Luminous

 

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Prologue

The Sun had crossed over the forest. Darkness chased after the men as they wound their way through gaps between the leafless trees, batting away low-hanging branches and sloshing through muddy, half-melted snow.

The only light came from a lamp held by the man in the lead, Draken Armorheim. Most of the oil had burned away while they were lost. They must breach the forest before the rest does. They couldn’t afford to camp it out and wait another night. There’s no telling how many more of their young, their women and their elders would drop dead during that night.

The lamplight fell upon a fallen tree lying squarely on their path, reaching up to Draken’s middle. Sighing in relief at the landmark, Draken carefully set his lamp on the log and prepared himself for the climb. He had just swung his first leg up over the curve of the trunk when commotion broke out down the line.

“Move it, pig! Or I’ll snap your collarbone in half.”

The large, bald man way down the middle of the line snarled as he gave the leash another vicious yank. The rotund young boy at the other end of the rope lurched forth to the pull, his muddied face contorted in pain. Once he had regained his balance and his breath, he swiftly rearranged his features into a sneer.

“Spare me your empty threats. You need me alive to bargain with my father.” He challenged, the lights in his silvery eyes dancing with glee. The man with the leash smirked back, unperturbed. Hunkering down and leaning close so he came eye-to-eye with his hostage, he whispered, his voice low and trembling with barely tempered fury.

“Your dead body will do as well—Skinned, quartered, butchered then fried in lard scraped from the wall of your belly. First meal in weeks for my boys.”

“—And also their last, Krulstaff.” As the pudgy boy flinched and blanched in horror, Draken interrupted, hurriedly making his way up to the pair. Krulstaff turned to him in sheer agitation and he locked eyes with him, explaining tensely.

“Chione isn’t even half done with us. We keep him safe here in Crosset, and his father’s going to keep us all fed throughout winter. That’s the plan.”

Draken reminded his obstinate fellowman for what he felt was the umpteenth time. Krulstaff merely snorted. Shaking his head in amusement, he rounded on Draken, grabbing unsuccessfully at the lamp.

“Why don’t you just hand me that, Armorheim? Because unlike your whore and her boy in Meriton, my wife and children are dying as you get us lost in this godforsaken forest!” Krulstaff’s voice rose into a bellow, and Draken went paper-white, livid. Seizing Krulstaff by the collar, he roared.

“Don’t you dare—”

Before Krulstaff could retaliate, however, the other men hauled Draken away from him. One of the men then suggested, indicating the now silently sniffling boy with his pig-butchering knife.

“He’s got a point, Draken. We don’t need him awake. We could move faster with this potato sack on our backs than oozing down here.”

Draken glanced at Brodel the village butcher, and swallowed his anger with difficulty as he remembered all that is at stake. Heaving a frustrated sigh, he gestured carelessly towards the boy.

“Cuff him one in the noggin—with the handle, mind. And give him the blade if he doesn’t shut it about my son.” Giving the seething Krulstaff one last glare of pure hatred, he barked at the remaining men. “Move out.”

Before Brodel could even take one step towards the squealing young captive, however, the sharp crack of a broken branch shot through the silence. The men turned as one to stare into the gathering darkness where the noise originated. Crossbows raised and pointed in the same direction, they slowly backed away—then an arrow shot forth into the gloom from Krulstaff’s bow.

“Oh, for the love of—!” Draken’s feverish swear was drowned out by a high-pitched scream, unmistakably that of a young girl. But the moment he dashed in to see to the poor lass, he was sent somersaulting backwards by a forceful gust of wind as something barreled right pass him, crashing through the trees to land before the men.

The shroud of night had descended almost wholly upon the forest by now. The Moon still had not risen. Their lamp had been snuffed out. The only pinpricks of light came from two disembodied, glowing green eyes hanging in mid-air ten feet above their heads, glancing wildly at each man spread out below as though it could see them as clear as day.

The monster’s eyes vanished momentarily as it issued a roar of rage and pain which shook the earth and the trees, sending startled birds fleeing into the night. Out of nowhere, a fan of orange flames blasted towards them. The men threw themselves to the ground for dear life, feeling the heat scorching the tips of their hair as it grazed pass.

