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.
Leilani Weaver burst out the door of her father’s shop and glanced back at her mother. “We’ll be late! The launch is in less than an hour.”
Her mother stopped in the doorway and adjusted her coat. She wore her “serene” expression. There was no way to rush her once she’d brought her laugh lines into submission and half closed her eyes. That face meant they were going to walk with decorum and dignity, rather than the speed and efficiency Leilani would’ve preferred. Leilani’s sixteen-year-old sister, Keris, glided through the door behind Mother, her chin tilted up and her eyes squinting in an attempt to imitate her. Leilani rolled her eyes. When Leilani and Keris had been eight and ten, Keris was all sorts of fun. Now she spent all her time pretending to be Mother.
Keris cleared her throat. “Ladies don’t run.”
“And don’t worry, Leilani,” her mother said. “It’s only a twenty minute walk to the water gate.” She reached into the pocket of her gray frock coat and pulled out Father’s brass pocket watch. “We have plenty of time.”
Leilani tried not to grumble. She was too old to sulk or pout, but her mother and sister could be infuriating. Yes, the launch wasn’t for an hour. However, if they weren’t there early, they’d never get close enough to see anything. Everyone in Gelia City would be attending. Well, everyone except Father and little Kip. Father thought taking time off from work for such things was frivolous, and it had taken hours of begging for Leilani and Keris to get the afternoon off.
Competing as a weaver against the larger shops with their mechanized looms was hard. Father was old-fashioned, though, and liked doing things by hand, with care–another reason the launch of the new steambarge was of no interest to him. “Silly Highmost. They have the Strains at their disposal, but they can’t resist puttering around with their clunky machines and noisy contraptions.”
Invisible but ever-present, the Strains held the Commonwealth of Gelia together like mortar around the bricks in the city’s walls. Nothing moved in the city without their touch. Their use divided the folk of Gelia into two classes. The Highmost could use them with strength, but Common, such as Leilani’s family, could coax only small tasks, beggar magic, from the Strains. Common women used them to start fires and to encourage bread to rise, tradesmen to soothe the flaws from the wood and stone they carved, and children to knock fruit and nuts from the highest branches.
Leilani could not remember a time when the Strains did not sing her to sleep at night. They had always been there, like the humming of her father’s loom or the smell of her mother’s baking or the ticking of their prized grandfather clock.
Her father sang to the Strains as he worked, guiding them to keep his threads from twisting or breaking. Her mother had shown her how to whisper them into submission.
The Strains sounded vibrant and happy today. They revealed themselves in an array of different noises: birdsong, instruments, even human voices. Now, they tinkled like bells, and Leilani’s quick steps matched their rhythm. Her high-button shoes tapped against the cobblestone of the narrow streets as she worked her way through the Trade District towards the water gate, one of the three gateways out of the walled city. Here a lock separated the city’s six canals, which were built in concentric circles dividing the city districts, from the Seabound River.
Colorful banners, advertising the wares sold inside, hung from the two- and three-story buildings, built right up against each other. Flower boxes and drying laundry hung over the streets from the upper windows, where most tradesmen and their families lived.
“They say if the barge launch is successful, they might establish a ferry system.” Keris’s voice sounded distant.
Realizing she had pulled too far ahead, Leilani stopped and waited for her mother and sister.
“My friend, Betta, told me she hopes they’ll have a ferry that goes all the way to the sea. I’d like to be able to visit the sea on holidays,” Keris continued.
“That seems a long trip, even by steambarge,” Mother said.
Ahead, the street opened into a wide courtyard, and Leilani sighed in disappointment. A large crowd, easily a hundred strong, crammed together right up to the edge of the canal.
Leilani could tell the Highmost from the Common by the differences in their clothing. Common wore mainly grays and browns, sturdy work trousers and coats with patches on the arms for the men, long skirts and pinafores for the women. The Highmost dressed in bright colors, and many wore long ‘manor robes’–pretentious, ankle-length things–over their clothes. The men wore top hats and tails, and while some of the Highmost women were daring enough to wear bloomer pants and tunics, most sported bustles and ruffled frock coats with pearl buttons. Both kept to tight groups, choosing not to intermingle.
