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|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.70(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 18 Years|
About the Author
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Cool shadows wash over my sweaty skin, welcoming me, disguising me. I could revel in the darkness—happily lie under the stars and let the night air unravel my knotted, overworked muscles—but I won’t waste tonight on rest or fleeting pleasure. These are the hours of spies and thieves. They’re my hours. I slide two hairpins into the lock, my chapped fingers dancing over them like the strings of a viola. This is a song I’ve rehearsed a thousand times, a hymn I’ve played in my most desperate moments. Better to pray to deft fingers, to shadows and camouflage, than to the old gods. Better to steal than to starve. Frogs sing in the distance, and their chorus nearly covers the satisfying click of the lock releasing. The servant door into Creighton Gorst’s manor house swings open. Gorst has business elsewhere tonight. I made sure of it. Nevertheless, I scan my surroundings for any sign of him or his staff. Most of the wealthy keep guards on duty, but a few—like Gorst—are so paranoid that they don’t even trust those in their inner circle to be unaccompanied near their vaults. I’ve been waiting for a night like this for months. I pad down the stone stairwell into the cellar. The temperature drops with each step, but my skin is flushed from adrenaline and the climb over his property walls, and I welcome the chill that skates across my skin. At the base of the stairs, a glowstone senses my movements and kicks on, dimly illuminating the floor. I disable it with a gash of my knife along its soft center, blanketing the room in a darkness so complete that I can hardly make out my own hand in front of my face. Good. I’m more comfortable moving in the dark, anyway. Following the walls around the periphery of the cellar with my hands, I reach the cool steel of the vault door. I blindly examine it with my fingertips—three locks, but none too complex. They yield to my blade and pins. In less than five minutes I have the door open and can already feel relief loosening my muscles. We’ll make this month’s payment. Madame Vivias won’t be able to enforce more penalties this time. My smile of triumph is short-lived as I catch sight of the symbols etched on the threshold. That quickly, the rush from my success ebbs. Gorst’s vault is protected by wards. Of course it is. A rich man paranoid enough to forgo sentries would be a poor man very quickly if he didn’t employ a little magic to guard his wealth. Tonight’s mission is dangerous, and I can’t risk forgetting that for even a moment. I only steal from those who have more than they need, but with wealth comes power—the power to have thieves like me executed if we’re caught. I sidestep the markings and pull a starworm from my satchel. Its silky-wet skin is slippery between my fingers, but I lead it to my wrist, wincing when it latches on. As it slowly draws a trickle of blood from my veins, its skin glows, lighting the ground before me. I hate losing the darkness, but I need to see the symbols. Sinking to my haunches, I trace every line and curve, confirming their shape and intent. Clever magic, indeed. These runes wouldn’t keep me out of the vault. They’d let me in and lock me there, make me a prisoner until the master of the manor could deal with me. A common thief schooled only in protection runes might make the mistake of thinking the wards were faulty when he passed them. A common thief would find himself locked inside. Good thing I’m anything but common. I scour my mind for an appropriate counterspell. I’m no mage. I might like to be, if my fate had been different and my days weren’t so full of scrubbing floors and cleaning up after my spoiled cousins. I don’t have the time or the coin to spare on training, so I’ll never be able to carry magic at my fingertips with spells, potions, and rituals. I’m lucky to have a friend who’s taught me what he can. Lucky to know just how to get out of this vault when I’ve taken what I need. I slide my knife from my belt and bite my cheek as I drag the blade across the palm opposite the starworm. The sharp pain makes my head spin and pushes every thought from my head. For too many moments I teeter, my body begging to give in to the reprieve of unconsciousness. Breathe, Abriella. You have to breathe. You can’t trade oxygen for courage. The memory of my mother’s voice has me dragging air into my lungs. What is wrong with me tonight? I’m normally not so