The inferno collided with the trees behind them, which instantly caught fire and flooded the whole area with much-needed light, but the sight that awaits them as they raise their faces was something straight out of a myth they would rather not bring to life.

A reptilian creature covered in glinting, metallic scales stood towering over them, trees trampled like fodder under its gigantic silver claws. Its luminous green eyes glowed dangerously above a long, narrow muzzle lined with razor-sharp fangs, which is still emitting tendrils of smoke.

Its claws carved deep welts into the tree trunks as it spread its leathery wings wide before dashing forth, snatching the stunned young boy between its talons and soaring off towards the West, trailing the boy’s pathetic screams behind it as it disappeared into the night sky.

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Chapter One: The Ice Pillory

Six years later.

 

“Next!”

The clerk’s tinny voice rang above the heads of the waiting peasants, and the line moved up a minim. The man before Mirram edged a step forth, and he followed suit. 

Narrowing his eyes against the blazing light, Mirram glanced up at the Sun, now halfway across the sky. Ten men to go before he could at least enjoy the shade inside the castle’s back gate. This is taking longer than he had expected. He probably wouldn’t return to the fields in time for a half-day’s work.

Hearing his umpteenth sigh, the man by his side offered yet again, whispering out the corner of his mouth.

“And I said, give the paper to me, Mirram. Tis my day off; I ain’t losing gold here.”

“And I’ve told you; it’s for the taxes. It needs my thumbprint.” Mirram murmured back with fraying patience. His friend rolled his eyes skyward, equally annoyed.

“They. Won’t. Know!”

That finally sent Mirram over the edge. Slapping his forehead in exasperation, he snapped.

“It’s a half-day’s wage for one of your thumbs, Draken Armorheim. I won’t let you fake my print. And that’s final!”

Silence fell in the clearing after Mirram’s outburst. Draken glanced around at the staring guards, merchants and fellow peasants, then shook his head wearily.

“Another dastardly plan scuppered. Thanks to you, righteous Mirram Hild.”

Mirram met Draken’s half-amused, half-annoyed gaze. The two friends shared a soft chuckle, before settling back in for the long wait. After what must have been another hour, the man who came before them finally finished whatever business he had and traipsed away. The clerk handed the scrolls to his young helper who trotted downstairs to the records room. He turned the next page on his enormous ledger and barked out.

“Next!”

Mirram and Draken hurried over. The clerk was a delicate man with long golden hair in a neat ponytail, wearing flowing grayish-green robes. He looked to be just in his late twenties, but he seemed already jaded with life. Still busily jotting down the date and time, he drawled wearily without glancing up.

“Name and business, whichever of you will go first.”

Draken nudged Mirram’s shoulder, and he hastily stepped forth.

“Mirram Hild, sir. I’d like to update my family registry. My son Myron has joined a guild and he’d leave the house next week.”

Mirram pulled a folded piece of parchment out of his trouser pocket and smoothed it on the clerk’s wooden desk; Myron’s letter of apprenticeship from a master in the blacksmith guild.

The clerk, however, had frozen at the sound of his name, and was staring up at Mirram as if he had just most brazenly passed wind in the Lord’s court, ink dripping from the tip of his still-aloft peacock quill. When Mirram met his gaze inquiringly, he blurted out.

“What was your name, again?”

Telling himself it must have been the accent, Mirram cleared the phlegm clogging his throat with a closed-mouth cough and obliged.

“Mirram Hild, sir.”

The clerk, still nonplussed, frowned a little deeper. Gesturing vaguely with his quill, he asked slowly.

“Mirram Hild...as in, the father of Meya Hild?”

I do have six other children, you know, thought Mirram wearily. That’s the problem with folks; you produce six decent, pretty-average children, yet they’ll never stop pointing at that one slightly troublesome black sheep. Stopping himself from rolling his eyes just in time, Mirram heaved a heavy sigh and nodded, grinning through his grimace.

“Yes, sir, unfortunately.”

