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By EMORY SHARPLIN
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2013 Emory Sharplin
All rights reserved.
Tucker skidded backward as another bowl of eggs crashed to the ground. "Think what you're doing over a loaf of bread!" she cried, fumbling to grab the loaf from the counter. "Look at it! It's practically coal!"
The baker, a stout man with a red, sweaty face and fewer teeth than kind words, eyed the burned bread with his rolling pin clenched overhead. He scowled, his chapped lips curling. "enough excuses, orphan!"
"But when it burns—"
"You aren't to steal it! Is apprentice work so hard?"
He moved forward; she scrambled around the table. "I can do better, I swear!"
With a deafening crack, the baker slammed the pin on the counter. "oh, I've heard that before!" he spat. "A hundred times, orphan. And this time I've had it!" He regained his grip and shoved back from the table. "I've had it with you!"
Her eyes widened and she skidded to the floor, diving for cover. "It's not stealing if it has no value! No one wants to buy burned bread!" The baker grabbed for her neck and she scrambled back. "Just look—that loaf is worthless as ash!"
"So you burned it on purpose then!" He dragged his apprentice out by her hair and yanked her upright. "I knew it!"
"I did not!" Tucker twisted. "Let me go!"
He pinned her back against a pile of grain sacks and pressed his face nose-to-nose with hers. "I'll hand you over to the Coats next time. You hear that?"
She shoved him. "Hand me over, then, you brute! They couldn't hurt me!"
"Ha!" The baker scoffed and grabbed her shirt. "Stealin's punishable by death, and they'll kill you like any other."
"Get off me!" She spat. "I said, get off!" She felt his grip loosen and lunged forward, her feet skidding on the powdered wood. The baker caught her by her braid and forced her into the grain sacks. She twisted. "Let me go!"
Dishes shattered and the kitchen was blusterous with the sound of their scuffle. Tucker landed a sharp cuff to his nose and the man howled.
"You little—" He shoved her roughly against the wall and drew a fist back.
"Hello?" The sound of footsteps made them freeze. "Borus, where are you?"
The baker glanced toward the doorway, "Of all the luck, foul Loretta's here—"
"Let go of me, brute!" Tucker landed a knee in his gut. He wheezed and she tried again to twist out of his grip.
"Quit," the baker rasped. "There's a customer here!"
"Good!" She spat in his face and opened her mouth to yell, but the baker slammed a fist into her windpipe, cutting off her cry.
"I'll scream," she said, her voice a gasp. "Let me go or I'll scream—"
He shoved her flat against the wall. "You best stop that."
"Help," she wheezed, craning her neck toward the doorway. "Help—"
"All right!" The baker slammed her into the stone, knocking the breath out of her. "I'm letting you go. But next time you steal, I swear—"
Tucker writhed and his grip tightened for a moment, quivering. "You hear me? I'll hand you right over to those Blackcoats."
"Yes, I hear you! Now let me go!"
His eyes narrowed. "You're an ungrateful girl, you know that?"
She scowled. "You better go before that witch comes back here!"
The comment hung tersely between them, and then the baker grunted, dropping Tucker roughly onto the grain sacks and storming back to the counter in the other room. "Clean this up, orphan."
Tucker huffed. "That's the third time this week, you know!"
"I said clean it up!" He didn't look back.
She leaned against the wall and scowled, watching him leave. "You know the bruises are adding up! And if I didn't help you work, this whole store would—"
The man jerked the doorway curtain shut, blocking her out.
"Blood and piss!" She pulled herself up. "If I didn't work for you, I'd destroy this kitchen and steal everything I could carry!" She stalked over to the bread rack angrily. "Everything!"
Her eyes flickered down the fresh loaves and she imagined the baker's face, watching her storm out with an armful of hot rolls.
Immediately, Ash's words began prodding at the back of her mind, warning that she was convincing herself of something foolish. You'd be an idiot to walk away from that job, Tucker. A rash, starving idiot.
The girl ran her fingers along the rack, still wrought with temptation. She could load her arms full of bread and climb out the window—
And then what? Gorge yourself for a week? How long does that last? Revenge is hardly satisfying if you come crawling back in hunger at the end of it.
Tucker frowned. Ash was right. If she marched out of the bakery, the orphans would suffer at no cost to the baker.
She dropped the loaf back in its place. All right, Ash ... you win. But I'm not working fifteen hours a day just for bruises. She slipped a biscuit in her pocket. I'm doing it because I refuse to sell the most sacred of gifts.
That idea made her smirk as she wiped down the counters and collected toppled bowls of dough off the floor. Then, like always, she began humming the tune that had been stuck in her head for thirteen years.
* * *
The baker had been threatening to kick Tucker out since day one, but for whatever reason, he continued to keep her around. Perhaps it was their long-standing partnership, or perhaps it was his need for cheap labor. The reason had never genuinely bothered her, and she didn't intend to change that.
