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I stood on the wind-whipped pier, the salty sea-breeze stinging my swollen eyes. The sun had long since set, and darkness settled around me and Melora. Neither of us had so much as moved, too afraid even to breathe, since The Bark of Bullen had vanished from sight.

I couldn’t believe this was happening.

My whole life, Arabelle had been there for me. Supporting me. Loving me. And just like that, she was gone.

Because of me.

It felt like the universe was playing some sort of sick joke. Taunting me with the idea of happiness only to yank it away at the last second.

“She’s gone,” Melora whispered. Her hand released mine, her warm grip replaced by the chilled air. “She’s gone. I’ll never see her again.”

Fresh tears pricked my eyes. The ache in Melora’s voice pained me. She wasn’t yet twelve years old, and she’d revered her big sister. It broke something within me to realize everything Melora had lost. And to imagine everything Arabelle was going through—or soon would.

Who knew how they’d treat her on that ship? The Dead Lands didn’t exactly breed gentlemen. What sort of life would she have over there?

Not to mention, The Bark of Bullen had to cross the Bone Sea to reach the Dead Lands. I wasn’t educated by any means, but I’d heard the talk. I knew of the devastating storms and terrifying creatures that called the Bone Sea home. Valine had lost countless fishermen to the sea’s temper tantrums. Obviously, sailors from the Dead Lands knew how to traverse it, considering their presence here. But for all I knew, it’d been merely luck that had delivered them to our city’s shores.

“Oh, gods,” I rasped, clutching my stomach.

“What are we going to do?” Melora asked, her voice still so small and weak.

What could we do? It wasn’t like I could follow her, not without more gold. And the amount I did have wouldn’t begin to cover the costs needed to secure transport.

Gods, what if they took her to the Beast King himself? Melora had mentioned the stamp on the carriage. Did that mean they’d purchased Arabelle on his behalf? And if so, how could I free her from a man so cruel and bloodthirsty, they declared him the king of beasts? What could I give a king that he didn’t already have?

My breath caught as a thought surfaced.


I could give him me.

I could offer myself in Arabelle’s place. Her situation was my fault, after all. It should have been me caught with the gold. Me sold to the Dead Lands. Me whisked away onto that behemoth of a ship.

Surely, the Beast King wouldn’t care who cleaned his castle, so long as someone did it. Right?

There were issues with my plan though.

Namely, I had no idea if they were even taking her to the king. And to find out, I’d have to secure transport and cross the Bone Sea myself. The chances of me surviving such a journey were low. Perilously low. I couldn’t sail there in a dinghy. Arabelle and I had never so much as stepped foot aboard a boat, let alone crossed an entire sea. And to gain passage on a larger ship, one capable of making the journey, I’d need far more gold. I briefly considered stowing away. But if discovered, they’d toss me overboard faster than I could scream for help. No way I’d survive that. Last I heard, a damn kraken called the Bone Sea home. One large enough to destroy vessels larger than The Bark of Bullen. Not to mention all the other creatures. People spoke of sirens, sharks, and monstrous eels. All of which had long ago convinced me to keep myself on land.

“Arilla?” Melora asked when I didn’t respond.

I forced myself to swallow past the lump growing in my throat and turned to face her. In the darkness, I couldn’t make out her features. But somehow, I knew she was watching me, waiting for me to offer a solution.

“It’s okay,” I told her, barely believing my own words. “Everything will be okay.”

“It will?” The hope in her voice nearly broke me.

I scoured my brain for something comforting to say, and instead, pulled her into my arms for a gentle hug.

“You need to get home,” I told her. “Can you do that? Will you be able to find your way in the dark?”

“Yes,” she whispered against my shoulder.

“Your parents are going to want to know where you went. Tell them the truth.”

“What?” She pulled away from me. “My father told me not to come here.”

I nodded. “They already know you’re here. They’d be stupid not to.”

