by Laura Williams McCaffrey


by Laura Williams McCaffrey



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Sixteen-year-old Lyla lives in a bleak, controlling society where only the brightest and most favored students succeed. When she is caught buying cheats in an underground shadow market, she is tattooed—marked—as a criminal. Then she is offered redemption and she jumps at the chance . . . but it comes at a cost. Doing what is right means betraying the boy she has come to love, and, perhaps, losing even more than she thought possible. Graphic novel–style vignettes revealing the history of this world provide Lyla with guidance and clues to a possible way out of the double bind she finds herself in.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547534190
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/16/2016
Format: eBook
Pages: 368
Lexile: 1090L (what's this?)
File size: 37 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.
Age Range: 12 - 18 Years

About the Author

Laura Williams McCaffrey is author of Marked, Water Shaper, and Alia Waking. She is on faculty at Solstice, an MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College, and lives in Vermont with her family. Visit her website at

Read an Excerpt


LYLA’S eyes opened. Darkness. Cold. The walls, too close, the ceiling, too low, crept toward her.
     The room isn’t squeezing shut. But she saw the walls press toward her and the ceiling sink. They closed her into a small, tight, airless cell, and then kept pressing in on her. She gripped the thin blanket, no protection at all.
     Listen. She always forgot to listen. Coming through the dark was the sound of slow deep breaths drawing in, drifting out. Hope slept nearby, calm and quiet.
     Lyla shut her eyes and listened hard. Matching her breath to Hope’s, she took air in. Then, breath matching breath, she pushed air out.
     In and out, with Hope. Their paired breaths sounded like one breath, one person. The walls and ceiling lifted away.

