The Singing War

Assalay - The Singing War

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Singing War is available in ebook and paperback formats from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com or order from your local bookshop.

Read the blurb and the first chapter here.

‘What if they’ve lied to us about everything?’

In the land of Assalay, the new year brings endless rain, hunger and the ravages of starving dragons. But the powerful families of the Fellowship enjoy a privileged life: secure inside their grand and luxurious houses and confident of their divine right to rule.

Even for Fellowship children, though, growing up has its problems. Now that he is of age, Leo Philemot must leave home for the year-long apprenticeship that all heirs to the Fellowship have to undertake, while his twin sister Rachel must stay at home and endure the stifling life of ladies’ drawing rooms and tea-parties. For both twins, the year brings a series of unexpected encounters and revelations that makes them question what they have been told about family and Fellowship – and opens their eyes to the realities of other people’s lives.

As flood, fire and famine worsen, Assalay is ready for rebellion, and opposition to the Fellowship is growing. In this gathering crisis, Leo and Rachel must make life or death choices between old and new loyalties and friendships: between what they have been taught and what they have learned.

Canfield Dragon Press

Chapter One: Iona’s Luck

Two bits of luck.

That didn’t often happen. Not in one day.

Not when you were a Fellowship family slave. When you spent your days with your eyes down, barely speaking, and then only to murmur, ‘Yes, my lady. No, my lady.’ When you slept in a cellar bedroom, with a window so small that the moons could hardly see through it to watch over you.

It had happened today, though.

This morning, Iona had driven with Lady Rachel to the Basilica. There was a ceremony taking place – a betrothal between the Demersal and Querimon families – and Iona was needed to tidy her ladyship’s hair and clothes before it started. During the long celebration, she waited in the carriage with the coachman.

It hadn’t felt like a lucky day then. A freezing horizontal rain drove across the square, dancing in puddles on the white marble pavement. It was dry in the carriage, but bitterly cold; and the coachman – a boy, really, only a few years older than Iona – was a show-off and a bore.

‘You’ve never been in Liberation Square before?’ he had asked, with a look of scornful disbelief.

‘No.’ She hardly knew Freehaven at all, though she had been a household slave in the city for four years.

‘So you don’t know what these buildings are?’ He had told her, in much more detail than she wanted. ‘The Senate-House, the Archive, the Court, and the Watch Office. Basilica, of course, and the Choir School…’ She drowsed, until a word caught her attention.

‘What did you say about the west?’

‘The Westgate,’ he corrected her. ‘That’s the road to the Westgate.’ He pointed along a wide avenue leading out of the square.

‘Where does the gate lead?’

‘Onto the Western Road, and that goes all the way to the sea.’

 

That was the first bit of luck. The second came later, when she was brushing Lady Rachel’s long red hair, unpinning, uncoiling, unplaiting; combing out the tangled knots. Her ladyship was fiddling with some pieces of jewellery on the dressing-table. When her hair was done, she pushed them into a pile and said, ‘Put these away. No, wait a moment. I don’t want this one.’ She picked up a bracelet – turquoise and gold, pretty, not especially precious – and offered it to Iona. ‘You can have it if you like.’

What in the name of moonshine am I supposed to do with that? thought Iona, but she murmured her thanks and slipped the bracelet that she would never, ever wear into her pocket. She finished tidying her ladyship’s rooms, and retreated to her own cellar bedroom. Not to sleep, yet: she had to mend an evening cloak that her ladyship had torn, climbing out of the tree-house.

She rubbed her eyes, and squinted at the green-blue silk spread out over her knees. It shimmered in the lantern-light. If she framed her face with her hands so that it was all she could see, she could almost imagine that it was a summer sea, glinting under a bright sun. If she closed her eyes she would imagine the sound of waves and wind…

Then she would taste the hot salt of tears, and there wasn’t time for that now. She rubbed her eyes again, and threaded her needle. As she sewed, her thoughts drifted like straws on the ocean. The day had brought more than most days did. A piece of knowledge, a piece of jewellery. They circled idly round one another in her head, brushed against one another, parted, touched again and fused into a new idea.

Two pieces of luck – those two pieces of luck – made a chance.

