A lawless wilderness. A polished court. Individual fates, each on a quest to expose a system of corruption.
The desolate canyons of Alcoro—and the people desperate enough to hide there—couldn’t be more different from the opulent glass palace and lush forests of Moquoia. But the harsh desert and gleaming court are linked through their past, present, and future: a history of abductions in the desert to power Moquoia’s quarries and factories, and a bleak, inhumane future built on the sweat and sacrifice of these bond laborers.
But events unfolding in the present could change everything. In the desert, outlaw Lark—known to most as the Sunshield Bandit—has built a name for herself attacking slavers’ wagons and freeing the captives inside. But while she shakes the foundation of Moquoia’s stratified society, she also has to fight to protect her rescuees—and herself—from the unforgiving world around them.
In the Moquoian court, young ambassador Veran hopes to finally make his mark by dismantling the unjust labor system, if he can navigate the strict hierarchy and inexplicable hostility of the prince.
And caught in the middle of it all, Tamsin is trapped within four walls, the epicenter of a secret political coup to overthrow the Moquoian monarchy and perpetuate the age-old system of injustice.
Separated by seas of trees and sand, the outlaw, the diplomat, and the prisoner are more connected than anyone realizes. Their personal fates might just tip the balance of power in the Eastern World—if that very power doesn’t destroy them first.
The stagecoach is visible only by the cloud of dust it kicks up along the track. It’s moving at a fast clip, probably hoping to get to Snaketown before sundown.
Pickle shades his eyes next to me. “Bad position, Lark. Maybe we try tomorrow morning?”
“No. If they reach Snaketown, the ridgeline will block out the sun until nearly noon tomorrow. We’ll miss the opportunity entirely. One coach, alone—it’s too good to pass up.” I tilt my hat brim to block the sinking sun. The greasy eyeblack on my cheeks helps deflect some of the residual glare. “I can get them turned around. No problem. You focus on jamming the wheel.”
“There are guards,” he says.
“I’ll take the guards,” Rose says on my other side. She shifts in her saddle, tightening the straps of her false leg. Sedge is checking his own gear, making sure his crossbow quarrels are in easy reach. Saiph keeps nervously threading the end of his brush whip through his fingers—it’s only his third raid, and he’s eager to do it right.
Pickle sighs and adjusts his grip on his long metal staff. “I wanted to have a nice relaxing soak today, but no . . .”
“Get ready.” I look down at the ground, where my mutt, Rat, is crouched. He nearly blends into the dusty desert rocks—it’s the coyote in him. His silly, too-big
ears are perked up as he watches the approaching stage.
“Ready, Rat?” I say to him.
He rises from his haunches. I loosen my sword in its scabbard and adjust the straps of my buckler on my left forearm.
“On,” I say.
Rat obediently jumps forward through the sagebrush and lopes down the hillside. He angles to intercept the team of horses, snarling as he reaches them. They don’t panic, but the pace of the stage slows as they assess the danger.
“All right,” I say. “On.”
I urge my horse from the shadow of the boulders. The others do the same. We canter down the hillside in a V—Rose and Sedge swing for the front of the stage, and Saiph and Pickle veer for the back. There’s a shout from the driver as we’re sighted.
His whipcrack splices the air.
I dig my heels against Jema’s flanks, and she tosses her mane. A crossbow quarrel whizzes over her flank—she snorts. I kiss the air to encourage her and run her directly into the path of the oncoming stage. Rat is nipping at the hooves of the horses, who shy sideways. The rear guard is scrambling for a perch on the far side of the coach, trying to keep Pickle in his sights. The fore guard jams another quarrel in her crossbow. She cranks the lever, her jaw set and her eyes on me. She’ll have a straight shot this time.
I wheel Jema around and sling my buckler over my fist. The late sun shoots straight across the sagebrush flats and ricochets off the mirrored curve of the little shield. I wash the light across the guard’s face—she throws her arm up to block the glare. With only half a second to aim, I slap my crossbow over the top of my buckler and fire—I tag her calf. I swear under my breath—I’d been aiming for the empty space beside her, but a nonlethal hit is better than landing a killing strike without meaning to. At least it will keep her busy. The guard slumps; her crossbow clatters to the bottom of the driver’s box. Her quarrels spill, flying into the air one at a time like little birds taking flight. While I wheel Jema around to canter ahead of the team, Rose takes aim at the rear guard—she releases just before he can pull his crank. It’s a beautiful shot, flying so close to his ear I could swear it nicked him.
