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“Morgan Rice has come up with what promises to be another brilliant series, immersing us in a fantasy of valor, honor, courage, magic and faith in your destiny. Morgan has managed again to produce a strong set of characters that make us cheer for them on every page.…Recommended for the permanent library of all readers that love a well-written fantasy.”--Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos (regarding Rise of the Dragons)From #1 Bestseller Morgan Rice comes an unforgettable new fantasy series. In A THRONE FOR SISTERS (Book one), Sophia, 17, and her younger sister Kate, 15, are desperate to leave their horrific orphanage. Orphans, unwanted and unloved, they nonetheless dream of coming of age elsewhere, of finding a better life, even if that means living on the streets of the brutal city of Ashton. Sophia and Kate, also best friends, have each other’s backs—and yet they want different things from life. Sophia, a romantic, more elegant, dreams of entering court and finding a noble to fall in love with. Kate, a fighter, dreams of mastering the sword, of battling dragons, and becoming a warrior. They are both united, though, by their secret, paranormal power to read other’s minds, their only saving grace in a world that seems bent to destroy them.As they each embark on a quest and adventure their own ways, they struggle to survive. Faced with choices neither can imagine, their choices may propel them to the highest power—or plunge them to the lowest depths.A THRONE FOR SISTERS is the first book in a dazzling new fantasy series rife with love, heartbreak, tragedy, action, magic, sorcery, fate and heart-pounding suspense. A page turner, it is filled with characters that will make you fall in love, and a world you will never forget. Book #2—A COURT FOR THIEVES—will be released soon.“An action packed fantasy sure to please fans of Morgan Rice’s previous novels, along with fans of works such as The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini…. Fans of Young Adult Fiction will devour this latest work by Rice and beg for more.” --The Wanderer, A Literary Journal (regarding Rise of the Dragons)
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A THRONE FOR SISTERS
Morgan Rice is the #1 bestselling and USA Today bestselling author of the epic fantasy series THE SORCERER’S RING, comprising seventeen books; of the #1 bestselling series THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS, comprising twelve books; of the #1 bestselling series THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY, a post-apocalyptic thriller comprising three books; of the epic fantasy series KINGS AND SORCERERS, comprising six books; of the epic fantasy series OF CROWNS AND GLORY, comprising 8 books; and of the new epic fantasy series A THRONE FOR SISTERS. Morgan’s books are available in audio and print editions, and translations are available in over 25 languages.
Morgan loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.morganricebooks.com to join the email list, receive a free book, receive free giveaways, download the free app, get the latest exclusive news, connect on Facebook and Twitter, and stay in touch!
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“If you thought that there was no reason left for living after the end of THE SORCERER’S RING series, you were wrong. In RISE OF THE DRAGONS Morgan Rice has come up with what promises to be another brilliant series, immersing us in a fantasy of trolls and dragons, of valor, honor, courage, magic and faith in your destiny. Morgan has managed again to produce a strong set of characters that make us cheer for them on every page.…Recommended for the permanent library of all readers that love a well-written fantasy.”
--Books and Movie Reviews
“An action packed fantasy sure to please fans of Morgan Rice’s previous novels, along with fans of works such as THE INHERITANCE CYCLE by Christopher Paolini…. Fans of Young Adult Fiction will devour this latest work by Rice and beg for more.”
--The Wanderer,A Literary Journal (regarding Rise of the Dragons)
“A spirited fantasy that weaves elements of mystery and intrigue into its story line. A Quest of Heroes is all about the making of courage and about realizing a life purpose that leads to growth, maturity, and excellence….For those seeking meaty fantasy adventures, the protagonists, devices, and action provide a vigorous set of encounters that focus well on Thor's evolution from a dreamy child to a young adult facing impossible odds for survival….Only the beginning of what promises to be an epic young adult series.”
