Enter the world of EVERLESS, your next fantasy obsession. Also, our current fantasy obsession. Basically soon to be everyone’s fantasy obsession.
EVERLESS is set in the land of Sempera, where time is literally money, bound to blood and extracted as coins. Years of life are traded away, and one girl, desperate to earn more time, finds herself at the center of a secret that will change the fate of time itself. It’s got the magical mythology of Caraval, the fast-paced royal action of Red Queen, and the dark, shocking twists of Three Dark Crowns. So our only question is… are you ready for it?
Scroll down and read the first three chapters of EVERLESS now!
Most people find the forest frightening, believing the old tales of fairies who will freeze the time in your blood, or witches who can spill your years out over the snow with only a whisper. Even the spirit of the Alchemist himself is said to wander these
woods, trapping whole eternities in a breath.
I know better than to be afraid of stories. The forest holds real danger—thieves who lie in wait, crude knives and alchemic powder on their belts, to steal time from anyone venturing outside the safety of the village. We call them bleeders. They’re why Papa doesn’t like me hunting, but we have no choice. Luckily, in the winter, there’s no undergrowth to hide the thieves from sight, no birdsong to muffle their footsteps.
Besides, I know these woods better than anyone else. I’ve always loved it here, the way the tangled branches overhead shutter out the sun and block the bitter wind. I could stay out here all day, or just keep walking through trees glittering with webs of fine ice, through the sunlight sifted into daggers. Good-bye.
Fantasy. I would never leave my father alone, especially not if he’s—
“He’s not,” I tell myself.
The lie freezes in the winter air, falls to the ground like snow. I kick at it with the toe of my boot.
Papa says some of the trees in the forest are a thousand years old. They were here before anyone alive now was born, even the Queen, even before the Alchemist and the Sorceress bound time to blood and metal—if there ever was such a time. These trees will be standing tall long after we’re gone. Yet they aren’t predators like wolves or people. The roots beneath my feet don’t live for centuries by causing other plants to shrivel and turn gray. And their time cannot be bled from them.
If only we were more like trees.
Papa’s old musket weighs heavy on my back, useless. There’s been no game for miles, and in just a few hours it will be dark and the market stalls will draw their shades, one by one. Soon I’ll have to go into town and face the time lender. I’d hoped hunting would calm my nerves, prepare me for what I must do. But now I only feel more afraid.
Rent is due tomorrow for Crofton. Like every month, the Gerling family will replenish its coffers with our blood-iron, claiming we owe them for their protection. Their land. Last month, when we couldn’t pay, the collector let us off with a warning—Papa looked so sickly, and I so young—but it was not a kindness. This month, he’ll ask for double, maybe more. Now that I’m seventeen, legally allowed to bleed my years, I know what I have to do.
Papa will be furious, if he has his wits.
Just one more try, I tell myself as I come across a small creek running through the trees. Its trickle has gone silent, frozen over—but underneath, there’s a quick flicker of green and brown and gold: a trout, wriggling alone, along some invisible current. Alive under all that ice.
I kneel quickly and smash the skein of ice with the butt of the gun. I wait for the water to settle, for the flash of scales, sending up a silent plea to the Sorceress out of desperation. The blood-iron this trout would fetch wouldn’t make a dent in the rent Papa owes, but I don’t want to enter the market empty-handed. I won’t.
I focus, willing my racing heart to calm.
And then—as sometimes happens—the world seems to slow. No, not seems. The branches really do stop whispering in the wind. Even the almost inaudible crackle of the snow melting on the ground stops, like the world is holding its breath.
I look down, at a pale glimmer in the muddy water—it too is caught in the breath of time. Before the moment can lapse, I strike, plunging my bare hand into the creek.
The shock of the cold travels up my wrist, dulling sensation in my fingers. The fish remains still—stunned—as I reach toward it, as though it wants to be caught.
When I close my hand around its slick body, time speeds up again. The fish flails in my grip, pure muscle, and I gasp, almost losing it. Before it can fling itself to freedom, I yank it from the water and dump it into my bag in one practiced motion. For a second I watch, a little nauseated, as the fish flops around inside, making the burlap twitch.
Then, the bag is still.
I don’t know why time sometimes slows like that, completely at random. Heeding Papa, I keep it to myself—he once saw a man bled twenty years for simply claiming he could make an hour flow backward with a wave of his hand. Hedge witches, like Calla in our village, are tolerated as an amusement for the superstitious—as long as they pay rent. I used to go and listen to her stories about time rippling, slowing, sometimes even causing rifts or quakes in the earth, until Papa forbade me from visiting her shop, leery of drawing attention to us. I still remember its perfume—spice mingled with the blood of ancient rites. But if Papa has taught me anything, it’s that keeping my head down means staying safe.
I stick my hands in my underarms to warm them and crouch over the river again, trying to slip back into focus. But no more fish come, and slowly the sun lowers its arms through the trees.
Anxiety knots my stomach.
I can’t put off the marketplace any longer.
I’ve known for years it would eventually come to this, but still I curse under my breath. Turning back toward town, I sling my dripping satchel over my shoulder. I’ve gone farther out than usual, and I regret it now with the snow soaking through my worn-out boots, the trees intercepting what remains of the day’s warmth.
Eventually the woods thin out and give way to the dirt road leading into town, which has been churned into frozen mud by hundreds of wagon wheels. I trudge along its side, steeling myself for the marketplace. I’m haunted by thoughts of the time lender’s blade, the vials waiting to be filled with blood. And then the blood waiting to be turned to iron, the wave of exhaustion I’ve heard follows as he leeches time from one’s veins.
Worse, though, is the thought of listening through the thin walls of the cottage as Papa tosses and turns on his straw mattress. Sorceress knows he needs the rest. This last month, I saw him waning before my eyes, like a winter moon.
I swear his eyes are graying—a sign that one’s time is running out.
If only there weren’t such a simple explanation for this morning, when he forgot my birthday.
