Sample chapter from the novel Jovi: The Lost Topographer

Chapter 1 - The Observatory

Jovi awoke from a lucid dream of flying over water – endless grey-blue dunes in every direction, a chill breeze on her face and the sweet smell of apple smoke.  It was one of her favourite dreams, and she was annoyed to hear Biain’s voice calling her name.  She sat up and rubbed her eyes.

“Jovi, wake up!” Biain was still calling her from downstairs.  This time he sounded angry, or maybe frightened.  In the distance she thought she could hear something else – somebody screaming?  An animal?

“Mandu?” she called.  Two circles of yellow light appeared in the shaded top corner of her room.  She heard the flip flap as he stretched his wings.  Perhaps he’d been sharing her dream.  Either way, he was safe for now.

Suddenly the door opened and Biain strode in carrying a sparker in each hand.  Mandu the fox-bird shrieked in alarm and dropped from his hook on the ceiling, gliding directly to Jovi’s lap.  Cradling the warm, furry creature Jovi twisted out of bed and put her feet on the floor.   She was wearing her usual sleep-shift but it was still unheard of for Biain to just walk in like this.  Sweat dripped from his wrinkled face causing his nut-brown skin and the bald central dome of his skull to shine weirdly in the gloom.  He was dressed oddly, his academic gown hanging raggedly over grimy, practical trousers, as if his dressing plans had changed mid-way through the process and he hadn’t had time to complete the look either way.

“Take this”, he said, before she could think of anything to say.  Mandu snapped at his hand as he gave her the sparker.  Jovi held the creature tighter with her left hand while she took the sparker with her right.  It was an elegant design, especially made for her narrow wrists and dainty fingers.  Two leather straps fit snugly on either side of her thumb, holding the sparker in her palm and leaving her fingers free.  The sparker itself was a triangular copper plate resting in a padded leather saddle.  She could feel it was warm, recently charged.  Biain had been expecting something.

“We have to go now!  Your mother’s message came a few minutes ago, just before they arrived.  She should be waiting for us at the observatory.”  Biain tugged her by the shoulder, ignoring Mandu as he bared his teeth and tried his best to raise a threatening wing while still snuggling like a baby into Jovi’s left arm.

Jovi became more aware of the noises outside – men and women shouting, some banging and crashing noises.  Closer and louder than before.

“Who arrived?  Biain, what’s happening?”  Jovi was beginning to feel sick in her stomach.  Something was very wrong.

“Niseah” said Biain, “now come quickly, we have no time”.

Jovi went to her window.  Outside, the familiar diamond-topped, stone column of the observatory stood where it always had, but was now silhouetted by an amber haze, clouds of smoke reflecting the raging fires below and above a profound blackness which hid even the Moon.

“Get away from there!” snapped Biain, dragging Jovi back from the window with a roughness that frightened her; she could feel how afraid he was.  Biain turned to go and Jovi followed him as he led her down the still dark circular staircase to the main part of their house.  There were no lights or candles but the fire in the hearth was raging.  Biain had been throwing paper onto it – her mother’s notes!  She stared at him in horror.

“Niseah cannot be allowed to have them.  Vatrisha was very clear in her instructions.  If there’s anything important, she will have it in a safe place.”

For as long as Jovi could remember, Biain had been part of her life.  He made delicious food, taught her about plants and animals, the stars and the oceans.  Even though her mother was the Chief Topographer of Ezima, for Jovi, Biain was the source of all knowledge, expertise and, for the most part, fun – but not now.  Now he looked wild, unshaven, the wisps of grey hair behind his ears pointing in all directions, his breath smelling of onions.  His knuckles were white as they gripped the sparker.  She trusted him like no other adult except for her mother, or maybe Naia, but she had never seen him like this.

“We have to take the tunnel to the observatory.  It’s too dangerous to walk in the avenue.  Stay close to me, even if I discharge my sparker.  Do not stop and wait for anything.”  Now Jovi was afraid.  The first lesson that you learned about sparkers was never to discharge them close to another person.  Normally the shock would just freeze you for a few minutes, but sometimes people died.  They could be used as a weapon but Jovi had never seen this happen, and had certainly never used her sparker for this purpose.

Jovi followed Biain through the garden to the stone well in one corner.  Long ago he had shown her that this was the secret way to get to the observatory.  She had loved to play there with her friends and have imaginary adventures in the tunnels.  It had never occurred to her to ask how it was a secret if everyone in Ezima already knew about it.  Biain found the concealed wooden hatch and held his sparker close to the metal clasp.  It clicked open smoothly and he climbed inside.  Jovi followed, still clutching Mandu and wearing her sleep-shift and slippers.  The stone steps were cold and the tunnel was damp, but illuminated by a pale green glow.  Behind them the hatch slammed shut.

