The class you’re born in, is the class you die in. Trythian society is very strict on that point. As an Ender, Kierah Kaelen knows she’ll never be viewed as anything more than a gutter rat.
But she dares to hope anyway — at least until other Enders start disappearing. One by one, they vanish. And the day her best friend becomes one of the missing, Kierah’s life changes in ways she could never have imagined.
Ethan Demarc had been an Ender, too. Once. But that was a lifetime ago.
Now he’s a slave, sentenced to the mines for a debt that was never his.
But he’s used to the injustice — it’s all he’s ever known. All he can do is protect those weaker than him, against a universe that seems bent on destroying every good thing. Especially where he is concerned.
Kierah shook her head. “Are you sure?”
Zera balanced a pot on her hip precariously. “Would I make this up?”
“No,” Kierah admitted, brushing her dark hair out of her eyes as she pushed a rag across the counter, bullying along a slosh of filmy bubbles. “But your sources might.”
“Why would they?”
“Zera, we’re talking about a bunch of drunk guys.” The bubbles reached the edge and a few spilled over before the rag retreated. “Not exactly the most reliable gossip buddies.”
“Maybe not in most things, but this is Tam. She’s not someone they would just pretend disappeared, I don’t care how drunk they are.”
That was true. Tam ran another tavern down the street, and many of the customers that frequented Sirvan’s place were her customers, too.
“If they haven’t seen her, I’ll take their word for it,” Zera said.
Kierah didn’t say anything for a second, letting her hand instinctively finish cleaning the bar before returning to the kitchen. If the customers Zera had waited on earlier that night were to be trusted, that would mean…
“Three?” she said aloud. “Three people gone in three days.”
Zera nodded nervously, following her and dropping off her pot at the rack. “And Tam’s one of them. That’s the thing. If it was just Glim and Allin, sure. But they don’t take women down there.”
“Especially not ones Tam’s age.” The older woman’s face hung like a cloud over Kierah’s memory.
She hated to admit it, but Zera was right. It wasn’t at all unusual for young men to vanish overnight, taken for the Underground’s cage fights. But that wasn’t a place for women.
“This isn’t random,” Zera said. “One person? Sure. Two people, maybe. Both guys, definitely. But three in a row — and a woman — I just —” She trailed off, fear putting a tremor in her voice.
“It could just be coincidence,” Kierah suggested. “I mean, Glim and Allin got taken for the games, and Tam, I mean, I’m sure she had enemies. Maybe someone would have wanted her dead or something.”
“But three days in a row?” Zera countered. “That’s not coincidence. That never happens. Even when guys get taken, it’s at least a few days in between. This is too —”
“Too — organized.”
“I say coincidence,” Kierah tried brushing it off, though she was finding it harder to ignore the foreboding in the back of her mind.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Zera insisted.
Kierah sidestepped the corner of a counter. “How does no one has anything to go on? If there really is something else happening, there’s no bodies, no trails, nothing?”
“Maybe that’s just because we haven’t found them yet,” Zera said. “They’re probably dead in some gutter we don’t know about, and —”
“Excuse me,” Kierah interrupted, rinsing the rag off in the slop bucket that passed as the tavern’s sink. “Exactly what gutters don’t we know about?”
Zera struggled for a second to pick up her argument. “You — you know what I mean. There are gutters outside of Encidas.”
“But why would anyone come to the capital city just to catch some Enders, and then cart them somewhere else?”
Zera folded her arms, a towel hanging from the crook of her elbow. “We’re doomed.”
The dead-pan way she said it made it hard for Kierah not to chuckle, despite the situation. “Maybe…we should take it up with the guards,” she raised an eyebrow. “They’d protect us.”
It was intended to be a joke. Guards and Enders weren’t exactly on speaking terms; asking for their input on anything would sooner get an Ender arrested than protected.
“Kierah this isn’t funny!” her friend shoved her arm, almost knocking her into a pile of drying dishes.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Kierah swirled the rag around the last flask in the sink. “It’s just, if something like this happened to someone important, like a Noble or the prince, heck even a Middle, no one would get a wink of sleep til it was solved. It’d be all over the news, they’d call out the army, search parties would get together, the entire country would turn upside down. But when it’s us — who cares? Who are we to anyone?”
“That’s what terrifies me,” Zera glanced nervously over her shoulder, as if whoever was responsible for the disappearances might hop out of the shadows at the other end of the closed bar. “Once you’re gone, you’re gone. That’s it. Underground, or the mines —”
“The mines.” Kierah thought about that possibility. “You think that’s what happened?”
“Women don’t go there,” Zera shook her head. “No, I don’t think that covers it either.”
“You think it’s something else altogether,” Kierah said.
“Worse than the mines?”
Of course she would say that. Everything was always ten times exaggerated whenever Zera had anything to say about it. That was why Kierah took everything she said with a grain of salt — but this time, as far as the three disappearances were concerned, she actually had to agree with her. One a day, three days in a row, was too organized.
“So,” Kierah lowered the flask she was washing, letting its bottom rest against the sink, “you think we should try to find out what happened to them?”
Zera’s eyes widened in horror. “Are you crazy? Find out what happened to them? You think they’d be worrying their little heads if you were the one who disappeared?”
Kierah set the flask aside to dry. Turning, she rested her elbows behind her on the sink’s edge, thoughtful. “Would you?”
Zera blinked. “Would I…”
“If you disappeared…” Zera gave her a half-hearted smile. “I…I think I’d be too drowned in sorrow to even think straight enough to figure out where to look for you.”
It was Kierah’s turn to blink. She couldn’t tell if Zera was being serious, or just her ordinary melodramatic self.
