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The Girl and the Stars

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The Girl and the Stars

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Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher: Ace Books, 2020
Series: The Book of the Ice: Book 1

1. The Girl and the Stars

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

In the ice, east of the Black Rock, there is a hole into which broken children are thrown. Yaz's people call it the Pit of the Missing and now it is drawing her in as she has always known it would.

To resist the cold, to endure the months of night when even the air itself begins to freeze, requires a special breed. Variation is dangerous, difference is fatal. And Yaz is not the same.

Yaz's difference tears her from the only life she's ever known, away from her family, from the boy she thought she would spend her days with, and has to carve out a new path for herself in a world whose existence she never suspected. A world full of difference and mystery and danger.

Yaz learns that Abeth is older and stranger than she had ever imagined. She learns that her weaknesses are another kind of strength and that the cruel arithmetic of survival that has always governed her people can be challenged.


Excerpt

1

In the ice, east of the Black Rock, there is a hole into which broken children are thrown. Yaz had always known about the hole. Her people called it the Pit of the Missing and she had carried the knowledge of it with her like a midnight eye watching from the back of her mind. It seemed that her entire life had been spent circling that pit in the ice and that now it was drawing her in as she had always known it would.

"Hey!" Zeen pointed. "The mountain!"

Yaz squinted in the direction her younger brother indicated. On the horizon, barely visible, a black spot, stark against all the white. A month had passed since the landscape had offered anything but white and now that she saw the dark peak she couldn't understand how it had taken Zeen's eyes to find it for her.

"I know why it's black," Zeen said.

Everyone knew but Yaz let him tell her-at twelve he thought himself a man, but he still boasted like a child.

"It's black because the rocks are hot and the ice melts."

Zeen lowered his hand. It seemed strange to see his fingers. In the north where the Ictha normally roamed the whole clan went so heaped in hide and skins that they barely looked human. Even in their tents they wore mittens anytime that fine tasks were not required. It was easy to forget that people even had fingers. But here, as far south as her people ever travelled, the Ictha could almost walk bare chested.

"Well remembered." Yaz would miss her little brother when they threw her into the pit. He was bright and fierce and her parents' joy.

"You've spotted it then?" Quell came alongside them. He had no sled to drag and could move up and down the line checking on the thirty families. He nodded toward the Black Rock. "I remember how big it is, but still, it always surprises me when we get close."

Yaz forced a smile. She would miss Quell too, even though at seventeen he boasted nearly as much as Zeen.

"Always?" she asked. Quell had been to the gathering twice. Once more than her.

"Always." Quell nodded, almost concealing his grin. He held her for a moment with pale eyes then moved on up the column. He passed Yaz's parents and uncle, who between them pulled the boat-sled, pausing to swap a comment with her father. One day soon he would have to ask her parents for permission to share Yaz's tent. Or so he thought. Yaz worried what Quell might do when the regulator picked her out. She hoped he would prove himself grown enough to embrace this fate and not shame the Ictha before the southern tribes.

"Tell me about the testing," Zeen said.

Yaz sighed and leaned into the sled traces. She had of course told Zeen everything a hundred times over but she had been the same herself before her first visit to the hole.

"You'll be fine." Zeen's worries were nothing, it was just the mind turning on itself when there wasn't anything to do but pull a load mile upon mile, day upon day. The journey had proved difficult, the ice rucking up before them in pressure ridges as if seeking to impede their progress. For the last week the pace had been gruelling as the clan mother sought to make up lost time. Still, they would arrive a day before the ceremony. "Don't worry about it, Zeen."

On Yaz's first trip south she had been sure the regulator would sniff out her wrongness. Somehow she had passed inspection. But that had been four years ago, and what had been starting to break within her back then was now fully broken. "You'll be fine."

"But what if I'm not?" The sight of the Black Rock seemed to have opened the gates to her brother's fear.

