About to turn another page, Oyza started when a shout rang from the hallway. She rushed to tuck the book back in its hole in the wall, enclosed the crack with a loose brick, and zipped to the heap of straw in the middle of her cell. Plumes of dust hovered in pale rays of light. She glimpsed down at her hands. Their sandy tone, their intricate rivers weaving and whirling about, their scrapes and scars—all of it was there, as it always had been. Someday these hands will set me free.
She gave her fingers a stretch, thinking for a moment about all they used to do for her—writing scrolls, pouring wine, even wielding swords. That was long before she was thrown in the jails at the heart of the Parthassian Empire.
The groan of swollen wood forced from the door jamb stopped Oyza’s thoughts. She wriggled to the edge of her chamber and pressed her face between rows of cool rusty bars. Sunlight shot through the darkness, obscuring her view of whoever strode down the corridor. Probably the guards.
“Mapa,” she whispered across the hallway to another cell.
It was closed off by an iron door, but a window let air and whispers pass through. No response. Oyza shrank back, unsurprised. Mapa never spoke much after he’d been tortured.
“Quit crying and move,” a tall guard with missing teeth snapped. He and a shorter guard with a grizzled beard led a man in chains behind them.
The short one thrust the blunt end of a dagger into the prisoner’s belly. The man fell and let out a choked cry.
“Up!” the tall one fumed.
Oyza eyed the man. He can’t be more than twenty years old, she thought. Looks younger than me, and I’m always the youngest here.
A torn cloth was wrapped around the prisoner’s waist, and a bloodstained bandage covered his eyes. His bare feet were black from the dungeon’s filthy floors.
And he’s so thin, Oyza thought.
“I don’t know why we don’t just kill him now.” The short guard placed his hand on his dagger’s hilt.
“Watch it. We’re to make an example out of this one later—gotta keep ’im alive. Orders from Emperor Edras,” said the taller guard. “Looks like he ’asn’t eaten in weeks. Fetch some food, whatever we got left down ’ere. If there isn’t no food left, get some from the kennels.”
Oyza yearned to do something for the new prisoner, but she had learned to keep her mouth shut when the guards were near.
The prisoner tripped and knocked over a barrel. A liquid spilled—rum, maybe? Glass jars shattered on the stone floor. The taller man cursed and turned to the other. “Go get that food. And fetch a couple o’ Moths to come fix up this mess while you’re at it.”
The short guard pouted and turned down the hall.
“In you go.”
The man fell to his knees, curly hair flopping over his eyes.
The tall guard growled as he passed the liquid on the floor. He slammed the door and locked it behind him.
Oyza stared through the bars at the prisoner and wondered who he was. She saw his Starmark tattooed on the back of his neck—the sign of the Hound. Everyone in Vaaz had a Starmark tattooed on their neck, indicating which of the fourteen Origin constellations they had been born under. Perhaps he was a squire? Or a herald? Or maybe a watchman? Whoever he was,he must’ve done something bad to end up here.
The Moths, both young children, arrived with buckets and mops some time later to wipe up the spill and bring meals to the prisoners.
Oyza plopped down on her pile of straw. The servants left her a bowl of crusted white bread and a vine of half-rotted berries. They gave a small plate to the new prisoner, but he still didn’t move, not even for the food.
The ocean pounded on rocks below as soft red light poured through the window. Falling asleep, Oyza looked again at her hands. Someday, she
The next morning, Oyza rose and inspected the new prisoner as sunlight splashed onto his hair. Birds chirped, and the scent of sea salt wafted through the window.
The man coughed and lifted his head, rubbing his eyes with scarred hands. “Where am I?” he muttered.
“You’re in Goldfall. The dungeons,” Oyza said.
The prisoner sat up on a mound of straw. A swarm of flies droned. He coughed again and clutched his stomach, looking as if he might vomit. “I feel terrible.” His voice shook.
Oyza flinched. “The guards were pretty rough with you.”
“It’s not that… It’s nothing.” He ran his fingers through his hair.
Oyza twisted her lips at the sight of his sunken eyes, pale skin, and
thin arms. He must be a witchdust addict. She raised her chin. “There’s some
water. And a little food.”
The man rested his back against the stone wall. He stared at Oyza. “I’m fine. I’ll be all right. I’m just a little foggy-headed…” He groaned.