Pushing herself away from the sink, she got ready to lock up and go home.
Her own words echoed in her mind as the two of them walked out together into the dark night. She had meant what she said — but she hoped it would never come to that.
– – –—– – – –
The fourth day dawned cold. A silent dread hung over the Ends like a cloud the sunrise couldn’t break through. From the hushed murmurings along the alleys and behind the crooked shutters, it wasn’t difficult to guess what was on everyone’s mind; Zera and Kierah weren’t the only ones who’d noticed the disappearances and ruled out coincidence. By the time that dawn turned into sunset, one more might be counted among the missing.
But dawn was long gone when Kierah woke up on her end of the ramshackle room she shared with Zera. Long overnight hours at the tavern had reconfigured her internal clock years ago. Now, if she was up by noon, she considered it early.
The other end of the room was empty, but she wasn’t surprised. Zera had always been the earlier riser of the pair, and usually let Kierah sleep in while she went off to find some mischief or another.
But today, with the current state of things, Kierah wished she hadn’t. Quickly wrangling her dark, unruly mane into a hair wrap, she headed out to find her.
She’d been fighting the sinking feeling in her stomach all day, pushing the thought out of her mind that kept boomeranging back. What if Zera’s…gone…
But there was a chance it wasn’t true. Zera was an adult, almost twenty-six, and a full year older than Kierah; she could be trusted to take care of herself during the day. She’d probably show up for her shift at the tavern, and everything would be fine.
Kierah wouldn’t let herself believe any other options. Not yet.
She banged in through the back door of the tavern, wanting to run through the kitchen, scan the bar, interrogate her boss Sirvan — but the fear behind that sinking feeling kept her rooted to the floor for a second. Her eyes adjusted to the smoky dimness after the brightness of the setting sun outside, and she used that as an excuse to take her time coming in.
She wanted to know if Zera was there. Of course Zera would be there.
But at the same time, what if she wasn’t? Kierah didn’t want to know that. She was scared to look, scared to ask — afraid the answer wouldn’t be the reassuring one she was hoping for.
“Kierah,” came the booming voice of Sirvan from across the kitchen. “About time. Where’s your twin?”
That wasn’t the reassuring answer she was hoping for.
Kierah and Zera weren’t twins, and Sirvan knew it. Or at least Kierah assumed he knew it. But they were close friends, and in Sirvan’s small brain, that must have equated to them being sisters.
“You — you mean she’s not here?” Kierah heard her own voice stammer, sounding distant.
“Do you see her anywhere?” the big man asked, gesturing around the room where several other kitchen hands and barmaids were getting ready for the night. “Because I sure as hell don’t.”
Kierah swallowed. “I — maybe, um…”
“‘Maybe, I, um, um, um,’” Sirvan parroted her. “If she doesn’t get her pretty little rear in here in five minutes, I’m gonna be short a server tonight. And you’re gonna fill in for her.”
He turned and disappeared around the front end of the bar. And Kierah’s stomach kept on sinking. On any other night, news that she’d have to fill in as a server would have been the worst thing she could imagine. She’d have protested, have done anything to stay hidden in the kitchen instead of parading around interacting with the patrons. She’d always hated talking to people, pretending to like them; she’d much rather stay behind the scenes.
Right now, though, the assignment paled in comparison to the knowledge that Zera wasn’t there.
Zera wasn’t there.
She looked for a clock, hoping maybe she was just early. Or maybe Zera was just late. Closing her eyes, she quickly pulled on her apron, until she remembered Sirvan wanted her out at the bar. She felt dizzy.
Kierah barely spoke to anyone, receding into shock and fear as the reality set in. Zera wasn’t ever going to show up again.
“Sirvan,” she approached him after the last patrons had left. “I need my pay.”
Her boss looked disgustedly amused. “That’s the longest string of words you’ve said all night.” He paused. “Why.”
She suddenly felt tired. “Why is it the longest thing I’ve said, or why do I want my pay?” she asked.
“Uh,” he stuttered, apparently thrown off by yet another long sentence. “Pay. Why pay?”
“I — I just need it. I know it’s not the end of the month, but you owe me at least two weeks’ worth so far.” Her mind was foggy. It felt strange to ask for something so trivial, but she was going to need it. She wasn’t entirely sure why.
He raised an eyebrow. “It’s too early.”
“Sirvan, you owe me,” she felt an angry edge enter her voice, and absently wondered if she should be proud that she was standing up to him. She didn’t feel like she was standing up to him. She barely felt like she was standing at all.
He hesitated, but finally answered her. “I can’t give you the full two weeks’ this far in advance,” he said. “One and a half weeks’, that’s it.”
“Fine.” She didn’t protest. Any money was better than none, where she was going.
But that was just it — where was she going?
A slight rain had started to fall, but she ignored it. The few coins folded into her pocket thumped against her hip, the weight trying to offer her some connection to reality as her feet flew over the dirt and stone and cracked pavement in turn.
Raindrops blurred her vision — or were those tears? She didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to know anything right now.
She couldn’t go back to the room they had shared, knowing Zera’s half would be empty. She couldn’t go back to the tavern tomorrow, where she’d have to pretend to take Zera’s place again. She couldn’t go anywhere in the Ends without seeing ghosts of Zera everywhere.
The rain came harder. Buildings rushed past, coming and going in quick succession almost as fast as her heartbeat. First the decaying apartments and tenements of the East End, growing gradually taller and stronger and cleaner as she crossed into the better sections of the city, before fading away into the Ends again. Somewhere. She didn’t know where she was.
