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Authors: Lian Tanner

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BOOK: Museum of Thieves
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Goldie thought of the little blue bird, lost in the darkness of Guardian Hope’s robes. She thought of Auntie Praise.
Bold
Auntie Praise! She drew in a deep breath. She pushed the cuff of the punishment chain as high as it would go up her arm, so it would not clank or get in the way. Then she slipped her hand into Guardian Hope’s pocket.

She had always been good at moving quietly. Now she felt her way through the darkness as silently as a falling leaf. The treacherous chains remained quiet. Guardian Hope strode beside her, scowling.

Goldie’s fingers touched outstretched wings.

And suddenly she had the feeling that someone
was
watching her. Her hand froze, still in the pocket of the black robe. As innocently as she could, she looked around. She couldn’t
see
anyone watching. It was just an ordinary, frightened crowd. Except . . . except for one particular spot that her eyes seemed to slide across . . .

Look harder
, whispered the little voice in the back of her mind.

Goldie looked harder. She saw a flicker of black that didn’t seem to belong to any of the people around it. For some reason it was hard to fix her eyes on it. The light sort of . . .
slipped
past it, as if it was too unimportant to worry about.

Look harder.

And then Goldie saw him. A tall thin man wearing an old-fashioned black coatee with sleeves too short for his long arms, so that his wrists stuck out at awkward angles. He was keeping pace with the little group of children and Guardians, and staring straight at her.

When he saw her staring back at him, his face went blank with surprise. He ducked behind another man and disappeared into the crowd.

The strength came back into Goldie’s fingers. She closed them around the little blue bird and eased it out of Guardian Hope’s robe. Its wings seemed to flutter in her hand, as if it was thanking her for its freedom.

Despite the weight of the punishment chains, a wave of excitement welled up inside Goldie. It was Separation Day. An hour from now, she too would be free.

.

uardian Hope kept Goldie in punishment chains until they were right outside the Great Hall. When at last she unlocked them, Goldie sighed with relief.
Now there’s just my guardchain. And soon that’ll be gone too!

Ma and Pa were waiting inside the hall with the other parents. Guardian Hope and Guardian Comfort unsnapped the guardchains from their belts and silently handed the children over. The parents fastened the guardchains to their own belts.

As they walked towards the stage, Ma murmured in Goldie’s ear. ‘Is it true, sweeting? Did she have you in punishment chains on your Separation Day? Oh, I can hardly believe it! She has no feelings!’

‘Sshh,’ whispered Pa. ‘You know what sharp ears they have.’

Now that they were away from the Blessed Guardians, Goldie’s classmates were behaving more like themselves. Behind Goldie, Herro Oster growled, ‘Don’t leap
around, Jubilation! You nearly pulled me off my feet!’

‘Sorry, Pa,’ sang Jube, not sounding the least bit sorry.

‘I expect you’ll be p-pleased to have him Separated,’ said Favour’s pa, Herro Berg, who had a slight stammer. ‘It’s a t-trial, is it not, when they reach this age?’

‘I don’t know how I’d stand another four years of it,’ said Herro Oster, a little too loudly to be convincing. ‘I’m all bruises from his flying arms and legs. Blessings upon the Protector for lowering the Age of Separation.’

‘Indeed, Blessings, Blessings,’ murmured the other parents. But their faces were pale, and Goldie thought they looked as if they hadn’t slept very well.

They lined up at the foot of the stage and waited for the official whitesmith to come and remove the children’s silver cuffs. The hall was filled with onlookers. In the front row, a dozen gazetteers were already making notes for tomorrow’s gazettes.

Ma patted Goldie on the arm. ‘Now you’re not to be frightened, sweeting.’

‘I’m not,’ said Goldie.

‘Of course you’re not,’ said Ma quickly. She hesitated. ‘But when you’re Separated, you
will
watch out for slave traders, won’t you?’

Frow Berg leaned towards them. ‘And poisonous insects.’

‘Runaway street-rigs,’ said Pa.

‘Sharp knives,’ said Frow Oster.

Goldie heard a faint
whump
somewhere in the distance. She looked around. No one else seemed to have noticed it.

‘Marauding birds,’ said Herro Oster. ‘Mad dogs.
Any
dogs at all!’

‘D-d-dirty water,’ stammered Herro Berg. ‘
Filthy
water. D-d-disease-ridden, child-drowning water! That’s the one that worries me. And g-getting lost. Whatever you do, d-d-
don’t
get lost.’

Goldie had heard these warnings a hundred – no, a
thousand
times before. She ducked her head and grinned at Favour, but her friend was nodding seriously at the familiar list.

‘That reminds me,’ said Ma. She took a small parcel from her pocket. ‘We bought you a little something, sweeting, to celebrate.’

It was a compass, of course. The traditional Separation Day present was always either a compass (so you could find your way home again if you were lost) or a whistle (to call for help if you were attacked by slavers).

Goldie made surprised, pleased noises when she saw the compass. But secretly she wished that she had been given a folding knife, so that she could fight her way out of trouble. Or a spyglass for looking at far-off places and dreaming of the day when she’d be old enough to leave the city of Jewel and its Blessed Guardians far, far behind.

Twenty minutes later, Goldie and her friends stood on the enormous stage, along with a hundred other children and their parents. This was to be the biggest Separation Day in living memory. Every child in Jewel between the ages of twelve and sixteen was about to be given their freedom.

Goldie’s cuff and guardchain were already gone and she was tied to Ma by nothing but a white silk ribbon. Her left arm felt hot and strange. Her body buzzed with nervous impatience as the Protector walked up to the podium.

