Chapter One

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"Something bad happened, Yumi."

Ist Madjara reeked of smoke and heartbreak. The stale air clung to my skin, gifting it a sickly glow, and the bard's drunken song slid across the dangerous atmosphere — a rotten place for rotten men.

For a narrow tavern on the fringe of Metsuva, the self-declared 'dragon' boasted a concerning number of thugs, fools who thought they owned the world. In reality, they merely owned a crammed gambling den that royal guards didn't feel like raiding the ninth time this season. Cloth washers with nothing left to gamble tended to avoid it, especially in the early morning; yet here we were.

I scratched my scalp wearily, feeling my dark hair against my fingers like slicked hay. The night hadn't treated me well. It never did. "Could it be another cloth shipment?" I mumbled, the taste of dusty air sneaking into my mouth as I spoke.

"Oh, no," she chuckled. It sounded contorted, the mockery of a laugh. Soon, her lifeless smile melted into a deadpan. "No, it's not that."

"Well, we better get going either way." I tapped my pockets in hopes a quellin or two would have sneaked in while I wasn't looking. As per usual, my search was fruitless. "The factory opens soon."

The woman sighed. "We can't. I have bad news."

Her creased face looked like cracked porcelain under the pale candlelight. She was usually like this; irritated and jumpy and ready to take it all out on whoever stood close. Tonight was different. A note of sorrow painted her firm lips, and her failed attempt at pigmenting wasn't at fault.

A twinge of uneasiness began prickling my gut, staining our perfectly dull night out. Sickness? Debt? "Lyra," I said, my furrowed brows betraying only a fraction of worry. "Did someone die?"

A stupid question. Someone always died around here.

"They might as well have," she said, and the brief squeeze of her lips meant my heart's turn to contract.

Cold seized my spine. I leaned forth, burying my jitters behind a veil of somberness. My fingers settled on her hand. "Who?" Many people in Mestuva hung from the last threads of their life, and although we would rarely care, Lyra's hesitance told me this one made an exception.

The silence thickened, stuffing my ears with a terrible ringing and stripping the breath from my lungs. Throughout the years, I had become an extension of Lyra in more ways than I felt comfortable admitting; her friends were my friends, her problems were my problems. Now I paid for my foolishness with attachment, expectations. Disappointment.

"Lyra," I called. My voice seemed distant, drowned out by the drum of my heartbeat. "Who?"

At last, she glanced up. My stomach churned at the intensity of her stare. It pierced through my skin and peered at my inner self, my life, my family.

The drums ceased. I trailed my hand away from hers, and the poison of the words she had not yet spoken lingered in my fingers. Was it my father? My brother? Saints knew I didn't have much more to lose. "Tell me," I demanded, and my voice's waver shattered the spirit I tried to feign.

With another sigh, Lyra took a tattered envelope from her coat's equally shabby pocket. I snatched it from her hands, squinting my eyes as I struggled to make out the letters. My heart thumped wildly as a few words started making sense. Mess, penalty fee. Don't come back tomorrow. Out of a hundred-word letter, those were the only ones I needed to read to rub a sweaty hand across my face and release a shaky breath. "Don't tell me I have to pay for that."

"Keep reading."

"I'd rather not," I muttered, my tone suddenly squeaky, and handed the note to her. There was nothing more I needed to know. Nothing more I wanted to know.

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