by Jo King (@JoKingWriter)
Editor: Bethany Hensel (@bethanyhensel13)
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The fairy-tale twist of Ash and Bramble meets the satire of The Princess Bride in DISTRESSED: HOW A DAMSEL GOT REALLY GOOD AT ESCAPING, a 100,000 word comedic, young adult fantasy novel featuring #ownvoice asexual and non-binary representation and a diverse cast. I personally identify as asexual, pan-romantic, and non-binary.
CHARLIE EVERS is asexual...she’s also magically bestowed the Title of ‘Damsel’ and expected to go on some epic tale of romantic adventure with a Hero. Needless to say, Charlie isn’t thrilled about the idea and refuses to choose a suitable suitor. At the ripe-old-age of eighteen, Charlie’s family assumes she’s past her expiration date and she will someday become one of The Broken–those who never fit into a tale and disappear forever. In a final effort, Charlie attends a ball where she (un)fortunately gets swept away by a dashing Hero-prince who throws her on his valiant steed and rides off with her into the sunset and onto a sea vessel. There, with wind forever blowing his hair, and moonlight forever gleaming upon his abs, Charlie realizes the truth of her destined adventure: it’s a swashbuckling romance.
Not wanting to give in to the pushing poking prods of her prince, Charlie keeps her distance from the Hero. But every step she takes away from him brings her closer to becoming one of The Broken. When she finally refuses to part-take in True Love’s First Kiss, her story breaks and tragedy unfolds. Her Hero is killed, and Charlie is banished to the island of The Broken.
At first, the island seems beautiful. But the longer Charlie stays, the more she discovers the truth behind the island: it’s nothing but a biased monster’s prison for those who don’t fit the traditional ideals of their titles. There, Charlie partners up with other Broken adventurers–a talking songbird with lackluster guidance skills, a transgender fairy-tale prince afraid to take his throne, and a siren whose spells of lust can’t affect her–and together they must uncover all the island’s secrets, or watch every unique Hero turn evil at the hands of the monster...including her own brother.
DISTRESSED is a RevPit 2020 winner. In my free time, I enjoy writing experimental works of fiction for online platforms such as Wattpad, where I run one of the most active writer support communities on the forums. I also love sensitivity reading for marginalized voices I represent and fundraising for charities that support underrepresented voices in all art forms.
First Five Pages
A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS
Not even the crisp breeze of the springtime air, the lively nature of whimsical quartet music, or the distant laughter of local citizens enjoying yet another Pennwood Kingdom celebration could ruin the taste of a traditional crescentfruit pastry for Charlie Evers. The buttery scent broke through the scenic romanticism Charlie secretly despised and gave her something familiar and actually desirable to focus on. What could ruin the taste of a traditional crescentfruit pastry for her was seeing it smeared across the hungry lips of The Hero Asael, who sat entirely too close to her. Together, on the stone wall of Chamberlain, they gazed over the cloudless skies and rippling fields of the farmland.
“The breeze. The grass. The sunlight. This would be such a wonderful setting to begin a story, would it not?” Asael beamed with joy, revealing the sticky filling smeared across his gums.
Charlie hid her twitching eye by forcing her gaze away from the mess between his teeth. “Indeed, it would.”
No one had the ability to choose their story’s beginning. If Charlie could, she wouldn’t start it while she sat on a wall in a field with this Hero, as perfect as it may’ve seemed. She smiled as she took the daintiest bite from the pastry she could've eaten whole under more ideal circumstances. The flakey crust and fruity center almost made everything okay.
Asael sucked the filling between his teeth. Almost.
The tension looming between Charlie and Asael glowed more obvious than a star in a cold winter’s night sky, though it lacked the brilliance. Everything, from the subtle breeze swaying her long brown hair adorned with white pixie-lilies to the typical farm-smell of Chamberlain now hidden by the sweet scent of poppies, hinted at where this moment would lead. She groaned internally as Asael not-subtly shifted a few centimeters closer until their dangling knees practically touched.
“Though, I question why you do not want to attend the festivities in town,” he said, with ulterior motive lurking behind his prodding. Eck. All his words lacked was a wink.
The music and laughter from the celebration afar tore through her head like a curdling banshee's scream. She didn’t necessarily want to be alone with this Hero, but she also didn’t want to deal with that nonsense. For once she’d like to enjoy some of the delicious Pennwood party pastries without a new Hero-nuisance tossed at her, or without everyone poking her about when she’d choose one for good, and finally leave on a quest to bring recognition to their sad little farm town.
“A celebration like this might be fun for a great warrior like Asael Stormshield. We simple Chamber-folks have at least five celebrations each month. They get rather boring.” An oversimplification, to say the least. Oversimplification was a Charlie Evers specialty.
Asael’s fruit-flavored grin widened across his pale, handsome face and a glint shone in his eyes, as if he knew something she didn’t. Charlie tensed as his hand grazed her jaw. “If you wanted to be alone with me, all you had to do was ask.”
