My current novel, "Piper's Song," has gone through at least five major revisions since I wrapped up the first draft and even more smaller ones. I've played with characterization, tone, pacing, and plot detail, and rewritten the opening scene more times than I could count. What that means for you is that the most recent version of the opening chapter I posted (which you can find right here) is considerably different than the final version of the chapter posted below. Comparing the two offers a sense of just how much a story can change from the first draft to the final, while still essentially remaining the same story.
Chapter 1: A Little Night Music
When you had an army of rats following you, people generally liked you better when you were walking away.
This was especially true when they weren’t your rats to begin with. Though Jess had gathered a few gawkers back in town, the houses out here at the edge were mostly shut up tight. She could only make out a few windows glowing in the rapidly fading light, the silhouettes of onlookers briefly appearing in each one as she passed by. Jess was never sure whether they were watching her or the rats, trickling out of the cracks in the houses and barns to join the army of them trailing behind her.
That didn't seem to be a question with the little boy standing by the side of the road, watching the rats with the kind of rapt fascination she hardly ever saw from anyone over the age of 12. She took one hand off the pipe long enough to wave at him, the song turning into random notes for a moment, but the kid didn't seem to care as he waved delightedly back. The rats didn't care either, pulled along by the magic Jess infused into every note.
The boy waved back enthusiastically, but not for long. His mother burst out of a doorway, hurrying over and snatching the child up as if he'd been about to follow the rats. The woman gave Jess her fiercest glare, as if hoping she could wither her on the spot.
It was hardly the worst look Jess had ever received, though she doubted the woman would appreciate the sentiment. That would also require her to stop playing the pipe, which would leave the aforementioned army of rats free to scatter and completely screw up any opportunity of her getting paid at the end of this. Telling rude people off could be deeply satisfying, but so was eating regularly.
Instead, Jess resigned herself to the most dramatic wink she could manage. The woman huffed, clearly displeased by the response, but her expression shifted away from murder and closer to “I'm going to send a strongly-worded letter to your supervisor.” Since Jess didn’t actually have a supervisor, she found that option infinitely preferable.
The woman turned to stalk back into the house, the little boy giving Jess one final wave over his mother's shoulder. Jess turned around, walking backwards for a moment so she could wave back at him.
That was the last interesting thing to happen before she made it to the empty field that marked the end of her journey. Or, more specifically, the flaming trench on the opposite side of the field. A man stood on one end of the trench, making sure the flames stayed high, but Jess’s target was the wooden bridge stretched across the middle. She’d checked beforehand to make sure they’d embedded it with the usual fire protection charm, the only thing keeping it from going up in flames along with the rest of the fuel.
(She had forgotten to check only once, a mistake that had ended up working out surprisingly well for her in the long run. Still, only an idiot expected something like that twice.)
Nodding at the man stationed at one end of the trench, she stepped fully onto the bridge and kept walking. She turned around while she was halfway across, using her foot to sweep the rats off the sides of the bridge and into the fire. They died silently, thankfully, but sometimes she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at what was happening.
When the last rat had finally tumbled over the edge of the bridge, Jess stopped playing as the man approached her. “That should do it,” she told him, flashing her best salesman’s smile as she stepped off the bridge completely. “I’ll stay long enough to make sure the fire goes out completely, so as soon as I get the rest of my payment you can go home and get to bed.”
He hesitated, looking back out into the darkness with a nervous expression. He was pale enough to have a desk job someplace, hair thinning and coat far too heavy for the relatively mild weather. “You sure that’s all of them?”
Temper rose up, stung by the implication, but she throttled it back. Keeping her smile firmly in place, she held out her hand for her payment. “If there’s a rat left in the entire town, I can promise you they’re completely deaf.” Then he shot her a skeptical look, and temper slipped past good sense to get a jab in. “Though if we don’t get this settled soon, I’m sure I can find more somewhere and bring them in.”
