The work was strenuous enough, Astoria Greythorne barely felt the cold. It was her hands that took the punishment. Her stiff, creaking fingers moved awkwardly as she hoisted the beams upon her shoulder. The tips of her gloves were cut off so she could grip the beams in the falling snow, hold them in place while the boy, Darien Hannigan, pounded in the spikes. The gallows were nearly finished for the ceremony tomorrow.

Every household in the city had been required to prepare the Oshan City square for the Supreme Chancellor's drafting ceremony, even the Chancellor's own First General. Astoria and Darien had served General Scelero faithfully for three years and, unlike the Chancellor, the General was a kind master. He provided his servants with proper rations and sleeping quarters. He gave them fur-lined parkas and wool caps for the harsh Oshan winters, but even he could do nothing when the Chancellor demanded service. As she returned for another beam, Astoria rubbed her hands together vigorously, but she'd lost feeling in them an hour ago. Perhaps it was better this way.

"You all right, Tori?" Darien asked, as he pounded another spike home. No one had called Astoria by her full name since her mother died. It had only felt right to become someone different. Darien wrapped Tori's hands with his own and blew warm breath on them. "Your fingers are icicles."

"Nothing doing, is it? The sooner we finish, the sooner we'll be warm beside the General's fires. I'll survive. Let's finish up with this ruddy platform."

Tori hoisted another beam from the stockpile and Darien grabbed more spikes. Darien had insisted they trade roles when her fingers went numb. Darien was much stronger, but the labor of hoisting the beams warmed her and, anyway, she couldn't hold the spikes in place if she couldn't feel them. Darien was probably colder than she was, all through, but he never complained.

Tori and Darien had entered the General's household together, chosen out of the lot of Fringe Dwellers to replace a pair of the General's servants who had been drafted into the Supreme Chancellor's Shadow Legions. After her mother and sister died when she was twelve, Tori had no choice but to journey to the Fringes of Osha and hope to be found worthy of service. She waited two years. At seventeen, she now feared being drawn for the military, on the very stage they were building. Darien was eighteen, and she feared for him even more. Being drafted was akin to being sent to the firing squad. It was like walking into the mountains of the Crooked Teeth and hoping not to be devoured by Loraks. Tori cursed under her breath.

"Why always in winter? The draft could happen any ruddy time of year."

"Course," muttered Darien. "But that's it, isn't it? The Chancellor can choose what he wants and no one can stop him. He can pile more cruelty on the fire for cruelty's own sake. He can make the whole city stand in the cold and wait to be sentenced to death serving in his conquests. The General's at his mercy like anyone else. Much less, you and me."

Darien drove in the spikes with perfect accuracy, despite the cold. Only three more beams remaining. Tori had never seen the gallows used, but it was a symbol. Defectors would be executed. Darien stared at the overhang and the noose of rope for a moment.

"You won't be drawn," said Tori, brushing his shoulder.

"What difference does it make? If not this year, then next, or the one after that." Darien set back to work on the beam. "They won't take me," he said, lowering his voice. "I won't go on the Chancellor's raids and slaughter innocents, conditioned to think it's right."

"You do what you must to survive," said Tori darkly. "That's the way the world is."

"You don't believe that."

"I believe that you alive is better than you dead," she said stubbornly.

"Is that what you'd say to the soldiers who killed your family?"

But that was different altogether. Most servants in Osha were orphans. Darien's family had been killed in a skirmish in Klavash four years ago. Casualties in one of the Chancellor's endless raids. Tori's mother and sister had been killed by the Chancellor, but they had not been killed by soldiers.

They were hunters. Creatures bred by the Chancellor.

The Metamorphi.

"Hurry along!" cried one of the guards monitoring the construction. The guard stood beside a simmering fire, his musket draped over the crook of his arm.

What does he need to hurry for? He's plenty damn warm.

Nevertheless, Tori hurried over and retrieved the final beam, hoisting it in place. Her shoulders ached under the strain. But at least she could feel them.

As they walked back to the General's household, escorted by a pair from the City Watch, Darien muttered, "I'd rather be dead than do what was done to my family."

Tori shuddered as she thought, Then tomorrow you may be dead.

The night before the draft, General Scelero always fixed his servants a fine supper of roast venison, baked leaven, and potatoes. Always potatoes. They were the staple of the Northern kingdoms. But on the eve of the draft, the General would pull out a delicacy. Pies loaded with imported fruits, apples and cherries and peaches. The pies melted against your tongue, warm and sweet.

The General had over three dozen servants, so it was undoubtedly expensive for him to do this. He drew no attention to his kindness. It was simply the way it was. Every year, they would gather in his hall. The meal was a ritual. A small act of gratitude to his servants and a solemn farewell to those who would be drawn.

Darien was quieter than usual this year, and this made it increasingly difficult for Tori to enjoy the delicious food. The General also was quiet, sitting at the head of the table. He'd hardly touched his food. The General was surprisingly young for his rank. Tori did not think him older than thirty. His face was pale and glass smooth. Dark hair drooped to his brows, features rigid and calculated, but when he smiled, the entire wretched world felt like it might one day turn around. Tori was unfathomably fortunate to have been chosen to serve him. The other nobles in the city were hardly so kind.

Darien was staring at his dessert plate, his crisp apple pie growing colder and colder. Tori touched his arm, and he managed a slight smile.

After supper, he walked her to her quarters in the West Wing of the General's estate, a room she shared with three other servant girls. Since they'd met at the safe house in the Fringes — waiting and hoping to be rescued from the terrible poverty, training themselves in various skills the Oshan nobles might deem valuable — Darien and Tori had been close. The odds of being selected the same year, let alone by the same nobleman or woman, were insurmountable. This had only brought them closer. It was as though they were meant to remain together, to keep one another strong. As though the Old Gods themselves had paired them.

"We both have to get drawn one day, right?" Tori said. They reached the staircase to the tower and ascended the spiraling stairs.

"Some don't, I suppose. Ol' Merri the cook, she must be fifty, and she never got drawn. But her name's on the list alongside yours and mine. We'll both get drawn one day, yes."

"I hope we get drawn together." She whispered it, like it was a dark secret. Like saying it too loud might make it so.

"I hope you end up like Ol' Merri," he said firmly.

"If I have to join one day, I'd rather be drafted with you. We'd keep each other strong. Just like always. We wouldn't let them mold our brains. We'd fight it. I know we would."

Darien stopped outside her door and she pulled him into a tight embrace. When he pulled away, he met her gaze and held it. His golden eyes narrowed sternly. "If I'm drawn, I'm not going." Darien stared at the dancing torchlight on the walls.

"We won't get drawn," said Tori. She squeezed Darien's hand and said good night. She hoped it were so. But everyone in the household seemed to sense something dark. It had been etched all across the General's face at supper. The darkness rode on the air, infecting the entire city.