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Jack of Hearts

Jack of Hearts

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Published by Danielle Childers
Slave. Loner. Assassin.
Some boys throw their hearts away. Jack let a witch take his.

He surrendered it long ago to the Lady of Twilight so that he would never feel heartache—or anything else—again. But there was a price. The Lady transformed him into a callous hunter forced to do her bidding, and now she’s commanded him to chase down and kill a thieving wizard named Moribrand. Love, hope, and human connection are concepts he can no longer comprehend, painful weaknesses he chose to cast aside. But when Jack meets a beautiful girl trapped in a mirror, the impossible happens—he feels an echo of his distant heart, and the sensation staggers him.
Cassandra, a spellbound girl who can only communicate through her mirror image, awakens something in him more dangerous, more impossible, than he ever imagined: a memory of who he once was and how it felt to care about another human being. She challenges his loyalty to the Lady and shows him his heart might be worth saving. What will it take for Jack to take his heart back from a witch, who has no intention of giving it up?
Slave. Loner. Assassin.
Some boys throw their hearts away. Jack let a witch take his.

He surrendered it long ago to the Lady of Twilight so that he would never feel heartache—or anything else—again. But there was a price. The Lady transformed him into a callous hunter forced to do her bidding, and now she’s commanded him to chase down and kill a thieving wizard named Moribrand. Love, hope, and human connection are concepts he can no longer comprehend, painful weaknesses he chose to cast aside. But when Jack meets a beautiful girl trapped in a mirror, the impossible happens—he feels an echo of his distant heart, and the sensation staggers him.
Cassandra, a spellbound girl who can only communicate through her mirror image, awakens something in him more dangerous, more impossible, than he ever imagined: a memory of who he once was and how it felt to care about another human being. She challenges his loyalty to the Lady and shows him his heart might be worth saving. What will it take for Jack to take his heart back from a witch, who has no intention of giving it up?

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Published by: Danielle Childers on May 10, 2013
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved

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Chapter 1
 THERE WAS something wrong with Jack.He should be dead. Any other fifteen-year-old boy would be. Dead as the dunes he marchedacross. Dead as the bleach-white splinters of glass that cracked under his boots in the sand.But not Jack. Jack was only dead on the inside, a thought that made him take a deep breath to see if it wasstill true, expanding the hollow in his chest as far as he could and holding it. He listened . . .Nothing.Only his thought, echoing: dead, dead, dead.He exhaled and squinted at the horizon, tugging the hood of his cloak to shade his eyes fromthe baleful sun. Nothing showed yet in the distant blur except the rumor of foothills, so he sliddown the face of the dune that had been his perch and trudged on. A sudden hot wind screamed across the wasteland and heaved against him. It grabbed his cloak and shook it out like a war banner. He threw his arm up in front of his eyes until the gust expired,then broke into a steady run.He ran alongside a road made of flashing glass and quartz that had been etched into existencelong ago by a firestorm that crossed the entire desert in one day, dividing it in two, east from west.He was careful to avoid stepping on it, hopping over any stray chunks larger than his fist. Heatsh
immered above the road, ghosting into the air. During the day, the surface could melt a horse’s
hooves into glue, but at night it snaked across the desert, glittering white in the moonlight, guiding travelers who had the courage to cross the waste.He ran until nightfall. The sun sagged beneath the world, slung itself around, and lurched into
the air again. Still, he never stopped to eat or drink, or to answer the needs of a normal boy’s body.
  At dusk the next day he spotted a man and a woman arguing beside the road. They paced, dark shapes against a livid sky. The woman made sharp chopping gestures with her hand, and Jack couldtell by her shaking voice that she was weeping. He slowed so as not to frighten them. When the woman saw him, she drew a veil over her mouth and nose and grasped the reins of her donkey tighter. The man stared. Two sacks the size of wine bottles hung from his fists. As Jack 
drew closer he could see the man’s body tense, read the questions forming in his wind
-scarred face.
“I thought you were a sandwight,” the man said.
 
 Jack didn’t respond. It was the same wherever he went. It wasn’t
 just 
that he walked through thedesert, alone. It was the way he looked, especially in the vague dimness of twilight.
How is that boy’s 
skin so pale? 
 
