Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Maybe it was because my name was Lark, but I had always loved heights. The way everything small fell away, leaving me with the thrill of possibility. Even now, when I was about to do the most dangerous thing I’d ever done.
Perched on the roof of the Royal Museum, I could almost convince myself that the world was full of opportunity. The city of Lamlyle spread in glittering splendor around me like the spangled skirts of a fine lady’s gown. Aether lamps sparkled their otherworldly light, tracing the patterns of streets and outlining the dark mystery that was Prospect Park. If I squinted, I could even make out the lights of the great barges on the river. Barges that could carry me away to grand and faraway lands, to find adventure, to be free.
But the truth was, I wasn’t free. My debt to Miss Starvenger bound me tight and heavy as iron, and just as unbreakable. If I didn’t escape it soon, I’d be trapped forever in a life I hated. A life my mother had died fighting to save me from.
That was why I was here. All I needed was to make this last leap over to the museum’s west wing, then drop down to pick the lock on the window. A wiggle inside, and I was golden. Literally. There were enough treasures in the Royal Museum to pay off a thousand debts.
I probably should have felt guilty, but really, all I felt were nerves. Guilt could wait. No, guilt could go stuff it. Guilt was for people who had other options.
I breathed in cool night air dashed with the scent of smoke and sugarcakes from the nightmarket in the next square. The gap before me seemed wider now than it had a few minutes ago. But it was the only way to reach the west wing, to get inside and claim my prize. The great glass dome of the central observatory was too slick, and there was no convenient wisteria vine on which to climb.
Just jump, I told myself. I’d practiced it a dozen times. But my feet remained rooted to the roof.
A quaver of voices sent me hunching down, wary of being spotted by the patrolling watch below. Peering over the edge of the roof, I saw two girls on their way to the nightmarket. Girls like me, from the looks of it. Ragged around the edges, underfed, underloved. As they passed out from under the glow of the lantern, I blinked. Because the light seemed to chase after them. It wrapped around them, a faint luminous gleam that bloomed from their skin, their patched and faded smocks, even the long braids slipping down their spines.
Factory girls. People called the folk who worked in the aether shops “haunts” for a good reason: they looked like living ghosts. The luminous aether dust seeped into their clothing, their hair, their flesh. Beautiful and terrible. The magical stuff might power marvelous works of artifice, but it was dangerous. Too much of it, and you truly did become a ghost. You couldn’t touch things. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t speak. Eventually, your body faded completely away.
Not that anyone seemed to care. The factories kept right on hiring, and there were always folk desperate enough for coin to answer.
A swell of fury rose in my chest, ember-hot and useless. If I could, I’d stick Mr. Pinshaw, the factory owner, at one of his own grinding benches to see how he felt after breathing in poison all day. But I was only twelve. An orphan. It took every scrap of my strength just to stay alive and whole. Wishing to do more was like wishing for a star to fall into my pocket. My mother had tried to change things, and she’d died because of it. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake.
One of the girls below stumbled, coughing. Soundless gasps shook her frail limbs, nearly bending her double. Her friend tried to reach for her, but her hand slid right through the sickly girl’s arm. My own body tensed in useless sympathy. Maybe it was just a momentary flicker. Please, let it just be a flicker.
Finally, the girl straightened, catching her breath. I sagged in relief as they walked on, slipping away like gleams of moonlight lost in the clouds.
That sad scene was my fate if I didn’t find the gumption to make this leap and seize fortune by the scruff of its neck. Plenty of Miss Starvenger’s other girls were already answering the whistle, trotting down every morning to grind raw aether ore into dust, coming home gleaming and flickering. That was Miss Starvenger’s idea of “charity.” Take in a clutch of young girls from the orphanage, then squeeze every scrap of copper and silver out of us that she could. Even if it meant sending us to the haunt-shops. We owed it to her, she said, for all the care she’d invested in us.
Not me. Never. The factories had killed my mother, but they weren’t taking me. Even if I had to risk death and dishonor.
I tugged a bit of black cloth from my pocket and tied the makeshift mask across my eyes. Five paces back along the roof. A turn. My legs coiled tight and strong. I ran, straight toward the edge. Launched myself into the air.
My feet slammed into the roof of the western wing. I stood, shaky but victorious, shoulders back, feeling the air fresh and triumphant in my lungs.
I would make my own fate, starting tonight.
I didn’t belong here. Everything in the posh halls of the Royal Museum made that utterly clear. No matter how carefully I stepped, my footfalls rang like warning bells through the dim corridors. The displays full of lush velvet robes mocked my threadbare breeches and coat. But none of that was going to stop me. I needed coin, and no one was going to notice a few missing trinkets.
My pulse buzzed with anticipation as I crouched before a glass-fronted cabinet. A bevy of small gold trinkets lay within: a handful of rings, a toothpick, a thimble. Because of course when you already ruled an entire country, you couldn’t possibly use a brass thimble. Or pick your teeth with slivers of wood like the rest of us.