--Midwest Book Review (D. Donovan, eBook Reviewer)
“THE SORCERER’S RING has all the ingredients for an instant success: plots, counterplots, mystery, valiant knights, and blossoming relationships replete with broken hearts, deception and betrayal. It will keep you entertained for hours, and will satisfy all ages. Recommended for the permanent library of all fantasy readers.”
--Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos
“In this action-packed first book in the epic fantasy Sorcerer's Ring series (which is currently 14 books strong), Rice introduces readers to 14-year-old Thorgrin "Thor" McLeod, whose dream is to join the Silver Legion, the elite knights who serve the king…. Rice's writing is solid and the premise intriguing.”
Books by Morgan Rice
THE WAY OF STEEL
ONLY THE WORTHY (Book #1)
A THRONE FOR SISTERS
A THRONE FOR SISTERS (Book #1)
A COURT FOR THIEVES (Book #2)
A SLONG FOR ORPHANS (Book #3)
OF CROWNS AND GLORY
SLAVE, WARRIOR, QUEEN (Book #1)
ROGUE, PRISONER, PRINCESS (Book #2)
KNIGHT, HEIR, PRINCE (Book #3)
REBEL, PAWN, KING (Book #4)
SOLDIER, BROTHER, SORCERER (Book #5)
HERO, TRAITOR, DAUGHTER (Book #6)
RULER, RIVAL, EXILE (Book #7)
VICTOR, VANQUISHED, SON (Book #8)
KINGS AND SORCERERS
RISE OF THE DRAGONS (Book #1)
RISE OF THE VALIANT (Book #2)
THE WEIGHT OF HONOR (Book #3)
A FORGE OF VALOR (Book #4)
A REALM OF SHADOWS (Book #5)
NIGHT OF THE BOLD (Book #6)
THE SORCERER’S RING
A QUEST OF HEROES (Book #1)
A MARCH OF KINGS (Book #2)
A FATE OF DRAGONS (Book #3)
A CRY OF HONOR (Book #4)
A VOW OF GLORY (Book #5)
A CHARGE OF VALOR (Book #6)
A RITE OF SWORDS (Book #7)
A GRANT OF ARMS (Book #8)
A SKY OF SPELLS (Book #9)
A SEA OF SHIELDS (Book #10)
A REIGN OF STEEL (Book #11)
A LAND OF FIRE (Book #12)
A RULE OF QUEENS (Book #13)
AN OATH OF BROTHERS (Book #14)
A DREAM OF MORTALS (Book #15)
A JOUST OF KNIGHTS (Book #16)
THE GIFT OF BATTLE (Book #17)
THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY
ARENA ONE: SLAVERSUNNERS (Book #1)
ARENA TWO (Book #2)
ARENA THREE (Book #3)
BEFORE DAWN (Book #1)
THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS
TURNED (Book #1)
LOVED (Book #2)
BETRAYED (Book #3)
DESTINED (Book #4)
DESIRED (Book #5)
BETROTHED (Book #6)
VOWED (Book #7)
FOUND (Book #8)
RESURRECTED (Book #9)
CRAVED (Book #10)
FATED (Book #11)
OBSESSED (Book #12)
Did you know that I've written multiple series? If you haven't read all my series, click the image below to download a series starter!
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Copyright © 2017 by Morgan Rice. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
Of all the things to hate in the House of the Unclaimed, the grinding wheel was the one Sophia dreaded most. She groaned as she pushed against an arm connected to the giant post that disappeared into the floor, while around her, the other orphans shoved against theirs. She ached and sweated as she pushed at it, her red hair matting with the work, her rough gray dress staining further with the sweat. Her dress was shorter than she wanted now, riding up with every stride to show the tattoo on her calf in the shape of a mask, marking her as what she was: an orphan, an owned thing.
The other girls there had things even worse. At seventeen, Sophia was at least one of the oldest and largest of them. The only person older in the room was Sister O’Venn. The nun of the Masked Goddess wore the jet black habit of her order, along with a lace mask that every orphan quickly learned she could see through, down to the smallest detail of failure. The sister held the leather strap that she used to dole out punishment, flexing it between her hands while she droned on in the background, uttering the words of the Book of Masks, homilies about the need to perfect abandoned souls such as them.
