Sapphique (Excerpt)

Please enjoy this excerpt from Catherine Fisher’s Sapphique, the sequel to Incarceron, out in paperback today from Penguin Young Readers Group. Check out the book trailer below!

Finn has escaped Incarceron, but Keiro and Attia are still Inside. Outside, things are not at all what Finn expected – and both Finn’s and Claudia’s very lives hang on Finn convincing the Court that he is the lost prince. Back Inside, Keiro and Attia are on the hunt for Sapphique’s glove, which legend says he used to escape. In order to find it, they must battle the prison itself. Incarceron has built itself a body and it wants to go Outside – just like Sapphique, the only prisoner Incarceron ever loved.

Sapphique, they say, was not the same after his Fall. His mind was bruised. He plunged into despair, the depths of the Prison. He crawled into the Tunnels of Madness. He sought dark places, and dangerous men.

—Legends of Sapphique

 

The alleyway was so narrow that Attia could lean against one wall and kick the other. She waited in the dimness, listening, her breath condensing on glistening bricks. A flicker of flames around the corner sent red ripples down the walls.

The shouts were louder now, the unmistakable roar of an excited crowd. She heard howls of delight, sudden gales of laughter. Whistles and stamping. Applause.

Licking a fallen drip of condensation from her lips, she tasted its salty grit, knowing she had to face them. She had come too far, searched too long, to back out now. It was useless feeling small and scared. Not if she ever wanted to Escape. She straightened, edged to the end of the alley, and peered out.

Hundreds of people were crammed into the small torch-lit square. They were squeezed together, their backs to her, the stench of sweat and bodies overpowering. Behind the mob a few old women stood craning to see. Halfmen crouched in shadows. Boys climbed on each other’s shoulders, scrambling up onto the rooftops of squalid houses. Stalls of gaudy canvas sold hot food, the pungency of onions and spitting grease making her swallow with hunger. The Prison was interested too. Just above her, under the eaves of filthy straw, one of its tiny red Eyes spied curiously on the scene.

A howl of delight from the crowd made Attia set her shoulders; she stepped out deliberately. Dogs fought over scraps; she edged around them, past a shadowy doorway. Someone slipped out behind her; she turned, her knife already in her hand.

“Don’t even try.”

The cutpurse stepped back, fingers spread, grinning. He was thin and filthy and had few teeth.

“No problem, darling. My mistake.”

She watched him slide into the crowd.

“It would have been,” she muttered. Then she sheathed her knife and barged in after him.

Forcing a way through was tough. The people were tightly packed and eager to see whatever was going on up front; they groaned, laughed, gasped in unison. Ragged children crawled under everyone’s feet, getting kicked and stepped on. Attia pushed and swore, slipped into gaps, ducked under elbows. Being small had its uses. And she needed to get to the front. She needed to see him.

Winded and bruised, she squirmed between two huge men and found air.

It was acrid with smoke. Firebrands crackled all around; before her, an area of mud had been roped off.

Crouched in it, all alone, was a bear.

Attia stared.

The bear’s black fur was scabby, its eyes small and savage.

A chain clanked around its neck, and, well back in the shadows, a bear keeper held the end, a bald man with a long mustache, his skin glistening with sweat. Slung at his side was a drum; he beat it rhythmically and gave a sharp tug on the chain.

Slowly, the bear rose to its hind legs, and danced. Taller than a man, lumbering awkwardly, it circled, its muzzled mouth dripping saliva, its chains leaving bloody trails in its pelt.

Attia scowled. She knew just how it felt.

She put her hand up to her own neck, where the welts and bruises of the chain she had once worn were faded to faint marks.

Like that bear, she had been a manacled thing. If it hadn’t been for Finn she still would be. Or, more likely, dead by now.

Finn.

His name was a bruise in itself. It hurt her to think of his treachery.

The drum beat louder. The bear capered, its clumsy dragging at the chain making the crowd roar. Attia watched grim-faced. Then, behind it, she saw the poster. It was plastered on the damp wall, the same poster that had been pasted up all over the village, everywhere she had looked. Ragged and wet, peeling at the corners, it invited gaudily.

