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Discover the True Worth of Memories in the First 2 Chapters of ‘The Memory Thief’

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Discover the True Worth of Memories in the First 2 Chapters of ‘The Memory Thief’

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Fans of EverlessThe Queen’s Rising, and all things thievery, rebellion, and strange magic, prepare yourselves for a new story to unfold between the covers of The Memory Thief. This new fantasy will welcome you to the city of Craewick, a place where memories are currency, and where “Gifted” individuals can take them from others as they please.

The story follows Etta Lark, a girl desperate to live outside of the corrupt culture. Of course, she’s also still grappling with the guilt of an accident that left her mother bedridden in the city’s asylum. And when her mother’s life is threatened, Etta decides that she must do whatever it takes to save her—even if it means stealing the memory of a long-hidden map from a bloodthirstry ruler.

Etta sets out on a journey that will see her face startling attacks, unexpected romance, and, above all, her own past to set things right. Enter her world and start reading The Memory Thief below!

 

Chapter 1

When I see the letter nailed to my door, I know something is terribly wrong. The envelope is covered in fancy handwriting and sealed with a wax stamp the color of dried blood. I don’t wonder who it’s from because only the Minders use red ink—and they never send good news.

I shove the letter under my cloak, hoping no one on the crowded streets has seen what the peacekeepers have sent me. My hands tremble so badly that it takes a few tries to fit my key in the lock. As a chill works its way through my bones, I twist the iron handle, walk in, and shut the door to my cottage. I sit before my legs give out, pulling my cloak around me. My throat tightens at the warm scents of honey and violets buried in the wool. The last time my mother wore this was the day before she entered the asylum, almost four years ago. Somehow, it still smells like her.

A knock on the door jolts me.

“Etta?”

The door opens slightly as Ryder slips inside. Even in the dim light, the bruise blooming near her left eye is hard to miss, and her lip is cracked and bloody. But I’m not surprised. She’s spent the last few hours on the street corners, where the crowds are as restless as the prisoners up for bid tonight.

After all, it’s Auction Day.

She slides down beside me, close enough that our shoulders meet. The gold buttons on her tattered jacket catch the last rays of sunlight sneaking in through the grimy window above my copper sink.

Pushing myself to my feet, I resist the urge to tell Ry to be more careful, reminding myself she isn’t a child anymore. I set the envelope down on the floor beside her, walk to the water basin at the edge of the table, and dip a rag into the cool water.

“Is that letter from the Minders?” she asks

I nod, offering the dripping cloth to her, but she doesn’t take it. “Your lip is bleeding, Ry. The cold will help.”

“I don’t care about my lip.” Her eyes are on the envelope. “You didn’t open it.”

“Because I already know what it is,” I say, taking in a deep breath. “It’s the lottery ticket for my mother’s bed.”

Her eyes widen. “The asylum filled up again?”

“I can’t believe it either,” I whisper. I knew the rules when I admitted my mother. Each patient is assigned a number, and when the asylum gets overcrowded, the Minders draw slips of paper to choose a patient to kick out. But I never expected it would be my mother. Not after the price I paid to get her in. Now the Minders will mark an x on the end of her bed and transfer any of my mother’s memories that I want to keep into me. But because she’s so weak, the energy of having her mind read will kill her.

My eyes feel gritty and dry as I stare around the tiny room I rent from the Minders. On the wall across from me, I hung the portraits I sketched of my mother. There are dozens of pictures, all drawn on bits of paper I scrounged up over the years. Next to those are the dresses I sewed for my mother on a few hooks I nailed to the wall. But if the Minders have anything to say about it, she won’t need them anymore.

“They can’t kick her out,” says Ryder, setting the envelope down in front of us. “Did you tell the nurses she moved her fingers? She’s waking up.”

“It’s out of their control, Ry. The lottery is Minder business.” I clench my hands into fists, a rush of heat crawling up my neck at the thought of drawing numbers to determine who lives and who doesn’t. The Minders claim my mother’s death will be painless and peaceful, but who are they to decide when she takes her last breath? I angle toward Ryder. “Do they expect me to sit back and watch her die?”

