Here is a sneak peek at the beginning of The Madness Project… Chapter 1 has been up for a while so make sure you read that first.
Chapter 2 — Tarik
It rained the day before I turned seventeen, but then, it always rained on my birthday. Sometimes I imagined it never stopped from one birthday to the next. This was Cavnal, the rainy center of the universe, where even sunny days felt damp and the streets of Brinmark never dried.
I’d already spent near half the day with Zagger, driving along all the old palace roads in my family’s smashing new motorcar. Zagger had been in love with that hellish machine from the first moment he’d seen it; I’d never seen him quite as excited as the day my father told him he could drive it. Of course, I imagined I was the only person in Brinmark who thought the thing was hideous, with its chattering engine and the stench of oily steam coiling about it. After riding in it for what felt like an eternity I decided there were only two things I liked about the motorcar: the warmth from the steam that drove off the frigid grey cold of the Marras day, and the windows and roof that kept the blowing rain from drenching me.
Zagger never said it, but I imagined he had strict orders from my father to keep me inside the Oval Wall and well under wraps anyway. I don’t know how my father could always tell when I got the notion to run off somewhere I didn’t belong. It was the only time he seemed to notice me at all. By now I could predict with almost clockwork accuracy when he would call me in for a lecture after one of my larks.
Growing up I’d spent endless nights fearing that he’d finally weary of hiding my secret from the world, and would send an assassin to my room at night to rid him quietly of his problem. I should have known better. Killing the Crown Prince is generally bad for public opinion, after all, not to mention it would have displeased my mother. Even after all that had happened, I believed my father still loved her, almost as much as he loved his nation. So he let me live, though deep inside I knew that he had killed me long ago in his heart.
The motorcar purred to stop, drawing me out of my thoughts. Zagger had pulled up along the old wooden fence out east of the palace, past the Ministry buildings. At one time—not so long ago that I couldn’t remember it—it had enclosed an ancient hemlock grove that the foolish myths said were sacred. Now it circled the palace airfield, corralling half a dozen biplanes waiting to be admired, their sleek aluminium bodies the only bright thing in all the dreary wet light.
Just one of the aeroplanes braved the weather today. I watched from the motorcar as it glided down to skate the landing strip, then took to the clouds again. Steam plumed like a silk scarf from the engine, a blur of white in a world washed in grey.
I pushed back the glass window that divided Zagger’s cab from the rear seat and said, “That’ll be Griff. I should’ve known that idiot would be flying today.”
Zagger snorted. “He’d fly in a blizzard if he could. You’re not getting out, are you?”
I chewed at my nail and stared out at the cold rain streaking the windows, the half-bare branches of the avenue beeches shivering in the wind. I’d nearly made up my mind to tell Zagger to drive on when I caught sight of Samyr pedaling her bicycle along the road toward us. She must have gotten caught when the rain started, because she didn’t have a hat and her wool coat sagged under the constant wet. I grinned and let myself out of the car, leaning against the fence to wait for her.
“Hullo, Samyr!” I called.
“Oh, you’re here,” she said. Her bicycle squeaked to a stop beside me and she dropped a booted foot to the ground to steady herself. “Thought you might be off on some mad adventure today.”
I jerked my head toward the motorcar and said blandly, “Zagger wanted to show off his driving skills.”
“Ah,” she said. “Did he take you out into the city?”
“Stars, no,” I said, squinting at her through the gusting rain. “Just around inside the Wall. And around…and around…”
Samyr smothered a laugh and I bit my tongue as Zagger climbed out of the motorcar. The devil, he probably knew we were talking about him. I wanted to tell him to stay in the motorcar where it was dry, but he would never obey an order like that. He stood stalwartly a few paces away from us, ignoring the rain that drenched him, a painted backdrop to our scene.
“What about you?” I asked Samyr, holding the handlebars of her bicycle so she could dismount. “Tell me you didn’t just fancy a bicycle ride in a monsoon.”
“I came to watch Griff. I promised I would. And I actually thought it would be a nice day because, you know, it was only drizzling this morning.”
