Hearts of Stone: Star-Crossed (Book 1)
Noxhaven is a vast, vertical megapolis, where the privileged thrive in Uppercity, while the marginalized communities struggle in segregation on the ground level of Lowercity. While life is far from perfect, it has only grown more complicated with the inexplicable appearance of curious, plant-human hybrids. The mandracals, as they’re so called, have become a new race altogether, and they’re nearly as feared to the masses as the expansive Mist that surrounds the few remaining cities of the threatened planet Gaiath. However, to the ostracized and enigmatic goyles who live far beneath the city streets, calling Undercity home, these new beings are revered for their potential and purpose.
After emerging from the Mist, Sakura awoke abandoned in the seedy, darkened, neon-lit streets of Lowercity without any memory of who she was or where she came from. Reborn as a mandracal, her dark hair transformed into a light pink, and her scalp sprouted vines. As lost as she was, she managed to locate others like herself who offered their support. Finding scraps of information on her origins, she tenaciously discovers a way to return to Uppercity, in the hopes of sparking her memory and being reunited with her family, whom she believes will welcome her back. Instead, she finds herself in the clutches of the unforgiving authorities and quickly, thereafter, embarks on an alarming, yet thrilling ride.
When Sakura meets Sylvan, a silvery goyle who insists on protecting her, she is made aware of a great many truths, including what exactly she now is. In addition to discovering more about herself, she uncovers a noble purpose. Determined to join Sylvan’s cause and make a difference, Sakura realizes she’s not just being swept off her feet by his gallant dedication, but also by his personality and charm...
Excerpts from Star-Crossed:
I forgot myself completely as I surveyed him, taking careful measure of his exceptional stature and the confident way with which he held himself. As I shamelessly scanned him up and down, something innate in me hummed. No. It purred.
Safe, honorable, gallant, safe, honorable, gallant, safe, honorable, gallant, it seemed to be repeating, echoing between the chambers of my heart, whirling through my mind, and reverberating off my very bones.
Why!? What in Maker's green Gaiath about this hulking, savage-looking creature screamed nonviolent and noble? What was wrong with me? Had going through the Mist a second time screwed with my better judgment?
Then, I noticed something. Something about him that helped lend him a more human air.
Back at the jail, under the cover of night, they had gleamed golden and pupil-less. Now, here in this cave, they possessed whites, like any man, and pupils as well. His irises retained that honey wheat color, speckled with flecks of shimmering gold.
The full force of those eyes came down upon me, but rather than the maelstrom I expected, his gaze was more like a crack of light in the consuming dark that the spitting fire did little to dispel. They fled quicker than I was able to analyze as he shifted his attention to his own two hands. Raising them slightly, and with practiced channeling movements, new, scintillating sparkles danced between the goyle's palms. Again, that otherworldly scent wafted to my nose, like a breath of something divine, coiling around and through me, leaving a mildly-sweet aftertaste in my mouth and suffusing me with the vague impression it was sublimely ethereal, beyond the limits of this or any single planet. With perfect composure, the goyle male summoned forth several rippling bands of spring-green stardust, as bright as gleaming emeralds, and sent them floating on a phantom breeze in my direction.
"You're one of them now," spat the woman whose neck seemed positively weighted down by the sheer number of pearls in every natural color possible adorning it. They, along with all the rest of her glittering jewelry, flashed as dangerously as her eyes in my direction. Her long, black hair was styled into an elegant plait, and a dainty, impractical hat embellished with flowers and feathers rested at an angle atop her head. "You don't belong here anymore. You even stink like the gutter you must have crawled out from," she scoffed, pinching her nose showily. "Remove yourself from my property before I locate my better judgment and call for the police! This single warning is the only kindness I shall spare you."
Against all odds, I had found my old neighborhood. Under the buttery, unfiltered sunlight here at this elevation, I had recognized its spiraled cypress trees lining the sidewalks and the assortment of topiaries in the substantial yards belonging to affluent people, some even expertly trimmed into masterpieces with the likeness of far-off exotic animals. Lawns were as ordinary here as dirt and rocks were in Lowercity. Children laughed in carefree bliss as they chased one another unsupervised down the sidewalks in perfect comfort, fearless. From under obscenely-wide-brimmed hats, wives gossiped with one another in their back gardens over tea, while the smoky aroma of various meats wafted through the area from their barbecues, tended to by professional cooks.
Overhead, a transparent dome (one of many) protected the neighborhood from any amount of city smog billowing from the innumerable smokestacks in the distance (doubtless in segregated sections), which looked to be so thick, it had to be hard to breathe in or see through. The deflector shield was generated using some sort of advanced technology, which went over my head (literally and figuratively), but the dome allowed people to pass through unscathed, whilst keeping out harmful particles contaminating the air. It was an extravagance afforded only to Uppercity residents. The rest of the public in the lower districts were left to endure the unfavorable conditions.
Higher than the domes soared great airships of artful construction, most of their varnished hulls so intricately carved, a few of the finer details were even distinguishable from my vantage point. There were ships of all types, some small, single-passenger ornithopters, others large enough to accommodate an entire highrise worth of people. Some were personal aircraft, some commercial, and some, disturbingly, looked military — a massive dreadnaught was frightfully visible in the distance. (Why did Noxhaven even need a military? The metropolis, like all cities had been for over a millennium, was fully isolated. Could it really be for internal affairs?) The ships designs were wide-ranging too, some of their broad gondolas hanging below swollen balloons of various-colored envelopes, outfitted with propellers, masts, and nests, and others even more impressive, lacking a balloon entirely, sleek and made of metal and glass, powered by fossil fuels and airborne by technological means beyond my comprehension.