In fact, Borus had found Tucker, blue-lipped and scrawny, pawing through his garbage in search of scraps. She couldn't have been older than five, yet she moved with such determination that the man had stopped to watch her from the window. Surely, he thought, she was the girl he had been told to look for: Tucker Scrap, an orphan with pale eyes and a silver anklet. According to the manor girl who had delivered him a message weeks earlier, he would receive a generous reward for offering her work.
Unsurprisingly, he did, and the two had sported a less than harmonious partnership since then. They never discussed how they had met, and he never told her about the money he received for keeping her in his service.
By heritage, Tucker was a stubborn girl with shockingly pale eyes and a quick impulse when it came to fighting.
Growing up, the other orphans had called her Tucker Scrap, since she was one of the few children who had been abandoned with a note on a scrap of paper pinned to her blanket. Although the nickname had mostly worn off over time, Ash still used it every once in a while. Tucker always found it strange that no one used the nickname for Kally, who had also been abandoned with a note. But for some reason, the nickname had never stuck to the other girl. Tucker figured it was because Kally had quickly proved many other titles to be better fitting. Her friend made a point of disregarding Ash's "seek no mischief" philosophy.
* * *
Tucker glanced out the window, realizing it was almost closing time. She peered through the doorway, waiting to see if the baker was watching her. He was bargaining with the town's bedraggled candlemaker. Her lips pulled up in a sly smirk. Perfect.
Cautiously she slunk back to rifle through the jars and cupboards, stealing rosemary and mint leaves as she went. Perhaps one of the other orphans would be able to snag some vegetables, and they could make a soup.
When the kitchen was scavenged clean of whatever she could steal, Tucker's eyes flickered out to the counter, making sure the baker was still busy. Then, suppressing a grin and double-checking that all of her stolen goods were safely stashed, she ventured out into the main part of the bakery.
The store itself, even given its crumbling stone walls, dirt floor, and disgusting owner, was the nicest shop on the main street of Hellip. Dusk was starting to show through the open doorway. The bakery opened at sunrise and closed at sundown, but they stopped baking bread at noon. The leftovers were selling at half price now.
She was usually free to leave once the bread was baked and the kitchen cleaned, but she often stayed until closing anyway. She had nowhere else to go, the bakery was warm, and sometimes the baker would let her have any stale bread that hadn't sold by the end of the day. Not often, but occasionally.
Wisely standing out of arm's reach, she waited until the baker had helped the last costumer. "May I leave, sir?"
Borus rattled through the coin box. "Kitchen clean?"
He slammed the cupboard shut. "Dismissed, orphan. And tell that impish friend of yours to keep away from my street."
Tucker snorted. "I'll pass that reminder along to Kally, sir."
"Good," he grunted. "Now get out of my store."
"Yes, sir." She slipped out the doorway with a smirk, wondering what trouble her friend had caused most recently.
* * *
Tucker's feet left flour prints on the damp stairs as she skipped over them and onto the street. It was the start of winter, and the early night air was bitterly cold.
The girl crossed her arms and picked up speed. Business hours were over and the last shop owners were locking up. The sky was a dismal gray, clotted with heavy rain clouds. It was a usual evening in Hellip, and the workers were bustling home. The town's full name was Hellipanaryara, Hellip for short, yet despite the large name it was a tiny town on the outskirts of another small town. That town lay outside the city of Mattleshire, which in turn lay outside of Grimmic, which was the center of the kingdom. And although her imagination was the only way Tucker had of picturing what the center city was like, she knew it couldn't be worse than Hellip.
Perhaps it was her imagination, but the town seemed to be growing more and more deserted. She had heard a dozen men tell the baker they were going to try their luck in the city, and it seemed like they had finally picked up and left. Maybe we'd try it too, if Ash's leg wasn't so bad, and if Kally—
Somewhere just behind her, chain mail rattled.
"Hey—girl." The voice was deep. "Wait where you are."
She turned back to lock eyes with the burly Blackcoat who had spotted her. The man wore dark leather and chain mail, the king's emblem on his chest and a golden plume standing up on his helmet.
Tucker took a sharp breath, wondering why he had stopped her. "Oy—I would, sir, but my mother is waiting on me for dinner." She shuffled backward through the crowd. "I make this same journey every day. I'm no stranger, sir."
"I said, wait where you are." The knight's face was shadowed by chain mail, but his voice sounded menacing.
She glanced at his rank stone, a yellow gem mounted to his helmet. Yellow ... Her mind flickered. Was yellow high or low in rank? She strained to remember as she shuffled back from the knight, "But sir, I promised my—"
"In the name of the king, stop where you are!" he announced, moving toward her.
"Blood and piss—" She spun around, taking off at a full sprint. It was common knowledge that the Blackcoats were always chasing down undocumented girls.
Behind her, she heard the rustle of chain mail, the sound of racing feet, and the scrape of metal as he drew his sword. "Stop where you are, orphan!" She ducked around a corner and he continued to give chase. "In the
name of the king, halt!"
