Lucy Saxon‘s YA fantasy Take Back the Skies may not be out until June, but here’s a sneak peek at the first chapter…
Rain fell lazily from charcoal-coloured clouds as Catherine Hunter sprinted through darkening streets, her long hair tied in a tight braid and tucked beneath a black knitted cap. Her thick woollen coat and black work trousers disguised her gender quite nicely. She was practically unrecognisable; only the people who knew her well would have been able to tell who she was.
A faint smile tugged at her lips as she reached the familiar tree beside the high stone wall that surrounded the area in which she lived. It took barely any effort to swing herself up into its branches, the knots worn into footholds by constant use.With practised ease, she scrambled up as high as she could manage, edging on to an outstretched branch that just brushed the wall’s peak. From there it was a short jump over the wall, her thud upon landing muffled by the grass.Taking no longer than a second to regain her balance, she resumed running, diving into a gap at the base of a bush. The fence panel behind it was open, as she’d left it, and she crawled through without a care for the mud on her clothes. Her father would never see them.
Flitting across the garden to the back door, she pulled a pin from her hair and slid it into the lock, opening it effortlessly. Leaving her boots at the very back of the hall closet, she shut the door soundlessly behind her, hurrying in socked feet towards the stairs. It was her habit to be silent, though she knew she was unlikely to draw her father from his office. Catherine would rather not risk it; the punishment for sneaking out was one she didn’t like to think about.
After a brief detour to her bedroom to change into more appropriate clothing, Catherine wandered down to the living room, pulling her hair loose as she did so. She was unsurprised to see the newscast screen on in the corner; rarely did her father turn it off, even if he was nowhere near it. She sank on to the plush grey carpet, pulling her knees up to her chest and trying to regulate her breathing. Her father probably wouldn’t want her to join him for dinner, but if he did decide to summon her and she gave herself away by looking out of breath, she could expect to be unable to sit down for at least a week.
She sighed to herself as upbeat music began to blare from the newscast screen and another recruitment broadcast played out. She wished that, just once, they might show something other than the war.Yes, she understood that the war with Mericus was important and people wanted to know what was going on – but didn’t people also want to know what was going on in Siberene, or how the storms were in the East?
‘Your child will be one of many, expertly trained to protect their country,’ the cast told her in a proud, tinny voice. She sighed once more, tightly hugging her knees. Had she been a common child she would have been one of those sent to fight so the adults could stay behind and keep the country from crumbling. She wasn’t sure whether to be thankful for her birth, or dismayed by it. Surely even war was better than the life of pseudo-freedom she had now. No amount of sneaking out to roam the streets could change the fact that she was trapped by her father’s demands and expectations.
Gears whirred and she looked up to see the family servant – a mecha she had affectionately named Samuel – walking jerkily into the room, a tray of food in his claw-like hand.
‘Is Father not eating dinner with me, Sam?’ she asked, standing to accept the tray.The purple-white glow in Sam’s eyes dimmed.
‘No, Miss Catherine. Master Nathaniel is working,’ he answered in his gravelly voice. Nathaniel was always working. Not that Cat minded, as she liked being able to eat without being interrogated or insulted.
Sam reached out a thick bronze arm to straighten the silk throw over the back of the sofa, puffs of pale purple steam spilling from the thin chimney on his shoulder in time with the mechanical tick of his metal insides.
‘And Mother?’ she asked, setting her plate on the low table and sitting on the floor to eat.
‘Mistress Elizabeth is sleeping.’
Her mother was always sleeping these days. Sleeping, crying or having a shaking fit. Her father kept telling her that the doctors were doing their best, but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a doctor at the house.
They had probably given up, just like her father, and were waiting for Elizabeth Hunter to die.
‘Thank you, Samuel.You may leave.’
Catherine half-heartedly forked potatoes into her mouth. From the living room, there was a very good view of the shipyard, second only to the view from her bedroom. She spent a lot of time staring at the shipyard, watching skyships lifting gracefully into the air with canvas wings outstretched, the propellers beneath giving enough momentum for the ships to quickly latch on to the fierce updraughts that wound through the docks. How she wished to fly a skyship: the freedom, the boundless space, with no expectations from anyone but herself and her crew.The ability to travel to countries she only dreamed of seeing, meeting new people and immersing herself in different cultures . . .
But that was all a fantasy.
She was destined – as her father had reminded her many times – to marry a high-born man, and produce many strong, healthy little boys and beautiful, gentle little girls to continue the family line.Though her father educated her like he would a son, that didn’t extend to learning about the family business as a proper heir should. She was to serve her husband in every way, obey his orders, and swear fealty to the Anglyan government – just as her mother had. No one asked her whether she wanted to swear fealty, or raise lots of children, or even marry a respectable man, she thought resentfully.What if she wanted to marry a scoundrel? Gods, how she wished she could be a commoner! She would give up some luxuries for freedom of choice –
‘Are you watching those silly ships again, Catherine?’
She jumped at the familiar sharp voice, almost spilling gravy down her blouse. Turning, Catherine tried not to grimace upon seeing her father’s tall, imposing form in the doorway, his jaw set and his dark blue eyes stern.
‘Yes, Father. And they’re not silly! They’re beautiful,’ she insisted petulantly, for once, sounding much younger than her fourteen years.
Her father laughed coldly.
‘Rusting piles of gears and timber, that’s all they are. You’d best remove all that fanciful dreaming from your head now. It won’t get you very far.’