“In this place, you learn to be useful,” she intoned. “In this place, you learn to be valuable, as you were not to whatever fallen women gave birth to you. The Masked Goddess tells us that we must shape our place in the world through our efforts, and today your efforts turn the querns that grind the corn and—pay attention, Sophia!”
Sophia flinched as she felt the impact of her belt as it cracked out. She gritted her teeth. How many times had the sisters beaten her in her life? For doing the wrong thing, or for not doing the right thing quickly enough? For being pretty enough that it constituted a sin in and of itself? For having the flame red hair of a troublemaker?
If only they knew about her talent. She shuddered to think of it. For then, they would have beaten her to death.
“Are you ignoring me, you stupid girl?” the nun demanded. She struck out again, and again. “Kneel facing the wall, all of you!”
That was the worst part: it didn’t matter if you did everything right. The sisters would beat everyone for the failings of one girl.
“You need to be reminded,” Sister O’Venn snapped, as Sophia heard a girl cry out, “of what you are. Of where you are.” Another girl whimpered as the leather strap struck flesh. “You are the children no one wanted. You are the property of the Masked Goddess, given a home through her grace.”
She made her way around the room, and Sophia knew she would be last. The idea was to make her feel guilt for the pain of the others, and give them time to hate her for bringing this on them, before she got her beating.
The beating she was kneeling there waiting for.
When she could just leave.
That thought came to Sophia so unbidden that she had to check it wasn’t some kind of sending from her younger sister, or that she hadn’t picked it up from one of the others. That was the problem with a talent like hers: it came when it wanted, not when called. Yet it seemed that the thought really was hers—and more than that, it was true.
Better to risk death than to stay here one more day.
Of course, if she dared to walk away, the punishment would be worse. They always found a way to make it worse. Sophia had seen girls who had stolen or fought back starved for days, forced to keep kneeling, beaten when they tried to sleep.
But she didn’t care anymore. Something inside her had crossed a line. The fear couldn’t touch her, because it was swamped in the fear of what would happen soon anyway.
After all, she turned seventeen today.
She was now old enough to repay her debt of years of “care” at the hands of the nuns—to be indentured and sold like livestock. Sophia knew what happened to orphans who came of age. Compared to that, no beating mattered.
She had been turning it over in her mind for weeks, in fact. Dreading this day, her birthday.
And now it had arrived.
To her own shock, Sophia acted. She stood smoothly, looked around. The nun’s attention was on another girl, whipping her savagely, so it was but the work of a moment to slip over to the door in silence. Probably even the other girls didn’t notice, or if they did, they were too frightened to say anything.
Sophia stepped out into one of the plain white corridors of the orphanage, moving quietly, walking away from the workroom. There were other nuns out there, but so long as she moved with purpose, it might be enough to keep them from stopping her.
What had she just done?
Sophia kept walking through the House of the Unclaimed in a daze, barely able to believe that she was actually doing this. There were reasons they didn’t bother locking the front gates. The city beyond, just outside its gates, was a rough place—and rougher still for those who had started life as an orphan. Ashton had every city’s thieves and thugs—yet it also contained the hunters who recaptured the indentured who ran and the free folk who would spit on her simply for what she was.
Then there was her sister. Kate was only fifteen. Sophia didn’t want to drag her into something worse. Kate was tough, tougher even than her, yet she was still Sophia’s little sister.
Sophia wandered down toward the cloisters and the courtyard where they mixed with the boys from the orphanage next door, trying to work out where her sister would be. She couldn’t leave without her.
She was almost there when she heard a girl cry out.
Sophia headed toward the sound, half suspecting that her little sister had gotten herself into another fight. When she reached the yard, though, she didn’t find Kate at the center of a brawling mob, but another girl instead. This one was even younger, perhaps in her thirteenth year, and was being pushed and slapped by three boys who must have been almost old enough to sell off into apprenticeships or the army.
