Astrid and Vic, two best friends by day and desperate teenage thieves by night, have just finished the biggest heist in their career... and get caught for it. Locked up in an underground jail, they find a ray of hope in the Wisdomatch, a dangerous competition that the leaders of their land have reinstated. But only one of them can succeed, especially when a ploy bigger than they could ever imagine is underway.


1. Chapter One

            I have done this before—many times before, in fact—but I have never been more nervous.

            My eyes dart around the dark as I urge the maddening beat of my heart to stop distracting me from not making any plank on the gleaming floor creak. I go up the stairs, my hand gliding on the smooth banister.

            I get the urge to stop breathing altogether as I tiptoe my way past the homeowner’s tall bedroom door. Then, quiet as snow landing on the ground, I turn the knob of the door to the room at the end of the hall. The room that holds what I need—what my family needs.

            The black diamond sits on a case in the middle of the room like a king does on his throne. Moonlight streaming in through the tall windows should be making the diamond glow as it bounces on it, but instead, it traps the light in and radiates darkness, like it holds all the evil in the world. But it doesn’t hold evil, of course.

            It holds wealth.

            I nod to Vic, my best friend and partner in crime, his eyes gleaming with awe and excitement.  It’s time. Later than we've planned, actually; it took us longer than expected to get past the guards. Good thing the men were all big and muscled. Bulky. Bulky means slow. Slow means easy to put down.

            We didn't kill anyone, though. We are thieves, not murderers.

            Quite stupid of the homeowner, really, to station his oafs only on the first floor of his mansion. So he won't mind if we grab his diamond, right? Since he obviously values his privacy more.

            Peculiar warmth spreads on my palm as I pick up the diamond. It’s funny how something so small it could be mistaken for hard, burnt bread costs much more than a man’s life. A poor man’s life, perhaps, but still.

            I put the glinting loot in a small velvet bag which I tuck in a pocket inside my windbreaker, then stride to the window that Vic has eased open. With another nod to him, I jump out—no fear of breaking my legs from the height of the second storey—and land squarely on the trimmed grass of a lawn. Indeed, I'm used to this.

            Now our only problem is selling our newest catch before the owner realizes it’s been fished out right under his nose. Not doing so would be risky.

            We cannot be caught.

            A muffled thud behind me signals Vic’s landing and we dash straight to the ancient forest that starts at the end of the lawn. Armies of redwood trees that seem to be reaching for the sky stretch down one whole side of the hill. They had also provided the cover we needed to enter the estate which stands on the upland.

            Under the canopies of branches and leaves, we run. We’re not safe as long as we have the diamond. We run with mere moonlight as our guide until our legs ache—even when our legs ache, even when our lungs burn for air.

            Our way down is fast, following a narrow path that we cleared up days before the heist. I successfully avoid tripping on tangles of thick roots but Vic, on the other hand, loses his footing a few times, gasping before grunting as he uses his palm to push himself off the ground.

            I pull the black, woolen balaclava off my head. “You regretting the damage you did to your eyes reading?” I ask, chuckling.

            “I will never,” Vic answers once he’s taken off his own bonnet.

            Before I begin to fear that we won’t get there in time, I feel the soles of my black, leather boots touch flat ground. A few more strides and we turn left, still hidden in the trees.

            Vic catches up to my side. “If we’re late, we’ll bury it somewhere, okay?” We’re both huffing and puffing now, but we can’t afford to stop. Mere seconds hold our fate.

            Before I can respond, I catch glimpses of the gray, weathered cement walls of the Exchange that sits, to our convenience, right beside the forest. The blood red eastern sky signals the coming dawn, when the Exchange will open its doors to everyone and turn to a real market.

            I slow down to a jog as we approach the side door that Vic pulls open. The stink of raw fish, old meat and almost-rotting vegetables attack my nose even if at the moment, those aren’t for sale at the Exchange. Ale, cigars, and even packets of pleasure herbs; vices fill the tumbledown warehouse at night, the only time they can be sold. Some of them are supposed to be illegal always but, like everyone else, the Bluecoats go home and quit their job at night. That’s good; it’s only at night that Vic and I can work our job.

            Because of the time, only a few night customers are still around. Those who don’t look like they have the coin to spend are actually Runners, paid by the Wealthy Westerners to buy their goods for them. You might think it’s a risky job, but it’s not. The Bluecoats know to avoid these people when they see them running uphill in the west at the break of dawn, because if they don’t do so, they risk losing their job.