She didn’t care.
Puddles splashed as she stamped blindly through them, scattering the rippling reflection of the city into a thousand fragmented droplets. The whole, broken into pieces. Like her.
She stopped running. Water streamed down her face. She looked around, mind fuzzy, exhausted, not knowing what she was looking for until she found it — a set of stairs leading up to a door in the alley next to her.
Her soaked hair clung to her face as she stumbled over to the stairs and crawled underneath. It wasn’t dry under there, but it was better than no shelter at all. She leaned back against the mud-splashed wall behind her and closed her eyes, her chest heaving, body shivering, mind numb.
Slowly, half a memory of what she had promised Zera the night before filtered back to her — that she wouldn’t be able to rest until she found what happened to her.
It had been a stupid promise to make.
She let her head slide down as she slipped into oblivion.
– – –—– – – –
“Why are you here?”
The voice came clear and cold and harsh, like the early morning air in the mines of Kelmar.
The young man’s smile was tightlipped. “You start off the same way every time,” he replied. “What do you honestly expect me to say?”
Apparently, anything but that. The slap across his face made sure he knew it.
“Answer the question,” Commander Salis Azor suggested, restraining his tone to keep from drawing undue attention from the soldiers outside the guard tower.
Not that it mattered. Every guard in Kelmar knew who this slave was, and none would be surprised that Azor had singled him out for some sort of punishment. Again.
No, they wouldn’t be surprised at all. And they definitely wouldn’t object or intervene.
They never had before.
“Yes, which you make a habit of doing,” Azor clipped, stalking around him as he knelt on the floor, his hands bound. “What part of the rules don’t you understand, exactly?”
Azor sniffed what could be considered an attempt at a laugh. The young man didn’t think the commander was capable of anything approaching actual laughter. It was just a shadow of the real thing, like everything else there. A shadow of justice.
Because if it were real justice, he wouldn’t be there.
– – –—– – – –
When Kierah woke up, she knew someone was watching her. It was just one of those senses that came with having to live her whole life looking over her shoulder.
Her gaze darted around, looking for hidden prying eyes. But she needn’t have bothered.
He was standing right in front of her.
“I don’t know you,” said the little voice. It was a boy, a child, couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old. And he just stood there, looking at her.
Just what she needed right now — a pint-sized stalker.
It was hard for her to find her voice at first. It felt hoarse, scratchy. “Huh?” It was more a croak than a question.
She blinked. In more ways than one, she thought.
Barely noticeably, she shook her head. The movement looked as though she was tired, and she was.
“I’m fine,” she mumbled, turning her back to the little intruder as much as possible. “Just leave me alone.”
She didn’t want to have to talk, to think. All she could hope for was to fall asleep again, to hide in that blissful ignorance as long as she could. That was the only place the pain didn’t follow her — at least, not fully.
The boy spoke up again, timidly. “You sure you’re okay?”
Without looking at him, she grumbled, “Do I look like I’m okay?”
“Well, you’re sleeping under stairs,” he observed innocently.
“How perceptive,” she grunted, realizing he probably didn’t know what that meant. All the better — she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she couldn’t put any energy into acting nice right now. “Look kid, I just want to be alone, okay? Go away.”
There was silence behind her, and she hoped that meant he had left.
When she woke up again what must have been several hours later, there was no sign of him.
The sun was setting. She’d slept the day away, and didn’t even care. If it was any normal day, she’d be heading to work right about now. Her mouth twitched in what could have turned into a smile, at the thought of Sirvan’s reaction upon realizing he was now missing his best kitchen hand in addition to one of his servers.
She wasn’t going back.
And right now, she was hungry. With all the nerves of yesterday, she realized she’d forgotten to eat anything.
Pushing herself up off the still-damp ground, she patted the small lump in her pocket. The money was still there. Good.
She just had to get to a market — but with the sun sinking, she realized any market in the Ends would be closed for the day. Any remotely reputable businesses conglomerated in a central hub or two, and they operated only while the sun shined.
Other businesses, like Sirvan’s tavern and a small handful of 24-hour places, could be found scattered around the area too — but they were not where someone like Kierah would want to go. The people that frequented those places were locals and only locals; she would be marked as an outsider instantly. And an outsider carrying a week and a half’s worth of pay in her pocket would not bode well.
She had to find somewhere else if she wanted to eat. And the only other place that might be open would be in the Middle. She gulped.
So the question was, just how hungry was she?
Stepping out into the small alley, she glanced around. If she didn’t know any better, she would have thought she was still in her own Ends. The buildings were just as old, just as worn, just as close and claustrophobic.
But she knew she wasn’t there. Didn’t know where she was, but it wasn’t home — though she hated to use that word. “Home” implied somewhere safe and secure — or, at the very least, sentimental. Where she was running from was anything but.
She began to wander around the unfamiliar streets, looking for anything that would indicate a Middle market, or even an open Ender establishment, was nearby. She wasn’t sure she’d make an attempt at actually entering either, but she figured searching for one would give her something to do. And get her mind off the reason she wasn’t “home” in the first place.
Most of what she came across, however, looked residential: Apartments, tenements, ramshackle layers of humanity stacked atop one another, reaching their grimy hands toward a darkening sky. Stucco, plaster and wooden walls surrounded her, cracked and decaying.
Not a sign even hinted at a local place of business, or the sharp-lined metal and glass that would define the Middle.
Plenty of other people populated the dilapidated streets, walking hurriedly, loitering in doorways and on steps, meandering drunkenly or just casually. But she had no intention of asking for directions.