Papa has never forgotten my birthday before, not once. If only he would just admit that he’s been selling time, despite my begging him not to, and let me give him a few years. If only the Sorceress and Alchemist were real and I could lock them up, demand that they find a way to give him lasting life.
What if—I can’t look at the thought straight on—what if he only has a month, a day?
A memory floats to the top of my mind of an old beggar woman in Crofton who had bled her last week for a bowl of soup, stumbling from door to door, greeting every person in town and pleading for a day-iron or two, or even just a bit of bread. She forgot the names of the people first—then she forgot the shape of the village entirely, and wandered around the fields, raising her hand to knock on air.
Papa and I found her curled in the wheat, her skin cold as ice. Her time had run out. And it all started with the forgetting.
Thinking of her, I run. My blood urges me on, begging to be turned to coin.
Crofton announces itself first by a few spindly columns of smoke, then the patchwork of rooftops peeking out over the hills. The narrow path leading to our cottage turns east off the main road, well before the village. But I pass it by and keep walking, toward the noise and smoke of the market.
Inside the low stone wall that roughly marks the village periphery, row houses lean together like a huddling crowd, as if by being close they’ll succeed in keeping out the cold, or the woods, or the slow suck of time. People hurry by me here and there, bodies hidden in layers, heads ducked against the wind.
The marketplace is nothing more than a long stretch of muddy cobblestone where three roads meet. It’s crowded and noisy this afternoon: rent is due for everyone, and the space is thick with people selling. Men in rough farmers’ clothes and women with babies slung across their backs haggle over bolts of cloth and loaves of bread and cattle bones thick with marrow, ignoring the handful of beggars who wander from stall to stall, their refrain—an hour? An hour?—blurring into the general hum of activity. The air is dim with smoke from the oily cook fires.
There’s a long line winding from Edwin Duade’s time lending shop; Papa and I are scarcely the only ones who scramble every month to make ends meet. The sight always makes my stomach hurt—dozens of people grouped up along the walls, waiting to have time drawn out from their blood and forged into blood-iron coins. I know I have to join them, but somehow, I can’t force myself into the queue. If Papa finds out . . .
Better to get something to eat first, to fortify my strength before I sell my time. And I may as well sell my catch, measly as it is.
I start for the butcher’s stall, where my friend Amma stands behind the counter, doling out strips of dried meat to a cluster of schoolgirls in clean pinafores. A pang of mixed nostalgia and envy goes through me. I could have been one of those children. I was, once. After Papa’s expulsion from Everless, the Gerling estate—the flash of anger as I think of it is as familiar as my own heartbeat—he spent his savings on books and paper for me, so I could go to school. But as his sight worsened, the money for books and paper ran out along with his work. Papa’s taught me everything he knows, but it’s not the same.
I push the thought away and wave at Amma when she catches my eye. She smiles, creasing the scar that runs down one cheek. It’s a relic of a bleeder raid on the village where she was born, an attack that left her father dead and her mother with only a few days left in her blood. She clung to life long enough to bring her daughters to Crofton before her time ran out completely, leaving only Amma to provide for her little sister, Alia.
To Amma—probably, to many of the schoolgirls I wade through—my hatred of the Gerlings would seem petty. They keep their towns free of bleeders and highwaymen like the ones that killed Amma’s parents, and oversee trade. For their protection, they expect loyalty—and, of course, blood-irons every month. Sempera’s borders are guarded to prevent anyone from slipping away with the secrets of blood-iron, which is why Papa and I stayed on Gerling lands even after we were expelled from Everless for burning down the forge all those years ago.
I remember Everless—its tapestry-lined hallways and gleaming bronze doors, its occupants flitting about in gold and silk and jewels. No Gerling would stalk you in the forest to slit your throat, but they are thieves all the same.
“I heard they’ve set the date, for the first day of spring,” one of the schoolchildren gushes.
“No, it’s sooner,” another insists. “He’s so in love, he can’t wait till spring to marry her.”
Only half listening, I know they’re chattering about what seems like the only topic on anyone’s lips these days—Roan’s wedding, the joining of the two most powerful families in Sempera.
Lord Gerling’s wedding, I correct myself. He’s not the sticky, gap-toothed boy I knew, who would join the servant children in a game of hide-and-seek. As soon as he’s married to Ina Gold, the Queen’s ward, he’ll be as good as Her Majesty’s son. The kingdom of Sempera is divided between five families, yet the Gerlings control over a third of the land. Roan’s wedding will make them even more powerful. Amma rolls her eyes at me.
“Go on,” she says, shooing the schoolgirls away. “Enough chatter.”
They scamper away in a swirl of too-bright colors, their faces aglow. In contrast, Amma looks exhausted, hair tied tightly back, dark circles beneath her eyes. I know she must have been up since before sunrise hanging and cutting meat. I pull out the measly trout to place on her scale.
“Long day?” Her hands are already moving to wrap the fish in paper.
I smile at her as best I can. “It’ll be better in the spring.” Amma’s my best friend in the world, but even she doesn’t know how bad things have gotten for Papa and me. If she knew that I was about to be bled, she’d pity me—or worse, offer to help. I don’t want that. She has enough troubles.
She gives me a bloodstained hour-coin for the fish and adds a strip of dried meat as a gift for me. When I accept them, she doesn’t take her hand from mine. “I was hoping you’d come by today,” she says, her voice lower now. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Her fingers are icy and her tone too serious. “What?” I say, trying to keep my voice light. “Has Jacob finally asked you to run away with him?” Jacob is a local boy whose obvious crush on Amma has been the subject of our jokes for years.
She shakes her head and doesn’t smile. “I’m leaving the village,” she says, still gripping my hands tightly. “I’m going to work at Everless. They’re hiring servants to help with preparations for the wedding” She smiles uncertainly.
The smile slips from my own face and cold spills through my chest. “Everless,” I repeat after her numbly.
“Jules, I’ve heard they’re paying a year on the month.” Her eyes are bright now. “A whole year! Can you imagine?”
A year they’ve stolen from us, I think.
