To celebrate the release of A. G. Howard’s much anticipated latest novel, RoseBlood, we have an awesome signed prize bundle to give away to one lucky reader, alongside an extract of the first chapter, courtesy of the author herself.
In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.
At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.
A. G. Howard brings the romantic storytelling that Splintered fans adore to France—and an entirely new world filled with lavish romance and intrigue—in a retelling inspired by a story that has captivated generations.
“The opera ghost really existed . . .” Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera
At home, I have a poster on my wall of a rose that’s bleeding. Its petals are white, and red liquid oozes from its heart, thick and glis- tening warm. Only, if you look very close, you can see the droplets are coming from above, where a little girl’s wrist—camouflaged by a cluster of leaves—has been pricked by thorns as she reached inside to catch a monarch.
I used to wonder why she risked getting sliced up just to touch a butterfly. But now it makes sense: she wanted those wings so she could fly away, because the pain of trying to reach for them was more tolerable than the pain of staying grounded, wherever she was.
Today, I embrace that child’s perfect wisdom. What I wouldn’t give for a set of wings . . .
On the other side of the limo’s window, a gray sky looms above thickly woven trees lining the country road. The clouds heave like living, breathing creatures, and raindrops smack the glass.
Not the ideal Sunday afternoon to be driven along the French countryside, unless I were here for a vacation. Which I’m not, no matter how anyone tries to spin it.
“The opera house has a violent history. No one even knows how the fire started all those years ago. That doesn’t bother you?” I mumble the words beneath the hum of the motor so our driver won’t hear. They’re for Mom’s benefit—at the other end of the backseat.
Mom bounces as the tires dip into a deep puddle while turning onto a dilapidated road of mismatched cobblestones and dirt. Mud splashes across the window.
“Rune . . . you’re understandably predisposed to hate any build- ing that has suffered a fire. But it’s a fear you need to outgrow. The eighteen hundreds were a long, long time ago. Pretty sure by now, all the bad ‘karma’ is gone.”
I stare at the privacy screen separating us from the uniformed man at the steering wheel, watching the wipers slash through the brown muck on the windshield with a muffled screech as they clear a line of vision.
Mom uses the term karma like it’s a four-letter word. I shouldn’t be surprised at her cynicism. She’s always had a different view on Dad’s heritage than I have. She thinks my anxiety stems from Grandma Liliana’s impact on our lives. That my grandmother’s actions and accusations compounded the gypsy superstitions my dad had already imprinted on me, and they’ve affected how I see the world. Mom’s partly right. It’s hard to escape something so deeply ingrained, especially when I’ve seen proof of otherworldly things, having been possessed most of my life.
“Six weeks till the end of October,” I continue to bait. “And I’ll be spending it at a school haunted by a phantom. Things don’t get any more Halloween than that.”
“A phantom?” A tiny wrinkle bridges Mom’s furrowed eyebrows. “Are we on that again? Your life isn’t a Broadway musical. This place isn’t anything like the one in the story. Leroux’s Opéra Populaire was fashioned after the Palais Garnier in the city. You should know that, considering you’ve read the book at least three times now.”
I grip the door panel to brace myself against another dip in the road. If she thinks I’m going to just ignore what I found on the underground RoseBlood forums, she’s wrong. It’s the whole reason I checked out Gaston Leroux’s novel from the library a few weeks before we left in the first place. Although my reading the book so many times had more to do with the story itself—a mysterious com- poser using his unnatural gift of music to help a girl find the power in her voice.
“You saw the discussion,” I say. “The blueprint for Garnier was inspired by a building once owned by an eccentric Parisian emperor in the eighteenth century. A private opera house set out in the country called Le Théâtre Liminaire. AKA: my new school. The Liminaire is rumored to be where the phantom legend first originated.” I scroll through my recent searches on my phone, then hold up the screen so Mom can see the text alongside a morbid and lovely illustration of a caped man in a half-mask holding up a bloody rose. “So you’re right. I’m not stepping into a musical. It’s a horror story. With a side of obsession and gore.”
We hit two bumps in a row this time, nearly slamming our heads on the limo’s cushioned ceiling. An irritated puff of air escapes Mom’s lips, though I’m pretty sure it’s directed at me and not the driver. “I told you those forums are nothing more than wannabe stu- dents who were turned down by admissions. People say outrageous things when they feel slighted.” She opens the school’s pamphlet for the twentieth time. “According to the brochure, post-renovation, most of the opera house isn’t even the same anymore. Totally differ- ent place.”
I nibble on the end of my braid. “It just doesn’t feel right. Why did it take over a hundred years for anyone to rebuild or inhabit that place again?”
