17 year old orphan Lyla will do whatever it takes to keep her street family together – even if it means pretending to marry a boy who’s practically a brother.
Lyla, her twin brother, and her almost-brother Kieran have taken care of a group of children for four years, but after they bought a house to live in, the guards of the Southern Quadrant grew suspicious. Only adults or legally married couples can own a house, and Lyla won’t be of age for a few more months. Kieran is closer to turning eighteen, but for his own mysterious reasons, he won’t tell her who he really is – or why he won’t tell her. With no other option they can think of, Lyla and Kieran settle on having a fake marriage.
With eleven children depending on her, her brother off at sea, and Kieran refusing to tell her anything, the responsibility falls firmly on Lyla’s shoulders. The burden only grows heavier when the Zaria of the Southern Quadrant recognizes Kieran, her childhood friend, and Lyla finds out that he’s the official’s son who went missing years ago.
In case the guards investigating them wasn’t enough pressure, suddenly the Zaria is coming over for dinner and spending far too much time with Kieran – who’s still supposed to be Lyla’s husband. And if the guards discover that she and Kieran aren’t really married, they’ll take the younger children, kick the middle children out on the streets again, and she’ll end up in jail. And she can’t – no, she won’t – let that happen. Not while the children still need her.
The (Un-edited) First Chapter:
She was going to kill him when she got her hands on him.
The sea breeze ruffled Lyla’s dark curls as she stood by the dock and waited for her twin brother to come home. When his small craft finally came into sight, she breathed a sigh of relief, and when he tied it up and sauntered over to her, a string of fish in his hands, she put her hands on her hips. “What were you thinking, going out to sea without telling me?” she demanded.
“I was thinking we were hungry, and you wouldn’t let me go if you knew,” he said.
Her stomach growled loudly enough that he could hear it, because he grinned. “See? I knew that bread we found wouldn’t last. I’ve brought enough to share with the others, for at least two days.”
It was hard to be mad at him when he was right. It’d feed them for much longer than anything the others had begged off the streets today, that was for sure. “Alright, then. But next time, tell me you’re going.”
“You’re worse than Mem was,” he said, throwing an arm around her shoulders.
“You smell like fish,” she said, wrinkling her nose and ducking out from under his arm. “Mem would’ve made you wash up.”
The only good thing about losing your mem was getting to make up what she would’ve made your brother do.
“Like you’d know that,” he said.
“I would too,” she protested.
“Just because you’re eight minutes older than me doesn’t mean you know what Mem would’ve made me do.”
“It’s not that I’m eight minutes older, it’s that I’m a girl, like Mem was.”
They bickered all the way back to their camp.
The dead end alley they called home was dark when they arrived, lit up by a few sparks every now and then as one of the smaller boys tried to light a fire to warm the little ones.
“Echols, don’t you hurt yourself,” Lyla said, hurrying over to the makeshift fire pit they’d built. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”
“We have a new kid, and I think he’s hurt,” Echols explained.
Within a moment, Lyla had lit the fire and left Echols to fan the flames while she turned to look at the new boy in the fire’s light. He was bigger than most of them, almost as big as her brother, and Echols was right. He lay sleeping on the dirt, and his wrist lay at a wrong angle from the rest of his arm.
Her brother came over and stared down at the new boy. “If you don’t set that, it’ll heal all wrong,” he said.
Lyla bit her lip and nodded. “I’d seen the healer set a bone once before she died,” she said, “but I’m not sure if I want to try it myself.”
“How much worse can you make it?” He asked.
“Worse,” Lyla said.
“Well, don’t make it worse then,” he said. “Should we do it while he’s sleeping?”
Lyla frowned at the sleeping boy. She hadn’t needed this complication tonight. “Go get me two of the straightest sticks you can find first, and see if you can’t convince the quilt maker two streets over to give us a scrap of backing to wrap it with. She likes you more than she likes me.”
“Got it,” he said, getting up and running off.
Lyla stood too and made her way back to the fire, looking for the fish. “Echols, where did the–”
“I cleaned a couple of the fish, Lyla,” Ackren said, coming back from the main street with them in the pouch he’d made with his shirt. He dropped them on the sheet of metal they’d found on the street and used for preparing food.
“Thank you,” she said, spearing two of them on a stick and laying it on their makeshift spit. It worked well enough if you kept the fire low, otherwise their spit burned like the kindling it was.
As she worked, she kept glancing over at the new boy, who was mumbling in his sleep. “When did he get here?” She asked Echols.
“About two hours before you did,” he said.
Echols was one of the most capable of their group, even if he wasn’t one of the biggest. Lyla felt better leaving him in charge of the camp than anyone else. He had a knack for knowing how many kids they could handle, and turning away the ones who could take care of themselves. Lyla wasn’t sure what they’d do without him.
“Wywa,” little Maggie said, climbing up into her lap as Ackren came back with several more cleaned fish.
Mikel Ackren was the oldest next to her and her brother, at the grand old age of twelve. He was in charge of taking the kids to the spot where they would beg for the day, checking up on them and collecting what they’d taken, and bringing them all home at the end of the day.
“I’m going to collect,” he said, dumping the fish next to her.
“Be careful,” she said.
She was the mother of the group. She took care of the little ones, did what healing she could, and managed the money and food that they collected, making sure that as many of them as possible ate as much as possible.
Sometimes that meant that she went without, but if the little ones got to eat, it was almost enough to fill her stomach.
She snuggled little Maggie closer and turned the spit. They’d all eat tonight, because of her brother. If she was the mother of the group, he took it upon himself to be the father.
The boy behind her gasped and she turned in time to see him open his eyes. He startled, sitting up and clutching his broken arm to his chest. “Where am I?” he asked. “Who are you?”
“My name is Lyla,” she said soothingly, picking Maggie up and walking over to the boy. She sat down next to him. “You’re safe here.”
He only clutched his arm tighter.
“I might be able to help with that,” she said, looking down at his arm. “I trained with an old healer, for a while, and I helped her set some bones. I can probably make it straight again.”
Whether or not she’d make it better or not, she didn’t know. But at least it wouldn’t be crooked.
“My brother is getting some sticks and cloth for me to wrap it with if you’re okay with that,” she said.
He still didn’t say anything.
“What’s your name?” she asked quietly.
“Keiran,” he said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Keiran,” she said.
Her brother came loping down the alley with two sticks and a length of cloth. “Oh, he’s awake,” he said when he got close enough.
“Thank you,” Lyla said, handing Maggie to him and taking the cloth and sticks.