Rebel of the Sands (Rebel of the Sands #1) by Alwyn Hamilton

one

They said the only folks who belonged in Deadshot after dark were the ones who were up to no good. I wasn’t up to no good. Then again, I wasn’t exactly up to no bad neither.

I slid from Blue’s saddle and tethered her to a post behind some bar called the Dusty Mouth. The kid sitting against the fence was sizing me up suspiciously. Or maybe that was just his two black eyes. I tugged the wide brim of my hat lower as I stepped out of the yard. I’d stolen the hat from my uncle, along with the horse. Well, borrowed, more like. Everything I owned belonged to my uncle anyway, according to law, down to the clothes on my back.

The doors of the bar banged open, spilling out light and noise and a fat drunk with his arm around a pretty girl. My hand snapped to my sheema before I could think better of it, checking it was still tightly fastened so the better part of my face was covered. I was wrapped up to my eyes, and even hours after sunset I was sweating under the padding like a sinner at prayers. I figured I looked more like some lost nomad than a real sharpshooter, but so long as I didn’t look like a girl it didn’t much matter. Tonight I was getting out of here with at least my life. All the better if I got out with a few coins in my pocket, too.

It wasn’t hard to spot the pistol pit on the other side of Deadshot. It was the noisiest building in town, and that wasn’t saying nothing. A great big gutted-out barn at the end of the dusty street, it was swarming with bodies and blazing with light, propped up against a half-collapsed prayer house with a boarded-up door. Might be that once upon a time the barn had served some honest horse trader, but that was years ago by the looks of things.

The crowd thickened the closer I got. Like buzzards swarming to a fresh carcass.

A man with a bloody nose was pinned up against a wall by two others while another drove his fist into the man’s face over and over. A girl called out from a window with words that’d make an iron dragger blush. A group of factory workers still in their uniforms huddled around a nomad in a busted-up wagon who was shouting about selling Djinni blood that’d grant good folks their hearts’ desires. His wide grin looked desperate in the oily lamplight, and no wonder. It’d been years since anyone round these parts had seen a real live First Being, let alone a Djinni. Besides, he should’ve known better than to think desert dwellers would believe Djinn bled anything other than pure fire—or that anyone in Deadshot would believe themselves good folk. Everybody in the Last County went to prayers enough to know better on both counts.

I tried to keep my eyes forward, like I’d seen it all before.

If I climbed past the buildings, I’d be able to look across the sand and scrub all the way home to Dustwalk, though there’d be nothing but dark houses. Dustwalk got up and went down with the sun. Good honest behavior didn’t belong to the dark hours of the night. If it were possible to die of boredom, everyone in Dustwalk would be corpses in the sand.

But Deadshot was alive and kicking.

No one paid me much mind as I slid into the barn. A big crowd was already gathered in the pistol pit. Lines of huge oil lamps hung from the eaves, giving the gawkers’ faces a greasy glow. Scrawny kids were setting up targets and dodging a big man’s blows as he shouted at them to move faster. Orphans, by the looks of them. Likely kids whose fathers had worked in the hulking weapons factory on the outskirts of Dustwalk until they’d gotten blown to bits by faulty machinery. Or until the day they’d gone to work drunk and burned themselves too badly to live. Gunpowder wasn’t hardly safe work.

I was so busy staring that I nearly walked straight into the giant of a man at the door. “Front or back?” he demanded, his hands resting carelessly on a scimitar on his left hip and a gun on his right.

“What?” I remembered just in time to pitch my voice lower. I’d been practicing imitating my friend Tamid all week, but I still sounded like a boy instead of a man. The hired muscle at the door didn’t seem to care.

“It’s three fouza to stand at the back, five to stand at the front. Betting starts at ten.”

“How much to stand in the middle?” Damn. I hadn’t meant to say that. Aunt Farrah had been trying to smack the smart mouth off me for a year now with no luck. I got the feeling it would hurt more if this man tried.

But he just frowned like he thought I might be simple. “Front or back. There’s no middle, boy.”

“I’m not here to watch,” I said before I could lose the last of my nerve. “I’m here to shoot.”

“What are you doing wasting my time, then? You want Hasan.” He shoved me toward a heavyset man with billowing, bright red trousers and a dark beard slicked to his chin, standing behind a low table piled with coins that bounced as he drummed his fingers.

I took a deep breath through my sheema and tried to look like my stomach wasn’t trying to escape through my mouth. “How much to enter?”

The scar on Hasan’s lip made it look like it curled up in a sneer. “Fifty fouza.”

Fifty? That was almost everything I had. Everything I’d been saving up in the last year to escape to Izman, the capital of Miraji.

Even with my face covered from the nose down, Hasan must’ve seen the hesitation. His attention was already wandering past me, like he figured I was about to walk away.

That was what did it. I dropped the money on the table in a jangling handful of louzi and half-louzi that I’d scrimped one by one over the past three years. Aunt Farrah always said I didn’t seem to mind proving myself dumb if it meant proving someone else wrong. So maybe Aunt Farrah was right.

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