The Shadow Thieves
The sunlight glinting off the silver barbed wire makes my eyes water. I always forget how bright it is outside. Prison is nothing but gray.
“This way,” the warden says impatiently. She clutches my release papers in her left hand. I blink to clear my eyes and follow her across the courtyard toward the gate.
My heart flutters in my chest. This is it. I’ve been waiting one hundred and eighty days, and now I only have to wait for them to open the gate. Freedom is on the other side.
It’s taking way too long for the gate to move. Maybe the magician is napping on the job or something. They claim that there’s one up in the tower who’s enchanted the gate and has to lift the spell before anyone can pass. I have no way of knowing if that’s true, but it could be. This place is supposed to be the most secure juvenile facility in all of Ruhia. It turns out that once you’ve broken out of prison
the first time they try to lock you up, they don’t take any chances the second time around.
Luckily, I’m the only one being released today, but the wait is still agonizing. The warden shows my papers to the guard, and I stare down at the chalky gravel of the courtyard. I’m going to see real grass in a second. Real grass and real trees and . . . my brother. My real, actual brother.
Finally, in one long, excruciating motion, the gate swings open.
Will he really be there? They told me that he’d agreed to pick me up. Surely he wouldn’t back out now. Unless this has all been some kind of horrible joke. A mistake, like everything else.
And even if he is here . . . what will he think of me?
The warden strides through the gate and peers down the drive. “Are you Ronan Rosco?” she asks.
My feet shuffle forward on their own, leading me across the threshold of my new life.
I’ve waited one hundred and eighty days for this, but I’m not ready.
I stop beside the warden, just on the other side of the gate. The long drive up to the prison is lined with browning grass and stark, barren trees. It was early summer when I went in, but now it’s Vyra’s Month, and winter is already settling in for a long stay. This will be my first Ruhian winter, my first experience with heavy snows and freezing
temperatures and weak sunlight. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.
A few feet down the gray gravel drive sits a carriage. A cheap rent-by-the-hour one, painted a shockingly bright orange and pulled by a skinny brown horse. The driver looks half-asleep on the front seat, his elbows resting on his knees.
And walking up the drive toward us is my brother.
Ronan is tall, tall enough that I have to crane my neck to look at him. I remember him being about five years older than me, and I don’t think I was too far off the mark—he looks eighteen or nineteen. Like me, he has shaggy dark hair that resists all efforts to comb it. Unlike me, he seems to have made an effort to tame it anyway, having tied the loose bits back at the nape of his neck. He’s wearing a real, actual suit, with a tie and everything.
But if he’s trying to make a good impression on the warden, she doesn’t care. She barely glances at him as she riffles through my papers. Having finally arrived at the correct one, she reads a statement in a flat monotone: “As a representative of the glorious state of Ruhia, I now release this ward—Alli Rosco, age twelve, originally of Azeland—to you, Mr. Ronan A. Rosco, hereby establishing you as her legal guardian until she comes of age. In accordance with the law of the glorious state of Ruhia, her guardian must ensure her attendance at all forthcoming probationary meetings and/or hearings until such a time when her probation ends. Failure to comply will result in penalties for
both ward and guardian. Do you understand these terms?”
“Er, yes,” Ronan stammers.
“Right then.” The warden shuffles a few more papers and holds one out to Ronan. “Sign here.”
He signs his name with the pen she offers, and then it’s done. Just like that, I’m free to leave.
“Best of luck to you,” the warden says briskly as she turns back to the gate, but I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or to Ronan.
My brother smiles at me. He has a kind face, with soft eyes, and he looks even kinder when he smiles. “Ready to go, Alli?”
No, I think I’ll just hang out at the prison a bit longer. The sarcastic response rises up automatically, but I bite it back. “Yeah,” I say instead.
He leads the way back to the carriage, each footstep raising a puff of gravelly dust that clouds his shiny black shoes. His suit isn’t anything super fancy, like the nobles wear, but it’s still a suit. He really is a lawyer’s apprentice.
I glance down at my feet. They let me change out of the prison-issue jumpsuit, but the only thing I had to change into is what I was wearing when they booked me: a baggy, moth-eaten sweater, and pants that are too small for me, the cuffs hanging too far above my ankles. These clothes are prison-issue too, something they gave me to wear during my meeting with the judge after I got out of the Healing Springs. Probably donated by some charity, just like the
stuff we used to wear at the orphanage. It never would’ve bothered me much before, but they seem shabby now. Do lawyers’ apprentices always wear nice clothes? I’m not sure how much money they make or what kinds of houses they live in.
Why didn’t I think about any of this before? I’ve been so busy worrying about what Ronan would be like, I forgot to worry about the rest of it.