Jovi counted fifty steps down and then two hundred along the tunnel.  She knew this would take them directly to the catacomb beneath the observatory, but she was out of breath trying to keep up with Biain.  Suddenly the old man stopped in front of her and Jovi stumbled into him, letting go of Mandu in the process.  The fox-bird flapped into the air and clung to the ceiling with all four limbs, snarling in fear.  Biain fell forward, stiff but jerking slightly.  Jovi stepped back and could see the saliva dribbling from his mouth as he lay on one side, his eyes staring at her in panic.  Looking up for the first time, she could make out a booted, cloaked figure in the darkness.  Lifting the still glowing sparker to its face the figure pushed back its hood to reveal a handsome woman, a little younger than Jovi’s mother with long white hair and sharp eyes, exaggerated by the black face paint around them.  She wore black leather all over her body, with two red triangles stitched into the chest of her jacket.

“Jovi my darling, you’re so big!  It’s so wonderful to see you in the flesh after all these years.  Of course you won’t remember me.  I’m your Aunt Malera.  You must come with me now.  Biain was going to put you and the whole city in danger.  How lucky that I found you when I did.”

Jovi froze, terrified.  Behind this woman she could hear footsteps approaching – heavy boots.  The tunnel in front of her was blocked.  She was holding her hands to her chest, concealing the sparker.  She touched a tiny finger to an area on one corner.  Immediately Mandu screeched and launched himself at the woman’s face.  Jovi’s sparker flashed with red light, weak, not properly discharged, and she was already running into pitch darkness.  Back along the tunnel 25 paces, and then down a side tunnel to the right six paces and a quick turn to the left 20 paces, another turn to the right 20 paces and then some stairs leading down another 10 paces.  She heard Mandu’s wings as he caught up with her.  Heard the woman shouting and boots running.  Then silence.  After thirty more paces she came to a wooden door.  She held her sparker to the lock and it clicked open.  She slipped into a small empty room with one important feature – a metal ladder going up as far as she could see in the dim light.

Jovi took a deep breath, swallowing the beginnings of tears.  In her soft slippers this was going to be painful for her feet.  But she was strong and lithe and she climbed.  Through the ceiling of the small room, she was ascending a narrow shaft.  Mandu barrelled up it, soon becoming a tiny sound in the blackness.  Jovi followed him as quickly as she could, her heart pounding in her ears.  Aunt Malera?  Mother never mentioned having a sister.  Somebody on father’s side?  Why did she use her sparker on Biain?  Is he still alive?  What will they do to him?  She refused to believe Biain would have done anything wrong.  He had cared for her all her life.

Jovi’s arms and legs began to hurt.  Her feet were hurting from the start and now every part of her body was screaming for rest.  Tears were flowing but she must get to her mother.

“She’s gone up there” – a man’s voice reverberating around the shaft.

“Well, follow her then you fool!” – the woman again.

“It’s too narrow...”

“Then perhaps I should cut your arms off so you fit.  Get up there now and don’t come back without the girl and that creature!”  Maybe she is related to my mother.

Jovi found Mandu hanging from a rung of the ladder a little further up.  He gazed at her then clung to the fabric of her shift as she continued climbing.  Climbing, climbing, climbing.  The observatory was the tallest building in Ezima - at least the tower part was.  The main tunnel led to a vast catacomb under the building which housed hundreds of thousands of scrolls, tablets, vellum and tri-planes.  It was known to all and no doubt this Aunt Malera had come in that way.  Access to the tower was restricted to those who needed to know.  Those charged with the sacred duty of mapping the lands above and below, the Topographers.  And their ten-year-old daughters.

The ladder started to shudder violently.  The man with the boots had decided he would fit after all and was making his way up behind her.  Jovi thought she would be faster, but her feet were in agony now, and with his thick boots he wouldn’t be bothered by the cold metal rungs.  She tried to go faster but the pain was intense.  She couldn’t help herself, she had to stop and rest.  Mandu shrieked in alarm.  She continued, slower now.  She could feel something wet in her slippers.  Blood?  Every rung felt like a knife-blade now.  She stopped again.  Looking up she thought she could make out the hatch at the top.  Looking down she could see the man.  Large, his head shaved, his face broad and grinning.

Jovi reached out with her left hand and felt the wall of the shaft: rough bricks, a little slimy.  She kicked off a bloody slipper from her left foot and dug her toes into the bricks.  A small hole, tiny, but enough for her small toes to cling to.  She gripped the ladder now with her right hand, the sparker tight against the metal.  She stepped away with her right foot and discharged.


Her hands and feet scraping and scrabbling against the bricks, her stomach in her mouth, Mandu’s wings flapping, his feet still clinging to her as if he could fly her up the shaft.  Turning back to grab the ladder, maybe ten rungs lower than she had been.  Hurting her hands and feet as they scrambled for something to hold on to.  The man was gone.  She clung to the ladder, her hands and feet bleeding, pain surging through them.  Mandu let go and flew back up the shaft.  This time she could see that he had reached the top.  He had found the hatch and was flapping against it frantically.  Slowly now she climbed one rung at a time.

