight-cropped hair behind one ear. “You look like a slob with your hair all over your face like that.”
“Well, I think Evangeline is a stupid name.” Without knowing why, he turned and brushed his hair off his face so Evangeline could get a good look at the scars. “Do you like me better this way? Is that what you want?”
Evangeline gasped and jerked away from Tristan, nearly tumbling off her seat.
Tristan let his hair fall back into place, an ugly smile crumpling his face.
Now the roar of the plane sounded like the wailing drone of sirens—breathing hard, Tristan fumbled with his seatbelt and jumped to his feet. He kicked Evangeline’s backpack to the side and stalked to the back of the plane, where there was a single empty seat next to a sharp-faced girl.
“Mind if I sit here?” Tristan asked in a choked voice.
The girl turned, revealing a scattering of freckles across her nose and dark eyes to match her long, black hair. “Sure. I’m Leila Swanson, by the way.” She scrutinized Tristan for a while, her gaze curious rather than hostile. “Don’t judge yourself by what the orphan girl thinks of you,” she said bitterly. “People like her—well, they don’t think we’re even people. If she’d been to Juvie, she’d know.”
“I suppose,” Tristan muttered, slumping into the seat beside her.
Leila must have caught sight of his scars, because she leaned suddenly forward. “What happened to you?”
Tristan pressed his hair firmly down. “Nothing.”
Leila stared at him, one eyebrow raised in disdain.
“You know what?” Tristan said coldly. “I don’t even know why I’m talking to you. You’re no better than Evangeline.”
“Thanks,” Leila said sarcastically.
Feeling claustrophobic, Tristan stared at the seat in front of him until his eyes began to drift closed.
In the foggy darkness, Marcus swam into view, eyes wide and soulless. He touched Tristan’s arm with fingers icy as death. I trust you. A flash of red light, and Marcus screamed.
My fault, all my fault.
“Tristan?” Someone was shaking his arm.
He flinched, his eyes flying open. It was Leila.
“You all right?” There was no trace of sarcasm in her voice.
Tristan clenched his fists. “Talk to me, would you?” he whispered. He was frightened. “Just keep talking.”
Eventually Leila nodded and said, “Do you remember the story of Beauty and the Beast?”
Tristan didn’t reply; he knew that she was referring to him as the Beast, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
“Once upon a time…” Leila’s voice lowered to a murmur as she began the story. It was soothing, and the words gave Tristan something to focus on. In Leila’s version, the prince challenged a soldier to a fight and lost, whereupon he limped home and locked himself in his palace, hideously scarred and too ashamed to show his face.
“I thought he was put under a spell,” Tristan said.
“This is a retelling, you dolt,” Leila said. “I’m glad you’re listening.”
“Of course I’m not.”
Leila continued her story. The hum of the engine turned her words into something melodic, and Tristan half-closed his eyes as he listened. When she finally finished with, “And they lived happily ever after,” Tristan sat up again and rubbed his eyes.
“Lucky Beast,” he grumbled. “But it was a good story.”
Leila was watching him with a peculiar expression. “Could I see—?” she ventured.
“No,” Tristan snapped. He took a deep breath. “Thank you, though.”
She now lives in Christchurch with her fiance, Daniel, where she works as a part-time chef. When she's not writing, she loves hiking and adventuring throughout New Zealand.
R.J. Vickers is the author of The Natural Order, the first book in a new young adult fantasy series. She swears by NaNoWriMo, and has written seven short novels during the typing frenzy that is November.
THE WRITINGHow long does it take you to write a book?
It varies greatly. I’ve written seven books during National Novel Writing Month (where you try to write at least 50,000 words in November), so I can certainly write quickly when I decide to. And I’m a very fast typist, so it’s the ideas that slow me down, not the mechanics. But when I’m not working during NaNoWriMo, it can take me a year or more to write a book. Several times I’ve set a longer project aside to write a quick novel in November, only to pick it up again once the month was over.
Editing is what really takes up time. To properly revise a book, you have to get perspective on it, which means letting it sit around unread for a few months. Then, when you and your critique partners single out which parts don’t quite work, it takes a bit of time to figure out how to fix them. With The Natural Order, I actually wrote every scene on a notecard and then laid them out on a table so I could play around with rearranging them. Any scenes that didn’t seem to fit into the overall flow of the story were cut, and several were reorganized.
Do you have any interesting writing quirks?
My partner and I are both writers, so we love doing writing-challenge days. We draw up a chalkboard like this:
500 words—massage1,000 words—hot drink1,500 words—play cards
Each time one of us gets to 500 words, we get a treat. The ideas can get very creative, such as being forced to sit on the floor until we reach 500 words, or writing blindfolded for 15 minutes after we’ve reached a certain number! It makes the writing go much faster; some of the most productive writing days I’ve ever done have happened this way.
How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
I’ve written 10 novels, and I’m in the middle of writing two more. My favorites are The Natural Order, Beauty’s Songbook (a Beauty and the Beast retelling), and The Fall of Lostport (which I’m halfway through at the moment). I love them each for different reasons. The Natural Order is a favorite because the characters are so vivid to me, and I know every one of their backstories and futures. Beauty’s Songbook I love because of the setting and the fairy-tale atmosphere. And The Fall of Lostport is my most ambitious novel yet, set in the fantasy world I’ve spent years creating.
When did you write your first book, and how old were you?
I started my first novel-length story in middle school, though all the way from third grade my teachers and classmates were jokingly calling the long stories I wrote in class “novels.” That first novel took three years and three notebooks to write, entirely by hand, and it ended up at 120,000 words. I have yet to write a longer novel.
