Chapter 1

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Brusenna's straw-colored hair felt as hot as a sun-baked rock. She was sticky with sweat that trickled down her spine and made her simple dress cling to her. Her every instinct urged her to run from the glares that stung like angry wasps. She had already put off her trip to the market for too long.

The merchant finished wrapping the spools of thread in crinkling brown paper. "Twelve upice," Bommer said sourly.

A ridiculous price, no doubt made worse by the drought. Had Brusenna been anyone else, she could have bartered it down to half that. Even though the villagers only suspected, it was enough. Careful not to touch her, the man's hand swallowed the coins she dropped in it. She wondered what marvelous things he ate to flesh out his skin that way. Things like the honey-sweetened cakes she could still smell in her clothes long after she'd left the marketplace.

As Bommer mumbled and counted his money, Brusenna gathered the packages tightly to her chest and hurried away. She hadn't gone five steps when a heavy hand clamped down on her shoulder. Fear shot through her veins like a thousand nettles. Here, no one ever touched her.

With a wince, she craned her neck back to see the merchant looming over her. "You tryin' to cheat me, chanter?"

This close, the smell of his stale body odor hit her hard. She swallowed the urge to gag. Her mind worked furiously. She'd counted twice. "I gave you twelve," she managed.

He yanked her around, grabbing her other arm and bringing her face next to his. She cringed as his large paunch pressed against her. Somewhere, a baby squalled. "You think I can't count?"

Brusenna tried to answer, but her mouth locked up. She should have been more careful. She should have stayed until he had finished counting her coins, but she had been too eager to escape. He shook her, his dirty nails digging into her skin. Her packages tumbled from her hands and hit the ground.

Taking shallow breaths and arching away from him, she squirmed, desperate to be free. "Please," she said, finally finding her voice. "Let me go!"

He laughed, his eyes gleaming with pleasure. "No. I don't think so. Not this time. You know what the punishment is for stealing?"

The stocks. Brusenna swallowed hard. Trapped for an entire day with the whole village taunting her. They'd throw things. Rotten food. And worse. She looked for help in the crowd that had eagerly gathered around them. Satisfaction shone plain on every face. She was suddenly angry with her mother for letting her face this alone. For refusing to come because someone might recognize her.

"I didn't steal," she whispered, already knowing no one would listen.

"You callin' me a liar?" Tobacco spit splattered her face. He backhanded her. Her vision flashed white, then black with stars, then red. She tasted blood. Her eyes burned with tears. She clamped her teeth shut against the pain, refusing to cry out.

Bommer half-dragged her toward the center of the square, where two thin blocks of wood were connected with a hinge. Three holes, one for her neck and two for her wrists. Remnants of rotten food, manure and rocks littered the base.

The sight of the stocks shocked Brusenna into action. She squirmed and struggled.

His hand on the back of her neck, Bommer shoved her throat into the largest, center hole. She tried to rear back. He pushed harder. The wood cut into her windpipe. She couldn't breathe.

"You let that child go, or you'll sorely miss your brain, my friend," said a feminine voice that was somehow soft and commanding at the same time.

Brusenna felt Bommer freeze, his arm still pinning her neck.

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