Ronan yanks the carriage door open. The whole thing groans as we climb in, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s held together by only glue and prayer. But still, it was nice of him to bring a carriage at all, instead of just walking.
“Nice” is a word that I’m beginning to associate with my brother, even though this is the first time I’ve seen him in person since I was three. I mean, there really isn’t any other word for a guy who apparently agreed to take in his estranged sister after she managed to get herself thrown into juvenile prison before she turned thirteen. I can only imagine how that conversation went over on his end. So, hi. I know you haven’t seen me in a decade, but I’m your long-lost sister. Hurray! Oh, and also, I’m homeless and in jail on multiple charges. Think I can come live with you when I get out in a few months?
Yeah, way to make a good first impression.
It’s only made worse by the fact that Ronan had, apparently, been leading a very successful life until I came along. The list of facts I know about my brother is short, but it includes a few key details.
Number one: His name is Ronan A. Rosco.
Number two: He’s a lawyer’s apprentice currently living in Ruhia.
Number three: He must be a good apprentice, because the judge handling my case thought well enough of him to recommend I be released to live with him once my sentence was up.
Number four: He owns a real suit.
From these facts, I can conclude that things have been going well for him. At least until his long-lost sister was dumped in his lap.
The carriage lurches, almost throwing us against the far wall. Ronan winces. “Sorry about the bumpy ride. I had to save a few weeks’ allowance for this.”
I don’t think he means it to be cruel, but I cringe. Only the first of many expenses I’m going to cost him.
He glances out the window, fidgeting with his tie. His fingers are long and ink-stained, his nails neatly trimmed. A ray of sunlight cuts across his cheekbone and nose, throwing half his face into brightness and the other half into shadow. On the surface, he looks a lot like me—messy dark hair and tan skin and brown eyes. But lots of other people have those features too. There is a deeper resemblance between us, but only if you look for it: His face is fuller than mine, but he still has hints of sharper angles in the same places I do—chin, nose, cheekbones. His eyebrows are as shaggy as his hair, giving a more serious tone to his playful, bright
eyes. He looks like my brother only in the smallest of ways. Fitting, I guess.
I should probably say something now, but I don’t know what. We sit mostly in silence as the carriage clatters its way down Ruhia’s streets. Judging by the way Ronan keeps cutting glances at me and then looking away, I don’t think he knows what to say either. We’ve missed so much of each other’s lives that we could never run out of things to talk about, but the gulf is too wide. We don’t know where to begin.
Plus, I don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to saying the right things. I’ve sworn to myself that I’ll be on my best behavior, that I won’t smart off, that I won’t lose my temper. But I don’t know how to go about doing that, precisely, and right now everything I want to ask seems too perilous.
Well, I guess we can start small. “What’s the A stand for?” I ask.
“In your name. Ronan A. Rosco.”
“Oh.” He smiles again. “I have no idea. I made it up.”
“Really. I don’t know my middle name. Don’t know if I have one. But I needed something that sounded official.”
“Right.” He grins wider, the corners of his mouth twitching, and it looks so much like that other grin that
it makes my heart stutter. The way his lips always used to quirk up at the corners . . .
Get out of my head, Beck.
“So, I probably don’t have a middle name either,” I say.
His smile fades. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
I shake my head. “Not your fault.”
We go back to staring out the windows.
The city of Ruhia looks so much different from the last time I saw it. Before, in the late spring, the trees were full, the flowers blooming, the streets crowded with pedestrians taking advantage of the mild weather. Now it’s the start of winter, and the trees are already bare, the grass brown. Fewer people walk the streets, and those who do wear thick coats, scarves, and hats.
Carriages now clog the roads, most pulled by ordinary horses like ours. But I catch glimpses of thilastri guiding the fancier carriages and crane my neck to get a better look. I hardly ever saw thilastri back home in Azeland, but they’re much more common here. They tower over the horses in the streets, their golden beaks and bright blue feathers standing out against the landscape of grays and browns.
Our carriage finally stops, and the driver thuds twice on the wall behind my head. We’re here.
Ronan climbs out first and helps me down. As he pays the driver, I glance around. The street is cobbled and quiet, neat brick buildings lining it in rows. So different from Azeland, where everything is a haphazard cluster of
different sizes and materials and people. There, the building’s materials would tell you how wealthy its owners were. Ruhian architecture makes it impossible to figure out what kind of neighborhood this is. While this street certainly doesn’t belong to the nobility, I can’t determine much else about it.
“This way,” Ronan says, leading me down a sidewalk and toward a tall redbrick building. I memorize the number—the only way to distinguish it from its neighbors—as Ronan unlocks the front door and leads me inside. We enter the mostly empty front room of the apartment complex, and then climb three flights of stairs before arriving on Ronan’s floor.