squeamish about blood or pain. But I’m exhausted and hungry after working all day with no break. I’m dehydrated. I’m running out of time. I dip my finger into the blood welling in my palm and carefully draw the counterspell runes atop those etched into stone. I wipe my bloody palm on my pants and study my work carefully before rising. I don’t let myself hold my breath as I cross the threshold, immediately passing the symbols in each direction to make sure my runes are working. When I step into the vault, I cast the light from the starworm across the space and gasp. Creighton Gorst’s vault is bigger than my bedroom. The walls are lined with shelves holding raqon coinbags, jewels, and shining weapons. My hands itch to take as much as I can carry, but I won’t. If I let my desperation get the best of me, he’ll know someone was here. Perhaps he will anyway. Maybe I underestimate the drunkard’s ability to account for the wealth he’s amassed dealing in pleasure and flesh, but if I’m lucky, he’ll never know that someone breached his wards. I knew Gorst was rich, but I didn’t expect riches like these. Prostitution and drink make wealthy men, but this wealthy? I scan the shelves and instinctively reach out when I spot the only explanation. I hover my hand over a stack of life deeds but yank back at the magical heat radiating from them. Had I been born into a different life, I would have very much liked to become a powerful mage for contracts like this alone. I would unravel the magic that binds these lives to evil men like Gorst. I’d gather my resources and free as many girls as I could before I was caught and executed. Even knowing that I don’t have the skill to undo the magic in those documents, it’s all I can do to leave them where they sit. Everything in me screams that I should at least try. You can’t save them. I force myself to step away. Choosing a cluttered shelf where a missing coinbag might go unnoticed, I scan for markings. None. Maybe Gorst should pay me to teach him how to truly guard his treasure. I lift a single pouch and peek inside to check the contents—more than enough raqon for our payment. Maybe enough for next month’s as well. He has all this wealth. Will he really notice if I take more? I scan the shelves and carefully choose two more bags that are tucked behind unorganized piles of treasure. I knew Gorst was despicable, but this is the kind of wealth that people of Fairscape see only if they do business with faeries. With that realization, each of those magical contracts takes on a new meaning. It’s bad enough that he can make those people do his bidding, bad enough that they’ll spend their lives paying an impossible debt, but if Gorst deals with the fae, he’s shipping humans off to another realm to spend their lives as slaves. Or worse. There are three stacks of contracts. I can’t risk touching them, but I make myself look at each pile. Someday I’m going to buy my freedom, and once my sister isn’t relying on me, I’ll come back here. Someday I’ll find a way. My gaze snags on the stack closest to the vault door and the name on top. I reread the name and the date the payment is due in full. Once. Twice. Three times. My chest ratchets tighter each time. I don’t believe in the old gods, but I send up a prayer anyway at the sight of that name, that child’s scrawl. At tomorrow’s date highlighted with a streak of her own blood. Steps sound overhead, the booming of men’s boots, and I hear a deep voice. I can’t make out his words from down here, but I don’t need to understand what he’s saying to know that I need to run. My satchel is heavy with my stolen goods, and I clutch it to my side so it won’t clang against my hip as I race out of the vault. I lift the starworm off my wrist, gasping as it fights me, trying for more blood. “Patience,” I whisper, guiding him to the floor. The leech crawls across the threshold, cleaning away my blood with its tiny tongue. More steps above. Then laughter and the sound of clinking glasses. He’s not alone, but if I’m lucky, everyone up there will be too intoxicated to notice me slip out. “Hurry, hurry,” I whisper to the starworm. I need to close the vault, but if I leave my blood behind, I’ll risk Gorst knowing someone was here. Or worse—taking a sample to a mage and tracing it back to me. The voices come closer, then steps on the stairs. I have no choice. I wrench the starworm from his bloody feast and slip him into my satchel. I splash water from my canteen onto the stones before I swing the vault closed. “I’ll get a new bottle,” Gorst shouts from the top of the cellar stairs. I know that voice too well. I used to