From the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the Kingfountain Series comes the first novel in a bold and richly imagined world.
Theirs is a world of opposites. The privileged live in sky manors held aloft by a secretive magic known only as the Mysteries. Below, the earthbound poor are forced into factory work to maintain the engine of commerce. Only the wealthy can afford to learn the Mysteries, and they use their knowledge to further lock their hold on society.
Cettie Pratt is a waif doomed to the world below, until an admiral attempts to adopt her. But in her new home in the clouds, not everyone treats her as one of the family.
Sera Fitzempress is a princess born into power. She yearns to meet the orphan girl she has heard so much about, but her father deems the girl unworthy of his daughter's curiosity.
Neither girl feels that she belongs. Each seeks to break free of imposed rules. Now, as Cettie dreams of living above and as Sera is drawn to the world below, they will follow the paths of their own choosing.
But both girls will be needed for the coming storm that threatens to overturn both their worlds.
Release date: June 19, 2018
Print pages: 353
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (1) escapist/easy read (1) great world-building (1) unputdownable (1)
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The Girl Who Can See Them
Cettie of the Fells. That was what people called her. She had small glimpses of memory of the time before, but they were so far back that, try as she might, she could wring no details from them. One of the memories was of an officer in his regimentals, so she had always fancied that her birth father was a captain of a sky brigade. She had the vague impression of a long brown mustache and sideburns, of thick wavy hair the color of chestnuts, and of eyes the color of clouds. It was a brooding face, a sad face. He’d given her up to another, however, and when she was three or four, her new guardian died. The rent collector found her not long after, half starving, determined not to go outside and ask for help for fear she’d be taken away. And for good reason. The magistrate promptly delivered her to a cruel woman who only accepted Cettie’s deed for the payment she’d receive in exchange. That first woman had given way to another and then another and then her current guardian, Miss Charlotte, but they were all the same—they made the children they took in work, and they punished them. Everything since had been a blur of misery. It had all brought Cettie to this moment, darting through the streets of the Fells, searching for a glimpse of her missing friend.
Cettie and Joses were Miss Charlotte’s eldest wards, and, together, they took care of the younger children in the household. They were rarely given food by their guardian, so Joses stole to feed them. He’d never been caught before, but he’d been away for much too long this time. What if the authorities had found him?
The streets were chaotic and crowded. The Fells brimmed with businesses of every shape and sort—smelters, glass makers, linen weavers—as well as factories that made sugar, factories that hewed wood, and factories that hacked animals into bits. Some of the meat fed the factory workers, who in turn fed the factories with their wits and brawn. The rest was crated and boxed and hefted aboard sky ships to ascend to the manors in the clouds, where cooks would prepare it in feasts to be hewed and slurped by the rich.
Cettie had heard people whisper tales that the Fells had once been a thriving industrial center with happy inhabitants, but she only knew it as a smoky, crowded series of mismatched tenements—a place where everything was part prey and part predator. After the sun went down, even the officers were afraid to walk the streets.
And the dark was coming, but she still hadn’t found Joses.
A gnawing feeling of dread and desperation overpowered the hunger in her hollow ribs as she tramped through the streets, searching for a sign of her friend’s dark hair, for the subtle swagger she’d recognize in an instant.
A shadow passed overhead, and she looked up quickly. It wasn’t a cloud blotting the light; it was a sky ship—a zephyr, the smallest kind. Nimble and quick, they were notorious for their use by agents of Law, but they were also sometimes used to transport people or letters from one end of the Fells to the other. As this one passed, she craned her neck to watch it go by. She had no idea how the wooden hull, the spars, and the side sails managed to float through the air. It was a magic of sorts. One of the Mysteries.
A heavy body slammed into her and knocked her to the ground. The impact stunned her, but she hastily came to her feet before someone stepped on her fingers, tore her tattered dress, or collided with her again.
“Watch yerself!” scolded a worker angrily. She retreated from him, lest he take a swing at her. Even so, as soon as she was a good distance from him, her gaze found the zephyr again. It was one of her dreams to steal aboard a sky ship and be taken to one of the floating manors. Though none of them were located directly above the Fells, she’d heard people from the City speak about what it was like to live underneath the upper class’s hulking sky manors. They hovered over the City in an interconnected maze, leaving the area below in shadow come noonday. There was a risk that whatever magic upheld the manors might fail and those living below would be crushed, yet people still swarmed to live in the City, willing to take that risk in the hopes of a better life.
Cettie had never set foot outside of the Fells, but she dreamed of leaving. If she proved herself capable and useful and a hard worker, she hoped to one day qualify for the lottery and earn a position at one of the floating manors.
