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Read an extract from Blood Flowers by Jay McGuiness

Read an extract from Blood Flowers by Jay McGuiness

Seventeen-year-old Bear lives in the walled town of Calleston – a place of stark divide between the rich and poor. Living down in Cobbleside, Bear is painfully conscious of the inequalities between him and residents of Roofside.

When the town’s annual Field Day – an event during which those who’ve recently come of age test their Sinsen growing capacities – shows Bear to have unprecedented abilities, he’s hurtled into the upper echelons of society, and everything he’s ever wanted is within his grasp. But it soon becomes apparent, that it’s not all he expected it to be. He finds himself existing amidst an uncaring, callous people, concerned only with themselves, living in a society in which corruption is rife.

Finding himself unwillingly entangled with the Overlord’s beautiful but spiteful daughter, Bear is forced to make decisions which may jeopardise everything he’s dreamed of – or risk the lives of the people he once lived amongst.


Chapter 5

Dawn Bell seemed muted as it rang out across the vast expanse of the empty market square. First light had barely broken, and a thick fog hovered over the wet cobblestones. Only the warm lights of the worker’s cookhouse and the distant clatter of pots and pans revealed that some people had already left their beds.

On street level, the square remained unlit. Once upon a time, the bakery and the greengrocer’s would have already started their morning’s work, but since there was little food to speak of beyond the watery stew that the cookhouse provided, the square was still dark and quiet. The potters and the weavers and the many others that did still open wouldn’t arrive until the labourers had come to eat in the cookhouse and left for a day’s work.

Above the square, there were tiers of businesses and homes. Wooden balconies circled the entire market and acted as pathways for people to visit each other’s quarters, or as a viewing platform above the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. Those who lived on the higher floors considered themselves lucky, though the Roofsiders above regarded everyone below the golden gates as the floorboard.

A rickety stairwell on the west side of the square led to the entrance of the roof level. The entrance was sealed by a pair of heavy gates, intricately cast in gold. Beyond the golden gates was the Roofside. There were several entrances to Roofside dotted around Calleston: each one marked by a similar set of golden gates, and each of those guarded by a watchman. No Cobblesiders were permitted entry through the gates, and these days few Roofsiders bothered (or dared) coming down.

On the third floor, beneath the staircase to the golden gates, was an oak balcony. It had a painted sign on it featuring a white square with wings. Above the sign, a window slid open and Olenta, the postie, looked out.

Olenta loved this hour. When Calleston’s streets were empty, she could go fast.

She held one hand on the wooden frame of her bed, and the other grasped the sill of her window. She swung herself nimbly outside, on to the bench in front of her window, and began to put her feet on. As she pulled the leather cuffs up over her calves, she kept her eyes on the misty marketplace. This year marked her twentieth year living in the west corner of Main Market, almost half her life. For many of them, they’d been good years, but recently the hardships had left her feeling ill-tempered much of the time.

Still, she loved Calleston town, and she loved her job. She fastened straps tightly round her muscular thighs. It was brisk at this time of the morning. She was looking forward to getting on the track.

The pretty voice of Rose sang from the window next door. “Morning there, Olenta. Can I pass you this, my love? For Jim Garrason, Ship Street. But best take a look first.”

Rose gave her a meaningful look as she passed her the note. Olenta flipped the readers on her headband over her eyes and read the note. She almost smiled.

So the old gang was getting back together, the very old gang. She winked her understanding at Rose.

“Morning, Olenta!”

It was the sweet chirp of Rose’s youngest child, Poppy. Olenta waggled her fingers at the tiny face that poked out of the window. Poppy’s fine brown hair was stuck up at truly impossible angles, and the bags under her eyes gave her the wild look of a street urchin. Olenta’s heart swelled. She always had time for children, and something about the way Poppy always looked as if she’d been hit by a frying pan Olenta simply adored, though she blanched at the sight of Poppy’s ribs through her nightdress.

“You’re up early, Poppy.” “I know,” she squeaked.

“Did you have fun watching Mummy in the fields yesterday?”

A vigorous nod from an exhausted face.

“Did you hear about last night?” Rose asked as she wrapped her blanket around Poppy.

“What was last night?”

Olenta frowned as she stepped out on to the balcony and began strapping herself into her harness. She overheard a lot of gossip in town, but Rose’s version of events was usually more truth-adjacent than most.

“Bear and that Fennex boy were nearly caught by…” Rose covered Poppy’s ears and mouthed, “Blots.”

Olenta’s eyebrows shot up.

“They were pulling the last of the speedweed. Apparently, it was two or three blots that chased them to the East Gate. Now, someone shut the gate once the blots were close, but get this – there was no watchman and no rope.”

Olenta was stunned.

Watchmen had spent less time down in Cobbleside lately, but guarding the perimeter wall was critical. The closing of the gates was a harsh but necessary part of defending the town, but the watchmen’s ropes had saved countless people from death, including her own. The Overlord should know about this, she thought. He wouldn’t want his men shirking their duty.

Unless he knew and didn’t care.

Olenta felt her blood beginning to boil. She grabbed her cup and gulped her morning ruby brew. The distance between Cobbleside and the roof had never been greater. That distance bred a clear contempt between the two – but abandoning field boys to be slaughtered by blots, with no one to throw a rope, was a new low.