“Stop that!” Sophia cried out, surprising herself as much as she seemed to surprise the boys there. Normally the rule was that you walked past whatever was happening in the orphanage. You stayed quiet and remembered your place. Now, though, she stepped forward.
“Leave her be.”
The boys paused, but only to stare at her.
The oldest set his eyes upon her with a malicious grin.
“Well, well, boys,” he said, “looks like we have another one who isn’t where she should be.”
He had blunt features and the kind of dead look in his eyes that only came from years in the House of the Unclaimed.
He stepped forward, and before she could react, he grabbed Sophia’s arm. She went to slap him, but he was too quick, and he shoved her to the floor. It was in moments like this that Sophia wished she had her younger sister’s fighting skills, her ability to summon an instant brutality that Sophia, for all her cunning, just wasn’t capable of.
Going to be sold as a whore anyway… might as well have my turn.
Sophia was startled to hear his thoughts. These had an almost greasy feel to them, and she knew they were his. Her panic welled up.
She started to struggle, but he pinned her arms easily.
There was only one thing she could do. She screwed up her concentration, calling on her talent, hoping that this time it would work for her.
Kate, she sent, the courtyard! Help me!
“More elegantly, Kate!” the nun called. “More elegantly!”
Kate didn’t have a lot of time for elegance, but still, she made the effort as she poured water into a goblet held by the sister. Sister Yvaine regarded her critically from beneath her mask.
“No, you still haven’t got it. And I know you’re not clumsy, girl. I’ve seen you turning cartwheels in the yard.”
She hadn’t punished Kate for it, though, which suggested that Sister Yvaine wasn’t one of the worst of them. Kate tried again, her hand trembling.
She and the other girls with her were supposed to be learning to serve elegantly at noble tables, but the truth was that Kate wasn’t built for it. She was too short and too tightly muscled for the kind of graceful femininity the nuns had in mind. There was a reason she kept her red hair hacked short. In the ideal world, where she was free to choose, she yearned for an apprenticeship with a smith or perhaps one of the groups of players who worked in the city—or perhaps even a chance to go into the army as the boys did. This graceful pouring was the kind of lesson her big sister, with her dream of aristocracy, would have enjoyed—not her.
As if the thought summoned her, Kate suddenly snapped to as she heard her sister’s voice in her mind. She wondered, though; their talent wasn’t always that reliable.
But then it came again, and there, too, was the feeling behind it.
Kate, the courtyard! Help me!
Kate could feel the fear there.
She stepped away from the nun sharply, involuntarily, and in so doing she spilled her jug of water across the stone of the floor.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I need to go.”
Sister Yvaine was still staring at the water.
“Kate, clean that up at once!”
But Kate was already running. She would probably find herself beaten for it later, but she’d been beaten before. It didn’t mean anything. Helping the one person in the world she cared about did.
She ran through the orphanage. She knew the way, because she’d learned every twist and turn of the place in the years since that awful night they dropped her here. She also, late at night, sneaked out from the ceaseless snoring and stench of the dormitory when she could, enjoying the place in the blackness when she was the only one up, when the tolling of the city’s bells was the only sound, and learning the feel of every nook in its walls. She sensed she would need it one day.
And now she did.
Kate could hear the sound of her sister, fighting and calling for help. On instinct, she ducked into a room, grabbing a poker from the fire grate and continuing on. What she would do with it, she didn’t know.
She burst into the courtyard, and her heart fell to see her sister being pinned down by two boys while another fumbled with her dress.
Kate knew exactly what to do.
A primal rage overcame her, one she could not control if she wished, and Kate rushed forward with a roar, swinging the poker at the first boy’s head. He turned as Kate struck, so it didn’t hit him as well as she wanted, but it was still enough to send him sprawling, clutching at the spot she’d hit.
She lashed out at another, catching him across the knee as he stood, making him tumble. She struck the third in the stomach, until he keeled over.