clean his brothel. I mopped his floors and scrubbed his toilets until a month ago, when he tried to corner me into working for him in a very different capacity. I’ve spent the last nine years living by two rules: I don’t steal from those who give me honest work, and I don’t work for those who steal from me. That night, I added a new rule to the list: I don’t work for those who try to blackmail me into prostitution. Every scuff of his boots brings him closer, but I keep my movements smooth and steady. I latch one lock. Snick. Scuff, scuff. The second lock. Snick. Scuff, scuff. The third— “What the hell?” Snick. “These glowstones are worthless,” he grumbles from the foot of the stairs. I keep my breathing shallow and press myself against the wall, where the darkness is deepest. “You coming or not?” A female voice from the top of the stairs. She giggles. “We found the other bottle, Creighton. Come on!” “I’m coming.” I count his steps back up and inch closer to the stairs as he stumbles his way toward the top. He’s drunk. Perhaps luck is on my side tonight. Listening carefully, I track their progress through the manor house until there’s no more noise in the servants’ quarters above me and the sounds all come from the front of the house. I can’t risk opening the vault again to remove the rest of my blood. Not tonight. I pad silently up the stairs, retracing the steps that brought me here. I don’t register the extent of the tension locking my muscles until I’m out of the house and it leaves me in a rush. Under the cool night sky, I’m hit by a wave of exhaustion. I won’t stop now, but I’ve pushed myself too hard this week and I can’t deny my body much longer. I need sleep. Food. And in the morning, maybe even a few mindless minutes of watching Sebastian train in the courtyard behind Madame Vivias’s. That might be better than sleep or food. The thought is like a shot of adrenaline to my system, pushing me to finish what I need to do. The shadows guide me out of the manor—a meandering path around trees and shrubs, dodging the moonlight as if this is a game. The gates to the front are wide-open, and though my weary muscles beg me to take that easy exit, I can’t risk it. I pull the rope from my satchel and toss it over the perimeter wall of Gorst’s property. The fibers bite into my chapped hands, and my arms scream with each pull to the top. I jump down on the other side, landing on soft knees. My sister says I’m like a cat because of the way I’ve always jumped from trees and roofs without getting hurt. I think of myself more like a shadow, unnoticed and more useful than people bother to notice. I’m a ten-minute walk from home and am nearly limping under the weight of what I’ve stolen. It would be so easy to hand Madame Vivias what she’s due, climb into bed, and sleep for twelve hours. But I can’t. Not after what I saw on that last stack of contracts. I turn away from home and head down the alley past the dress shop where my sister Jas works. Around the corner from Gorst’s tavern and behind an overflowing bin of trash, I slip past the entrance to the city’s “family housing.” What a joke. The four-story building has twelve two-room units and one shared bath and kitchen on each floor. It’s shelter, and better than many have, but after seeing Gorst’s massive estate, the inequity disgusts me. My friend Nik’s door is ajar, and there’s sobbing coming from inside. Through the crack, I can see her daughter, Fawn, curled up against the wall, rocking, her shoulders shaking. Fawn has the same dark skin and curls as her mom. Once, Nik told me that everything changed for her when her daughter was born—that from that moment on, all that mattered to her was being the best mother she could be, even if it meant crossing lines she’d never want her own daughter to cross. I push inside, and Fawn startles. “Shh. It’s just me, baby,” I whisper, sinking to my haunches. “Where’s your mama?” She lifts her head, and tears stream down her cheeks. Her sobs grow louder and harder, her whole body shaking and teetering as if she’s trying to hold still through the gusts of an invisible storm. “I’m out of time,” Fawn says. I don’t ask what she means. I already know. I hear footsteps and turn to see Nik standing behind me, her arms crossed, horror on her face. “She did it to save me,” Nik says, her voice raspy, as if she’s been crying but has dried her tears through sheer will. “She got money from Gorst to buy me medicine from the healer.” “You were dying,” Fawn says, angrily swiping at her tears. She looks at me. “I didn’t have a choice.” “You did. You should’ve told me. I wouldn’t have let you