“The Etta I know wouldn’t do that,” Ryder says, a glint in her dark eyes.

“The least I can do is battle the Minders until she wakes up,” I say.

“And you won’t have to fight them alone.”

My anger dissolves into fear as I imagine her challenging the Minders’ orders—spitting out words she’s bitten back for years. The last thing I need is for the Minders to label Ryder a deviant too. Especially on Auction Day, the very example of how they treat the so-called lawless.

Ry clicks her pocket watch open, one stamped with the seal of Craewick that she swindled off a Minder years ago. “We’re going to be late.”

“I’m not going to the auction, Ry.”

“Why not? Being alone won’t help anything.” She nudges my arm. “Maybe we can pick up something to bribe the Minders to keep your mother in the asylum. Tons of people will be looking to trade tonight, especially after a few pints of Auction Ale.”

It’s a clever move on Ryder’s end, I’ll give her that. But if Minders could be bribed, I would’ve worked that angle years ago. It’s true the ale makes bartering a little smoother, but it also makes the auction crowd rash and jumpy, two things Ry shouldn’t have to deal with alone. I’m trembling as I drag myself over to the sink. Splashing water on my warm cheeks, I sense Ryder waiting for me to break down, but I won’t. Not until I get through the next few hours without flinging myself on the auction block and wringing Madame’s neck. Or trying to, anyway. Imagining the ruler of Craewick squirm gives only a moment of satisfaction before reality sets back in.

Ryder opens the door when it’s time to go. The auction waits for no one. Tucking the lottery ticket into my pocket, I follow her onto the moonlit streets, already packed with my neighbors pushing their way to the heart of Craewick. But it’s clear from their grim faces they don’t attend auctions to make purchases. They go to wish loved ones goodbye. To beg the Minders to let their children or their parents come home.

We take all our shortcuts, dodging between unending rows of rotting wooden homes and crumbling brick cottages. The air smells of burning leaves, and I try to remember the last bonfire I attended. Most living on the fray of Craewick spend their evenings sharing two things: flasks of cider and gossip. I’m usually visiting my mother at the asylum, and by the time I get home, everyone’s long gone to bed.

Once the buildings change from whitewashed wood to thick stone, we’ve reached the center of Craewick. The auction is already swarming with people. The stage, the centerpiece of the square, stands out among Craewick’s bland storefronts. It’s gray, gray, and more gray everywhere. But most who live here don’t even notice. Their memories keep them in whichever place in the past they wish to dwell.

The auction block is a perfect circle. As they say, easy viewing makes for easy bidding. It’s probably the prettiest part of Craewick, with how the polished wood shines in the firelight from the lanterns strung around it. The raised platform is also riddled with intricate carvings. There are four panels, each representing the allied Realms. Centrally located, Craewick is the largest Realm. Most of the Ungifted live here, making us a trading post of goods with all the seamstresses, carpenters, blacksmiths, and farmers who work for Madame. The desert Realm of Kripen, the training base for all the Minders, is represented by dueling swords and steel-tipped arrows. The paintbrushes, music notes, and twirling couples are for Blare, the coastal Realm of the arts. And finally, there’s the Realm of Aravid, where the sciences, mathematics, and histories are taught deep in the woodlands. The carvings are so lifelike, the pages of the books looking as if they’re fluttering in the wind.

Whoever designed the stage was a true artist, but once you know what happens up there, the beauty is significantly dulled.

As we pass a Minder checking for citizenship around the perimeter of the square, I hold out my wrist to show my tattoos. The first is the crest of Craewick to signify Madame is the ruler I’ve pledged to serve. The second is far more important, a marking which distinguishes the Gifted from the Ungifted. My tattoo is a hollow circle to indicate I don’t have a Gift.

It’s also a lie.

The Minder’s stare lingers on me, long enough that Ryder takes one look up at him and smirks.