COME ALL YOU GOOD PEOPLE

SEE WONDERS!

SEE THE LOST FOUND!!

SEE THE DEAD LIVE!!!

TONIGHT

SEE THE GREATEST MAGICIAN

IN INCARCERON

Wearing the DRAGON GLOVE of SAPPHIQUE!

THE DARK ENCHANTER

Attia shook her head in dismay. After searching for two months through corridors and empty wings, villages and cities, swampy plains and networks of white cells, for a Sapient, for a cell-born, for anyone who would know about Sapphique, all she’d found was a tacky sideshow in a back alley.

The crowd clapped and stamped. She was shoved aside.

When she’d pushed her way back she saw the bear had turned to face its handler; he was hauling it down, alarmed, prodding it away into the darkness with a long pole. The men around her roared with scorn.

“Try dancing with it yourself next time,” one of them yelled.

A woman giggled.

Voices from the back rose, calling for more, something new, something different, sounding impatient and scathing. Slow handclaps began. Then they faded, to silence.

In the empty space among the torches a figure was standing.

He came from nowhere, materializing into solidity from shadows and flamelight. He was tall, and wore a black coat that glistened with hundreds of tiny sparkles; as he raised his arms wide the sleeves fell open. The collar of the coat was high around his neck; in the gloom he looked young, with dark long hair.

No one spoke. Attia felt the crowd shock into stillness.

He was the image of Sapphique.

Everyone knew what Sapphique had looked like; there were a thousand pictures, carvings, descriptions of him. He was the Winged One, the Nine-Fingered, the One who had Escaped from the Prison. Like Finn, he had promised to return. Attia swallowed, nervous. Her hands were shaking. She clenched them tight.

“Friends.” The magician’s voice was quiet; people strained to hear him. “Welcome to my ring of wonders. You think you will see illusions. You think I will fool you with mirrors and false cards, with hidden devices. But I am not like other magicians. I am the Dark Enchanter, and I will show you true magic. The magic of the stars.”

As one, the crowd gasped.

Because he raised his right hand and on it he was wearing a glove of dark fabric, and from it white flashes of light were sparking and crackling. The torches around the walls flared and sank low. A woman behind Attia moaned in terror.

Attia folded her arms. She watched, determined not to be overawed. How did he do it? Could that really be Sapphique’s Glove? Could it have survived? Was there some strange power still lingering in it? But as she watched, her doubts began to slip from her grasp.

The show was astonishing.

The Enchanter had the crowd transfixed. He took objects, made them vanish, brought them back, plucked doves and Beetles out of the air, conjured a woman to sleep and made her rise slowly, unsupported, into the smoky acrid darkness. He drew butterflies from the mouth of a terrified child, conjured gold coins and threw them out to desperate, grabbing fingers, opened a door in the air and walked through it, so that the crowd bayed and howled for him to come back, and when he did it was from behind them, walking calmly through their frenzy so that they fell away, awed, as if afraid to touch him.

As he passed, Attia felt the brush of his coat against her arm; her skin prickled, all the hairs on her skin standing up with a faint static. He gave one glance to the side, his eyes bright, catching hers.

From somewhere a woman screamed, “Heal my son, Wise One! Heal him.”

A baby was lifted up, began to be passed forward over people’s heads.

The Enchanter turned and held up his hand.

“That will be done later. Not now.” His voice was rich with authority. “Now I prepare for the summoning of all my powers. For the reading of minds. For the entry into death and back to life.”

He closed his eyes.

The torches flickered low.

Standing alone in the dark the Enchanter whispered, “There is much sorrow here. There is much fear.” When he looked out at them again he seemed overwhelmed by the numbers, almost afraid of his task. Quietly he said, “I want three people to come forward. But they must be only those willing to have their deepest fears revealed. Only those willing to bare their souls to my gaze.”

A few hands shot up. Women called out. After a moment of hesitation, Attia put her hand up too.

The Enchanter went toward the crowd. “That woman,” he called, and one was shoved forward, hot and stumbling.

“Him.” A tall man who had not even volunteered was dragged out by those around him. He swore and stood awkwardly, as if transfixed by terror.