She kept hitting, not wanting to give the boys any time to recover. She’d been in plenty of fights in her years at the orphanage, and she knew that she couldn’t rely on size or strength. Fury was the only thing she had to carry her through. And thankfully, Kate had plenty of that.
She struck and she struck, until the boys fell back. They might have been prepared to join the army, but the Masked Brothers on their side didn’t teach them to fight. That would have made them too hard to control. Kate struck one of the boys in the face, then spun back to hit another’s elbow with a crack of iron on bone.
“Stand up,” she said to her sister, holding out her hand. “Stand up!”
Her sister stood numbly, taking Kate’s hand as though she were the younger sister for once.
Kate set off running, and her sister ran with her. Sophia appeared to come back to herself as they ran, some of the old certainty seeming to return as they raced along the corridors of the orphanage.
Behind them, Kate could hear shouting, from boys or sisters or both. She didn’t care. She knew there was no way but out.
“We can’t go back,” Sophia said. “We have to leave the orphanage.”
Kate nodded. Something like this wouldn’t earn just a beating as punishment. But then Kate remembered.
“Then we go,” Kate replied, running. “First I just need to—”
“No,” Sophia said. “There’s no time. Leave everything. We need to go.”
Kate shook her head. There were some things she couldn’t leave behind.
So instead, she raced in the direction of her dormitory, keeping hold of Sophia’s arm so that she would follow.
The dormitory was a bleak place, with beds that were little more than wooden slats sticking out from the wall like shelves. Kate wasn’t stupid enough to put anything that mattered in the small chest at the foot of her bed, where anyone could steal it. Instead, she went to a crack between two floorboards, worrying at it with her fingers until one lifted.
“Kate,” Sophia huffed and puffed, catching her breath, “there’s no time.”
Kate shook her head.
“I won’t leave it behind.”
Sophia had to know what she’d come for; the one memento she had from that night, from their old life.
Finally, Kate’s finger’s fastened around metal, and she lifted the locket clear to shine in the dim light.
When she was a child, she’d been sure that it was real gold; a fortune waiting to be spent. As she’d gotten older, she’d come to see that it was some cheaper alloy, but by then, it had come to be worth far more than gold to her anyway. The miniature inside, of a woman smiling while a man had his hand on her shoulder, was the closest thing to a memory of her parents she had.
Kate normally didn’t wear it for fear that one of the other children, or the nuns, would take it from her. Now, she tucked it inside her dress.
“Let’s go,” she said.
They ran for the door to the orphanage, supposedly always open because the Masked Goddess had found doors closed to her when she visited the world and had condemned those within. Kate and Sophia ran down the twists and turns of the corridors, coming out to the hallway, looking around for any pursuers.
Kate could hear them, but right then, there was only the usual sister beside the door: a fat woman who moved to block the way even as the two of them approached. Kate flushed red as she immediately recalled all the years of beatings she’d taken by her hands.
“There you are,” she said in a stern tone. “You’ve both been very disobedient, and—”
Kate didn’t pause; she hit her in the stomach with the poker, hard enough to double her up. Right then, she wished it were one of the elegant swords that courtiers wore, or maybe an axe. As it was, she had to settle for merely stunning the woman long enough for her and Sophia to run past.
But then, as Kate passed through the doors, she stopped.
“Kate!” Sophia yelled, panic in her voice. “Let’s go! What are you doing?!”
But Kate couldn’t control it. Even with the shouts of those in hot pursuit. Even knowing it was risking both of their freedom.
She took two steps forward, raised the poker high, and smashed the nun again and again across her back.
The nun grunted and cried with each blow, and each sound was music to Kate’s ears.
“Kate!” Sophia pleaded, on the verge of tears.
Kate stared at the nun for a long time, too long, needing to ingrain that picture of vengeance, of justice, into her mind. It would sustain her, she knew, for whatever horrific beatings might follow.