“This guy bothering you, Etta?”

I smile a little. At twelve-years-old, Ryder’s voice is too high, her stature too short to convince anyone I’m the one in need of protection. All that matters is that Ry believes she’s ten feet tall, and why squash a courageous spirit before it’s grown sturdy roots?

The Minder laughs without a hint of humor. “Hilarious, kid.”

Ry winks at me.

I follow her along the edge of the audience, finding a spot near a beggar on the street corner. A group pushes past as we stop, unapologetically elbowing their way toward the stage. You can’t bid on one of the auctioned if Madame can’t see you.

A man in a long-sleeved, high-necked jacket brushes past the beggar beside us pausing briefly enough where the untrained eye wouldn’t notice the way his fingers linger on the rough patch of skin on her elbow. He’s what we call a Gifted, having the ability to read another’s mind simply by touching them. The beggar doesn’t flinch, clearly doesn’t detect the energy pulsing through her body like another Gifted would. His face lights up, his touch siphoning thoughts from her head until I let out a sharp whistle, loud enough to jolt the Ungifted beggar.

As she rushes off, the man turns his beady eyes into the crowd, and I wait until he catches my gaze to smile. He clenches his jaw, but this thief would have to be an idiot to start a fight among so many Minders. He scurries off after giving me a dirty look, and I glance up as a Minder drags a high-backed metal chair to the center of the stage.

Behind it stands a row of iron-shackled prisoners. Immediately, I’m searching for any rebels with whom I might’ve done business. It’s hard to tell since they’re all dressed in ragged prison garb, and most have their heads down. All but one—a hard-faced boy whose ribs poke out under his thin shirt.

I grit my teeth at how pitiful he looks.

It’s impossible to see his tattoos from back here, but I’d bet my right eye it’s shaped like a sunburst, indicting the energy in his skin which makes him Gifted. Unlike the rest of the prisoners, who tuck their arms into their thin shifts to cover every inch of bare skin, he stands tall and proud. It’s unusual to see a Gifted on auction, though I’m not sure there’s much difference between the number of Ungifted and Gifted lawbreakers. It’s just the latter usually gets away with it.

The crowd hushes. One second Madame isn’t anywhere in sight, the next she’s standing dead center. Even the wind quiets down as if it wouldn’t dare intrude upon her entrance. As head of the Craewick Minders, Madame spends most of her time training her soldiers, so the only time we really see her is on Auction Day. Her hair is the color of the darkest raven against the gray of her military uniform as she surveys the crowd without a hint of a smile on her pale lips. Madame is striking. Not pretty by any means, but I can’t look away, my eyes caught on all her pointy features.

She slowly walks down the row of prisoners, studying each one like an insect caught in her web. I can feel the prisoners’ fear even from here. It’s in the way the chains rattle on their wrists, how they can’t meet her eyes. They all know her face is the last thing they’ll see before they die.

Madame angles toward the crowd. “A society is only as strong as the morality of its citizens, and we must protect the wisdom of our past to ensure a prosperous future,” she says before facing the prisoners. “You have been given a trial and declared guilty.”

I almost laugh. Trial? What a joke. What she really means is a few Minders held these prisoners down while she sifted through their minds. We’re never privy to the details, so who knows what these prisoners actually did. Perhaps one snatched a loaf of bread to feed her starving children, or another can’t pay back his debts to the Minders. A lot of Ungifted use desirable memories to pay for rent on those tiny shacks the Minders have the nerve to call cottages. But when there’s barely enough food to go around and icy wind seeps through every rotting floorboard, you run out of happy memories pretty quickly. Still, the Minders never forget to come collecting.

“The punishment for these crimes is death,” Madame says, angling toward the audience. And just for the tiniest moment, she meets my eyes.

My breath hitches in my throat. I tell myself Madame can’t possibly see us back here, but fear slices through me when she narrows her sights on Ryder. I take a step in front of Ry, gently nudging her behind me. And when the corners of Madame’s lips pull up, in a flicker of a mocking smile, I’m certain she’s watching me as closely as I’m watching her.