Oh, for the love of the moon. Charlie could never stop the conversation from landing right here. Every single time. Not even the delectable dessert couldn’t save her now.
The sugar-powdered fingers of Asael’s Heroic hand wrapped around Charlie’s neck and pulled closer, going in for the moment that always reminded Charlie how much she hated the fact that she was a Titled Damsel in the land of Relme.
Each time a Hero got here, Charlie experienced the collective regret from a decade of previous romantic occurrences. And each time a Hero got here, Charlie had to break their heart with the same demeaning excuse for why she didn’t feel the same way–the excuse which came to light with the first Hero she ever met.
It’d been only a single year after Charlie learned of her Damsel fate, but her mother wasted no time hunting down potential Hero candidates. Luckily, young Hero Ashver never actually tried to kiss Charlie. He did offer her the stone of Almanrul which would have marked her with a seal of dedication that forced them together until they married under the light of the fifth sun. Even at seven years old, Charlie knew to tuck and run from something that bizarre.
She recalled what her mother said the day an oracle magically carved the mark of a Damsel into her flesh: “Remember, a Damsel’s needs matter only in the context of a Hero’s story.”
With that in her mind, little Charlie handed the stone back to Ashver and said with polite kindness in her eyes, “I’m sorry. I’m simply not the right Damsel for your story.”
On that day the line was born that plagued Charlie for years to come. If she had to be a Titled Damsel under the watchful eye of Relme’s Great Overseer, she had to obey the rules.
At the age twelve, Charlie met the first Hero who kissed her.
Kattrina was a year older and hailed from the Academy District. Charlie loved to learn, and attending a magical academy was the dream for any young Damsel. But when Charlie experienced her first kiss, she realized something all too important: she didn’t really like it.
It had nothing to do with the Hero; she was lovely. Charlie knew the issue stemmed from within herself. The innocent kiss in the academy tower weakened Charlie’s confidence in her ability to adhere to The Overseer’s rules. The day after, with confusion in her heart, Charlie told Kattrina the line: “I’m simply not the right Damsel for your story.”
A lie, for it was clearly more than ‘simply’ anything.
Age fifteen hit, and Charlie met both Lance and Lukkas from the Dystopian Lands.
They fought over her for some time, and both swore they’d marry her someday. She hardly knew them by the time they’d taken swords to each other in battle for her hand, and she certainly hadn’t given them a reason to die for her. The magic in the Titles they all possessed created this overdramatized romance, and Charlie couldn’t live with the responsibility.
To end it before one died for the intense, physical desires she could never feel for either of them, she repeated, “I’m simply not the right Damsel for your story.”
At seventeen, the pressure hit.
Charlie’s parents threw her at every Hero willing to give her a second glance. Men, women, those who were neither, beings of magic, and those without, she got tossed at them all.
Charlie even let a few Heroes pursue her further than gentle kisses in the moonlight, hoping things would improve. When she could pretend no further, she responded with the answer she’d learned was a cover for something more complex, but she never wanted to admit: “I’m simply not the right Damsel for your story.”
Then her eighteenth birthday hit, and her parents practically gave up on her. Because what Damsel started their adventure at the age of eighteen?
“You’re too old. If you were not right for any of those Heroes’ stories, then you are right for no story at all,” her father told her in lieu of a birthday celebration. Charlie knew the truth, and it wasn’t that she didn’t fit into any of those stories but rather that no story existed in the land of Relme which fit her.
As Asael Stormshield leaned in for Charlie’s first kiss at the taboo age of eighteen, with pastry between his teeth, that same phrase haunted her mind and stained it with the embarrassment of her past and the lying silence within. He tilted his head, pulling her closer until their lips locked in the kiss that once again left her wondering why all the story books made it out to be so magical.
It wasn’t magical. Not to Charlie. Not in any of the times she found herself right here. Not even after the facades and games she’d been forced to play. No amount of crisp breezy air, distant laughter, decorative-hair pieces, or sweet smells of poppy flowers could trick Charlie into feeling a damn thing more than awkwardness, boredom, and the thought of how crescentfruit pastries didn’t taste as great when already stuck to someone else’s teeth.
When Asael pulled away, smiling with the slighted flush upon his pale cheeks, Charlie sucked her teeth and tried to force a smile, wondering how long was appropriate to wait before wiping her lips on the cuff of her shirt with sleeves too long for spring.
Asael caught sight of Charlie’s lackluster expression. “I’m sorry. Did I do it wrong?”
Charlie revved up to lie the same lie she’d lied for all her lying years, “No Asael, it’s that I...I’m simply not–” She couldn’t lie. After eighteen years, she’d exhausted all her lies. She had no lie left to offer him.
This time, the truth spilled out instead, “–interested in this kind of romantic affair.”