sign that contract.” I reach for my friend’s hand and squeeze. The thing about desperation is that it steals the right choice from our list of options. Nik knows this as well as anyone. “I’ll give myself in your place, Fawny. Got it?” Nik says. There’s a quiet resolve in my friend’s expression that breaks my heart. “And what happens to me then?” Fawn asks. I wish she wasn’t old enough to understand that by going in her place, her mother would be sentencing her to a fate that could be worse. No one in Fairscape wants an extra mouth to feed. The only people who can afford charity are too greedy to bother. “Can you take her, Brie?” Nik asks. “You know I wouldn’t ask if I had a choice. Take her.” I shake my head. I want to, but if Madame Vivias found Fawn living in the cellar with us, there would be horrible consequences—and not just for Jas and me. For Fawn too. “There has to be someone else.” “There’s no one else, and you know it,” Nik says, but there’s no bite in her words, only resignation. “How much does she owe?” Nik winces and looks away. “Too much.” “How. Much.” “Eight thousand raqon.” The number makes me flinch. That’s two months’ payment to Madame Vivias, even including all her “penalties.” I don’t know how much I got from Gorst’s vault tonight, but there’s a good chance I have enough in my satchel to cover it. Fawn looks at me with those big eyes she was named for, begging me to save her. If I don’t do this, it’s the end of Nik’s life and possibly the end of Fawn’s. Best-case scenario, Fawn ends up as some rich noblewoman’s handmaiden. And worst? I can’t let myself think the worst. Nik wanted better for her daughter. A chance to be better, to have better. If I miss this payment to Madame V, it’s just more of the same for me. Our debt is too deep, our lives too entangled with the witch we were stuck with when Uncle Devlin died. The contents of this satchel can’t save me and Jas, but they can save Fawn and Nik. I reach into my bag and pull out two pouches. “Here.” Nik’s eyes widen. “Where did you get this?” “It doesn’t matter. Take it.” Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, Nik peers into the bags before shaking her head. “Brie, you can’t.” “I can and I will.” Nik stares at me for a long beat, and in her eyes I see her desperation warring with her fear for me. Finally she pulls me into her arms and squeezes me tight. “I’ll repay you. Someday. Somehow. I swear it.” “You owe me nothing.” I pull out of her arms, eager to get home and clean up. Desperate to sleep. “You would’ve done the same for me and Jas if you could have.” Her eyes fill with tears, and I watch one spill over and down her cheek, smearing her makeup as it goes. Her gratitude morphs to worry as she spots my bloody hand. “What happened?” I make a fist to hide my sliced palm. “It’s nothing. Just a cut.” “Just a cut? It’s an infection waiting to happen.” She nods to her bedroom. “Come with me. I can help.” Knowing she won’t let me go without a fight, I follow her into the tiny room where there’s a rickety dresser and the bed she and her daughter share. I sit on the edge of the bed and watch as she shuts the door behind her and gathers supplies. She sinks to her haunches in front of me and paints a salve on my cut. “You got this getting that money.” It’s not a question, so I don’t bother with a lie. “Are you okay?” I try to hold still as the salve seeps into my skin. The flesh itches where it knits together. “I’m fine. I just need some dinner and a nap.” Dark, incredulous eyes flash to mine. “A nap? Brie, you’re so run-down I’m not sure anything but a coma would refresh you.” I laugh—or try to. It sounds more like a pathetic mewl. So tired. “Another payment due to your aunt?” “Tomorrow.” I swallow hard at the thought. I’m seventeen, but I’m magically bound to a contract that will, at this rate, keep me in Madame Vivias’s debt for the rest of my life. When my sister and I signed ourselves into servitude nine years ago, Uncle Devlin had just died and Mom had abandoned us. The payments Madame V required then seemed reasonable—and much better than the uncertain fate of an orphan—but we were little girls who didn’t understand things like compound interest or the insidious trap of her penalties. Just as Fawn didn’t truly understand the contract she’d signed with Gorst. “And thanks to us,” Nik says, reaching for the gauze, “you’re going to be short again.” “Worth it,” I whisper. Nik squeezes her eyes shut. “This world is so screwed up.” There’s no way Fawn can hear us unless she’s listening at the door, but Nik lowers her voice anyway. “I have a friend who could give you work.” I