Mirram offered a joke, hoping to dispel the uneasy air. The clerk raised his eyebrows, puckering his lips and nodding rather melodramatically, before thrusting out a hand, indicating the mostly-blank page of his ledger.

“And you’re here to update your family registry?”

“Yes, sir, I’d like to move out my son Myron and recalculate my taxes.” Mirram swiftly jumped at the chance to get back to business, hoping to get this over with soon and hurry back for some last-minute laboring without further discussion of his infamous offspring.

The clerk stared at him with that incredulous look for a tantalizing moment longer, before shaking his head, jotting down Mirram’s testament in his ledger in beautiful, connecting letters. A grin of amusement dancing on his lips, he finally clarified.

“Forgive my surprise, my dear chap. But you are incredibly composed for a man whose daughter is sentenced to the Ice Pillory.”

He picked up Myron’s apprenticeship letter and began examining it, checking for signs of tampering. Now it was Mirram’s turn to freeze instead. Glancing quickly at Draken, who was just as confused and alarmed, he whirled back to the clerk, grasping the table edge with both hands.

“Sir, my daughter!? The Ice Pillory!? Which one? What for?”

The clerk glanced up. As understanding came over him, his expression morphed from derision to genuine concern for the first time. Quill and letter fell silently from his hands onto the polished wood as he stared in disbelief.

“Goodness me, you haven’t heard?” The clerk exclaimed, before waving his hand in exasperation. “Of course it’s Meya! Who else can it be?”

But Mirram and Draken had already dashed back out of the castle gate towards the trench.

 

 

 

The strip of barren, sunken land beside the castle’s deep moat had all but disappeared behind the crowd of spectators by the time Mirram and Draken arrived. The now empty gallows towered above, like a flag marking the dip of the trench. Wading through the jostling, jeering, fist-shaking peasants, the two farmers emerged to a sight that confirmed their worst fears.

Beside the gallows’ base, surrounded by numerous torture devices wooden and metal, as well as pebbles and remnants of rotten produce, two youngsters were on their knees, one a lad and the other a lass, both no more than sixteen.

Both were dressed in the dull woolen garb of commoners, though the lad’s tunic and trousers were noticeably less patched and frayed than the lass’s dress.

Pebbles, oozing tomatoes and moldy potatoes pelted them as they sat slumped with their arms stretched taut, hanging by their wrists from pillories hunkering above their heads.

The lass’s pillory, however, instead of wood, was made of a single block of clear, bluish ice which covered the whole of her hands from view. The most dreaded Ice Pillory of Crosset Manor.

“Oh, Freda. Deke! Meya!”

Draken’s voice was almost a scream. Before Mirram could even budge, the bloke had already scampered towards his youngest son.

Deke Armorheim, a stocky lad with a long, freckled face topped with a crop of shiny hay-colored hair, whipped around at the sound of his father’s voice.

The lad smiled apologetically as the warden with a bushy mustache waddled in to block Draken’s path with his truncheon. Holding one arm over his forehead to shield his skull from the barrage of rocks and rotten vegetables, the uniformed man yelled.

“One more stinkin’ tomato while I’m down ’ere, and there’ll be Fyre to pay!”

Seeing the truncheon waving high in the air, the restless crowd gradually behaved themselves, albeit with a lot of grumbling. Mirram turned to the lass in the Ice Pillory.

The girl looked ordinary enough, with red-gold hair in two fraying braids that were slightly damp from the dripping ice, and a spatter of freckles across the flat region where the bridge of her nose should be.

Her eyes, however, were a vivid, luminous, unnatural green that seemed to give out an eerie glow of their own, like a cat’s eyes at night. She stared blankly back at him.

“What in the three lands have you done this time?” Mirram asked, his voice low and chilly. Before Meya could reply, a barking voice cut across.

“Oh, there you are, Hild!” Mirram whirled around. A bald, muscly man about a head taller than himself, with shiny suntanned skin and a strong, clean-shaven jaw, pushed his way to the front of the throng before advancing menacingly towards Mirram. “Been wanting to have a chat about what your green-eyed devil did to my boy here!”

