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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes

A Sort of Prologue

 

At Saint Lupin’s Institute for Perpetually Wicked and Hideously Unattractive Children, every orphan is treated with the same amount of disdain and neglect. They are each provided with one set of threadbare pants and tunic, one pair of ill-fitting shoes, and one dusty and moth-eaten overcoat. They are also fed a steady diet of gruel and allowed to bathe exactly once per month—always just before their daily shift in the coal mine. This treatment, incidentally, is consistent with the advice given in the popular self-help guide How to Raise Orphans and Make Money.

Understandably, the orphans count the days until they can depart Saint Lupin’s for good, and it is widely recognized that there are only three ways to leave:

1. Get adopted, perhaps by a nice family who will whisk you away to your long dreamed‑of castle on a hill, one surrounded by forests and glens, filled with interesting and friendly people, rich with history, and bright with promise and hope. (The Matron who runs Saint Lupin’s is extremely pleased with her track record in this regard, for she has successfully managed to prevent any adoptions since taking charge.)

2. Reach the age of thirteen and be unceremoniously kicked out on your bottom.

3. Be selected for a quest. Although quests are heavily regulated (so they can then be heavily taxed), there are few restrictions regarding age or background, and thus almost anyone may apply. The most desired quests, however, are reserved for subjects of prophecies (also heavily taxed). At Saint Lupin’s, both of these topics—that is, quests and prophecies—are considered particularly forbidden subjects of inquiry.

 

The Matron of Saint Lupin’s

 

Anne was leaving Saint Lupin’s.

At some point that day, a cargo ship would make its annual stop at the orphanage to drop off a year’s supply of dehydrated gruel powder (Just add water!) and other provisions. Any orphan with a passenger ticket would then be allowed to board and leave with the departing ship. Since the government cut off its Orphan Tax Credit at age thirteen, the Matron was only too eager to get rid of children she could no longer exploit. The ship was scheduled to depart at exactly ten minutes past midnight, which was technically tomorrow, which was Anne’s birthday, meaning she would be eligible to receive a ticket. So in less than a day, she would walk through Saint Lupin’s gates for the last time. Or, in child labor terms, Anne was roughly twenty-three chores away from complete freedom.

There was only one problem: She had no place to go.

Or more accurately, she couldn’t go to the one place she most wanted to go.

As the morning sun attempted, more or less unsuccessfully, to penetrate the grimy dormitory windows, Anne quietly walked down the hallway and slipped inside her tiny shared room. She closed the door equally as quietly and tiptoed the four steps to her bed, trying to avoid the floorboards that squeaked (which was especially difficult given that this included all of them). She took such care so as not to disturb the blanket-covered lump in the bed four steps in the other direction. The lump grunted loudly and mumbled but remained asleep.

Anne sat heavily on her bed, sending out a small puff of coal dust from her clothes. After a night spent working in the mines, her body ached for sleep, but there was no point even in lying down. Everyone was due in the front hallway in fifteen minutes. Besides, with the excitement of her birthday coupled with the unease of her coming departure from Saint Lupin’s, her mind was anything but sleepy.

In an attempt to make herself presentable, she ran her hands through her thick, curly hair several times, but as usual, her hair had a will of its own. Then she tried to rub off some of the coal dust that seemed forever ingrained under her fingernails and in the pores of her dark brown skin, but she basically only managed to transfer dust from one place to another.

With a sigh, she moved on to packing (which is easy when you have next to nothing to pack). Anne reached under the thin mattress and pulled out her few meager possessions. The first was a homemade pocketknife she’d built from various odds and ends. The rest consisted of several dozen slips of paper. On one side of the papers was printed the rejections from all the quest academies to which she had applied. On the other side was the stated reason for the rejections:

 

NO PROOF OF ORIGIN

 

More than anything Anne wanted to go on adventures, and ultimately to find her real home. First, however, she had to obtain an official license. But no academy would enroll someone who couldn’t prove where they came from. In defiance of this, she had filled the rejection slips with sketches of people. The faces were different sizes, shapes, and colors, yet she’d given all of them one shared feature: yellow eyes, just like her own. Anne had never actually met anyone else with yellow eyes, but she knew they must exist because she herself must have come from somewhere. That was her one and only clue.

