In this exclusive and electrifying extract from Leviathan's Blood, Ben Peek's epic continuation of his Children Trilogy, the immortal Zaifyr has been captured and is being transported to the Floating Cities to await trial for murder . . .
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A thousand years ago, Zaifyr’s sister tried to kill him.
He could remember his family asking him to come with them. She had not been alone. Aelyn had been one of four who had come into his kingdom, drawn by the reports of massacres, by the reports of madness. By his madness.
In the ruins of Asila, in the city that shared the name of the country he ruled, Zaifyr and his family fought. They fought a day and a night. Yet, he could not remember how it had started. Could recall them telling him that they did not want to hurt him. But he could not remember who spoke those words. The dead had been so strong and vocal beside him that it was their words he heard before any others. They stood beside him – a new family, a family forever growing – and for the first time in his life he knew that he had made the dead happy. He had given them not just life, but themselves. He had made them as whole as he could.
Oh, he knew that he had done that only through a horrific act; even then he knew that, but he was thankful for their happiness. They were no longer hungry. No longer cold. They could remember their names and who they had once been. In their joy, their bodies lit not just the city, but the whole nation in an unearthly blue glow. It remained until his family began to speak to him. Then the light turned bright and hard with their anger. The dead hurled themselves at his brothers and sisters. They tore at them. They burned all the new life that they had in them. And his brothers and sisters met them. Jae’le. Tinh Tu. Eidan. And Aelyn, the youngest. He did not know how she came to be behind him. He had lost track of her towards the end. That is all he knew. When he became aware of her again she was approaching silently between the broken walls and past the corpses of the men and women and children. She was dirty and bloodied, but she was not weak. She was never weak. Her hands flexed strong fingers. With little effort, she could break his neck. He knew that.
As she drew closer, he realized that she no longer fought to subdue him. Perhaps she had been right to put that aside. Perhaps she was still right, even now. Beneath him, a series of thick lines began to split open along the ground, and the head of a massive construction began to emerge. It was Eidan’s creation, but it was the moment Aelyn had been waiting for.
The rocky head gave way to a body, to thick arms, to huge legs. She rushed forward, she reached out . . . and as she did so, the cold hands of a dozen haunts closed around her, their bodies appearing out of the air as his power flushed through them. Not all the dead had fed on flesh and blood for weeks, not all had become as close to human as they would ever be again, and it was these dead that lifted her, these that wanted her, that needed—
‘Zaifyr.’ A thousand years later his sister Aelyn Meah, Keeper of the Divine, the Head of the Enclave of Yeflam, stood before him. ‘Brother.'
And it did not matter that she thought herself a god.
He offered her half a smile. ‘Sister.’
The two stood on a road, the Southern Gate of Yeflam behind her, and the Mountains of Ger behind him. He had not seen her in decades, but now he stood before her, his hands chained, a prisoner for killing two men who had been sent to Mireea on her word.
‘There is still time to turn away,’ she said quietly. She wore a pale robe of blue and her dark hair ran to her shoulders, grown out since he had last seen her. 'Time to stop this.'
‘There isn’t,’ he said.
‘Don’t bring this war to Yeflam.’
‘I already have.’ He raised his manacled hands. ‘I killed Fo and Bau.’
From behind her, voices rose. They did not come from the twenty-three men and women who stood near Aelyn and himself. In the centuries after Asila, his sister had remade herself and remade her empire. She drew to herself immortal men and women like herself – like him – and had taken the title Keeper of the Divine. She convinced each of them that they would one day be gods. She allowed them to stand beside her as she created an artificial stone continent across Leviathan’s Throat. Of the men and women who stood before him now, Zaifyr knew six. They had been alive before he had been placed in his crooked prison after Asila had crumbled. Before the hungry haunts had lifted Aelyn into the sky and begun to tear at her skin. Before the stone giant had reared to its full height. Before he had been forced to release her to stop the heavy hand coming crashing down on him.
No, the sound of voices did not come from them. To him, the Keepers had nothing to say. But the long, tangled mass of people who lined the bridge into Yeflam, the people who called the artificial nation home, did. They had not liked Fo the Healer and Bau the Disease: the voices that they raised were not for them. The sounds of disapproval were aimed at the men and women who stretched behind Zaifyr, the Mireean people who had fled their home and come here for sanctuary.