He narrowed his eyes at her briefly, as if he’d just processed who was speaking to him with such disrespect. Her golden brown skin was usually close enough to a farmer’s tan for people not to question it, but her black hair was just a little too dark to completely pass as a local in the more rural parts of the kingdom. Since that was also where the money was, she did what she could do adapt. She kept her hair short, told people she was a solid three or four years older than the 18 years she’d actually been alive, and knew how to use the knife she kept in her boot. She might not ever be one of them, but they were absolutely going to take her seriously.
She held the man’s gaze, careful not to show any hesitation or weakness. After a few beats of silence, his eyes dropped away from hers. He reached into his pocket, handing her the envelope of money with barely disguised reluctance. “I’ll let the mayor know we got everything wrapped up,” he grumbled, turning to leave.
Jess counted the money by the light of the fire, pleased to see it was all there just as promised. Money always did do wonders for soothing her temper. “Pleasure doing business with you!” she called out brightly, looking up in time to see him wave a hand vaguely behind him in acknowledgment.
As he walked off into the distance, she put her pipe back into the case strapped to her chest and tucked the money safely away underneath. “I still don’t know how you can stand waiting for me, T,” she told the empty air around her. “I’ve only been here a few minutes and I’m already bored stiff.”
A figure suddenly appeared out of the empty space, wearing a black cloak with the hood pulled up over his head. If you looked inside, you would only see an endless blackness designed to make you contemplate eternity and your own mortality.
The effect was immediately ruined when the figure spoke. “Why do you think I always bring a book?” he asked, sounding suspiciously like a teenage boy only slightly younger than Jess herself was. He pulled a book out from underneath his armpit, tucking it back into one of the cloak’s many pockets. “There’s not enough light to do it out here, but in Reaper mode I can see just fine.”
Jess made sure to stop what she was doing so she could watch. She was one of the few people out there who got to appreciate the comedic value of an eldritch-looking horror being domestic, and she tried not to miss any opportunity to do so. “Remind me again why they bothered making the Reaper uniforms so creepy-looking?” she asked. “You said it’s against company rules for Reapers to let the public see them when they’re on the job. And when you’re in Reaper mode, they literally can’t.”
The eldritch horror, otherwise known as a perfectly average human named Thomas, sighed. “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to ask Management that question?” He pushed the hood back, dispelling the magic and revealing dark, close-cropped hair and warm brown skin burnished by the firelight. His wire-rimmed glasses were slightly crooked again, and the mere sight of him was enough to unknot something inside Jess’s chest. “All of them look at me like it’s the weirdest question they’ve ever heard.”
Jess shook her head in sympathy, bending back to her work so she wouldn’t think about how badly her fingers itched to fix his glasses. “Your bosses need to get out more.”
“That’s probably true.” Even though she wasn’t looking up, she could still hear the smile in his voice. “But since I would get into so much trouble if they knew you had any idea they existed, I’m not going to tell them you said that.”
She looked up, not able to stop herself from smiling at him. “But what a spectacular way to quit, hmm?”
Thomas made an amused sound, then his expression shifted as a thought occurred to him. “Oh, that reminds me.” He pulled out his pocket-sized magic mirror, handing it to her. “I should probably get to work, but you got a mirror message while you were on your walk.”
Jess winced at the reminder, taking the mirror from him as she straightened. “I swear I keep meaning to get a new one,” she said. “It’s not fair for me to keep using your work mirror for my work messages.”
Thomas shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I like being able to help you when you need it.” He smiled a little, calling up a rush of warmth in Jess’s chest, and reached for the I.D. hanging around his neck. Then he hesitated. “You want to skip following me around tonight, so you can focus on the message?”
He always asked her that, in one form or another, even though she’d never once taken him up on the offer. “What, and miss your rundown on whatever town it’s from?” Opening the message with one hand, she laid the other hand on his shoulder. If she let go of him, she’d immediately get dumped back into the regular world and Thomas would end up invisible again. “Seriously, if you ever want to quit being a Reaper I’m sure someone would hire you as a tour guide.”