Attempting to blend in, she’d have to find a place on her own. Regardless of how hungry she was, keeping a low profile was more important than finding a market.
Concentrating on that fact was almost enough to keep her distracted from remembering why she was there in the first place. Almost.
She swallowed and shook her head, still not wanting to think about Zera. But she couldn’t really stop.
The least she could do was to muddle through the emotion and try to look at it logically.
Zera was gone. The fourth gone in as many days, rounding out a disturbingly balanced headcount: her, a young woman; Glim, a young man; Allin, an older man; Tam, an older woman.
Kierah shivered. Zera had been right, it was too organized to be random. And there was no way she could think of that would explain all four of them.
For the two men, the obvious conclusion would have been the Underground. The illegal games always needed fresh blood to compete in their fights to the death, and boys from the Ends made ideal targets. Alone, no families, no futures — no one would miss them if they were gone. Sometimes people noticed, but they knew not to ask questions.
That could account for Glim, who wasn’t much older than Zera and Kierah.
Even older men like Allin occasionally would go off on their own down there to fight voluntarily; after all, there was money to be made, and those with outstanding debt didn’t have much to lose by trying their hand at it. Not much, except their lives. It was a pretty irresistible deal for some: win, and earn your way out of what you owed; lose, and, well, at least you didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
At least, that was how Kierah understood it. Because it was illegal, the Underground was just a byword, never really discussed openly by people who didn’t know much about it, and even less by people who did know.
That’s why there wasn’t much talk when first Glim, then Allin didn’t show up at the tavern the first two nights.
But then Tam came into the picture. Or, more accurately, left it. An older woman who ran a business. Where could she have gone?
It wasn’t hard to imagine she’d accumulated debt herself, which might have offered an explanation. Depending on who her debt was to, the mines were a possibility.
The mines were almost as vague a topic as the Underground. It was hard to nail down anything about them either, except that debtors who didn’t go to one most likely got sent to the other.
While debts between Enders were often settled in the fights, debts between Enders and higher classes, like the Middles or even the Nobles, could resort to the mines, simply because they were legal: the Ender would get sent there until the debt was paid. Or if not the Ender, someone in his place, like his child.
That’s why the mines were a possibility even though Tam was a woman. Maybe she had a son that was taken from her, and she left to try to get him back. Maybe she was being held in prison in the meantime. Or maybe it wasn’t even her own debt her son had been taken for. When Middles or Nobles found themselves in debt, they would send their slaves to the mines in their place — except when they didn’t have slaves to send. That’s when the Ends again became a hunting ground.
No long-term proof of ownership was required when turning in a slave at the mines, which meant any Middle could kidnap an Ender off the street and hand him over.
Assuming Tam had any male relatives, that could have been what happened to them, and that could explain why she also disappeared.
Which brought Kierah back to Zera.
But none of the above would work in her case. She wasn’t male and didn’t have any living relatives, male or otherwise. Did it really make sense that she would have gotten taken by, say, slavers, somewhere completely separate from the others, coincidentally?
No, it couldn’t be coincidence. Kierah remembered their conversation — the last conversation they’d ever have, she realized, swallowing a sudden sob that rose up in her throat.
It had to be something else.
The streets she was walking on were getting crowded now. Some side streets had been easy to get through, but where she was now was so full of people that she had a tough time navigating from one end to the other without nearly being trampled. It was about that time of day most people stampeded their way to the taverns, she absently realized, explaining the number of bodies on the larger thoroughfares.
But she wasn’t really paying attention to passersby as she wandered, half trying to sort through the disappearances and half keeping an eye out for evidence of a market. So she didn’t move out of the way in time when someone walked by a little too close to her, jostling her roughly in passing and nearly knocking her off her feet.
She managed to keep her balance, but had to take a few extra steps to do it. Those few extra steps, she saw, had landed her at the beginning of another alley branching off the main road. Glancing down it, she thought she saw the glint of the setting sun reflected off something at the other end.
Metal. Or glass. Either way, it signaled a potential edge of the Ends — the edge where the Middle began. And where a market might be.
As if being pulled, she turned and followed the light. Her movements felt automatic, almost mechanical, numbly trailing behind a cold determination that drew her along her like she was on auto-pilot.
She nearly tripped over the boy before she realized he was there. He was huddled near the side of one of the stucco buildings lining the alley, but the space was narrow; with only an arms’ span between the two sides, it would have taken a conscious effort to sidestep him as she passed. Which would have required seeing him before she did.
A short cry broke the comparative silence of the alley as the roadblock found out the hard way that he was in her path.
“Whoa whoa,” she gasped as she stumbled over him.
The small shape in the shadows didn’t say anything, barely even tilting his head to look up at her.
In the dim light, she caught a glimpse of his face.
She’d seen him before. This morning, when she was under the stairs. This was the kid that had found her.
Like this morning, she didn’t really feel like interacting with anyone. She had enough problems to sort through, and dealing with a kid was not worth her energy. Her response had been rude this morning, and she knew it. The realization made her feel bad, but not enough to say anything.
But as she regained her balance, she looked at him. When his face had been down, the shine was just barely noticeable — but now that he was looking up at her, there was no mistaking the tears streaking his face, reflecting the little light in the street.
Great, she sighed. He’s upset.
“Look, I’m sorry, but you’re kinda in the way,” she said briskly.
He still didn’t say anything.
Then it occurred to her that the tears were too many to have started because she tripped over him. How long had he been crying?
She looked around. There was no one else in the alley. He was alone.
A silent sigh escaped her lips again. A crying little kid shouldn’t be left by himself, the thought came unbidden. But she fought against it. She didn’t have time for this —
But she did have time. She had all the time in the world.
