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Copyright © Skye Melki-Wegner 2013. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Copyright © Skye Melki-Wegner 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

CHAPTER ONE

The Bombs

IT’S A QUIET NIGHT WHEN THE BOMBS FALL. Just before they start, I’m scrubbing dishes in some grungy bar. The Alehouse, it’s called. Stupid way to mark the night your life changes, isn’t it? When you think of important occasions – dangers to your life, near-death experiences – you don’t think of soap and dishrags. I’m sixteen, too young to be working the bar circuit, but no one cares about laws down here. In the grime of downtown Rourton, I’m hardly the fi rst kid to ramp up my age and make a few coins under the table. ‘You ever dream of running, kid?’ Walter says. I freeze, elbow-deep in soap and potato grease. It’s just the two of us in the kitchen now. Anyone
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Copyright © Skye Melki-Wegner 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

with a brain has nicked off home to beat curfew. For Walter – a grey-bearded old drunk who takes bar jobs to steal the grog – it’s worth the risk to take closing shifts. And for a scruffer like me, this is as close to a home as it gets. ‘What do you mean?’ I say carefully. Walter stares out towards the empty bar. Moonlight sneaks in the window, dappling the table with shadows. The markings on Walter’s neck reveal his magical proclivity is Darkness, and I bet he could manipulate the shadows into moving if he wanted. But he just stands there with a weary look on his face, swaying a bit, as if his legs are considering a new career as exotic dancers. ‘You know what I mean. Sometimes I reckon that staying here’s not . . .’ He stops to take a swig of whiskey. ‘I could join a crew, take the refugee route out of here. One day, kid, one day I’m gonna fi nd that Valley. I’m gonna . . .’ There’s a pause, as he tries to fi nd his words. I nod, letting Walter know it’s time to shut up. I know what he means, but it’s risky to let him ramble on about it now. He’s too woozy to be careful and watch his words, and downtown Rourton is notorious for its rats. Informers. Scum who hide in the shadows and sell people’s secrets to the guards. They get three silver coins for dobbing in a traitor. That’s
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Copyright © Skye Melki-Wegner 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

enough for a week’s worth of meals, if you’re smart about haggling and don’t mind stale bread. ‘I just reckon . . .’ says Walter. He stops to belch, then kneads a hand into his forehead. ‘I reckon I could do it. I could join a refugee crew, make a run for it. Maybe make it all the way to the Vall–’ ‘Stop it,’ I say. ‘This isn’t the place.’ ‘There’s gonna be a meeting tonight in the sewers,’ Walter slurs. ‘For a crew, you know. A few scruffer kids are putting a crew together to get out of here. I wanted to join, but they reckon I’m too old. They only want teenagers, not –’ The bombs hit. There’s half a second’s warning: the mechanical rattle of royal biplanes and the shrill hiss of a whistle, like a mis-launched fi recracker. Then light and heat and death come for us, tumbling like a star from the sky. It blasts a crater into the cobblestones outside. The window shatters and glass cascades across the bar; its tinkling meshes with the crashes and booms and screams that shoot across the city. ‘Get down!’ I drag Walter to his knees behind the bar. There’s less chance of being hit by shrapnel here, but the bottles are vibrating and shaking around us: booby traps of glass and flammable alcohol. And we aren’t just facing ordinary bombs – the kind that
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Copyright © Skye Melki-Wegner 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

blow up with a blast of fi re and smoke. These are alchemy bombs. They do the fi re and smoke thing too, of course, but they’re loaded with spellwork and magic tokens that burst like confetti through the streets. ‘We’ve got to move,’ I hiss, grabbing Walter’s shoulder. He sways a little but doesn’t argue as I yank him towards the back room. There hasn’t been an air raid for years, but I still remember the survival tips. Find the smallest room, or get into a cupboard or under a solid desk . . . We roll forward, away from the bar. There’s a back room for storing the more expensive spirits and wines, but neither of us has a key. No barman in his right mind would let a couple of scruffers into his storage cellar. I whip my head around, searching for the safest exit, and old Walter takes his chance to wriggle free. He stuffs himself into a cranny beneath the sink, moaning and singing a folk song as if it might drown out the crashing of bombs across our city. I’m about to argue, to pull him away, when I realise he’s picked the safest place in the building. The sink is hard and heavy, shielding him from any shrapnel that might blast through the windows. It won’t help much if the bar scores a direct hit – but then again, neither would the storeroom.
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Copyright © Skye Melki-Wegner 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