What does your writing schedule look like? Consistent or sporadic?
I’m not terribly consistent, though I am good at keeping to the daily word-count goals during NaNoWriMo. When I’m working on a novel outside of November, I often have to go to a café to make space in my life for writing. Then I can put in a good couple hours, rack up two thousand words, and head home inspired to do more. I try to do that at least once a week, though it’s often hard to find time for it.
What environment do you write in?
When I’m writing at home, I have to be listening to music (either I’ll play my story’s theme song, or I’ll search “epic writing music” to find an appropriate mix), and I often have to disconnect the internet. I’m very bad with distractions. But when I’m at a café, I can completely tune out any distractions and write for hours. There’s something magical about writing at a café!
Do you work with an outline, or just write?
I’ve done both, with varying success. I’ve jumped into a few NaNoWriMo novels with no outline whatsoever, just a vague idea of where the plot needs to go (I started Millennium Rail, a futuristic dystopian story set in Japan, with nothing more than the image of the flooded railway tracks from Spirited Away…).
I’ve also outlined extensively. Beauty’s Songbook is a story told in five parts, with five characters narrating and five chapters (plus a prelude and postlude) in each part. I had every single chapter planned out before I started—which character was narrating, what would happen, and how the overall story arc was proceeding. Beauty’s Songbook is one of my favorites, but when I was writing it, I got bored about 2/3 of the way through because I knew exactly what was going to happen.
With most of my novels, I use a combination of the two. I jump in with no outline and a general idea of where the plot is going, and then partway through I run out of all the ideas I had from the outset, start panicking, do a frantic brainstorm session, and come up with the perfect outline for the rest of the plot. Then I make myself a bulleted list of events that will happen in the course of the book, which are highly subject to change as I write, though they keep me from having another moment of panic when I discover I have no more plot left to write.
Do your characters ever run away from you and change the plot without your permission, or do you have to force them to do everything?
Usually the former. I’ve had several stories where the book has changed significantly while I’ve been writing it simply because a character won’t obey the character profile I’ve written, or they start making decisions that don’t fit within the original plot. It can make for a mess, but that’s part of the fun of writing! It means the characters have become real for you.
THE WRITERIs there any particular author or book that influenced you while growing up?
More than one! I was an incredibly voracious reader as a kid, and I devoured—and sought to emulate—every book I read. One time I was reading a book where the main character isn’t allowed to talk for years on end (Daughter of the Forest, a beautiful book by Juliette Marillier), and each time I put it down I had to remind myself that I was actually allowed to talk.
Ella Enchanted was certainly one of my all-time favorite books, as well as The Golden Compass. And I read Tamora Pierce’s Alanna more times than I can count. I love fairy tales, and I especially adore any novels that have managed to capture that same fairy-tale sense of magic and wonder.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Lots of things! I have more than enough hobbies to keep me busy. I love reading, crocheting, knitting, traveling (that’s how I first ended up in New Zealand), hiking, baking, and photography.
Do you have a day job as well?
Yes—I work as a chef at Town Tonic Café, in Christchurch, New Zealand. I never went to culinary school, but I’ve been working as a cook for several years now, since even writers have to eat! I love the work, though, and it’s been very rewarding.
Chocolate or vanilla?
Chocolate, hands down. Everything is better with chocolate!
THE BOOKWho is your favorite character in The Natural Order, and why?
Leila is definitely my favorite. She’s a bit like me (she likes cooking and telling stories), but she’s a lot more snarky and confrontational. She’s been hurt, and she thinks very poorly of herself, but she still gives everything she has to the people she cares for.
Who was your least favorite character? What made that individual unappealing?
Evvie. I originally started writing the book from her perspective, only to get bored within about three chapters. The worst part was that the beginning sounded exactly like the start of a story I’d written in middle school. It was embarrassing. Anyway, Tristan was supposed to be this dark, brooding character who fascinated and scared Evvie, but then I decided his perspective would be much more interesting. I switched then and there, and never regretted it. Evvie is interesting enough, but I still have a grudge against her.
What else did you edit out of The Natural Order?
I can’t even remember everything I’ve cut out! The book has gone through 9 drafts of revisions, and for the first five or so, things were drastically changing between each draft. First of all, after Evvie was cut from narrating, her initial scenes were gone. Then the story started right before the car crash where Tristan kills his brother, and eventually I cut that scene and the scenes of Tristan at Juvie, because they weren’t the right tone to lead into the story.
A few characters have been axed as well—originally the students were collected by someone named Professor Rowdy, who had a goatish face and a nervous tic. I can’t remember much more about him; clearly he wasn’t very important. And second, there was originally a mountaineer who stumbled across the Lair and fell in love with Evvie, but that later became *(spoiler alert!)* the twins Evvie cares for, since it heightened the tension between the teachers.
What was your favorite chapter or part to write, and why?
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for cozy scenes. I love getting into characters’ heads, so I adore spending time with them and seeing them interact in a comfortable, enjoyable scene. Part of it is because I often feel like I’m living the scenes as I write them, so I get great pleasure from living those moments. I loved writing the section set around Christmastime in The Natural Order, though I ended up cutting a lot of it to keep up the pace of the plot!
What can we expect from you in the future, with regard to this story and other current or future projects?
I’m working on the sequel, and plan to complete that during NaNoWriMo this year. I’m also halfway through a massive epic fantasy novel, The Fall of Lostport. Lostport is set in a world I’ve been developing for a long time now, so it’s wonderful to finally get a chance to spend time in it.
When is the next book in the series going to be released?
I’m aiming to release the second Natural Order book at the same time next year: June 2016!