The lottery ticket burns like fire against my skin. We made a deal, I want to scream at her. You promised my mother wouldn’t be harmed. You swore she’d have a place at the asylum until she woke. I gave up everything because I believed you!

I can almost hear her reply.

What a fool you were to believe me.

Madame blinks twice, her gaze darting away. “Bring forth Kellen Marks.”

Ryder ducks around me and asks if I’m okay.

I nod but keep my hand on her shoulder.

The Minders usually have to drag unwilling victims forward, but not Kellen Marks, the boy I noticed earlier. He steps out from the line of prisoners without a moment’s hesitation. Two Minders secure his arms to the chair, the sharp rattling of the chains cutting through the stagnant air. Most of the auctioned lack the strength to keep their heads up, but Kellen lifts his chin and stares straight into the audience.

I bite my tongue, wishing I could tell him he is not Craewick’s true enemy.

It’s Madame who will strip him of his most treasured possessions for breaking her Craewick law. Then this mob will stuff themselves full, buying items that’ll be enjoyed for a while then discarded like trash. No, Madame is the real criminal here, not Kellen Marks—she’s using her Gift to steal his life.

Once he’s been secured, she takes her place beside him, her bony hand trailing along his shoulders. “Do you have any last words, Kellen Marks?”

He tips his eyes up to meet hers. “Better things await me.”

The audience goes deathly silent, and I too am mesmerized by his calm. There’s a rare beauty about him, one that never graces this stage. Death does not frighten him. How is it he’s made his peace with this world and is ready to travel into the next? He looks serene, content even.

Then I blink and his eyes have rolled back into his head. I don’t realize I’ve grabbed Ryder’s hand until she squeezes mine. I’ve watched a lot of auctions, but Kellen’s cries strike me harder than most, like a knife hitting bone.

The Memory Auction has begun.

 

Chapter 2

It doesn’t take long for Madame to sort through Kellen Marks’ memories. He grinds his teeth as she decides what’s of value to auction and what terrible events she’ll force Kellen to relive before death claims him. Tears stream down his cheeks as he cries out for his mother. His words are strangled and jumbled, but it’s clear enough Madame has trapped Kellen in the moment when his mother died. His brow twists before he rears up from the chair, fighting against the chains so hard that the cuffs of his shirt are soaked with blood.

Ryder covers her ears and nestles into me.

My own chest burns as I watch him gasp. It only takes a few carefully extracted memories to ensure he can’t remember how to fill his lungs. I close my eyes and draw Ryder closer.

A lady shuffles past us, bumping into my shoulder and mumbling things about being late and missing all the good merchandise.

Ryder sticks her foot out, but I jerk her back before the lady trips over it.

“Don’t make a scene. Too many Minders,” I whisper.

“Not making a scene is what led to this,” she mutters, pointing at the stage.

I want to agree with her, but as I clutch Ryder’s tiny hand and picture my mother asleep in her asylum bed, my words dry up to nothing.

Kellen’s twitching and still struggling to breathe when Madame steps in front of him. “Kellen Marks has paid the price for his acts of treason, and we will judge him no longer. He will now be given the chance to give back to society.” She pauses. “He is a fisherman from the Realm of Blare.”

A murmur passes over the crowd and hearing the name of the Realm where I grew up is like a slap in the face. Though I don’t recognize Kellen, fury rushes up inside me as the audience cheers and claps. Bile rises up my throat as I feel their hunger, their unquenchable thirst for whatever joys that Kellen’s memories hold. Blare isn’t known strictly for its rickety wharves and seaside cottages. It’s the Realm of the arts, where painting, drawing, singing, and dancing are all taught. If Kellen grew up there, he’ll be full of artsy talents.

“He was paired and has one child,” Madame continues.

Hands shoot high in the air as the bidding begins. True love is always a top seller.

