SterlingHeat presses against me. My head ducks as I scan the swarm of bodies packed tight in the streets. The dust is high today. Another sand storm is coming.
Squinting, I try to focus. I can’t let the heat get to my head. At this rate I’ll never bring home enough to support the four of us. I scowl, working to stay in the shade the massive glass buildings provide. I would call them skyscrapers, but the name doesn’t do their height justice. In Cidy, there are no skyscrapers. All of the buildings penetrate the indigo sea above me.
The sun reflects off their pearly surfaces, bathing the streets in a blinding white. I shield my eyes, and watch for the smallest glint of silver among the crowd.
My head pounds. It’s Mercy – the third Wednesday of the month. Today, about a thousand people will be on the streets looking to trade what they have for what they need. I swallow, the dust makes my throat impossibly dry. – meaning that the Service will be on high alert for any pickpockets.
Harsh cries swirl around me. My shoulders start to ache, and I trudge down another block. Merchants carry sacks on their backs and chests, wandering aimlessly over the glass and solar panel pavement. I scowl, watching as two men shove each other as a merchant holds up a golden candelabra.
The fact that they’re squabbling over something so worthless means that Syd hasn’t done much for the economy over the last month. The gold reflects the sunlight, a deadened tarnish in comparison to the glass around me, but I’m not searching for the worthless alloy.
I’m after something much brighter.
“Scarves! Two scarves for one quid!” My head flicks to the right, following the scratchy merchant voice. A woman stands a few feet from me, her arms outstretched, displaying the long trails of woven fabric. “Be prepared for the storm!”
I shove my hand into the bag at my hip, letting my fingers flip over the last few pieces of silver I have left to spend. I have enough to spare.
“Here!” I shout, stumbling over to her. Dust rises in my wake, making the pack of people behind me vanish. I shove my fist full of reinz out, and drop the coins into her open hand.
She frowns while she counts them. “What color?” she asks at last.
I look at the array of cloth wrapped around her body, a muted burgundy sash catching my eye. “The red one.”
She stretches out her arm, and I snatch it before the group of shouting people at my back could bowl me over to get to her. I take off at a jog, watching as the sky starts to grow darker, the buildings becoming less and less of a distraction, and wrap the scarf around my head.
I am running out of time if I want to cash in before the storm hits. My eyes search the sea around me, skipping over the dark and dingy clothes. Someone has to have something that would be worth my while.
A flash of white glints off a man’s fist. Necklace.
I push forward, wriggling between smashing bodies in an attempt to get to him. He’s shouting loudly, barking at a vender for a new pair of shoes. The necklace will surely buy him more than just the shoes. I glare as I get closer. It’s a waste to spend something so valuable on something that won’t last more than a few weeks.
Standing beside him, I wait as he pushes to get closer to the cobbler. When he is just a few feet away, I stick my foot in his path. He falters, bending forward as he loses his balance. I take my chance.
Reaching out, I grip his forearm as his hand opens up to try and catch his fall. I slip the chain from his fingers, replacing it with a thin piece of cord from my bag as my other hand grips his arm.
“Are you alright, sir?” My voice comes out small, and shaky.
He stares at me, stunned by my action. “Uh, yes. Thank you.” He rights himself, and I turn away, disappearing into the crowd before he can notice that anything is missing. I shove the silver piece into my bag as I go, my false set of pearls bouncing against my wrist.
A whistle pierces the air. I grimace. No. It is too early. I’m not finished yet. But sure enough, Levi stands on a corner, his grey eyes watching me intently. I glare, holding his gaze. Five more minutes. I just need five more minutes. The storm isn’t that close yet.
He runs a hand through his copper hair, glaring at my back.
I drop his gaze, returning my focus to the crowd.
“Caddy,” he grumbles as I trudge past. I shake my head. Just a little while longer. I just need a couple more minutes, one more, good find and I’ll hightail it back to the house with him.
Swallowing, I dive back into the mass of people, wrestling to get to the center of it. Elbows nail me in the back, the arms, the chest. Everyone is shoving their way around to get to the last vendors before the storm clears the streets.
Angry cries meet my ears as I search, catching flash after flash. The dwindling sunlight makes it hard to focus, hard to determine bronze from gold, and gold from silver. Thunder crashes in the distance.
Two more minutes.
I stare, my head pounding from concentration as people move past me, shoving me in all directions at once. Finally, I spot something.
There. A pocket watch. At a man’s hip. It glints brighter than anything else around him. Even the silver quid people are practically throwing at the vendors. I shove my way forward, determination bubbling in my chest. My muscles ache from spending the last few hours out in the heat, struggling to get close to anything that glinted.
I need to make this last steal. I can do it. I can.
Two people separate us, just two enormous bodies between me and the piece that will feed Levi, Mother, Enva, and I for the next week. I need to get it.
The wind whips at my back, sending stray strands of hair across my face in a sea of orange and brown. I place one hand on the end of the scarf wrapped around my head, suck in a breath, and lunge.
