Due to be released next January, Tom Beckerlegge’s The Carnival of Ash is a lyrical literary fantasy about a city of poets and librarians and we are exclusively revealing the cover!
The Carnival of Ash is Becklerlegge’s first book for adults: “The Carnival of Ash is a ten-year labour of love, frustration and outright stubbornness – I never dared hope that it would find its way into print,” he says. “I can’t wait to share its world with readers.”
Here is the synopsis…
Cadenza is the City of Words, a city run by poets, its skyline dominated by the steepled towers of its libraries, its heart beating to the stamp and thrum of the printing presses in the Printing Quarter.
Carlo Mazzoni, a young wordsmith arrives at the city gates intent on making his name as the bells ring out with the news of the death of the city’s poet-leader. Instead, he finds himself embroiled with the intrigues of a city in turmoil, the looming prospect of war with their rival Venice ever-present. A war that threatens not only to destroy Cadenza but remove it from history altogether…
Can’t wait till 2022 to discover more about the City of Words? Get lost in this lyrical fantasy world ahead of its release with our exclusive except from the book…
III. Two Men of Honour and Distinction
That night, a thunderous banging jarred Aquila from sleep. He gasped as his eyes sprang open, nearly falling out of bed in his haste to grab a candle. Lighting the wick with a shaking hand, he went stumbling down the stairs in his nightshirt. The hammering grew louder as he went along the corridor, the door wincing on its hinges. Aquila flung it open, an imperious dismissal on his lips. But at the sight of the two figures before him, he drew back, aghast.
The shorter of the men was horribly disfigured, his face buried beneath swollen lumps of pink flesh that had pushed his eyes, nose and mouth from their natural stations and hideously distorted them. It was a mockery of a face, a clown’s mask viewed through the bottom of an alchemist’s flask. His companion was tall and gaunt, with a sickly pallor and a vacant, sullen gaze. His hairline began at the top of his crown, falling in lank threads to his shoulders. The pair were dressed in ragged uniforms, their cloaks stained with mud.
“Pray, do not be alarmed, gentle sir,” said the first man, holding up his hands. “Ciro and Benozzo at your service. I humbly apologize for the lateness of the hour. My only consolation is that my features are best viewed under the cover of darkness.”
Emerging as it did through scabbed and spittle-wet lips, there was an unexpectedly courteous tone to his speech.
“I would rather not have to view your features at all,” Aquila said icily. “What do you want?”
“If we might be permitted entrance,” suggested Ciro, “I will happily furnish you with an explanation.”
Ciro shot a glance at his companion, who remained expressionless. There was something about Benozzo’s gaze—the complete absence of light in his eyes—that Aquila found profoundly unsettling. In the pages of an Arabian grimoire, he had read of the ghūl, a malign shape-shifting spirit that haunted graveyards, feeding on corpses. Aquila had dismissed the notion as the product of savage fancy, but now, confronted by these men on his doorstep in the dead of night, the certainties of the reading desk had evaporated.
“It would be in your own benefit to talk indoors,” Ciro tried. “If your neighbours should be drawn to their window by the sound of our voices, your reputation may suffer as a consequence.”
“So I should invite a pair of brigands into my home instead?” Aquila laughed. “Perhaps I can help you select my finest silver whilst I am at it?”
“Brigands?” Ciro shook his head. “I am wounded by the accusation, gentle scholar, sorely wounded. Ciro and Benozzo are men of honour and distinction. We served in the employ of the late Artifex Tommaso Cellini, proud members of his most faithful guard.”
Aquila paused. “The becchini?”
“We preferred to think of ourselves as soldiers rather than gravediggers, but it turned out that the city knew more than we did,” Ciro replied. “When our master died we were no longer welcome in the Palazzo Nero, and people do not open their doors easily for men with our unfortunate physiognomies. The cemeteries were the only home we could find. Now we dig by profession as well as reputation. What else could we expect—should we have taken to the stage instead, to set maidens’ hearts a-fluttering? Can you imagine the screams?”
The candlelight shuddered at Ciro’s grotesque smile. Aquila could only wonder whether he had woken up at all, or if he was lost in some kind of feverish dream. He went to shut the door, only to find Benozzo’s boot wedged firmly in the jamb. At the same time, Ciro managed to insert himself inside Aquila’s house, ducking beneath his other hand and moving purposefully along the corridor. Aquila went after him, protesting indignantly. The gravedigger sauntered into the study, letting out a low, salivary whistle at the sight of its vast bookcase.