Most of all they were objecting to the woman who now left the head of the Mireean people and came to stand beside him as he lifted his chained hands.
‘Lady Wagan.’ Aelyn did not look at the woman who had led the people down the Mountains of Ger to Yeflam. ‘You have done me a service,’ she said. ‘You have done Yeflam a service.’
Muriel Wagan, the Lady of the Spine, replied that she had only been respecting Yeflam law.
Zaifyr smiled at her words.
‘I will offer you sanctuary for bringing my brother to me,’ his sister replied. ‘For bringing him to stand trial for the murder of Fo and Bau.’
‘We ask for no more,’ Lady Wagan said.
Zaifyr had watched Aelyn try to prevent his arrival during the three-week march down the trembling Mountains of Ger. She had tried through her representative, Faje – a tall, soft-
spoken man whose brown skin disintegrated across his body, leaving blotches of pale pink. He had attempted to convince not just Muriel Wagan and her people that they should not come to Yeflam, but Zaifyr as well. He had spoken to them about the need for Yeflam to remain neutral in the war between Mireea and Leera. He did not want war to spread over both sides of the Spine of Ger, he said. He tried to warn Lady Wagan away with dire predictions of how the presses of Yeflam would treat her and her people. He told her that the ‘free’ presses would be without mercy, that factions within Yeflam would seek to exploit both her and the situation. Those words, Zaifyr knew, were also meant for him. He had smiled when Faje had turned to address him with similar concerns. He had not had needed to say a word to the mortal man. Faje’s dark eyes had reflected the knowledge that his words were falling flat before the charm-laced man, just as they did before Muriel Wagan.
His companion to the meetings, Benan Le’ta, a fat white man who represented the Traders’ Union, had virtually hummed with pleasure in comparison. From what Zaifyr understood, Le’ta represented a political force within Yeflam that threatened the Keepers’ power base. Centuries of changing attitudes and new political ideals had given the Traders’ Union a hold in the Floating Cities, and the Traders had used it to argue for democracy, free markets and a form of self-determination that had found root in the dreams of the populace. The Traders’ Union had not yet been able to break the hold of Aelyn Meah on Yeflam. The merchant Le’ta, who wore long, flowing clothes that hid the extent of his weight, believed that the arrival of the Mireean men and women, along with the trial of Zaifyr, would begin that process in such a way that Aelyn and the Keepers of the Enclave would not be able to maintain their grip on Yeflam.
The man was a fool.
‘Lady Wagan.’ Aelyn raised her voice so that the people behind her could hear clearly. ‘The people of Yeflam are humbled to offer you and your people sanctuary on the island of Wila.’
The people behind Muriel murmured, but the Lady of the Spine inclined her head and accepted the prison she was offered.
Ayae had told Zaifyr a week ago about the offer. The former apprentice cartographer had been invited to the meetings hosted by diplomats on the road to Yeflam. She had gone reluctantly to the tents that the Traders’ Union had provided and listened to both factions talk to Muriel Wagan about her welcome in the Floating Cities.
‘Fo and Bau’s deaths will only get her so far. Bringing you to Yeflam to answer for killing them doesn’t give her free rein in Yeflam.’ The two of them stood beneath the night’s sky, the dimly lit tent she had emerged from behind them. ‘They won’t let the Mireeans in, either. Faje argued that neutrality is too important politically. He believes that there will be a peace to be negotiated with the Leerans, and that the Keepers will be able to preside over it.’
‘Le’ta agreed with him?’
She nodded. ‘The people of Yeflam don’t fear her.’
Her was the child, the gods’ only child, the force behind the Leeran army. ‘They will soon enough,’ he said.
Her warm brown hand touched his arm. ‘The trial will go ahead in Yeflam. Benan Le’ta has insisted and Faje has agreed.’
‘Good. When my sister officially calls a trial, it will bring the others to Yeflam.’
‘What if they don’t come?’
None of his brothers and sisters would like it, but that was not the point. Ayae did not like it, either, but Zaifyr had, in the journey down the Spine of Ger, convinced her that it was the only way that they could fight the child. He had persuaded her of the necessity of fighting her, as well. Now he just had to prevail on his sister and his family, and convince the Keepers – and the quickest way to do that, he knew, was to frighten them with the return of Asila if they did not call a trial. To remind them, not just of the ghosts, of the dead, but of what happened after, in the empires that they had ruled.
