What was this marvelous feeling deep in my bones? I hadn’t felt this happy since… well, I couldn’t remember when. There was even a bounce to my step, one that had everything to do with the beautiful sound of gold clinking in my pocket. Yes, I had to give my stepfather two of the coins, but the third? The third was mine.
Oh, the feeling!
I plunged my hand into my pocket and fiddled with my hard-won prize. I’d never been allowed to keep even a single copper of my earnings. My stepfather claimed any income I brought into the household was his by default. To cover my room and board. Two things he’d never charge his sons—because why would he?
He didn’t love me. I was merely a reminder of everything he’d lost, and everything he’d been burdened with. He’d never expected for his wife to die so suddenly, or to be left with a young girl to raise on his own.
But I didn’t want to think about that. And I certainly didn’t want to think about her.
I was in a good mood and didn’t want to tarnish it. Not when I had money rolling around in my pocket for the first time ever.
Was this how nobles felt? So light on their feet? So energized? So… free?
Life truly was different on the other side.
For a brief moment, my thoughts went wild, imagining all the things I could indulge in with my single gold coin. A real meal, rather than table scraps. New shoes with proper support. Oh, my whole body practically sagged with relief at that thought. Or maybe fabric for a new dress. My current one looked like something a ragdoll would wear. All mismatched patches hastily sewn together to keep it from falling apart.
But as wonderful as new clothes and shoes sounded, none of them appealed to me as much as one thing. The one thing I wanted most in this world.
Indentured servants rarely succeeded in freeing themselves. We tended to die first—grim as that sounded—having worked ourselves to death. Not to mention, our lack of access to proper living conditions, adequate medical care, and proper nutrition—You know, all the important stuff nobles had and we didn’t.
But if I could save up enough gold, perhaps I could pay off the Capones and free myself.
A dream I’d never thought possible. Until now.
Smiling, I tipped my head back and bathed in the setting sun. I soaked up the last vestiges of warmth and sighed. My imagination ran a little wild, and I pictured myself as a free citizen, working a job that paid me, making food that fed me, cleaning a house that was mine…
“What are you so happy about?” a voice to my left inquired.
I lowered my head and opened my eyes. At the sight of my bestest best friend strolling toward me, my smile bloomed into a full grin. “Arabelle!”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Uh, hi. You seem happy today.”
“I am happy.” I reached for her hands and clutched them tightly, drawing her close. “I’m so unbelievably happy.”
Arabelle chuckled. “Oh boy. What’s going on? Did you and Logen finally take a trip to the field out back? You know, the one with the long grass?” She waggled her brows suggestively.
My mouth popped open, then I burst out laughing. “What? Why would you even assume that? Logen and I are just friends!”
“That’s not how I remember you telling it a few nights ago,” she said, laughing with me. “I distinctly remember you waxing poetic about his perfect abs and vigorous, um—”
“My gods, stop!” I exclaimed, choking on my laughter. “Arabelle, that was supposed to be between you and me—”
“I haven’t told anyone else,” she said, shrugging.
I glanced around with a pointedly raised brow.
“Oh, please.” Arabelle waved a dismissive hand. “No one’s listening to us. They’re too busy pretending we don’t exist.”
She wasn’t wrong. The Upper East Hill was a place for refined, high-class citizens. They weren’t nobles, but they still believed themselves more important than the average villager. My stepfather was one of them, and we lived in a smaller estate just down the street. Were it not for the income he stole from me, we’d likely live in the West Borough, alongside Arabelle and her family. It wasn’t a terrible place to live. Safer than the Lower West District. However, my stepfather adamantly refused to “live among the peasants.” Not when he could live here. Of course, he wasn’t the one breaking his back every day to pay for our Upper East Hill estate.
“Alright, then.” Arabelle squeezed my hands. “If Logen isn’t the one who put that smile on your face, then who is?”
My grin widened. “I never caught his name.”
Arabelle blinked. “What…?”
“Oh, but you may have! You know him.”
“I-I know him? Arilla, what are you talking about? I’ve never done that with anyone.”
The look of utter horror on her face reignited my laughter. “Oh, wow. Arabelle. No. Not that. I didn’t sleep with someone.”
Relief smoothed her features. “Okay. Then, what?”
Clutching her hand in mine, I led her through the streets until I found a shaded corner we could hide in. I gave our surroundings a quick glance, then dug into my pocket and withdrew the three gold coins.
At the sight of them, Arabelle gasped, her hands flying to her mouth. “Gods! What—how—who—when—?”
“All good questions,” I said, chuckling.
