by Daisy White
Seventeen year old Talia is struggling to earn a living as a seamstress, surviving in the infamous Camps of war torn Arista. When her soldier fiancé Kellar suggests a bizarre route of escape — stowing away in the cross desert freight train to Leonore, Talia jumps at the chance.
In Leonore she can marry Kellar and expand her business — leaving the war behind... But a freak accident leaves her stranded and alone in the desert. Caught between the two countries, and forced to face her troubled past, Talia must choose between love and revenge, whilst playing the ultimate game of survival. Comforted by The Guardian and haunted by The Ghost, Talia begins a journey that will change her life forever...
‘A rich mix of evocative mysticism and gritty fantasy – Beautiful...’
BUY THE BOOK
“So if we get married, nobody can kick you out. You can travel between Arista and Leonore with papers. Still trade. Even have your own store if you like.” He smiles, squinting against the setting sun, all flashing dark eyes and cute messy hair.
“How romantic, Kellar. Is that a proposal?” I can’t help but grin back at him, forgetting for a moment that next week we should be saying good-bye forever. My crazy soldier, my partner in crime, the love of my seventeen-year-old life. The peace of the other night never quite came back, but I still have this glow of happiness. Despite everything, Kellar loves me and I love him. Crazy.
He laughs, kicking sand at a fast-running, jewel-eyed lizard. “Why not? It could work! The only catch is we need to be married in Leonore.” He flicks me a look.
“And we both know that can’t happen because I can’t leave Arista without papers. I’m just a ‘settler’, remember.” A bit low, but I can’t help the occasional dig. Kellar is from a good family, and despite his refusal to say much about them, I suspect they are rich. He’s just putting in his security service with the forces before he hits the world of banking. Easy life.
Me? I’m as low as you can get. I’m used to saying I come from the Camps but I still hate it. People treat you differently and look down on you if you live in huge fields of grubby white canvas tents, shacks made of rubbish, scrabbling for survival amongst the grime. The Council call us settlers, but actually, most of us are from the countryside around Arista itself. They’ve just forgotten where everyone came from. They don’t care either; the Council is too busy fighting the rebels for control of the oil.
Anyway, same result—no papers, no travel. I stand up, stretching my cramped legs, dusting off sand. My turquoise dress is one I designed and cut myself. The floating silky fabric and handkerchief hemline sets off a figure-hugging bodice dotted with tiny mother-of-pearl buttons. It looks pretty good catching the glare of the afternoon sun.
Kellar reaches across and catches my hand. “Hey! Don’t look so down. I’ve got a plan.”
“Tell me on the way home. I’ve got a supplier coming at five.” My silk man, Tshao, because with or without Kellar, I’m breaking out of this grinding poverty. At seventeen, as well as my stall at the market, I work for the Council wives in the evenings, making their pretty, elegant, boring dresses. They treat me like crap, but that just makes me more determined. If I can’t get out of Arista legitimately, I’ll buy my way out.
“You’ve always got a plan! They’re always crazy.” I reach up for a kiss, and he slides a hand around my waist, drawing me close as we wander back past the military base toward the Camp.
The young guard at the gate grins, gun held loosely in both hands, cap slightly skewed. “All set for the night then, mate?”
Kellar just smiles and shakes his head, pulling me closer. Most of the soldiers have local girlfriends. A lot of them have wives back home in Leonore, too. Now that the base is closing, most of the soldiers will ditch their girlfriends and head back to respectable lives in the city.
I didn’t mean to fall in love with Kellar. It definitely was not part of my master plan, but the warm, happy glow is unfamiliar and welcome, and I cling to it. It even makes The Plan, which usually dominates my daylight hours, fade into the background. I can’t let that happen, of course.
“Don’t listen to him.” Kellar covers my ears, grinning, as some of the other soldiers wander past, and one of them makes a similar comment to the guard on gate duty.
I shove his hands away, amused. Sweet that he actually thinks I need protecting from some idiot’s crude words. Yeah right, I must be eight years younger than him, but I learned survival early.
The smell, the noise, and the buzz of flies indicate we’re nearly home. The squat, ugly concrete buildings scattered at the entrance of the Camps are decorated with graffiti and the official signs of the green cross. There are three foreign charities working in the Camps at the moment and international aid workers come and go. The middle building is a hospital, the one on the far left on the fringes of the stinking rubbish dump, is the school. The rusty barred windows frown toward the desert, and the once-cheery multicoloured sign is peeling and filthy. Razor wire decorates the gates.
I turn back toward Kellar. “So go on. How am I going to get into Leonore without papers?”
“By train of course.”
Frowning, and a little disappointed, I open my mouth to speak, but he lays a gentle finger to my lips.
“The freight train has plenty of space. Most of those containers are only half full midweek.” He looks at me expectantly.
“How do you know?”
“I did two months in the freight yard when I first got to Leonore, while we were waiting for the new runway to be ready. And with the shift rotations, I know exactly who will be working there next week. Just imagine that several of us wanted to bring our girlfriends home when we leave, and just imagine that we found a way to do it...”
Two ragged, feathered, black ravens have landed close to the razor wire perimeter, squawking and fighting over the heaps of rotting rubbish. I study them, my mind spinning.
“Suppose you’re right and I manage to get through the freight yard into a container. How would I breathe? What about water?” The thought of being locked in a metal box for hours makes my palms prick with sweat and I bite my lip hard, still fixing my gaze on the squabbling birds.
Kellar beams. “All taken care of. Trust me, Talia, I didn’t want to ask you until it was all sorted but the chance is there now. A free ticket out of here. All you have to do is get yourself on the train with the other girls.”
“Three, I think.”
“Do I know them?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” He leans out and gently pulls me closer so our bodies touch. “All you need to know is that you can take the chance. If you want to, of course.”
My thoughts are whirling, and excitement throbs dangerously through my veins. Would it work? If I’m honest, I’m mostly blown away he loves me enough to have worked out how to get me out of Arista.