Zaifyr was led to the Southern Gate of Yeflam by Aelyn. With each step, he could feel the vastness of his sister’s power, a sensation akin to the long, clear sky turning its gaze on him. It enveloped him, as it always had, and smothered the powers of the other immortal men and women who moved to take control of the Mireean refugees.
On the bridge, the crowd watched him and Aelyn approach.
A carriage without horses waited before the gate and, as the two came closer, small twists of wind began to form around the empty shafts. Within moments, they had taken on the shape of two horses and their pale wind-born bodies had filled the leather harnesses of the carriage.
Behind him, Zaifyr heard a shout, a voice issuing a command, but he did not turn to see who spoke, did not turn to see what was happening to the Mireean people.
He stepped into the carriage and his sister, who followed, closed the door.
The Yeflam Guard led the Mireeans to Wila with their weapons drawn. The refugees were unarmed.
For a moment, Ayae resisted moving as the bodies of men and women pressed against her. The order had been given by one of the Keepers, a man with blue dye in his hair, but she had barely registered him, or any of the others.
She had been against the idea of going to Wila from the moment she heard it mentioned in the small tents where Muriel Wagan held her meetings. It had instantly reminded her of Sooia, of the camp she had been brought up in before she came to Mireea. If she closed her eyes, she could see rough wooden walls, small dirty huts, and fear. Fear on faces. Fear in movements. Fear of every sound that came from beyond the large gate that they lived behind.
One of the blue-armoured guards of Yeflam pressed a mailed hand into her back, but Ayae did not move. The guard pushed at her and then jerked his hand back as if he had been burnt.
He met her gaze but, as he did, another hand touched her shoulder, and Caeli said, ‘Come on, come on.’
The tall blonde guard of Muriel Wagan repeated the words as she pushed Ayae’s shoulder, urging her back into the press of men and women who were being led across the bridge. The churning coast of Leviathan’s Blood gave way to Yeflam’s first city, Neela, but she saw little of the city before she was pushed down the stone ramp to Wila.
‘You happy?’ Ayae asked, once she was on the island.
‘You didn’t start a fight, did you?’ Caeli rubbed at the palm of her hand, the hand that had held Ayae. ‘This is no more than a prison.’
‘But without cells.’ Ayae followed the other woman’s gaze around the island. ‘Without walls.’
Wila was a flat piece of barren land made from dirt and sand. Ahead, Ayae could see the farmlands of Yeflam across Leviathan’s Blood and, beyond them, the Mountains of Ger.
If she turned, however, Yeflam itself came into view. It stretched along the horizon, marked by huge arching bridges linking a series of circular platforms. The platforms were so large that they were like slabs of earth that a giant had lifted from the ocean’s floor before resting them on a series of huge stone pillars. The thick columns were made from blocks of stone and dived into the black water, where they sank deep into the ocean’s floor. Around them, islands similar to Wila lay beneath the length of the artificial country, dotting the length of the ocean from horizon to horizon.
It was not a new sight to Ayae. She and her oldest friend, Faise, had driven an ox-drawn cart from Mireea to the cities to buy supplies for the witch Olcea more than once. In those trips, however, the two women had never gone near the stone ramps that ran down to Yeflam’s empty islands. Instead, they had travelled into Neela, along its wide streets and past its factories and storage yards.
Depending on which side of Leviathan’s Blood you approached Yeflam, Neela was either the first of the nation’s twenty-three cities, or the last. It was a Traders’ Union city, and you could find presses that were friendly to men and women of wealth and position and critical of people who had held power in Yeflam for a thousand years. There were another five cities that the Traders’ Union claimed as its own, the biggest of these being Burata, which connected to the eastern docks. In that city, you could buy anything, and it was there that Ayae and Faise had ridden to buy the supplies Olcea had wanted. In one of the free papers that were available in Burata, Ayae first read full-page articles using the term ‘cursed’ – the first time she had heard the word outside Mireea.
The word had followed her for the last three weeks as well.
After they had left the ghost-filled streets of Mireea behind, people had begun whispering it. At first, Ayae had been able to ignore it, but it had only become worse. The whispers began when she made her way into Lady Wagan’s tents and did not stop when she left: they continued when she queued for her rations and it was common whenever she and Zaifyr were seen together.