The man snarled, jerking a thumb towards his son, and Mirram craned his neck a little to see. Trailing reluctantly a step behind the man, half-hidden by his father’s hulking frame, was a scowling lad a couple of years older than Meya. He was the spitting image of his father, except for his split, bleeding lips and a swollen, purplish bruise covering his right eye.

“Yeah, go on, Krulstaff. Tell him how Gregor got his arse stuffed by a lass!”

Deke called and the crowd roared with laughter. Gregor shot a dour glare at him, then at the back of his father’s shiny crown, shaking with both rage and embarrassment.

“Quiet, Deke!” Draken snapped fiercely, before turning to his son’s wayward friend, who remained silent but was clearly enjoying the scene, his voice weary. “Meya, what happened, lass?”

“Wage fraud and undue violence.” Again, before Meya could answer, the warden piped up pompously, speed-reading an unfurled roll of parchment, before tucking it back in his belt.

“Sly wench struck a deal with her fellows. They’d add some of the fields she worked to their workload. When they got their pay in the men’s rate of ten latts per field, they’d pay her back nine each, three more than the women’s rate, and keep one as fee.”

As Draken messaged his forehead, the warden continued, this time indicating the still skulking Gregor with a nod of his head.

“Wench been at it for three whole moons. Brave young Gregor Krulstaff here finally caught wind of it, told the landlord, got himself a nice roughin’ up for his trouble.”

“Not before the snitch got his own share, he didn’t.”

A cold, snarky voice cut through and everyone turned around. Meya had finally spoken. Meeting Mirram’s silencing glare with an insolent look, she sneered at Gregor, who was trembling with fury.

“He was in it from the start. Then he got greedy. Wants to double the fee. So I gave him one in the kisser and he tattled. Saw him blubbering behind the landlord and I just thought, if I’m gonna get the pillory anyway, might as well earn it.”

Meya had barely finished when the crowd’s furor swallowed her voice. There were loud cusses from dozens of women bemoaning disgrace. Pebbles and mud-balls resumed sailing through the air. Draken yelled over the din, shielding his head with both arms.

“Warden, I know this is serious, but the Ice? The lass is sixteen!”

The warden grimaced. Though that might have been in response to the dull splat of a half-tomato now sliding down his cheek.

“My dear chap, I gave her the choice. Wench chose the Ice.”

“What!?” Draken cried, eyes bulging, then whipped back to Meya. “Are you out of your mind, lass!?”

“Tis a warm day, Farmer Armorheim.” Meya grinned, then squinted at the Sun beating down from high in the early noon sky. Rolling his eyes in frustration, Draken turned swiftly back to the warden.

“What will it take to free them early?”

“Two old silvers. Each. No haggling.” The warden replied without a breath’s pause, a gleeful smirk creeping up on his mouth.

Grinding his teeth, Draken snatched his purse out of his pocket. He churned among the bronze for the grayish-white gleam of the Ten-Latt-coin, or the copper Five-Latt, but found none.

Copper, silver and gold faces are hard to come by these days. The Royal Treasury had just issued new, lighter coins with more alloy mixed in, so folks are hoarding the old ones and melting them.

Of course, Draken was hoping to do the same, but his priority now was getting the kids free. The wily Warden probably wouldn't settle for twenty bronze. Or forty brass faces, too, for that matter.

Right then, a roughened palm holding two silver faces entered his sightline. Looking up, he saw Mirram’s serious brown eyes.

“Draken, take this. Free your son.”

Draken couldn’t help glancing quickly at the waiting youngsters.

“What about Meya?”

Mirram did not seem to have heard. With both hands, he forced the coins into Draken’s slack fingers.

“Take it. He’s here because of her.”

“I’ll leave when she does, Farmer Hild!” Deke cried in protest as Draken pleaded with his friend.

“But Mirram, her hands will rot!”

Just then, a dull thud came from behind them, and Draken whipped around. Meya had toppled flat onto her back; her hands, still dripping with melted ice, seemed to have slid free of the pillory.

