A New Young Adult Fantasy from author H. L. Burke!
available December 9th, 2014
In Gelia City, magic is music: a constant ever-changing melody known as the Strains. Hereditary ability to use the Strains divides the city into two classes: the wealthy Highmost, who can access the full potential of the Strains, and the Common tradesmen, who are limited to mundane spells, known as beggar magic.
With the help of the Strains, Common teen Leilani rescues and befriends a gifted Highmost girl, Zebedy. The girls’ friendship opens Leilani’s eyes to the world of the Highmost. She’s intrigued by Zeb’s close relationship with the Strains, and longs to know them as she does. Zeb, in turn, comes to depend on Leilani’s strength and intelligence, making them an inseparable team, ready to take on anything with the Strains at their back.
As their unlikely friendship strengthens and endures, Zeb draws Leilani further into the Highmosts’ intrigues. Beneath the polished, academic facade of the Highmost manors lurks a threat to the Strains. An unknown force consumes their music, leaving only heart-rending silence behind.
Leilani and Zeb will do anything to save their beloved Strains, but as the silence grows, they face danger their previously sheltered lives could never prepare them for. Whoever is behind the death of the Strains is willing to kill to keep their secret safe. To preserve the Strains, the girls may have to sacrifice their friendship, or even their lives.
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From Chapter Two: Common girl Leilani is far from home, having stumbled upon lost Highmost girl, Zebedy, and gone out of the way to see her safely back to her boarding school. Leilani prepares to spend the night wrapped in the luxuries of the Highmost world.
Zebedy stopped by a door, identical to the others except for the number “9” carved into the top panel. She put her hand to the latch and pushed it open. Orange firelight surrounded them, and Leilani inhaled the comforting smell of woodsmoke. They stepped inside, and Zeb closed the door behind them.
“This is your room?” Leilani asked. She swallowed uncomfortably. Her entire family shared a living space not much bigger than this over her father’s shop. A great bed covered in fluffy looking quilts and four puffy pillows stood against the wall across from the fire. Along the wall opposite the door, a desk rested in the moonlight. Leilani’s feet sank into a thick rug. Someone had set up a cot in the middle of the floor, near enough to the fire to be bathed in light, but far enough away to be out of the reach of sparks.
Zeb crossed over and touched the wick of a lantern with her fingertips, setting it alight with the Strains. She replaced the glass shade over the flickering flame and turned up the wick so that the light fell over the desk.
Leilani watched in amazement. It seemed Zeb didn't even need to speak to the Strains to get them to do her bidding. They anticipated her desires. Could they read her thoughts? Was her connection to them that strong? What was it like to be Highmost?
Leilani cast her eyes from one luxury to another, letting out a long breath. Finally her eyes settled on the wooden bookshelf. She knelt in awe before this abundance of volumes and scanned the embossed titles.
“Do these books belong to Mistress Clavia?” she asked, concerned that the Mistress would entrust such treasures to the girl who had lost her shoe in the woods that day.
“Oh, no, all Mistress’s books are in the library downstairs. These are just the ones I brought from home, about the Strains mostly, though some are my favorite novels.”
“Novels?” Leilani exhaled. Mrs. Weaver had seen to it that all her children could read both Rynaran and Gelian, but books were considered too precious for children. Their family owned two: an ancient tome of Rynaran homeopathic medicine, which had seen their family through many bouts of fever and flu, and the Sanctified Texts, a collection of spiritual works the Sanctified Brothers liked to distribute, even to the poorest families. Leilani had read them both multiple times, though the spines spanned from her little finger to her thumb.
“Yes, novels.” Zeb sat beside Leilani with her legs crossed beneath her. She eased one of the thinner volumes off the shelf. “This is my absolute favorite: The Venture of Sir Marcel. It has a dragon and a Highmost who sings the dragon into submission and flies him to rescue a princess. There are some ‘kissy bits’ at the end, but the best parts are all the fighting and flying and magic. Have you read it?”
“You should. Here, you can borrow it.” Zeb held the book out to Leilani who instinctively drew back.
She stared at the red leather cover with fancy golden letters proclaiming the title and author. What did such a book cost?
Zeb’s face fell and her freckled nose reddened. “I'm sorry. Do you not like to read?”
“No, it's just . . . if I borrow it, how will I get it back to you?” Leilani dropped her eyes, unwilling to admit that taking responsibility for something as wonderful as that book frightened her.
“I visit my parents once a month in the city. Maybe you can come visit me then.” Zeb pushed the novel at her. “Besides, I know the story front to back. I don’t suppose I will need to read it again. Maybe when I'm old. Old people can be forgetful, and I would hate to forget how to sing to a dragon with the Strains.”
This knowledge, while amusing, didn’t strike Leilani as particularly useful, dragons being fictional, but she relented and took the book.
Zeb meandered across the room and sat upon the bed. She gazed at Leilani, opened her mouth, shut it again, then averted her eyes.
Leilani frowned. “What?”
Zeb cleared her throat. “There's a question I like to ask people, but . . . I've never asked a Common person before, and I don't want you to take it the wrong way. I promise I ask everybody. Well, everybody I like, anyway.”
Leilani narrowed her eyes. “What is it?”
“What do the Strains sound like to you?”
Leilani bit the inside of her bottom lip. “You ask everybody that? It seems kind of personal.”
“I just like to know. Everyone I've ever asked hears them a little differently. My parents, for instance, Father says they sound like a man's voice, and they are very stern at times, never musical, but Mother, they talk to her like a child and giggle and sing all the time. Do Common people talk about them?”
Leilani nodded. “Sometimes. We don't hear them alike either. I mean, often they have the same mood, like if the Strains sound happy to me, they probably sound happy to everyone else in the room too.”
“I've noticed that! I think they talk to each other.”
“They don't have a constant sound to me. I guess that's kind of odd. My other family members talk about whistling or flutes or birdsong even, but it's consistent for them. For me, it changes moment to moment. Sometimes they are instruments, other times voices, never with words, but just sort of humming.”
Zeb's face lit up. “That's kind of like me! I mean, most Highmost I've talked to hear only one voice, but I swear I sometimes hear five or six all talking together.”
Leilani reached up and pulled a few hairpins out of her bun, freeing her hair. “Have they ever told you what they are?”
Zeb's brow furrowed.
Leilani cleared her throat. “I mean . . . the Sanctified Texts say they are messengers from the Maker, you know, sent to guide and protect us, but sometimes . . . I can always hear the Strains, but sometimes they don't seem to hear me.”
Zeb lowered her eyes. “No, they always hear me.”
“Forget it.” Leilani turned away. What had possessed her to compare her Strains experience with a Highmost? Of course Zeb never felt like the Strains couldn't hear her.
“They don't like to talk about what they are, exactly,” Zeb said. “It's frustrating how they dodge questions sometimes, but I can tell when they like people, and they really seem to like you.”
Leilani whirled around and eyed the other girl, half thinking Zeb was making fun of her. However, Zeb's eyes looked sincere, apologetic even.
“I didn't mean to . . . I mean, I've never had a Common friend before. We don't have to talk about the Strains anymore, if you don't want to.”
“It's fine. I'm tired, though.” Leilani rubbed at her eyes, which itched and watered. Her gaze fell longingly onto the cot. The skin of her forehead tightened. It had been an impossible day, in both length and content. The Strains hummed in what could almost be considered a lullaby.