Oyza took a slow breath. An addict…and a liar. “What’s your name? What’re you here for?”
The man scanned her body cautiously. “Name’s Yars. Yars Gadea. You?” He picked up the plate of wilted berries and flicked at them.
“Nice to meet you, Oyza Serazar.” He bit into a berry. His face contorted.
“Those guards last night, they said they wanted to make an example of
you. What for? And do you have any news from out there? What’s going
on?” Oyza asked.
Yars swallowed some water and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He raised an eyebrow at Oyza and sighed. “What do you care?”
“I’m just asking.” Oyza crossed her arms.
Yars looked away. “I stole. Was working in the mines at Judge’s Pass, but I ran. Me and my crew ran for the Emerald Isles, just out there.” He gestured toward the cracks of blue sky. “But we stayed in Goldfall when we heard about the fishermen disappearing off the coast, getting taken by the Men without Gods. We stole a bunch—easy work until they catch you. And then, well, I got caught up in…some things.” He finished the last of the berries and reached for his stomach again.
He means witchdust, Oyza figured. “Minister Valador told me another ship disappeared three weeks ago.”
A rat scurried into a crack. Yars wiped sweat from his brow. “And what about you? What’re you here for?” He eyed the bread in her bowl.
Oyza dropped her eyes. “It’s a long story. But I shouldn’t be here.”
Yars shrugged. “Yeah, what were you doing before you got here?
What’s your Starmark? You’re a…” he squinted at her.
Oyza felt his eyes trace the strands of hair dangling over her shoulders, her thin arms, the small bump in her nose, and the coarse pieces of cloth covering her body. She saw him examine her hands—soft, but with a few scars—then inspect her bronze skin. They locked eyes. She saw his eyes were brown like hers, though darker, almost like the chocolate treats her master had sometimes given to her.
Oyza shook her head. “Wrong.” She turned around, lifted her hair, and showed to Yars the Starmark tattooed on the back of her neck: a starfish, painted in black ink.
“Starfish. Ah, shoulda known.”
“And why’s that?”
“Your hands—too soft for real work.”
Real work? “I was a servant for years, actually. That’s real work. And I
used to train as a scribe too. My father wanted me to work at the library of
Oyvassa.” Home, she thought.
“Oyvassa? Nothing there anymore,” Yars said.
“I know. But that was before—”
Oyza and Yars stopped abruptly as the door down the hall scraped against the bumpy floor. Two guards wearing ripped leather jerkins and carrying daggers walked in and made their way to Mapa’s cell. They opened the creaky door. “Come on, let’s go.”
Oyza and Yars watched as one guard entered and reached for Mapa inside. The old man’s skin was pale, and his arms were skinny. A raggedy beard hung from his chin. Dull, hollow eyes stared bleakly into the distance, not even registering the guard.
Yars’s eyes grew wide as the guard lifted the man. “He…has no legs.”
The guards unchained Mapa and dragged him away, moving with a mechanical precision that always fascinated Oyza. She and Mapa locked eyes for a brief moment before the guards disappeared and slammed the door.
I hate it when they take him. Every time. It never gets easier.
“Who was that?” Yars asked. “And where are they taking him? What happened to his legs?” His face turned white.
Oyza wrinkled her nose. “That’s Mapa. Every few months or so, the guards take him away. He used to talk much more—before the guards started torturing him more frequently. They’ve taken a lot out of him.” She closed her eyes and slumped her shoulders. It’s horrible.
“But…he’s got no legs. What happened?” Yars gestured with his hands as if to pry answers from Oyza.
“Mapa told me he tried to assassinate Emperor Edras years ago,” she said with some hesitation. “But instead of executing him, they keep him around to torture him.”
Yars ran his fingers through his hair before burying his face in his hands. He peeked at Oyza from between his fingers. “And they’ve been doing this for…for years?”
Oyza nodded. “Yes.”
“Gods, I’ll kill myself before I let them do that to me,” Yars said.
The morning sun’s rays warmed the dungeon. A wave splashed against the rocks below.
Yars picked up a piece of straw and began tearing it. “So…you didn’t tell me yet. What are you here for then?”
Oyza took a slow breath, not sure if she even wanted to tell the story she had repeated so many times to so many prisoners over the past few years. She stared into space. “I was—well, I am—a servant of Minister Valador.” She scratched a flea on her ankle.
