I arrived in the Lower West District only to find the vendor’s table completely abandoned. The thought of hanging around in these skeevy dregs didn’t appeal to me at all. But I couldn’t leave. Not without the gold. Finally, after twenty minutes of pacing and avoiding anyone who came near me, the vendor returned with a lewd grin and a twinkle in his eyes. Apparently, he’d ventured into the Pink Pearl for a little fun—his words, not mine. However, his good mood worked in my favor, evidenced by the additional gold coin clinking in my pocket.
I barely thanked him before turning and running toward home. And I didn’t stop running until I reached the Upper East Hill. Only then did I take a moment to rejoice.
Four gold coins! Giving me seven in total now. I couldn’t believe my luck, and for a moment, I wondered if I might faint from the excitement. I’d never possessed such wealth. Not that seven gold was a lot, but for me, it meant everything. By my calculations, I only needed three more to leave Valine. Of course, I needed a whole lot more than that to feed, clothe, and shelter myself. But leaving Valine opened up a whole new world for me. A world that finally worked in my favor.
I tucked my hands to my chest and grinned.
It wouldn’t be long now. A few more weeks at most. I just needed one final score, one that would secure me enough gold to get out of here. I’d worry about the rest later. Regardless of the city I landed in, I had to imagine there’d be work for someone like me. Yes, I’d still be a servant, but at least the money would line my pocket instead of my greedy stepfather’s.
I only wished Arabelle and Logen could come with me, but I knew neither would leave. Arabelle had her family, and Logen was making a name for himself here. I’d miss them more than life itself, but I couldn’t stay in Valine any longer. My stepfather would never free me.
A bell chimed in the distance, and I snapped to attention. When it chimed six, I cursed and bolted down the street.
I was so very late.
Too late to have dinner on the table in time.
Fear tightened my stomach as I tore through the streets. My stepfather would kill me. The last time I’d been late with dinner, he’d thrown me in what he called the Forgotten Pit—this horrific vertical hole he’d dug in the back of the estate. Deep enough to trap a full-grown girl. And when I’d tried to climb out, he’d secured a door at the top to lock me in. For days. The hunger, the thirst, the exhaustion…. I couldn’t face that again. Honestly, I’d rather die first.
My mind spun as I struggled to come up with a solution. I was so consumed by these thoughts that I didn’t notice a young girl running toward me until she darted into my path.
“Arilla!” she cried, startling me out of my thoughts.
I staggered to a stop, my palm pressed flat against my chest. Familiar blue eyes stared up at me, identical to her sister Arabelle’s.
“Melora,” I choked out. “What are you doing here?”
I hadn’t seen Arabelle in a few days, but that was normal. Our schedules didn’t exactly allow for a lot of socialization time.
Melora snatched my other hand and squeezed it hard. “Arilla, they took her.”
What? Someone took someone?
“You have to come!” Melora shouted. “Now!”
I wrenched my hand free and shook my head. “Melora, I don’t have time for this. I need to get home. If I’m any later, my stepfather—”
“Arilla!” Melora screamed.
I cringed away from her, my eyes darting to the people passing by. It wasn’t wise to make a scene here. I was about to caution Melora to keep it down when I noticed her frightful state. How I’d missed it, I had no idea. But her hair curled around her face, unkempt and untamed. Her eyes were wide and rimmed with tears, her face and clothes dirtied.
Melora was the only member of Arabelle’s family who wasn’t indentured. She went to school and had a life beyond what her sister and I had growing up. But today, she looked every bit as harried as the rest of us.
“They took Arabelle!” Melora shouted again. “My parents sold her like she was nothing. I came to find you. We have to get to her!”
A new type of fear slammed into me. “Your parents sold Arabelle?” They couldn’t do that. She was already indentured. Unless…unless they’d found someone who would pay more for her.
“You have to come with me!” Melora pressed, pulling on my hand. “Before they leave! Please!”
My head rose, and I stared at my stepfather’s house in the distance. The punishment that awaited me if I missed his dinner was beyond brutal. But this was Arabelle. And I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t help her.
I lowered my gaze to Melora who was practically squirming on the spot, her eyes pleading for help.
“Let’s go,” I said.
Relief softened her features. Without a word, she clutched my hand and pulled me through the busy streets.
“Tell me what happened,” I ordered as we moved through the crowds.
Melora’s hand tightened on mine. “I came home and my parents were in a state. I’d never seen them like this. They were angry, accusing Arabelle of putting us all at risk. They said if the guards ever found out what she’d done, they’d hang her. And blacklist the rest of us. They said she stole something. But Arabelle would never!”
Oh…by the stars.
I choked on my breath and stumbled over my own two feet. “That’s what they said? That she stole something?”
“Mama found a gold coin in Arabelle’s room. She demanded to know where Arabelle got it. I didn’t hear her answer, but Mama cried out that her daughter was a thief. It isn’t true, Arilla. I know Arabelle! She would never do anything that would put any of us at risk. She loves us!”
