I wake up the same way I fell asleep: knife in hand, boots for a pillow, and Nameless. When I push away the heavy wood pallet, a shiver runs up my arms. My shoulder aches from sleeping on my side, but the best way to stay warm is a small space and a good coat. I pull on my boots, wiggling the numbness from my toes. Curling my fingers into my threadbare sleeves, I leave behind the pungent puddles and uneven alley brickwork for the smoother cobblestone street bearing the morning foot traffic. Passersby shrug off yawns as vendors shout their prices. Two iron rings for a jar of dried apples, three copper coins for a cut of a morning pastry. The city of Seriden is waking up. Hat waits for me at the corner. Usually she’s leaning against the dark bricks and staring out at the morning crowds, her shoulders even and strong, a small smile on her lips that she doesn’t notice. She’ll trade our stolen coins for a breakfast of stale cornbread or day-old fish and oats while I pick out bump-grab marks. The easiest are pudgy-faced Legals with leather purses flaunted at their waists or flashy gems dangling past their stiff, starched collars. Today she’s fidgeting: shoulders pinched, fingers twitching. Never a good sign. “Bad news?” I ask.
Fresh air, sharp with ocean salt, chases away the last of my morning lethargy. She grabs my hand and pulls me back down the alley. So much for fresh air. “Bad, then.” I wrinkle my nose, but she doesn’t seem to notice the smell. She’s surprisingly resilient for being twelve or thirteen years old. “Did the bread caravan break down again? Last time that happened, the markets were a mess. Legals can’t survive without their sugar rolls, can they?” I laugh, but Hat shakes her head. Her bright red hair frizzes in an energetic halo around her face, and a rare frown curls her features. Somehow Hat easily manages what I can only strive for: optimism.
On days when we see a little kid starving in an alley, my stomach twists. Hat always hands over her breakfast with a smile. If Hat’s frowning, it’s serious. “Two more Nameless kids went missing last night,” she says. “It was Judge and Spinner. And you know Anchor, that kid who disappeared two weeks ago? He turned up this morning. Dead. It was…I don’t like it, Coin.” I give her a soft pat on the arm. “It’ll be okay, Hat.
You just have to come straight here in the mornings from now on, okay? And keep your knife handy.” Hat scans the edges of the rooftops, distracted. “What else is wrong?” I ask. “I didn’t see Devil this morning,” she says. Devil is a Nameless girl a bit older than me who always has the latest gossip. Want to know which guards are good for bribing? Looking to hire a thief? Ask Devil. She’s posted in the same place every morning, and she’ll trade news for food or trinkets. That’s how she makes her living as a Nameless. Instead of thriving on thefts and cons, she thrives with information. That and a smuggler’s business.
Hat visits Devil early in the mornings, staying in her good favor by sharing any gossip. If Devil’s not around, she knows something we don’t, something bad. Or… I ask the question I don’t want to ask. “Do you think she’s gone, like the others?” Hat’s frown deepens. “She’s older than most of the ones who’ve gone missing.” “Devil’s strong, though. Smart. A fighter. She once robbed a Legal’s house of all its doors and windows for cheating her out of a deal.” I try to keep the mood light.
“She’s probably off sweet-talking the new Royal Guard recruits.” “I doubt that.” She struggles to keep the frown. I rub my sore shoulder. “I can see that from the excellent unibrow you’re working on.” She breaks into a grin. “Is this better?” She furrows her brow even more, and a few strands of hair come loose from behind her ear. “Almost perfect.” I place a finger on each eyebrow and scrunch inward, completing the bridge. She laughs, her forehead smoothing back to normal.
Her small shoulders descend from a pinch into their sloping, natural curves. “Okay,” Hat says. “We’ll grab breakfast and look for Devil.” As we near West Market, the bustle of morning vendors grows louder. The crowds are starting to gather on the streets. The air is layered with cardamom and cinnamon, vanilla and rose perfumes, and the subtler scents of ash, dirt, and salt. As Legals arrange their wares and unpack shipping crates, Hat and I linger between a stall selling early spring harvests from local farms and a shop selling imported and strenuously taxed goods from inland cities. Hat says, “It’s pretty scary, right? These Nameless going missing, I mean.” She doesn’t sound scared. She sounds as if she wants something.