The slant of the sun on the street warned her that time was running out. Maybe Joses was already back at Miss Charlotte’s? Could they have missed each other? Cettie hated being away from the younger children for so long. No doubt some of the littlest ones were already crying for want of food, and if their guardian awoke from her drunken stupor, there would be beatings. If she didn’t make it back, what would happen to them? That settled things in her mind. She whirled around in the middle of the street, starting back through the throng. It was hard to soothe hungry children, and even as she walked, she scanned the cobbles for a dirty farthing. But there was nothing to be found, and she already knew there wasn’t a scrap of food in Miss Charlotte’s dwelling.
She glanced back once more to look for Joses, only to discover a boy following her. He was probably sixteen, and he was much taller than her. He had the look of a gang member—feral eyes, grimy coat and cap, and a dangerous air. She had nothing to steal, but gangs were always looking for novices. Others who could be trained to take the risks while they reaped the rewards. She hastened her steps, her breath coming fast and hard.
She lived in a busy area, and the noise and commotion made her ears ache. After several blocks, she risked another backward glance. The young man was still trailing her. He met her gaze this time, a sort of acknowledgment to her that he was indeed following her, seeing where she’d lead him. Well, Cettie had no doubt that Miss Charlotte could thrash a sixteen-year-old boy well enough. She’d not want to lose any of the income the children’s deeds brought her.
She almost stopped midstride when she saw a zephyr hovering over the row of tenements. Was it the same one she’d seen overhead earlier?
A crowd had gathered in the street to gawk at it. A few people pointed fingers. Some hurled curses. The law was not respected in certain places within the Fells. Yes, the lawyers and tradesmen within the city center thought highly of it—after all, the law upheld their rights and protected their wealth—but in the tenements the officers could be brutal and cruel. A sick feeling replaced the nervous one.
The zephyr was hovering over Miss Charlotte’s.
* * *
Cettie heard shouting the moment she opened the door. Miss Charlotte was in hysterics. The men speaking with her were trying to be civil, but it was clear they were losing patience.
“If you don’t produce the deeds, ma’am, then you cannot prove your words. Stop wailing and fetch them.”
“When my husban’ gets back, he’ll not stand for this! Can’t you wait till he gets back?”
“We cannot wait. It will be dark soon.” A sigh of exasperation. Cettie heard the crying children through the holes in the walls. No doubt they were terrified by the fuss, especially if Joses had not returned to comfort them.
Cettie approached the stairs carefully, trying to keep her ripped shoes from making a sound. Miss Charlotte snuffled and devolved into tears again, her words garbled by her emotion. Cettie peeked around the corner and saw several officers of the law gathered around the sofa, wearing their dark jackets with gold stripes and gray cloaks. Their boots were high and glossy.
One of the officers turned and saw her. “There’s another one!”
She did not run. Instead, she walked into the room, trying to stand up straight even though she was starting to tremble. She had never encountered an officer before. They were tall and strong, and they’d come in a zephyr!
“How old are you, lass?” one of them asked. He had sandy-brown hair and a mustache.
“I don’t know. Twelve, I think,” Cettie answered. She took pride in using proper words. She knew she would need to speak well if she hoped to work for one of the wealthy households.
“You live here?” he pressed.
She nodded. “What is the problem, sir?”
“At least you’re not hysterical,” the officer grumbled. “Did you come from the street just now?”
“I did,” she answered simply.
“Let me see your hands. Are you hiding anything behind your back?”
Cettie hadn’t realized her hands were behind her back. She unclenched her fingers and displayed her dirty palms.
He frowned. “Do you have any pockets? Any money?”
“I have nothing,” Cettie said. “Why are you here?”
“Don’t be impertinent,” another officer snapped impatiently.
“Easy on her,” said the first. “At least she’s sober. So you live here? You know this woman?”
Cettie nodded. “She’s my guardian.”
“Don’t listen to her!” Miss Charlotte snarled. “Send her up to quiet the little uns. That’s all she’s good for. I’m the mistress of this house. You wait until my husband gets back. I don’t know where the lad went. I can’t afford no advocate. You can’t—”
“Shut it!” the officer with the mustache said, turning and yelling at her. “You get the deeds. Bring them to me right now, or I’ll arrest you and take you to the Ministry of Law, so help me. Do it!”
Miss Charlotte cowered and started sobbing again, but she crept back toward her rooms to do the man’s bidding.
“I will go quiet the children, if you please,” Cettie said gently, hoping he wouldn’t yell at her next.
“Hold,” the mustached officer said. He held up a black-gloved hand and gave her a serious look. “A boy was caught stealing. Said he did it because you had no food here. Not a crust. Is that true?”
Joses. Cettie’s knees were knocking, and her throat was too thick to speak. She felt like crying. They’d caught Joses. That meant she’d never see him again. But she would be truthful. Maybe the officers would bring the children food. Maybe they’d even take pity on her friend.
The man frowned again, and she feared another outburst. “The lad’s name?”