My heart squeezed. It felt like the world had opened up beneath my feet and swallowed me whole. This was my fault. The gold coin was mine. Arabelle had promised to hide it, but her mother must have found it anyway. And now….
“So they sold her?” I demanded, my voice barely above a whisper.
“To a man I’ve never seen before,” Melora whispered. “I think… Arilla, I think he’s from the Dead Lands.”
I gasped. The Dead Lands? That was the last place anyone wanted to go. It was a country of outcasts and mercenaries. A land, people claimed, of black magic. Rumor had it the place was so corrupt, nothing grew there but hate and fear. And the people born to the land were of the worst kind. Murderers, thieves, slavers.
“What makes you think that?” I demanded.
“His carriage,” she said. “It had the emblem of the Beast King.”
By the gods.
This was bad. The Beast King ruled the Dead Lands with an iron fist. A man so cruel, all feared him. It was said that nothing happened in his country without his knowledge. And if anyone dared to step a toe out of line, he slaughtered them. If the carriage held his mark, then Melora was right. Arabelle had been sold to the Dead Lands. And it was all my fault.
How could I have done this? I’d been so obsessed with finding my own freedom that I’d cost Arabelle hers.
I had to fix this. Somehow.
“The man they sold her to terrified me,” Melora continued. “I’ve never seen anything like him before. Darkness clung to him like spider webbing. He and my father spoke, then the man handed over what looked like a bag of gold. He shook hands with my father, then took Arabelle and left. My father forbade me from following, but how could I not? I trailed them all the way to the docks, where I watched them load her onto a ship. After, I came to find you. I couldn’t think of anyone else who would help me. Arilla, we have to save her.”
Despair urged us faster. By foot, it would take us thirty minutes minimum to reach the docks and who knew what we’d find by then. I couldn’t let this happen. Couldn’t let Arabelle take this fall for me. It should be me on that boat, me sold to the Dead Lands.
Time seemed to drag as we ran. Neither of us cared for propriety. Nor did we stop to let people pass. I caught a few mutters here and there, people begrudging our manners, but we never once broke pace. We couldn’t afford to.
When the scent of the sea finally hit me, I nearly cried out. Every muscle in my body ached, and my legs trembled in search of relief.
“There!” Melora shouted, jabbing a finger toward the east dock. Farther out, anchored in the water, stood a boat. “That’s the one they took her to.”
My jaw dropped at the sight of the behemoth with the words The Bark of Bullen emblazoned on the side. It was at least twice the size of every other docked boat, with more masts than I’d ever seen. So large, in fact, that they’d had to anchor it in open water, rather than tying it to a dock at the port. Massive black chains wrapped around the ship—for what purpose, I had no idea—and obsidian sails hung from the posts. I couldn’t see the men aboard the ship from here, but I had to imagine there’d be many on board. A ship that size couldn’t sail itself.
“Melora…,” I whispered, the realization that this might be an impossible feat sinking in.
First, there was no way for us to reach the ship. Not without a small docking boat, which we didn’t have access to. Second, I saw no way for us to sneak aboard and free Arabelle without being discovered. Third, not even my six gold coins would help us. The Dead Lands weren’t lacking for wealth, as evidenced by their ship and the hefty bounty they’d paid for her. Six gold would mean nothing to them.
“No!” Melora shouted, whirling on me. “We can’t give up!”
It wasn’t that we were giving up. I just had no solution in mind. We had no way to reach the boat, let alone in time. They were already raising anchor, and I couldn’t even see Arabelle to confirm she was on board.
Melora and I stood on the dock and stared at the boat. I wasn’t sure about Melora, but I had a feeling her heart was pumping just as hard as mine. In a few moments, she was about to watch her sister sail away forever, and not by choice.
Worst of all, she had no idea this was all because of me.
“It’s leaving,” she whispered at my side, her hand clutching mine.
I gave hers a squeeze, my shoulders drooping when I caught the soft sound of her sniffle.
“I’m so sorry, Melora,” I murmured. Gods, she didn’t know how sorry I was. “You’re sure that was the boat she was on?”
Melora glared at me. “Do you see any other boats from the Dead Lands here?”
No, I didn’t. And no other boat even compared in size. It would have been near impossible for Melora to mistake it.
Cursing, I gripped the railing before me and dropped my head. I had no idea what to do, and I wanted to rage at the sea. It should have been me on that boat. Should have been me caught with the gold. Arabelle had done nothing but hide it for me. Because she loved me. And this was how I repaid her.
Tears pricked my eyes, and I angrily swiped them away.
I had to get her back.
It wasn’t like I had access to unfathomable wealth, because nothing short of that would work. I didn’t even know the man who bought her, for crying out loud. So what could I do?
“We have to save her,” Melora vowed.
“Any idea how?” I demanded, because right now, I was all ears.
Her silence broke my heart. I wasn’t the only one struggling for answers.
Lifting my head, I watched as The Bark of Bullen set out to sea. With every passing minute, it grew smaller and smaller. But I stood there with Melora and watched until it became little more than a dark speck on the blue waters.