“But . . .” My throat is tight. Most of the time, I try to hold the memories of Everless, of my childhood, at bay. But Amma’s face, full of hope, is bringing it all back to me in a flood—the labyrinthine halls, the sweeping lawn, Roan’s smile. Then, the memory of flames burns everything else away. My mouth suddenly tastes bitter.
“Haven’t you heard the rumors?” I ask. Her smile falters, and I pause, hating to puncture her happiness. But I can’t take the words back, so I plow on instead. “That they’re only hiring girls. Pretty women. The elder Lord Gerling treats servants like toys, right under his wife’s nose.”
“That’s a risk I’ll have to take,” she says softly. Her hands fall from mine. “Alia is going too, and Karina—her husband is gambling away their time.” I can see the anger in her eyes—Karina is like a mother to her, and it enrages Amma to watch her suffer. “No one has work. Everless is the only real chance I’ve got, Jules.”
I want to argue further, to convince her that the fate of an Everless girl is thankless and degrading, that they all just become the title without a name of their own, but I can’t. Amma’s right—those who serve the Gerlings are compensated well, at least by Crofton’s standards, though the blood-irons they’re paid are taken—stolen—from people like Amma, me, and Papa.
But I know what it is to be hungry, and Amma doesn’t share my hatred of the Gerlings, or my knowledge of their cruelty. So I smile at Amma as best I can.
“I’m sure it’ll be wonderful,” I say, hoping she doesn’t hear the doubt in my voice.
“Just think, I’ll see the Queen with my own eyes,” she gushes. While Papa secretly scorns the Queen, in most families, she is little less than a goddess. She might as well be a goddess: she’s been alive since the time of the Sorceress. When blood-iron spread through everyone’s veins, invaders descended from other kingdoms. The Queen, then the head of the Semperan army, crushed them, and has been ruling ever since.
“And Ina Gold,” Amma continues. “She’s supposed to be very beautiful.”
“Well, if she’s marrying Lord Gerling, she must be,” I reply lightly. But my stomach clenches at the thought of Lady Gold. Everyone knows her story: an orphan like so many, abandoned as an infant on the rocky beaches near the palace on Sempera’s shore as a sacrifice to the Queen. In light of the many attempts on the Queen’s life, especially in her early years, she refused to have her own child or take a spouse; instead, she promised to choose a child to bring up as a prince or princess—and if they were worthy, to inherit the crown when the Queen was ready to pass on the throne. Possibly Ina’s parents were even more desperate than the peasants of Crofton are. She caught the eye of the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, and the Queen chose Ina Gold as her daughter—and two years ago, officially named Ina as her own heir.
Now she’s seventeen. The same age as Amma and me—but she’ll inherit the throne, and the royal time bank, and live for centuries. And her time will be filled with feasts and balls and things I can’t even imagine, unconcerned with me and everyone else burning through our little lives outside the palace walls.
I tell myself the envy that sticks in my throat is because of this, and not because she will be Roan’s wife.
“You could come too, Jules,” Amma says quietly. “It wouldn’t be so bad if we were there to look after each other.”
For a second, I imagine it—the narrow servants’ halls and vast sweep of the lawn, the grand marble staircases.
But it’s impossible. Papa would never stand for it. We were forced to flee Everless, flee the Gerlings. It’s because of them that we’re starving.
Because of Liam.
“I can’t leave Papa,” I say. “You know that.”
Amma sighs. “Well, I’ll see you when I return. I want to save up enough time to go back to school.”
“Why stop there?” I tease. “Perhaps a nobleman will fall in love with you and sweep you away to a castle.”
“But what would Jacob do then?” she says with a wink, and I force a laugh. Suddenly I realize just how lonely I’ll be in the long months that Amma is gone. Seized by a sudden fear that I’ll never see her again, I pull her into a hug. Despite the long hours spent separating bone and gristle, her hair still smells like wildflowers. “Good-bye for now, Amma.”
“I’ll be back before you know it,” she says, “full of stories.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I say. I don’t say: I just hope they’re the happy kind.
I tarry with Amma for as long as I can, but the sun doesn’t stop sinking. My stomach heavy with dread, I trudge off to the time lender. I weave between stalls to find the end of the still-too-long line, winding toward Duade’s door with its burnt-in hourglass symbol. Behind it will be the flash of the blade, the powder that turns blood and time to iron.
I keep my eyes on the ground in an effort to avoid the sight of the people who leave the shop, pale and breathless and a little bit closer to death. I try to tell myself that some of them will never visit the time lender again—that next week, after they find work, they will go home and melt a blood-iron in their tea and drink it down. But that doesn’t happen here in Crofton; at least, I’ve never seen it. We only ever bleed, only ever sell.
After a few minutes, a commotion draws my eyes up. Three men are emerging from the store—two collectors, Everless men, the family crest gleaming on their chests and short swords swinging on their belts; and between them, the time lender, Duade, his arms pinned in their grip.
“Let me go,” Duade shouts. “I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
The crowd murmurs, and I feel panic cinch around us all. Certainly no small number of illegal happenings go on in Duade’s shop, but the Gerlings’ police have always let them pass with a wink and a nod and a month-iron slipped from palm to palm. The time lender might be an oily, greedy sort, but we all need him at one time or another.
I need him today.
As Duade struggles uselessly against the officers, the sound of hooves rings out through the square. Everyone quiets at once, Duade going still in the collectors’ grip as a young man on a white mare rounds the corner into the marketplace, hood drawn up against the cold.
Roan. In spite of myself, my heart lifts. Over the past few months, now that he is of age, Roan Gerling has started to pay visits to the villages his family holds. The first time he appeared, I scarcely recognized him, lean and blindingly handsome as he’s become—but now, whenever I go to market, I secretly hope to see him, though I know he can never see me. I want to hate him for his fine clothes, the way he looks around with that slight, benevolent smile, reminding us that he owns every tree and cottage and pebble in the road. But my memories of Roan run too deep for hatred, no matter how I try. And besides, the collectors are more lenient when he’s around. Whatever is happening with Duade, Roan will put an end to it.