frown. “What kind of work?” There’s none that can earn me the kind of money I need. None except— “I might as well work for Creighton Gorst if I’m going to do that.” “Creighton would take half your earnings.” Nik wraps my hand and gives me a sad smile. “There are fae who pay a premium for the company of a beautiful human and more if you’ll bind yourself to them. Far more than Creighton can offer.” “Faeries?” I shake my head. I’d sooner get involved with Creighton’s handsy clients than give myself over to a faerie. My people used to believe the faeries were our guardians. Before they split the sky and opened the portals, the fae visited at twilight in their spirit forms—just a shadow or an outline in the trees that looked like something living. My people called them angels. They’d kneel and pray for the angels to stay close, to protect them, to watch over their sick children. But when the portals opened and the angels were finally here, they didn’t protect us at all. Because the fae aren’t angels. They’re demons, and they came to exploit us, to steal babies and use humans as their slaves and their breeding stock. They tricked thousands into signing over their lives to fight in their wars. Only when the Magical Seven of Elora, the seven most powerful mages from this world, came together did we guard the portals against them. Now they can take a human life only if it’s fairly purchased or freely given—a magical safeguard that the clever faeries have created a hundred workarounds for. In practice, this protects only the rich and powerful. “Better than nothing,” say so many who support the Seven. “It’s a start.” Or worse, “If people don’t want to be sold to the fae, they shouldn’t take on so much debt.” “Why would they pay when they can just glamour women into giving them whatever they want?” I ask Nik. “Keep your voice down!” She cranes her neck to check that the door behind her is still closed. “Not everything you hear about them is true. And my friend can—” “It’s out of the question. I’ll find another way.” If I know anything, it’s that I’ll never trust the fae. “I’m worried about you,” Nik says. “In this world, the only power we have is in our autonomy. Don’t let anyone back you into a corner. Don’t let your desperation make decisions for you.” Like it did for Fawn. “I won’t,” I promise, but it feels hollow, as if my voice already knows it’s a lie. I’m working all the time and stealing as much as I can get away with, but I can’t keep up. Even if I were okay with selling my body—and I’m not—I don’t want anything to do with the fae. I don’t care how much money they offer. There are more important things in life than money. Even more important things than freedom—like taking care of your two little girls and not abandoning them so you can run off with your faerie lover.
“I hear you, girl,” Madame Vivias says the second my hand hits the knob for the basement. I squeeze my eyes shut. I should’ve come in through the cellar door. It’s after midnight, and I have no energy for whatever task she’s planning to give me. Lowering my head, I turn to her and give a brief curtsey. “Good evening, Aunt V.” “Good evening. Tomorrow’s the full moon.” “Yes, ma’am.” “You have my money?” I keep my gaze leveled on the hand propped on her hip—a sparkling ring on every finger. Any one of those rings could cover this month’s payment. I don’t lift my head. I won’t give her the satisfaction of seeing the fear in my eyes. “I’ll have it tomorrow, ma’am.” She’s silent for so long that I dare to lift my gaze to hers. She’s adjusting the thick strands of glittering jewels hanging from her neck and scowling at me. “If you don’t have it today, what are the chances you’ll have it tomorrow?” Not very good. But until it’s officially too late, I won’t admit it. Every time we’re short, our contract grows longer and our payment higher. It’s a vicious cycle we can’t seem to escape. “I’ll pay you tomorrow, ma’am.” “Abriella!” The shrill cry comes from the stairs, and I have to fight my flinch at my cousin Cassia’s voice. “My dresses need washing!” “There are fresh dresses in your room,” I say. “I pressed them this morning.” “None of those will do. I don’t have anything to wear to dinner tomorrow night.” “My room needs cleaning,” Stella, her sister, says, because gods forbid I do more for one spoiled cousin than the other. “The last time she did it, she barely spent any time in there, and it’s beginning to feel grimy.” Madame V arches a brow and turns back to me. “You heard them, girl. Get to work.” Sleep will have to wait a few more hours. I pull back my shoulders and turn toward my cousins’ rooms.