I've turned my full attention back to this book, and have done a heavy rewrite of Chapter One, which helped me pound out who Midius is (in my mind at least.) You can see the effect your comments had. Here's the new version. As always, comments are welcome!
All, here's an experimental change I'm considering for the Theus chapters (and note the new Midius chapter at the bottom of the previous page.) I think this may soften the brutality somewhat, even though it's all still there. It will make for a drastic change in feel for the king as a character, but I'm very tempted to do this instead. Reactions?
NEW CHAPTER TWO BEGINNING
It’s a bad day to kill, Theusa thought. Too cloudy. A man should be able to see the sun when he dies, feel the warmth on his skin one last time.
She marched down the dusty path, crops to her right and left, guards behind her. The men of her personal guard wore woolen cloaks over bronze breastplates. Bronze. So expensive. What farming supplies could she have traded for instead of the valuable metal armor?
And yet, she really had no choice. The armor meant something. Strength. Power. She needed to show both.
Several of the soldiers pulled their cloaks tight against the morning’s spring chill. Theusa herself wore a woolen dress and shawl, the copper crown on her head the only real indication of her station. King. It had been twenty-some years since anyone had dared question her right to that title. In the open, at least.
Her breath puffed in front of her, and she pulled her shawl close. I’m getting old, she thought with annoyance.
Behind her towered the grand city state of Partinel, circled entirely--lake and all--by a rough stone wall reaching some fifteen feet high. The wall had been commissioned, then finished, by Yornes the grand, her father-in-law. She’d married his son, Didarion, in her twenty-third year of life.
Didarion been a short time later. That had been almost thirty years ago, now.
Old indeed, Theusa thought, passing out of the ring of crops. Partinel’s trune ring was one of the largest in the Cluster, but it still provided a relatively small area in which to grow food. They grew right up to the edge of the city wall in a full circle around the city. Running in a loop around them was a narrow, earthen road. Beyond that, a wide patch of carefully-watched and cultivated walnut trees ran around the city. Her people cut down one group of trees every year and planted a new patch. It was a good system, giving them both hardwood for trade and nuts for food. In the Cluster, no land could be wasted.
Because beyond the trees, the land became white. The walnuts stands marked the border, the edge of Partinel’s trune ring and the beginning of fainlands.
Theusa could see the fain forest through a patch of walnut saplings. She paused, looking out at the hostile, bleached landscape. Bone white trees, with colorless undergrowth twisting and creeping around the trunks. White leaves fluttered in the breeze, sometimes passing into the trune ring, dusted with a prickly white fungus.
Skullmoss, the herald of all fain life. Her soldiers and workers gathered the leaves anyway and burned them, though it wasn’t really nessissary. Though eating something fain--animal or plant--was deadly to a human, simple interaction with it was not. Besides, fain life, even the skullmoss, could not live inside of a trune ring.
That’s how it had always been. White trees beyond the border, trune life within. People could go out into the fainlands--there was no real danger, for skullmoss couldn’t corrupt a living creature. Some brave cities even used fain trees for lumber, though Theusa had never dared.
She shivered, turning away from the fain forest and turning to where a group of soldiers--with leather vests and skirts--stood guarding a few huddled people. The prisoners included one man, his wife, and two children. All knelt in the dirt, wearing linen smocks tied with sashes.
The father looked up as Theusa approached, and his eyes widened. Her reputation preceded her. The Bear of Partinel, some called her: a stocky, square-faced woman with graying hair. Theusa walked up to the kneeling father, then bent down on one knee, regarding the man.
The peasant had a face covered in dirt, but his sandaled feet were a dusty white. Skullmoss. Theusa avoided touching the dust, though it should be unable to infect anything within a trune ring. She studied the man for a time, reading the pain and fear in his face. He lowered his eyes beneath the scruitiny.
“Everyone has a place, young man,” she finally said.
The outsider glanced back up.
“The people of this city,” Theusa continued, “they belong here. They work these crops, hauling water from the stormsea to the troughs. Their fathers bled to build and defend that wall. They were born here. They will die here. They are mine.”
“I can work, lady,” the man whispered. “I can grow food, build walls, and fight.”
Theusa shook her head. “That’s not your place, I’m afraid. Our men wait upon drawn lots for the right to work the fields and gain a little extra for their families. There is no room for you. You know this.”
“Please,” the man said. He tried to move forward, but one of the soldiers had his hand on the man’s shoulder, holding him down.
Theusa stood. Jend, faithful as always, waited at the head of her soldiers. He handed Theusa a small sack. She judged the weight, feeling the kernels of grain through the canvas, then tossed it to the ground before the outsider. The man looked confused.
“Take it,” Theusa said. “Go find a spot of ground that the fainlands have relinquished, try to live there as a chance cropper.”