Voices below again, more men and the woman.  “… tried that!  Get that idiot out of the way and stand back.”

As Jovi reached the top in agony, her eyes stinging with tears, she vaguely registered that Mandu was gone.  The hatch above was open.  A hand reached down, followed by an arm.  Strong, olive skinned, ornamented with skull tattoos, gripping Jovi’s upper arm.  She could smell the apple smoke again.  She let go of the ladder and gave in to the pain.

When Jovi opened her eyes the first thing she saw was Naia’s grim but lovely face, a little smudged with soot.  The mercenary seemed a little more agitated than usual, but when Jovi managed an impulsive but weak smile, she grinned back with her usual spark.

Jovi was lying on her back on a rug on the hard floor of the observatory’s chart room.  Her hands and feet were throbbing but someone had wrapped bandages around the worst parts.  Her one remaining slipper had been removed, it lay filthy and bloody to one side of her.  The smell of smoke was stronger and when she tried to say something she coughed.

“The observatory’s on fire”, said Naia in a matter-of-fact way which did no justice to the apocalyptic nature of such news.  “A couple of those Balat scum tried to get up here but went back down the quick way with arrows in their skulls.  Since then they’ve been trying to smoke us out.”

Jovi felt sick in her stomach again.  The observatory was the place where the people of Ezima kept all the knowledge, all the charts, all the wisdom, all the stuff that made them special.  How could this be happening?  Who were these ‘Balat scum’?

“Is the tower going to collapse?” she gasped.

“Not yet – there’s a big reservoir of water a few floors below us.  When the flames start to lick it, the reservoir will burst and keep the tower intact - for a while at least.  Eventually though, we’ll just turn into a huge chimney full of paper.  Don’t worry, your mother will be here in a bit.  What happened to Biain?”

“I don’t know.  Someone called Malera discharged a sparker at him.  I don’t know what they’ve done to him now.”

“Shame, I liked him.  Nothing we can do about that now.”

“Who is Malera?  She said she was my Aunt.”

“No idea.  We’ll have to get to know her better when she’s not trying to set fire to us.”

“How is my mother going to meet us here if the building’s on fire?”

“I think she’s waiting for that flying rat of yours to make an appearance.”

Jovi looked up and then around.  The ceiling of the chart room was a smooth glass dome – nowhere obvious for Mandu to plant his claws.  Around the edges of the wide, circular space were broad desks on which lay enormous charts showing everywhere known, the lands above and below.  Under the desks were more charts, rolled up, and little drawers which Jovi knew would contain hundreds of tiny tri-planes.  Jovi looked again at the space under the closest desk.  Mandu had squeezed himself into a tiny void between the drawers and the underside of the work surface.  His bright eyes peered at her.  Painfully, Jovi crawled over to the fox-bird.  She reached out and he slowly crept into her arms.  Naia removed her own sparker from her hand and touched the copper triangle.  Immediately it started to pulse with a deep blue light.

“Will he let you strap this onto him?”

Jovi took the sparker and held it against Mandu’s furry back.  He was agitated for a moment then relaxed again.  Carefully she fastened the two straps above and below his wings.  Naia beckoned for Jovi to follow her and she stood up, hobbling after the woman with Mandu still cradled to her chest.

Around the edges of the chart room was a broad, open terrace from which the whole of the city could be seen.  Jovi gasped when she saw the fires.  It wasn’t just the observatory which burned – everywhere seemed to be in flames.  She could see tiny figures running in the streets and gardens below.  People fighting.  Flashes from sparkers.  People screaming.  The heat was so intense that it felt as if she was basking in the sunshine of a hot Summer’s day, but it was the end of Autumn and it was the middle of the night.

“Get him to fly,” said Naia.

Jovi launched Mandu into the air above her head and he took flight.  Made visible by the constant blue flashes from Naia’s sparker, he flew in circles around them, rising higher and higher to distance himself from the flames.  The attackers could see him too, because the blue light started to draw arrows from somewhere below.  Jovi felt like screaming for him to come back to her but stayed silent when Naia put her finger to her lips.  The mercenary took her bow from the ground on the terrace, nocked an arrow from the quiver on her back and fired down over the edge.  There was a brief scream, and more arrows but this time aimed at the terrace rather than at Mandu.  Naia grinned.

“Any second now…”

There was a huge crashing noise from below, and then a vast cloud of steam engulfed them.  Jovi spluttered, unable to see anything.  She felt Naia pulling her by the arm.  She wanted to go back into the chart room but Naia was pulling her over the edge!  They were going to fall onto the burning ruins below.   She heard Mandu shriek and saw the blue light flash towards her.  She screamed as she felt the ground disappear and then something hard hit her head.  The last thing she heard was her mother’s voice.

“Be still girl.”

And then she was back in the dream of flying.  Flying, not over water this time, but fire.  An ocean of red and orange, heat and smoke, screams and crashes.  And on her face, not the spray of water, but the dust and ashes of thirty thousand years of wisdom.