Then my gaze caught on something even better: a set of silver hair combs shaped like songbirds. Larks! And silver was easier to fence than gold.
I tugged a thin bit of metal from my cuff. The lock didn’t look bad. The moonlight filtering down from the skylights above revealed no protective runemarks, either. A moment of careful fiddling and the lock gave a satisfying click. I was about to pull open the doors and claim my prize when a distant scuffing made me freeze.
My breath burned in my chest as I held it, listening.
There it was again. Something, somewhere behind me in the hall with all the swords and armor, also known as my escape route. Wonderful.
I could leave the loot and run for it. I could take off my mask and make up some story about getting lost as the museum closed. If they caught me, I’d only be guilty of trespass. Given my age, it was likely I’d escape serious punishment.
But if I gave up, this entire escapade was a waste. All the planning. All the time I’d spent watching the guards, plotting my route to the roof. That final, perilous leap.
And, worst of all, if I didn’t make my weekly payment to Miss Starvenger, she’d order me to the factories to work off the rest of my debt. Turn me into a haunt, like those girls I’d seen, coughing and fading away.
The silver combs glittered, taunting me. Stuff it, I hadn’t come this far to give up now. I snatched them from the shelf and shoved them into my coat pocket, then added the golden thimble and a few other baubles. If I was going to dabble my toes in the water, I might as well jump into the sea.
I crept back past a collection of marble statues, then sidled behind a large display of spears. There was definitely someone else in the museum. A cool blue light spilled from somewhere on the far side of the room. A boy was speaking.
And he was blocking my way out.
He stood in front of a low, wide pedestal bearing a single artifact: a sword. His spindly body was bent nearly double, as he traced something—runemarks?—in an oval around the blade.
In spite of myself, I let out a low breath of wonder. I’d never seen someone doing aethercraft. The practice of artifice was rare these days. My housemate Sophie said that, in theory, anyone could do it—it was like cooking, you just needed to follow a recipe. But so many of the cookbooks had been lost during the Dark Days, and now only folks with coin could afford the proper ingredients. Which they only had thanks to folk without coin working themselves into haunts in the factories.
The boy shuffled along the pedestal, still intent on his work. What was he doing? Maybe he was a very young museum guard, working late to add new wards on a prize display?
He wasn’t dressed like a guard. He wore dark blue breeches and a pale linen shirt. There was a matching blue jacket slung onto the shoulder of a nearby suit of armor.
Curiosity tugged at me, but I couldn’t afford to linger. What mattered was getting past him unnoticed, to the windows that filled the wall behind him. In particular, the one on the far left, which I had left cracked open after scrambling down from the roof earlier.
His back was to me. It was my best chance. I adjusted my mask to make sure my face was covered. Then I scuttled forward, ducking behind a gruesome display of armored mannequins playing out some ancient battle, complete with splatters of gore.
But the blasted boy must have heard something. He straightened abruptly.
I froze as he searched the shadows, a slight frown on his narrow, pale face. He didn’t look much older than I was. Maybe thirteen, at most. And he definitely wasn’t a guard, not with that glimmer of gold around his neck, a medallion with an insignia I couldn’t make out from this distance.
But the tight set of his shoulders and gleam of sweat on his brow seemed proof enough he wasn’t supposed to be here any more than I was. He stared into the shadows near my feet for a few seconds longer before returning to his work. That’s right. I was just a breeze. A creaky old floor settling. Nothing to worry about.
I should have made another go for the window then, but the mystery of the boy and the sword gnawed at me, tempting as a fat purse. He’d begun to intone some sort of invocation. I could make out only a few phrases.
“… nightingale return…”
“… new champion arise…”
“… defend the land…”
I thought of all the stories I’d heard of the marvels of the Architect, who first taught the sorcerous craft of artifice. The wonders of the Golden Age, when all of Gallant glittered with enchantment, when diamond-bright airships raced across the sky, aetheric threshers harvested grain so that no one was hungry, and magical devices cured any injury.
My housemate Sophie didn’t think it could really have been all that grand, or it wouldn’t have fallen apart so easily. You couldn’t fix the world with artifice, she said, because no artifice could turn human cruelty to kindness, or greed to generosity. That was why she was so fired up about making new laws to protect workers. She said that was the only way to actually change anything.
And she was probably right. It was foolish for me to linger here. What did I care about some rich boy enchanting a sword? It had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t going to change my life. Only the trinkets in my pocket could do that.
Then I saw something that knocked every bit of breath from my chest: a vial of glowing blue liquid. The boy held it in his hand, brandishing it above the sword.
I gaped at it, my chest swelling with wonder. Aether was the most valuable substance in the entire world. A single drop could power a streetlight for days. That was why the factories churned on, eating up desperate folk to crush the poisonous ore into dust, then boil it into stable, harmless liquid aether.
The boy didn’t seem to care that he held a king’s ransom in one hand. He leaned out and poured the entire bottle’s worth over the sword. There was a fierce intensity in his expression. It reminded me of Sophie when she was caught up explaining some bit of philosophy. Whatever he was doing, it was vitally important to him.