 

Early next morning, Iona let herself out of the kitchen door into the winter dawn. For a moment she hesitated, feeling the solid house at her back, and the unknown world before her, then she took a deep breath, hurried along the path, unlocked the side gate, and stepped out into freedom.

She set off along a road that ran between high white walls, but after a couple of turns she was lost in a labyrinth of exactly similar roads, snaking between the huge houses and gardens of High Side. She wandered hopelessly. Before long, she found herself at the side gate again – as if the streets had known that she was a runaway and had driven her back where she belonged.

For a moment she was tempted to go back in. Only you couldn’t just throw away luck like that. She took another breath of the rainy air, and turned away. This time the way fell into place before her, bringing her quickly to the broad road which ran down from High Side into the city. Freehaven lay spread out below her: the big Fellowship houses, the river and the bridge, the mazy town streets, and the huge open square. The white buildings were still in shadow, but the Basilica dome was catching the early light, shimmering silver behind the drizzle.

Iona hurried down the steep hill and onto the bridge. Halfway across she stopped to lean on the balustrade and look down at the river, running scarlet for Aquilon, Lord Teredo’s moon. She felt suddenly giddy: partly because of the fast swirl of the brightly coloured water through the arches, mostly because, for the first time in four years, she was her own mistress. She could do what she liked. She could linger here all morning if she wanted to.

But there was a journey to make. She straightened up and crossed the bridge and the square at a brisk walk. The broad road that the coachman had pointed out brought her to a fortified stone tower in the city wall. Its massive wooden gates were firmly shut.

The drizzle was becoming a steady rain, and Iona retreated into the porch of an inn to shelter. She should have asked that boring boy how often the gates were opened. Maybe they didn’t open every day. Maybe they only opened for Fellows…

‘Freezing, isn’t it? You waiting to go out?’

A woman had joined her under the porch.

‘They are going to open the gates, are they?’ Iona asked.

The woman laughed, rubbed her hands together and blew on them. ‘No point freezing here otherwise. You going far?’

‘The Marram Islands.’

‘The Marram Islands?’

‘It’s the right road, isn’t it?’ Iona asked.

‘Yes. Long way, though, and a hard journey at this time of year.’ The woman shivered.

A long, hard journey, but the right road. That was all that mattered. Iona waited. Morning strengthened above the city. At last, a single, deep-toned stroke sounded from the Basilica bell-tower and the heavy gates swung open. The woman gathered up her bundles, and crossed the road. Iona followed. Beyond the gateway, she could see flat countryside and the wide road, unrolling into the west. She could do this: she just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other, all the way to the sea.

The woman stepped into the archway, and a man in pale grey livery emerged from the shadows and stopped her.

‘Papers.’

The woman dug into her pocket, pulled out a folded, sealed parchment and handed it over. The guard studied it, gave it back, and waved the woman on; she stepped out of the dimness under the arch into the rain-drenched light beyond.

Iona backed away from the gate. She waited and watched as other travellers passed through. The guards asked everyone for papers, and everyone produced them: folded squares of sealed parchment from safe places in pockets or wallets or the bottom of bags.

She kept watching until the Basilica clock struck again. Then she turned away. What now? Could you buy papers? She had Lady Rachel’s bracelet: she hadn’t planned to sell it yet, but if that was the only way out… It was tucked into a pocket in her skirt and she clenched her hand round it as she walked back across the square.

‘I’d take your hand off your pocket, if I was you,’ said a soft voice. ‘Might as well be shouting you got something precious in there.’

She whipped round. A tall boy, rangy and thin, with dirty fair hair, was watching her. Just a street urchin, he stood before her as easy and confident as if he owned the whole city. He was grinning at her, bright-eyed, but then a gust of wind blew Iona’s hood back, and his grin died. He leaned towards her, tugged her hood over her head again, and touched his forefinger gently to the green-blue stud in her earlobe.

‘That’s the Philemot mark,’ he whispered. ‘You nicked something? You on the run?’

‘I can’t get out. I didn’t know about papers.’ To her shame and fury, Iona started to cry, hot tears mingling with the cold rain on her cheeks.

‘Shh… You don’t want people looking, chick.’ Putting his arm round her, the boy led her across the square and onto the riverside terrace. They walked upriver until they came to a flight of narrow slippery steps leading down to a stand of close-growing evergreen willows on the bank. The boy pulled aside the curtain of hanging leaves and ushered Iona into the green sheltered space between the trees. A little den – a cone of woven willow branches – stood there. They crawled inside and crouched on the wet ground. Iona stared out at the flimsy branches whipping in the rainy wind: the leaves were red-veined from the dyed river.