The pair between the man and me leaps back. Pain shoots up my arms, springing from my elbows and knees as I land on the solid panel beneath us. Sand whips around me, the beginnings of the storm already here. But there is something cool in my free hand, the perfection of beveled metalwork. I grin face down against the rough road, and haul myself to my feet. My body stings, burning from the sand and the impact with the pavement. I twist, my eyes searching for Levi as I stumble back into the crowd. My ankle throbs, making walking difficult.
“Hey!” The voice sends chills down my spine. It is the man who’d been shouting at the vendor. The man I just stole from. “Stop! Thief!”
Fear lights within me, and I bolt, struggling to ignore the pounding in my ankle as I shove my way through groups of people. Most of the crowd starts to disperse, the sandstorm becoming too dangerous to continue the vending in the streets. I need shelter, but I also need a safe place to hide. And I have to find something that fits both soon.
Boots pound behind me, and I watch as the buildings turn an ugly blue gray from the thunderclouds. My heart slams into my chest, my small canvas bag bouncing against my hip. I suck in a breath and throw myself around a corner. I can hear the crowd working to get out of the way.
A quick glance back shows that this was worse than I’d thought.
The Service is here.
Panic takes hold. My vision tunnels to reveal a narrow but weaving path through the rest of the crowds. I need to get off the main roads – need to hide somewhere quiet, inconspicuous. I need to get out.
It hurts to breathe, my ankle pounds, and my muscles scream. Where is Levi? I know he watched me take the pocket watch from the man. I know he saw me bolt. Why hadn’t he met me? My stomach sinks. It’s obvious. He went back for Enva and Mom. Of course he did. He left so I’d know not to head home. I can’t lead the Service home.
Swallowing, I plow forward, desperate to get away from the group of me behind me. The boots seem to die away as I zigzag through back alleys and side streets. Eventually, I figure it is safe enough to slow down.
I drop to a jog in a narrow alleyway. The buildings here are more skeletal than the ones on the main roads, steel beams and glass stare down at me, crystal clear even in the dark storm. Sand lashes at my face, and I keep one hand pressed against the scarf, watching as the air turns a strange shade of beige around me. I need to get inside. Now.
If I’m out any longer, I probably won’t make it home at all.
Glancing up and down the street, my heart drops. No doors, no open windows. I’m stuck here in the alleyway until the storm past. It is getting harder to see by the second.
I huff, starting to backtrack as the sound of cracking wood comes from upwind. The storm is more powerful than I suspected. If I am out here any longer, I am more likely to be skewered by debris than buried under the sand itself.
I take a breath, listening to my heart pound.
Something grabs my arm and I’m jerked backward. There is a hand over my mouth before I can think about screaming. My heart races, making it harder to breathe or swallow, as I struggle against the grip.
“Stop,” a voice whispers in my ear. It cracks a bit, and I feel my back press against a flat chest. “I’m not Service.”
The mention of Syd’s regime only makes me work harder to escape. Only a Service agent would feel the need to reassure me. Slowly, the alleyway disappears, and the sand stops, swirling at the end of a side street that I never knew existed.
“Stop it.” The voice says again as I twist.
The hand moves from my mouth, taking a fistful of the scarf around my face. My assailant pulls hard, forcing me to spin around as the scarf unravels, landing against my shoulders. I stagger, struggling to keep my balance on my bad foot. My arms splay out to steady me.
“See, you’re fine.”
I stare. Before me stands a boy, a whole head taller than I am, and wider than Levi. He runs a hand through his mud-colored hair, dropping his gaze to something pressed up against the wall of the closest building.
“Come on,” he says, moving toward the slanted object on the ground. He pulls open a hatch door, preparing to climb down.
I stay where I am.
He pauses, looking back at me with a scowl. “Do you want the Service to find you out here?”
“No.” My voice is loud and angry. Good.
“Then come on. Otherwise, I’d say you’ve got a minute before they start patrolling the streets.”
I scowl, hating the fact he’s probably right, and approach the hatch.
“Good choice,” He mumbles, stepping in before disappearing down a narrow flight of dark stairs.
“What’s your name?” I ask, following him. The door bangs shut behind me, the dark triggering a strip of blue lighting on the walls.
“Why do you want to know?” His voice is cool, suspicious.
“So I can run back up there and get you arrested for assisting me when the Service comes through,” I bite sarcastically. I can’t keep from giving the back of his head a disgusted look. “I just want to be able to thank you properly.”
He whirls on the stair, causing me to nearly smash into him. His hand grips my arm, as if to steady me.
“Properly?” He arches a dark brow. “I’m not sure if you’ve realized this, missy, but no one’s very keen on proper anymore.”
I shrug, holding his gaze. His eyes are a strange shade of blue-gold in the light.
“It’s Twist,” he says at last, turning back around.
I smile and follow him down the rest of the stairs. “Thank you, Twist.” I swallow. “I’m Caddy.”
“Nice to meet you, Caddy,” he says gruffly as he steps off onto a landing. He places a hand on a worn door. “Now, tell me, have you ever visited the underground of Cidy?”