On my tiptoes, I catch sight of a bidder and nudge Ryder. “He’s from Aravid.” As a person’s fashion tends to lean toward their most recent memories, whether purchased or created, his thick wool jacket is a dead giveaway he’s come from the woodland Realm.

Ryder’s eyes go wide. “Haven’t seen someone from there in months.”

Aravid isn’t more than a two days’ hike from here, but it’s the danger of traveling through the common lands between each Realm that discourages most from leaving Craewick. Ever since Madame came into power after her father was murdered, the woods have been filled with criminals and vagabonds because she pulled all the Minders patrolling the forest back to Craewick. Some say she did this to protect her people after her father’s death. The rarity of a ruler being killed, and the fact that his killer was never found, frightened the Hollows so much that most didn’t question Madame’s orders. Others argue she did it to drive up the price of auction bids. Because nowadays, unless a person can afford to hire a Minder as an escort, the only hope of gaining new memories is up on that auction block.

Casting a look down, Madame motions for a few Minders to escort him up on stage. They speak in low tones, quickly deciding which of his memories she’ll accept as payment. Aravid memories are scarce in Craewick, and it’s unlikely he’ll be outbid. They’ve only minutes before Kellen will die, his veins cooling and his pupils fading to white, to retrieve his memories.

As Madame is a Sifter, one whose rare and powerful Gift works through sight and not touch like the rest of the Gifted, the only clue that Kellen’s past has moved into this bidder’s mind is when Kellen slumps in the chair.

I let out a long breath, relieved he didn’t suffer as long as some.

The ecstatic bidder leaves the stage, but it’s only a matter of time before he’ll sell those memories in search of a grander high.

“He’s even walking like Kellen Marks now,” Ry murmurs, and I follow her gaze, frowning when I see she’s right. The Aravid man is no longer hunched over but standing tall and erect, like Kellen did only minutes ago. “Bet by tomorrow, he’ll be rid of that stuffy wool jacket and be dressed like he’s from Blare too. Just like you.”

“At least my memories of Blare are real,” I snap.

She barks out a laugh. “Try telling that Aravid Hollow that his memories aren’t real.”

A memory from the first auction I ever attended floods back to me.

“Why do you say most of the Gifted are hollow?” I ask Greer.

“Because there’s nothing left inside of them.”

I frown. How could he say these people were empty when they were stuffed full of rare talents and thrilling memories? “But there’s so much inside of them!”

He touches his heart. “No, nothing left of them, of who they once were… they’ve lost themselves to become someone else.”

The wind picks up, stinging my cheeks. I cross my arms under my cloak, but I can’t stop shivering.

The crowd is getting antsy between auctions, but Madame knows how to keep the calm with a talent show. Standing in front of the prisoners is a whole new crop of Collectors, those who work for the Craewick Treasury and spend years mastering talents throughout the Four Realms. It’s not a terrible career, I guess, traveling from one Realm to the next until their minds are a goldmine of talents and experiences. But after they sell those memories tonight, they won’t remember any of it. Years of their lives gone in a matter of seconds.

The first offering is from a master of etiquette, which a mother with four feisty children immediately scoops up. As soon as the memories are transferred, she breathes a sigh of relief as her well-mannered offspring follow her obediently off the stage.

Next, a cliff-jumper whose leg is bound by a bloodied cloth hobbles onto the auction block. He has this smug look on his face as multiple bidders raise their hands. People will pay a fortune to experience the rush of adrenaline housed deep inside his memories, but cliff-jumpers rarely live long enough to have much of a career. After selling his memories tonight, he won’t remember what nearly killed him. He’ll climb bigger mountains and jump off taller bluffs until his luck finally runs out.

To close out the show, a couple waltzes to the tune of a woman belting out an aria, but my guess is no one will buy either one of the talents. It’s still early. It will take a few more prisoners’ auctions—and a few more pints of ale—before the bids flow more easily.

“And here come the orphans,” Ry says. “They’ll be working late tonight. This crowd’s huge.”