But someone had, she realized. This morning, this kid had.
He had noticed she was in pain. But she’d been too caught up in herself to acknowledge it.
“Are you okay?”
She asked. She knew the answer to her question, even as he shook his head nervously.
As he did, she noticed something else. The side of his head bore the answer to her next question as well.
The large purple bruise by his ear and below his eye told her enough.
His eyes filled with fresh tears and he buried his head in his arms.
As much as she was numb from her own pain, she couldn’t stand seeing a little kid cry. Against all better judgment, she knelt beside him.
“Hey now,” she murmured, “you’re okay. You’re gonna be all right.”
Tentatively she reached out a hand and laid it on his shoulder. He tensed at the touch at first, but she didn’t pull away.
He peeked over his folded arms at her, eyes red.
She had no idea what to say. This wasn’t her thing, dealing with kids. She’d never had to before.
“I’m Kierah,” she tried, smiling a little. It was the first time she’d done that in almost two days. “What’s your name?”
He sniffled, eying her, and she knew he was trying to figure out if he should talk to her. If he could trust her.
“It’s okay,” she tried to reassure him, searching for words. “I’m…a friend.”
Something caught in Kierah’s throat at the sadness in his voice.
“Well,” she said, “can I be your first then?”
The proposition seemed to get his attention, distracting him for a moment from his tears. “Really?”
“Yeah,” she nodded, sitting back and glancing around the dark buildings looming over them. “I think I could use a friend around here, too.”
He wiped his eyes curiously. “That’s not what you said this morning.”
He was right. “I know,” She paused. “It’s…a long story. Is it okay with you if I changed my mind, though? Because you were right. I was lost, and I should have listened to you.”
In response, he took a deep breath. “It’s okay.”
“So where are we, anyway?” she asked, hoping to keep his mind off his tears and the bruises that must have caused them.
“By Milstrom Street.”
“No, I mean — what city?”
Encidas. Still? Last night was such a blur, she’d felt like she’d run through a dozen cities. Had she really only wandered inside the same one?
“Where in Encidas?” she pressed.
“The West End.”
“Oh.” Encidas was bigger than she’d thought. “Yeah, I’m from the East.”
He rubbed his chin. “Why the heck did you come here?”
She sighed. “Like I said, long story. But listen, if we’re gonna be friends, do I get to know what your name is, or what?”
“Oh yeah. Rothan.”
Just then, her stomach rumbled, reminding her why she had strayed into the alley in the first place. And it might be a good distraction for both of them. They both needed a distraction.
“Rothan, here’s a question for you. Have you eaten anything today?” she asked him.
He shook his head.
“All right then, are you hungry?”
“All right, me too. I was trying to find a market. Do you know where one is?”
“Can you help me find it?”
He looked up at the narrow sliver of darkening sky between the buildings above them. “It’s closed by now,” he told her.
“I figured.” She considered her options. If she was going to go to any Ender place, she needed someone who lived there, and now she’d found one. But even if the kid was recognized as a local, she had to wonder if he ever walked around with money. Given the current situation, she rather doubted that. It would look suspicious, then, for him to walk into a store and buy something.
The other alternative, the Middle market, would be just as risky. More risky, even. But at least she could do it herself, not put the kid in danger.
Third alternative, wait til morning when the standard Ender market opened.
She heard his little tummy rumble.
Just how long had it been since he’d eaten? Only today? She guessed it was longer.
“What about the market in the Middle?” she asked. It might be reckless. It would unquestionably be risky. But she had the money. And honestly she didn’t have anything better to do.
Pause. Then — “I always get caught when I steal from there,” he confessed gravely. “There’s an easier one to sneak into, but it’s too far away –“
“Who said anything about stealing?” she whispered.
His eyes widened. “You have mo–“
“Shhhh,” she put a finger to her lips and hushed him. That wasn’t something she wanted to advertise. “Yes,” she whispered, “but you hafta keep quiet about it, okay? It’s like…” she searched for some way to phrase it so he wouldn’t ask any more questions.
“A secret,” she concluded conspiratorially. “It’s like a secret.”
That seemed to be the ticket. A spark of interest lit up his tears-swollen eyes. “Really?” he whispered back. “You mean, we’re the only two people who know?”
Kierah nodded. “Yep, and we need to keep it that way.”
He nodded again, solemnly.
“Now come on,” she stood up and brushed off the dirt from her knees. “Let’s see if we can’t find this market before it gets too dark.”
Rothan swiped a hand at his nose, stifling one last sniffle and with it, hopefully, thoughts of what had caused him to cry in the first place.
“This way,” he announced, and to Kierah’s surprise he took her hand.
She let herself be led. But just as she did, she couldn’t quite ignore the pang of guilt that shot up from the back of her mind where she’d been trying to bury it.
Her best friend was gone, missing, who knows where — and here she was, gallivanting in search of a market. She’d made a promise, that if Zera ever disappeared, she wouldn’t sleep until she found out what had happened to her.
No, it wasn’t really a promise, she hedged. It was speculation. Right? That’s all it was.
Excuses or not, though, she couldn’t shake the pain dogging her. She had slept. What’s worse, she had run. And she was still running.
It had been a stupid thing to say, even if it wasn’t, strictly speaking, a promise. It was idealistic. And that was the problem. Idealism had always been her problem. Hope had always been her problem.
Zera might have been the more dramatic and pessimistic of the pair, but maybe, Kierah now thought, that wasn’t necessarily a vice. Maybe it was just being realistic.