The second time Lyla woke, she gave up on sleep. Trying not to think of her airless, shut-in-the-cell night terrors, she lit a candle stub and climbed to the top of the farmhouse, into the small warm room she and Hope called the Aerie. She sat, careful not to let her feet brush over the piano keyboard painted on the floor near one wall. When Hope played the painted keys, she tilted her head as if she truly heard notes, and Lyla couldn’t help treating the keys as though sound could rise from them.
     The night terrors had started two weeks ago, not so long after Teacher Slate had invited her into her secondary school’s Advanced Studies room, which kids mostly called the Bright. She’d finally earned scores good enough to win a seat in the Bright. Yet primary alchemyks was far more confusing than she’d thought it was going to be. It was like a strange language but also like a strange mathyk: a blend of numbers, symbols, letters, and words that you used to form equations. And she wasn’t any good at learning them. But no primary alchemyks, no patron. No patron, no university. She’d be stuck grubbing for credit points the rest of her life. She wasn’t going to let that happen.
     Heat seeped through the floorboards and warmed the backs of her legs and heels. The sight of her Aerie wall floated her spirits up. Drawings she’d ripped from old paperzines and broadsheets, along with her one letter, covered the wall: a paneled zine strip of lanky Pirate Jackman in his old-fashioned black trousers and his wide-brimmed black hat; a zine panel of Lady Captain grinning from beneath her floppy brown hat; a glossy roof-leaper at night, the lacy glow of its nose, its undercarriage propellers, and its wings; the letter, with an ink drawing of an actual book, inviting her into the Bright; a large broadsheet of the university’s tall, red brick library with its sign proclaiming AN OPEN DOOR FOR ALL WITH TALENT AND DILIGENCE.
     There was also a lot to float up her spirits outside the Aer­ie’s small window, down the dark hillside toward town. Though it was early, lights brighter and steadier than any candle’s light already shone here and there: amber, blue, rose. Glittering, silent ice-ships skimmed the river ice, heading toward other towns downriver, or maybe even farther south, toward the cities. On the Hill, the steepest part of Hill’s Ridge, where she lived, but nearer town, the many lights at the Project shone like a thick layer of red-orange coals. Trying to hold the shine of these lights within her, Lyla closed her eyes. She vowed for the millionth time to earn the scores she needed to keep her seat in the Bright. She vowed to become an inventor and construct clean, lovely machines. One day, she would be surrounded by sleek metal and light.
     She heard Hope call from below, “Lyla?”
     “Coming,” she said, and climbed down from the Aerie.
     In the dim candlelight of their bedroom, Hope was combing her smooth black curls. Even with sleep-droopy eyelids she was beautiful. “You couldn’t sleep again?” she asked. “Have you been up for a while?”
     “Not long.”
     Hope leaned over and kissed Lyla’s temple. “Poor Ly.”
     “I’m all right.”
     Hope fetched hot water from the kitchen stove, and they sponged off. Then Lyla took her trousers from the well-sanded hooks Da had made for their bedroom in the fall, and she held them up in front of her. A patch in the backside was wearing thin. “I wish I could get new trousers. And boots.”
     “They’ve ripped through?” Hope asked.
     “We don’t have the credit points, Ly.”
     “I know that, Hope. I said ‘wish.’”
     Hope’s eyebrows rose in the way that meant, Better not to wish after what you can’t have. But Hope only said, “I’ll warm coffee. If we hurry we’ll have time to walk by the university.”
     Why Hope couldn’t simply say, “Me too,” once in a while, Lyla didn’t understand.
     She quickly pulled on a sweater and trousers, and carried the candle down the dark hallway to the kitchen. “Coffee?” Hope lifted the percolator off the cookstove, poured poor-man’s coffee into a mug, and handed it to Lyla.
     Lyla raised the mug to her face. It smelled faintly of burned chicory roots. “Seems a little weak.”
     “I ran Ma and Da’s grounds through again. The grounds were cold—Ma and Da must’ve left pretty early. Did you hear them?”
     “No. I didn’t hear them come home last night, either. They must be taking long shifts.” Lyla’s stomach growled; she wanted porridge, but she knew they were out. In the last few weeks, there’d been grain shortages in the shops. Words suddenly wrote themselves on the insides of her eyelids: There’ll be grain for sale at the next shadow market. No, she couldn’t risk going to another. Not ever again.
     “You all right?” Hope asked. “You sound hungry.”
     “Yeah. I’m just eager to drink this.”
     Hope started to laugh. “Sure you are.”
     Lyla gulped it down. “Let’s get on. So we can go by the university.”
     Lyla pulled on her coat and knit cap, and then she followed Hope outside. Together, they rushed over the packed-snow path through the clearing. They passed the barn, which leaned as though the north wind had reached out a hand and given it a shove. They passed the pines that didn’t quite hide the remains of the old stream-driven tiller. The rust-red metal handles and tines poked up through the snow.
     When the girls left their farm’s path for the larger path, they went faster. The Hill was usually safe, but not always. Ever watchful, Hope walked with her back so straight, she seemed more than two inches taller and eighteen months older than Lyla. She had a graceful sway that made Lyla feel frizzy, bent, and short. Yet Lyla couldn’t blame her sister for being so beautiful. The two slipped together over the ice-glazed snow and caught each other, holding tight and finding their balance.