Then she turned and burst out with her sister from the House of the Unclaimed, like two fugitives from a sinking ship. The stink and noise and bustle of the city hit Kate, but this time she didn’t slow.
She held her sister’s hand and ran.
And despite it all, she took a deep breath and smiled wide.
However short it might be, they had found freedom.
Sophia had never been so afraid, but at the same time, she had never felt so alive, or so free. As she ran through the city with her sister, she heard Kate whoop with the excitement of it, and it both set her at ease and terrified her. It made this too real. Their life would never be the same again.
“Quiet,” Sophia insisted. “You’ll bring them down on us.”
“They’re coming anyway,” her sister replied. “We might as well enjoy it.”
As if to emphasize the point, she dodged around a horse, snatched an apple from a cart, and ran across Ashton’s cobbles.
The city was bustling with the market that came to it every Sixthday, and Sophia looked around, startled at all the sights and sounds and smells. If it weren’t for the market, she’d have no idea what day it was. In the House of the Unclaimed, those things didn’t matter, only the endless cycles of prayer and work, punishment and rote learning.
Run faster, her sister sent.
The sound of whistles and cries somewhere behind them spurred her on to new speed. Sophia led the way down an alley, then struggled to follow as Kate scrambled over a wall. Her sister, for all her impetuosity, was too quick, like a solid, coiled muscle waiting to spring.
Sophia barely managed to clamber over as more whistles sounded, and as she neared the top, Kate’s strong hand was waiting for her, as always. Even in this, she realized, they were so different: Kate’s hand was rough, calloused, muscular, while Sophia’s fingers were long and smooth and delicate.
Two sides of the same coin, their mother used to say.
“They’ve summoned the watchmen,” Kate called out in disbelief, as if that somehow wasn’t playing fair.
“What did you expect?” Sophia replied. “We’re running away before they can sell us off.”
Kate led the way down narrow cobblestone steps, then toward an open space thronging with people. Sophia forced herself to slow as they approached the city’s market, holding onto Kate’s forearm to keep her from running.
We’ll blend in more if we aren’t running, Sophia sent, too out of breath to speak.
Kate didn’t look certain, but she still matched Sophia’s pace.
They walked slowly, brushing past people who stepped aside, obviously unwilling to risk contact with anyone as lowborn as them. Perhaps they thought that the two were released for some errand.
Sophia forced herself to look as though she were just browsing while they used the crowd for camouflage. She looked around, to the clock tower above the temple of the Masked Goddess, at the various stalls, and the glass-fronted shops beyond them. There was a group of players in one corner of the square, acting out one of the traditional tales in elaborate costumes while one of the censors looked on from the edge of the surrounding crowd. There was a recruiter for the army standing on a box, trying to recruit troops for the newest war to take hold of this city, a looming battle across the Knife-Water Channel.
Sophia saw her sister eyeing the recruiter, and pulled her back.
No, Sophia sent. That’s not for you.
Kate was about to reply when suddenly the shouts began again behind them.
They both took off.
Sophia knew that no one would help them now. This was Ashton, which meant that she and Kate were the ones in the wrong here. No one would try to help two runaways.
In fact, as she looked up, Sophia saw someone start to move into their way, to block them. No one would let two orphans get away from what they owed, from what they were.
Hands grabbed for them, and now they had to fight their way through. Sophia slapped away a hand from her shoulder, while Kate jabbed viciously with her stolen poker.
A gap opened up in front of them, and Sophia saw her sister running for a section of abandoned wooden scaffolding beside a stone wall, where builders must have been trying to straighten a façade.
More climbing? Sophia sent.
They won’t follow us, her sister shot back.
Which was probably true, if only because the chasing pack of ordinary people wouldn’t risk their lives like that. Sophia dreaded it, though. Yet she couldn’t think of any better ideas right then.
Her shaking hands closed around the wooden slats of the scaffolding, and she started to climb.
In a matter of moments, her arms started to ache, but by then it was either keep going or fall, and even if there hadn’t been the cobbles below, Sophia didn’t want to fall with most of a mob chasing after her.