Arabelle grabbed my hand and curled my fingers inward, hiding the exposed coins. “Put those away, right now,” she hissed. “Before someone sees.”
Nodding, I did exactly as she commanded. We were cloaked in shadow, but that didn’t mean someone couldn’t spot us if they looked hard enough.
“Did Logen give you those?” she demanded.
I rolled my eyes. “What is it with you and Logen today? No. I got them myself.”
I bit my lip and wondered how well Arabelle would take this conversation. Before today, neither of us had ever broken the law, and I honestly wasn’t sure how she’d react. She’d never turn me in to the guards—that much I knew—but would she be angry with me?
Only one way to find out, I supposed.
“Okay, but this stays between you and me,” I told her. “Not even Logen can know about this.”
She nodded fiercely, her stare burning into mine.
“Today, Lady Capone was being her typical spiteful self—”
Arabelle rolled her eyes. Like me, she had no love for nobles.
“And she withheld my stepfather’s gold for the day.”
“Oh, Arilla… What did you do?”
“I…” I shook my head, then stole a quick glance around to make sure no one had snuck up on us. “That’s not important. What matters is, as I was leaving, I swiped something off their shelf, and may have sold it in the Lower West District.” My words rose at the end, like I was asking a question instead of telling her.
Arabelle’s jaw dropped. “Oh, gods.” She pressed her hands to her stomach. “Oh, gods.” Those hands rose to her mouth, her wide eyes locked on mine. “You stole? You stole something from the Capone house?”
I waved a frantic hand. “Shh!”
Wincing, Arabelle scoped out our surroundings. “This is bad. This is really, really bad. Oh…” She doubled over as though she couldn’t quite catch a full breath. “This is so, so bad.” Then she whipped upward, nearly knocking me over in the process. “Arilla! What happens if they catch you? Or if your stepfather finds out? Or the guards?” She doubled over again and sucked in a ragged gasp. “By the stars, they’ll hang you for this.”
“Not if they never find out,” I suggested uselessly.
She slowly straightened and scowled at me. “You can’t be serious. They always find out!”
“Remember Lessa from down the street? Remember when they caught her stealing? Remember how they literally dragged her from her house? How they threw her in a dungeon? She wasn’t even given a trial, Arilla! They just hanged her two weeks later.”
Okay, that sounded bad.
So much so that my body started to shake. “I remember.”
“Then how could you do this? To yourself? To me? I’ll be the one standing by watching! Oh gods, what if Logen is the one forced to arrest you? What if—?”
“Logen? Arrest me?” I asked.
Arabelle pinched the bridge of his nose. “He joined the guard. He’s officially in training. Didn’t he tell you?”
I blinked. Clearly not. “When did this happen?”
“Just this week. But I’m sure he would have decided otherwise, had he known you were planning on becoming a criminal,” she snapped. “I can’t believe this. What were you thinking?”
“Arabelle, stop!” I hissed. “The more you freak out, the more attention you’re gonna attract.”
She drew a sobering breath, then tipped her head back against the building and closed her eyes.
“You’re overreacting,” I said.
She slitted one eye and stared at me.
“Okay, maybe not overreacting. But you’re definitely jumping the gun. No one knows I stole anything—”
“—and if they do, there are plenty of other people who work in the household!”
“Oh, great. So, you’ll let one of them take the blame?”
I blinked, stunned by her words. “Um, no. That’s not what I meant. I just mean, they may never figure out who stole it.”
“Or you’ll return to the Capones' estate tomorrow and the guards will be waiting for you.”
Now… that was something I hadn’t given thought to.
I forced myself to swallow, then glanced back down the street, as though I’d be able to see the Capone estate from here.
“And what if your stepfather finds the extra coin?” Arabelle demanded. “What explanation are you planning to give him? You can’t tell him the Capones paid you extra. He’d never believe it. Plus, he’d likely confirm that with Lord Capone.”
It suddenly felt like the world was crumbling beneath my feet.
“You don’t understand what it’s like,” I whispered.
“I don’t understand?” She gave a humorless laugh. “Did you forget that I’m in the same position as you?”
“No, you’re not!” I winced, then lowered my voice to keep from attracting attention. “Arabelle, you have a family who loves you. A mother, a father, a little sister. No one sold you into servitude. You sold yourself to help carry your parents’ burden, so your little sister will know a better life.”
Arabelle clenched her jaw.
“I’ve always admired you for making that choice. But I was never given one. My stepfather only cares about the money I bring in. And my stepbrothers? They’re monsters.”
Arabelle’s expression softened. “I know things are hard, but stealing isn’t going to accomplish anything. It’s just going to make your life worse.”