     Hope kept glancing at the horizon and the dawn orange. “I don’t know if we’ll have time.”
     “We left early enough,” Lyla assured her.
     Nearer town, they reached Project Road. Several banners hung from a rope strung between two trees: YOU’RE INVITED—4TH MONTH 4—THE PROJECT UNVEILED! and THE TOWN COUNCILOR’S PROJECT: PROTEAN POWER FOR EVERY HOME. Looking down that road, Lyla could see the fence and guards around the Project’s long walls. The gabled towers at each corner stood far taller than the walls, their triangular windows illuminated pale yellow.
     Lyla deliberately slowed, refusing to scurry across Project Road even though members of Red Fist might be lurking. A year or so ago, she’d stood before Town Councilor Hall with everyone else and she’d listened with a feeling fluttering inside her that she didn’t have a name for. Surprise? Excitement? The town councilor announced that the prime councilor and senators had called for an era of charity among barons. Across Highland, town and city councilors, along with other barons, would build ­“Projects”—workshops where inventors would construct revolutionary machines that would make “clean Protean power affordable for all.” None of the Projects had yet been unveiled, but since the councilor’s announcement, the Projects all over Highland had become Red Fist targets, just like the one here in Hill’s Ridge. So close to where Lyla walked, Red Fists had kept trying to break through the Project’s fences. They knew that inside there’d be plenty of metal and other supplies to steal. Plenty to sell in their shadow markets.
     The path leveled and curved, from trees to town. Just as Hope asked, “Do you smell that?” Lyla smelled something burning. A column of smoke rose from the center of town, the location of the university. Hope whispered, “Red Fist.”
     Lyla’s feet drew her forward. “Wait,” Hope said. “We shouldn’t go that way.”
     “We’ll be careful.”
     Hope shook her head, but she kept walking beside Lyla. On Main Street they passed diggers who hauled shovels and pipes; two women bundled in the kind of brightly colored, thin wraps that merchants wore, whispering in short, sharp bursts. A huge digger walked ahead, a broad guy with a loping walk. Lyla leaned forward. Was it Gillis Waterhouse? No; when the guy turned to the left, that side of his face was unscarred.
     “Look at that big guy’s arm,” murmured Hope. “Marked.” Lyla glimpsed a dark line on his wrist, and she crossed with Hope, at the corner, to avoid him.
     The smoke clogged Lyla’s nose. In the narrow street, a blue peace officer snow-cruiser sped by, its rounded glass and metal body studded with lights like jewels. Its back tread circled, and its front skis bumped over the packed snow, taking it up the hill toward the smoke. Sirens called out a throaty undulating cry. More snow-cruisers careened past, so quickly, their treads and skis barely seemed to touch the ground.
     Lyla sped up, pulling Hope along. They neared the prison, a flat-topped concrete building with windows like barred eyes looking down the hillside. Behind the windows were shifting forms. Inside the high barbed wire fence, guards stood in their blue caps and long blue overcoats. One at the fence’s edge craned his head to peer up the slope in the direction of the university, and re­adjusted his rifle strap.
     Hope slowed. “We should go back and take the Digger Street route instead.”
     “We’ll just look,” Lyla whispered.
     “We have to keep out of the way.”
     They shouldn’t get too close to a Red Fist attack or talk to Marked near an attack. These weren’t official safety laws, but might as well have been. “We won’t go close,” Lyla said.
     The officer with the rifle was looking at them. Lyla raised a hand in hello. He gave her a long, studying stare.
     Hope whispered, “We should turn back.”
     “No. We’d look like we’re trying to hide.” Though going forward might make them look too interested in the attack. Sometimes there didn’t seem to be any right thing to do.
     As they passed the fence edge where the officer stood, he nodded at them. Then he turned away and studied the smoke.
     “We aren’t Red Fists. Or Marked,” Lyla whispered to Hope, quickening her pace as they headed toward the smoke. “We should be able to walk where we want.”
     “No one says we can’t.”
     But we’re thinking we should turn away, Lyla wanted to point out. Instead of having the same old argument, she led Hope to the corner where Main Street met University Street. Hope said, “There still may be Red Fists nearby.”
     “If we have to, we’ll bolt.” Lyla grasped Hope’s hand more tightly, a tense knot. They walked around the corner onto University Street.
     Set back from the street, on the slope, the university’s brick buildings still towered, whole and grand. Undulating lights still shone from the stained-glass windows. Some baron’s roof-leaper—undercarriage propellers whirring, bright metal wings wide—soared from a peaked copper roof and glided through the sky.
     The university was safe. Hope’s mittened hand squeezed Lyla’s, and Lyla squeezed back. Hope murmured, “It’ll be all right.”
     Hope sounded more reassuring than certain. Across the way, on the far block, Lyla saw that a corner of the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the university was broken. Twisted chunks of its metal lay on the ground. Fire officers sprayed a burning guard tower with streams of water. Near them, peace officers spoke to a cluster of inventors, merchants, and diggers. One officer followed a hound that sniffed at the sidewalk, searching for a scent. “Red Fists broke the fence.” Smoke stung the inside of Lyla’s nose. “I can’t believe they broke the university fence. How can they possibly think they could get in to steal anything that way?”