The word was not always used with animosity. At times it was spoken with a neutrality – ‘The cursed is over there in the chains’ – and at times with a grudging respect – ‘They both stood for us’ – but more often than not, it was said with anger. By the second week, she had been spat at, she had been blamed for the loss of Mireea – either because she had not done enough, or because she had done too much – and she had heard others tell Zaifyr that he was responsible for the ghosts he had shown them in Mireea and that he kept the dead in their purgatory because he took his power from their pain.
‘How can you listen to it?’ she asked, one night. 'How do you not get angry at them?’
‘I don’t know them.’ He sat on a piece of grass away from where the Mireeans had made a cold camp, the moon and stars the only light around him. It caught on the charms of copper and silver that had been woven through his auburn hair and around his wrists. He held one of those, one made from bronze, in his white hand. ‘But,’ he said, ‘if I had just seen what happened to my friends and family when they died, I would probably blame the man who showed me as well.’
'You understand them?'
His eyes, green in the daylight but simply dark and depthless in the night, focused on her. ‘It is an easy enough thing to do.’
Ayae made a face in disagreement. ‘Then they shout at you,’ she said. ‘It’s pointless to blame you for what has happened. Why don't they realize that?'
‘Give them time.’
She looked away from him.
‘You have time,’ he said mildly. ‘You will outlive every one of these people by thousands of years. You may outlive them by forever.'
She had dismissed his words because she could not fully understand such a life. She could not imagine standing beside Caeli as the blonde in Caeli’s hair gave way to silver, while her own remained dark. She could not imagine Caeli’s skin wrinkling while hers remained smooth. She simply could not imagine herself held in time like a painting. Yet she could see in Zaifyr that he could imagine such things – in fact, did not need to imagine them. She could see the length of his life in the way he held himself in conversation with others, in the distance he kept from those who were not like him. She could see it in the way he talked of the world and its future.
‘Well,’ Caeli said beside her now. ‘We’d better start getting these tents put up.’
The horses made from wind pulled the carriage through the streets of Neela, towards the huge stone bridge that led to Mesi, and from there, into Ghaam, where three bridges allowed Yeflam to unfold as if it were a dissected giant, its organs and veins open for all to traverse on.
‘I felt Ger die.’ Aelyn spoke as if she knew that his thoughts were about dead giants. They were the first words that she had spoken since the carriage door shut. She had sat opposite him, watching him intently, without anger. ‘It was a light touch, but I felt it nonetheless.’
‘There was little of him left when I arrived,’ Zaifyr said. ‘He didn’t have that burning hatred that the others have.’
‘It changed shortly after we had begun to build Yeflam. One day, it simply felt as if he had turned his gaze away.’
‘Like he was waiting for something?’ Beneath them, the carriage shuddered as its wheels left the ground. ‘Or someone?’
‘He was not waiting for anything. He was just—’
‘Maybe he was waiting for the child in Leera,’ Zaifyr interrupted. ‘Maybe he knew that long before we did.’
‘He was dying, Qian.’ She used his name, his old name, the name he had given himself a long time ago. ‘He had come to the end of time. What we felt was a dying god coming upon death. Nothing more.’
Zaifyr did not reply. It was not that he disagreed – or that he strongly agreed, for to argue one or the other opened the concept of an awareness more intricate than he had thought the gods now had – but he was not sure how to respond to her. Before, she would have been angry at him simply for interrupting her. She would not have sat there and held his gaze until he had finished speaking, as she had just done. But it had been decades since he had last seen her and perhaps, in that time, she had changed. He had believed that Aelyn stored a lingering anger at him, a fury that had driven her to try to kill him. Since his release from the tower where his siblings had imprisoned him, he had not wanted to fuel it and had tried to show her a small respect by ensuring that he had no real presence in her new world. Now that he was in Yeflam, he expected her anger. He knew that what he was doing to her now was anything but respectful.
In truth, he could only have been more disrespectful to her if he had arrived with a pack mule and Fo and Bau’s bodies strapped to its back. He deserved her hostility. He knew that, yet . . . yet here he was, sitting opposite his sister, unable to draw a spark of irritation from her by deed or word.