The Enchanter turned. His gaze moved inexorably across the massed faces. Attia held her breath. She felt the man’s brooding stare cross her face like heat. He stopped, glanced back. Their eyes met, a dark second. Slowly he raised his hand and stabbed a long finger in her direction, and the crowd cried aloud because they saw that, like Sapphique, his right forefinger was missing.

“You,” the Enchanter whispered.

She took a breath to calm herself. Her heart was hammering with terror. She had to force herself to push through into the dim, smoky space. But it was important to stay calm, to not show fear. Not show she was any different from anyone else.

The three of them stood in a line and Attia could feel the woman next to her trembling with emotion.

The Enchanter walked along, his eyes scrutinizing their faces. Attia met his stare as defiantly as she could. He would never read her mind; she was sure of that. She had seen and heard things he could never imagine. She had seen Outside.

He took the woman’s hand. After a moment, very gently, he said, “You miss him.”

The woman stared in amazement. A strand of hair stuck to her lined forehead. “Oh I do, Master. I do.”

The Enchanter smiled. “Have no fear. He is safe in the peace of Incarceron. The Prison holds him in its memory. His body is whole in its white cells.”

She shook with sobs of joy, kissed his hands. “Thank you, Master. Thank you for telling me.”

The crowd roared its approval. Attia allowed herself a sardonic smile. They were so stupid! Hadn’t they noticed this so-called magician had told the woman nothing?

A lucky guess and a few empty words and they swallowed it whole.

He had chosen his victims carefully. The tall man was so terrified he would have said anything; when the Enchanter asked him how his sick mother was he stammered that she was improving, sir. The crowd applauded.

“Indeed she is.” The Enchanter waved his maimed hand for silence. “And I prophecy this. By Lightson her fever will have diminished. She will sit up and call for you, my friend. She will live ten more years. I see your grandchildren on her knee.”

The man could not speak. Attia was disgusted to see tears in his eyes.

The crowd murmured. Perhaps they were less convinced, because when the Enchanter came to Attia, he turned to face them suddenly.

“It is easy, some of you are thinking, to speak of the future.” He raised his young face and stared out at them.

“How will we ever know, you’re thinking, whether he is right or wrong? And you are right to doubt. But the past, my friends, the past is a different thing. I will tell you now of this girl’s past.”

Attia tensed.

Perhaps he sensed her fear, because a slight smile curled his lips. He stared at her, his eyes slowly glazing, becoming distant, dark as the night. Then he lifted his gloved hand and touched her forehead.

“I see,” he whispered, “a long journey. Many miles, many weary days of walking. I see you crouched like a beast. I see a chain about your neck.”

Attia swallowed. She wanted to jerk away. Instead she nodded, and the crowd was silent.

The Enchanter took her hand. He clasped his own around it and his gloved fingers were long and bony. His voice was puzzled. “I see strange things in your mind, girl. I see you climbing a tall ladder, fleeing from a great Beast, flying in a silver ship above cities and towers. I see a boy. His name is Finn. He has betrayed you. He has left you behind and though he promised to return, you fear he never will. You love him, and you hate him. Is that not true?”

Attia’s face was scorching. Her hand shook. “Yes,” she breathed.

The crowd was transfixed.

The Enchanter stared at her as if her soul were transparent; she found she could not look away. Something was happening to him, a strangeness had come into his face, behind his eyes. Small bright glints shone on his coat. The glove felt like ice around her fingers.

“Stars,” he said breathlessly. “I see the stars. Under them a golden palace, its windows bright with candles. I see it through the keyhole of a dark doorway. It is far, far away. It is Outside.”

Amazed, Attia stared at him. His grasp on her hand hurt but she couldn’t move. His voice was a whisper. “There is a way Out. Sapphique found it. The keyhole is tiny, tinier than an atom. And the eagle and the swan spread their wings to guard it.”

She had to move, break this spell. She glanced aside. People crowded the edges of the arena; the bear guard, seven jugglers, dancers from the troupe. They stood as still as the crowd.

“Master,” she whispered.

His eyes flickered.

