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I should not be here. I’m foreign to this village of broken rooftops and dull stone walls. I brush my fingers over a pillar. Its coldness burns my skin, makes me pause.
The words sing loud like a taunt as moonlight slithers across my shoulders. The parchment digs like thorns in my palm. I imagine its shape, every fiber and ink blot.
Something moves near my feet and I jump. It’s just a rat, one of hordes from the city. They’ve grown bolder during these past few seasons, always darting out of alleys and running by arches, desperate—like us—to fill their bellies.
As it squeaks away, nails tapping in rhythm, I inspect the darkened street before me. Lamplight glows from a crooked post, but the shadows are still and the windows are empty. A leaf-strewn house looms in the distance, enticing me over the cobblestone ground. That house is the reason I’ve ventured so late into this weary part of town. Beside me, buildings cringe with moss. Walkways glisten with dirty puddles. Teetering balconies slouch from walls with garments strung between casements like cobwebs.
But that smell.
I halt to sniff the air. It wafts from the dwelling ahead of me. It winds from beneath its splintered panes—the pungent scent of broth and ale.
I wish it were stew.
Saliva brims on my tongue at the thought of meat cooked with spices and oils. The last time venison passed my lips, my mother was alive, my father smiled, and the future stretched before us, unending. Those were the days of Emperor Komran, a king who lived and bled for his people. I barely remember the white of his beard or how he limped through the fields during harvest. And it’s the same with my mother. I’m losing her, too. The curve of her cheek. The shade of her tresses. When she died, we set her afloat in the Geynes, and I sat on the bank with my toes in the water, not wanting to break that connection to her.
It’s a year tonight.
My chest starts to cave, but I fight and I fight to be still, to not cry. At least the dead are not hungry, not in turmoil. They do not see what Centriet has become.
I urge my feet toward the house. Komran would never have driven me here. When he reigned, our streets were routinely swept, and fountains dotted the well-kept pavements.
And medicine was—
A loose stone clacks. Forgetting my thoughts, I dart to an alcove. Since Komran’s son became our emperor, soldiers lurk where you’d least expect them.
In the dark, I steady my breaths, in and out. Not that I’m breaking any laws—that I know of. I listen to the night: crickets chirping, a soft breeze, and the whinny of a horse that’s so indistinct, perhaps it’s from Sledloe, the next village over.
I wait longer, just to be safe. Many of the soldiers are kind, though not all. Father says they’ve been granted more powers, but that we won’t know what it means for a while.
I hate not knowing. Just like tonight. I hate not knowing what awaits in the house. When the street remains silent, I rejoin the road, but my ankles wobble when I try to walk.
So I jog.
It soothes my jangled nerves, and I reach the house, breathless and flushed. Planks board the four square windows; rust from the nails seeps into the woodgrain. The stones are all different sizes and shapes, charred by the remnants of a long-ago fire. Ivy clings to the rutted surface, its end pieces curling like ribbon from the door.
You should leave, Meadow.
But I raise my fist. All I need to do is knock. I’ve already abandoned my stonebrick at dusk without letting Father know where I have gone. The loss of my mother hits me anew—the pain a reminder of why I have come here. That I’ve come to move on, to at last let her go. Even though I’m not sure what that means anymore.
Or if I can.
“Are you here for the Gathering?”
The question shatters the bracing air. Someone’s behind me and I spin to face him, shrouding myself with my long dark hair. But I’m wrong. There are two. One’s tall and strapping. The other is smaller in every way. As they chance another step, I notice that they’re young—about my age, seventeen.
“Why I’m here is not your concern,” I say.
“We do beg your pardon,” the smaller boy says. He has a scar on his brow like a cutlass. And another on his forearm, dark as molasses. He gestures to the vacant street behind him. “Have you ever visited Yahres before?”
“Yes,” I say, though my words are false. It’s safer to make them believe I’m a local.
“And your name?” asks the boy, but I shake my head at the same time his companion lets out a grunt.
“Don’t bother,” he snaps. “We leave tomorrow.”
The smaller boy nods, looking slightly embarrassed.
“We watched you for a bit,” he tells me.
“And what did you see?” I ask.
He smiles. One of his teeth is chipped. “We assumed you’d turn back many times.”
My pulse quickens at their presumption, especially since it’s mostly true. The slums of Yahres are outside the walls. My home lies inside in the village of Maytown. In Maytown we’re warned to always tread wisely in places like Yahres, Florian, and Sledloe. Perhaps that’s why I’d appeared so unsure. Yet neither of the pair looks remarkably dangerous.
“You proved us wrong,” the boy continues.
“No hard feelings,” I say.
He laughs. “Come inside with us.”
He holds out a hand, but I back away.
“Forgive me,” he says, withdrawing swiftly, color blotching his cheeks. “We lodge with the man who hosts these gatherings . . . and I noticed you had a parchment to read.”
“You saw?” I jolt, clutching it tightly, blood surging through my legs and arms. Since Mother’s passing, it happens quite often. My heart beats fast, and I need to run.
“You don’t have to read it,” he says.
“Although you can if you want to, of course. Unless you didn’t come here for the Gathering?”
“I doubt she’s here for anything else.”
It’s much too hard to read his expression, but the taller boy speaks with a dash of disdain. He sidesteps his friend with two no-nonsense strides.
“You don’t know my business,” I say.
“Oh, please.” He comes in close, reaching past me, and the scent of leather and steel is intense. It reminds me of sitting in my father’s workroom when he’s mending quivers for the elder archers. The boy raps on the door with his knuckles. Three times, then nothing. The way we’re supposed to. “Of course you’re here for the Gathering,” he says, as metal grinds and a peephole opens.
My need to bolt escalates.
“Get in. You’re the last,” says the face inside. The cumbersome timber shifts outward before us. It breaks the leaves and they flutter in spirals.
“After you,” the tall boy says.
The parchment feels like a stone in my hand. It dawns on me how stifled this is—this narrow black corridor, deep in the kingdom.
I brush the still-dangling leaves to one side. The passageway stretches a good twenty paces. I could perish in there and no one would find me.
“Are you waiting for something?”
“No,” I say.
Ignoring the boy, I stoop to enter, trying to focus my thoughts on the brickwork. The blocks have eroded from years of scuffing. They smell like lichen and tarnished copper. Light spills through the distant doorframe, and our guide clears his throat to urge us on. I double my pace, though the boys hang back. The weight of their presence behind me is strong.