She recalled the moment she’d grasped the rope that had been thrown to her, over twenty years ago. She remembered the rot crawling up her legs. She shuddered. “How did the boys survive? Did someone fetch a rope in the end?”

“Olenta, they climbed.”

Ruby brew sprayed everywhere. Poppy exploded into giggles that rang across the misty market like silver bells. Rose laughed heartily too, before shushing her daughter and squeezing her tight. They watched Olenta regain her composure.

“Impossible!” said Olenta. She tossed her empty cup through the window on to her bed and tugged each of her straps twice, hard. “You had me for a minute there, Rose, but that’s nonsense. This town can’t tell a story without adding a few embellishments, but that is pure fiction.”

Fully strapped in, Olenta swung herself from the balcony into mid-air and grasped the rope that held her counterweight. She dangled in her harness for a moment and wiggled until she was sitting comfortably. When she let go, the pulley on the postal track high above her would release and she’d glide down to the ground. She twisted and planted her metal feet on the wooden rail on which she’d been sitting.

“It’s true, my love. Poppy was there. Her and her dad were up on the wall. Saw them pulled over the edge with their own eyes.”

“Hmm, and what were you doing up at that hour, young lady?”

“Me and Daddy were catching bats!” Poppy exclaimed proudly.

Rose shifted the blanket around her shoulders uncomfortably, drawing the red embroidered flowers around her and her daughter. She avoided Olenta’s eyes.

“We were just thickening up a stew. Haven’t had any lentils in for a while.”

“Nowt wrong with bat, Rose; it fills tummies. In fact, if there’s a mouthful left, I’ll try some when I’m off work later today.”

“Course,” replied Rose a little tightly.

Poppy leaned eagerly out of the window to see Olenta off. Olenta braced her feet on the railing and flipped the readers from her eyes back up on to her headband. She pushed herself out into the air. Letting go of the counterweight line, the pulley whirred above them, the ropes released and she glided effortlessly down to the ground. It was perfect weather for a fast day. Her metal feet made a dull clink as she softly landed. She squatted deeply, then propelled herself upwards and onwards.

The wheel on the track high above began rolling, and Olenta was on the move. The pulleys turned and, as the counterweight began descending, she rose up and up. The breeze whistled past her as she began travelling speedily and quietly around the marketplace in giant, rolling leaps. It was effortless. And this time in the morning, she didn’t have to worry about people stepping out from a doorway or sticking their heads out of the balconies either.

 She headed to the postal column on the opposite side of the market to collect any letters sent down from Roofside. She knew that Poppy would be watching her in awe, so Olenta made sure to sail to the highest tier before gliding slowly back down to the ground, lightly touching down in front of the marble postal column.

She pulled out her keys. Checking to see if Poppy was still watching her out of the corner of her eye, she found the key that she needed. The little face was still there at the window. Olenta smiled as she unlocked the column.

There was no mail.

That couldn’t be right. Roofsiders were always sending messages down to the cobbles. The chute must be blocked. Olenta pushed softly up one level to the first balcony, where she dropped a pebble from her leather pouch into the chute. It clattered down the post column to the floor. Level one was clear.

She pushed upwards a floor, where she dropped a second pebble down the chute. This time, the pebble made a faint, muffled sound as it struck a cluster of letters somewhere in the inner tube.

There it was.

Olenta sighed and took out a heavy wooden tile which hung from her waist like a beaver’s tail. She slotted it into the postal column. It plummeted down, driving the letters to the bottom.

Olenta glided back down and began gathering them up. As expected, a few envelopes to the shipyard, brown ones to the storehouses and – she whistled. One from the Overlord himself, addressed to the Free City Palace. She flipped it over and saw that it had a giant tear in it. She tutted. That was no good, someone going through the Overlord’s mail; she would have to report it to Noka.

Olenta put the letters in her sack and reached down into the column for the last few. Her hands felt the touch of something silky. She frowned, drawing out a white piece of material.

She studied it. A simple white dress, but it could only have belonged to someone from Roofside. The quality was unlike anything Cobblesiders could afford. The translucent material was breathtaking, and completely impractical for working life. The bottom of the skirts were shredded and muddied beyond repair. A shame, the material was still valuable beyond imagining. Olenta grimaced at the waste. There was so much wealth up there; they didn’t understand the value of anything.

She peeked over her shoulder to where Poppy’s little face was still watching. Her brothers had joined her at the window.

Olenta discreetly stuffed the dress into her mailbag. Now to give these kids a show.

She unhooked her line and pushed herself off towards Main Street. The wheel above her rolled into action, the counterweight sank, and she ascended quickly, loving the rush of cold air over her skin. Landing back down firmly on the ground, she gave an almighty push that carried her up and up, directly to the children’s eye level, then she pulled in her feet and leaned smoothly back. In the middle of an effortless backflip, she whipped an envelope through the air. Spinning like a top, the letter whizzed straight into an open window. Olenta laughed with glee at the gasps and cheers from Rose’s children.

The sun was just beginning to break over the town’s walls. Today was going to be a fast day. She pushed out on to Main Street, her wheel whirring on the track above her, free as a bird.

Blood Flowers is published by Scholastic on 1 February 2024

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