Thomas made a rueful noise. “Only someone who was really interested in hearing an itemized history of the local plant life.” Then he slapped the flat of his hand against the I.D. hanging against his chest, and both the darkness and the fire disappeared in a rush of gray. The only spots of color left in the world were her, Thomas, and the cool blue light of the rats' discarded life energy floating in small clouds within the flames. Everyone's life energy stuck around like that after they died, according to Thomas, and when left alone it usually disappeared after about a week. Since life energy was an easy power boost for magic users with a more flexible view of ethics, however, hardly anyone left it alone.
Which was where Reapers came in.
Thomas's hand curled like he was holding a staff, murmuring a word that Jess could never quite catch. An instant later, a glowing, translucent scythe made of energy appeared in his hand. Jess watched him adjust his grip, remembering the explanation he'd given her once as to how the scythe had probably been made. She asked him questions about it sometimes, just to get him talking.
Tonight, though, she was content to just watch him carefully swing the tip of his scythe through each one of those small clouds of blue light. This sliced through the energy’s tie to this plane of existence – yes, Thomas had explained all of this to her, too – letting it disappear with a flash to somewhere beyond the reach of evil sorcerers. Technically, Thomas could use it to clean up any kind of energy, but he’d been officially assigned to focus on rats and mice.
Since that was how she and Thomas had met, Jess appreciated the assignment.
Still, she should probably focus on her job rather than his. Tearing her attention away from the reaping, she activated the mirror message from the potential client. When the smoke swirling on the other side of the glass cleared, the sender turned out to be an exhausted middle-aged man. He had the lingering trace of a farmer’s tan, despite the suit, and an expression that suggested he worked out a lot of stress by hitting people in his imagination. “Miss Tremeau, my name is Arthur Perkins. I’m the mayor of Kensford, a bustling, prosperous town that boasts—” He stopped, closing his eyes a moment. “But you don’t care about that.”
“If it’s the Kensford I’m thinking of,” Thomas cut in absently, his attention still focused on his work. “It’s only about a day’s ride from Hammelin.”
Knowing he wouldn’t have said anything if it wasn’t important, Jess briefly stilled the mirror message and wracked her brain trying to remember why Hammelin was relevant. “Wait, is that the city you said the witches were talking about? The one that’s been impossible to communicate with for the last day or two?”
Thomas nodded. “That’s the rumors they’ve been hearing, but no one’s worried enough to actually go investigate yet. It’s possible the city’s magical network is just down for the moment, but if nothing’s changed in a week they’re planning on sending an official society representative.”
Jess smiled a little. “Are they still trying to get you named an honorary witch so they can make you a member?”
Thomas’s sigh was both affectionate and long-suffering as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Yes, and I don’t know why. Just because I’m really good at identifying different herbs and have a few work-approved spells stored in my I.D., that doesn’t make me an actual witch.”
Jess squeezed his shoulder. “The rest of us don’t care so much about accuracy, T. They probably just want to say thank you for having to listen to all their stories 500 times.”
Thomas shook his head, turning his attention back to the rats’ energy. “If they want to say thank you,” he muttered, “they should send me some of their reference books.”
Jess activated the mirror message again, the frozen image of Mayor Perkins springing back to life. He cleared his throat. “We’ve talked to the leaders of some of the other cities and towns who you’ve done jobs for, and they all say you’re the most thorough piper they’ve ever worked with.” She had just long enough to feel a glow of pride before he ruined it by continuing. “We had to research a little more thoroughly than we usually do pipers, since we heard your name in an unusual way. We put up our usual posting for a piper, and a man named Crispin St. Clair responded. His—”
Alarm spiking, she jammed a finger down to still the mirror message again. Thomas suddenly stopped, looking back over his shoulder. “Did he just say—”
Jess’s jaw tightened. “Unfortunately, he did.” She hesitated, thumb hovering over the trigger that would delete the message.