She’s always been able to tread that line between a shot to kill and a shot to startle, and unlike mine, it works. The guard curses and dives for cover behind the roof bench.
Saiph’s alongside the team of horses now, flicking his brush whip to encourage them to veer to the right. Rat snarls at their hooves. But the driver is holding the reins steady. He switches them to his whip hand, groping with the other for the guard’s fallen crossbow. He’ll have a time trying to fire while keeping a firm hold on the team, but I’m not going to give him the chance.
I twist in my saddle to wash the glare from my buckler over his eyes, and when he squints, I fire. Shwizz. The quarrel thumps into the wood just over his whip shoulder. He shouts and drops the reins. The stage rattles as two of its wheels catch in the rutted ditch.
“Come on, Pickle,” I mutter, falling back to help Saiph steer the team.
Pickle bursts along the far side of the stage. He hefts the dented-metal
staff and flings it at the front wheel. I hold my breath. He doesn’t always make a clean hit—the staff is more likely to bounce off the axle or shoot under the carriage. But today it lands true, driving right between the spokes. The wheel catches for half a heartbeat, and then, with an ugly splintering crack, it shatters. The stage tips wildly; the team shies to the side. Rat narrowly avoids a hoof across his spine. Pickle spurs his horse clear just in time as well.
The stage rattles. It lurches. It bounds uncontrollably off a rock. And with a resounding crash, it smashes onto its side. I let out my breath, easing Jema to a halt. Dust rises in a cloud. The horse team dances in their harnesses, kicking their heels and snorting, tangling their lines. The two wheels facing the sky spin crazily, tika-tika-tika-tika, like a rattler’s tail.
I hook my crossbow onto my saddle and unsheathe my sword. The rear guard is motionless on the ground, but the driver and the fore guard are groaning and trying to rise. Sedge jumps from his horse and hurries to hold the guard down, putting a big knee on her back and jerking the quarrel out of her calf. Ignoring her swearing, he pulls out a length of bandage and sets to work binding the wound.
I slide off Jema’s back, surveying the damage. Honestly, we do try not to make this big a mess. It’s a measure of self-preservation. It would be easy to kill every driver and guard team that comes through, or run off with the horse teams and leave the travelers to die. But I expect the sheriff in Snaketown and the higher-ups in the more habitable parts of Alcoro would take a stronger initiative to root me out if I left a trail of bodies in my wake.
There’s only one kind of traveler I make an effort to kill, and that’s the slavers.
This coach doesn’t belong to a slaver, though, and I’m hoping the fact that we’ve wrecked it isn’t going to come back to bite us. We’ve never tipped a stage. A busted wheel and a jammed axle are our usual outcomes, if luck is with us. Today, not so much. But we can’t change the past, although it looks like the driver still thinks he can change the future. He’s sprawled halfway out of the box, trying to wiggle a carving knife from his boot. I lay the edge of my sword gently across his neck.
My red bandanna puffs over my lips as I speak. “How about you take a little rest?”
He drops his knife. I kick it away and move aside as Rose reins her horse to a halt in my place. She trains her crossbow down on him. He flops his head back against the rocky sand with an angry sigh.
A groan comes from inside the stage. I go to the skyward-facing passenger door and haul it open. Slouched against the far side is just about the palest person I’ve ever laid eyes on—I’ve seen the moon reach darker shades. He’s old, too—his
Blond hair and reddish beard are shot through with silver, and he’s alone. This will be an easy job. He squints up at me, bleeding from a cut near his right ear.
I angle my sword down into the coach. He doesn’t move or even look at the point.
“You’re the Sunshield Bandit,” he says.
I tilt my sword so the light glances off the blade. He blinks against the glare but doesn’t throw up his hands.
“If you know who I am, you know what I’m after,” I say.
“I do. And I’m grateful for it. I believe what you do is quite commendable.”
I narrow my eyes over my handkerchief. “I’m about to rob you blind, old man.”
“Oh, go ahead,” he says with a sigh, leaning his head back against the cracked glass on the far window. “I’ve hardly got much of value, unless you enjoy historical accounts of Moquoian permaculture. The money’s in the leather valise. There should be an extra pair of boots in the trunk—nice ones, too, with silver buckles. Otherwise it’s mostly traveling garb and books.”
“Pickle, open the trunks in the back,” I call. He’s already performing this task, but the man’s indifference irks me. I crouch at the door opening and jump down into the carriage interior. It’s an awkward fit with the stage on its side. I sheathe my sword and draw the big hunting knife from my belt.
