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Stars, Hide Your Fires

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“A delightfully mischievous adventure full of intrigue, betrayal, and a touch of romance. Get ready to join your new favorite rebel crew.”—Dahlia Adler, author of Cool for the Summer

A wanted thief. A murdered emperor. A killer loose on the station.

Knives Out goes sci-fi in this gripping YA mystery set in space.

As an expert thief from a minor moon, Cass knows a good mark when she sees one. The emperor’s ball is her chance to steal a fortune for herself, her ailing father, and her scrappy crew of thieves and market vendors.

Her plan is simple:
1. Hitch a ride to the planet of Ouris, the dazzling heart of the empire.
2. Sneak onto the imperial palace station to attend the emperor’s ball.
3. Steal from the rich, the royal, and the insufferable.

But on the station, things quickly go awry. When the emperor is found dead, everyone in the palace is a suspect—and someone is setting Cass up to take the fall. To clear her name, Cass must work with an unlikely ally: a gorgeous and mysterious rebel with her own reasons for being on the station. Together, they unravel a secret that could change the fate of the empire.

ISBN-13: 9781683694342

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Quirk Books

Publication Date: 07-02-2024

Pages: 304

Product Dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Age Range: 14 Years

Jessica Mary Best is a multi-award-winning freelance writer/editor, an amateur singer/songwriter and a well-intentioned ball of pure quivering anxiety. She is based out of Columbus, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I’m halfway through lifting a watch off an extremely drunk tourist from some fancy planet called Leithe when I first hear about the ball.
     The scam is an old one. Jax calls it Bad Mook, Good Mook. It works like this: We wait at the port until someone with fancy clothes and a mound of luggage touches down. Jax plays the villainous urchin, darting in to swipe at a bag or a purse. It’s the perfect role because you can’t miss Jax—with their bright-red hair and home-brewed tattoos snaking up their arms, they stick out like a rusty screw set in high-polish titanium. I play the part of the virtuous local, running Jax off and offering to help carry all those bags in exchange for a story about the traveler’s point of origin.
     “I’ve lived on Sarn my whole life,” I confide, wide-eyed. I can almost see Jax from the corner of my eye, mouthing along at a safe distance: “I only get to leave it in my dreams, but I know there’s better worlds out there.”
     The story is key. You need to keep your target talking for this to work. It helps that Sarn, with its rolling dust clouds and general lack of greenery, is the kind of place that would make anyone misty-eyed for wherever they came from, and that’s before you get into the fact that we’re only a minor moon and tidally locked with our host planet, Danae, which means we get half a year of blazing sunshine, no night, and half a year of unrelenting darkness, no light. Either the mark takes pity on me and takes it upon themselves to expand my tragically limited horizons, or they’re so disgusted by their experience that they can’t hold back from bragging about how much better they have it back on their homeworld.
     You can pretty much tell why they’re here by looking at them. The ones not dressed for the elements—expensive fabrics that don’t breathe, impractical shoes, the latest trend in body mods— have come for the Astera Oasis, the one remaining slice of Sarn’s fertile soil, nestled at the bottom of a canyon the locals call the Big Split. The resort down there offers an “exotic” vacation for the wealthy, and work for the rest of us, provided you can bury your dignity deep enough to treat any paying customer like a demigod. My friend Pav’s boyfriend Babbit busks there during the sunny season, and he says the tips can be good, but I’ve done the math and never found that kind of grind to be worth it.
     The rest of our visitors—tight posture, clipped hair, boots made to last—are here to oversee one of the mines, strictly military ops since the peace talks failed and the war kicked into overdrive. Jax and I are careful to leave those folks alone. Even a standard-issue railgun is nothing you want to truck with. I’ve taken those things apart for scraps more times than I can count—they have these tiny screws that go for a few drocks each. If you know what you’re doing, you can extract them by tapping the back panel in the right sequence, but sometimes a junkpicker will start working on a railgun not realizing it’s still got the electromagnetic charge and end up losing a finger or a hand. You don’t want one pointed at you, under any circumstances.
     Every so often, a mark will try to drag Jax off to port security unarmed, but that never goes anywhere. The closest magistrate has a backlog of petty crimes so long, it’d make any law-abiding citizen weep. Once or twice, some determined swell tried to have Jax imprisoned on a ship and we had to scrap the whole con, but it turns out I can kick like a twister when I need to, and we’ve always managed to limp away.
