I hate First Friday. It makes the village crowded and now, in the heat of high summer, that’s the last thing anyone wants. From my place in the shade it isn’t so bad but the stink of bodies, all sweating with the morning work, is enough to make milk curdle. The air shimmers with heat and humidity and even the puddles from yesterday’s storm are hot, swirling with rainbow streaks of oil and grease.
The market deflates, with everyone closing up their stalls for the day. The merchants are distracted, careless, and it’s easy for me to take whatever I want from their wares. By the time I’m done, my pockets bulge with trinkets and I’ve got an apple for the road. Not bad for a few minutes’ work. As the throng of people moves, I let myself be taken away by the human current. My hands dart in and out, always in fleeting touches. Some paper bills from a man’s pocket, a bracelet from a woman’s wrist—nothing too big. Villagers are too busy shuffling along to notice a pickpocket in their midst.
The high, stilt buildings for which the village is named (the Stilts, very original) rise all around us, ten feet above the muddy ground. In the spring the lower bank is underwater, but right now it’s August, when dehydration and sun sickness stalk the village. Almost everyone looks forward to First Friday, when work and school end early. But not me. No, I’d rather be in school, learning nothing in a classroom full of children.
Not that I’ll be in school much longer. My eighteenth birthday is coming, and with it, conscription. I’m not apprenticed, I don’t have a job, so I’m going to be sent to the war like all the other idle ones. It’s no wonder there’s no work left, what with every man, woman, and child trying to stay out of the army.
My brothers went to war when they turned eighteen, all three of them sent to fight Lakelanders. Only Shade can write worth a lick, and he sends me letters when he can. I haven’t heard from my other brothers, Bree and Tramy, in over a year. But no news is good news. Families can go years without hearing a thing, only to find their sons and daughters waiting on the front doorstep, home on leave or sometimes blissfully discharged. But usually you receive a letter made of heavy paper, stamped with the king’s crown seal below a short thank-you for your child’s life. Maybe you even get a few buttons from their torn, obliterated uniforms.
I was thirteen when Bree left. He kissed me on the cheek and gave me a single pair of earrings for my little sister, Gisa, and me to share. They were dangling glass beads, the hazy pink color of sunset. We pierced our ears ourselves that night. Tramy and Shade kept up the tradition when they went. Now Gisa and I have one ear each set with three tiny stones to remind us of our brothers fighting somewhere. I didn’t really believe they’d have to go, not until the legionnaire in his polished armor showed up and took them away one after another. And this fall, they’ll come for me. I’ve already started saving—and stealing—to buy Gisa some earrings when I go.
Don’t think about it. That’s what Mom always says, about the army, about my brothers, about everything. Great advice, Mom.
Down the street, at the crossing of Mill and Marcher Roads, the crowd thickens and more villagers join the march. A gang of kids, little thieves in training, flutters through the fray with sticky, searching fingers. They’re too young to be good at it, and Security officers are quick to intervene. Usually the kids would be sent to the stocks, or the jail at the outpost, but the officers want to see First Friday. They settle for giving the ringleaders a few harsh knocks before letting them go. Small mercies.
The tiniest pressure at my waist makes me spin, acting on instinct. I grab at the hand foolish enough to pickpocket me, squeezing tight so the little imp won’t be able to run away. But instead of a scrawny kid, I find myself staring up at a smirking face.
Kilorn Warren. A fisherman’s apprentice, a war orphan, and probably my only real friend. We used to beat each other up as children, but now that we’re older—and he’s a foot taller than me—I try to avoid scuffles. He has his uses, I suppose. Reaching high shelves, for example.
“You’re getting faster.” He chuckles, shaking off my grip.
“Or you’re getting slower.”
He rolls his eyes and snatches the apple out of my hand.
“Are we waiting for Gisa?” he asks, taking a bite of the fruit.
“She has a pass for the day. Working.”
“Then let’s get moving. Don’t want to miss the show.”
“And what a tragedy that would be.”
“Tsk, tsk, Mare,” he teases, shaking a finger at me. “This is supposed to be fun.”
“It’s supposed to be a warning, you dumb fool.”
But he’s already walking off with his long strides, forcing me to almost trot to keep up. His gait weaves, off balance. Sea legs, he calls them, though he’s never been to the far-off sea. I guess long hours on his master’s fishing boat, even on the river, are bound to have some effect.
Like my dad, Kilorn’s father was sent off to war, but whereas mine returned missing a leg and a lung, Mr. Warren came back in a shoe box. Kilorn’s mother ran off after that, leaving her young son to fend for himself. He almost starved to death, but somehow kept picking fights with me. I fed him so that I wouldn’t have to kick around a bag of bones, and now, ten years later, here he is. At least he’s apprenticed and won’t face the war.
We get to the foot of the hill, where the crowd is thicker, pushing and prodding on all sides. First Friday attendance is mandatory, unless you are, like my sister, an “essential laborer.” As if embroidering silk is essential. But the Silvers love their silk, don’t they? Even the Security officers, a few of them anyway, can be bribed with pieces sewn by my sister. Not that I know anything about that.
The shadows around us deepen as we climb up the stone stairs, toward the crest of the hill. Kilorn takes them two at a time, almost leaving me behind, but he stops to wait. He smirks down at me and tosses a lock of faded, tawny hair out of his green eyes.
“Sometimes I forget you have the legs of a child.”
“Better than the brain of one,” I snap, giving him a light smack on the cheek as I pass. His laughter follows me up the steps.
“You’re grouchier than usual.”
“I just hate these things.”
“I know,” he murmurs, solemn for once.
And then we’re in the arena, the sun blazing hot overhead. Built ten years ago, the arena is easily the largest structure in the Stilts. It’s nothing compared to the colossal ones in the cities, but still, the soaring arches of steel, the thousands of feet of concrete, are enough to make a village girl catch her breath.