Mom presses the brochure to her thigh, signaling the end of our debate. “Just quit being so negative and focus on the positive. They’ve had a lot of rain here, so the leaves are changing early. Look out your window and enjoy the beginning of fall. That should remind you of home.”
I glance at my lap and make a marked effort not to see the jew- eled leaves: the browns and oranges, the yellows as bright as the dandelions that overtake my flowers every spring, until I make my way out with a bucket and spade to dig them up. I’d rather not be reminded of what I’m missing at home right now, or of what I’ll be missing in six months when warm weather settles in Harmony, Texas, and I’m not there to take care of Dad’s garden.
Gardening is one of the two things that reminds me most of him. I inherited his green thumb but also his talent for music. Although I could never master the violin like he did. My instrument is something entirely different, and it masters me. Which is the real reason I’m being sent away, although Mom won’t admit it.
My braid drapes across my left shoulder, the end tapping the belt loops on my jeans in time with the car’s movement. I tug the silvery ribbons woven within, relieved I plaited the unruly waves this morning before our shopping spree. Otherwise, I’d have no control over them in this dampness. I pull my handmade knitted cap lower, wishing I could disappear inside.
If I were going anywhere but a music conservatory, I’d be more cooperative. Something happened in Harmony recently . . . something I have reason to run from. Something Mom doesn’t even know about.
But to send me to RoseBlood? She’s so desperate to fix me, she hasn’t stopped to consider the hell she’s sentencing me to.
“They found a skeleton in the deepest basement, floating in the water. A skeleton, Mom. Do I really need another reason to be scared of water? This weather . . . it’s an omen.”
“Right.” Mom scoffs. “Any minute you’ll start preaching about auras and visions.”
Tension knots in my shoulders. My dad and my grandma spoke of auras a lot, as if they could see them. And since I see rainbows when I sing, I used to think that ability passed on to me. There was a time I was convinced—if I focused hard enough—I could see halos of color around other people’s bodies. I made the mistake of telling Mom once. She took me to the eye doctor, and I ended up recanting the claim in order to get out of wearing glasses I knew I didn’t need. Now, I’ve convinced myself to stop looking for them. It’s not worth the hassle or the confusion.
“Consider this,” Mom continues, “every time you fall back into her way of thinking, you give her power over your life.” Mom’s voice falters on the obvious effort not to mention my grandma’s name. “I know she’s working to be a better person, so we’ll cut her a little slack. She talked your aunt into paying for your tuition. The least we can do is let her try to make amends since she’s dying. Just don’t let her get inside your head again.”
I press my lips tight. Suffering from congestive heart failure has to be horrible and painful, and I should at least feel something for Grandma Lil. But I remember images of my black hair swirling in dark, deep water as I tried to escape the wooden crate keeping me submerged; I remember her wrinkled, weathered hands on the other side of the planks tightening their grip to hold me under. And because of that, any sympathy eludes me.
I shudder. Yeah, Grandma’s got a lot to make amends for, no doubt.
“After all of these years of no contact,” Mom continues, “for them to reach out like this because you’re having so many problems? It gives me hope we can be a family again. Your dad would’ve wanted that. It wasn’t easy for Lottie to get your transfer moved to the top of the list. She was afraid to show favoritism. But she’s doing it as a favor to us. Let’s make an effort to show our gratitude when we get there. Okay?”
The famed Aunt Charlotte: retired sixty-something French prima donna and Dad’s older sister. I get the feeling this is more of a favor she’s doing for her incarcerated mom—so the old woman can save herself from continuing imprisonment postdeath, in purgatory.
I run my palm across the seat, the leather plush and foreign to my hand. Like nearly every woman in Dad’s family, Charlotte was a bal- lerina in the Paris Opera company. As a result, she snagged herself an aristocratic husband. It was love at first sight when he saw her dance. Now that she’s a wealthy widow, her generous donations have earned our family a spot among the boarding school’s most elite beneficiaries. Which explains my acceptance as a student without the usual three-month consideration period.
Nothing like nepotism to earn you a place in the hearts of your peers.
Hopefully the other students won’t know my aunt sent this limo to pick us up at the hotel this morning and drive us around shopping all day; that she is paying my tuition for the year; and that she wired Mom nine hundred and fifty euros last week—the equivalent of a thousand dollars, give or take—to help buy my uniforms and dorm accessories at the posh boutiques here.
I’ve never met her, other than through ten years of spotty, one- sided phone conversations with my mom. Charlotte’s never visited America, and I’d never been to Paris until now. According to Mom, she used to call once a month to talk to Dad. Until he got sick enough to land in hospice care; then she stopped. She didn’t even come to his funeral, so I can’t help but question her motives.