But when I glance back at the storefront, the look on Duade’s face as he stands pinioned between the two guards isn’t relief. It’s pure fear.
Confused, I turn as the boy yanks down his hood. He has the right broad shoulders, golden skin, and dark hair. But he is all severity: stormy brows; hard nose; a high, aristocratic forehead.
The breath vanishes from my lungs.
Not Roan. Liam. Liam, Roan’s older brother, who I thought was safely off studying history at some ivied academy by the ocean. Liam, who for ten years has walked in my nightmares. I’ve dreamed so often about the night we fled, I can’t separate nightmare from memory, but Papa made sure that I retained one thing: Liam Gerling was not our friend.
Liam tried to kill Roan when we were children. The three of us were playing in the forge, and Liam pushed his brother into the fire. If I hadn’t pulled Roan out before the flames could catch, he would have been burned alive. And as my reward, we had to flee the only home I had ever known, because Papa was afraid of what Liam would do to me if we stayed at Everless, knowing what I had seen.
Later, when I was twelve, Liam found Papa and me in our cottage outside of Rodshire. Their scuffle woke me in the middle of the night, and when I left my bedroom, my father grabbed my hand—he’d chased Liam off—and we fled a second time.
I’m paralyzed, seized by the sense that my worst fears have come to life—after all these years, he’s found me, found my father, again.
I know I should turn away, but I can’t tear my eyes from him, can’t stop picturing that face as it was ten years ago, staring at me in hatred through a wall of smoke, on the day we fled Everless for good.
I hear Papa’s voice in my ears: If you ever see Liam Gerling, run.
Even at ten, Liam was cold and remote. He went off to boarding school less than a year after we left the estate, but rumors about him continued to travel through his family’s lands. Everless servants on errands in Crofton said that his quiet exterior could turn to rage in the span of a heartbeat, that his parents feared him and sent him away. But it wasn’t rage that made Liam push his brother toward the fire in the forge, or chase us to Rodshire. It was cruelty. I can’t imagine how his malice might have grown in the years since.
Now, as I shrink back into the nearest doorway, I wonder how I ever mistook him for Roan. The boys share the same height, the same strong frame, the black curls—but where Roan’s hair is unruly, Liam’s has been wrangled and slicked back from his face. His mouth is a thin, humorless slash; his eyes hooded, impossible to read. Rising above the crowd on his horse, he looks like a statue, sitting ramrod-straight in the saddle—proud, unyielding, and eternal. He surveys us, the line of people waiting to see Duade.
Too late, I reach up to raise my hood, but his gaze has already landed on me. Do I imagine that he pauses for an instant, his eyes lingering on my face? Fear has lodged in my throat, and my hands tremble as I pull my hood over my hair. I want to turn away, to flee from the line, but that would only make me more con-
Thankfully, lowly townspeople don’t seem to catch Liam’s interest. His eyes scan past me, and he looks down to where his guards hold Duade between them.
The old time lender looks terrified. Roan would have called off his men, but Liam has none of his kindness.
“Please . . .” The quiet is such that I can hear Duade plead from where I stand. “My lord, it was an honest mistake, nothing more.”
“You broke the law. You bled time from a child.” Liam’s voice is deeper now, but just as cold as when he was a boy. “Do you deny it?”
All around me, shadows of remembered pain flit across faces, and I know these are the parents in the line. Children’s time is unpredictable, hard to measure and hard to bind, and it’s easy to take too much and accidentally kill the giver. Yet many have had no choice, and I imagine that watching your child bleed is its own punishment, crueler than anything the Gerlings could dream up.
“How was I to know she was a child?” Duade stares up wildly at Liam, excuse after useless excuse tumbling from his lips. “I believe only what I’m told, my lord, I am nothing more than a servant—”
Liam’s voice cuts through the air as cold and sharp as a knife. “Take him back to Everless. Bleed a year.”
This stops Duade short. “A year?” For a moment, he just seems stunned. Then panic fills his face. “Lord Gerling, please—”
The collectors haul Duade toward a waiting horsecar. Liam twitches his leg, as if to dismount, and my stomach churns with nausea. I suddenly feel in danger of fainting. While Liam is distracted, I duck my head and hurry from the line, toward an alley I can take as a shortcut home.
At the edge of the market, I glance back. Immediately, I wish I hadn’t. People are drifting away from the time lender’s shop, but Liam is still there, looking straight at me. My heart stutters, and for a moment that lasts entirely too long, I’m frozen, trapped in his piercing gaze. If he recognizes me . . .
Run. My father’s voice.
But he digs his heels into his horse and turns it away, back toward the main road, as if he can’t wait to be quit of so contemptible a place as our village. My breathing is ragged in my own ears as I turn, too, and hurry homeward.
When I emerge from the village into our barren wheat field, the panic clouding my mind fades a little, leaving only the deep, inescapable dread in my stomach that Liam put there with his look. I’ve had nightmares since the night we were banished from Everless—smoke-filled night terrors of the fire grew into dreams of being pursued by a faceless killer. Dreams of fire and terror and the acrid smell of hot metal and burning straw, which fills my nostrils again as I picture Liam’s eyes.
Ten years have passed since he last saw me, I remind myself again and again. Papa and I were only servants, me a knobby-kneed seven-year-old girl in a servant’s cap. He might recognize Papa, but there is no reason he would know me.
It’s not until the cottage comes into view, a paltry wisp of smoke drifting from the chimney, that I remember I meant to bring home our dinner. Amma’s strip of dried venison will have to do for tonight. For Papa’s sake, I hope the hour-coin I fetched for the trout will be worth the empty belly.
The sun sinks lower. I look west, toward the horizon, where the sky is laced with gray and golden red. Another day spent.