Maybe there was no point in hoping things would turn out for the best, in thinking there was a reason for everything. Maybe reality really was just a series of losses, strung together by stretches of indifferent existence.
Through the thoughts, Kierah noticed Rothan glancing at her from time to time as they weaved their way in silence through the streetcars and alleyways in turn.
What did he see when he looked at her? Did he see the fear, anger, apathy that tumbled over her one after the other? Or was he too young to notice that?
“Are you a Royal?” he asked suddenly, as he pulled her through a deserted shortcut.
The question dumbfounded her, right before it terrified her. “No no no,” she shook her head vigorously, glancing around to make sure no one else had heard. “No, I’m just — I’m just an Ender. Like you.”
“Really?” He seemed reluctant to accept her answer. “You sure you’re not a Noble then? Or even a Middle?”
Again she shook her head. “Nope, believe me.”
It was disconcerting to even be addressing such a question. The classes in Trythia were very strict. “Why do you ask?
He shrugged, but kept his gaze steady and his hand on hers, tugging her along.
She allowed herself a small smile despite the delicacy of the topic. “You sure you’re seeing the same me that I’m seeing?”
She didn’t need a mirror to tell her she was a wreck. A glance down at her wrinkled, mud-stained clothes told her enough, and her imagination could fill in the rest.
“You don’t think you’re pretty?” he asked.
“Not as pretty as you seem to think I am,” she grinned and squeezed his hand, almost glad for the momentary distraction from her more pressing troubles. Her vanity, or lack thereof, was such a shallow topic it made her almost want to giggle at the absurdity of it. “You don’t get to see girls that often, do you?”
Rothan shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess not. I don’t see a lot of Nobles or Royals either, or even Middles, but I still bet you’re as pretty as they are. Prettier, even.”
“And how do you figure that?”
“Because you’re nicer than them.”
She wasn’t sure she understood that one. But before she could ask him what he meant, he stopped at the side of the street and pointed toward the glowing opening at the other end, where the gold of the nearly set sun bathed the world beyond the shadowed alley so completely that it was difficult to make out just what was beyond there.
Rothan told her what her eyes couldn’t.
“The market,” he said, voice low as if he was sharing another secret.
“You did it,” she tried to sound encouraging, and squeezed the hand that led her.
Together, they covered the remaining length of the street, and hesitated once they reached the end, as if they both were suddenly unsure what to do.
The boy seemed to make up his mind first. Gripping her hand, he took a deep breath, like he was about to dive into water, and stepped toward the sunlit openness.
“Wait, no,” Kierah pulled him back into the safety of the shadows. She put both hands on his shoulders as she faced him.
“You stay here. I’ll go,” she said.
“Yeah. It’ll be better that way.”
His eye widened with an uncertainty she didn’t understand at first. But as soon as he spoke again, it made sense.
His voice was small. “You’ll come back, though. Right?”
He was afraid his usefulness had run out, and she would decide she didn’t need to stick around anymore.
He nodded, just a little. “But,” he asked, “why do you have to go alone?”
She barely missed a beat. “You see how nice it is out there? All the fancy clothes the people are wearing? We don’t really fit in there, you and me,” she explained, hoping he’d follow her logic. “We don’t…look as nice as they do.”
“They’re Middles,” he shrugged. “Of course they look nicer than us.”
“Right. So if there are two of us out there, we’ll draw more attention to ourselves faster than if there was just one. That’s why I should go alone. It’s easier for one to blend in, than two.”
When he nodded this time, she saw the recognition in his face. He might be young, but she had a feeling he actually did understand this much. She wasn’t going to tell him her other reason, though — the part about not wanting him there to slow her down if she ran into trouble and had to get away fast. This far into the Middle, you never knew what kind of prejudice you could run into, whether you were a paying customer or not.
“I’ll bring you back bread,” she added. “I promise.”
He nodded again, but his face said he still had reservations about this plan. There was nothing else she could say though. He would just have to trust her.
The least she could do was smile at him — he deserved that much before she ran off.
It was harder than it should have been. The corners of her mouth felt heavier than twenty stacks of dishes at the tavern. But she managed it, wondering if he noticed how much effort it cost.
Then she headed for the opening. Quickly, she tried to brush herself off, knowing her dirty, mussed appearance would fit in all too well with how Middles — and every other higher class — pictured Enders: Sloppy, slovenly, simple-minded. And, consequently, suspicious. Untrustworthy.
Not quite the image she was looking to portray — not if she wanted to be taken seriously by any vendor.
Loose dirt flecked off her at a touch, but most of the dark patches on her clothes were ground-in mud stains, courtesy of the rain last night, and there was no chance of getting those out. Hopefully they weren’t noticeable enough to prohibit business interactions.
Her hair, though, she could do something about. Yanking out the tie, she tried to tame the dark brown tangle that looked more like a nest at the moment, complete with a miniature twig or two collected from her sleeping place under the stairs. She succeeded in redirecting its flow from an unruly toussle to a semi-smooth ponytail; some knots refused to cooperate, and she left them alone.
This was pretty much the best she was going to look.
Hoping there were no glaring smudges on her face, she self-consciously pawed at her cheek on the side she had slept on as she fell in among the crowd.
Coming into a market in Encidas was like finding a clearing in the woods — but instead of trees, it was surrounded by buildings, their many-paned windows reflecting and fragmenting the light in a geometric impersonation of leaves. The sky overhead looked down unimpeded at the ground below, but there was no grass down there, just cobblestone. And even that was usually barely visible; more often than not, it was covered by feet.