     When I’m lucky, our mark is happy enough to wax poetic about the lush green hills of Planet Wherever-the-Void on the way to the Opuntia, the one nice hotel in spitting distance of the port, where tourists recover from their trip before booking a ride down into the Big Split. Meanwhile, I fall behind a bit, mouth along with their curiously round mainworld vowels, and dip my thieving fingers into that luggage. A savvy traveler will think to count the bags when we’re through; almost nobody stops to search them. You can’t take enough to alter the weight, but plenty of little treasures have found their way into my rucksack.
     At the end of our journey together, just outside the hotel, I clasp our dear target’s hand, run through the usual litany of thank-yous, and if I’m very lucky, I’m back with the throngs at the port before anyone realizes they’re light a bracelet or a ring. Nobody wears their best stuff traveling this far from the major moons or planets—there’s nobody to impress but us—but a piece of mediocre jewelry will get you closer to a hot meal than a full day of scrap hauling.
     When no more incoming ships are slated for the morning, we pawn whatever we’ve earned, and I split my take with Jax fiftyfifty. I spend the afternoon junkpicking, or when the port is busy, I can beg some odd jobs off the old women who run the market stalls. At the end of the day, if I’ve done good, that’s something other than bare protein slurry for Dad and me come dinner time. If it’s a bad haul, Dad and I make do with off-brand Pink Dream, which always tastes worryingly rancid but keeps you full enough to sleep if you can afford to mix it with a little milk.
     “There’s worse things, Cassie,” Dad tells me on those nights, using whatever trick he has at his disposal to sneak me a bigger share than his.
     “But there’s a whole lot better, too,” I say, using every trick he’s ever taught me to sneak it back. It’s gotten easier since his hands started shaking too bad for anything but junkpicking.
     Today’s first mark is promising, if a little tipsier than I’d like. Drunk people tend to get sloppy, which is a plus in our line of work, but they can be unpredictable. Jax has to all but yank the purse from the tourist’s hands before earning any kind of response. My first thought, when Jax has been safely run off and the stranger starts in on a ramble about the places she’s been, working as the personal assistant for some duchess, is that she can’t be that well-traveled, or she’d know not to drink like this on Sarn. The atmosphere is too thin. No offworlder can hold their liquor here worth a dry, jagged shit.
     My next thought is that this Ascension Ball she’s rattling on about sounds only slightly better than the howling Void. Seems like the old emperor is announcing his successor in style, and to an incredibly exclusive group of guests.
     “—dressed, of course, in the very finest finery in all of Ouris, and, between you and me, that is very fine,” she manages, eyes locked on her own stumbling feet. As I sift through her heavy bag, I note her inflection on the word me. It’s recognizably fourth-condition, marking her as female, but the way she forms it sounds much less like we say it here and much more like an announcer on the short-wave, with a bit of an accent on top. Me, me, me, I mouth along to get the trick of it as I determine that her watch is the only thing with resale value and idly wonder how much food I could buy after a day’s work at the ball.
     Then I wonder the same thing, with a little less idleness.
     In a single motion, I scoop the woman’s watch into my rucksack and refasten the clasp on thebag.
     “What sort of finery, madam?” I ask in my talking-to-richpeople voice. Something halfway between how they tend to speak and the way I usually form my words—refined enough to sound trustworthy, not so fancy as to give the impression of a girl acting above her station.
     The woman turns unsteadily to face me. “Why, my dear!” she cries. “Every sort. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds, Dionysian silks, gold, jadeites, lab-grown fur worth more than your own life—it’s a feast for the eyes. The court on Leithe knows a thing or two about putting on a show, of course, but the Ascension Ball on Ouris will be something else entirely.”
     The kind of take you could pull from one night at a dance like that . . . it wouldn’t be jerky-and-tinned-fruit money. It would be change-your-life-forever money. Never-worry-about-eating-again money.
     “Where on Ouris, did you say, madam?” I murmur.
     “Why, are you planning on procuring an invitation?” says the woman with a loud, braying laugh. “Good luck! I can’t even get one, and I’ve been the duchess’s right hand for a decade. The invites are handcrafted silver filigree and embedded with the emperor’s personal encryption seal. Her Grace says the black markets are salivating at the thought of getting their hands on a few, but nobody on the list would ever part with one.”
     I duck my head. “Just trying to paint a mental picture, madam. It sounds fascinating.”
     “It’s more than simply fascinating,” she says. “One hundred of Ouris’s most honored citizens descending on the city of Amphor, like flocks and flocks of exotic birds in the sunshine.”
     Amphor. There are cargo transport lines that run from ports on Sarn to Amphor. That’s where they first started shipping away our topsoil, for the private gardens in the city center. Only the best would do, and back then, Sarn had the finest soil in the galaxy. These days, we don’t even have much of that. Dirt-poor, as the joke goes.
     I know better than to ask for a date and time. “How long does Her Grace have to prepare?” I ask.
     She names a day, roughly a month from now. After that, I barely hear her over the wheels turning in my mind.