Leilani’s cousin Heddie waved from a knot of other textile shop owners and their families. Like all of Leilani’s family, she stood out among the fair-haired Gelians. Leilani never feared getting lost in a crowd. Her straight black hair, dark eyes, and small frame kept her from blending in. Both Leilani’s paternal and maternal grandparents had immigrated from Rynar, fleeing a famine. As skilled tradesmen, they had been easily assimilated into Gelian culture, though they remained a tiny minority of the population.
“Come on. I’ve got us a perch,” Heddie said as Keris and Mother caught up.
Leilani followed her cousin to a stack of crates. Four small boys already sat on them, but they made room for the older girls. From this vantage point, Leilani gazed over heads and hats to the dark waters of the canal. A flat-bottomed boat, perhaps twenty feet in length, with a waterwheel on the back end bobbed in the water. Four rows of wooden benches sat ready for passengers, though at the moment only a city guard in black leather was onboard.
The Strains changed from bells to drumbeats, a rat-a-tat-tat, similar to falling rain but with a touch more order. Leilani tried to focus on the sound, but the mumbling and murmuring of the crowd beneath her proved too much of a distraction. She sighed. If only she could get close enough to observe how the steambarge worked without so many noisy people in the way. Maybe when the excitement died down, she could ride on it and get a look at the engines.
Heddie squealed, “Oh, look what that lady is wearing!” Leilani groaned, but her cousin kept going. “Silks! Red silks. I wish I had dresses like that. Do you ever wish you were Highmost, Leilani? Imagine what we could wear.” Heddie glanced down at her gray, knee-length pinafore and woolen leggings, almost identical to Leilani’s, and wrinkled her nose.
Leilani often considered the perks of being born Highmost, and dresses didn’t even make the top ten. Hearing the Strains with greater clarity, being able to use them to do fantastic things, having your life devoted to studying their music–those things Leilani longed for. Dresses were just silly.
“You know if you had been born Highmost, you would’ve been assigned new parents,” Leilani pointed out. “You really want that?”
Heddie’s grimaced. “Well, Highmost babies are almost never born to Common parents, anyway. Still, it is a nice dream.”
“Who in their right mind would dream about that?” Leilani focused once more on the barge.
A Highmost man climbed onto the deck of the steambarge. He dismissed the guard with a wave of his hand, and silence dropped over the crowd like a woolen blanket. Another man joined the first and began shoveling coal into the firebox. Dark puffs of smoke issued from the stack. The water-wheel on the stern cranked to life, and the barge eased away from its mooring. The crowd cheered.
Leilani clapped a few times, so that she wasn’t the only one not clapping, then watched. She disliked loud noises, even self-made ones. She preferred just the Strains and her own thoughts.
The Strains whistled over the sound of the applause, loud enough that several people winced. Something about their tone made Leilani scrutinize the scene in front of her. The barge was uneven in the water, the prow sticking out at an odd angle.
Is it supposed to look like that?
The wheel turned faster and faster, and the barge lurched. The man standing at the controls lost his footing and toppled with a mighty splash into the dirty canal.
Leilani’s jaw dropped, and her eyes widened in a mix of horror and fascination.
The barge shot down the canal. The remaining crew member dove off. With a crash and a crack, the barge slammed against the wall of the canal and foundered. Steam shot into the air as the furnace sank beneath the water.
The audience gasped and then someone laughed. Soon waves of laughter passed through the crowd, even as someone threw a rope to the waterlogged crewmen. It wasn’t every day the Common got to see a Highmost dripping wet.
Leilani leaped from the crates. “Strains, I’ve never heard anything that loud. Wasn’t that show worth missing a few hours of weaving? Kip’s going to be so jealous.” She chuckled, imagining what her little brother’s face would look like when she told him of the crash.
Her mother shook her head. “Such a waste. Well, it looks as if there will be no launch today. We should get home.”
“But, Mother!” Keris exclaimed. “Father gave us the entire afternoon off. Please, may I go for a walk?”
“By that she means she wants to go flirt with the new apprentice at the carpenter’s shop down the road.” Leilani sniffed.
Keris glared at her. “Jess and I do not flirt. We converse.”
“I didn’t know conversing involved so much eye-batting.” Leilani immediately had to dodge her sister’s shove.
“Quiet, you two.” Her mother looked down the road towards the house and then back at Keris. “I suppose. And you, Leilani, home or your cousins’?”