To the knife and the papers Anne added a third item from her coat pocket: a small, thin book with a tattered red cover.

Every day after her shift in the mines, Anne would sneak into the boarded‑up library, replace whatever book she’d taken the previous day, and unofficially “borrow” another one. She’d read hundreds of stories this way: tales of nobles, tales of pirates, tales of knights, and sometimes tales of noble pirate knights. One book had even contained a story about an accountant, which hadn’t been very exciting, but it did help Anne understand how feeding orphans cheap food qualified as a charitable donation for Saint Lupin’s.

“What are you doing?” asked a sleepy voice that came from the blanketed lump.

“New book,” said Anne.

The lump rolled over and revealed itself to be a person—a pale, white-skinned girl (pores equally coal ingrained) with light blue eyes and tangles of dirty red hair. The girl’s name was Penelope. She had already turned thirteen and was a full head taller than Anne. How anyone eating only gruel could still have such broad shoulders and thick, sturdy limbs was beyond Anne’s comprehension. Penelope hadn’t had any success getting into an academy, either, but for very different reasons.

She knew her place of origin. In fact, her parents had been famous—or rather, infamous. Tragically, they had died in a quest that ended in disaster when Penelope was only two years old, and the curse of their misfortune had followed her. No self-respecting academy wanted the child of notorious failures.

To make matters worse for both Anne and Penelope, any orphan leaving Saint Lupin’s without an official destination would be sent to the Pit. There they would break rocks in a quarry until they could save enough money to buy passage elsewhere. The lucky ones made it out after only a few years of hard labor. Many were not so fortunate.

“What’s this one about?” Penelope asked eagerly, staring at the book in Anne’s hand. She loved fairy tales, especially those containing knights wielding swords andriding around on horses and stabbing things with them(that is, stabbing things with the swords, not with thehorses, although she no doubt would have enjoyed thosestories as well).

Anne read the title out loud: “The Adventurer’s Guide to Getting Your First Job.”

“That’s . . . a weird title for a story.”

“Since we’re leaving, I figured we could use something more in the way of practical advice. This sounded promising.” Anne opened to the first page and frowned.

“What’s wrong?” asked Penelope.

“There’s only one sentence. It says, ‘Keep in mind most entry-level positions for orphans involve a barn and a shovel.’ ” She flipped through the rest of the book, but all the other pages were blank. “That’s all there is.”

“Well, that advice stinks,” said Penelope. “And forget entry level. I’m skipping the barns and shovels and going straight to rescuing some prince from a dragon and buying a castle with a tall tower.”

Anne looked longingly at her stack of rejection slips. “I only wish we could.”

“Never mind those snobby academies,” said Penelope. “And don’t worry about the Pit, either. We’ll jump ship before we reach it, join up with some pirates, and go hunting for Old World treasure. All we need to do is find something really valuable, like the Fabled Slippers of Uz. Then we’ll be rich and famous, and academies everywhere will beg to have us.” Penelope leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “Although I hear pirates make you pierce something before they accept you as part of their crew.”

Anne grinned at her friend. Penelope could find the silver lining in a cloud that had just struck her with lightning.

Penelope clapped her hands together. “We could each do an ear! Or have matching nose rings!”

“Or pierced eyebrows,” Anne suggested, playing along.

“I would look fantastic with a pierced eyebrow. And wielding a cutlass.” Penelope jumped up, grabbed her pillow, and wielded it as a sword. “Aye aye, Captain! I’ll take care of these scallywags for you and make them rue the day they crossed Penelope Shatterblade.” She took a few good swings, and then tossed aside the pillow and jumped off her bed.

“Sorry about the book,” said Anne. “I’ll sneak back into the library and get us a proper story. One last good adventure before we board the ship.”