‘So,’ the boy said. ‘You’ve run away and you’re stuck in Freehaven. What next?’

‘I don’t know. Just go back, I suppose.’

‘Or I could help. There’s ways and means of getting out, and meantimes, I know a place that’s safe, and people that’ll look after you.’

If he’d only offered shelter, she’d have crept back to the Philemots. But if there was still a chance of feeling that long westerly road under her feet… ‘Alright,’ she said. ‘I’m Iona, by the way.’

He held out an elegant, dirty hand. ‘Jinx.’

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‘Morning, Rach. You’re not ready.’

Lord Leo Philemot leaned against his sister’s door. He smelt of the outdoors; his hair was full of rain and his clothes were damp and stained with green. Obviously, he had, as usual, spent the early morning up a tree, oblivious to everything except the movement of birds in the branches.

‘Well spotted, Leo. And you’re filthy.’ Rachel glared at him, fidgeting as one of Lady Philemot’s maids fastened the tiny, closely-set pearl buttons down the back of her dress.

Leo gave an unconcerned glance at his sleeve. ‘Least I’m dressed. Where’s Iona?’

‘Missing.’

Missing? Weird.’ He shrugged, came into the room, and stood in front of the fire to dry his clothes. Rain hammered on the stained-glass roof, casting a shifting green-blue light into the room; the swinging pendulum of Rachel’s mantelpiece clock flashed silver.

‘Your clock’s mended, then,’ Leo said.

‘Yes.’

‘You going to take it apart again?’

Rachel scowled. ‘Shut up, Leo.’ The maid fastened the last button, and Rachel broke free of her and hurried out of the room. Leo followed her downstairs to the household chapel. Lord and Lady Philemot had already taken their seats, and Rachel and Leo slipped into the back row as the household cantors began the sung prayer that marked the end of night. Rachel let the familiar words wash over her.

 

Great rulers of the skies who watch the night

Who guard us through the hours of dark and sleeping,

We bless your wisdom and your might,

Which gave us from the day this world saw light,

A Fellowship to rule us in your right,

To hold this land of Assalay in its keeping.

 

It was weird, Rachel thought: Iona going missing. When the morning prayers were ended and the family had taken their seats around the long silver table in the breakfast-room, she asked her mother, ‘Did Iona turn up?’

Lady Philemot shook her head. ‘It looks as if she’s run away. On the day we go to Mabberling, too… I don’t know who we’re to take for you, Rachel. Maybe we can borrow someone when we get there.’

Rachel pulled a face. All that boring fussing over hair and clothes. At least Iona had been skilful and quick-fingered. How annoying of her, to run away.

‘I’d rather have Iona.’ She looked hopefully at her father. ‘Might she have been found by now?’

‘Maybe. I could run down to the Watch and ask before we leave, if you like.’ Lord Philemot drummed his fingers on the table top. ‘I ought to, actually. To tell them to treat her mercifully if she’s caught.’

‘Mercifully?’ Rachel asked.

‘She’s committed a crime, Rachel. She belongs to us, so by running away she’s stolen herself. And stealing from the Fellowship is the worst sort of theft.’

‘Then you should definitely go, Septimus,’ said Lady Philemot.

‘I will. You and the children go ahead to the station, Cecilia. I’ll meet you there.’ He pushed back his chair and hurried from the room.

Rachel felt a twinge of queasiness. She’d given that bracelet to Iona yesterday, and today Iona had run. What if giving her the bracelet had encouraged her to go…? She swatted the thought away. It wasn’t her fault. She’d just been trying to be kind, and now Iona had abandoned her to being dressed by some strange maid who would probably take ages over the task.

Bother her.

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The Basilica bell sounded again and Jinx jumped to his feet. ‘Let’s go and find the folk who’ll take care of you.’ He led Iona back to the Square and up the wide steps of the Basilica, and swung open the door for her. She halted, panicked, on the threshold. This was all wrong. The Basilica was where the Fellowship worshipped, celebrating the earthly power that the moons had bestowed on them. To her frightened imagination the building before her looked soaked in blood: Lord Teredo’s scarlet banners hung along the nave, and scarlet light fell through the stained glass in the round side windows. She took a step backwards and Jinx caught her wrist.