Leilani winced. Neither option appealed to her. The Strains hummed, enticing her to go some place quiet and listen. “Maybe I could take a walk along the Farmer’s Road? Just until dinner?”
Her mother exhaled a long breath. “I suppose, but please keep your ears open to the Strains. Here.” She handed Leilani her satchel. “I packed a few things for us to snack on, but if you’re going to be running about in the wild, you might want them.”
Leilani grinned, kissed her on the cheek, and darted through the crowd towards the gate.
The Farmer’s Road, one of several leading out of Gelia City into the countryside, was pleasantly empty. She ran until the oak trees obscured the city walls behind her.
Away from the bustle of the city with its gas-lamp-lined streets, she could hear the Strains, like a wild symphony, random yet somehow in constant harmony. She imagined weaving them as her father wove his threads.
She veered off the road into a wood. After several attempts resulting in scraped knees, she managed to climb a small tree and hide in the leaves. She played with the Strains, knocking acorns to the ground. She whistled to the Strains, using her voice to guide the arc of the acorns, managing to get some all the way to the rotted-out tree lying at the edge of the clearing.
The Strains warbled a strident call that stood apart from their usual melody. Leilani stopped and tilted her head to the side. She heard a sniffling and mewling followed by a rustling from a nearby thicket. She froze. While she had yet to encounter anything remotely dangerous, she was mindful of the possibility of bears or bandits. She pressed her back into the rough bark of the tree.
A girl, roughly Leilani’s age, stumbled out of the bramble. Twigs and leaves stuck out of her downy strawberry-blonde hair. Her reddened, upturned nose dripped. She wore a dirty purple robe and one suede slipper. As she walked, she favored her bare foot.
Seeing the girl’s distress, Leilani swung her legs off the branch and braced herself to jump. Before she could leave the safety of the tree, however, the girl gave a frustrated shriek and threw her hands skyward. Following her motion, the Strains tossed the fallen tree several feet into the air. It landed with a cracking of branches in the bracken.
Leilani gaped as the girl sank to her knees, sobbing hysterically. The fear that had risen in Leilani’s heart at the girl’s outburst died, and Leilani called out, “Are you all right?”
The other child took in a hissing breath and staggered to her feet. Leilani dropped to the ground.
The girl shook her head. “I’m lost.”
Leilani nodded. The girl’s power and wardrobe meant she had to be Highmost. Highmost lived in the Manor District, not on farms. How had she ended up here?
Leilani cleared her throat. “My name is Leilani. Where did you come from, and where are you trying to get to?”
The girl smiled and gave a relieved sigh. “I’m Zebedy, but you can call me Zeb. I suppose I am going where I came from, the Country House.”
“Do you know where this house is?”
“You leave the city by a gate and go down a road for about an hour by coach,” Zebedy answered with an eager nod.
Leilani had little patience for stupidity. She narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth to snap at Zebedy. Before she could speak, however, the Strains chimed, like the tinkling bell that announced when someone entered her father’s shop. She paused.
Her mother had told her to listen to the Strains’ urgings. “They are your guardians, given by the Maker, and they can guide you if you let them. They will not lead you astray.”
Leilani tempered her annoyance and spoke softly. “Which gate? The main gate, the trade gate, or the water gate?”
“Oh, well, the one with the blue banners and the statue of the swan.”
“The main gate, then.” Leilani reached under her cloak for her purse. She opened it and rummaged for her snacks. “Are you hungry?” She offered Zebedy a dried apple.
The Highmost girl took it. “Thank you.” She chewed and swallowed. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I didn’t mean to go so far, but the further I walked the louder the Strains grew, and they are so beautiful.”
Leilani nodded. “That’s why I come here too.”
Zebedy’s face brightened. “They were telling me all about the trees, about the birds who nest in the tops and the different bugs who hide amongst the leaves. What did they say to you?”
Leilani blushed. “I’m not Highmost. I hear their music but not their words. They really speak to you like that? As if they were people?”
“Oh yes, they say all sorts of things: songs, stories, even jokes. The trainers don’t like to admit it, but some Strains can be very funny.”
Leilani’s mouth quirked in momentary dissatisfaction, but not wanting Zeb to see her jealousy, she forced a weak smile.
Zeb scanned from one end of the clearing to the other. “In the city if I get turned around, I can send the Strains to scout ahead for me, find street signs and the like, but they can only see about twenty feet away from me. Here, in every direction there are trees, trees, trees. All trees look alike, even to the Strains.”