I groan, already knowing what it is. “It’s not safe for you or me to be walking out here alone all the time,” she says. “You should let me live with you.” I trudge a bit faster as if to escape the conversation, but she keeps pace nimbly. “We’ve talked about this,” I say. “I can’t look after you all the time. It’s better that you stay with Marcher. I move around a lot. I get into a lot of trouble. I create a lot of trouble.
” “Do you really believe that?” Hat says. “You think I’m better off in Marcher’s crew? You should know that’s not true. You used to be one of us. You left when you were my age. The way Marcher tells it, you were the best grifter he ever trained. And yeah, I’ll miss the kids and having my own spot to sleep—not to mention I have all my keepsakes—but I want to be on my own with you. I’m sick of going back there. Giving him everything I steal. I’m sick of him. Isn’t that why you left?” I roll my shoulders uncomfortably.
I hate this conversation every time we have it. “Marcher may be a spetzing bastard,” I say, “but he knows how to keep you safe. Most of you, anyway.” Hat frowns at me, confused. “You’re getting good,” I say, redirecting the conversation. “Really good. Won’t be long before you can strike out on your own. Just like I did.” I try for a reassuring smile, and she offers a half-hearted shrug in response, but I know better than she does how hard it can be to leave Marcher’s crew and how difficult it can be to go it alone. I can’t spend every night and morning with the weight of her life in my hands.
I spy a heavily guarded shipment of jewelry from the mountainous city of Tuvo, but most Legals can’t afford pricey gems like that, not as they’re losing their jobs every time the paper mill cuts its workforce. There’s been a rising tension in the air, and I’ve been getting more dirty looks than usual—it’s not my fault that being a thief and grifter is steady work. They’re jealous, I’m sure. Most of the foot traffic is Legals, who linger between stalls, with a few Royals mixed in, identifiable by their bright, colorful coats of blue, gold, and violet. Legals wear softer, pale colors, mostly grays and pastels. The Legals are the loudest, shouting discounts and goods for sale, while the Royals strut calmly among the stalls with the silence of those who don’t need to haggle over prices. The Nameless are on the outskirts, dressed in castaway clothing scavenged from the trash. That’s the easiest way to find the Nameless. We live on the streets, and we look it. “Got your eye on a mark yet?” Hat asks, casting her light brown eyes around the stalls.
On a typical day, it’s my job to pick the mark and decide whether we’ll con them or pickpocket them. It’s all about finding people with enough coins and rings to make the grab worthwhile, but not someone so rich that they’ll have us executed immediately if we’re caught. I send her after a Legal who is browsing a jewelry stall. The man is debating between a brooch with a quartz frame and one with gold, so I know he—unlike most Legals—has decent money in his pockets. As Hat moves through the crowd, a dark cap hiding her bright hair, my instincts prickle. I scan farther down the street, and that’s when I see him. Marcher. Black hair hangs past his chin, gray stubble shadows his face, and pale skin crinkles around his emotionless green eyes. He’s the worst of the street runners, with a crew of Nameless orphans trained to pickpocket Legals and pull small-time cons. He knows how to keep them safe, but when a big-enough score comes along, he doesn’t care if they get caught or killed.
Like Hat said, I used to be one of them. And, technically, Hat still works for him. I tell her to only volunteer for small jobs. Nothing dangerous. But if he sees her pulling a grab, he’ll come after her for the rings and coins she gets. If he knows she’s doing it with me, he might go so far as to get her caught. In a fluid motion, I rip off my dark maroon coat and start a quick pace out into the crowd. I snatch a beige coat from a Legal stall. As I move, I bump into a distracted Nameless man, causing him to topple a large bag of red beans. “Nameless cur!” the vendor shouts at him, bending to recover the beans.