While Penelope dressed hastily, Anne stuffed her drawings and the book into the deep pockets of her coat and slid the pocketknife into her sock. Then they headed downstairs together. All the younger children were already off to the kitchens for breakfast, but Anne and Penelope stood with the group of thirteen-year-olds waiting in the dormitory’s front hallway. Many of the other orphans had received letters of acceptance from various academies and were talking excitedly about the grand adventures they hoped to go on once they were free of Saint Lupin’s. Anne and Penelope said little, except for Penelope occasionally suggesting other suitable locations for a piercing. After several minutes of this, a hinge-rattling thump at the entrance silenced their chatter.

Anne wrung her hands in nervous anticipation. Even if the Pit was no better than Saint Lupin’s, as long as she and Penelope stuck together, they would figure out the rest in due course.

A boy with coal-streaked blond hair opened the front door, and an eight-foot-tall hollow suit of armor tromped inside. It had a helmet with a ring of spikes around the bottom and an overly large torso that made it look like a barrel, albeit one with arms and legs and bearing a longsword. Still, no one screamed or fled or fainted. If anything, there was an undercurrent of anticipation not typically reserved for well-armed barrels.

The orphans referred to the suit of armor as an “iron knight.” The Matron employed three of them, primarily for heavy labor. The knights mostly ignored the orphans and went about their business, although if the small white stone in the center of their helmets glowed red, you knew you were in trouble. They were also prone to stepping on toes. Anne had spent years trying to figure out (without success) how the suits worked. She had finally decided it didn’t matter as long as she could avoid them.

The iron knight didn’t speak (which wasn’t surprising, since to the best of Anne’s recollection none of them ever had). In one hand it held a stack of papers. The passenger tickets. At the top of the stack was a message, which it handed to the boy who had opened the door. The boy read the message aloud:

 

To all the orphans who are scheduled to leave,

 

I wish I could say I have enjoyed the pleasure of your company, but I haven’t. Not even a little bit. And in truth, I actually don’t wish I could say it. That part was a lie. Also, you still owe me one more day of chores, so stop standing around and get to work.

Most sincerely NOT yours,

The Matron

P.S. Also, good riddance.

 

The iron knight handed the boy a second piece of paper, the year’s roster, and the boy began calling out names in alphabetical order. As each person’s name was called, they stepped forward to receive their ticket.

Anne sighed, knowing she would be last. In addition to not knowing where she came from, she didn’t even have a surname, and so was always last. She and Penelope had once brainstormed possible last names to solve the problem, but the Matron had refused to submit the required application form to make her new name legal.

“Appleturner, Appollonia,” the boy called out first, and a tall girl stepped forward. The knight handed her a ticket and she proceeded outside to begin her chores for the day.

“Barnacle, Rhoberte,” the boy called next. This time a boy stepped forward and received his ticket as well. He followed the girl out the door.

The line shortened as each person received their ticket in turn: Iduardo Dribblenoodle, Mari Ficklefeather, Ebelleh Greatsword, Ty Queenflower.

“Shatterblade, Penelope,” the boy called.

Penelope skipped to the knight to receive her ticket and kissed the piece of paper with a loud smack. “Princes of the world, here I come!”

Anne and the others laughed as Penelope danced out of the hallway, and everyone continued shuffling forward as yet more names were called. Soon there were only five orphans remaining. Then two. Then Anne was by herself.

“Anvil,” the boy finally said.

Anne cringed at the sound of her full name, but she stepped forward with an impossible‑to‑contain smile nevertheless. Despite her uncertain future, there was still a sense of exhilaration. She held her breath, waiting for the iron knight to hand her a ticket.

Instead, it turned and exited the dormitory.

_________

 

Anne stood frozen in shock. It made no sense. Granted, receiving a passenger ticket from an empty suit of armor didn’t make a lot of sense in the first place, but in this particular instance, not receiving one made even less sense.