After that hesitation had gone on a beat too long, Thomas turned to look at her again. “You might as well finish it,” he said gently. “If not, you know you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering what the rest of it said.”
Something inside Jess stilled at the painfully accurate assessment, which he’d made without even looking at her. It had been a long time since someone had been able to read her that easily.
Thomas gave her an amused look, like he knew exactly what she was thinking. “You forget, I was there when you officially declared Crispin your mortal enemy.”
Jess winced as the memory hit, embarrassing enough to wash away the vaguely unsettled feeling. “Rule for the future,” she muttered. “Never monologue when you haven’t slept for a few days.” Taking a deep breath – Thomas was right, it would drive her crazy not knowing – she restarted the message. “—reputation is such that nearby towns had already warned us against him, so we rejected his offer even though we were desperate. When we did, he began ranting about how you had somehow arranged the situation by spreading lies about him. Since putting up a general posting had proven so unsuccessful, we decided to research your name in the hopes that it would speed things.”
She stopped the message completely, far more tempted than she knew she should be. The idea of getting one over on Crispin and getting paid… “We’d still be far enough away from Hammelin, right?”
Thomas smiled a little as he turned his attention back to the reaping. “Far enough.”
“And think about it this way,” she wheedled, “it sounds like there are enough rats you’ll make your quota for the entire month with one job.”
“I always make my quota now that I follow you around.” The lightness in his voice was as much a ‘yes’ as if he’d said the word. “Let me finish up here. Then we’ll get a few hours of sleep and set out for Kensford in the morning.”
Jess grinned. “I’m sure the rats will be excited to see us.” Then, after sending a quick return message accepting the job, she slipped the magic mirror into her pocket and went back to watching Thomas work.
Two days of hitching rides on various wagons and carts later, they arrived in Kensford. They stashed their things in a quiet stable near the edge of town, and after a quick change into a more impressive outfit they headed to the Mayor’s Office.
Before they went inside, Thomas lightly touched her arm. “Want me to go invisible?” he asked quietly. “I know they already gave you the job, but that doesn’t mean you want me in the way when you’re dealing with clients.”
The hesitancy in his voice made her turn to look at him. He’d hunched his shoulders slightly, just like he always did whenever he apologized for explaining something too thoroughly or basically being himself. Every time she saw it, Jess gave serious thought to tracking down the people who ran the Abernathy Home for Orphans and punching them in the face.
Instead, she grinned at him. “Not a chance, my friend. Today, I’m going to show you how to make an entrance.”
Slowly, his expression relaxed. “How about I just watch you make the entrance and take notes for later?” he asked, lips curving upward a little.
Recognizing her cue, Jess gave the appropriate dramatic sigh. “One day I’ll teach you the joy of the spotlight, T.”
His smile widened as he came back with his usual response. “But that day is not today.”
They announced themselves to the woman behind the front desk, who ushered them with gratifying speed back to Mayor Perkins’ office. Unfortunately, the office also included a sour-faced man with a beautifully tailored suit and a face like a lump of bread dough. He started speaking the moment they were announced, cutting the front-desk woman off before she’d even reached the end of the explanation. “Not so fast, Miss Tremeau,” he said, glowering at Jess. “The rest of the council chose to hire you while I was out of town on business. They’re all clearly prone to panic, but I’m not about to let myself get conned the same way they have.”
Jess bristled at the word “conned,” but held her silence for the moment. Mayor Perkins sighed, looking like a man in urgent need of a nap. “Edward, the city is in crisis. I know the situation hit suddenly, but the people are desper—”
“The people need to learn some self-sufficiency,” the man – Edward, apparently – snapped. “Now, Miss Tremeau. I know the previous cities you’ve worked with have spoken well of you, but I’m sure there if we actually take some time to examine the situation there are other, more experienced pipers out there who have been more thoroughly validated. If more people had kept an eye on sirens a century ago, I’m sure they wouldn’t have become the problem that they did.”