Meya picked herself up and stood, wiping her reddened hands on her dress then dusted off the dirt. As the crowd gaped in silence, she turned to the warden, who was blinking in disbelief.

“So, I’m free to go?”

Still mute, the warden nodded, his eyes darting back and forth from the still-solid Ice Pillory and Meya’s hands. Rubbing her palms together furiously before tucking them under her yellowed apron, Meya turned to Draken with a toothy grin.

“Like I said. Tis a warm day.”

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Chapter Two: Meya

It was late noon by the time they made their way back to the village. The dirt road is largely empty but for flocks of sparrows and pigeons pecking for seeds in the clumps of spiky grass along the wayside, and the occasional pile of sun-baked dung still swarming with flies. Judging from the overlapping, slightly erased hoofs and wheel tracks leading to and away from them, they’re most likely left behind by the carthorses.

They approached a fork in the path, and the Armorheims parted. Meya could only eke out a guilty grimace before the grinning Deke was ushered away by his father, probably towards a lengthy time-out back in their cottage over on the other side of the village, leaving Meya to shuffle after her father’s already receding back towards their own.

Several minutes dragged by in awkward silence. Deciding to leave Dad to his internal fuming, Meya glanced around at the shops and cottages lining the road.

At the chirp of a robin streaking by overhead, she looked up, following its course across the cloudless, blue spring sky, before tearing her eyes away and back to Dad when he finally spoke, his voice boding annoyance more than anything else.

"Fyre, what in the three lands should I do with you?”

“Leave me to rot? Like you just did?” Meya suggested dryly.

“You know why I did it.” Dad snapped, and Meya deflated a bit under his withering glare. He spared a fleeting glance at the fidgeting blobs under Meya’s apron, which were her smarting hands. “You could bake bread with them scorching hands. You didn’t need silver nor salt. Nor my pity.”

Meya tugged absentmindedly at the inside of her ragged, worn-thin apron. Yes, that was just one more of her weird characteristics.

The Ice Pillory is the most dreaded signature of the Crosseti brand of justice, even in the warmest summer day and with some salt on hand, and even when it isn’t meted out in the Crosset Clan’s icy birthplace up north in the aptly named Icemeet, but in the relatively milder climate of the central-west.

A mere half-hour with your hands clamped between those freezing ice blocks could result in black, unfeeling limbs that must be axed off, and probably also death by the infection that would most definitely follow.

For Meya, however, it means a chance for a quick release; her body is incredibly hot. Literally. Meya is far from a beauty compared to her eldest sister Marin, the long-reigning May Queen of the manor, as her second eldest and second prettiest sister Morel is always more than happy to remind her.

Ironic, actually. Seeing as it’s her name that is supposed to mean May Queen.

The dirt road finally led them to their destination. The Hild cottage did its seven-generations-long history of poverty impeccable justice. Its grayish daub walls decorated with cracks like spider-webs fell away in places to reveal the crisscrossing wattle underneath.

The thatched hay roof was caked with mildew. A crooked, soot-black metal pipe they called a chimney stuck out like an old feather on a straw hat. The steady trickle of pale gray smoke meant that Morel, the consummate housekeeper, was busy preparing dinner for the family.

Two middle-aged women stood before the cottage door, enraptured in lively, whispered gossip. One was Mum; rather frail, with a pale, beautiful face unblemished by a single freckle, and clear light-blue eyes. Her shining copper hair was neatly hidden under her pure-white headcloth.

The other was Dad’s kinda-distant relative; Aunt Reeva. Heavy-set, with strong arms that could lift soup vats with ease. Her plump face is rosy, albeit quite oily from long hours in Crosset castle’s scullery. Unlike the ever-neat Mum, wisps of her wavy brown hair peeked out from under her soot-smudged bonnet and stuck to her sweaty forehead and neck.

“Mirram! There you are!” Aunt Reeva proclaimed boisterously, making a beeline for Dad. “What kept you? The line?”

Scowling, Dad glanced a little at Meya, standing just behind him. That was when Aunt Reeva and Mum first noticed Meya’s presence.