            Vic leads the way to the only jeweler in town—very few people here in the North Borough have the need and means for such luxury.

            I stoop down and whisper to the sagging old man, “We got it.”

            “I’d say I’m awed, but it’s not like I didn’t expect you kids to do the job.” He laughs, making his jowls bounce up and down.

            Vic runs his hand through his blond hair, tousling it. “How much?” he asks the jeweler.

            Tsk. “We give the price, Victor, not him,” I hiss before facing the jeweler. “Seven thousand coins, Lark.”

            “Feisty as always, Astrid,” Lark says. “But as I recall it, you have no choice but to give me the diamond, unless you want to be caught dead with it. And I tell you, Dud will be more than murderous when he finds out his babe’s missing.”

            “We had a deal, damn you.” I slam my hands on the table between us, messing up his carefully arranged products.

            “I don’t do deals, little girl. I do business. Three thousand,” he says.

            I stare the repulsive beast straight in the eye. “Five thousand or, I swear to all deities, I will gut you alive before Dud gets me.”

            His stern glare falters; creases form between his trimmed brows. At least he knows what desperation can make people do. “L-let’s meet halfway, shall we? I’m s-s-sure four thousand is sufficient...”

            “Trid?” Vic says, grabbing my shoulders and pulling me upright. “I think four’s fine.” His eyes urge me to calm down; our job’s not something you attract attention to, which, unfortunately, I’ve already called our way. I glare at everyone I catch watching until they look away and go on with their business before getting back to mine.

            “Four it is,” I heave. “Give it now before I change my mind.”

            Lark reaches under the rickety table and hands us two canvas bags each, the bronze coins inside tinkling against one another. “C-count it if y-y-you want.”

            “We’ll take your word for it,” I say, “but if you’re lying, I’ll take your tongue for it.” He nods. I unzip my windbreaker and draw out the cloth bag containing the diamond.

            He takes it with trembling hands and peers into it. “So the rumor’s true. Dud got his hands on a real black diamond. Turned dark by the fiery breath of a dragon,” he murmurs.

            I snort. Grandpa told me the same story just a few days ago when word got around saying Dud bought the jewel from the South Borough. “Aren’t you old for folklore, Lark? Or are you too old that your mind’s already reeling back to infancy? Not that I care. Just get rid of that thing soon.”

            Even with our windbreakers off, the first rays of the sun drench our already dripping black shirts as we walk through town, past the shops that are getting ready to open for another day of business.

            “Take this,” Vic says, handing me one of his coin bags.

            More than haggling for how much we earn, I hate haggling over how we divide what we earn. “Forget it,” I say.

            “I don’t go home to a sick person,” he says, raising a thin eyebrow.

            This is one of the few arguments that he always wins. “Fine, even if I won’t be able to live with myself anymore.”

            “Drama, Trid, really? Lose the guilt.” He ruffles my short, black hair and just laughs when I grab his arm and pretend to bite it.

            I watch Vic as he follows the wafting scent of freshly-baked bread, thinking he’s again acting like my older brother, albeit a weak, sometimes bordering on craven, one. Vic’s been like that since the first time we met, which was ten years ago.

            Growing up, I preferred to stay inside the house than play with the neighbors’ kids, so I didn’t know anyone on my first day of school. I attempted, though feebly, to make friends but finally learned that no matter how hard you try, you won’t get close to people unless they want you close. I walked around, clutching the hem of the stupid, frilly dress that Grandpa had bought for me, until I tripped and stumbled to the ground, earning myself heaps of scorning laughter.

            That’s when Vic appeared in front of me, with messy hair and the sun right behind him, making his gangly figure shine. I took the slippery hand he offered and, well, we’ve been inseparable since.

            We traipse our way home, devouring custard-filled croissants, until we get to the square and see a crowd gathered by the announcement board.

            “Do you think it’s about the—” Vic starts to ask, bringing his brows together and frantic blue eyes darting around.

            I clamp a hand to his mouth and say, “It’s too soon.”        

             We have to be calm, but I surely am not. What if Lark got caught with the diamond? What if he ratted on us?   

            “Let’s check it out,” I say.

            We put on our windbreakers, hide the money bags inside and zip them up to our chins before squeezing through the packed bodies. The announcement is painted in capital letters to emphasize its importance.


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