Yars sat up and tossed the straw.
“I was a servant—a scribe, mostly, in his library—and…later, his mistress. That’s been almost my whole life. He’s an advisor, you know, to Emperor Edras himself.” Her voice was flat, like a river drifting without purpose. She tucked a long lock of hair behind her ear.
Yars pondered the story. “How did you end up there?”
Oyza took another deep breath. She fidgeted her arms and wiped away dust from her amber skin.
“If you don’t want to talk about it, I get it.” Yars leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head, his eyes tracing the zig-zagged cracks between the bricks in the ceiling. “So what do you do to pass the time here?”
“Minister Valador brings me things to read sometimes, but not as much recently. When I was his scribe in his library, I read all sorts of things. I got a little lucky, at least. Most Starfish never have a chance to work in libraries.”
Yars’s eyes kept following the lines in the ceiling. He looked at Oyza again. “Doesn’t look like the worst place, at least. Clean. You read a lot?”
“I keep it as neat as I can. I guess when you’ve been a servant so long, you never lose the habit.”
Yars laughed. He looked up again.
“Besides reading, there’s not much to do. Mapa and I talk sometimes, but he’s been quiet lately. The torturing…he gets worse every day.” I hope he’s okay this time.
Yars gulped. “So…Mapa. You guys are close?”
Oyza shrank bank, wrapping her arms around her knees. “He’s the only one who’s been down here as long as I have.”
“The torturers, what do they do?” Yars asked.
She looked at Yars, taking a moment to survey his strong jaw, his friendly eyes, and the way his black curls dangled over his forehead. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Mapa’s never told me. I just know he comes back in a lot of pain.”
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Oyza said. Poor guy, he doesn’t know what he’s in for.
“Do they ever torture you?”
Oyza raised her eyebrows. No one’s ever asked me that before. “I guess not.” This one’s different.
“You guess not? Either they do or they don’t,” Yars blurted.
“You wouldn’t call this torture?” Ozya asked, raising her arms.
Yars shrugged. “Must be boring to be locked up all day.” He flung a piece of shredded straw. “Safer than the streets, I guess.”
Oyza’s eyes widened. “At least you are free out there.” She nodded at
the window, her black hair bouncing slightly. “What did you steal anyway?”
“Free?” Yars asked. “Free to do what? Get roughed up all day? Chased by guards? Steal every meal just to survive?” He rubbed a bruised spot on his calf. “Doesn’t look like you have it too bad in here.”
Is he serious? Oyza squinted at him. “You’ve only been here one day, Yars Gadea. Give it time. Imagine eating it for years.” She aimed a finger at a plate of old berries. “And you didn’t say. What did you swipe to end up in a place like this?”
Yars frowned. “I’ll tell you what, Oyza Serazar. You tell me what you
did, and I’ll tell you what I did. Only fair.”
Oyza leaned back, avoiding Yars’s eyes. “I didn’t do anything.”
Yars rolled his eyes. “Sure, sure.”
Oyza felt the muscles in her neck tighten and turned away. I don’t have to tell him anything.
A long moment passed, birds chirping outside the window and the late-morning sun illuminating specks of dust. Oyza reclined on the pile of straw, then turned to her hidden bookshelf. I guess I should be nice, though. “You can borrow a book if you’d like,” she offered. She pulled a withered one from the hiding place and leafed through its worn pages. It was The Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Kingdom and Dominion of Oyvassa, Fourth Edition, one she had read four or five times—or was it six now?
“Can’t read, but thanks.” Yars shrugged. “What’s your favorite one?” he asked before letting out a nasty cough. He gripped at his waist with mangled fingers. His withdrawal symptoms are bad, Oyza surmised, and worse than he’s letting on. She thought about his question for a moment, crawled to the wall, then peeked at the door to make sure there were no guards. She pulled out the loose brick and removed the hidden book. “This one. But you can’t tell anyone I have it.” She held it, title up, to Yars. He tucked a curl of hair behind his ear, eyes narrowing. “I told you, I can’t read.”
Oyza smiled as she opened the tome’s withered pages. “This is On the Frailty ofKings and the Illusions ofPower, Notes of a Concerned Soul.”
Yars shrugged flippantly, refusing to look at the book. “Never heard of it.”