     “Maybe they don’t. Maybe they just broke it to show they can. To scare us.” Hope was scanning the gathering crowd as if she thought someone near them might be a Red Fist crazy. “We should get on.”
     Lyla started quickly around a pair of merchants and then around tired-faced diggers covered in black mine dirt, pushing herself through the tangle.
     “Wait,” Hope called.
     As Lyla shoved to the edge of the sidewalk, black and red swirls painted on the rim of a gutter grille caught her eye. They looked like an abstract pattern, but only to anyone who didn’t know how to recognize shadow-market codes. Lyla stopped short and read the code hidden in the pattern: S 247. The location and date of the next Red Fist shadow market.
     “What’s wrong?” asked Hope, catching up to her.
     “Nothing.” She pulled Hope away from the code before an officer noticed it, and them standing near it. Lyla tried to scrape the message out of her mind, but it stayed emblazoned there: S 247. “Look. The other end of the university—it’s perfectly fine.”
     She drew Hope away from the Red Fist attack and the Red Fist code, up two blocks, and across the street that ran past the university fence’s many wrought-iron bars with wrought-iron flowers. The sirens quieted, and despite the drifting smoke, Lyla smelled food on a gust of wind: cooking meat and bread. Her almost-empty stomach threatened to collapse in on itself. Within the fence, at the end of a broad walkway, the library stood taller than the other buildings around it. Its older walls, built before the wars, were dark red. During the wars, spiritualists from the south, Gray Cloaks, fought barons because they thought Protean was an abomination. The walls that had been restored since the Gray Cloaks invaded and shattered them were lighter and pinker. One of the library’s top corners was emblazoned with the number 7—the seventh university in Highland that barons completely repaired after the end of the wars. The top floor of the library was ringed with stained-glass windows. Names of inventors from the Great Invention Era shone blue, green, red, orange, and yellow in the pale winter light.
     At the same time, as if sharing the same thought, Lyla and Hope turned the corner and walked toward the university’s large gate. They stopped far from the two wrought-iron doors so that the guards in the brick towers wouldn’t worry too much. They stood by the sign that proclaimed AN OPEN DOOR FOR ALL WITH TALENT AND DILIGENCE.
     From across the street, a group of people walked toward the gate. They were university students, wearing long brown wool coats buttoned high against the cold. Their skin, no matter how fair or dark, was smooth and unchapped, likely protected by soft salves. They looked more serious, more studious, than the students who came to the club where Lyla worked with Hope, the Beacon. A few carried cups with tops—surely, thick real coffee with heavy cream and white sugar. The biggest guy wore a leather sack slung across his front. He hugged it, and his eyes scanned the street as if he expected someone to run up and try to grab it from him. The sack wasn’t bulky, and its rounded shape didn’t offer any clue as to what was in it. Lyla tried not to stare at him; she didn’t want to look like a Red Fist thief.
     One student, tall and thin, smiled at the others, though worry lines creased his forehead. “The officers will put out the fire, Mina,” he said to a girl with many, long thick braids. “The fence can easily be fixed. Red Fist will have to slag off.” He draped his arm around her.
     She managed a smile. “For a skinny boy, you sure are heavy.”
     “Nah. You’re just weak.” He slumped against her, and she listed to the side.
     “And since when have you had an earring?” Mina craned her neck to get a better look at his ear.
     “Jimmy did it last night,” he said. “What do you think, beloved?”
     “I don’t know if I like a boy in diamonds,” said Mina. They all laughed, their graveness gone for a moment. Then they fell silent as one of them opened the gate with a key. After pulling the gate shut behind them, they headed in the direction of the library.
     “Remember Mina?” Hope stared at the students. “She lived on Digger Street. A university inventor became her patron after she earned highest scores both her years in Advanced Studies.”
     Lyla peered through the bars at Mina. “I don’t remember her. What class was she in?”
     “Two years ahead of mine. She’s been here more than a year.”
     “You earn high scores in Advanced Studies.” Lyla couldn’t say that she earned them too, because thus far she hadn’t. “And I’m going to work harder.” The dark, bold shadow-market code—S 247—filled her mind; if only she could remember Advanced Studies alchemyk symbols and words as easily. “I’m going to learn alchemyks really well. Better than anything else.”
     Mina and the rest climbed the library’s granite steps. As they disappeared through the doorway, a couple of people on the library roof tossed a handful of small, bright metal things into the air. Lyla didn’t know what the metal things were—a cloud of tiny Protean-powered machines?—but they were lovely. They glittered and circled like dozens of tiny fireflies.
     “Let’s get to Advanced Studies,” said Hope.
     Lyla stood at the wrought-iron gate a moment longer, not going. She stared at the granite steps, the paneled oak doors, the tall and spacious red-brick buildings, the window-shine, and the circling glitter beyond the bars.

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