“Look what you’ve done, alley trash! Gather them up before I call a Royal guard.” No one notices as I pull on the Legal coat. I move swiftly as I fasten the top few buttons—enough to cover my dirty green shirt. I roll my shoulders and straighten my posture, pulling my long dark brown hair behind my shoulders to hide the uneven, frayed edges. Snatching a few segments of cinnamon bark from a spice stall, I take a few running steps to catch up. I cut in front of Hat, just in time to bump into a well-dressed Royal. I plaster an apology on my face and speak in a fake sweet voice. “Oh, pardon me!” The Royal stumbles and meets my eye as I hold his elbow to keep him from falling. He’s mostly bald, and the wispy hair clinging to the sides of his head is pulled back with an elastic band. I force an even exhale.
Wearing Legal clothes is enough to get me thrown in prison, or if the patrolling Royal guards are in a bad mood, I’ll get a quick trip to the gallows. Times like this, I’m glad for the hungry hollow of my cheeks and the strong tilt of my jaw. No food or parents to speak of, but they give me the appearance he would expect of a Legal girl. “Quite all right,” the Royal says. I brush invisible dirt off his bright violet waistcoat. With deft fingers, I probe the lining but don’t find his purse. I give him a second glance. This Royal smiled. Blushed, even. His gaze lingered.
Time for a different tactic. I steer him to a spices stall, where the vendor is off arguing with a neighboring seller. “Please,” I say, gesturing at the array of fragrant flower petals, sliced herb roots, and pouches filled with ground spices. “Take anything you want. A token of my apology.” I angle myself around the corner so he can’t see the patched holes in my pants. The Royal skims over the spices as I sort the cinnamon. When his gaze lands on me, a bit too far south from my face, I grab a spice pouch and offer it to him. “Here.” I fix a guilty expression on my face.
“A collection of our most expensive spices.” He gives a coy smile, his head burning red. “I couldn’t possibly.” He reaches into his coat and fetches a soft blue velvet purse from a deep pocket. No wonder I couldn’t reach it. He pours out a few gold rings and silver coins, and before he can count them, I lean forward. “I heard there’s bad news floating around today,” I say. His blush and curiosity feel like a real heat coming off him, and I take a moment to focus. His fingers hover above the coins. His coy smile turns mischievous, as if he’s letting me in on a secret.
“I suppose Legal whispers don’t travel as quickly as those of the Royals. My dear, our beloved King Fallow passed away last night. Dreadfully sad, I know.” He is absolutely not sad. His face is alight with the drama of it all. He grins and adds, “The next heir could be anyone, whoever has the crown tattoo!” He winks at me, as if I could be that lucky Legal, and he leans close to savor my surprise. Don’t scowl. Don’t scowl. I place the spice pouch over the gold coins, slipping all three from his hand. Despite the sweat glistening at his temples, his hand is cold like a shock, and suddenly, instead of staring out at the market and the bustling Legals, I’m staring down a long corridor with a narrow band of red carpet stretching out beneath my feet.
I’m standing on my toes, peering into a room as a Royal guard shoos me away. I almost catch a glimpse of the dying king inside, but I bustle off down the corridor in disappointment. I run a dry hand through the white hair on the side of my head as my sharp black shoes pad quietly on the carpet. I let go of the Royal’s hand, and my vision snaps to the market. The sounds of arguing vendors and customers return to my ears, and the Royal before me looks dazed. “I saw him, you know,” the Royal says. “Caught a glimpse of him on his deathbed just last night. Quite tragic, in its own way.” The man shakes his head to clear his thoughts. I regain my composure and realize I’m still holding the gold coins.
I palm them and cross my arms in concern, dropping them into my pocket. I struggle for words, trying—for the sake of the con—to ignore what just happened. “When do you think the heir will step forward?” He shrugs and idly slides his coin purse into his jacket. He runs a sweaty thumb over the spice pouch. “We’ll have to wait and see.” I give a gracious curtsy and thank him again. He rejoins the crowd as I duck out of the stall. Hat still stands where I cut her off, arms raised in a sustained shrug. As I approach her, she pulls the black hat from her head and replaces it with a blue one. “Why did you cut me off? I thought my approach was solid,” Hat grumbles as we move to the edge of the crowd.