I looked pointedly at the sky and she shrugged.
“I know. Silly of me,” she said. “Is that him up there?”
I nodded. “I think his brains have got a bit scrambled from too much flying, if he had any to start with.”
“Tarik! You’re such an…”
She bit her tongue on the word, cheeks flaming.
“Such a what?” I asked, wicked.
“Shush. I spend too much time with you and Griff, that’s all. You should be ashamed, y’know, saying such things around me.”
“Oh, come on,” I said, jogging her with my elbow. “When did you start wanting to play the lady, Miss Von?”
She pouted and rested the bicycle against the fence, her chestnut hair scattering a shower of raindrops. I took off my black cap and settled it on her head.
“Thank you,” she said, teeth chattering. “But you should keep it. What would your father do if you caught your death and he found out it was because you’d given me your hat?”
Celebrate, I thought, and said, “I suppose he’d execute you on the spot. Nice and quick, no fuss. Although, it’s rather a terrible hat. He might execute me first for wearing it in public. Not very fashionable, you know.”
She laughed and shoved me. Zagger didn’t even twitch, though he met my quick glance with some faint sort of smile. With most people, if they got too close to me he was there like a watchdog, all growls and raised hackles. But Samyr and Griff he’d known their whole lives. He’d stopped trying to teach them respect years ago.
Another gust of wind drove the rain stinging into our faces, and Samyr yelped and shielded her eyes. Even the other aviators had more sense than us, abandoning Griff’s little show at the landing strip to claim refuge in the clubhouse. One lone boxy stood under the meager shelter of an umbrella, peering into his enormous camera to snap pictures of the steam plane for the Herald.
I rubbed my hands, wishing I’d remembered my leather gloves. And Samyr had to be colder than me, in her knee-length skirt and stockinged legs. Her nose and cheeks had gone red—not a charming rosy pink, but the raw, chafed red that would prickle now and burn later. She shivered and pressed her thick woolen mittens against her face so that only her eyes showed, grey as the sky but bright as raindrops.
“You’re sure about staying?” I asked her. “We can give you a ride in the motorcar, if you like. I’m sure Zagger could find a way to stick your bicycle on the boot.”
Zagger grimaced but didn’t say a word.
Samyr stared a moment at the motorcar, running her mittened hand over its glossy copper trim. “I’ve always wanted to ride in this thing,” she said, and sighed. “But you know Griff would kill you if he knew you came but didn’t stay to say hullo.”
“Stars, I really don’t give a—”
I grinned and leaned on the fence. Griff brought his plane in for another brief landing, the wheels churning up a chalky spray along the river that was the supposed to be the runway. I held up my hand, hoping he’d notice and get the hint before Samyr and I turned to icicles waiting for him. But he kept whipping that creaking aeroplane through drill after drill. Land, take off. Land, take off. The plane’s airscrew clacked and whirred, sputtering complaints through the sheeting rain. I didn’t blame it.
“I think he’s just showing off, now,” Samyr said. “He must have seen us ages ago.”
I snorted. “Showing off, or maybe just ignoring us. I suppose he thinks that if he flies the wings off that thing, his father will give him a commission in the Air Patrol a half year early.”
“Not a chance. Try telling that to Griff, though. You know he’s always had his head in the sky.”
I tapped my forehead and Samyr laughed.
“Tarik,” she said, settling her arms against the railing. “Don’t you want to learn to fly? My brother does. Seems like all the Ministry boys do.”
“Of course they do,” I said. “If Griff decided climbing bell towers was a grand bit of fun, they’d be lining up for that too.”
I hesitated a fraction too long, and turned a shade too pale. Of all the things I could have said, why did I mention bell towers? A half-buried memory flashed through my mind, dragging a shudder through me. I hadn’t made it to the top. Not quite. But I was mad to have gone as high as I did.
Maybe I blushed then, or maybe my silence gave me away, because Samyr’s eyes widened suddenly.
“You didn’t!” she gasped.
My mouth twitched; I wouldn’t look at her.
“Mr. Zagger,” she said, “did you know about that?”