"The southern tribes are not like the Ictha, Zeen. They have many that are born wrong. We have to be pure. Weakness was bred out of us long ago," she lied. "When you walk the polar ice you are either pure or dead."

"Strangers!" Quell came hurrying back down the column, excited. "We're getting close!"

Yaz looked to where her parents had turned their heads. Faint in the distance a grey line could be seen, another clan trekking in from the east. And between the two columns, a single sled closing on the Ictha at remarkable speed.

Zeen stopped to stare in amazement. "How can-"

"Dogs," Yaz said. "You'll get to see your first dogs!" Even now, as the distance narrowed, the hounds pulling the sled resolved into dots in a line before it. Soon she could make them out against the snow, heavy beasts, silver-white fur bulking them up still further, their breath steaming before them. In the far north the cold would kill them, but south of the Keller Ridges all the tribes used dogs. The Ictha said that a true man pulls his own sled. The southerners laughed at that and called it something that only a man with no dogs would say. Even so, everyone gave the Ictha respect. Anyone who has known cold understands that only a different breed can dare the polar ice.

"Get along!" Behind them the Jex twins shouted. Zeen started forward again just in time to avoid having them drag their boat-sled over him. Yaz kept level with her brother, watching the strangers approach.

Within a few minutes the whole column came to a halt while at the front Mother Mazai greeted the men dismounting from their sled. Yaz could smell the dogs on the wind, a musky scent. Their yapping rang in ears unfamiliar with anything but the voices of men, of the ice, and of the wind. The sound had a strangeness to it and a beauty, and she found herself wanting to go closer, wanting to meet with one of these alien creatures, bound just like her to a sled by strips of hide.

"They're so different!" Zeen struggled out of his harness and broke from the line to get a better view. He meant the people not the dogs.

"I know." It had been the first thing to strike Yaz at her previous gathering. It wasn't so much the difference of the southern tribes from the Ictha, it was that even among themselves they were varied, some with the copper skin of an Ictha, some redder, so dark as to almost defy colour, and some much paler, almost pink. Their hair varied too, from Ictha black to shades of brown. Even their eyes were not all the white on white that Yaz saw at almost every turn but a bewildering range. Many had eyes almost as dark as the mountain behind them where the rock won clear of the ice. "Don't stare!"

Zeen waved her off and edged up the column for a closer look. She understood his fascination. Mazai said that where there are many tasks, many kinds of tools are needed. The Ictha, she said, had a single task. To endure. To survive. And to survive a polar night required a singular strength, one recipe. The clan mother spoke of metals and of how one might be mixed with others to gain particular qualities. There was, she said, a single alloy fit for the purpose of the north, and that was why all who dwelt there held so much in common.

Yaz edged out to join her brother, ignoring her mother's hiss. Soon they would cast her down the Pit of the Missing into a darkness from which there was no return. She might as well see as much of what the world had to offer as she could before they took it away from her.

"That one's the leader." Zeen pointed to a man who stood taller than any Ictha and thin, too thin for the north. In places strands of grey shot through the blackness of his hair.

In the months-long polar night the breath you exhaled through your muffler formed two types of frost, the normal southern one, and a finer ice that would smoke away into nothingness within the tent's warmth. The Ictha called it the dry ice for it never melted only smoked away. In places, in the depth of the long night, dry ice would drift above the water ice and, when the sun's red eye returned, a great cold fog would rise in clouds miles high. The storyteller had it that dry ice formed when part of the air itself froze.

Yaz knew that if the thin grey-haired southerner were to draw breath on a polar night the cold would sear his lungs and he would die.

"Back in line, you two." Quell came up behind them, the gentleness of his voice taking the sting from the reprimand. He steered Zeen back into place with a hand on his shoulder. Yaz wished that Quell would lay his hand upon her shoulder as well. The sight of naked fingers still amazed her. If she were going to die then she should experience a man's touch too.