To our left, kids in threadbare clothes barrel through the less-than-amused audience. Most Ungifted orphans are forced to make a living this way, offering up their minds to store the Hollows’ unwanted memories. I watch a woman hand over a few coins to a tiny boy, gold that won’t buy more than a measly meal. She removes her gloves and as they clasp hands, and I wonder what kind of painful memories she’ll transfer into him so she can forget about them. A toothache? A nightmare? Memories from a bad relationship? My heart aches at the sight of his flushed face, at how the whites of his eyes are yellowing, a sure sign his mind is being overloaded by foreign memories.

“I wish I could get them off the streets too,” I tell her, stealing a glance at the stage where Madame is about to start the next bid.

“Well, you saved one orphan.”

I swing my arm around her. “Only because she followed me around like a lost puppy after we met.”

Ryder snorts. “Probably because you welcomed her into your life with open arms.”

That makes me grin. Goodness knows I tried to shove the responsibility of taking care of her onto my neighbors. But once Ry made up her mind that we should stick together, there was no dodging her.

As Madame calls the name of another prisoner, someone pushes us aside before scurrying off toward the stage.

Ry stumbles, but I grab her arm before she falls, the tiny jolts of energy in her Gifted skin tingling beneath my fingertips.

Colors flash behind my eyelids. Fiery warmth coils in my belly as the memory on the tip of her consciousness seeps into my brain. It’s a rush, giving into the deep yearning where my Gift begs to be used. But as soon as I realize I’ve read her mind, I let go of her wrist.

One word pulses through my head, a fragment of a memory that I’ve accidentally stolen from her.

Shadows.

It’s a moment before Ryder clutches her head, her eyes wide as she stares at me. There’s always a slight delay between losing memories and the headache the Gifted feel, the sweet spot any thief uses to escape before a victim realizes a memory is missing. “What did you take?” she asks between breaths.

My knees threaten to buckle as I lean closer, lowering my voice to a raspy whisper. “Why were you thinking about the Shadows?”

She doesn’t back down. “Because I’m going to ask them to save your mother.”

I gasp. “You what?”

Ryder bites her lip as she meets my eyes, her brown curls a nest of tangled strands in the moonlight. “That’s what the Shadows do. They help people who can’t help themselves.”

“Except they haven’t been seen in years. They’re just a myth now,” I whisper harshly.

“Not true.” Her eyes dart all around us, but nobody’s paying attention to our conversation. They’re too enthralled watching the Minders secure a thrashing prisoner to the chair. “I met one, and I’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you. I’ll ask him to help your mother.”

I close my eyes as a cold sweat slithers down my spine. Help her? I want to laugh. To Ryder, I’m a daughter whose comatose mother could use all the help she can get. Not the memory thief who backstabbed the Shadows to pay for that asylum bed in the first place. Surely, Bray, the leader of the underground memory market, wants to do one thing with me—slit my throat. And now four years of hiding could vanish with a single word from Ryder.

“I want nothing to do with the Shadows,” I hiss. “And if you have any sense, you’ll stay away from them too.” I back away from her and glance around, searching for signs they may already be watching and waiting to haul me back to Bray. And if they are, I don’t want Ryder anywhere near me.

“Don’t you want more than this, Etta?” she calls out after me.

Keeping my back toward her, I stop walking. Of course I want more than a life of worrying that Ryder will one day end up on the auction block and watching my mother wither away in the asylum, but I’m not sure I deserve it. Not after everything I’ve done.

I glance down at the four leather bands on my wrist before I shove my hands into my pockets and push out of the crowd. They hush in anticipation of the next auction, and I gulp in a breath so I don’t scream. The only place I need to be is at the asylum, so that’s where I’ll head to find a way out of this mess.

Making my way to the edge of the audience, I pull my mother’s lottery ticket from my pocket. In the moonlight, a few of the words shine through the envelope.

My heartbeat rushes to my ears as I rip it open. This is no lottery ticket.

It’s my mother’s Notice of Auction.

 


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