I winced and shot him a glance over my shoulder. Part of me wanted to laugh at the murderous glare he leveled on me, but I couldn’t quite force it out past the sting of regret. That was a fall I had never wanted him to learn about.
Then, hoping he’d understand and not harass me with questions later, I said, “It was a couple of years ago.”
When I was fifteen. The worst year of my life.
His brows constricted, barely, turning his anger to sadness. I nodded.
Samyr missed the whole exchange, though, because she’d turned around to watch Griff’s plane.
“You’d do that,” she said. “You’d climb up a bell tower and you refuse to fly a plane? Griff says they’re even safer than those motorcars.”
“You don’t really figure me for a modock, do you?” I asked, making her laugh with my best imitation of the cocky aviator swagger.
I didn’t tell her how terrified heights made me now. Just kept watching the aeroplane as it looped over the aerodrome, until it pitched into a climb and disappeared into the sodden clouds.
“You know it’d cause a proper buzz if you ever decided to do it,” Samyr said. “I’d have thought you’d be yamming for the chance.”
“Whatever was that for?” Samyr asked.
But Zagger just cleared his throat and clapped his hands together behind his back, and pretended not to see either of us.
Samyr glared at him and turned back to me, shaking my elbow. “Come on, Tarik, what’d he mean by that?”
I scraped my nails against the rough wood of the rail, pulling off splinters one at a time. One stuck me in the nail bed and I stared at it apathetically before pulling it out with my teeth. Samyr gave me a strange look.
“I don’t care to be in the limelight, that’s all,” I said finally, kicking the fence post. “Zagger knows that better than anyone.”
“Oh, really,” she said. “It’s all you boys do. Fight over whose picture ends up on the front page of the Herald.”
I lifted a shoulder in a shrug. If she didn’t believe me yet, she wouldn’t believe me telling her it was all a lie. All a show. I flicked a glance back at Zagger just in time to see the corner of his mouth twitch, amused because he knew me better than anyone.
All at once his smile faded. He drew up, his eyes flashing to focus on something behind us. I spun around just as a couple of aviators and a handful of mechanics in grubs streamed from the clubhouse, shouting and pointing. The boxy stood frozen, his camera forgotten, as Griff’s plane streaked from the clouds with its nose wreathed in flames.
For an endless moment I stood paralyzed, watching the wings dip and jerk as Griff fought to bring the plane down. An acrid stench of fuel oil gusted across the aerodrome in the raging wind. And suddenly I realized what was happening.
The blood drained from my face.
I vaulted over the fence, Zagger dogging my heels, his shouts muffled by the rush of blood in my ears.
The plane sagged and convulsed. Black smoke poured from the engine.
“Griff!” I screamed. “Land the damn plane, Griff!”
I hit the muddy ditch that edged the landing strip, my feet slipping in the sludge. Then Zagger was on me. His arm flashed around me, driving me behind him in one dizzying motion. I spun away but he grabbed me again. This time he pinned me against him in a grip so tight I could barely breathe. I struck at him, swearing, screaming at him to let me go, choking on rain and horror and fear.
The plane slammed hard onto the ground with a noise like hellfire. It rocked and swerved as it skidded past us, a flaming coffin to bury my best friend.
Chapter 3 — Hayli
“Hayli, you made it! I dan’ believe it!”
Jig’s voice drifted into my grey-blurred world a half tick before my vision focused. I couldn’t feel a grobbing thin
g yet. It always took a minute after I Shifted, a terrifying minute of nothingness like the world had disappeared out from under me. I waited, and didn’t move, counting one to ten. I didn’t even breathe.
Then all at once feeling buzzed through me like a horde of wee ants. I felt each one of my ten fingers, felt my boots planted on rough wet rock, felt my face catching the drizzle on my bare skin. Sometimes I imagined I could still feel the prickle of feathers even after they’d faded, but not today. Today I only knew the cold, cold rain and the wind in my hair.
I made it.
I perched bird-like atop the high Oval Wall, and as everything came clear around me, I got a good goggle at two whole different worlds.
