Chapter 1

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Robin thumped her tray down on the tabletop, sloshing hot tea down the side of Al's arm.

"Robin," he moaned, dabbing at his sleeve. Al had hair like a chimney brush and a face like a brick wall—all square bones and reddish-brown skin. But Robin had known him long enough to see the playful smirk behind the theatrical frown he leveled at her.

She snorted at his mock distress. "What? It's not like you've washed it in the past month."

"But now I'll have to." He punched the top of her arm hard enough to leave a small bruise. His stature had intimidated her the day they met—their first day, when the new group of Sealie kids had been sorted and handed off to instructors like livestock. But now, at seventeen, her arms were just as corded with muscle as his, though she'd never really achieved the sheer width of shoulder that he had, nor his expanse of height. Grinning, Robin punched back.

Then she elbowed Al to the side and wriggled into the gutter of space between him and the snotty blond kid whose name she never bothered to remember. She set her oversized canvas satchel and its precious cargo under the bench with more care than she had shown her meal tray, bracketing it between her knees.

Child apprentices started young in the shipyards. Fourteen if they could afford to stay in school. Eleven if they needed the money. Robin had needed the money, so she'd had six years to develop the whippet musculature of a mid-flight engineer. And since she was smaller, shorter, and lighter than most of her colleagues, Robin's pilot, Wade, could bring up two more cases of ammunition than his cohorts. Robin was not-so-secretly grateful that he liked that advantage, too. It meant that she didn't have to work in a laundry, cleaning stained shirts like Al's with her mother.

Al made a dramatic, twisting face of agony, clutching his arm where her elbow had landed.

Robin snorted at him. "Oh, shut up, you baby."

Al offered a lopsided grin before they both turned their attention to the small breakfast of rationed fruit, meager portions of sausage made with a filling Robin tried not to think too much about, and dry bread. She sipped her tea. It was bitter, strong-brewed and twice-strained, with only the faintest ghost of honey to coat her tongue. Perfect. She wrapped her hands around the battered tin cup, reveling in the way the warmth spread throughout her stomach and chest. It dispelled the last of the early morning chill and the exhaustion that still clung to her.

She'd spent the earliest hours of the morning picking her way carefully through the ore-dawn fog and brick-dust haze kicked up by the enemy aeroships that had bombed part of the factory fields outside of town. Most people dove beneath their beds when the warning bells started to clang in the middle of the night. Robin threw on her working leathers, shoved her feet in her boots, snatched up a large canvas satchel, and went a-picking.

"Hey, you awake?" Al asked, his voice low and tender even as he tugged on the length of her dark brown braid. It made her far shoulder knock into the blond kid, who sneered in return and shuffled a bit further down the crowded bench.

"Barely," Robin said, turning back to Al. "Tea helps."

"Gift from the gods," Al agreed. "Been home yet?"

Robin glanced at the room around her before she answered. "This isn't home? There are bees enough for me."

The cavernous hangar that served as the Air Patrol's canteen rang with the clink of metal utensils. The air hung heavy with the scent of baking bread, fruit just this side of being too ripe, burnt fat, engine grease, and the slightly sour tang of too many people wearing yesterday's undershirts. She had eaten in this very room, at this very table, nearly every breakfast of every day since she was old enough to apprentice with the Air Patrol. She only ever spent time in her parents' crumbling row house when there was a holiday to observe, or an on-the-job injury from which to recover (those had been blessedly rare, seeing as the Air Patrol docked pay for days missed). To her, this room smelled and sounded more familiar and welcoming than the place her parents called home. That was just a building to sleep in. This was where her heart lived.

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