In fact, all technology here seemed different. Newer. Grander. Less gritty and loud and ugly. Things were smooth and silent in Uppercity, glazed with pastel colors and often decorated with gold filigree — a stark contrast to the harsh neon lights of Lowercity. Several pinnacleborns I'd already passed sported cybernetic prosthetics grafted into them, some appearing to be more for medical purposes, others more lifestyle choices as fashion statements. Never had I seen anything so bizarre. Uppercity as a whole felt like stepping into a futuristic world, one that citizens residing in the lower districts of this megacity never got to witness or even be made aware of. Every square inch of Uppercity seemed to be a blatant, flamboyant status symbol.
While it was near impossible to not succumb to the plethora of distractions, I pressed on in my journey, ever aware of the limited time I had to work with.
Even after I'd laid eyes on the magnificent, three-storied, gold, white, and grey estate, with its columns, balconies, round towers, and decorative flourishes, I hadn't been sure it was mine. Like everything else around these parts, I knew I recognized it, but had it just belonged to one of my old friends or a relative? Only when a servant tending to the well-maintained flowers and plants outside the veranda spotted me, gaped in unmitigated horror for several seconds before squealing, and then hastily retreated inside, did I actually believe the property was worth investigating.
When I finally found my courage to knock on the front double doors, they flung open almost immediately. Instead of the servant, though, another woman — a high lady — stood akimbo before me. Her face was painted to perfection by high-end cosmetics, and her ears, neck, and wrists were bedecked with jewelry. She wore fine clothing consisting of a tightly-laced navy indigo corset squeezing her already-thin frame and layers of petticoats widening her lower silhouette.
Familiar, familiar, familiar, my insides were practically screaming at me. I knew this woman.
Immediately, I got the overwhelming sense of shame and guilt when our eyes met, as if feelings of disappointment were synonymous with this woman. I could feel the humiliation blossoming on my face when I spoke, introducing myself in a small voice as she waited in expectant impatience.
"I am not your mother," the woman had gasped in response with a delicate, gloved hand pressed to her chest, glancing around outside, as if concerned we might be seen together. She chuckled at the mere idea of being related to me. A pure affectation. "Not anymore, at least," she clarified snappishly in a low voice dripping with disgust. "Look at you! You're one of them now. My daughter is dead. You… You are someone who simply wears her face,” she hissed venomously.
Those words were like a brand across my heart, physically searing the disgrace and pain into reality and labeling me for life.
Excerpts from The White Mantle:
Weighing her options as the seconds ticked by, Elvira was only partially aware of the fact that she was unlatching the door to the stall Sir Stompy occupied, and then, with a braver disposition than she felt, slipping the bit into his mouth and the bridle over his head, fastening it with slightly-shaky, yet deft hands.
“Please,” she murmured beseechingly. “I need your help.”
He blew air out of his nose, and Elvira reached up to tenderly pet its velvety fur and coarse whiskers. She blew her own air into that nose of his to calm him.
“You’re stronger than the others. I’m fairly certain you’re faster too. You’re Nell’s favorite for a reason. Let me borrow you, just this once, and you’ll never want for apples ever again.”
If Sir Stompy agreed, he made no indication other than standing sedately with his normally-violently-swishing tail assuredly under control. Elvira glided to his side, positioning herself near his withers, and used the wooden walls of the stall to tentatively climb up to his bare back. He was a few hands shorter than most horse breeds, which made it a little easier to hoist herself up, despite the lack of stirrups, but what he lacked in height, he more than made up for in girth, brawn, and vigor. His legs shifted around slightly at the added weight to his back once she was up, but, to her surprise, he didn’t immediately attempt to buck her off and throw her indignantly to the ground, as she kept imagining.
“Good boy,” she cooed encouragingly into his ear, her heart practically beating out of her chest as she summoned what remained of her fortitude.
Elvira clutched the reins in a death grip, for feeling the raw power of the gelding beneath her was unlike anything she had experienced, and it took her a good moment to find her balance as she lightly kicked his sides with her heels, pressing him forwards out of his stall. She could feel every movement he made, and she got the overwhelming sense that this was a far more cooperative way to ride that allowed the rider to truly connect on a deeper level with the animal below them.
It was also overwhelmingly terrifying.
“And what about the Ascendants?” Elvira countered, as if Nell hadn’t considered that already. “What if I’m caught using aether by someone who’s not a sympathizer? I could spend the rest of my life in a jail somewhere. Even if I’m not reported, and I try to learn to become some sort of local guardian, what will everyone think if I’m suddenly not just Elvira Evenfall anymore? If I’m Elvira, the Aethaumaturge? This is a small town with plenty of small-minded individuals. Not even many technologies are embraced here. What if I’m scorned or shunned?”
“There are no Ascendants on the island,” Nell disputed evenly. Her bright, green eyes were resolute as she pinned Elvira with them, and she looked more self assured than usual. “And since when do you care about societal acceptance and cultural appropriation? If you make your decisions based on everyone else’s judgements and opinions, then you’re not making your choices for the right reasons.”
Elvira let out a sound between a sigh and a roaring groan. “I don’t know. I just...don’t know. This is all too much. I don’t think I’m ready for all this responsibility.”
Nell’s face lightened into an amused smile as she put a hand on Elvira’s shoulder, but unlike her grandfather, the gesture was much more flippant and satirical.
“Welcome to adulthood, my friend.”