I didn’t mention that they were stupid. I couldn’t believe they’d sold their own daughter. I’d always thought Arabelle’s parents would die for her, but I’d clearly been blind. Some people would do anything to protect their own hides. I wanted to understand. Had they done it for Melora’s protection? To keep Arabelle from sullying the family name and ruining Melora’s reputation? She had a bright future ahead of her, one far better than anything Arabelle or I had been given. But I couldn’t suggest this to Melora. It was up to her to decide how she felt about her parents after what they’d done.

“Don’t tell them you came to find me or that I was here.”

“Why not?”

I pulled Melora in for another hug. “Just promise me, okay? I don’t want to risk them stopping me.” Not that I had a plan yet.

She hesitated, then finally nodded against my shoulder. “Okay.”

My eyes fluttered shut, and I breathed in the night air before finally releasing Melora. “Go on home now.”

Her fingers slipped from mine as she hurried into the night.

I turned back toward the coast and listened to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.

The crux of my problem was gold.

I needed more.

I was intimately familiar with that problem. So it was one I already knew how to solve. In the past, I’d waited a few weeks between thefts to keep from rousing suspicion. But I no longer had that luxury. Arabelle’s fate rested in my hands. If I could secure passage on another boat heading to the Dead Lands, I could follow closely behind her.

It wouldn’t be that simple though.

First, I needed a final score. One large enough to secure passage.

Then, I needed to find a ship heading to the Dead Lands. Believe it or not, that was the larger problem. Stealing from the Capones and selling the pilfered goods to my contact was simple. Finding a boat brave enough to cross the Bone Sea was not.

But I wouldn’t give up. Even if I had to wait for the next ship to arrive from there.

I would find Arabelle.

Or I would die trying.

Until then, I needed to establish a plan. I was hours late and had missed putting dinner on my stepfather’s table. Missing his dinner was an unforgiveable offense. My bones trembled at the thought of his impending punishment. It’d been a while since he’d locked me in the Forgotten Pit—his punishment of choice—but I’d never forget it.

Starvation, dehydration, and freezing temperatures awaited me.

No. I couldn’t go through that again.

The last time had nearly killed me. He’d designed the pit so narrow that I couldn’t sit or lay down. For days, I’d leaned against the side, praying for him to return and release me. And when he finally had, he’d thrown me into a chilled bath he’d claimed had been warm. I’d almost died from the shocking cold. He hadn’t care. He’d merely ordered one of his sons to nurse me back to health so I could return to work.

I wrapped my arms around myself and shivered.

I couldn’t go home. But that meant forfeiting my other two gold coins. And I couldn’t afford to lose those. I needed every bit of coin I could find to save Arabelle.

But if I went home, he’d toss me into the pit, and it would be weeks before I’d be well enough to travel. I couldn’t risk that either. I needed to steal something tomorrow if I was going to save Arabelle.

The problem was, I had nowhere else to go in the meantime. The Capones wouldn’t take me in, and I wouldn’t risk Logen’s standing with the guard by hiding with him. I’d ruined one friend’s life already. I couldn’t do that to another.

Behind me, a door burst open. I turned in time to watch light pour onto the dark cobbled street as two drunken men staggered outside. They clung to one another, their arms wrapped around each other’s necks, and their laughter echoed through the chilly night air.

The inn. A warm room, comfortable bed, and a meal.

Gods. That sounded divine.

But it required gold.

I weighed the coins in my pocket, musing over the idea. I certainly couldn’t return to my stepfather’s. But I also couldn’t leave Valine yet, not without more money. Nor could I spare any coin for comfort, no matter how much I wanted to.

“I swear, I’ll kill her,” a deep, familiar voice rumbled nearby.

My head swung toward the sound, and I gasped at the sight of my stepfather and two stepbrothers marching toward the inn. The light from the windows illuminated their profiles.

“How dare she disobey me like this,” my stepfather continued.

The anger in his voice chilled me to the bone.

“Maybe she’s hurt somewhere?” his youngest, Hayden, suggested. Of the two brothers, he was the kindest. Not enough for me to like him though.