Penelope, who was now carrying a rake, stuck her head back through the doorway. “Are you coming? These leaves aren’t going to pile themselves.”

“I . . . I didn’t get a ticket,” said Anne.

“What?” Penelope looked from Anne to the departing knight and back again. “What are you going to do?”

Anne decided it must be a mistake and ran out after the knight. She skipped around in front of it and waved her hands. The knight stopped just short of stepping on her and looked down with its cold, empty gaze.

“S‑sorry, but you didn’t give me my ticket,” said Anne.

The stone in the knight’s helmet briefly flashed red. Had she angered it? She stood her ground, wavering between determination and fear, as the iron knight continued to stare. Finally, it simply sidestepped around her and continued on its way. Anne watched it go, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t know why the knight hadn’t given her a ticket, but she did know one thing: Without one, she couldn’t leave Saint Lupin’s.

Anne looked around. The other orphans had dispersed to begin their chores, but how could she work without resolving the issue of her ticket?

“I have to go see the Matron,” said Anne.

Penelope paled visibly. “We’re already behind. If you don’t start your chores now, you’ll end up with a double shift in the coal mine. She’ll make you work right up until the last minute before the ship leaves.”

Anne nodded. “As long as it leaves with me on it, I can live with that.”

Before common sense could kick in, Anne left Penelope with the leaves and hurried across the yard to the Manor, a five-story building made of red brick in the center of the main compound. She ran up the front steps and entered through the large double doors. Several passages led off from the main entryway, and Anne took the one to the right of an antique longcase clock and navigated the twisting corridors until she came to the lengthy hallway that led to the Matron’s office. The hallway was lined with the statues of former headmasters and headmistresses, each with lifelike glaring eyes that heightened the sense of walking to one’s execution. Anne shivered as she passed.

The door to the office was open, but Anne stopped outside and knocked anyway. You didn’t barge in on the Matron. When no reply came, she risked a peek inside.

The room was octagonal, with an ornately carved oak desk, floor‑to‑ceiling shelves, and three tall stained-glass windows. Brightly colored sunlight filled the room, andevery surface gleamed with polish, so that anywhere Annelooked she saw her own soot-streakedface reflected back. The only sign of life was the Matron’s pet fire lizard, snoring quietly in a basket in the far corner. The fire lizard’s name was Dog—or at least that’s what it read on his collar.He was two feet long from snout to tail, with black scales,small black leather wings, and bright green eyes. He didn’tso much fly as wobble a few inches off the ground andcrash into things, like a bumblebee with zero depth perception.Anne liked the fire lizard and very much wished shecould bring him along with her when she left.

“Ma’am?” she called out.

No response.

Anne knew she should leave. She was late for chores. But only the Matron could solve the problem of her missing ticket, so she decided to wait. Impulsively, she stepped over the threshold. Orphans were rarely permitted in the office unaccompanied, and the tiny act of defiance on this, her last day, gave Anne a thrill. The shelves were filled with thousands of glass domes of various sizes, with each dome containing a single unique medallion. Anne had spent many hours dusting and polishing them, always under close supervision, but now she twirled her way across the tile floor, enjoying a brief moment of exhilarating freedom. She stopped on the far side of the room in front of the dome that contained her favorite medallion: a small silver one that bore the image of a dragon. The dragon was carved in fine, intricate lines, marred only by a single deep scratch across the surface.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” asked a sharp voice.

Anne spun around, nearly losing her balance.

A tall, reedy woman stood in the doorway.

The Matron.

She strode across the room, her silver cane clanking on the stone tiles with every other step, and her mouth pursed in suspicion. She stopped in front of Anne. Inches away, the Matron’s short-cropped white-gray hair stood out even more starkly against her brown skin. She was so close Anne could count the black threads on her finely tailored, high-collared tunic. So close Anne feared smudging the woman’s brown woolen trousers with her own dirty coat or accidentally scuffing her fine leather boots. A crystal pendant hung from a gold chain around the Matron’s neck and dangled in front of Anne’s nose.