I crept forward in between two of the armored figures. I had to see what he was doing. How had a boy—even a rich one—gotten his hands on so much aether? And why? A buzz of excitement rippled over my skin, driving away all sensible thoughts. Hundreds of factory workers had turned themselves into haunts to fill that vial. What was worth such a price?
The gleaming blue liquid ran into a groove along the length of the blade, then into more runes etched into the steel itself. For a moment, the entire weapon seemed to glow, the runes blazing into my eyes, even when I blinked. The light flared, suddenly brighter than noon.
I gasped, jerking back, wary of being spotted.
And caught my pocket on the knee of the armor beside me. Cloth tore. Metal crashed down, an iron fist driving me to the floor and setting a horrendous clatter echoing through the air.
Ears ringing, bones jangling, I struggled to free myself. Finally, I slithered forward, escaping the armor’s embrace, only to find the boy staring at me with a mixture of amazement and outrage.
“Who are you? Who sent you?” he demanded. “If you’re here to stop me, you’re too late!”
I held up my hands as I stepped to the side, putting the pedestal and the sword between us. It had stopped glowing, though its runes still held a faint blue gleam. “I’m not here to stop you. In fact, I’ll just be going now, if that’s all right with you.”
“No,” he snapped. “You need to explain yourself. You’re not allowed to be here.”
“Neither are you!” I spat back.
For one brief moment he looked uncertain. Guilty, even. Then he tossed back his floppy black hair and said, airily, “Of course I’m allowed to be here. It’s my museum.”
I blinked at him. “Aren’t you a little young to be a museum director?”
“I’m the prince,” he blurted out, sounding irritated. “This is the Royal Museum.”
I cocked my head, looking him up and down. “You’re not the prince.”
“Yes I am!”
“Prince Gideon is seventeen. And blond.”
“I didn’t say I was Gideon,” snapped the boy. “I’m Jasper. His younger brother.”
“Oh.” I squinted, trying to find the resemblance.
To be honest, I’d almost forgotten there was a second prince. Heir apparent Gideon was a constant feature in the ephemera-boards, his dashing smile beaming down from the sides of buildings and factories throughout the city. He always seemed to be winning a horse race, or saving a drowning kitten, or attending a charity gala. He’d been only sixteen during the last war, but he’d still managed to lead a small unit of the Bright Brigade to win a key victory over the neighboring country of Saventry. The whole city of Lamlyle was in a swivet over his birthday next week, when he would finally be crowned king.
All I recalled of Jasper was a hazy image from Queen Jessamine’s funeral procession. A small, skinny boy blurring into the background.
But the person standing before me now was definitely not blurring away. He was vibrantly, distressingly present, his intent blue eyes taking in every detail of the scene.
He glanced at the floor a few paces away from where I stood. Something glittered there. Silver combs. I stifled a curse, slapping one hand to my pocket, only to find the cloth ragged, hanging empty and torn. Rust that rotting armor!
“Though I hardly need to justify myself to a thief,” said Jasper.
Ugh. Why had I let myself get distracted? Now I was deep in the pot and the water was starting to boil. I tried to lift my chin to feign nonchalance under his accusing gaze. “I’m no thief. Those just got knocked out of their displays.”
“And, what, you’re just wearing that mask because you’re shy?”
Oops. I had forgotten about the mask. Rust it. Well, at least he wouldn’t be able to recognize me. You know, next time I got invited to tea at the palace.
He held up a glittering palm-size box. “You’d best surrender now.”
“Or you’re going to throw a snuffbox at me?”
He gritted his teeth. “It’s not a snuffbox. It’s an aethercom. All I have to do is trigger it and there’ll be a dozen soldiers from the Bright Brigade here before you can blink.”
I smirked at him, even though my heart was battering my chest. “Why are you skulking alone around here if you’re the prince? What are you up to that’s so secret?”
A rich flush burned into his pale cheeks at my words. “Nothing that a thief need worry about,” he snapped back. “Now are you going to surrender, or do I need to summon the Bright Brigade?”
I drew in a steadying breath. There was no way I was surrendering. And I saw only one source of leverage in the room. So I grabbed for it.
The moment my fingertips closed around the hilt of the sword, everything shifted. A brilliant light fell over me, sharp and bright as diamonds. I heard something like music being played in a room very far away, but so beautiful it made me want to cry. Even the air smelled different, blown in from some faraway meadow full of flowers I had no names for.
A hum ran through me, starting in the hand that held the sword, arcing up my arm and into my chest, then spreading out to every other limb. What was happening? I tried to let go of the weapon, but my fingers only spasmed, clutching it tighter. A voice—or maybe it was several voices, speaking in unison—said, Greetings, Nightingale.
Then, suddenly, it was over. The light was gone, the air smelled musty, and I was standing across an empty pedestal from an angry prince, clutching a sword that might have just spoken to me.