A wilting evergreen wreath hangs on our back door, and a fox ornament, which I twisted together as a child with wire and nails, sits crouched in the window. My mother apparently believed in these talismans. Papa says she would spend hours tying pine boughs together with thread or polishing her ancient wooden figurine of the Sorceress—a graceful figure with a clock in one hand and a knife in the other—that sits in the windowsill for protection, longevity. A similar statue, though much larger and less beautiful, stands near Crofton’s west wall, where the devout—or desperate—ask for blessings. Even though he doesn’t say so, I know my father keeps these things around to honor Mother’s memory. He doesn’t believe in them any more than I do. If the Sorceress exists, she’s not listening to our prayers.
Inside, I linger in the unlit kitchen, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, dreading the moment when I will face my father empty-handed. It’s not that Papa will be upset with me—he never is—but I am ever painfully conscious of his spindly frame, the tremors in his hands. What will he have forgotten while I was gone—my name? My face? In my panic over Liam Gerling and the commotion he caused, I forgot all about the rent. And now, with Duade taken to Everless to be bled by the Gerlings’ time lender, what hope do I have of selling him more before the collector arrives?
An unfamiliar voice floats in from the other room, and I freeze. The words are muffled by the crackling fire, but I can tell the voice is male. Fear lances through me again. Did Liam recognize me after all? Did he send someone to come after me?
I move to the threshold and pull back the curtain. And stop.
It takes me a moment to make sense of the scene before me. The rent collector, a Crofton man who travels from cottage to cottage every month like illness, sits across from my father near the hearth. He’s early, at least earlier than normal. Between them on a rough wood table is a line of objects: a small brass bowl, a glass vial, a silver knife. The same tools that litter the time lender’s counter in his glass-fronted shop. The tools to withdraw time.
Papa looks up at me. His cloudy eyes widen. “Jules,” he says, struggling up from the table. “I didn’t expect you back until dark.”
My heart hitches; it’s already dark.
“What’s going on?” I ask, voice shot through with tears, even though I know. The collector glances my way, seeming much too large for our small home.
My father sinks back into his chair. “I’m paying our rent,” he says calmly. “Why don’t you wait outside, enjoy the warm day?”
Before I can reply, the collector cuts in. “Four months, then.” His tone is businesslike, slightly bored. “For this month’s rent and the last.”
“Four months?” I take a step toward the table, my voice rising. “Papa, you can’t.”
The Gerling man looks briefly at me, then shrugs. “That’s the penalty for being late.” His eyes sweep over me once more before he turns back to his tools. “Time is for burning, girl.”
It’s a familiar expression in the village—why hoard time when every day is dully brutal, the same as the one before and the one that will come after? To hear it from a man who’s never known hunger or cold makes my fingers twitch toward a fist. Instead, I take the hour-coin from my pocket and hold it out to him. “Take this, and I’ll—”
The collector cuts me off with a short, humorless laugh.
“Save your hour, girl,” he says. “And don’t look so upset. After your father’s time runs out, you’ll inherit these debts. I’d hate to be on bad terms.”
The curse I’d been about to spit at him freezes in my throat. After Papa’s time runs out. As if he expects it to happen soon. Has he measured my father’s blood?
My father looks away, his jaw working, as the man reaches for the knife, but Papa seizes it first.
He draws a line neatly across his own palm, as calmly as if it were charcoal on paper instead of knife on skin. Blood wells. “Four months, yes,” he echoes as he picks up a glass vial and holds it against his palm, catching the small stream of blood. “I have plenty to spare.”
But I don’t think I’m imagining the way his face gets paler and paler by the second, the lines seeming to become more deeply etched; or the way he sags a little when the filled vial leaves his hand, corked, and disappears back into the Gerling man’s purse. I reach out and grab his wrist before he can pick up a second vial.
“No.” With my other hand, I sweep away the knife until it’s out of my father’s reach. The collector watches me with eyebrows raised, and I address myself to him now. “Four months for two months’ rent? There has to be another way.”
I ignore my father’s soft admonition and turn to the collector. He looks bored, which infuriates me almost as much as the fact of his taking my father’s time. But I push the anger down and make my voice as honey-sweet as I can, hoisting on a smile to match. “Let me sell my time, sir. You can have five months.”
Interest sparks for a moment in the man’s eyes, and I can imagine what he’s thinking—he could pass the rent along to the Gerlings, pocket the extra month for himself. But then my father cuts in. “She’s sixteen.”
“I’m seventeen,” I say, hating myself for how my words make Papa’s brow crease in confusion. “Papa, today is the eleventh day of the month. I’m seventeen.”
The collector looks back and forth between us, unsure who to believe, and then grunts and shakes his head. “No. I won’t bring the Sorceress’s wrath down on my head for bleeding a child.”
The Sorceress’s, or Liam Gerling’s?
“Please.” I turn halfway toward Papa, addressing both men at the same time. “I’ve never given time. I can earn it back later.”
“Easy to say you’ll earn it back,” Papa says stubbornly. “Harder to actually earn it. Collector, hand me another vial.”
“I’m to work at Everless.” The words leave my mouth before the idea has even fully formed in my mind. My father’s head snaps toward me, and he stares at me with a warning in his eyes.
The collector hasn’t moved. “And?”
“And . . .” I blink, trying to remember what Amma told me in the marketplace. “They’re paying a year on the month. If you forgive us a little this time, I’ll pay double what we owe you. And I’ll pay two more months in advance,” I add, trying to hide the desperation in my voice.
A bribe. I’ve caught the man’s interest. He looks me up and down, evaluating me in a way that makes my skin seethe, but I hold my chin high and bear his eyes on my body. I know how the Gerlings value youth and beauty. I’m no Ina Gold, but at least I inherited my mother’s long legs and shining hair. In different clothes, I could pass for an Everless girl.
“Jules!” My father struggles up from the table, grabbing his cane. Standing, he towers over us, and for a painful second I see the man he used to be—proud and strong enough to give pause to any Gerling crony. I look down at the tabletop. It hurts me to ignore him like this. But I don’t know how much time he’s sold, how much he has left.