Kate was already waiting at the top, still grinning as if the whole thing were some game. Her hand was there again, and she pulled Sophia up, and then they were running again—this time on rooftops.
Kate led the way to a gap leading to another roof, hopping into the thatch as if she didn’t care about the risk of going through. Sophia followed her, biting back the urge to cry out as she nearly slipped, then leaping with her sister onto a low section where a dozen chimneys belched out smoke from a kiln below.
Kate tried to run again, but Sophia, sensing an opportunity, grabbed her and yanked her down into the thatch, hidden amongst the stacks.
Wait, she sent.
To her amazement, Kate didn’t argue. She looked about as they huddled down in the flat section of roof, ignoring the heat coming up from the fires below, and she must have realized how hidden they were. The smoke blurred most of what was around them, putting them in a fog, further hiding them. It was like a second city up here, with lines of clothes, flags, and pennants providing all the cover they could want. If they stayed still, no one could possibly spot them here. Nor would anyone else be foolish enough to risk treading on the thatch.
Sophia looked about. It was peaceful up here in its own way. There were spots where the houses were close enough that neighbors could reach out to touch one another, and further along, Sophie saw a chamber pot being emptied into the street. She’d never had a chance to see the city from this angle, the towers of the clergy and the shot makers, the clock keepers and the wise men rising up over the rest of it, the palace sitting in its own ring of walls like some shining carbuncle on the skin of the rest.
She hunched down there with her sister, her arms wrapped around Kate, and waited for the sounds of pursuit to pass below.
Maybe, just maybe, they’d find a way out.
Morning faded into afternoon before Sophia and Kate dared to creep out of their hiding place. As Sophia had thought, no one had dared clamber up onto the rooftops to search for them, and while the sounds of pursuit had come close, they’d never quite come close enough.
Now, they seemed to have faded entirely.
Kate peeked out and looked down at the city below. The morning’s bustle was gone, replaced by a more relaxed pace and crowd.
“We need to get down from here,” Sophia whispered to her sister.
Kate nodded. “I’m starving.”
Sophia could understand that. Their stolen apple was long gone, and hunger was starting to gnaw at her stomach, too.
They lowered themselves to street level, and Sophia found herself looking around as they did. Even though the sounds of people hunting for them had gone, a part of her was convinced that someone would leap out at them the moment their feet touched the ground.
They picked their way through the streets, trying to keep out of sight as much as they could. It was impossible to avoid people in Ashton, though, because there were simply so many of them. The nuns hadn’t bothered to teach them much about the shape of the world, but Sophia had heard that there were bigger cities beyond the Merchant States.
Right then, it was hard to believe it. There were people everywhere she looked, even though most of the city’s population had to be inside, hard at work, by now. There were children playing on the street, women walking to and from markets and shops, workmen carrying tools and ladders. There were taverns and playhouses, shops selling coffee from the newly discovered lands past the Mirror Ocean, cafes where people seemed to be almost as interested in talking as in eating. She could hardly believe to see people laughing, happy, so carefree, doing nothing but idling the time and enjoying themselves. She could hardly believe that such a world could even exist. It was a shocking contrast to the enforced quiet and obedience of the orphanage.
There’s so much, Sophia sent to her sister, eyeing the food stalls everywhere, feeling her stomach pain grow with each passing smell.
Kate was looking around it all with a practical eye. She picked one of the cafes, moving up toward it cautiously while people outside laughed at a would-be philosopher trying to argue over how much of the world it was possible to really know.
“You’d have an easier time if you weren’t drunk,” one of them heckled.
Another turned toward Sophia and Kate as they approached. The hostility there was palpable.
“We don’t want your sort here,” he sneered. “Get out!”
The sheer anger of it was more than Sophia had expected. Still, she shuffled back to the street, pulling Kate with her so that her sister wouldn’t do anything they’d regret. She might have dropped her poker somewhere in running from the mob, but she certainly had a look that said she wanted to hit something.