The carriage begin to bank and, outside the shaking window, the clear sky revealed more of the Floating Cities of Yeflam. The cities did not float, of course, but at night, once the afternoon’s sun had sunk, the stone pillars that held the cities aloft blended into the black water and its shadows. Seen from a distance then, Yeflam did indeed look as if it floated.
He had seen it first a dozen years ago from the deck of a ship. The stone docks had stretched across the black ocean like giant petrified fingers, their shape lit by the towers on the islands both before and after. At the top of each tower, massive cauldrons of fire consumed hideous amounts of oil to cast a light across the lanes that the ships used when approaching Yeflam. But it had been the length of the country behind the towers and docks that had caught his attention. There, millions of lamps ran along the bridges and into the cities and, for a moment, Yeflam looked like a giant funeral procession.
Zaifyr had not seen its like before, but he knew, even as the ship drew up to the docks, that Yeflam had not been designed by Aelyn. He knew of only one being who could design such a city and that was his brother, Eidan. The realization had not surprised him. He knew that Eidan and Aelyn would have stood together after Asila. The two would not have been divided from each other, as the others had been. Yet, before Zaifyr had come to Mireea, Jae’le had told him that Eidan was not in Yeflam. He had left years ago, his brother said, and whatever calming influence he had had over Aelyn was long gone. It was one of the reasons, he said, that Zaifyr should not linger in the city.
‘Where are you taking me?’ Zaifyr asked, turning from the window.
‘Nale.’ Behind Aelyn the sky stretched in a long empty brightness. ‘I have a home there.’
‘No cell, then?’
‘There is a cell for you in the Broken Mountains.’
‘No.’ He smiled faintly. ‘I’ll not go back there. You know that.'
She looked away, turning to the window where Yeflam lay below. There, Nale had come into view. It was easily three times the size of any other settlement in Yeflam and sat at the artificial country’s centre, a massive city dominated by huge buildings, with none larger than the Enclave, the white tower where the Keepers of the Divine worked. Yet, as the wind-made horses began their descent, Zaifyr could not see the tower.
Instead, he saw a series of sprawling estates, each of them kept behind high stone walls and steel gates. It was before a large, yellow-stone building defined by two towers that the horses landed, bringing the carriage to a halt.
Her home. Aelyn’s home.
Yet she did not live there. That was clear from the moment she opened the door and led him inside. Dust coated the long half-filled shelves and still tables and chairs that lay beyond the doorway. The air was musty and dry and tainted by the smell of blood and salt from Leviathan’s Blood. In Maewe – in the kingdom his sister once ruled – Aelyn had built a house identical to this, but the inside of it had flowed with air, with life, and with her. This house, Zaifyr thought as he followed her, was but a keepsake of the life she had left behind. It was like the churches he had found in rural communities after the War of the Gods. Each had been made as a place of worship while the gods had been alive, but rather than being a building that men and women and children could enter, the houses had existed as homes for the gods. Inside were items that the communities had associated with the god – books, idols, weapons – and each building had been sealed so that no one could enter. Reportedly, when the gods had been alive, the houses had been pristine inside, but by the time Zaifyr saw them, the remaining ones had been broken open like eggs, their insides scooped out for the sustenance they provided.
They looked like Aelyn’s house, a monument of a time long gone.
‘Before you went to Mireea, Jae’le came to see me.’ Aelyn stood in front of a wine rack, her fingers running along the old bottles. ‘Not in person, of course. Just in one of his little birds. He told me that you would pass by. He said that he had was not interested in Yeflam. He was interested only in the war the Leerans had begun. I had already sent Fo and Bau by then, but he promised me that you would be no threat. He said that you had not talked to the dead since he released you.’ She pulled a bottle from the middle of the rack, grasping it by the throat. ‘Do you plan to keep those manacles on while we drink? Or will you lift a glass with them?’
Her free hand shot out, quicker than he could see. A moment later, he heard the black iron crack beneath her grasp. ‘I don’t need to pretend that you are a prisoner.’ She tossed the remains to the ground. ‘I know you’re not.’
‘No.’ Despite her actions, Zaifyr’s voice did not rise. ‘No, I hadn’t talked to the dead. Jae’le was right. But your Keepers did not leave me much of a choice in Mireea. Fo, especially.’
‘They were children.’
‘None of us is a child.’