The Grand Protector of Jewel wasn’t really very grand. She wore crimson robes and a gold chain, but she was only a little bit taller than Goldie’s ma, and her hair was the colour of straw. Above her head, the glass dome of the Great Hall was awash with lights. Clockwork birds whizzed from pillar to pillar on silver wires. Clockwork butterflies opened and closed their wings.

The Protector pushed her eyeglasses up onto her nose and faced the audience. ‘There was a time,’ she said loudly, ‘when there was no such place as the city of Jewel. Instead, there was a nasty little seaport called Dunt, stuck on the south coast of the Faroon Peninsula like a pustulous wart on an old man’s chin. And a pustulous wart of a place it was too, full of disease and danger.’

Goldie heard a rustling in the audience as everyone settled in to listen to the well-known story. But, for once, the Protector didn’t remind them of how their ancestors had come here from Merne to establish a colony. She didn’t tell them about the Native Wars and the Beast Wars and the Wars of Independence, and the floods and murders and famines, and the Year of Despair, when children died like flies. She didn’t tell them about the heroic struggle of a few people to save the remaining children, and how those people became the first Blessed Guardians.

Instead, she smiled and said, ‘But that was a long time ago. For more than two hundred years the city has been progressively cleansed of its dangers. The canals have been fenced, the vacant blocks built upon. The animals and birds have been driven away. Vile Dunt has become beautiful Jewel. We no longer need to be so vigilant.’

Many people were nodding, but Goldie could see some who obviously didn’t agree. In the second row of the audience, Guardian Hope’s face was dark with anger.

‘These children behind me,’ said the Protector, ‘are about to take us into a glorious future.’

She paused. Goldie glanced at her classmates. Favour was chewing her fingernails. Fort was smiling, but there was something fixed about his smile, as if he had put it there earlier and forgotten about it. Plum and Glory were white-faced with nerves, and Jube was jiggling from one leg to the other. Goldie heard Herro Oster hiss, ‘In the name of the Seven, Jubilation, can’t you be still for
five more minutes
?’

The audience laughed nervously. The Protector smiled again. ‘His Honour the Fugleman,’ she said, ‘will now deliver the Blessing.’

There was silence in the hall. No one moved. ‘Where’s the Fugleman?’ Goldie whispered to Ma.

As if in answer, there was a shuffling in the audience. ‘Make way, make way!’ cried Guardian Hope, and she stepped up onto the stage, making a great business of patting her robes into smooth folds and straightening her hat.

The Protector peered at her over the top of her glasses. ‘Is this a change of plan?’ she said. ‘No one informed me of it. Where is your leader?’

‘Your Grace,’ said Guardian Hope. ‘His Honour
should
be here, but it seems he has been delayed. Perhaps we should also delay the Separation.’

Goldie’s heart lurched. But the Protector said mildly, ‘If the Fugleman is not here, Guardian, I’m sure
you
can administer the Blessing.’

‘Oh no, that would not be—’


Now
, Guardian,’ said the Protector in a voice that was no longer mild.

Guardian Hope fussed some more with her hat, then scowled at the long rows of children. ‘Do you swear to remain vigilant and not endanger yourself or others,’ she muttered, ‘even when you are no longer under the care of the Blessed Guardians?’

Goldie’s mouth was suddenly dry. She answered in chorus with a hundred other voices, ‘I swear.’

‘Do you swear to honour the Seven Gods and their plans for you, as revealed through the Blessed Guardians?’

‘I swear.’

‘Do you swear to avoid Blasphemy and condemn Abomination, wherever you find them?’

‘I swear.’

Guardian Hope hesitated. Goldie clenched her fists so tightly that her nails bit into the palms of her hands.

The Protector cleared her throat. ‘Continue, please.’

‘Then shall you be Blessed.’ Despite her reluctance, Guardian Hope’s voice rose in the old familiar rhythms. She named the Gods one by one, in order of decreasing importance so as not to offend any of them. ‘May Great Wooden never send his Black Ox to fetch you in the night! May the Weeping Lady blame someone else for her tears! May Thunderer, Dreamer and the Locksmith forget your name! May Helper never decide you need her help! And may Bald Thoke take his jokes elsewhere.’

Goldie flicked her fingers as each name was spoken.

‘Blessings upon you, Blessings upon you, thrice Blessings upon you. So it is done!’ As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Guardian Hope stalked off the stage, as if she wanted nothing more to do with the proceedings.

‘Lieutenant marshal?’ murmured the Protector.

The lieutenant marshal of militia had been standing to one side. Now he handed the Protector a small pair of scissors. The Protector took a piece of paper from the pocket of her robes, squinted at it, and said loudly, ‘Golden Roth.’

A shiver ran through Goldie. She was to be first! She stepped forward with Ma and Pa beside her.

The Grand Protector smiled, her eyes sharp and clever behind her glasses. ‘Hold out your hand,’ she said.

Goldie held out her hand. The white silk ribbon stretched tight.

‘By the grace of the Seven Gods,’ cried the Protector, ‘and in accordance with the Guardianship Act, let this child be Separated!’

She raised the scissors. Ma gave a little squeak of protest, but said nothing. Pa squeezed Goldie’s shoulder. In the audience, the gazetteers dipped their pens into their portable inkpots and began to scribble furiously. Goldie held her breath . . .

There was a terrible thumping from the far end of the hall, where the big wooden doors had been closed to keep out the summer heat. The Protector hesitated.

‘Let me through! Let me through!’ cried a muffled voice.

Go away!
thought Goldie.
Don’t interrupt!

One of the militiamen guarding the doors pulled them open a little way. ‘Hush!’ he said. ‘Her Grace is just starting the Separations.’

BOOK: Museum of Thieves
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