I show her the three coins, scratched and worn but still shining. Then I point over her shoulder at Marcher. When she sees him, her face pales and she moves closer to me. “You know he’ll still try to take it,” Hat says. Marcher stands on the corner, glaring at us. “Run along, Hat,” I say. “I’ve got an argument to get to.” She scampers behind me, moving closer to the alley, but she doesn’t quite leave. Marcher storms up to me. “That’s my grab,” Marcher says.
I pinch the gold coins between my fingers, fuming. “No. She was going to pick the pocket of a sprightly Legal, and I decided to pickpocket a Royal. This is mine. You know it is. She couldn’t have grabbed anything from a Royal.” “You did when you were her age,” Marcher says slyly. “You always had a gift for improvisation.” “That makes you stupid and a bastard,” I say. Even though I’m taller than him now, he’s still looking down on me.
“Even so,” he says, and he leans forward and snatches the coins from me. As he strolls away, a brazen tilt in his steps, heat rises in my chest. The heavy presence of the market crowd flattens into the background. I stomp after him, and I know I shouldn’t make a scene. I kick the back of his knee, sending him down. I definitely shouldn’t make a scene. I pretend to reach down to help him up, but I push him hard onto the ground instead. A flare of dark satisfaction burns through my chest, but it freezes when I see the coiling smirk still on his lips. I slam my knuckles against his left eye. So much for subtle.
The market has created a bubble of space around us, with most people passing by and ignoring what they think is a Legal beating on a Nameless, and a few of them idling with mild interest. If it gets too far, they’ll start placing bets. If it goes even further, they’ll call the Royal guards. Hat catches up to us, and she pulls me by the hand as if she’s leading a child, guiding me down the nearest alley. Marcher knows better than to bring any more attention to us, but he throws a withering glare from his good eye. At least he’s not smiling anymore. “I know, I know,” I mutter. “Not good.” Hat hands me my dark, ratty coat, which she rescued from the barrel I left it on, and I pull it on over the beige coat. I don’t want to ditch something nice just because wearing it could get me killed.
Hat tries and fails to hide an approving grin. “You guys were getting along so well, too.” Marcher and I have a solid history of mutual hatred. I throw his dock stash in the harbor; he raids my winter stocks. He foils my long con with a wealthy Legal; I send a couple of Royal guards to his latest hideout. He sees me as a competitor. He always has, even when I was a child. I see him—as I always have—as a spetzing bastard. I can handle the Legals and Royals, their condescending snarls and the pitiless angle of their chins. I can suffer their ignorance, their disrespect, and their blatant disgust.
It’s normal from them. But I won’t take it from the Nameless. I can’t. Especially not from Marcher. “So, the Royal shared an interesting rumor,” I say, and Hat’s frown makes a spectacular recovery. “King Fallow died, and none of the Royals have the tattoo.” “No one’s stepped forward? What Legal wouldn’t want to be king?” She leans close enough for me to see the uneven, patchy weave of the hat on her head. “Seriden hasn’t had an empty throne before. Not in our lifetime, anyway. You know how people get when there’s no one to tell them no.
They always want something or someone to be angry at.” She gestures between the two of us. She’s right. Most Royals and Legals hate us. Not only are we thieves and grifters, but we hate them right back. With gusto. It isn’t illegal to kill us, but it also isn’t illegal for us to commit crimes. Except that if we’re caught, it’s a toss-up whether we’re imprisoned or executed. There is no petitioning of the judiciary for us. “That’s just what we need.
” A pang of something like fear tightens in my stomach. “But here’s the thing. That Royal I talked to. I think he did something to me—I think he has the crown tattoo, maybe? Because when he touched my hand, he showed me his memory. I think.” “Do you want to track him down and find out?” I shake my head. I want to be as far away from Royalty as possible right now. “We still have time before the morning rush ends,” Hat says. “Let’s go to East Market.”