“Joses,” Cettie choked out.
The two officers looked at each other, and one nodded. “What do we do, Lieutenant Staunton?” he said. “The magistrate left for the City.”
“I know,” said the mustached officer gruffly. He cast his eyes around the squalid place. “We need someone to act here. The children are starving. The woman has drunk away all her money.” He pursed his lips. “I’ll go up to Fog Willow. Fitzroy will come oversee this mess. He’ll know what to do.”
“You won’t be back before dark,” said the other nervously.
“Just barricade the door after I go. We’ll come through the skylight anyway. I’ll leave four men with you here and take Benson and Ricks with me.” He craned his neck, as if just then noticing the wailing of the children. He turned to Cettie. “Go comfort them if you can, lass. What was your name again?”
“Cettie,” she answered.
He looked at her long and slow and jerked his head for her to leave. Cettie hastened up the rickety stairs. There were two rooms in the attic. One had the skylight the officer would use upon his return, and the other was where the children slept, as far away from their guardian as possible.
If Miss Charlotte heard any whimpering, she’d march up the flights of stairs and thrash every one of the children, even if only one of them had been suffering. Cettie reached the room, and the children mobbed her immediately, frightened out of their wits. Officers had come in through the skylight. They were yelling at Miss Charlotte. Where was Joses? Did she have any food?
She felt as if the flood of concerns would knock her down. There was no food to give them. Some hadn’t eaten in several days, including herself. Her bony arms and ribs were a testament to the famine. One of the little girls stroked Cettie’s dark hair. The lights did not work upstairs, and the sun was failing. It was getting darker and darker.
“Come kneel down on the floor,” Cettie offered in a whisper. She knelt first and drew them around her, hugging each one. She tried to explain that Joses had been caught stealing. There wasn’t any food, but she hoped the officers would bring some. Looking into their desperate faces, she tried to smile. She felt like sobbing.
She hummed a popular dancing song for them. The shadows got thicker. The whimpering began to subside.
Joses was gone. He’d be locked behind an iron grate in a cell and left to die. No one other than her would remember him. No one would feed him. The thoughts pounded against her mind over and over as she hummed, trying to keep the young ones calm. Some sniffled. A little boy fell asleep on the floor at her feet.
How long would the officers be gone? The man with the mustache had said they were going to Fog Willow, one of the sky estates. What she would have given to just see a glimpse of it . . .
You’ll never see one. You’ll die in the Fells like the rest. Maybe Joses is the lucky one. Starving to death is quick. Painless. Like falling asleep. Fall asleep, Cettie. Fall asleep.
She heard a buzzing sound in her ears. The darkness of the room suddenly felt oppressive. The little girl she was hugging began to shudder and whimper.
“Shhhh,” Cettie soothed, feeling a malevolence stir in the dark. It was the tall one, the tenement ghost who had haunted her for years. The one without eyes. Of course it would come to her on a night like this, when the suffering at Miss Charlotte’s house was the most acute. Its whispering voice loved to taunt her, to choose the words that would torment her most. None of the other children could see the ghost. Or hear it.
But Cettie could.
Cettie couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t seen ghosts in the Fells. One of her earliest memories was of one of them. Her guardian at the time—the one who had died—had fallen down drunk one evening, snoring loudly and obnoxiously. Cettie had curled up in the corner, unable to sleep because of the noise. The first sign of something amiss was a telltale prickle on the base of her neck, followed by a buzzing sound, almost like the drone of flies over spoiled meat, except deeper and more resonant. She sat up and stared at her guardian, only to see something hovering over him, leaning close as if smelling his breath. This thing was an outline of a person more than anything—a collection of sinewy shapes made of dust motes. And then it began to choke her guardian. The man’s snores had cut off, and he’d fought for breath.
The ghosts hadn’t started bothering Cettie until she was seven or eight years old. Some of them moved from shadow to shadow, slinking and crafty. But the tall one always strode into a room confidently, and the others seemed to give it deference. Whenever Cettie moved to a new dwelling, the tall one found her. As if it came looking for her. This had been going on for four or five years.
The other children started to whimper again. She went about her work, trying to shake off the feeling of threat and fear that came whenever her ghost did. She gathered the littlest ones around her, trying to help them lie down on the wooden floor in a circle around her. She smoothed their hair and whispered promises that food was coming.
“I can’t sleep, Cettie,” mumbled little Alice. “I’m cold.”
“I’ll hold you,” Cettie promised, hugging the child close. All along, she kept an eye on the tall one, the one with no eyes. One time it had reached out a hand and touched her chest, its invisible claws passing through her skin and bones. Oh, the coldness, the numbness, the terror she’d felt . . . the sensation had lasted for days. The ghosts didn’t attack little children. So Cettie surrounded herself and Joses with the young ones each night. It was the only thing that seemed to keep them at bay.
