Chapter 1

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I step onto the ground floor of the defunct apartment complex. The wind whistles through the cracks of the cobbled walls. Our footsteps echo lightly in the confined space, tapping against the shattered granite that has long lost its luster.

The sky is a bright overcast gray, as if threatening snow but not quite willing to act upon it. The sun's outline is barely above the horizon. Its weak beams lightly illuminate the otherwise drab interior of the lobby.

Although the building was abandoned more than a decade ago, it had clearly started falling apart much earlier than that. Dangerous lead paint and withering wallpaper has done more to make the place haunting than the disrepair of the floorboards and infrastructure.

"Meow."

"That's sort of what I was thinking, too," I say, running my index finger along the dusty top of the lobby desk. "If the cops don't evict us within a month, we'll be moving anyway. The last thing I want is to die from lead poisoning or the ceiling collapsing in on me. Wouldn't even be a fun way to go."

Freckles gives me a discerning look. I sigh and scoop him up in my arms, letting him climb onto my shoulder and around my neck like an uncomfortable scarf. Certainly the laziest robot cat I've ever seen.

We step out of the building, and my arms are immediately covered in goosebumps. This year's been abnormally warm, but it's a matter of time until the temperatures drop. Too bad I lost my jacket in the last move. I'll have to find one that I can "borrow" soon.

"Meow."

"Trust me, I would if I could. Unfortunately, that costs money, and all of my ideas are illegal, which, if I remember correctly, you don't like those kinds of ideas."

"Meow."

"I'm not arguing with you again today."

Our walk to the scrapyard is a bit longer than twenty minutes. With every step, his cold metal body presses against my neck, and I can feel the vibrations of his mechanical parts.

He's a one-of-a-kind steambot, built by some super-smart engineer called the Gearmaster. The dude's apparently built almost a hundred creatures like the brass tabby, but they've lost a lot of their spark in the public eye.

At least, compared to the Clockwork. Some kid named Orion saved all of Carmsborough with the Clockwork by his side, and now they're heroes.

All I'm saying is, put Freckles and I in their position, and we would've done it, too. Maybe even better.

"Meow."

"What, you don't think we could've done better? I've witnessed you in action, Freckles. No Syndra punk could get past you and me. I mean, he gets the rest of his life handed to him while we slave away at the scrapyard. And that's why I'm morally justified when I steal."

The phrase, much like the sting of December, hangs in the air.

It's hard to remember a time before I had to resort to stealing.

Well, that's not entirely true. I remember the begging phase, too. Begging for food, money, a bed to sleep on, and to be accepted by an orphanage.

That was all I could do after Mom died. The landlord kicked me out of our apartment when I couldn't afford rent. I'd go to busy streets and churches, hoping someone would be generous and help me, but it never got me anywhere. Sprinkle in a little racism from the head honchos at the orphanage, and I was back to square one. So, I switched to stealing.

Is it moral?

Is forcing a kid to live on the street for her entire teenage life because her only living parent dies moral? Is going to church to listen to a sermon about helping the poor sinner, but ignoring the starving child on the front steps moral? Is making a teenager work fifty-hour workweeks for just pennies a day moral?

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