On my right, the city street threaded away between rainy buildings and rainy trees, with inky newspapers stuck like skin to the cobblestones and lampposts. Not many people out today. Too wet, too cold. Sensible folks stayed in when the weather turned, come bleak autumn and all its bad attitude. At least, the folks who had a place to go stayed in. Maybe they were sensible, or maybe just rich and spoiled. I sure couldn’t say.
I shifted to the balls of my feet and peered to my left, trying to get a better look onto the palace grounds. The half-bare elms and beeches crowded my view of the avenue, a twisty kaleidoscope of golds and coppery reds. I could see bits of the street and the walkway well enough, and somewhere past the shaking branches I glimpsed the sprawling palace itself, gleaming palest blue and white in spite of all the rain.
I was fair sure I’d only ever seen it in pictures before, and now I stared and kept staring, because it was bigger than I’d ever dreamed. Fancy stone buildings with ribbed columns and black-slate roofs scattered around far as I could see. I guessed they were Ministry buildings. Useless spaces for useless people, Jig would say. I reckoned he thought a king was too much law already, without a mess of Ministers mucking up the works.
Derrin had told me once that the palace was like its own little world. I didn’t believe him then, but I did now. I switched my gaze back and forth a couple of times for the full effect. To the right, everything sulked grey and sullen as a wet cat. And to the left, the fallen leaves made a glimmery carpet, as if rain inside the Oval Wall was made of fire instead of water. They even smelled fine, too, not like the manky, musty stench of leaves too long in the gutters.
I bet the folks palace-side don’t reek much either. Lucky devils.
“Hayli, d’you see it?” Jig called up from somewhere below, city-side, grey and wet.
I didn’t answer, because I’d been too busy staring down to remember to look up.
“Shut up, Jig!” I said, talking through my teeth. “Give me a second.”
I peered north and east, scanning the skies. I’d seen the aeroplane swooping about just minutes before—or, at least, I hoped it was minutes before—but it had disappeared now. Maybe I’d missed it. Maybe I’d taken too long trying to get up onto the Wall. But Jig was still here, which meant I couldn’t have taken forever Shifting. Jig had the patience of a flea, and the fact that Kantian had forced him to pair up with me again likely had him fitsier than ever.
I squinted at the sky and wished I still had my bird-sharp eyes.
And then I saw it.
The aeroplane catapulted from the clouds, streaming smoke like a banner. A knot twisted my stomach. That beautiful plane was crashing. The aviator…
“He got him,” I choked. “It’s gannin’ down. Why’d we have to…”
My voice died as the plane disappeared beyond the trees. But I kept staring, my breath clenched in my teeth, waiting for the telltale plume of red flame and black smoke. But none came.
I turned about carefully on my narrow perch. Jig had climbed up onto the roof of a hack stand and crouched there like a lean black cat, watching me through those wild dark eyes of his, his ebony hair slashing his vision into ribbons.
“He landed it!” I whispered, too excited. “It div’n crash!”
Jig swore and flicked his hair from his eyes. “Any sign of an alarm?”
I scanned the palace grounds, but didn’t see any rush of activity streaking for the air field. Heard no wailing siren. No panic. None of the things we’d expected.
“No,” I said. “It div’n work.”
Jig didn’t move for a bit, and he didn’t say a word. He had that dark, stony edge to him, the kind that made me want to keep away from him. He was a knife. Thin and cold and sharp.
Finally he hissed a sigh and said, “Damn. We’ll have to try anyway.” He tilted his head back and fixed me with a stare. “Can you get me in? There too many guards?”
I frowned and shifted about for a peek. A guard paced the sidewalk below, rain water streaming off his helmet, the once-white plume all scraggly as a stray dog’s tail. He wore a grey wool greatcoat that I wanted bad, but one look at the rifle on his shoulder and the muscles in his neck convinced me I didn’t.