She had thought many times about pitching her own tent and inviting Quell in. Of course she had. Too many times and for too long. But in the end two things had always stopped her, sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both. Firstly something in her rebelled at the idea that fear should force her hand before she was properly ready. It was not the Ictha way. And secondly there was the pain that Quell would feel when they took her from him. It would not be fair, to use him like that.

Three things. Something else had held her back too. And might have been enough on its own even without the other two. A rebellion against a choice that seemed already to have been decided for her.

But Quell and Yaz had walked the ice together since the days when they could first stand on their two feet, and many of her dreams were filled with thoughts of the bold lines of his face, the strength of his hands, and the mix of kindness and bravery with which he tackled the world. She did not want to leave him. When the regulator cast her down, her heart would at last be broken like the rest of her, though at least the pain would not continue long, and in death she would join the spirits of the wind.

Yaz returned to the line and watched Quell go forward. Like Zeen he wanted to listen to the southerners. She found a smile on her lips. The regulator might declare a man grown, but they were still just taller boys.

Perhaps she should have set her tent for him. But in any case she was still counted a child and properly they could not be bound until she had endured the regulator for a second time. Almost every broken child was culled from their clan at their first gathering, but even though it was as rare as melting, sometimes it took a second, and no child was truly counted as grown until their second gathering. So in many ways Quell had been a true member of the clan since he was thirteen whereas Yaz at sixteen was still seen as a child and would be until tomorrow when the regulator turned his pale eyes her way.

Her mother offered Yaz a knowing smile then looked away as the wind picked up, laden with stinging ice crystals. There had been sadness in that smile too.

Yaz looked down at her hands. Fear prickled across her. It seemed cruel that just one sleepless night away the hole waited for her, an open mouth that would devour all the days she had thought she owned. A future taken. No tent of her own, no boat to set upon the Great Sea, no lover taken to the furs. Maybe there would have been children. At least now Yaz would not have to harden her heart and watch while they in turn stood beneath the regulator's gaze.

The clan mother said it wasn't cruelty. All the tribes knew that a child born broken would die on the ice. Their bodies lacked what was needed to survive. As they grew, the weakness in them would grow too. Some needed too much food to keep warm and would starve. Some would lose their resilience to the wind's bite and the cold would eat at them, taking first the tips of fingers, nibbling at the nose and ears, later taking the toes. Flesh would turn white, then black, then fall away. In time the fingers and face would be eaten, dying then rotting. It was an ugly death, and painful. But the worst was that the weakness in that adult would pass into their children, and their children's children, and the clan itself would rot and die.

There was a wisdom to the pit. A harsh wisdom, but wisdom even so. The burden that Yaz had carried with her out of the north, which had hung from her shoulders each and every mile, was the same weight that set sorrow along the edges of all her mother's smiles. Years had not blunted the sharpness of Azad's death. Yaz should be leaving her parents with two sons to support them, but when the dagger-fish broke the waters her strength had not been sufficient to hold her youngest brother, and in what now seemed one long moment of horror he had gone, leaving her alone in the boat. If the regulator had seen at the first gathering that she was broken, Azad would have known his eighth year, and would have many more to come.

A muttering ran down the column, one passing the news to the next, with a rumble of discontent echoing in its wake.

"What? What is it?"

Yaz's father ignored Zeen and told her instead while the Jex twins leaned in to hear. "The Quinx clan father says our count is out. The ceremony is today."

"Why aren't they there then?" Yaz's hands began to tremble, a sweat prickling her skin despite the freezing wind. In the months of polar night it was difficult to keep track of days, but she had never heard of the count being out. "Was their count out too?"

"A hoola attacked their column. They had to observe the rites for the dead. They're force marching to get to the ceremony in time."

The Jexes were already passing the news back. As the sun began to set, the regulator would commence his inspection. He would be finished by full dark. If they missed it Yaz would have four more years, albeit forced to remain as a child. From where she stood four years looked like a lifetime. "What will we do?"

"We'll march too," her father said.

Copyright © 2020 by Mark Lawrence


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