The hallway is narrow and dim, but everything seems nice enough. There are only a few apartments per floor, and Ronan leads me to the second door on the right. 4B, according to the bronze plate.
“It’s pretty small,” he says, sounding apologetic as he unlocks the door. “And I’m no good at decorating.”
I almost laugh. Like I care about decorations.
Still, I have to admit he’s right. The room we’ve entered is pretty bare, just a battered sofa, an armchair, and a rug in front of a fireplace. A low, partial wall that runs only half the length of the room divides it from a small kitchen with faded white cabinets and a single paned window. A dark hallway leads to the right. Lots of books and papers are stacked around the room.
And that’s about it. But it’s clean, it’s warm, it’s safe. I’ve lived in worse.
Ronan looks embarrassed, fidgeting with his tie again. He tosses his keys onto the table in the kitchen and grabs a matchbox off the fireplace mantel. “It gets a bit drafty in the winter,” he says in that same apologetic tone. “But the building supplies firewood, so we don’t have to worry about that.”
“That’s nice,” I say.
Now that I’ve heard him speak more, the traces of Azeland in his accent are obvious. The past few months in prison, all I ever heard were Ruhian voices, and I didn’t realize until now how much I missed hearing other people who speak like me. It’s a small thing, but it makes Ronan feel more like my brother.
He strikes a match, tosses it into the grate, and watches the flames catch. “Bathroom’s down the hall on the left. My room is at the end of the hall; yours is on the right.”
“Mine?” I say, certain I’ve misheard.
“Yeah, your room. It’s down the hall on the right.”
My own room. Thank you, Saint Ailara. I’ve never had my own room before.
Except for that one time. In that one place. With that one boy I will not think about.
“So,” Ronan says, straightening up from the fire, “how about dinner?”
Dinner. With real, actual, nonprison food.
This day is rapidly improving.
We head into the kitchen, and Ronan lifts the lid on the small white ice chest. “I didn’t know what you’d like,” he says quickly, “so I haven’t really been shopping yet, and there isn’t very much . . .”
Ronan’s idea of “very much” differs greatly from mine. He’s able to produce a loaf of bread, some sliced ham, a bit of cheese, two bowls of fresh berries—the weird Ruhian kind that manage to grow in frigid winter—and two glass bottles of milk. Practically a feast.
He then makes the questionable decision of trusting me with a knife, letting me slice the bread for our sandwiches. I’ve just cut four slices when he fidgets with his tie again. “So, Alli,” he says, inky fingers tugging at his collar, “would it be all right with you if a friend of mine joined us for dinner tonight? She’ll be getting off work in a few minutes, and she occasionally drops by . . .”
“Um, sure.” He wants his friends to meet his delinquent sister? Might as well just announce it to the whole neighborhood.
I clear my throat. “Does she know . . . ?” I’m really not sure where to go with the rest of that sentence.
“I told her about you coming to live with me,” he says carefully. Which is nice-guy code for I told her you just got out of prison.
“Okay,” I say, because that’s what he wants me to say. “So, six slices of bread, then?”
“Right.” He smiles. He’s a major smiler, my brother.
The knock comes at the door a few minutes later as Ronan is sweeping stacks of paper off the kitchen table to make more room. “Come on in, Mar,” he calls.
The front door swings open, and a young woman strides into the living room. She looks about Ronan’s age, probably in her late teens. Her skin is a rich, warm brown, and her dark hair is pulled back into a thick braid. She’s dressed casually, in pants and a simple red blouse.
She’s also very pretty.
Friend. Yeah, right.
“Hey, Ronan,” she says, stepping into the kitchen. But she’s looking at me. “You must be Alli.”
I nod, and she offers me a handshake, smiling. “I’m Mari. I live next door to you, in 4A.”
Two things I like about her instantly: One, she uses the same tone of voice with me as she does with Ronan, not that condescending one some people use to talk to children. And two, she said “to you,” not “to Ronan.” As if this is my house as much as his.
I try to remember Sister Perla’s etiquette lessons. “Nice to meet you,” I say.
“You’re just in time for sandwiches,” Ronan tells her, setting the last plate on the table.
“Sandwiches, huh? Did you forget to go shopping again?” she teases.
“I didn’t forget . . .”
“Uh-huh.” She drops into the chair at the end of the
table, and Ronan settles beside her. I sit in the remaining chair opposite Mari, with Ronan between us.
Ronan rushes through a grace, and then we dig in to the meal. It’s all I can do not to shove it into my mouth as fast I can. I haven’t had food like this in months. But I’m trying to make a good impression and remember my table manners. Not that I had any to begin with.
“So, Alli,” Mari says, “Ronan tells me you’re new to Ruhia?”