“Absolutely not. I forbid you to—”
“Sit down,” the collector says impatiently. “I’ve better things to do than listen to peasants bicker.”
Slowly, my father sinks back into his seat, anger and fear clouding his brow.
“I’ll let the two of you sort this out,” the collector says, condescension thick in his voice as he pushes back from the table. “If you plan on going to Everless, I’ll see you at the market tomorrow at dawn. We’ll see if you’re fit. Otherwise, I’ll come back tomorrow to collect the rest of the rent.”
“Thank you for your patience,” I reply. Papa’s eyes are trained on me. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The collector grunts noncommittally. Silence rings in his wake as he walks out, the door slamming behind him.
“How much time do you have left?” The question seems to burst from my lips of its own accord.
He either doesn’t hear me or chooses to ignore me. He looks down at the table, blotting the cut on his palm with a cloth. “Jules—”
“How much time?” I press.
“Enough.” I can’t tell if this is an answer or a rebuke. He takes a deep breath. “You’re a child. You should be going back to school.”
“You should have told me we were behind on the rent. I could have paid. I have the time.”
“No,” my father says, and for the first time his voice is sharp. “I won’t let that happen.”
“But work is scarce.” The anger I’ve pushed down, the rage I couldn’t show the rent collector, twists and churns inside me. “Where does that leave us—leave you? I need you, Papa.” To my dismay, I can feel tears springing to my eyes. “Did you think of that before you let the collector bleed you?”
“There are things you don’t know about the world, Jules.” The confrontation has left him worn-out, slumping in his seat. Guilt pricks at me—he did just have a month bled from him, and he must be exhausted. “The Gerlings are evil, greed-driven people,” he fumes. “That boy, Liam, would have seen us executed before he told the truth about the fire—”
His words are lost in an onset of coughing. The next words are so soft, so weak, that I almost think I imagine them. “I won’t let them have you.”
“They won’t have me. They won’t even notice me,” I say, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice. I’m tired of hiding, of waiting. “And if I make enough time, I can go back to school.”
“No.” Steel runs below the surface of his voice. “You will not go back to Everless. I forbid you.”
“Papa, please. No one will recognize me.” I can hear how I sound—wheedling, childish. Papa’s outburst has shaken me. I know he hates the Gerlings—I do too—but it’s not worth bleeding his life out to keep me away from them. Has fear come to dominate his mind so much?
“I’m still your father,” he says. “As long as you live under my roof, you’ll do what I say.”
I’ve opened my mouth to argue when an ugly thought skitters across the surface of my mind.
He can’t stop me.
After Papa had chased Liam off that night when I was twelve, he decided to shed our past. The villagers’ knowing that the Gerlings’ disgraced blacksmith had landed in their midst would raise eyebrows, questions: Why had Papa left such a high station for a hardscrabble life in the village? Worse—what if Liam found us again, to enact some petty revenge? Easier, Papa said, to create a dull, typical history. A farmer and his daughter, abandoning the fields after a blight. He taught me how to lie, so no one would look too closely at us.
He doesn’t realize it, but he’s taught me too well.
I sigh heavily. “Amma is leaving for Everless,” I say. “Maybe the butcher will give me her job.”
Papa’s gaze softens. “Maybe.” He reaches out, puts a hand over mine. “I hate that you have to work at all. But at least here, we’re together.”
I smile at him, wishing I could tell the truth—that the idea of returning to Everless sickens me and fills me with dread, but I’m going to do it anyway. He’s smiling, relieved, and I know he doesn’t see through me. I stand, kiss him on the brow, and make for the kitchen to go about dinner.
When Papa’s not looking, I take the figurine of the Sorceress from the window—the one that belonged to my mother—and slip it into my dress pocket. Maybe the Sorceress can give me luck. Maybe the thought of her will give me strength.
At dawn, I’ll need both.
I go to bed before Papa. In my cot by the fireplace beneath a thin blanket, my eyes closed, I listen to him scratch notes in his ledger. I know he’s tallying up his time, as if by checking and rechecking the figures he’ll suddenly find a way to pay for all the things we can’t afford. Then the cottage door creaks as he goes to fetch water from the old well outside; the fire crackles as he puts on another log. Eventually, he kisses my forehead and retreats into his room, sighing as he goes.
I wait until his breathing has evened out into sleep. Then, I slip carefully from the cot and gather my things, as quietly as I can. I take a few rolls of dark bread from the cupboard, just enough for a meal or two. I pick out my nicest dress, though the threadbare blue linen will seem humble beside the ladies of Everless. I tuck my hunting knife, sheathed, into my belt and fold a few belongings into a knapsack.
My eyes settle on the wall, on a drawing of my mother that Papa made. He loved to draw, before his eyes went bad—one day, I found the drawing tucked away in his mattress, as if he couldn’t bear to be reminded of what we’d lost. I had to plead with him to let me hang it up on the wall. The paper is yellow and curled with age, but the likeness is striking: a young woman with my curly hair and brown eyes looking over her shoulder and laughing. I reach out and trace my mother’s face. I wonder if she would approve of the choice I’m making. Her statue of the Sorceress is still tucked in my pocket. Luck, I think, my heart slowing.
On the back of one of the papers he’s left scattered on the table, I scribble a note, deliberately casual: Went to see the butcher. Back before dark.
I leave it on top of his ledger. Papa won’t realize the lie right away, I hope. If he does, I wouldn’t trust him not to limp into the village himself, trying to chase the Gerlings’ carriages down.
When he realizes what I’ve done, what will he do?
If I think too long about Papa—how worried he’ll be—my nerves will fail me. So I pull on my boots as silently as I can and take up my bag. I’ll be gone a month, two at the most, and I’ll write him a letter from Everless to reassure him that everything is fine. When I come home, the purseful of blood-irons will make up for my deceit.