There’s a jolt, a crash, and screams erupt from down the street. Walter swears, scrunches his eyes like a child in a storm, and raises his voice: Oh mighty yo, How the star-shine must go Chasing those distant deserts of green . . . As Walter sings, the shadows wash back and forth like the tide. I pull backwards, wary of touching anything controlled by an adult’s proclivity magic. I’m not old enough to know my own proclivity yet, and I’ve got no way to defend against a drunken adult’s power. Who knows what Walter’s capable of in this state? I force myself onto my feet and sprint for the door. There’s nothing else I can do for Walter, and there’s only room for one body under the sink. But I’m a scruffer – a homeless kid from the dodgiest streets of Rourton – and I know where to hide when the bombs crash down. The sewers. ë I SURVIVED MY FIRST BOMBING WHEN I WAS FOUR. IT didn’t mean much to me at the time: it just seemed like an overexcited thunderstorm. My mother held
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Copyright © Skye Melki-Wegner 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

me tight, clutched me beneath the bed in our ramshackle apartment and whispered stories about the Magnetic Valley. Her arms were squishy and damp. My older brother was there too, pretending to be brave as he refused our mother’s arms. I remember his breath hitching whenever a bomb fell too close. I survived my second bombing when I was nine. The king must have decided that Rourton’s people were getting restless, because it’s unusual to bomb the same city twice within so few years. Perhaps we’ve got more dissidents than the other cities in Taladia. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never been outside Rourton’s walls. Anyway, the night of my second bombing, I was walking home with my mother from the market. It was still evening, not time for curfew yet. My mother had bought me a honey biscuit for my birthday. I carried it home in a possessive fist, so tight that the corners crumbled in my palm. It came from Mr Corring’s bakery stall, which was the centrepiece of the market with its shining lanterns and aroma of cakes, cookies and sugar buns. ‘Just this once, Danika,’ my mother said, as she handed Mr Corring his coins. ‘You know we can’t afford treats. Try to make it last.’ I nodded solemnly, already planning how to do
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Copyright © Skye Melki-Wegner 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

just that. I had a secret box beneath a floorboard at home – a cardboard soap pack I’d nicked from someone’s rubbish – and I knew I could stash my biscuit in there. If I rationed myself a few crumbs each day, I could make that honey sweetness last for weeks. When we were almost home, I tightened my grip around the biscuit. My brother would try to steal it, I knew. He would be waiting in the apartment doorway, waiting to see what I’d picked for my birthday treat from the market. My father would be in the bedroom, reading a book by lantern light. But my mother could distract my brother, perhaps, and I could slip past with my biscuit. ‘Could you . . .?’ I whispered. My mother looked between me and the building, then nodded. She understood. She always understood. ‘Wait here, Danika. I’ll take care of it.’ So I stood in the streetlight outside our building, while she went ahead to distract my brother. I remember standing alone in that street, clutching that precious biscuit in sweaty fi ngers. That’s when the bomb hit. That’s when my family burned. And I just stood there, terrified and useless, as that damn biscuit crumbled in my fist. ë
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Copyright © Skye Melki-Wegner 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

THIS IS MY FIRST BOMBING SINCE THAT NIGHT, THE fi rst in seven years. I’m a scruffer now: no paperwork, no identity documents, and no money to bribe new copies from the authorities. I’m no one. I’ve lived on the streets, begged for food, scrimped and saved and worked my way through the dodgiest jobs in downtown Rourton. I’ve been cold. I’ve been alone. But I’ve survived it all, and I’m not prepared to die tonight. The king’s bombs took my family. I won’t let them take me too.

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