“If we die of hypothermia, I’m gonna come back as a ghost and haunt your uncle for the rest of his life,” Sterling hissed. “It’s too cold for us to be doing this crap, Wynter.”
It would be even colder in the Dregs. Darker, too. Looking up, I could see the rocky underside of the Floats above us, casting a deep, perennial shadow over their protected refuse piles. Just around the ledge I could see the bright tips of the floating city in the sky, an impenetrable fortress to those without a magical means of reaching them. While the Dregs got some shade depending on the time of day, the Dregs were always dark, and at night, the inky blackness was especially ominous.
“If you die of hypothermia, you’ve got my full support in haunting my uncle,” I said.
“Good. I was worried about having your approval,” Sterling said. “I totally wouldn’t have haunted your uncle anyway.”
“We both know that’s a lie,” I replied. “How many times have I had to talk you outta something dangerous?”
“And how many times have you listened?” I asked.
“Never,” Sterling replied, “But I do it for you. See. That makes it okay.”
I stifled a laugh. “How is ignoring my legitimately good advice doing anything for me?” I asked.
“You get a lot of pleasure from saying, I told you so,” Sterling joked.
I shook my head and drew my attention back to the fence. Normally, it had wards magicked into it that would prevent intruders, but those wards had been down for years. They weren’t really needed. Mage tech could be dangerous, and few had both the courage to brave the Dregs, as well as the skills to repair it into something useful. I had neither, but I was more afraid of his belt than the Dregs, and his connections knew enough about magic to use it without blowing up half the town. Usually. Gold and silver were nothing next to the value of magic.
I crept slowly forward. There was a small hole at the base of the fence. I dropped onto my belly and squirmed beneath the fence, careful not to catch my hair or clothes. When I emerged on the other side, I edged along, leaving room for Sterling.
As he crawled in, I reached into the pocket of my coat, my cold fingers fumbling with the match and candle I carried. It took me three tries to light it. The candle’s flame did little to fill the darkness, but that also meant we’d be harder to find. The fire danced over the trash before us, illuminating jagged shards of metal and broken glass. We got to work, taking turns between holding the candle and digging through the dump with long sticks.
I carefully pulled aside a warped piece of metal—potentially a frame of some sort—and nudged it aside. Leaning forward, I gingerly pulled on the thin, silvery-blue piece of metal out of a tall mound of garbage. When it came free, I breathed a sigh in relief. More than once I’d inadvertently collapsed an entire mountain of metal on my head. Even if I’d emerged unscathed, the noise would have attracted unwanted attention from other scavengers.
The item was a some kind of broken rod. I turned it, and a weak blue glow shone through the cracks on its otherwise dark surface. Definitely mage tech of some sort.
Sterling held the candle closer; the blue seemed to brighten and flicker in the firelight. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” he said.
“I ain’t seen anything like that before,” Sterling said.
“Me neither,” I replied, turning the item around in my hands, “But it didn’t blow up in my face.”
“It’s a good day, then,” Sterling said.
He’d been on the receiving end of an explosive piece of mage tech more than once. By sheer luck, neither of us had ever gotten more than a minor burn or scrape from a piece of mage tech. Others weren’t so lucky. I’d seen people with missing limbs and blackened skin after having an accident in the Scraps, which is why jobs like this were left to stupid kids. Like us.
I unshouldered my backpack, an old and heavily patched find from five years before. After carefully wrapping the tech up with a rough strip of cloth, I slipped it into the front pocket and kept looking. My uncle wouldn’t be pleased with one piece of mage tech, even one as unique as this one, and the last thing I wanted to do was anger Gabriel. He was a volatile man even in his best of moods.
Sterling and I spent most of the night rummaging through the trash, looking for the diamonds in the rough. I had never seen a diamond before in my life, but I’d heard of them. In my mind, diamonds were shimmering bits of metal. They were a good length of steel or copper wiring. When the moon was at her fullest, after filling our bags with treasures, we sneaked back through the trash heaps and crawled back beneath a small hole in the fence surrounding the dump.
This was the dangerous part; some gangs preferred to wait in town, and jump scavengers just when they thought they were safe. We kept to the shadows, eyes tense and watchful. I sighed in relief when the entrance to the old subway appeared. Gabriel said it had once been a great place where people had traveled, but that was before the mages first appeared.
Once outside the dump, we kept to the shadows, wary of falling prey to the monsters that often haunted the shadows. I’d once had a sword that I used to fend them away, but it had been an old, rusted thing and broken some time ago. I sighed in relief when the entrance to the old subway appeared. Gabriel said it had once been a great place where people had traveled, but that was in some indistinct time before the mages first appeared.