Jig could’ve taken him out, but Jig couldn’t get onto the Wall, which was precisely why I was up there and he wasn’t…why I’d finally had to let him in on my secret. And it was pretty near a miracle that I’d got up there at all. First time I’d ever managed the likes of it—planning where I wanted to go after I Shifted and actually getting there the first try, and not even taking days to do it. The thought got me all giddy with pride, and all I could think was how I couldn’t wait to tell Derrin I’d done it.
“Come on, Hayli,” Jig said, interrupting my bout of self-congratulations. “Gan on and get me through sometime the year, like!”
I ground my teeth and focused. Through the golden mesh of beech leaves I already glimpsed the next patrol coming our way. His steps matched the first guard’s so perfectly, they were like copies of each other. Left, right, left, right. And I was supposed to fly down there in the grey daylight and find Jig a way onto the palace grounds.
I could just glimpse the rain grate I’d spotted some hours ago from outside the wall, with its interior padlock that I’d sworn I’d be able to pick. Only trouble was, the guards should have left when Scorch zotzed the aeroplane, so I could work at the lock in a bit of peace—because honestly, lock-picking wasn’t my greatest skill.
That was the plan. Of course, nothing ever went according to the plan, not to mention the plan was pretty rubbish anyway.
“Can’t,” I told Jig. “Too many guards.”
He arched one black brow and waved both hands like that could push me over the edge. I knew he had a mind to run up the wall at me, but he’d be an idiot to try. Nine feet was his limit, and only then if he had some handholds. Maybe he was two years older than me, but even at eighteen he was hardly a hand taller. Not that anyone would slag him about it, because he’d tear them to pieces and never even blink.
“Shift, Hayli,” he insisted. “That was grobbing fantastic! Turn bird again and they’ll never see.” He paused, dark eyes glittering. “I’ll lend you my knife.”
I shuddered and leaned far as I could over the edge of the wall, hoping the guards wouldn’t hear us yapping. “I dan’ need a knife. And I dan’ want to Shift again. I barely made it this time!”
“Well,” he said. “You’ve got to do something to get down again.”
I jutted my lip and scowled. He had a point. I hadn’t exactly thought that far ahead. Derrin’s advice for the first stage was to start small—flying from the ground up to the wall. He’d said that maybe if I had a tiny goal, I’d be able to manage it, and of course he was right. Because if I was a lousy lock-picker, I was an even lousier Shifter. Kantian just had to use me because I was the only shape-shifter around.
I jerked my felt cap down hard over my hair. Sometimes I hated my gift. Sometimes it made me feel shoddy as a second-class mage with a second-class gift. What good was a gift you couldn’t control, anyway?
Jig wasn’t a Moth. He’d never understand how I couldn’t see with my own eyes or remember where I’d been…or where I meant to go. Because maybe I’d end up in the right place, or maybe I’d wake up in Ridgemark two weeks from now after spending a romping time as a crow, eating dead things or whatever it is crows do. Maybe I’d die a crow somewhere out there and no one would ever know how I’d ended.
I didn’t want to fail again.
“Jig,” I whispered. “What if they catch me?”
He narrowed his eyes. He might’ve looked angry, only he was chewing his lip the way he did when he actually felt an emotion and didn’t know quite what to do with it.
“We’ve been through all that,” he said finally. “You’re on the run…you snuck in with a carriage…”
I didn’t want to panic, but my heart started thrashing at the notion of prison bars and…court rooms. Memories of court rooms, and my mum and dad… I shivered, then pounded the heel of my hand on my forehead to knock the images out. Wiped my hands on the thighs of my trousers, but the rain had soaked the worn tweed so bad it didn’t do a jot of good.
“This is a bodgy idea,” I groaned. “Why’d we have to shoot down the plane? Why?”
Jig glared. He could crush your soul with a glare like that.
“Just move it, before we’re completely out of time!” he hissed. “Unless you want to tell Kantian why you div’n get me in? Or Derrin?”
I jerked back like he’d smacked me. I’d displeased the boss before, but I got all wilty inside at the thought of disappointing Derrin. Funny. It should have been the other way around, really.
“Fine,” I snapped, but I said it too loud.
The guard below must have heard me. His gaze yanked upward just as I plunged off the wall, my fingers stretching to wingtips.