“Oh!” Aunt Reeva let out a delighted cry, tapping a stubby finger to her chin, her eyes unfocused. Meya could imagine a miniature Reeva inside her skull rifling madly through the Relatives section of her memories book.

“Let me see...Marin and Morel’s inside, and Mistral’s in the city. So, you must be—”

Reeva’s voice trailed away as the realization dawned on her. Her eyes traveled up Meya’s nondescript face to settle on her eerie, glowing green eyes, and the smile on her lips sagged like melting cheese.

“Meya, unfortunately.” Meya finished for her, trying her best at a grin, but it came out halfway between a grimace and a sarcastic smirk, and Mum was having none of that disrespect towards an elder relative.

“Meya!” Mum scolded, but she didn’t even wait to see whether Meya had repented before turning to Dad. “What happened, Mirram?”

“Exactly. Shouldn’t the lass still be working?” Aunt Reeva pitched in, shooting a quick, fearful glance at Meya. Dad heaved a tired sigh.

“Long story.” He replied curtly. Once he had served Meya the darkest glare he could manage, he turned back to the large lady, his tone urgent. “Reeva, I want to head back to the fields. Can you wait?”

“I’m sorry, my dear man. I still have to be back to set the Lord’s table for dinner. I thought you’d be home.”

Aunt Reeva shook her head, a troubled look on her shiny face. Dad seemed torn between earning a few more Latts to make up for the silver he spent freeing Deke and hearing whatever urgent business Reeva has. The fact that she still hasn’t spat it out, Meya guessed, meant it was also strictly not for Meya’s ears.

As Dad wrestled with himself, Mum tugged his sleeve gently.

“You won’t get anything worth the while this late in the day, Mirram. And this is very important; I can’t be the one to decide.”

Dad met Mum’s eyes for a silent moment, then he finally nodded with a sigh.

“Very well, then.” He gestured vaguely at the door. “You two go on in. I’ll be there in a minute.”

As Mum led Aunt Reeva inside, Dad looked at Meya out of the barest corner of his eye, then jerked his head towards the garden.

“Take the pig out to the forest. Make sure you bring it back. And the birds, too.”

“By when?” Meya raised an eyebrow. Dad simply shrugged.

“Sunrise for all I care. There’d be no dinner for you tonight.”

With that, Dad swept pass Meya into the house and swung the door shut.

For a moment, Meya was left blinking blankly, before she shook herself out of it. Detaching her dishearteningly light drawstring pouch from her belt, she tipped it over.

A lone copper coin dropped silently onto her palm; the remains of what used to be three months of wages after she paid the fine for her crimes. The baker’s man might be happy to sell her his burnt loaves, if he still had any left this late in the day, that is; the beggars have probably already gotten to it.

At that moment, the window on the side of the cottage was flung open. Mouth-watering fumes of cooking potatoes and meat spilled out, along with talking and giggling voices. And Meya’s stomach writhed with a hollow feeling that has nothing to do with the prospect of no dinner.

Sighing, Meya swung the gate into the garden. Cordoned with a waist-high wooden fence, it was just large enough to hold a vegetable patch, a pig pen, and a coop for the chicken and ducks.

The coop is empty for now; early every morning before heading off to the fields, Meya would herd the birds onto a wheelbarrow and roll them all the way to the communal pasture outside the village, where they could forage to their hearts’ fill among the livestock of other villagers.

Inside the sty, however, a pink-with-brown-patches sow was snoozing in the mud pool beside her sparkling-clean food trough. Though Mum and Morel would come home with a bucket-full of scraps from the market every morning when they went out shopping for supplies, the sow’s appetite only seemed to get bigger by the day.

Meya unlatched the sty door, her swollen, burning-hot fingers trembling horribly, then bent down to muss up the sow’s head affectionately.

“C’mon, Hanna. Let’s go get some acorns.”