"In the name of your duty, catch me!" He had no chance, but she liked the sport of a good chase. "I dare you!"
The knight scoffed indignantly and grabbed for the back of her shirt. "You'll be hanged for this, girl!"
She forced herself faster, singing breathlessly as she ran. "Chase me, catch me, black and gold! Beat me, throw me in the hold! Strike me, hang me out of fear! But no surrender you'll find here!" Once she'd run fast enough to escape danger, her gait switched to a skip, and she rounded a corner, imagining the rage on his face.
The orphan song echoed down the alley behind her and she grinned. Singing like that could earn her public execution—but then again, so could the majority of her daily chores.
She hid and listened, waiting for the sound of retreating footsteps that meant the Blackcoat had abandoned the chase, as they all did eventually. When everything was silent, she picked back up to a jog and grinned.
Since the age of five, she had been able to outrun even knights on horseback. It was an abnormality she had shared with no one but her closest friend Kally, who supposed that the gift had been induced by witchcraft. Tucker supposed it might have something to do with the anklet on her left foot, the anklet that she never seemed able to get rid of.
She glanced down at the strange piece out of habit. It had gained chain lengths as she grew, never fitting even a pinch too small. She could take it off and throw it away, try to smash it, melt it in Borus's oven, but whatever she did, the next morning she and Kally would always find it fastened back around Tucker's ankle. At one point they had made a small career out of selling it to different merchants who didn't know that it would disappear from their storerooms overnight, but now no one in the town would even buy it anymore. Instead, they snapped at Tucker to keep her demonic trinket away from them.
Kally, of course, supposed that it was cursed. But if it was connected to her ability to outrun the king's men, Tucker supposed it was more of a blessing. Or perhaps it's just another curious thing that follows Tucker Scrap around. She grinned wryly. Just another treasure of the Hellip orphans.
She kept up her jog, lost in her rancor for the king's men. Chase me, catch me, black and gold—the king's colors. His knights patrolled every corner of the kingdom, beating the king's subjects into obedient submission and collecting taxes. Even her little town of Hellip wasn't overlooked, though in a town so small it was rare to spot any stone of high rank fixed upon their helmets. The really dangerous knights plagued the cities.
Tucker's skin crawled, thinking of the stories she had heard.
There were about a dozen different gems, but this was the first time she had ever run into a yellow knight. She tried to recall what that meant. Green to yellow, lowly fellow, red to black, run run jack. The rhyme was known by claimed-child and orphan alike, but there was no telling who had invented it.
She skipped a murky puddle, humming the tune again.
She already knew green meant less than a year into knighthood, and everyone knew that a black gem meant sorcerer and a red stone meant a knight blessed by the king himself. According to rumor, there were only a few dozen red knights in the entire kingdom, and if you found yourself close enough to catch the color, you had best pray for your sins and prepare to meet your doom. It was also said that every red knight's gem was colored by the king's blood.
As always, the eeriness of the alleys began creeping under her skin and she switched to humming her favorite tune. It was a rhyme that had been stuck in her head since the day she first climbed out of her cradle.
So slit the throat and gouge the eye murder each and every wife, rip a nail for every lie our dear old ruler, Ibis. You must have laughed when he went by and so you were the next to die. and now you will most surely miss: our dear old ruler Ibis.
The song had been the orphan lullaby for decades. She hopped from stone to stone through the alleys, adding verses as she pleased in her mind. Years earlier, before the children of the villagers realized that the orphans were strays, they had taught Tucker silly street games to the tune. She followed their rules now, landing on cracks and stones as the children had explained.
... his crown adorned with snake eyes—left toe on a crack.
... his cape dyed with blood—both feet on a stone.
... the king does kill his every wife—right hand to the wall.
... with an axe, a laugh, and a soft wet thud—she spun around and then stomped eight times, once for each wife.
The game had never seemed gruesome when she was a child, but the number of stomps had only gone up since then.
So dare you sing the rebel tune? For his daughter's rising soon We dare you sing the rebel tune, If his daughter's rising soon
According to the game, anyone who answered, "Yes, I sing the rebel tune, for his daughter's rising soon" had to prove it, and anyone who answered "I will not sing the rebel tune, for she is not rising soon" had to cross their heart and sing the king's anthem.
She thought back to all the times when she had proudly sang the rebel's song.
I was every bit as stupid as Ash claims I was, she thought wryly, trotting on ahead. I ought to be dead. Gadzooks, with any normal luck I would be.
After all, she'd seen countless peasants executed just for humming the tune. One minute they were walking home, and the next, before they even knew what had happened, the Blackcoats were dragging them down the street to jail, followed by the scaffold. It was never a pretty sight, but according to the law, inciting rebellion was high treason and would earn you death in the most torturous of ways.
So naturally we children dared each other to sing. Tucker rolled her eyes.
Excerpted from SCRAP by EMORY SHARPLIN. Copyright © 2013 by Emory Sharplin. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
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