Chapter 2

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Morning light pierces like daggers as I ease my eyes open. My lips feel chapped and bruised, dried by the desert air and relentless sun. Through my window float the sounds of the City coming to life. Clanging bells intermingle with the shouts of merchants, the former warning the factory workers they are late, while the latter offers the distraction of cloths and spices.

I roll over, groaning when I am greeted by a dull throb of pain shooting from my left knee down to my ankle. The old hurt has been my constant companion for the last five of my nineteen years. I rub my knee distractedly as I sit up on my bed and wait for the ache to subside. The rich scents of fresh bread and spicy meat float up from the marketplace below, coaxing me to my feet and over to the open window.

I push my shoulders back and breathe deeply, taking a moment to bask in the feeling of the morning sun warming my face. Here we go, again.

I duck through the window and I jump down, then swing to the side and grab the protruding bricks as I drop, floor by floor, and land among the chaos below. Wiping the dust from my palms, I straighten and take in my surroundings.

A bustling crowd kicks up scratchy pellets of sand as it hurries by. The market contains enough colours, fabrics, food and spices to delight every sense. Finely dressed courtiers stroll among the commoners, pausing to speak with the vendors or sidestepping the carts rattling down the street. A great, sweaty horse eyes me picking my way through the swell and I give his rump a friendly pat as I pass.

The market is unusually busy this morning. An airship passes overhead, momentarily blocking the light of the ever-blazing sun as it ferries the City's latest draft of soldiers out into the Wastelands. I slip between a couple of stalls and watch a young mother grip her child's hand tightly as she hurries through the square, pulling the little one away from the beggars at the side of the road.

A beggar man thrusts his arms out toward me and I have to turn my eyes away from the gory sight. The man's hands have been lopped off, the wounds healed into macabre stumps by brutish cauterization. The King's punishment for theft is severe, but every day it seems that more and more of our number grow desperate enough to take the risk. I suppress a shudder at the thought, mumbling an apology to the man and training my gaze on a friendly face up ahead.

Harry's stall is located near the centre of the square, where the crowd is at its thickest. I spot my friend before he spots me; he is rooted to his usual spot and gesturing grandly at his trays of bread and pastries. Everything about Harry is oversized, from his bulky stature and bushy beard to the way he towers above the other vendors.

"Ah, Kay! How is this fine morning treating ya?" Crooked teeth flash behind his flour-coated whiskers.

The delicious smell of fresh bread is enough for me to have to pause and swallow before managing a greeting. "Harry." I say, smiling. "I'm doing fine, thanks. A bit thirsty, though. You wouldn't happen..."

Harry cuts me off, jerking his thumb in the direction of the trough next to the stall and throwing me a wink as he turns to an inquiring customer.

I stoop and greedily spoon out the water with the ladle, choking in my eagerness to ease the drought in my throat.

"Thanks," I say, wiping my mouth with my wrist. "And some breakfast?" I thrust my hand into the pouch I keep tied around my hips, feeling my cheeks turn hot when I find it empty. Stupid, Kay. Couldn't you have held onto a single coin for yourself?

Harry shakes his head and hands me a roll. "No worries. Your money's no good here."

I accept the bread gratefully, my stomach growling its thanks. "Thanks again, Harry. I owe you one."

He grins and raises an eyebrow, leaning in close. "You've done enough for me already. Word around the City is that the Runner caused quite the commotion at the stables yesterday, but I suspect you already knew that." He slips a beefy arm around my shoulder and crushes me against him. "My brother was meant to head out to fight this mornin', but the Runner's given us a bit more time with him."

Harry's eyes appear red and I feel my heart break a little. His brother was part of the latest group of commoners drafted into the King's army.

The Wasteland war has been carrying on to various degrees for as long as I can remember, and the draft has existed for just as long. Some families consider it a blessing if their men are chosen; the soldiers enlisted in the King's army receive some schooling and a small stipend for their family. Commoners and courtiers are both subjected to the draft, but a well-placed coin in the King's palm will ensure that a noble boy's spot will pass to some unfortunate lower-born.

I pat Harry a bit awkwardly on the arm, wiggling out of his grip. "I'm sorry it wasn't enough to keep your brother here for good."

He straightens and grabs two more rolls, shoving them into my hands. "Don't you fret one moment about that, Kay. You do plenty for us. These times we live in, they are...complicated." He struggles with the last word. "Now, get out of here. I have some actual, paying customers that I need to attend to." He rubs his ruddy face before turning away, plastering on a smile and calling out a greeting.

I stuff the gifted bread into my pouch as I wander off, munching on the first piece and savouring the feeling of my stomach finally quieting for the first time in several days.

I survey the crowd as I walk. Many of the vendors and customers wear threadbare clothing similar to mine, rough and undyed but light in this unforgiving heat. The colours here in the Commons district are muted; the buildings are stone, bleached white by the sun, pocked and dimpled by the sand. Men, women and children shuffle past me in tunics and dresses that are patched many times over and faded from countless washings. Colourful scarves adorn the passing heads and shoulders, the many layers providing protection against the elements.

I watch an elderly common man haggle with a fruit vendor over a couple of apples. Beyond him, a plump courtier tosses her coins carelessly to a spice merchant. The rich woman barely gives the seller a cursory glance before strolling off down the street, leaving her common handmaid to accepts the goods and shoulder the heavy shopping bag. The marketplace is the great melting pot between our districts—a shared ground where everyone must gather to stock up on food and goods. Our scant resources have always been controlled, guarded religiously by the monarchy, whose job it is to dole out rations of food and water to the population as they see fit.

The day unfolds before me, long and hot. I wander closer to the centre of the City, moving from the Commons and into the Court. As I stroll I consider various possibilities, sorting through the standard schemes that could earn me a few days' pay. My eyes scan the buildings ahead, eventually landing on one in particular. This home is finer than the rest, with red shutters pulled open to invite in the morning light.

Perfect.

Now I know exactly where my next meal is coming from.

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