“It said in the brochure they coordinate their calendars with public schools in the states. That means it’s already one month in here.” I wind my hands together, an attempt to quell the pain in my heart at the thought of Dad’s absence—the wound that never heals, even after a decade. “Do you know how hard it is to make friends so close to the end of the first six weeks?” Not that I plan to try . . . but true intentions take a backseat when it comes to guilting Mom.
“It’s not unheard of,” Mom rebuts. “Lots of people are scram- bling to send their kids, even late. Doesn’t that say something to the credit of the school? Only two years in, and there’s already a wait list. There were at least twenty names in front of yours.” Mom looks out her window where the wet trees have thickened to multicolored knots, like an afghan gilded with glitter.
“My point exactly.” I tap my fingers to some endless rhythm turning inside of me . . . an operatic aria I heard in an elevator ear- lier. It’s reawakened, and that’s not a good sign. The melody will writhe like a snake on fire and burn holes behind my closed eyelids in the shape of musical notes until I sing it out. It’s physical torture, like a constant spark in my skull that scorches my spine—vertebra by vertebra. “I’ll be winning friends left and right once they hear I jumped the list via my bloodline.”
Mom clucks her tongue. “Well, according to you, there’s still the phantom. I’m sure he’s not too picky about who he hangs out with.”
My jaw tightens as I suppress a snort. Touché.
I trace the window now curtained by mud, imagining the glass cracking and bursting; imagining myself sprouting wings to fly away through the opening—back to America and my two friends who were tolerant of my strange quirks.
Aching for another glimpse of the sky, I trigger the automatic window to swipe the pane clean, allowing a fresh, cold wind to usher in a spray of mud and rain. I smile as the moisture dots my face and neck, easing the sting of the song in my head. Mom yelps and I send the window up again.
“Rune, please.” She tightens her plump, red-tinted lips to a frown. Working her fingers through the dirty droplets in her cropped hair, she digs a Kleenex from her purse.
“Sorry,” I whisper, actually meaning it. Using my velvet scarf, I blot my cheeks then sponge the leather seat.
Mom’s scrubbing shifts to the taupe crepe jacket and pencil skirt, which hang like tissue paper on her small frame. With each movement, her signature fragrance wafts over me: Lemon Pledge. She cleans other people’s houses for a living, and can never seem to shake off the stench of dust solvent and Pine-Sol.
With her delicate bone structure and striking features, she missed her true calling. She did some print modeling back when Dad was alive, but she wasn’t tall enough to be on the catwalk. Once he got sick, she needed “job security” to help pay bills. Housekeeping filled that niche, but I know a part of her has always regretted switching professions. And now she’s determined to see that I don’t lose my shot at something better, something she thinks I was born to do.
Gray light and purple shadows take turns gliding along her high cheekbones as we pass through the trees. People say we could pass for sisters. We share her ivory complexion, the tiny freckles spattered across the bridge of her nose, the wide green eyes inside a framework of thick lashes, and her hair—black as a raven’s wings. The only difference is, I inherited my curls from a father whose laughter I still hear when I dance in rain puddles. Whose face I still see in the water’s reflections, as if he’s beside me.
Without being at home, close to our garden, my only remaining connections to him are the music he loved and his family, each insepara- bly intertwined with the other. Since Mom’s parents passed away before I was even born, she had no one to lean on once Dad got sick. So, Grandma Liliana came from France to live with us in Harmony. She was a lot of help in the beginning, but a few months after Dad died, she left our lives in a blaze of horror, literally. The last time I saw her she showed up at my second-grade Valentine’s Day party and purposely started a fire that almost wiped out an entire class of eight-year-olds.
She was carted back to France and has been locked away in the city of Versailles ever since, at a prison for the criminally insane.
Ironic, considering that was her second attempt at killing me. Although I often wonder if I imagined the first . . . if the details got mixed up in my seven-year-old brain because I was fighting so hard for my life. According to what Grandma told Mom, it had all been an accident.
I shiver and rub the scar on my left knee that peeks through the rip in my jeans, a reminder imprinted on my skin. A reminder of the splintering wood I kicked my way through . . . a reminder that, accident or not, I didn’t imagine it.
“You have a gift.” Mom’s statement rakes across the intrusive memory, ripping through the cobwebs and dangling dead hopes in my heart that have settled where a loving and sane grandmother should’ve been. “This place will help you realize your potential. Be grateful for the opportunity.”
Mom doesn’t get that I want to be grateful. I miss how singing once made me feel: free, unique, complete.