“Well, looks like that’s a wrap, Wynter,” Sterling said, furrowing his brow.
“I guess,” I said.
With a wry smile, Sterling pulled his pack off his shoulder and handed it to me. “Make sure old man Gabriel doesn’t cheat me, huh?”
“He wouldn’t,” I replied.
Not enough to get caught anyway.
Sterling grinned. “Yeah, sure.”
“You are the one who decided to do business with him,” I pointed out. “I told you it was a bad idea.”
“I thought we’d already established that I never listen to you,” Sterling replied.
“Rude,” I said.
“You know,” I said, “You could stay the night and make sure Gabriel doesn’t cheat you.”
Sterling’s easy smiled fell. “I need to get back home, so I can sleep. I’m heading out to the forests in the morning. Mom needs medicine.”
I nodded. Sterling’s mom, Claribel, had always been good to me. When I’d been very little, she’d sat me by her, with Briar and Sterling, and read from this old book of fairy tales she had. I’d loved visiting her, until Gabriel said Briar and I were too old for children’s tales. Claribel been sick for a while, and she relied on the forests in the northern part of the Scraps for medicine. Gabriel never let me go to the forests, but Sterling went, gathering herbs and plants for his mother.
“No problem. I’ll make sure you get paid,” I replied. “Be careful.”
He lightly punched me in the shoulder. “I’m always careful. It’s everyone else you gotta worry about.”
He was careful, but that didn’t mean I didn’t worry about him walking home alone in the dark. Although he was probably safer than me, now that I was lugging two bags full of loot. I’d been carrying a short dagger since last year, but my hands were too full to reach it. Still, they’d have to be stupid to rob me on Gabriel’s front doorstep. My uncle and his connections practically owned the full expanse of the subways. Once he was gone, I walked quietly down the stairs, ducking into the darkness of the tunnel. Bits of metal poked my back through the thin fabric of my backpack and I tread down the broken steps and stepped into the shadows to wait for my brother. He was younger than me and less experienced, so he usually scavenged in the Scraps, never venturing close to the Dregs. There were safer places to search, places without fences or dangerous mage tech, but those places didn’t usually offer rewards as good as the ones I found behind. This was my inheritance, all the trash held behind locked places and high fences.
Soon, I heard the slap of boots, and Briar descended the stairs. No one would have guessed we were brother and sister; we looked nothing alike. While I was short and dark-haired, Briar was tall and blond with hair that stuck out in every direction, like the briars on a scraggly rosebush. The only similarity between us was our blue eyes, and even then, it wasn’t the same shade of blue. “How’d it go?” I asked.
He shrugged. “The usual,” he said, sighing, “Which won’t be good enough for Gabriel.”
It never was, and it probably never would be.
I forced a smile and threw an arm over his shoulders. “Someday,” I said, “We’re gonna find our own place on the outskirts of the Scraps, and then, we won’t have to deal with Gabriel anymore.”
Wishful thinking, and I knew Briar was too old for bed-time stories. Our uncle was too powerful to run from. Spiteful, too. Every time I tried to save up enough money to run, or fence a valuable piece I’d discovered on my own, Gabriel found out about them and left a permanent mark on my skin, so I wouldn’t forget the betrayal. I had a small collection of them now: a row of burn marks and scars running up my arm.
“Yeah?” Briar asked. “Are we doing that before or after you discover you’re a long-lost princess?”
He was teasing, trying to make light of our situation like I was, but I could see the jaded skepticism in his eyes, and along with a darkness that hadn’t been there a year ago. We both knew there was no where to run.
“Obviously, we’d run away first, peasant,” I replied, with an exaggerated sniff.
“You’ll have to change your name to something really pretentious,” Sterling joked. “I’ve never heard of any princess being called Wynter. You’d have to be Kristiana or something.”
I gasped, as if irreversibly offended by the name Kristiana. “Wrong. When I’m a princess, I can have any name I want,” I said smugly. “If anyone is getting their name changed, it’s you. I hope you don’t mind being called Chanticleer.”
He laughed. “That’s horrifying!”
“So is your face,” I joked.
Briar nudged me with his elbow. “We have the same parents!” he protested. “If my face is horrifying, yours is, too!”
“Maybe I got all the good looks,” I replied. “Sorry. I don’t make the rules.”
Briar sighed. “You’re so mean to me,” he said. But the spark of humor stayed in his eyes, and for a moment, we were ourselves again. Then we grabbed our bags and headed into the tunnel.
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