“Really, Edward, a comparison like that is just pure slander. Do you really want it to get—”
Unsurprisingly, Eddie continued ignoring him. “This is nothing more than fear-induced impulsiveness. I’m sure if I speak to them, the council will agree that—”
No, this wasn’t going to be at all useful. She glanced over at Thomas, wondering if he was going to try and be the voice of reason. Instead, he was busy glaring daggers at Eddie, intense enough in his dislike that he didn’t even notice Jess looking.
Well, that was a go-ahead if she’d ever seen one.
Pulling out her pipe while the mayor and Eddie were busy arguing, she called her power up into her throat and started into a simple children’s song. By the time she’d gotten three notes in, she could hear the click of rat claws in the corridor outside.
Smirking to herself, she walked over to stand at Eddie’s side. He shifted his glare to her. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, girl, but—”
Before he could finish the thought, four rats surged into the office. Jess stepped slightly behind the council member, and though he moved away quickly he was still between her and the rats. They went straight up his legs, prepared to go over whatever or whoever they had to in order to get to the music.
The esteemed council member’s shriek was loud enough to drown out the music.
Jess stopped playing, causing the newly released rats to scatter instantly. Eddie straightened his suit, shaking with offended dignity, and Jess shot him her best salesman’s smile. “It seems like you have a rat problem, Eddie. Are you sure you really want to wait?”
He lifted his chin, turning to the mayor. “Fine. I won’t argue anymore,” he snapped, then turned and stalked out of the room as if it had offended him personally. As he left, Thomas grinned and mouthed “nice job” at her.
Jess grinned back, feeling like she’d just played for a command audience as she turned to the mayor. “So, shall we?”
Things wrapped up fairly quickly after that. Mayor Perkins agreed to a healthy fee, but insisted she do the walk that evening in exchange. Jess sighed like she was making a serious concession instead of getting exactly what she wanted.
The streak of luck continued all the way to that evening, when she officially started her walk. A nice crowd had gathered, watching her with an eagerness that meant no one would give her funny looks or question her credentials. She even got a round of applause as the music started, which was always good for the ego.
Unfortunately, the luck lasted about half a block. The power flowing through her felt the same as it always did, but this time there were only a few rats following her. There should be at least 50 by this point, especially in cities with as big a rat problem as Kensford seemed to have, and the people lining the street would figure that out any moment now. No matter what the real reason was, they’d blame her for it.
She dug deep inside her chest, reaching for more magic to pour into the song. It resisted, far more effort than she was used to making on these walks, but frustration and embarrassment gave her the strength to yank it free. The power rushed through her like water through a burst dam, pouring into the song so suddenly that she stumbled a little.
It only took a few more steps before the rats started coming. She could hear the sound of their tiny claws on the cobblestones, flooding into the street the same way her power had into the song. She didn’t turn around, but she’d been doing this long enough that she couldn’t stop her brain from estimating the number from the sounds. One hundred… three hundred… five hundred….
She’d just used too much power, that was all. That was the reason they were coming so fast, pushing at her ankles with far more eagerness than she usually got from the rodents she called. This was just an overdose, a completely understandable error, and she’d make a note of this and never do it again.
But they kept coming. More and more rats found her with every step, the sound of them loud enough now to be heard over the music. The townspeople were growing increasingly unnerved, and it was getting harder and harder to pretend she wasn’t feeling the same way. Jess told herself she should turn around, get an accurate count, but she could never make herself do it.
As the audience thinned, fewer rats appeared out of the shadows to join her. When the cobblestones gave way to dirt roads, the sound from the rats claws was muffled enough to stop sending shivers up her spine. It was easier to calm herself down after that, reminding herself one more time that she’d just used too much power. The trench fires glowed in the distance, the rats were still moving along behind her like an obedient little army. She was almost—
The thought cut off as Thomas suddenly appeared in the middle of the empty field, hurrying toward her at a dead run.