“Hold still,” I say—unnecessarily.
The man’s eyes are still closed; he may as well be about to doze off. I take his bearded chin and tilt his head back and forth—no earrings in his ears. No chains or baubles around his neck. No rings on his fingers or pins on his lapels. The edge of a tattoo peeks out from his rolled-up sleeve—the prow of a sailing ship, it looks like. The ink is faded but still crisp, unlike most of mine. I grit my teeth—I have a low regard for ships.
“I’ve got a good case of matches in the pocket of my cloak,” he suggests, waving to the garment now crumpled on the bench. “Cypri-made. Might be useful for you.”
My irritation spikes, and I swipe up the cloak and toss the whole thing out the stage door. “Take off your boots.”
They’re old boots, with no buckles or adornments, covered in telltale dried mud that means he must have come from Moquoia. But I don’t care—I just want to rattle him at this point.
Slowly he kicks off each one. I stoop to pick them up and throw them outside as well.
His eyes are still closed. I hiss and lean forward, letting the edge of my knife touch his neck. “You seem very easy about life and death. If you travelers are this unconcerned, perhaps I should make an example out of you. How would you like to be tied to a horse and dragged the rest of the way to Snaketown?”
“I would not like that at all,” the man says, opening his eyes. They’re blue—an uncommon color. He’s got freckles, too, mixed in among the age spots. “But there are folk in Alcoro who would notice my absence if I don’t show up in a week’s time for the start of the semester, and the provost will be extremely displeased with anyone who holds up classes.” His gaze gets a bit sharper. “And anyway, that’s not your particular style—torturing captives. If it was, I imagine the Alcorans and the Moquoians would have put more effort into rooting you out.”
“Cases emptied, Lark,” Saiph calls from the back.
“Lark,” the old man says, as if testing the word.
I swear behind my handkerchief. Saiph is wiry and fast, but he’s a clodhead, a reason I haven’t let him come on raids until the last few months.
“Turn out your pockets,” I say. “Now.”
He does, but he continues to talk. “What you do is exceptional, Lark.” His voice is suddenly less light—more grave. “The human trafficking in the desert has become an international crisis. Your commitment to confronting and freeing slave runners’ wagons is desperately needed. But it must be hard to live the way you do. How many freed captives live in your camp? How many children you haven’t managed to reunite with their families? How many hungry mouths?”
“Shut up.” I pluck the lone coin he’s fished from his pocket out of his palm. Still holding the knife against his throat, I sweep my other hand under the cushions on the coach seats. But they’re tacked down to the wood—no space to hide valuables.
“Do you know about Queen Mona of Lumen Lake?” he asks with a touch of urgency in his voice. “Do you know about the Cypri ambassador? Have you heard about what happened to one of their children?”
“Ready the horses, Pickle,” I call outside.
“There are extremely influential people who are very interested in what you do,” he continues a little faster. “Life could be different for you and your fellows. I encourage you to consider . . .”
I hear a shrill whistle from Rose. The luggage is loaded onto the horses. I put one hand on the frame of the stage.
“Lark,” says the old man.
I whirl around and drive the butt of my knife against his cheek. His head slams back against the wooden siding. “I told you to shut up,” I say down at him. He groans again.
I put both hands on the carriage door and hoist myself out of the stage. The others are already mounted, their horses burdened with goods. Rose still has her crossbow trained on the driver. The fore guard is struggling to sit up, examining her bandaged calf. The rear guard is moaning about a broken arm. I swing onto Jema’s back.
“Come on, Rat,” I call. He leaps from his crouch by the agitated horse team and together we wheel for the hillside. The sun is halfway below the horizon, its curve red and shimmering in the dust. I glance back over my shoulder before we reach the safety of the towering rocks. The old man is standing up in the stage, holding on to the frame for support. I can see the moment his face turns from the driver and guard up to us. I swear again and face forward, kicking Jema.
“Saiph,” I call angrily over the hoofbeats.
He groans. “I know, I know. I’m sorry.”
“You call me Lark outside of camp again, and I’m stretching your hide on the tanning frame.”
“Spare him the lecture, Lark.” Pickle’s voice is triumphant.
“Hey, I made a pretty sharp throw, didn’t I?” He edges his horse in front of mine and spurs it to kick up dust. “First one to camp gets the old fella’s boots!”
I spit out Pickle’s dust and urge Jema after him.