What’ 
s wrong with his eyes? 
 
He had heard all of these things before, and even if they didn’t
speak the words, he knew they were thinking them.
“Accursed,” someone whispered. A boy frowned at him from the donkey, a protective arm
around his younger sister. Their mother shushed them. Jack let his eyes linger on the siblings. The way the brother glared, ready to defend his sisterdespite the fear on his face, brought to mind the way Jack had tried to protect his own sister. For amoment, he could almost see her face, her smile
 — 
but he smashed down the thought, tearing hisgaze away.He had to stay focused. Stay focused and keep moving, or the Lady would punish him.
 Around the family, boxes and saddlebags littered the sand as if they’d been dumped off in a
hurry. An incense pole was spiked into the ground, issuing a pungent stench meant to keepsandwights away.
 
“How is it you wander the open desert in the day?” the man asked, licking his cracked lips.“You have no incense.”
 
“A man came this way,” Jack said. “His name is Moribrand.” He said it with little inflection. His
 words flowed out evenly, not too fast, not too slow.
Recognition flickered across the man’s pinched features, then anger. “Yes. I met him. The pig 
-
faced piece of dung robbed me.”
 
“Swindled,” the wife sai
d under her breath.
 The husband flinched. “Quiet, woman!” She turned away to stifle a sob, and he glared at heruntil she hushed, and then said to Jack, “What do you want with him? He claimed he was a wizard.”
 The husband grew braver in his anger. He took 
a step closer, jaw clenched, head thrust forward. “Ishe a friend of yours?”
 
“I’m going to kill him,” Jack said, and he shifted his cloak, revealing the grip of a sword that
hung from his back.
“Kill him?” The man halted. He eyed the sword, a wary frown dragging his face down. “Kill a
 wizard? But . .
.”
  The children were whispering to each other, but Jack could hear them.
“He’s only a boy,” the girl said.
 
“No he’s not,” her brother said. “Now be quiet for once.”
  Their mother shushed them again, her breath hissing.
 Their father eased back and nodded. “He wanted to buy my pack horse. I refused, of course.I’m a trader. I need the horse to carry my goods. But he offered two sacks full of gold.” He shook the two bags he held. “He showed me the gold. It was real!” He glared at his wife, daring her tocontradict him. “But now it’s turned to dust with the setting sun. Dust!”
 
 The man upended one bag, and a column of sand poured out. “What will I do now? I dumped
everything I own into the desert and gave him my horse. What will I do now, with only a donkey to
carry my children, and a pile of dirt, tell me that, eh?”
  Jack stared down the length of the glass road, now a deep purple in the fading light, andpictured Moribrand riding for his life, reins lashing from side to side. The wizard would widen thegap between them significantly, at least until he killed the animal. He might even make it out of thedesert before Jack could catch up.He let his gaze return to the children and tried to think what might happen to them. Withouthis goods, their father would arrive at the city of Spiral as a beggar instead of a merchant.
 Jack had never been to Spiral, but if it was anything like he’d heard, they were doomed. It wouldn’t be long before a slaver clamped chains around their
necks.
Not that it mattered to Jack. They were just strangers passing on the road, weren’t they? Atleast, that’s what his mistress, the Lady of Twilight, would say. She would mock him for even
considering their situation for more than a heartbeat. If they were in trouble, it was their own faultfor trusting a man like Moribrand. A wizard. So let them perish. Even now, seeing the fear on their
faces, imagining them in shackles or dead in the sand, he couldn’t feel the slightest twinge of 
sympathy.Except,
he had made a rule hadn’t he? Rule number one was
Obey the Lady 
. That was
her 
rule. It was the only rule she had, but Jack had made his own secret addition. Obey the Lady, but
Don’t think
like the Lady 
 was rule number two. He had to. Otherwise, it was too easy to be cruel.
 Jack opened a satchel at his side and plucked out a rough gemstone. “Take this to the market inSpiral. I think it might be worth more than the horse you lost.”
 
 The man’s eyes widened at the uncut opal, a slice of tangerine against white
palm, but he
refused to touch Jack’s hand. After a moment, Jack flipped his hand over, letting the stone fall intothe dirt, and walked away, following the tracks of Moribrand’s new horse.
 

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