Catherine didn’t say anything; she knew better than to argue by now.
‘I need to tell you something,’ Nathaniel declared, and she refrained from rolling her eyes. Storms forbid her father talk to her just because he wanted to.
‘You will be accompanying me to the dockside office tomorrow morning. I have a meeting with Thomas to discuss cutting rations, and he wishes you to be present.’
‘Of course, Father,’ she agreed, trying to hide her distaste. The only reason Thomas Gale wanted her there was to discuss her betrothal to his loathsome son Marcus. He was an arrogant, bull-headed boy whom she despised with every fibre of her being, but her opinion mattered little. It was a good match from a political perspective and her own feelings were irrelevant.
‘Good.Wear your best dress, I want you presentable,’ her father instructed, eyeing with distaste her plain white blouse and tatty leather breeches. ‘I intend to formally offer the betrothal contract, though I can’t submit it as you’re not yet a woman.’
Catherine nodded dutifully, thanking her lucky stars for her late development, and Nathaniel left the room, no doubt to go back to his office and continue working. Sometimes she wondered if he ever actually slept.
On the screen, a war report followed yet another recruitment cast, and she paused to listen.
‘Massacre by Merican soldiers at an Erovan medical centre, no survivors. Five hundred dead.’
She felt suddenly nauseous. How could things like this be happening to Erovan civilians? There were only a few leagues of raging ocean and a single small storm barrier between Anglya and Erova, and the barrier had been there for as long as anyone could remember. Navigating the thicker clouds and tightly grouped whirlwinds was child’s play to most pilots. Erova was closer than any other country, and took two days of flight at the most to reach, yet Catherine seemed so far removed from the troubles there. Not for the first time, she felt helpless. She wished that she were older, that she were stronger, that she could get out from under her father’s thumb and do something to help. All too often she saw people gathering at the shipyard, dressed in combat uniform and boarding a military skyship. Boys and girls as young as thirteen stood shoulder to shoulder, led by stern guards who looked to be older than fifty. She yearned to be among them.Those brave soldiers were the only reason Anglya was safe from Merican attack.
She turned the newscast screen off and left the room, wandering to her mother’s bedroom. Knocking, she nudged the heavy door open, her eyes adjusting to the darkened room.A lamp flickered at the bedside table.
‘Mother?’ she called softly.
‘Catherine, dear,’ a feeble, whispery voice breathed in reply, surprising Catherine. It wasn’t often she found her mother awake and coherent. She smiled, crossing to the bed.
‘How are you feeling?’ she asked quietly, clambering up on to the soft bed and peering into the cocoon of quilts to see her mother’s small face, clouded eyes staring dazedly up at her. Elizabeth’s skin was pale and papery, and her once shining golden hair was dull and prematurely grey, but the barest hint of a smile tugged at her colourless lips as she looked up at her only child.
‘No better or worse than usual,’ said Elizabeth, and Catherine bit her lip.That was always her mother’s answer. ‘How are you, dearest?’
‘Father wants to betroth me to Marcus Gale,’ she announced, scowling.
Elizabeth’s smile faded.
‘When you were but a baby, and I was in better health, I used to talk of betrothing you to a beautiful little boy who would grow up to be a great man. But alas, he’s gone, as is his mother . . .’ Her voice trailed off and she stared wistfully at the familiar photo on the nightstand. It showed Elizabeth as a younger, healthier woman, with a beautiful blonde woman at her side. Both were dressed in exquisite gowns. The other woman was Queen Mary Latham, and the picture had been taken at the ball celebrating her son’s seventh birthday. It was one of the last photographs taken of the woman before the entire royal family disappeared.
Before the war escalated and everything started to go downhill.
As Catherine was about to leave Elizabeth to rest, her mother spoke again with unexpected force.‘Don’t let your father decide your future, Catherine! I let my father decide mine, and while I got a lovely daughter out of it . . .’ She didn’t need to finish her sentence.‘Your heart is yours and yours only to give away, and one day, you will find the man you wish to have it, and he will give you his.That man does not have to be Marcus Gale.’
Was her mother telling her to defy her father? How could she? She was the sole heir to the Hunter fortune – she might as well burn herself from the family tree.
‘You are a brave girl, Catherine, and destined for greater things than becoming Marcus Gale’s wife,’ her mother said, her grey eyes clear for once.‘Your father is . . . a difficult man. He doesn’t always understand how his actions affect others.And he certainly doesn’t expect a woman to have a mind of her own, especially his daughter. Stand up for yourself, sweetheart, and make your own way in the world. Perhaps a shock like that would teach him an important lesson.’
Catherine’s own eyes sparkled with understanding and excitement.
‘But what about you?’ she asked, drawing a faint smile to her mother’s lips.
‘It is a parent’s job to look after their child, not the other way around. Don’t worry about me, dear.’
‘Mother, you do know much I love you, don’t you? More than anything,’ Catherine told her firmly, leaning in to press a gentle kiss to her mother’s brow and swallowing back the lump in her throat.
‘And I love you, my dear one. But you’re almost a young woman now, and you’re beginning to need your mother less and less. Just . . . teach that father of yours that he’s not lord of the storms, would you?’ Elizabeth replied with a look of fierce determination, which Catherine matched, rendering the family resemblance astonishing.
‘Oh, trust me. He won’t know what hit him.’