‘They were, compared to you.’ She walked down a hallway to the back of the house, to a room that was flooded with light. A dusty, sun-faded table sat in the middle, a pair of chairs on either side. ‘But it does not matter. You’re here now,’ she said. ‘Here to stand trial for both their deaths. Here to abuse laws you do not respect. At least tell me that Jae’le had no idea that this would happen – at least tell me that this is not some plan that the two of you have created.’
‘I already told you that what he said was true.’ Zaifyr watched as she placed the bottle in the middle of the table. ‘He will not be happy, either.’
‘When has he ever stayed angry at you? Or you at him?’ Aelyn pulled two glasses from beneath the table and blew into each to clean the dust out. Once she had finished, she met his gaze. ‘I warned them, you know. Fo and Bau. I sent them a message, telling them that you would be there and that they should avoid you. I told them to treat you like Mireea and keep neutral.’
‘They failed Mireea as well.’
‘I know.’ A note in her voice suggested that the conversation was one that she had had before. ‘I do not want war, Qian,’ she said. ‘Those days are long gone for me. I had my fill in Asila. I had my fill before that and after that. Yeflam is a neutral country. I fought to make it so. I spent the last bit of fighting in me bringing it about. Now, instead, I am interested in education, in philosophy. I want to write about the nature of gods and how they influence our world. I want to prepare for the day that I will be a god – and I want to prepare the people for that as well.’
‘You’ve made a treaty with the Leerans, haven’t you?’ The realization occurred to him with a faint surprise. ‘With the child god?'
‘The Leerans call her that, not I,’ Aelyn said. ‘I imagine that the child is like you or me, and I expect this will prove true when I meet her. When the Enclave met the Leerans, it was through a woman named Estalia.’
It was she who interrupted him this time. ‘Take a look around you. Yeflam is a nation that will number four million people within the decade. On Ger’s back, Mireea is nothing compared to us. Even to call it a nation is to believe it is something that it is not. If some other nation – and Leera is a nation – wishes to go to war with the Lady of the Spine to control her lucrative trade route, what is it to me? I own the oceans in this part of the world. Any treaty I have with Muriel Wagan is easily put aside to keep war from coming to my country and my people.’
‘Except now,’ Zaifyr said.
‘Except now.’ Aelyn’s hand did not tremble as she unstoppered the bottle. ‘Now Muriel Wagan brings me the killer of two of my brothers and I must offer her sanctuary.’ The wine that began to fill the two glasses was so dark that the afternoon’s sun could not lighten it. ‘The Leerans will ask me why I allow that and I will say that it is so my brother can stand trial for crimes for which he will never be punished.’
‘The Leeran Army is no threat to you.’
‘I did not say that.’
‘Then what are you saying?’ He picked up one of the glasses, one of his silver charms hitting the side of the glass as he did so. When she did not answer, he said, ‘The child is a real god. I met her.’ In the dusty room around them, haunts of dead men and women began to fill the room. ‘I met her, Aelyn,’ he repeated, ‘and she is not like us. She is not a piece of divinity lost in a mortal. She is divinity. She was pulled out of the earth in Eakar. Ask Jae’le, if you do not believe me. He saw it happen and did not tell us about it. But it does not matter. What matters is that she is not a complete god. She does not have a name and she relies upon the dead for her power, much like a witch, or a warlock. Only, unlike them, it is she who keeps the dead in our world. She who has locked them away from salvation or oblivion. It is she who creates the misery you see around you. If we do not strike at her, if we do not kill her now, she will visit that misery on us, and on everyone else in this world.’
‘When I met you,’ she said, after a moment. ‘The first time, so long ago now. When I met you then, you sounded like this. You and Jae’le both.’
‘He is not here.’ The ghosts around them began to fade, their shape disintegrating beneath the afternoon sun’s light, until nothing remained that she could see, or hear. ‘And I am not that man any more,’ he said.
‘I truly hope so, brother.’ In her hand the glass was still, the red wine untouched. ‘For that man left nothing in his wake.’
* * * *
Ben Peek has been shortlisted for the David Gemmell Award for Best Debut Fantasy and the prestigious Australian Aurealis Award. He lives in Sydney with his partner, photographer Nikilyn Nevins, and their cat, Lily. You can follow him on Twitter @nosubstance.
Leviathan’s Blood is out next Thursday 7th April in hardback.