“I couldn’t care less,” my stepfather continued as they entered the inn, likely in search of dinner. “She knows the rules. When I get my hands on her—” The door swung shut, and the streets grew darker.

Relief that I hadn’t entered the inn suffused me. They would have caught me red-handed, slurping back a meal.

I stared once again across the water and reconsidered my options. Then a realization dawned. My stepfather was here. Not at home.

I gasped and whirled toward the inn. Through the dimly-lit windows, I watched him and my stepbrothers sit at a table. The inn looked crowded too.

I had time.

Time to run home and reclaim those last two gold coins.

Admittedly, it was a risk. My stepfather could return, and if he did… I shuddered to think of the repercussions. I had to be quick then. Retrieve my coins as fast as I possibly could.

I tore blindly through the streets, relying primarily on muscle memory to get me home. A few lanterns and candles in windows helped along the way. But eventually, I found myself standing in front of my stepfather’s darkened estate. Not a soul inside.

Relief had me bounding up the stairs and darting through the door. I grabbed the nearest lantern, lit it, then rushed up to my hole of a room. Once inside, I fished out my two gold coins and added them to the other four in my pocket.

I turned, about to leave, when I paused.

Buried deep in the bottom drawer of my shabby bureau was a necklace my mother had given me the day she’d died. Something to remember her by, she’d said. My stepfather had never known she’d given it to me, and I’d done everything in my power to keep it that way, for fear he’d sell it. With its gold chain and gem the size of my knuckle, it’d be worth at least a few gold coins.

It’d break my heart to sell it, but what was a sentimental trinket in comparison to Arabelle’s freedom?

I knew it wouldn’t get me enough gold to buy my way onto a ship—I’d still need one final score—but it would help. And at this point, I’d take all the help I could get.

Retrieving the necklace from the bureau, I stuffed it into my pocket alongside the coins.

I moved toward the door, about to bolt, when I realized I also needed supplies. With luck, I’d never have to return to this place. But that meant I needed clothing. Grumbling under my breath, I grabbed the first satchel I could find and started filling it with anything and everything I could fit in there.

I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I’d dreamed of escaping for a long time now. I’d never thought the day would actually come. But my circumstances had changed, forcing me to risk something I’d never truly believed I could do.

Once my bag was stuffed full, I swung it over my shoulder and, again, headed for my door.

The sound of voices stopped me.

Fear quickened my pulse.

I hurried to my window and peered out into the night, finding my stepfather and his sons approaching the front door.

Oh gods. Had packing taken me that long?

Why had I stopped for clothes?

I’d gotten cocky, thinking I could take what I needed and still make it out of here in time.

The three climbed the front stairs, but the shortest of the three—Hayden—stopped and glanced up at my window. I couldn’t tell because of the dark, but I could have sworn he was looking right at me.

Because of my lantern.


I’d left it lit near the window.

I waited for him to shout, to point up at the window and alert his father to my presence. But…he didn’t.

Instead, he pointed at something in the garden, drawing his father’s attention away from the front door.

Could Hayden be…helping me?

Surely not. My stepbrothers hated me. But maybe that wasn’t by choice?

My stepfather stepped off the porch and headed around the back. Why, I had no idea. What had Hayden told him? Dashiell followed in his father’s steps. Hayden, on the other hand, hung back. And when his father and brother were out of sight, he—

—waved a hand at me! Beckoning me out of the house.

By the stars. He was helping me.

A relieved breath slipped past my lips. I extinguished the lantern, then swung my bag over my shoulder, opened my window, and slid outside. Much as I had the night Logen came to visit, I shimmied down the vines, my pace more hurried this time, in case my stepfather returned.

Thankfully, I could still hear his voice coming from the gardens.

When my feet hit the ground, I was shocked to find Hayden there. I straightened the bag slung over my shoulder and faced him.

“You’re leaving?” he whispered.

I bit my lip and kept quiet.

“I wish I could go with you,” he said. Then he grasped my shoulders, turned me toward the street, and shoved. “Run. And don’t look back.”

Still at a loss, I did exactly what he said.

I ran.

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