“The moss is everywhere lately,” the man said. “If clearings open up, they are gone before the next season begins.”
“Then boil the grain and use it to sustain you as you find your way to Rens,” Theusa said. “They take in outsiders. I don’t care. Just take the sack and go.”
The man reached out a careful hand, accepting the grain. His family watched, silent, yet obviously confused. This was the Bear of Partinel? A woman who would give free grain to those who tried to sneak into her city? What of the rumors?
“Thank you, lady,” the man whispered.
Theusa nodded, then looked to Jend. “Kill the woman.”
“Wha--” the outsider got halfway through the word before Jend unsheathed his bronze gladius and rammed it into the stomach of the kneeling outsider woman. She gasped in shock, and her husband screamed, trying to get to her. The guards held him firmly as Jend pulled the sword free, then he cut at the woman’s neck. The weapon got lodged in the vertebrae, and it took him three hacks to get the head free. Even so, the execution was over in just a few heartbeats.
The outsider continued to scream. Theusa stooped down again--just out of the man’s reach--blood trickling across the packed earth in front of her. One of the guards slapped the outsider, interrupting his yells.
“I am sorry to do this,” Theusa said. “Though I doubt you care how I feel. You must understand, however. Everyone has a place. The people of this city, they are mine--and my place is to look after them.”
The outsider hissed curses at her. His children--the boy a young teen, the girl perhaps a few years younger--were sobbing at the sight of their mother’s death.
“You knew the penalty for trying to sneak into my city,” Theusa said softly. “Everyone does. Try it again, and my men will find the rest of your family--wherever you’ve left them--and kill them.”
Then, she stood, leaving the screaming peasant behind to yell himself ragged. Theusa’s personal guards moved behind her as she returned to the corridor through the wheat, Jend cleaning his gladius and sheathing it. Over the tops of the green spring plants, Theusa could see a man waiting for her before the city.
(Edit, cleaned up language.)
Thanks for the comments, folks. A new version has been uploaded, mostly making minor tweaks as suggested by db. Some good points, and the prose needed streamlining.
For some reason, this just feels less brutal to me. Theusa's language is softer than Theus's had been, and I think more reasonable. Still brutal, yet somehow it works better for me. That might just be because I've seen (and written) too many characters that feel like Theus, and changing the character to a female (who's a bit older, and who is arguably the legitimate ruler of the city) makes them feel a lot more exciting to write.
Gruff, Gritty, Male solder king: Feels overdone.
Gruff, gritty, grandmother king: Not so much.
I know it's more about how well the character is done, and less about whether it's been done before or not. However, excitement on my part seems to make for a better story over-all. So, I'm wondering if this character will be more exciting for me this way, or just much more trouble. (I'll have to think of what to do for the next Theus chapter, for instance. I really liked the fight there, and I can't really put Theusa in the same role.)
There are, unfortunately, reasons why I have to start the book where I did. I can't get into it without major spoilers. You are perfectly right about this chapter lacking a hook, which is why I decided from the get-go that I'd need to start with a scene from the middle of the book, then jump back.
So, this chapter should be considered the SECOND, and not the one that introduces Midius's character.
My goal is to try some new things with this book. Who knows if it will work, but they will present narrative challenges for me, because even when we flash back, we're starting in the middle of a story, with Hoid already dead.
I'll admit, I'm really torn on this one. I can't quite decide which way to go. The thing is, I've been thinking about the characters so much that they're both--Theus and Theusa--now formed in my head. I know their motivations and their feelings, but I can only use one of them.
With Theus I gain the ability to have he, himself fight. I can show him with his family, which could really round out his character. Yet, I worry that he's too similar to other characters I've written. (Cett and Straff both come to mind from the Mistborn trilogy, though neither of them are as rounded, as well as Iadon from Elantris. I've done a lot of brutal rulers.)
With Thesua, I lose the two things I mentioned above. I couldn't soften her by showing a spouse and children, and while she'd still have a daughter, I don't see the child being as much of an influence on reader opinion. And, there would be less action in the book by a slight amount as Theusa will not be a warrior, and will have to rely on Jend to do her combat.
However, I gain a tad of originality. (How many tyrant grandmother city-state rulers are there in fiction? Have to be fewer than men like Theus.) I also gain some subtlety--Theusa's rule would be much more tenuous, because of her gender, and there would be a lot of politics working against her.
Both would play off of Yunmi very well, if for different reasons. Midius's interactions lean slightly toward me liking Theus, but not a huge amount.
I keep going back and forth on this one. So, I'll put off the decision until tomorrow and write a Yunmi chapter instead. Huzzah!
After much playing with the plot and wrangling, I've decided to go with the male version of the character. The new Midius chapter is here to stay, however.
I'll just have to do the old grandma tyrant king in some other book.