It’s two hours before dawn when I finally bring myself to walk away, judging by the lightening sky and dewy smell of the air. I walk fast as the sun’s light bleeds into the sky from the east. It’s colder than it was yesterday, and the raw wind makes me shiver. The smell of decayed earth rises through the snow. Soon, the village of Crofton looms before me, its lump of thatched roofs like lopsided mushrooms in the dawn. The only signs of life are a few beggars sleeping in doorways. As I watch, a thin hand lights a candle in a window above the bakery. I’m not afraid—the Gerlings keep us safe from external threats, if not starvation. But it’s eerie.
A few blocks from the marketplace, I hear a murmur of voices. Turning the corner, I see the largest gathering of girls I’ve ever encountered in one place. There must be more than fifty of us crowding the open square, all clean-scrubbed and dressed in our finest clothes. Some of them I know—there’s Amma with her little sister, Alia, tiny and solemn at twelve; and Nora, a seamstress, for whom I used to do some mending before she could no longer pay me. Many girls I don’t recognize. Perhaps they’ve come from the farms that stretch for miles outside the borders of our village, drawn here by the opportunity to work at Everless.
Moving through the crowd are men with badges bearing the Gerling insignia. They’re shouting, herding the girls into one long line. My stomach drops when I recognize one—Ivan Tenburn, the son of the captain of the Everless guard, now on his own horse and wearing his own badge. He was vicious as a child, and constantly at Liam’s heels; all the servant children were terrified of him. Once, while his father was away, he made the stableboys stand in a line, and struck their knees with a riding crop in turn. If one cried out, he’d give the boy next to him five strikes in a row. He called it a game—snaps. I remember the dark bruise across my friend Tam’s shins. It remained for weeks.
I also remember Roan’s voice, demanding that Ivan stop.
Fear courses through me, sharp as the blade Ivan wears at his side. Ten years have passed, but by the way Ivan barks at the girls to move, I know that nothing has changed.
I head toward where Amma and Alia are huddled on the other side of the square. Amma looks uncertain. Her own knapsack is slung over her back, and she’s wearing a traveling cloak. When she sees me, a relieved smile breaks out across her face.
“I don’t believe it!” She grips my arms and draws me in for a quick hug. “Convinced your father to let you come after all?”
“Just for a month or two,” I fib. “If they even choose me.”
“Well, I’m sure he’ll be pleased enough when you come home with two years of blood-iron.”
I try to take comfort in Amma’s words as she tugs me toward the line. I feel her pulse, quick and light, against my palm. “I’m glad you’re here. It’ll be marvelous, us all together.” Next to her, Alia smiles up at me.
As we take our places, Ivan and the other Gerling men hold conference, talking in low voices before turning to face the line of girls. Behind them, two large open-topped hay carts, driven by skinny, bucktoothed boys who can’t be older than twelve, roll into the square and halt. Meanwhile, Ivan and his men walk down the line, examining chins and eyes and arms, spinning the girls like tops.
“What’s going on?” I whisper to Amma. She just shakes her head.
Uneasiness pools in my stomach. I’ve heard Lord Gerling
likes his servants young and pretty, but I never expected to be treated this way, to be herded like cattle and checked like a horse for good teeth and legs. I’m tempted to run, but I can’t make my feet move.
Down the line, a man examines a round-faced, frizzy-haired girl I don’t recognize. He frowns and shakes his head. The girl’s lip trembles. She starts to speak, but the man ignores her and moves on to the next girl in line, a willowy woman in her early twenties. He smiles greedily at her and speaks a few low words. Her face turns red and she breaks from the line, hurrying toward the hay cart.
The evaluation goes on like this. About a quarter of the girls are directed into the cart, and the rest are rejected. My skin crawls every time one of the Gerling men leers or makes a girl hitch her skirts to better show off her calves, but if I want to win a place at Everless, I don’t dare say anything. Amma has gone as white as the snow still piled in drifts at the edges of the square. I give her hand a reassuring squeeze, as much to comfort myself as her.
Five girls away. Three. Then one. I bite the inside of my cheek as the Gerling servant appears in front of me, hoping my disgust doesn’t show on my face. I’m just thankful it’s not Ivan. He’s smiling, close enough that I can smell the stink of his breath. To my dismay, he takes my chin in his hand, dragging my face upward. I flinch—I can’t help it. The man chuckles and goes for my breasts instead.
Reflex takes over, and I see everything happening slowly, as if we’re suspended in honey. It’s happening again—time pausing, even the air unmoving, though no one seems to know it. The man’s grin fixed on his face. Amma’s horrified expression, a gasp caught halfway from her throat. I reach for my knife in my belt and bring it in front of me, meaning only to stop him.
But then the buzzing in my ears abruptly fades, and the world catches up again.
The guard and I both look down in shock at the hair-thin red line that crosses his overhanging gut, the drop of blood gathering at its end, staining his uniform. I’ve barely nicked him, but still. My stomach plummets as I realize what I’ve done.
There’s a beat of dead silence as he glares at me, and then the other men break into laughter. The man’s face colors a deep, angry red.
“Little bitch,” he spits, stuffing a handkerchief to the scratch. “I’ll bleed you ten years . . .”
I lower my knife, tears pricking at my eyes, and begin to back away. Stupid, so stupid. One moment of impulse, and I’ve thrown away any chance I had of getting to Everless.
“Hang on, now, Bosley.” Ivan, his velvet cloak whipping behind him, saunters over to us. His mouth is twitching, and I brace myself—what if he recognizes me?
But then I realize that the sound coming from his throat is laughter, not rage. His smile is thick—oblivious. “I like this one,” he chortles. “Quick thinker. Knows how to handle herself, too. It’s a wonder she didn’t stick you like a pig.” Some of the other men laugh, and the man who tried to grope me casts me a hate-filled gaze, but he doesn’t argue.
Instead, he turns his attention to Amma. “Not with that scar,” he says nastily.
Amma blinks in disbelief. “I’ll work hard,” she says. “I swear it.” She glances helplessly at me.
“We’ve no shortage of hard workers, girl,” the man snarls. “Just pretty faces. Home with you.”