Hanna’s eyes snapped open. Wagging her tail and oinking happily in reply, she got up and waddled along by Meya’s side, the round wooden name-tag on her collar swinging as she followed Meya down the meandering dirt lane, towards the dense verdant forest spreading out behind the rolling green wheat fields. Upon the tag were letters neatly carved out by Meya’s youngest brother Myron, spelling Hanna—at least, Meya thought that is the case, as she couldn’t read.

Back home, in the small hole in the dirt floor where Meya kept her belongings, she had collected ten similar tags, all bearing names of piglets she had raised since the start of spring, only to send them to the slaughterhouse by the eve of winter. All parts of the pigs are useful, so their tags are the only remains she can keep.

As Meya’s family could afford to raise only one pig at a time, Meya couldn’t help thinking of her annual pig as something akin to a pet. Albeit one you have to kill and eat once the year ends.

Five-year-old Meya had cried uncontrollably when the time came for her first pig, Jark, to meet the butcher. Seeing Meya so inconsolable in the days that followed, her biggest brother Maro spent his entire savings for the carpenter to carve out a posthumous nametag for Jark.

From then on, her three brothers have made sure all of Meya’s piglets have beautiful, tailor-made nametags. Being in charge of the family pig became less harrowing since then. Still, Meya never touched their meat once they are served as the family’s winter sustenance, no matter how much her stomach ached for red meat.

Meya walked down the wide levee which paved the way straight for the forest. As a gust of wind blew over faint bleats and moos from the communal pasture over there at the edge of the forest, Meya thought of creamy, freshly squeezed milk and rich sheep cheese and butter. Her family can’t afford to keep flocks of sheep or cattle. Lucky for her, Deke is always happy to sneak her a bite or two of his family’s products.

After finding her usual oak tree at the edge of the forest, Meya used her stick to beat down a pile of acorns for Hanna. As the pig ambled about collecting the fallen nuts, Meya leaned against the rough wood and looked up at the sky as she waited. It was a clear, light blue of early spring, with wispy clouds that edged slowly towards the horizon on the wings of the cool, gentle breeze.

She wondered where that little robin went. Maybe if he flew high enough, he could see if there really is a deity—a goddess up there, like it said in the Holy Scriptures.

She wondered why Freda made her a girl. And why Freda would make life so hard for girls—especially girls in Crosset, she’d heard girls in other manors had it easier—when she is obviously a girl herself.

It doesn’t make sense. Maybe Freda is a very spiteful old girl. Maybe the Crosset matriarch of old got on her bad side somehow. Or is Freda actually a man? Do deities even have genders?

But anyway, people wouldn’t want their daughters bogged down by so many taboos, would they? Meya could do much, much more to help Mum and Dad out if only she were a boy.

At the very least, she wouldn’t have to resort to wage fraud and undue violence to earn more gold for her dowry stash, and end up losing all her money to a hefty fine. She could become a merchant like Marcus. She could go to school or train in a guild like Myron. She could be useful. The way she is now, she’s just wasting the family bread.

Glancing down at the pig grunting away enthusiastically as she sought out more nuts, Meya couldn’t help wondering if it would really be that different with her neck on the butcher’s board instead of Hanna’s this winter.

Except maybe the fact that Hanna’s meat probably tastes better than hers.

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Chapter Three: Greeneye

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Chapter Four: The Job Offer

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Chapter Five: Lady Arinel

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Chapter Six: Ambush

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Chapter Seven: The Name Deal

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Chapter Eight: Metal and Blood

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Chapter Nine: Coris Hadrian

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Chapter Ten: Dining with the Family

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Chapter Eleven: The Wedding

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Chapter Twelve: The Choice

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Chapter Thirteen: The Axel

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Chapter Fourteen: The Warning

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Chapter Fifteen: The Dwale

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Chapter Sixteen: Duty and Atonement

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Chapter Seventeen: Odd One Out

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Chapter Eighteen: Ransom Demand

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Chapter Nineteen: Double Heist

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Chapter Twenty: Aria on the Moonlit Moor

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Chapter Twenty-One: Play Possum

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Chapter Twenty-Two: The Aftermath

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Chapter Twenty-Three: Cleaning Up

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Chapter Twenty-Four: Coris's Confession

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