Leilani exhaled slowly. “If you came out the main gate, your house is probably to the west.”
Zebedy just blinked, so Leilani pointed through the trees.
“That way. I can show you.”
The girls walked together in the pale green shadows of the leafy branches. Zeb’s tears dried, and she began to babble.
“I’m going to be fourteen in a week. When you’re fourteen, the trainers take you on manor tours to see which one suits you best, though you can’t join a manor until you’re sixteen. I’m a year ahead, so I hope they’ll make an exception and let me enroll at fifteen. I want to be with Research. They get to play with pretty much every use of the Strains. The other manors are more restrictive, but I’ll take anything, really, except maybe Civics. Civics can be dreadfully dull. One of my classmates at the Country House’s mother is Civics, and all she does is paperwork, making sure guards get paid and streets are swept. I’d never be able to stay awake through all that. What do your parents do? Mine are both in the Weather Manor.”
“My father’s a weaver,” Leilani answered, with a shrug. Weaving had never interested her as a topic of conversation.
Zeb frowned, her eyes clouding.
“He’s a tradesman.”
No reaction, but the frown remained.
“He makes cloth. Sells it to dress shops and tailors or just to the women at market.”
“Oh! I bet he knows Marrine, the seamstress at the Weather Manor. She buys cloth all the time.”
“Maybe, but he’s not the only weaver in Gelia City, you know. There are at least a dozen weaver shops in the Trade District.” Leilani rolled her eyes but forced her face to soften when Zebedy blushed and fell silent. “What do they do at the Weather Manor?” Leilani asked quickly.
“Oh, they predict weather, chart trends, suggest when farmers should plant, and try to intervene if something is going very much awry–to stop catastrophic storms and whatnot. My parents talk about rain a lot.” Zebedy laughed and smiled again. Her eyes had cleared, and as the redness faded from her nose, freckles emerged like stars popping into the night sky. She had high, delicate cheekbones and almost invisible eyebrows. Though almost a year younger than Leilani, Zeb stood a good hand taller. Now, Zeb studied Leilani’s face.
“You’re–” Zeb cleared her throat.
“Rynaran? Yes,” Leilani interrupted her, ready to snap if Zeb said anything demeaning. For the most part, Gelians had accepted her people, but they still sometimes said things that made her want to slap them.
“Is it true the Strains don’t sing in Rynar?” Zeb asked.
Leilani frowned. “I’ve never been to Rynar, but my grandmother said she never heard them until their ship landed in Gelia. She thinks the Strains may belong here and here alone, like Gelian wrens or the golden spotted fish which swim in every pond in Rynar but are never seen in Gelia.”
Zeb nodded. “I can’t imagine living without the Strains.”
“Neither can I,” Leilani agreed.
The trees thinned as they approached a rutted dirt road. Recognizing it as one of the back roads leading towards the main thoroughfare, Leilani stepped out and glanced up at the skies.
The sun had dropped below the treeline ahead of them. Leilani had told her mother she’d be back in time for dinner. If she turned back now, she might make it, barely. She gave Zeb a sideways glance.
“This will lead to the highway coming from the main gate. Can you find your way from there?”
Zeb opened her mouth, closed it again, and shrugged. “Maybe.”
Leilani sighed, loudly. “I hope it’s not too far. It will be dark soon.”
The two girls pushed on. The shadows lengthened across the road. Zebedy whispered to the Strains, and the air around her hands began to glow, shining pink through her fingers. It made her bones visible and cast a circle of light about them. Entranced, Leilani touched the other girl’s hands. She exhaled slowly.
“I didn’t even know they could make light. I wish I could do that.”
“Here.” Zeb took Leilani’s left hand about the wrist and hummed.
Leilani’s skin tingled and came alight. She smiled.
“Come on.” Leilani tugged at Zeb’s arm. “Let’s get you home.”
An owl hooted in the distance, and Zeb flinched. As if in response, Leilani’s fingers blinked out. Regret filled her chest. Well, it had been nice to touch something more than beggar magic, if only for a moment.
A twig cracked somewhere nearby. This time Leilani jumped. She pushed Zeb a little harder, trying to concentrate on the Strains and not her own morbid imagination. “We need to walk faster.”