“Maybe not,” I whispered. “I managed to sell the vase for three gold. That’s one gold that I can set aside for myself. If I only take things the Capones won’t miss, maybe we can get out of here. Make our own way in the world. No more of this.” I waved at our surroundings.
Arabelle choked out a harsh breath. “Arilla, I love you. But don’t think you can sweep me up into this mess.”
“I’m not. I just—”
“What? Want me to run away with you?”
“No!” I pinched the bridge of my nose and sighed. “I would never ask that. You have people you care about who depend on you. I would never ask you to leave. But maybe I can save enough gold to free you. You could have a life. And I….”
I could be free.
Arabelle gripped my hands and squeezed so hard, I whimpered.
“You have people who care about you. Logen and I love you.” She bit her lip, then cursed. “I wasn’t supposed to say anything but…”
“But what?” I asked.
Arabelle released my hands, then dragged her fingers through her hair. She turned around and kept her back to me as she said, “Logen. Everything he’s doing… becoming a guard, moving up as much as he can in the world. It’s for you.”
I froze, my breath catching in my throat.
“He… he intends to ask you to marry him. Once he’s a guard. If you say yes, you’ll be free from your stepfather and his wretched sons.”
I shook my head, my thoughts scattered. “Logen?”
Arabelle sighed and turned to face me. “Do you know another Logen?”
“We aren’t like that with each other.”
A faint smile lifted Arabelle’s lips. “Not because you don’t want to, though, right?”
I honestly couldn’t say. Yes, Logen was hot. And yes, we’d known each other practically our whole lives. But I’d never felt anything for him other than mild interest and attraction. My feelings certainly didn’t go deep enough to marry him. Still, though, it was an offer I couldn’t ignore. Surely marrying a friend wouldn’t be so bad if it meant freedom from my stepfather?
I shook my head. “This is ridiculous. First, Logen’s never mentioned any of this to me. And second, we don’t even know how long it’ll take him to become a full guard. That program takes years to finish. And third, I…” My words ran out.
Well, I’d been honest with her up ’til now. Why not go for gold, as they say? “I don’t know if I’d even want to marry him.”
She blinked. “You can’t be serious. You’d rather stay with your stepfather?”
“No. But I’d like to have the choice. That’s something I’ve never had. And this”—I patted my pocket—“gives me one, for once. True freedom. Not just moving from one man’s house to another.”
Arabelle jabbed a finger in my direction. “It isn’t freedom if it’s breaking the law! I can’t believe you.”
I sighed. “There’s nothing I can do about it now. I sold the vase. I can’t get it back. If I go home tonight with no gold, my stepfather….” I shuddered.
Arabelle stepped toward me and placed her hands on my shoulders, staring me in the eyes. “I know. It’s too late this time. But promise me you won’t steal again.”
I bit the inside of my cheek.
“Arilla,” she warned. “Promise me.”
I thought of the gold in my pocket, of the happiness it’d brought me, and the sense of accomplishment. I thought of my freedom. And my dreams. And knew right then and there, I couldn’t promise her this.
“I-I can’t,” I confessed.
“Gods,” she whispered, her head falling forward. I gave her a few moments to collect her thoughts, but once she had them, her head rose, and she wore a determined expression. “I don’t know who’s more foolish. You or me.”
That had me lifting a brow.
Freeing a ragged breath, she let one hand slip from my shoulder and held it out. “Give me the extra coin.”
“What? Arabelle, no.”
“Don’t worry,” she reassured me. “I’m just taking it home with me. You can’t keep it. If your stepfather finds out, you’re screwed. And I refuse to watch them hang you. So give me the damn coin. I’ll hold onto it for you.”
Fear had the heat draining from my face. “No, Arabelle. You can’t. If you’re caught with it—”
“Now you know how it feels to worry about your friend,” she sniped. “Cough it up. I’ll keep it safe for you.”
I trusted Arabelle with my life. She truly would keep it safe for me, exactly as promised.
“What if your family finds it?”
“My parents don’t search my room like your stepfather does,” she said.
“Okay, but what about your sister?”
“Melora doesn’t know about any of my hiding spots. Trust me.”
After a moment’s deliberation, I finally relented and handed her the third coin. A darkness settled over me the second I did—a feeling I didn’t much care for. It was like all the happiness had left me. But I knew she was right. The coin was safer with her than me.
“Now, go home,” she ordered. “We both know you’re already late, and your stepfather will kill you if dinner isn’t on the table in time.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“Oh, don’t thank me for this,” she said, shaking her head. “Just pray we don’t get caught.”
Oh, the little webs we weave. I hope they don’t get caught.