Tears spring to Amma’s eyes. “Please, sir . . .” But her plea is ignored, the man already moving on to Alia, who stands trembling beside her older sister.
Belatedly, I realize Ivan is still staring at me. But he’s no longer smiling. My legs tense, prepared to run. “Well? Into the cart with you.”
I glance at Amma, panicked. I hadn’t even considered the possibility I might have to go without her. “Sir,” I plead. “She’s my best friend. Please, let her come.” Out of the corner of my eye, I see the other man give Alia a little shove toward the cart, as she glances over her shoulder.
“I don’t care if she’s your bleeding mother,” Ivan says lightly. “She’s staying here. Do you want to stay with her?”
“Go.” Amma is blinking away tears.
Even though I feel Ivan’s eyes on us, I wrap my arms around my friend, pulling her close. “Look after my sister,” she whispers into my hair.
When I don’t break our embrace, she gives my shoulder a little push. “Go!”
Numbly, I obey, feeling the eyes of the crowd like a weight. I clamber into the cart and seat myself amid the other favored girls—all young, all pretty, but silent and stunned as we look back at our rejected friends, our sisters. The line is already half dissolved, and those who haven’t been chosen drift away into the rising fog. It’s only when the square starts to thin out that I see the tax collector, leaning under the grocer’s awning, watching the proceedings with his arms crossed. I stare hard at him until he notices, glancing up to meet my eyes. He gives me a short nod, like a stamp on our agreement—he’ll come for his time when I’m back. I let out the breath I’ve been holding, and murmur another prayer to the Sorceress.
Keep my father safe.
And: May he forgive me.
The men move through the remaining girls. Thirty-year-old Nora’s sent home with a jeer. Little Alia is already in the hay cart. Suddenly, I remember that as a child, I asked my father why there were so many children at Everless. They work harder for less, he answered, his voice brittle. They have no place else to go.
When the men are finished, about twenty girls sit crammed among the two carts. I’ve won my place at Everless, but I don’t feel favored at all. I feel like Amma has won this game, even if she doesn’t know it yet.
But it’s too late to turn back. The hay cart moves forward with a jolt. It smells faintly of manure. There are twelve of us inside, packed shoulder to shoulder on bales of hay. I put my arm around Alia—she’s crying silently, her eyes fixed on the town receding behind us. On my other side is a woman, Ingrid, from a farm a few miles from ours. She seems determined to remain cheerful, despite the morning’s nauseating selection process and the wind that bites at our faces as we trundle along the unpaved road.
“I heard Everless is five hundred years old,” she chirps as the village fades behind us. I refuse to turn around and watch it disappear. I’m half afraid that if I do, I’ll simply hurtle out of the cart and run home. “Imagine! They must have lesser sorcerers holding up the walls with spells.”
They’ve no need of magic to hold up their walls, because money serves just as well. But I have no desire to join in the girls’ excited speculation, so I turn away instead and feign interest in the low, patchy green curves of the Sempera countryside. When Papa was in better health, he’d borrow a horse from a friend and take me for rides outside the village. We should know our country, he’d instruct, and I wonder if he’d planned to flee Crofton someday, if we ever drew the notice of the Gerlings again.
Aside from Ingrid, no one says much. I can feel the others’ nervousness as the plains give way to woods, huge old pine trees that tower over us. This forest is owned by the Gerlings, but even they don’t hunt here—these woods are frightening, older than the one I roamed yesterday, and much darker.
Alia finally speaks up. “Calla said there’s fairies in these woods,” she says. Her eyes are wide. Like most in Crofton, she hasn’t ventured more than three miles outside its borders, except for the trip her mother made to save her.
“Fairies, indeed!” a girl in front calls out. “They’ll lure you in with their beauty, then drink the time from your veins.” She’s obviously teasing, but there’s a note of strain in her voice.
“It’s true!” declares another girl, her red hair coiled in a way that can only be deliberate. “Happened to my aunt. She got lost in the woods one day and woke up an old woman.”
“Lied about selling time, more likely,” someone else mutters.
“Fairies aren’t the worst of it.” This girl has beautiful dark skin and vivid blue eyes: she was one of the first to be chosen. “This forest is where the Alchemist roams. He still carries the Sorceress’s heart with him in a paper bag.”
“No, he ate her heart,” Ingrid corrects.
“Well,” the other girl says, with a roll of her eyes. “He’ll take yours, too, if you wander among the trees. Even the Sorceress won’t be able to save you.”
Alia squeaks in alarm. “Why? Why does he take hearts?”
“He hates people, so he gives the time in their hearts back to the trees!” the girl starts.
“Stop your nonsense,” someone else cuts in. Meanwhile, Alia’s lip is trembling, so I lean close.
“Pay them no mind,” I whisper. “The myths are only stories. The woods are nothing to fear.” I sit up without finishing the thought: I don’t know about the Alchemist, but the monsters she’ll meet at Everless are more dangerous than any fairies.
Then, the forest abruptly peters out, and we are in Laista, the small, prosperous town surrounding the Everless walls, where no buildings are permitted to be more than a story high. I remember Papa telling me that the Gerlings’ ancestors razed the trees and leveled the hills for miles around Everless so that the men who walk the parapets can see anyone who approaches. The sandstone walls come into view, each dotted with dozens of guards. From this distance, they look like figurines.
Instinctively, I slump down in my seat as we creak through Laista’s narrow streets toward the gates. When we’re close enough, one of the guards at the top of the wall commands us with a shout to stop.
The world is silent, still, frozen except for the beating of my heart. Next to me, Alia’s mouth is open, a wisp of hair sticking to her bottom lip. At the top of the wall, the guards are stone-faced, motionless. I have a sense the whole world is coming to an end, collapsing into that single moment.
Then, there’s an enormous scraping noise—the foot-thick, iron-studded slabs of wood and metal shuddering into motion—and our cart lurches forward again.
A shadow passes over us, and we are inside.
Well, what did you think of EVERLESS? Are you as excited as we are to enter the wicked world of Sempera? Tell us in the comments below!