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Twelve hours earlier
Aster’s hand itched for a knife, but she settled for forming a fist instead.
She lurked in the corner of the plum-colored bedroom, watching as Mother Fleur showed Clementine her lavish new living quarters—a striking contrast to the rough bunk room where the daybreak girls slept. Aster swallowed the sick taste in her mouth as Clementine took it all in. Like every Good Luck Girl, Clem was starting her sixteenth birthday with a welcome to the sundown girls’ world—and she would end it here, in this room, with her Lucky Night.
It was this last thought that made Aster wish for a weapon, the thought of her sister trapped in here with the vermin who frequented the welcome house. But it would do no good to fight what was coming. Not when a word out of turn was enough to get your mind thrashed by a ravener. A girl stole what happiness she could when no one was looking. That was how she won.
Mother Fleur cleared her throat, seeming to notice Aster’s stony silence. “I have no doubt that beastly scowl is fixed on your face by now, Aster, but you would do well to show a little more enthusiasm for your sister’s big day,” she warned.
Clementine cut her eyes at Aster. “She just doesn’t care for mornings,” she explained nervously. “Never has. Go on, Aster, smile for Mother Fleur.”
Aster turned to Mother Fleur and bared her teeth. Mother Fleur pressed her lips together in a tight line. An all-too-familiar look of disapproval. Aster knew she’d never been one of the housemistress’s favorites. Not because she ever openly misbehaved—she refused to give Mother Fleur the pleasure of punishing her—but because she’d always been like the fist at her side. Tense, hostile. Waiting for a moment to strike.
That low-burning anger had only grown hotter these past few days. Aster hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her own Lucky Night a little over a year ago, when Mother Fleur had sold her away to a skinny, beady-eyed skink of a man. She’d promised Aster it would be the proudest night of her life, the night she’d become a woman.
She hadn’t become a woman. She’d become a shade with bile for blood and a well of shame in her heart. The only thing that had kept her from falling down that well was knowing that Clementine needed her.
Aster hadn’t thought it was possible to feel more helpless than she had when that first man laid his hands on her. She was wrong. This was worse.
“I would say you owe me an apology, wouldn’t you, Aster?” Mother Fleur went on, clearly unsatisfied. “Or do I need to have a word with Dex?”
The head ravener.
Aster uncurled her fingers.
“Beg pardon, Mother Fleur,” she murmured. “Clem’s right. I just haven’t been up this early in a while.”
Mother Fleur gave her a cold, knowing look, but she let it go. “Well, those lazy mornings are one of the many privileges of being a sundown girl that Clementine can look forward to,” she said, with a forced breeziness. “Now, I’m needed downstairs to open the house. But I trust you can finish getting your sister settled in?”
“It’d be my pleasure.”
Mother Fleur held her glare for a moment longer, then turned and flashed Clementine a bright smile.
“Well, then, happy birthday, Clementine,” she said grandly. “I will see you both at breakfast.”
She left them.
As soon as Mother Fleur was out of sight, Clementine let out a whoop and jumped backwards onto the bed, the skirt of her yellow day dress flaring around her like a bell.
“By the Veil! This room is fit for a princess. I reckon it’s even bigger than yours.”
Aster grinned despite her misgivings. She crossed her arms. “Yeah? I don’t see any windows like mine’s got. Bet you’re right this room’s bigger, though. Spoiled.”
In truth, Aster would have taken even the smallest room if it’d meant she got to keep her window. She loved watching the sun rise over the mountains in the morning, light spilling like liquid gold into the valley where Green Creek slept. The welcome house was near the center of town, which gave Aster a view of just about everything, from the tidy shops that lined Main Street to the deadwall that surrounded the town, its mortar mixed with theomite dust to keep vengeful spirits away.
That view was an escape, the only one she had.
“Spoiled, my hide,” Clementine went on. “I worked hard for this room. And this bed. Look, even the pillows have pillows.”
“Better than those piss-smelling cots upstairs?” Aster said.
“Much better.” Clementine sat up, a shadow passing over her face. “But then, I guess it’d have to be.”
A cold, slippery feeling trickled through Aster’s gut. “Never mind all that for now,” she said, pulling Clem back to her feet. “Let’s go get all your stuff, make this place feel like home.”
Clementine’s excitement returned. “Right, if we hurry we can catch the others before they have to get to the kitchen.”
The “others” were Tansy and Mallow, Clementine’s two closest friends. They still lived up in the attic along with all the other girls who hadn’t yet turned sixteen. Until today, Clementine had been on the kitchen crew with them.
“Does it feel strange not to have any chores to do?” Aster asked as they made their way down the hall.
“Well, I sure don’t miss it, if that’s what you mean,” Clementine snorted. Her smile faded. “I will miss Tanz and Mal, though.”
“They turn sixteen in, what, three and four months? They’ll be sundown girls soon enough,” Aster reassured her.
“Right. And I’ll still see them around some, so there’s that,” Clementine added.
Aster paused. “Right, there’s that.”
But, of course, it wouldn’t be the same, not at all. Sundown girls and daybreak girls lived separate lives, and when they did cross paths, there was an unspoken barrier between them, like the Veil between the living and the dead. Clementine wouldn’t be allowed to talk about the work with the daybreak girls—but for the sundown girls, the work was all there was.
Aster had been told, many times, to be grateful for that work. Good Luck Girls never went hungry, always had a roof over their heads, saw the doctor and the dentist twice a year. Entertaining the brags meant they got to wear the kind of clothes other girls could only dream of, too, and enjoy an endless supply of Sweet Thistle.
It was far more than most folks could expect in Arketta, especially out in the Scab, the ragged line of mountains that cut through the middle of the country. Its wind-torn wilderness was where, in the long-gone days of the old Empire, anyone the Empire deemed criminal had been banished to work in the mines. Some had been captured in Arketta on the battlefields where they’d fought against the Empire’s onslaught. Others had been sent to Arketta on reeking prison ships from the colonies. Dustbloods, they were called. They looked just the same as ordinary, fairblood folks, except that they couldn’t cast a shadow. The first dustbloods had had their shadows ripped away as part of their punishment, and their children had been born without them. A dustblood’s debt could never truly be paid. If at first you owed ten eagles for stealing, then by the end of the year you’d owe ten thousand, for everything from the moldy bread you were rationed to the leaking roof over your head.
Now, some two centuries after the Empire’s fall, there were more dustbloods living in the Scab than ever. Enterprising businessmen had bought up the land and taken on the dustbloods’ debt in return for their labor—an arrangement that became known as the Reckoning. The Reckoning promised fairbloods the opportunity to become wealthy landmasters and live among Arketta’s elite, while it promised dustbloods the opportunity to work away generations of debt and finally earn their freedom from the Scab. And it had worked out well enough for the landmasters, but the miners never ended up with anything to show for it but broken bodies and empty bellies. Disease took them, or they disappeared down the gullet of a mountain, or a vengeant ripped them open with its invisible claws. There was no escaping the Reckoning, the law had made sure of that—Arketta’s border with its industrial neighbor to the north, Ferron, was protected by its finest armymen, and no one without a shadow got out.
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