The Matron pointed to the glass dome with her gloved right hand. “Well?” she said. “Explain yourself.” She didn’t raise her voice, but her coal-black eyes had a way of looking directly into a person’s soul and making it shrivel.

Anne shriveled accordingly. “I—I didn’t touch anything. I promise.”

The Matron’s eyes scanned the shelf, as though seeking even a hint of incriminating evidence, such as a stray fingerprint. “Then why are you in here?”

Anne took a deep breath. “I didn’t receive a ticket for the supply ship.”

“Residents receive a ticket when they turn thirteen. You are not thirteen yet.”

“I know,” said Anne. “I just thought, given the regulations about leaving, and what with the ship departing so soon after midnight tonight, that—”

“There’s been a change in schedule. The ship is now leaving before midnight, which, as I’m sure even you can deduce, means you’ll be staying a little longer than you expected.”

Anne’s heart beat faster. “Staying? Here? At Saint Lupin’s?”

“Where else would I mean?” the Matron said, and she turned away, apparently satisfied that nothing had been tampered with, giving Anne space to breathe once again.

“But . . . the ship won’t return again for a whole year.”

Anne’s future flashed before her eyes: another year in the coal mines, another year polishing every nook and cranny of the orphanage, and all without her best friend to keep her company.

“And how is that my problem?” the Matron replied. Relying heavily on her cane, the Matron walked over to the desk and eased herself into the high-backed chair behind it. When her gloved hand touched the desktop, it made a distinct clunk.

Anne moved to the spot in front of the desk where a large X had been painted on the floor. There was a chair to the left of the X, but to the best of Anne’s knowledge, no one had ever been invited to sit in it.

“But I’m scheduled to leave on this ship,” said Anne. “My name is on the list. My birthday is tomorrow.”

“Yes, and if the ship were still leaving tomorrow, you would most assuredly be on it. But as I said, there’s been a change.” The Matron leaned forward. “And just so there are no misunderstandings, you are not to go anywhere near that supply ship. I don’t want you on the dock, or at the edge of the dock, or even standing in a place where you can see the dock. In fact, consider yourself restricted to the main compound until the ship has departed.”

Tears welled up in Anne’s eyes. “C‑can’t they wait just a few extra minutes?”

“No.”

“Can Penelope stay here with me, then?”

“Certainly not,” said the Matron in a tone that suggested further discussion was ill-advised. “If that is all, you may begin your chores.”

Anne couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She and Penelope would be separated—Anne wouldn’t even be able to watch her leave. No adventures together. No pirates. They might never find each other again.

The Matron cleared her throat.

Anne looked up.

“Was there something else?” asked the Matron.

Anne decided then and there that she wasn’t simply going to give up. “Actually, I just finished my shift in the mines,” she said. “I’m only scheduled to help Penelope rake leaves and then go to bed.”

“If you’re awake enough to come in here and bother me, you’re awake enough to work the full morning. And by work, I don’t mean wasting time with your friend.” The Matron gestured to the basket in the corner where Dog was laying. “You may start by taking that wretched creature for his morning walk.”

Anne suppressed a retort and shuffled to the corner. She removed a leash from the hook above the basket and attached it to Dog’s collar. Dog snorted in protest but dragged himself out of the basket. Normally, two people were assigned to walk the fire lizard: One person held the leash, and another did the pushing and prodding and coaxing and begging required to get him moving. But lately he’d been obeying Anne without too much fuss.

“Remember,” said the Matron, “no leaving the compound until after the supply ship has departed. I need not remind you of the consequences for disobeying orders.”

Anne exited with Dog in tow. The eyes of the statues in the long hallway didn’t bother her one bit this time. Instead, each step only strengthened her resolve. Anne didn’t care what the Matron said. She wasn’t going to be left behind. One way or another, she was leaving Saint Lupin’s.

Even if she had to break every one of the Matron’s rules to do it.

The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes
by by Wade Albert White