The day might be nearly over, but there were still plenty of people to effectively block out the ground. Vendors’ booths and stalls took up whatever extra space was leftover, from proper storefronts ringing the edge of the wide open space, to smaller, more temporary installations weaving and branching in rows throughout the central area. The sprawling arrangement corralled the crowd into a semblance of organization, forming lanes like its own miniature city.
Kierah felt the hum of the shoppers pressing in on her, suddenly deluged in the crowd she’d been trying to avoid since she woke up. Were they looking at her? Curious? Repulsed? She didn’t want to know. Keeping her gaze planted on the ground, she let her nose tell her where to go. The smell of bread was drifting over from her left, and she followed it.
It was the nicest market she’d been to. Well, the nicer. She’d only ever gone to one before, the one back a few blocks from her room. That one wasn’t nearly as big as this one.
It was a weird way to describe a market — but it fit. All the metal and glass glinted in the sun, reflecting a million shards of brilliance everywhere she looked. Though her market was near the Middle, it had much more of a Ends sensibility. Not nearly as shiny.
If this place was, though, while being literally a stone’s throw from the West Ends, what did that say about the relationship between these Middles and their Enders? Were they on better terms than she was used to? Were they more civil, less prejudiced? Was that even possible? She barely dared to hope.
Then Rothan’s bruised face edged itself into her mind at the same time as she glanced up higher than people’s feet. And she saw for the first time their stares. She’d been trying to avoid looking at them, but they clearly had no intention of reciprocating.
She knew what those stares meant; she’d been the butt of them often enough.
She wasn’t one of them. They were Middles, she was an Ender, and there was no reconciling that difference.
And the boy, his bruise — no, people here were no less cruel than where she had come from. She suddenly hated that she had even entertained the thought, that she had bothered to consider that these people might be different, better than the ones she had left behind.
One of these days, she’d get it through her idealistic head that life was no better anywhere else, that pain and prejudice couldn’t be erased simply by relocating.
The stares grew more intense the deeper she waded into the market. She felt like she was suffocating under the judgment they carried.
The aroma of bread was also getting stronger, though, and it was enough to drive her on.
She finally found it.
The bakery was a proper storefront along the outer edge of the clearing, as silver-lined as the surrounding buildings. The huge plate glass window next to the door displayed an unfairly tantalizing assortment of baked goods ranging from soft rolls to glistening pastries, baguettes as long as Kierah’s arm to bite-sized sugar-crusted desserts.
But as good as they looked, the pane protecting them from the world also restrained the aroma. That’s why the baker had set up an outdoor cart as well, tiered with shelves holding some of the same goods from the window display — but more within reach. Kierah’s mouth watered almost unbearably at the concentration of the smell she’d been following, which was barely dimmed considering the bread had been baked hours ago and was nearing the end of its shelf life.
To her surprise, it looked like even this bakery closed up shop near sunset. She must hav made it just in time, because a big, round man in a white apron was in the process of dismantling the display on the cart as she approached. All bakers must look the same, she thought, watching his cheeky red face and tall white hat bob up and down as he collected the bread. It must be a rule somewhere.
“Excuse me,” she called, trying to get his attention as she hurried toward him. “Wait!”
He stopped his exertions and turned toward her, and immediately the surprise on his face turned to disdain when he saw her. When he didn’t say anything, she decided to.
“Before you pack all that away, I’d like to buy a loaf,” she said.
“I do,” she said, the numb indifference settling on her again. “How much is the bread?”
“You have money?”
“How much,” she asked again.
He glanced down at the stack of day-old loaves still on the shelves, obviously trying to work this out. “Five units,” he said.
“Five!” Kierah exclaimed, louder than she intended to. And he accused her of stealing. “Even when it was fresh it wouldn’t be worth more than two. I’ll give you one for it.”
“You might as well steal it, for that price,” he argued. “I’m the businessman, here.”
“And I’m the paying customer. I would think you’d want to have someone pay to take it off your hands, before you have to throw it out because it’s too old.”
He hesitated, digesting this. Finally he barked, “One and a half.”
“Done.” It was a decent deal — still too high, but a world better than five.
Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out two coins and held them up for him to see. It would have been better, she knew, if she’d had the exact amount, but fishing through her money for a half would only advertise how much she had.
He held up the loaf, and they made the exchange. When he had the coins in his hand, he peered at them closely, making a show of inspecting them for signs of counterfeit.
“How much more of this you got?” he asked suspiciously.
She ignored him. “My change. Please.” She had to force herself to get that last word out.
When he turned and disappeared into the storefront, she wondered if she should make a run for it. It would be nice to have the change, sure — but she had the bread already. What if he decided to come out with something other than the change? This close to the Ends, he was sure to have a weapon of some sort in his shop — because he was right, Enders usually weren’t the most trustworthy customers. If he decided she was one of the latter, regardless of whether she’d paid or not…
Before she had a chance to make up her mind, though, he reemerged, with only the money in hand. She relaxed. The bread in her hand smelled achingly good, and she was suddenly eager to leave moreso to eat it than to get away from its creator.
The distraction was enough. As she reached out to take the money from him, not paying attention, his other beefy hand clamped suddenly around her wrist.
“Let me go!” she cried, doing her best to restrain her voice. If other customers noticed what was happening, they’d inevitably side with the baker without even considering that he might be the one at fault. “I didn’t steal it.”
“Of course you didn’t. How silly of me. Enders always walk around carrying cash.”
She bit her tongue, fighting the urge to scream at him.
“I earned it,” she hissed.
She tried to wriggle out of his grasp, but his fat hand enclosed her wrist like a glob.
“Ya know,” he said quietly, “if you hand over the rest to me, I might forget I saw you.”