They will all starve. And when they are dead, who will save you from me? You cannot save them. You cannot save yourself.
Alice snuggled against her. Darkness was all around them, but somehow she saw the tall one even better in the dark. Cettie began to hum again, trying to comfort herself and the children. Although the dancing music had no words, she sometimes added them as she went along.
“I’m afraid, Cettie,” whispered James in the darkness. “Is Joses coming back with food?”
Still humming, she reached over to caress his head. It was all she could do. Joses wouldn’t come back with food . . . he wouldn’t come back at all. She squeezed her eyes shut. Should she have encouraged him to stay home instead of wandering the streets looking for a way to steal food?
It is your fault. There were no ghosts here until you came. You are one of the night. And when you die, you will be like one of us. You are one of us already.
Go away! Cettie stopped humming and repeated the thought over and over in her mind, trying to drown out the ghost’s twisted mind. She didn’t want to die. To be trapped in the Fells forever as a ghost that could only be seen by some.
She wasn’t sure how long she wrestled against the being in her mind. She knew the sun would rise eventually—it always did. And when the light came, the tall ghost without eyes would sink into the floorboards. It lived in the cesspit, she believed. A place where it was always dark and fetid. She hated emptying the chamber pots down there. It was the only job she begged Joses to do for her.
When light finally filtered into the room, it wasn’t the slow rise of dawn—it was a bright flare that stabbed at her eyes from the other attic room. Still, it made the ghost hiss and retreat into the shadows. The skylight. The thought was accompanied by the sound of boots landing on the roof. The officers had returned.
Some of the children had fallen asleep and no doubt dreamed of honeyed cakes drizzled in syrup. Others were still too hungry to sleep, and they scrambled to the wall to peer through the ripped chunks in the plaster. Cettie set Alice aside and rose; her knees pained her from the way she’d been sitting. Half crouching, she walked to the wall and peered through one of the gaps. She recognized the mustached officer. He was looking up, talking to another man, someone who wasn’t wearing the uniform of the law.
The newcomer, an older man with lots of silver in his hair, looked like a banker—one of the upper crust. He had on a long coat and polished brown boots with gleaming buckles. He came down the ladder from the skylight, gripping the rungs with bare hands, which surprised Cettie. She’d thought everyone in the upper class wore gloves. The man blocked the light, which put him in shadow for a moment, and Cettie tried to adjust her position to see. The noise from the attic must have alerted Miss Charlotte, because the woman promptly let out a wailing cry that filled the entire house.
Footsteps in the stairwell announced another officer, one holding a frosted-glass lantern. He strode up to the lieutenant and the new arrival.
“She’s come to and is begging us not to take the children away,” the officer said. “Apparently there is no husband brave enough to return with all of us here. She has the deeds, smudged as they are, and earns her bread caring for these tramps. I had them checked with the ministry. It’s legal. She has the right to care for them.” He gestured toward the room where Cettie was watching from a hole in the wall. “Not much to live on, but she says she’ll starve if we take them all away, Lieutenant Staunton.”
“She does nothing but buy more drink,” Staunton snorted angrily. “I don’t believe her. The children are clearly neglected.”
“Neither do I, but it’s already causing a ruckus in the street. Many have stepped forward and offered to take the children, but they’ll likely end up back here again if we allow it. This lot looks after their own.”
Staunton grimaced. The bright light pouring from the skylight suddenly winked out. Cettie squinted, trying to see. Only a single lantern remained to light the dark. She felt the tall ghost moving toward her once again.
The lieutenant turned to the silver-haired gentleman. “We can’t hand over the children to strangers, Vice Admiral,” Staunton said. “What do you advise?”
“Let me see the children,” the newcomer said. There was something about his voice. It wasn’t gruff or impatient or scolding. There was hardly a word fit to describe it, but it was almost . . . gentle. Early on in life, Cettie had learned to quickly discern whether an adult could be trusted. Most of them couldn’t be. But something deep inside her whispered that maybe this one was different.
“Back to bed,” Cettie whispered to the other children gathered at the wall. “Be still. Be quiet.” She felt the ringing in her ears again, louder this time. But the ghost with no eyes was no longer focused on her. A hissing noise was coming from it. She felt a whorl of hatred inside the being, directed at the newcomer.
But there was no time to process the information or make sense of it. She didn’t want the officers to know the children had been eavesdropping—surely such an act would be punished—so she hurried to get the little ones settled around her again.
Through the walls she heard Staunton say, “This way, Vice Admiral.”
None of the children had blankets, but there were a few dirty sheets, and Cettie covered as many of them as she could before the officers arrived. The door creaked open, and the dim light from the lantern shoved away the shadows. It was not bright enough to make Cettie wince. Nor was it bright enough to send the ghost away. The feeling of animosity pulsing from the being made her shudder.
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