But what if Grandma was right about me . . . about everything?
The aria I heard earlier in the elevator bumps against my ribs once more, making my breath shallow. From the time they started dating, Dad taught Mom French. He’d done the same for me since birth, and she continued his tutelage after we lost him. Because of that, I know enough to be comfortable here. But the opera piping through the speakers had sounded Russian. I have no idea what the name of it is or what it’s about. I don’t have to know. Now that the notes are woven within me, the words are imprinted alongside them. Whether or not I can translate what I’m singing, I’ll still remember how to form each syllable on my tongue when the time comes to release the song.
It’s like I have an auditory photographic memory, although it’s not something I can quietly absorb then let sit on the back of my eyelids like an image, hidden from everyone else’s view. There’s nothing private about my ability.
Dread tightens my throat. I need to ease the tension, to rid myself of the music. But I don’t want to lose it in the back of a limo. It’s too confined; and then there’s the driver . . .
Everyone has experienced the feeling, stepping into a room and the other people stop talking. This happens to me each time I sing. Wall-to-wall silence. If a sweat drop were to fall, you could hear it splatter to the floor. Not an awkward silence. More like an awed hush.
I have no right to be proud because it’s nothing I’ve earned. Up until recently, I’d never had a voice lesson in my life. Yet, ever since I was small, opera has been a living, breathing part of me.
The problem is that as I’ve grown, it’s become more demanding . . . an entity that controls me. Once a song speaks to my subconscious, the notes become a toxin I have to release through my diaphragm, my vocal cords, my tongue.
The only way I can breathe again is through a binge and purge of music. The worst part is what follows—how finishing a perfor- mance makes me feel. Stripped naked, cold and exposed. Physically sick. Only hours later, after the symptoms of withdrawal have run their course, can I become myself once more. At least until the next melody possesses me, like the one snaking through me now.
My legs start to jitter, and I clamp my hands on my knees. I cough to suppress the tune that’s climbing my throat like bile.
“Rune, are you all right? You’re awfully flushed. Is it . . . ?” She takes one look at my face and moans. My flushed cheeks and dilated pupils are her only cue. She’s never seen what I see in the mirror . . . what Dad used to see when music burned inside me: my irises brightening to a lighter, almost ethereal hue, like sunlight stream- ing through green glass. Dad called it an energy surge, but because Mom couldn’t see it, she laughed him off.
“Just get it over with,” she insists.
Another cough—hard enough to strain my vocal cords. “I can’t sing in here.” The nagging notes tangle in my throat. “What if I hit a high C and break the windows? Your clothes won’t survive that much rain.”
She frowns, oblivious to the way my skin prickles under my rain- coat, to the sweat beads gathered at my hairline beneath my cap. I dig through the bag at my feet—an oversize tote, with burgundy, mauve, and green beads sewn onto the pearly front to depict roses and leaves—and drag out my newest knitting project.
Mouth closed, I go to work on the cream-colored sweater I started a few weeks ago. With each metal clack of the needles, the fluffy chenille skims lightly through my fingertips. The cold instru- ments are firm and empowering in my hands. I start the looping and rolling rhythm so the tactile stimulus can distract me—a strategy that sometimes works.
Mom’s frowning lips soften to a frustrated straight line. “The one good thing your Grandmother Lil ever taught you, and you use it for a crutch.”
Ignoring her, I snap my wrists so the needles loop and roll, twist and twirl. Chenille winds around the shimmery silver metal like strands of cotton candy on a cone.
“The music wouldn’t affect you like this if you’d just stop fighting it,” Mom presses, trying to stall my hands.
“Why should I have to fight it to begin with, Mom? Is that nor- mal?” I pull free and return to my rhythmic escape.
Mom shakes her head, steadfast in her denial. Secure in her faith in me. If only I could borrow some of it.
I wish I were like those mimes we saw on a street corner when we shopped. If I could pantomime a song’s exit from my body—a silent and effective murder of melody—maybe I could once more be grateful for my gift, instead of fearing its gradual and violent consumption of me: body, mind, and soul.
To celebrate, we have 1 x Signed Novel, 1 x Signed Poster, 1 x Signed Mask & 1 x Signed Bookmark to give away courtesy of A. G. Howard and the RoseBlood team.
Two runners up will each received a finished copy of the novel, signed by the author.
To enter, fill out the following form with ‘Rune’ in the subject line, including your full name, address and contact number.
(Due to some competition entry issues from forum click throughs, please ensure you refresh this page before completing the form.)
Competition closes on Saturday 21st January, 2017
Winners will be notified by phone / email
Best of luck!
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