I don’t think so.
He held her right arm, but the rest of her was free. Including her leg.
In a smooth, sudden movement, she threw her knee up in front of her, between his legs. His eyes bulged and he let out a cry at the impact, but his grip, though weakened, did not release.
Her free hand was holding the bread, but that wouldn’t get in her way too much. She swung her arm around and hooked it toward his face, her knuckles smashing into the side of his bulbous nose with a satisfying crack. There was blood, followed instantly by a howl of pain.
But her captive arm was now free, and that was all that mattered. Clutching the bread in one hand and the money in the other, she whirled and sprinted away, trying to put as much distance between herself and the baker as she could before distracted market-goers could connect her to his screaming.
Guards. She knew that would be the first thing out of his weasely mouth — and it would be only a matter of seconds before it was answered.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a guard passing through the Ends; generally, it was accepted that Enders were a lost cause, beyond the help of the law, and therefore not worth the effort to maintain the peace. There was no peace to maintain.
In the Middle, however, the story was different. While guards weren’t necessarily posted at every other street corner like in Central, where the palace and Noble residences were, they still populated the common areas in respectable numbers. The market qualified as one of those common areas.
As the baker’s howling faded into the distance, a new sound took its place: The hum of the patrol bikes.
The single-passenger speeders rode on the air, like all Trythian transport vehicles, and were designed to maneuver in tight, crowded spaces. She’d seen them only a handful of times in her life, but never up close. It looked like that was about to change.
Barging ahead, she aimed for the edge of the market, and the comparative safety of the Ends. She might stand a chance if she had alleys to lose herself in.
People conveniently moved aside as she barreled through the thinning crowd, which she couldn’t help but find bitterly entertaining. They didn’t want to get in her way, even though she was clearly being chased, because she — the dangerous Ender — might hurt them. Did they never consider that by letting her go, she might actually get away — and that would leave a, uh, criminal on the loose to strike again later?
So much for their self-preservation. But she had her own to focus on. What was her strategy? The hum of a half-dozen bikes grew louder.
Rothan. She’d promised to bring him back the bread. But if she went back toward him, she’d lead her trackers there. But — she’d promised.
She didn’t have time to argue with herself. Recklessly, she threw herself in the direction of the alley she had left him in and gave another burst of speed. She’d already broken one promise that day; she had no intention of making a habit of it.
There was the alley, with no sign of the boy in it. She assumed that meant he was hiding in the shadows, and was glad he was good at it; it might just be enough to keep him out of the guards’ crosshairs. As she got nearer, she saw him peeking out from behind the corner.
Barely breaking her stride, she hurled the loaf toward him as if it was a sporting event. It spun as it sliced an arc through the air toward the alley, and she hoped her aim was good.
It was. Rothan leapt out of his hiding place, and the bread landed in his outstretched hands.
He stared at her for a second, then must have registered the sound of the bikes closing in. Just before she veered off to the left away from the alley, she saw him turn and bolt.
Just then, the bikes burst through the crowd behind her, giving the guards a clear view of their quarry for the first time. Had they seen Rothan? All she could do was keep running, away from the alley and hoping to draw her pursuers after her.
As far as she could tell, it worked. At least, she was still being followed by a contingent of guards; if any had broken off to chase the boy, she didn’t know.
Or did she just not want to admit it? A sudden rush of guilt and worry hit her like she’d tripped over them. Had she put him in more danger by exposing him in the first place? Would that bread be enough evidence to get him arrested, if the guards caught him?
Before she could debate the point any longer, another pang hit her — this time, a very real and physical one. She felt herself falling as a wave of pain shot through her shoulder and spread across her body.
She had fallen within the range of the guards’ stun weapons.
She hit the ground, barely able to twist and bring a hand up in an attempt to break her fall, as the bikes slid into a circle around her. She fought, but the blast had effectively paralyzed her. She wished it had knocked her unconscious, too. After everything she’d gone through today, her mind was in more pain than her useless body.
The soldiers were dismounting, surrounding her. She seethed as she lay there, angry at them, at the baker, at the gathering crowd of onlookers. At herself. How could she have let this happen?
“You’re under arrest,” a guard announced, the top half of his face hidden impersonally behind the visor of his helmet.
“No, really?” she muttered. In the gloom of dusk, she could barely make out the faces of the curious spectators piling up around the scene, but it was enough to see the satisfaction on them.
“Silence!” yelled another guard, darker-skinned, as the first locked plasma cuffs on her wrists behind her back. As the cold slickness of the rings clamped around her skin, she realized at the very least, she was grateful this pair still had the casing intact.
This particular variety of cuffs was made of transparent circular tubing joined in the center by a digital connector to form a figure-8 shape; the casing was filled with charged plasma, which, if exposed directly to skin, conducted the electricity into the body of the restrained. As long as the casing wasn’t broken, the plasma was contained; the cuffs would glow threateningly, but they wouldn’t hurt. But if, say, someone tried to break out of them, the casing would crack, releasing the energy of the plasma and making the attempting escapee very uncomfortable.
She had no intention of trying to break out, even without the incentive the cuffs provided. The sun was gone now, and with it, any fight left in her. Her anger was fading, indifference and discouragement settling on her like the growing darkness.
The two guards hauled her upright as their compatriots looked on. Since the stun left her unable to stand on her own, the men had to drag her over to one of the bikes and prop her up on the extended rear seat.
As they buckled her down, the first guard rattled off a list of allegations and warnings and rules and rights, which she didn’t pay any attention to. Sifting through a ridiculous spectrum of emotions, she was glad the day was over.
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