They had no choice, then: they would have to steal their food. Sophia had hoped that someone might show them charity. Yet that wasn’t the way the world worked, she knew.
It was time to use their talents, they both realized, nodding to each silently at the same time. They stood on opposite sides of an alley and both watched and waited as a baker worked. Sophia waited until the baker could read her thoughts, and then told her what she wanted her to hear.
Oh no, the baker thought. The rolls. How could I forget them inside?
Barely had the baker had the thought than Sophia and Kate burst into action, rushing forward the second the woman turned her back to go back inside for the rolls. They moved quickly, each snatching an armful of cakes, enough to fill their bellies almost to bursting.
They both ducked behind an alley and chewed ravenously. Soon, Sophia felt her belly full, a strange and pleasant sensation, and one she’d never had. The House of the Unclaimed didn’t believe in feeding its charges more than the bare minimum.
Now she laughed as Kate attempted to shove an entire pastry into her mouth.
What? her sister demanded.
It’s just good to see you happy, Sophia sent back.
She wasn’t sure how long that happiness would last. She kept an eye out with every step for the hunters who might be after them. The orphanage wouldn’t want to put more effort into reclaiming them than their indentures were worth, but who could tell when it came to the vindictiveness of the nuns? At the very least, they would have to keep clear of the watchmen, and not just because they’d escaped.
Thieves, after all, were hanged in Ashton.
We need to stop looking like runaway orphans or we’ll never be able to walk through the city without people staring and trying to catch us.
Sophia looked over at her sister, surprised by the thought.
You want to steal clothes? Sophia sent back.
That thought brought an extra note of fear and yet Sophia knew her sister, ever practical, was right.
They both stood at the same time, stuffing the extra cakes in their waists. Sophia was looking about for clothes, when she felt Kate touch her arm. She followed her gaze and saw it: a clothesline, high up on a roof. It was unguarded.
Of course it would be, she realized with relief. Who, after all, would guard a clothesline?
Even so, Sophia could feel her heart pounding as they clambered up onto another roof. They both paused, looked about, then reeled in the line the way a fisherman might have pulled in a line of fish.
Sophia stole an outer dress of green wool, along with a cream underdress that was probably the kind of thing a farmer’s wife might wear, but was still impossibly rich to her. To her surprise, her sister picked out an undershirt, breeches, and doublet, which left her looking more like a spike-haired boy than the girl she was.
“Kate,” Sophia complained. “You can’t run around looking like that!”
Kate shrugged. “Neither of us is supposed to look like this. I might as well be comfortable.”
There was a kind of truth in that. The sumptuary laws were clear about what each grade of society could and couldn’t wear, the unclaimed and the indentured. Here they were, breaking more laws, tossing aside their rags, the only thing they were allowed to wear, and dressing better than they were.
“All right,” Sophia said. “I won’t argue. Besides, maybe it will throw off anyone who is looking for two girls,” she said with a laugh.
“I do not look like a boy,” Kate snapped back in obvious indignation.
Sophia smiled at that. They salvaged their cakes, stuffed them in their new pockets, and together, they were off.
The next part was harder to smile about; there remained so many things they needed to do if they wanted to actually survive. They had to find shelter, for one thing, and then work out what they were going to do, where they were going to go.
One step at a time, she reminded herself.
They scrambled back down to the streets, and this time Sophia led the way, trying to find a route through the poorer section of the city, still too close to the orphanage for her tastes.
She saw a string of burnt out houses ahead, obviously not recovered from one of the fires that sometimes swept through the city when the river was low. It would be a dangerous place to rest.
Even so, Sophia headed for them.
Kate gave her a wondering, skeptical look.
Dangerous is better than nothing at all, she sent.
They approached cautiously, and just as Sophia stuck her head around the corner, she was startled as a pair of figures rose up out of the wreckage. They appeared so soot-blackened by staying in the charred remains that for a moment Sophia thought they’d been in the fire.
“Geddout! Leave our patch alone!”
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