Kingdom of Ashes - Rhiannon Thomas



For a thousand gold coins, even Aurora could believe that the smiling girl in the picture was a murderer.

Aurora tore down the poster and crumpled it into a ball. She had been on the run for a week now, but she had not run far enough. Even this small jumble of houses by the forest edge knew to expect her.

She had been so naïve, to think she could do this. Dirt itched under her fingernails. Her hair had matted around her shoulders, and blood had congealed around the blisters on her feet. She did not know where to go. She did not know how to build shelters or catch food. She didn’t even know how people outside the capital spoke, so she stood out wherever she went. And now the kingdom was covered with wanted posters, promising riches to whoever might capture her. The king’s guards could not be far behind.

But Aurora had to go into the village. She had never felt so hungry before. She had never had to hope that she would come across a forest stream, or figure out whether a berry was edible, or spend her day worrying about whether she would eat. She had never once considered where her food came from or doubted that it would appear, had left so much uneaten to be tossed away. . . . She needed more food, or she wouldn’t make it much farther, and the king’s guards would catch her either way.

Besides, who would think she was the princess, if they looked at her now?

The village was quiet in the early dawn. A few people walked along the street, but they were mostly half-asleep, or so absorbed in their errands that they barely glanced at Aurora as they passed.

Aurora could smell baking bread. She followed it to a shop with a sign above the door showing a single ear of wheat. Aurora closed her eyes and breathed in, savoring even the smell of food. Her stomach ached in response.

She looked around. No guards or soldiers in sight. She would have to take the risk.

A little bell rang as she opened the door. A middle-aged woman worked behind the counter, arranging steaming hot loaves onto trays. “Welcome, welcome,” she said, without looking up. “Pardon our appearance, it’s been one of those mornings. What can I get you?”

“Uh . . .” Aurora stepped closer. The woman glanced at her, and then paused, a bun held inches above the tray.

Aurora tensed. She glanced at the door, ready to run.

“My goodness, girl,” the woman said. “You look a fright. What have you been up to?’

“Oh,” Aurora said. “I’ve been traveling.” She struggled not to cringe at the words, the way she spoke so crisply, in her old-fashioned accent.

The woman tutted. “So many traveling these days. Not enough food, is there, not enough work, so everyone thinks they have to move. It’s not safe for young things like you to be out there. Not safe at all.”

Aurora stepped closer. The fresh bread smelled too delicious to resist. “I wanted to buy some bread.”

“Oh yes, yes, of course. I would give you some for free for your troubles, honest I would, but things are tight for us here, too. I really can’t spare it.”

“That’s all right,” Aurora said. “Thank you. I have money.” She reached into her satchel and pulled out the purse that Finnegan had given her. The woman’s eyes widened as the coins clinked together. Aurora made sure to tilt it toward herself as she opened it, concealing the flash of silver and gold. She picked out a few copper coins and pulled the drawstring closed.

The woman recommended the local specialty, so Aurora ordered two loaves. “If you want somewhere to stay,” the woman added, as she placed the loaves in a paper bag, “you should try the Red Lion down the street. Good people there. Discreet, you know.”

Aurora tightened her grip on the bag. “I have nothing to hide,” she said. “But thank you for the advice.”

The bell rang again. A younger girl ran in, her braid bouncing behind her. “Mum!” she said. “Mum! There are soldiers here.”

Soldiers. Aurora turned so quickly that her hip slammed against the counter. Had the guards been following her? Or had someone spotted her in the five minutes she had been here?

The woman glanced at Aurora. “How do you know, Suzie? What did you see?”

“They’re coming out of the forest. I was delivering the bread to Mistress