“We are in the wrong trade, Benozzo,” he called out. “If only you could work a pen as you do a shovel!”
A low grunt answered him from the corridor. Benozzo walked stiffly into the study, his dead gaze passing over the rows of volumes without comment.
“Even by Cadenzan standards,” Ciro said admiringly, “this is an admirable collection of books. It must have taken years to acquire.”
“My library is no concern of yours,” Aquila replied stiffly. “I demand you leave this house at once.”
The gravedigger sucked in through his teeth. “Not possible, I’m afraid. You see, this building is to be put to the torch.”
“On account of the plague.”
Aquila stared at him incredulously. “What nonsense is this? There is no plague here! I am in perfect health!”
Ciro produced a crumpled piece of parchment from inside his shirt. “That’s not what it says here,” he said, flicking the paper decisively. “This is an order directing us to come to this address and take steps to halt the spread of the plague. Signed by Cesare Petrucci himself.”
He pointed to the bottom of the order. At the sharp, forceful lines of Cesare’s signature, a cold sweat broke out across Aquila’s flesh.
“I can give you money,” he said hoarsely.
“It is not our debt you need to pay,” Ciro replied meaningfully.
“This is about the silver chalice? But I told Cesare, I do not have it!”
Ciro held out his hands. “Then you will understand our position,” he said. “You can’t expect a pair of lowly gravediggers to disobey a direct order from the Artifex’s nephew.”
Aquila marched over to his writing desk and sat down at his chair. “What I would have you do,” he said, scribbling furiously, “is take this letter to Cesare Petrucci. While I find his actions deplorable, I will see that his debt is paid in full. If he will just grant me two or three days—”
“Benozzo, if you will?”
A hand grabbed Aquila by the hair and wrenched his head backwards. The world lurched and seesawed, the pen spiralling from his grasp. A second hand latched itself around his throat, pinning him to the chair. Helpless, Aquila could only watch, upside down, as Ciro calmly walked over to his writing desk and picked up the ink pot. Dirty fingers jammed themselves between Aquila’s lips and prised them open. Ciro tipped the pot’s contents down his throat.
Sickly liquid filled Aquila’s insides. He spluttered and gagged—the hands at his hair and throat relented and he fell out of his chair, retching ink over the floor. Through his tears, he saw a boot rushing towards his face. It landed somewhere near his left eye, snapping Aquila’s neck back with the force of the impact. Benozzo had come alive with brutal animation, unleashing a flurry of kicks at his ribs. Curling up into a ball, Aquila allowed his mind to flee from his study, leaving the blows and buffets to land in some distant, other place.
He had no idea how long Benozzo beat him. At some point, he was dimly aware of Ciro shooing his partner away. Aquila forced open his right eye and saw the disfigured gravedigger crouch down beside him.
“There will be no more letters,” Ciro said, almost apologetically. “It’s too late for that. Really, you should have made amends with Cesare when you had the chance.”
“What will you do with me?” Aquila mumbled, through a mouthful of blood and ink.
“As I said, this house has been condemned. We must take you away.”
“Away? To where?”
“Do not trouble yourself, scholar. There are suitable quarters awaiting you just beyond the city walls.”
A dark shadow on the eastern skyline. Aquila’s stomach lurched.
“The lazaretto? But you cannot… please, I beg of you! I am a healthy man!”
A thick gurgling sound escaped from Benozzo’s mouth. It was laughter, Aquila realized numbly.
“Forgive me, it does not quite look that way at this present moment,” Ciro said. “But we have talked enough. It is time to leave.”
“Wait! In the name of all that is holy, please wait!”
Ciro and Benozzo did not wait. Taking an arm each, they dragged Aquila out of the study and along the corridor, smearing trails of red and black across the tiles. As he was manhandled into the street, Aquila saw for the first time the cart waiting for him in the shadows. An arm hung limply down through the wooden slats, purple with festering buboes. Aquila fought and screamed, but what little strength he possessed had been beaten out of him, and he was powerless to stop the gravediggers from tossing him into the back of the cart, on top of a mound of rotting corpses.
The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge is due to be released in January 2022 from Rebellion Publishing.