‘Whoa, whoa. Where are you going?’

‘This is a Fellowship place!’ Idiot. Never trust a stranger, Mum had said. Only there was no-one here who wasn’t a stranger. She’d thought the boy was trustworthy, but if he had brought her to the Basilica…

‘You’re turning me in, aren’t you?’ Her voice rose, and he whispered, fiercely, ‘Shh! No. I’m not…’

Iona struggled and broke away from him, hurtled blindly down the steps and dodged through the crowded square. Someone shouted, ‘Watch it!’ and grabbed at her, hauling her out of the way of a blur of bright silver and halcyon. She stared. That was Lord Philemot’s carriage, and the coachman was staring back at her, half standing in his seat, his eyes wide with recognition. Iona turned to bolt, but the man who had pulled her clear of the carriage seized her again.

‘Hold it! That’s the Philemot mark!’

Her hood had fallen back, and he was staring at the halcyon stud in her ear. He tightened his grip on her arm, and Iona felt a sudden tide of fierce determination: she wouldn’t let this end here. She kicked the man hard, twisted free of him, and ran.

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Waiting for the carriage with her mother and Leo, Rachel gazed at the family portraits in the hall. Her father as a young man. Her parents’ wedding portrait. The new portraits of herself and Leo, painted earlier this year to mark their thirteenth birthday and coming of age. The Dedication portrait (bigger than all the others) that commemorated the occasion when their parents had taken her and Leo as tiny babies to the Basilica and sworn to bring them up in obedience and honour to the moons. In the painting, she and Leo were identical little blobs, wrapped in halcyon gowns. Other portraits from infancy showed them looking alike too. It was only when Rachel’s wild, reddish hair began to grow that they had started to look different; not like twins at all.

‘Rachel.’ Cecilia’s voice broke into her thoughts. ‘Time to go.’

Sheltered by footmen with umbrellas, the family hurried through the rain to the carriage. Rachel sat with Leo opposite Cecilia, leaning forward to look out at the white garden walls, the High Side gate, and then the wet open fields under the grey blur of the rain.

‘Honestly,’ Cecilia sighed. ‘This weather.’

The Freehaven station loomed through the mist. From outside it seemed a heavy dark block in the grey day, but inside it opened up into a miracle of light. Slender columns supported a soaring roof of multi-coloured glass that cast trembling rainbows onto the floor beneath. The sleek, blue-green and silver Philemot train was waiting for them at the platform, its engine hissing and steaming.

Rachel jumped down from the carriage, catching the skirt of her dress on the step and tearing it.

‘Oh, really, Rachel,’ said Cecilia.

Rachel shrugged. ‘It’ll mend.’

‘Think Iona ran because of all the sewing, Rach?’ Leo asked.

‘Shut up, Leo.’ Rachel climbed the steps onto the train. In her room, the bed was made and her nightclothes laid out on it. She loved travelling by night: kneeling at the window and staring out at the rushing darkness. Cheered by the thought of the journey ahead, she carried on past the kitchen, through the dining car, and into the drawing-room. Leo was there already, kneeling by the bookcase.

‘Thought I left this here.’ He pulled a book from the shelf and sprawled in one of the low chairs, leaning back against one arm with his long legs dangling over the other. Rachel scanned the books, found nothing that she wanted to read, and knelt on the long sofa below the window. The stationmaster was pacing the platform, checking the clock every few seconds, glancing towards the outer gates. As soon as Lord Philemot’s carriage arrived, he sprang into action, opening the drawing- room carriage door, waiting impatiently as Septimus climbed aboard, and slamming the door quickly shut behind him. Whistles sounded. The train began to move: jerkily at first, and then more smoothly as it picked up speed. As they passed the siding, Rachel saw another, brilliant green train preparing to move into the station. Septimus laughed.

‘No wonder they were so jittery about me being late. You don’t want to keep Elverton waiting if you can help it.’ He laughed again, and opened the door to the carriage that housed his study.

‘There wasn’t any news of Iona, was there?’ Rachel called after him hopefully. He shook his head.

‘Nothing.’

 

 

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