Oyza’s mouth hung open. “Never? This book is illegal in every kingdom in Vaaz. The Celesterium outlawed it too. I found this old copy in Minister Valador’s room. He doesn’t know I have it.” She pressed the book closer to Yars.
“If it’s banned, then how would I know about it?” Yars still didn’t look.
Oyza squinted, annoyed, and put the book back down. “It’s famous. Everyone knows about this book.”
“So why’s it banned?”
“The book says we don’t need rulers. It says that kings only have power because we say they do, not because the gods give it to them. And it says the people can rule themselves and should take control of everything—the fields, the harbors, the workshops—everything.” She closed the book and stashed it away. “And it won’t be easy—it’ll take a revolution, a violent one, to get it. It’s written in the laws of history.”
Yars scratched his chin. “And then what?”
“What do you mean?”
“Who’s going to, you know, be in charge of everything?”
“Well, we would.”
Yars let out a low sigh then looked up at the window. A seagull sat against a cloudy sky on the ledge.
“I think this is what the Ungoverned have done,” Oyza added.
Yars sneered. “Those demons-worshippers in the swamp?”
Oyza creased her brow. “I don’t believe that. They’re from Oyvassa,
like my people. They’re not demon-worshippers.”
“I dunno, sounds like it’ll never happen anyway. They’re going to
overthrow the empire? Give me a break.”
“You don’t think it’s worth a try?” Oyza asked.
Yars scratched his chin. “Stealing a necklace is worth a try. So is nabbing a gold coin or two. ’Cause I know I can do these things. But I can’t change the world, Oyza. I survive, every day and night, because I have to.”
He looked around for a moment, inspecting his plate for crumbs. “So, a scribe to Minister Valador? What’s it like being around highborns? Got any good stories?”
Oyza’s head tilted a little to one side. He changed the subject quickly. I wonder what he really believes? She played with the ends of her hair. “Well, Minister Valador’s Starmark is a Moth. He never worked as a servant or worked the sewers. Nothing like that. A real highborn. His father trained him to be a lawyer for a Parthassian minister, but he was so good at administration that he’s been an advisor to Emperor Edras for decades. He says this is right, though, with the gods because—get this—his duty is to ‘clean up’ the Empire, like a Moth.”
Yars snorted. “The men back in the mines told me about lords born as Mammoths working as scribes, Hawks leaving the army, Frostpetals as sailors…no one cares anymore, do they? Whole world’s gone to shit.”
Oyza shook her head. “The Celesterium still cares. The priests say the Men without Gods, the Haf, are a curse brought here because we betray our Starmarks.”
Yars coughed and grasped his gut, hiding a moan. “You think it’s true? People from Hafrir really have no gods? How could there be no gods?"
Oyza shivered, trying to forget about the first—and last—time she had seen the strange invaders from across the sea, from somewhere called Hafrir, some fifteen years ago, and the terrifying sounds their weapons made.
“I don’t know, but that’s what they say. The man Emperor Edras captured didn’t speak our language at all and refused his last rites before death. Said there were no gods…spit on a Celesterium priest too,” she replied.
“I know the story,” Yars snapped. “But I wonder if it’s true.”
The door opened. An older man approached. He was draped in a long black and violet tunic made of smooth silk. Oyza grimaced at the bald head, the short beard, and the leather sash bearing the Hawk-and-Tower sigil of the Parthassian Empire. It was Minister Valador.
He walked to Oyza, ignoring Yars. Oyza slouched and dropped her eyes. The muscles in her chest tightened.
“It’s been such a long time, my sweet jewel—far too long.” His voice was raspy like an old door scraping across a stone floor. He pulled a key off his belt and unlocked the door. “This smell…” he covered his face with a handkerchief. “I’ll be sure to have some Moths sent down to tidy up a bit. Have the guards not been treating you well? These new recruits, they really are worthless. Idiot country bumpkins.”
Oyza looked at Yars, who sat wide-eyed on his lump of straw, then stared up at her master with weary eyes.
“Come now, sweet jewel,” Minister Valador extended his arm to her.
Oyza gulped and stood up, grabbed his hand, and let him lead her away.
“Troubled times, these are—the Men without Gods have been spottedoff our coasts again. But you don’t need to worry, Oyza. I will keep you safe. But first, let’s get you a warm bath.”
Oyza’s stomach twisted. She threw Yars a last glance as she left. Someday. Someday, I’ll be free.