“Right,” I say cautiously. “I’m from Azeland.”
She smiles. “Well, our winter’s going to be a big change for you, isn’t it? But I’ve always thought it’s Azeland that really has it rough. I don’t know how you can brave those hot summers.”
“You’ve been to Azeland?”
“Once, on a family trip in the summer. Beautiful city.”
You must not’ve seen much of it. I quickly take a sip of milk to prevent that thought from coming out of my mouth. I’m not going to let myself get into trouble like I did before. That was Old Alli. New Alli is going to make this work. If boring, polite small talk with Ronan’s girlfriend is what I have to do to live with my brother, then I’ll do it.
“So, Alli,” Ronan says, in the same cautious way he said it before, “I know you don’t, er, have much with you, so I was thinking maybe you’d like to go shopping for some things tomorrow? I have to be at work, but you could go with Mari . . .”
Is he trying to pawn me off? Or trying to be considerate?
Mari leans toward me conspiratorially. “He knows absolutely nothing about clothing. Or decorating.”
“Hey, I’ve furnished this whole apartment,” Ronan says, pretending to be annoyed.
Mari winks at me. “My point exactly.”
“Okay,” I say. I can’t quite muster up the enthusiasm for a shopping trip, but I guess I do need some clothes other than these. I smell like mothballs.
Ronan takes a sip from his water glass. “Have you given any thought to where you might like to apprentice?”
“Apprentice?” I repeat.
“You’re turning thirteen next month, right?”
Of course. I’ve been stupid. All this time, when we talked about my coming to live with him, we never discussed how long I would stay. No wonder he’s been so kind, so willing to take me in. Because it’s only temporary. Just for a month, until I turn thirteen and am old enough to live on my own or be shipped off to someone as an apprentice. He never planned for me to live here permanently.
And part of me is a little bit relieved. Being on my own is what I know how to do. And as much as I wanted this to work out, as much as I still want to be connected to my brother, I’ve always known this would happen. I’m the sister he doesn’t want, and the sooner he can go back to his perfect life without me, the better.
I was never going to get a real home.
But despite how many times I’ve told myself that this might happen, the reality of it is like being punched in the gut. The conversation moves along without me for a few minutes as I stare at my plate, at the dishware and the table and the floor that no longer belong to me, that never really did.
I’m a thief again, trying to take things that aren’t mine.
“Alli?” Ronan says. It’s probably not the first time he’s called my name just now. Both he and Mari are staring.
“Mari can pick you up about ten tomorrow morning. Is that all right?”
“Yes, fine.” As if I have anywhere else to be.
Mari goes on for a couple of minutes about some of the shops we can visit, and I attempt to nod and smile in all the right places. The whole time she’s speaking, Ronan’s eyes are glued to her, like a moth drawn to a flame. She’s a little more subtle, but her eyes keep darting over to him, too. Yep, definitely his girlfriend.
When the topic of our shopping trip has been thoroughly exhausted, she asks Ronan about some case he’s working on at the office. He mentions paperwork but is vague about the details. “Anyway, how was your day?” he asks her.
“Oh, you know. The usual.” Her gaze drops to her empty plate.
Ronan shifts in his chair, setting down his glass. “Oh. Good.”
I know an attempt to hide something when I see it. “Where do you work?” I ask.
She darts a panicked glance at Ronan, who clears his throat and says, “We first met at work, actually. I only moved into this building after Mari told me there was a room for rent here.”
“So you’re a lawyer too?” I ask her.
“Not exactly.” The two of them share a helpless glance, and then Mari looks at me. “I’m a protector.”
For the second time in as many minutes, I feel like all the air has been thrust from my lungs. This time, the words pop out of my mouth before I can stop them. “You’re kidding.”
“I just finished my training a few months ago,” Mari says quietly. “Youngest in my class.”
I glare at Ronan. “You didn’t tell me?” He has to know what this means to me. I’m not sure how much about my actual case he’s been told, but working in a law office and knowing the judge, I don’t doubt he’s had access to my records. And even though I lied to the judge and left out some rather important details, Ronan still has to know what they did to me. How it was protectors who nearly killed me with a curse, who arrested me and threw me in prison, who got me into this whole awful mess. And he’s dating one. Just casually bringing her over for dinner.
The heat of my anger floods my veins. This is bad, bad, bad. I swore I wouldn’t get angry, I’ll lose everything if I get angry, I’ll say something I don’t want to say—
It’s too late. I’m shaking, and blood is pounding in my temples. I’ve got to get out of here.
I lurch to my feet, my chair banging against the wall. “May I be excused?” It’s all I can do to force the words out.
I don’t hear if anyone answers. I run, past the protector at my brother’s dinner table and down the dark hallway, into the bedroom that belongs to no one.