He said, “You search for a Sapient who will show you the way Out. I am that man.” His voice strengthened; he swung to the crowd. “The way that Sapphique took lies through the Door of Death. I will take this girl there and I will bring her back!”

The audience roared. He led Attia by the hand out into the center of the smoky space. Only one torch guttered. There was a couch. He motioned her to lie on it. Terrified, she swung her legs up.

In the crowd someone cried out, and was instantly hushed.

Bodies craned forward, a stench of heat and sweat.

The Enchanter held up his black-gloved hand. “Death,” he said. “We fear it. We would do anything to avoid it. And yet Death is a doorway that opens both ways. Before your eyes, you will see the dead live.”

The couch was hard. She gripped the sides. This was what she had come for.

“Behold,” the Enchanter said.

He turned and the crowd moaned, because in his hand was a sword. He was drawing it out of the air; slowly it was unsheathed from darkness, the blade glittering with cold blue light. He held it up, and unbelievably, miles above them in the remote roof of the Prison, lightning flickered.

The Enchanter stared up; Attia blinked.

Thunder rumbled like laughter.

For a moment everyone listened to it, tensed for the Prison to act, for the streets to fall, the sky to roll away, the gas and the lights to pin them down.

But Incarceron did not interfere.

“My father the Prison,” the Enchanter said quickly, “watches and approves.”

He turned.

Metal links hung from the couch; he fastened them around Attia’s wrists. Then a belt was looped over her neck and waist. “Keep very still,” he said. His bright eyes explored her face. “Or the danger is extreme.”

He turned to the crowd. “Behold,” he cried. “I will release her. And I will bring her back!”

He raised the sword, both hands on the grip, the point hovering over her chest. She wanted to cry out, gasp “No,” but her body was chilled and numb, her whole attention focused on the glittering, razor-sharp point.

Before she could breathe, he plunged it into her heart.

This was death.

It was warm and sticky and there were waves of it, washing over her like pain. It had no air to breathe, no words to speak. It was a choking in her throat.

And then it was pure and blue and as empty as the sky she had seen Outside, and Finn was in it, and Claudia, and they were sitting on golden thrones, and they turned to look at her.

And Finn said, “I haven’t forgotten you, Attia. I’m coming back for you.”

She could only manage one word, and as she said it she saw his shock.

“Liar.”

She opened her eyes.

Her hearing seemed to pop, to come back from somewhere far; the crowd was roaring and howling with joy, and the fastenings were undone. The Enchanter was helping her up. She stared down and saw that the blood on her clothes was shriveling, vanishing away; that the sword in his hand was clean; that she could stand. She took a great breath and her eyes cleared; she saw that people were on the buildings and roofs, hanging on awnings, leaning out of windows, that the storm of applause went on and on, a screaming tide of adoration.

And the Dark Enchanter gripped her hand and made her bow with him, and his gloved fingers held the sword high above the crowd as the jugglers and dancers discreetly moved in to collect the rain of coins that showered like falling stars.

When it was all over, when the crowd was streaming away, she found herself standing in the corner of the square clutching her arms around herself. A low pain burned in her chest. A few women clustered at the door that the Enchanter had entered, their sick children already in their arms. Attia breathed out slowly. She felt stiff, and stupid. She felt as if some great explosion had deafened and stunned her.

Quickly, before anyone noticed, she turned and ducked under the awnings, past the bear pit, through the ragged camp of the jugglers. One of them saw her, but stayed sitting by the fire they had lit, cooking slivers of meat.

Attia opened a small door under an overhanging roof and slipped in.

The room was dark.

He was sitting in front of a smeared mirror lit only by a single guttering candle, and he looked up and saw her in the glass.

As she watched he took off the black wig, unfurled his missing finger, wiped the smooth makeup from his lined face, tossed the ragged coat on the floor.

Then he leaned his elbows on the table and gave her a gaptoothed grin. “An excellent performance,” he said.

She nodded. “I told you I could do it.”

“Well, I’m convinced, sweetie. The job’s yours, if you still want it.” He slipped a wad of ket into his cheek and began to chew.

Attia glanced around. There was no sign of the Glove.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I want it.”

Catherine Fisher © Sapphique 2010

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