Slavers have come to Crowns Peak. For Creeper, a street urchin living rough in the slums, that fact is just one more in a long list of everyday realities she has to deal with.
But what if there were a better place for her, a place where she might be safe? Safe from the coming winter, from the older littles who bully her, from the king’s guards who want to take her, and perhaps even from the slavers. Creeper might just have found such a place… within the palace walls, surrounded by the very guards she has been taught to fear. But better in here than out there.
Or is it?
Secrets swirl within those walls, and old hatreds bubble close to the surface. Creeper will have to navigate very carefully if she is to remain safe, remain welcome. Outside the walls, however, the littles from Creeper’s old life are being snatched up one by one…
Creeper dipped her brush into the bucket, then scrubbed at the sooty stones in front of the kitchen hearth. Somehow, the priest who cooked breakfast always managed to spill, and the priests and priestesses who ate at the solid ironwillow table always dropped scraps to the floor. Most littles fought over the opportunity to clean under the table, since they had their pick of discarded food to augment the scanty temple fare, but not Creeper. Every morning and every night the hearth was hers to clean.
She paused, sneaked a quick look around the room, and then, since the priestess was watching the littles under the table and the littles were arguing over a bit of bread, she scooped a finger of ash to rub in her hair. Despite her poor diet and habit of chopping her hair off with a sharp blade every time she laid hands on one, it grew unmercifully quick, so she had to be careful to keep the roots—and the rest—suitably darkened.
A meaty voice jerked her upright. “You there, boy!”
Creeper flinched, ducked her head, then peered out from beneath her lashes. Red robes furled in the doorway, then sausage-like fingers gripped her shoulder hard enough to leave bruises and dashed any hope Creeper had had that the priest had been bellowing at someone else.
“Get up.” The priest dragged her to her feet, knocking over her pail of wash water. Creeper heard stifled gasps of dismay from the other littles—more to clean up now before they were allowed a midday meal—but the priest ignored the gray suds sloshing against his brown leather boots and gripped her chin in his hand, turning her face into the morning light slanting through the window. “How old are you now, boy?”
Goddess, this is bad. Creeper wrapped her arms around her middle. “’Leven, Father,” she whispered into the growing pool of startled hush. None of the other littles wanted to risk drawing the priest’s attention. Even the priestess had gone silent and still.
The head priest released Creeper and wiped ring-bedecked fingers over the embroidery on his scarlet doeskin robes. The buttons of his brown velvet doublet strained over a pristine red linen tunic. He scowled. “I think you were eleven last spring, boy.”
She trembled in her rags. She’d been claiming eleven years for two summers now, in hopes to stay at the temple a bit longer before being thrown into the streets, or worse, taken by the king’s guards. The rumors—
“Time for you to go,” the priest decided aloud. He gripped her shoulder and steered her out of the kitchen.
The priestess clapped sharply. “Back to work!” Littles bent to scrub the tile floor, whispering behind thin-fingered hands.
Creeper dragged her feet across the kitchen threshold. “Father Silas…” Tears welled up in her eyes, but girls cried. Girls disguised as boys dared not cry. “Master, I only been here a couple seasons and the temple’s ‘posed to take care of orphaned littles,” she whined.
The priest dragged her down the hall past the rich paintings of the face of the God and past the precious metal symbols of the Goddess. “You’ve been here long enough,” he grunted. “Costing me in food, clothes, and education, as the king demands.”
Her thrice-used, much-mended tunic could have once been called brown, Creeper allowed, and once a day she and the other littles were allowed a bit of meat in their stew, but she didn’t see how a priestess teaching them their letters cost the priest anything. “Please, Father!”
They reached the meeting hall of the church, where the floor had been laid out in patterns of goldenoak and silverash. Under the strict eye of many a priest, Creeper had sanded and re-varnished enough of it to know the patterns by heart. Father Silas’s boots thudded against the floor ominously. “How much do you think the crown pays us to take care of you all?” he demanded as he pushed open the ornate goldenoak doors. “Barely enough to pay for food, that’s how much, and not a bit of help from you! I can put two children in your bed, get twice the coin, and feed them less besides.”
Creeper nearly yelped at the unfairness. Washing, gardening, and more washing—and then redoing it if the priestess wasn’t satisfied—seemed like plenty of help to her! She twisted away from the front doors, back toward the kitchen. If only she could catch the attention of the head priestesses, or another priest, perhaps they would let her stay. A sob rose in her throat but she swallowed it.
“Get out, boy.” The priest’s meaty hand shoved Creeper between her narrow shoulder blades. She lost her balance and tumbled down three stone steps, scraping elbows and knees and collapsing into a bony pile of tattered cloth on the cobblestone street. She twisted to stare up at him. The priest smoothed his long blond hair back into a tail at the nape of his neck and tied it with a red ribbon. He straightened his rings and robes, glaring down at her with wintry blue eyes.
“Father Silas, what’m I gonna do?” Creeper’s ashen locks dangled limply around her shoulders. Blood welled from one ripped toenail and her shoulder ached. Despite her best efforts, a fat tear rolled down her cheek.
“It’s summer,” he snapped. “Go down to the slums and beg for your food.”
Creeper sniveled. “But…”
The priest held up a gold chain and locket. Creeper’s hands went to her neck and clutched convulsively.
“The God thanks you for your donation,” the priest intoned. He gestured with mock piety, touching left hand to heart, then lips.
That’s mine! Fury boiled up in Creeper’s bony chest. She opened her mouth.
“Oh, go ahead and complain to the guard,” mocked the priest. “I’ll tell them you’re thirteen and they’ll take you away.”
She swiped at her tears with one threadbare sleeve and tried one last time. “Please—”
The priest flung a cracked wooden bowl at Creeper’s feet. “Go on, boy. It’s summertime. You won’t freeze… tonight.” He turned, scarlet robes swirling, and shoved open the heavy temple doors. “And wash your filthy hair!” he snapped, retreating inside. The temple doors slammed shut.
Creeper stared up at the intricately worked goldenoak doors. Symbols of the Goddess and the God mocked her from the doorway, opposites of day and night, light and dark, life and death. She shivered in the morning sunlight.
Wonder if he’d a turned me out if he knowed I was a girl. She closed her eyes.
Where do I sleep? What do I eat? And my locket…
Despair consumed her, bitter and dark. She picked herself up off the ground and brushed the worst of the dirt from her clothes, rubbing at her hair. Of course it was filthy. She’d spent the last couple of years avoiding the priests and priestesses on bath day, once every ten-day, and relying on a stealthy—and sketchy—midnight wash when everyone else was sleeping, all to hide her gender and hair color.
Creeper picked up the small wooden bowl and cupped it to her middle. She turned lavender eyes up to the puffy white clouds above the temple, where the priests and priestesses claimed the God and Goddess resided. Why? Why is this happening to me? she asked Them mutely.
Silence rang in her ears.
Never answered afore, she thought resentfully. Why wud They start now? Oh, gods. No mum, no dad. No one to take care of me. Cain’t even sleep at the temple now. Won’t go to the guard… She shuddered. Not after hearing them rumors ‘bout what they do to littles dumb enough to get taken.
What’m I gonna do?