Flamecaster (Shattered Realms, #1)(8)

Written By: Cinda Williams Chima

“Magemarked?” His eyebrows came together. “What’s that?”

“Shhh,” she said, clapping her hand over his mouth and glaring around the packed wagon. From what she could tell, everyone else was asleep. It was amazing how alone you could be in the middle of a crowd. “Nobody can know.” She took his hand and placed it over the raised emblem on the back of her neck, the spiderweb of metal, the smooth stone at the center.

His eyes widened as he brushed his fingers over the surface. “What’s it mean?” he whispered.

“It means I’m powerful.”

“Well,” Riley said, swallowing hard, “maybe you are. But I don’t have a mark.”

Jenna was instantly sorry she’d brought the whole thing up. She’d kept it to herself for this long. Why had she chosen to blurt it out now?

“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “We are chosen, you and I. We’ll write our own story, you’ll see.” Putting her hands on Riley’s shoulders, she looked into his eyes. “When I look at a person, I can see who they really are.”

“You can’t,” Riley said.

“I can.” That was a stretcher. She’d see pictures or hear fragments, was all, but it wasn’t easy figuring out what they meant. Sometimes it was the person as they were, only clearer, truer, like when somebody lets their guard down. And sometimes it was the person they were going to be.

Other people she knew by their scent. For instance, Riley smelled of sweat and hard work and kindness and honesty.

“Who’m I?” Riley asked, lifting his chin and striking a pose.

Jenna stared at him. She saw him just as he was. Beyond that, nothing at all.

“What? What is it?” Riley swiped at his face like he was afraid it was dirty.

“Why, Riley, I think you’re going to be a king,” Jenna said finally.

“A king. What do you mean?”

“I keep seeing you, and a crown, and a sword. That must mean you’re meant for great things, right?” She leaned in close and whispered, “In our story, the king of Arden gets eaten by wolves in Chapter One.”

Riley laughed softly, but he still looked around to make sure nobody could overhear. “For now, I’d be glad to hear the story you brought. It’ll give me something to look forward to, while we’re down in the mine.” He sighed. “I wish it was the end of the day right now.”

But it wasn’t the end of the day. They were just pulling up in front of the Number Two mine, which meant that the end of the day was twelve hours away. They called it the Number Two because a year ago there’d been an explosion at the Number One mine that buried the entrance under tons of rubble, shutting it down.

The colliers said it was firedamp, the explosive gas that built up in the mine. The Ardenine bosses claimed it was sabotage, because it happened at change of shift, when there were few miners underground. The king of Arden was furious when he heard, because he needed coal and steel to put weapons into the hands of his army. So they cut a new shaft into the mountain. Most of the able-bodied men and women in Delphi had been forced into the mines already. So King Gerard issued orders to herd up every lytling in Delphi and send them into the mines to make up for lost time. That was a year ago.

The youngest lytlings died the first month. They’d be carried from the mine at the end of each shift, piled in a wagon, and driven back down to town so their parents could claim them. Jenna was just eleven when she went into the mine, but she was wiry and strong, and healthier than most. Plus, she was too stubborn to die, and leave her da all alone.

“Keep your head down, now,” Jenna said, when they parted at the crossroads at the bottom of the shaft.

“Keep your head down,” Riley said back. It was a ritual with them, like a charm of protection before he trudged off, toward the deepest part of the mine. More and more, they’d put him on the coal face as a hewer, digging with a pick and shovel with the other men. By the end of the day he was so tired that he slept all the way home. He’d been in the mines for three years. He’d started when he was a twelve-year, being big even then. The more often he worked the coal face, the more he coughed.

When Jenna first went into the mine, Riley was a “hurrier”—he wore a leather strap around his waist and pulled heavy carts of coal up the ramp to the cage. Jenna worked as a “thruster,” pushing the carts from behind. Or sometimes as a “trapper,” opening trapdoors so the carts could rattle through. You had to look sharp if you were a trapper—if a cart came up and you weren’t ready, you’d get run over. Or you’d open up a trap, and the firedamp would roar out like a dragon and burn you right up.

Jenna had a knack for knowing when firedamp was lurking behind the trap. It was like she could feel the seething heat of it, her heart beating with the pulse of the flame. Once, she pulled Maggi off right as she was about to open the trap. One of the bosses swung his club at her for slowing down production. Then he opened the trap and was charred to a crisp.

People liked to work with Riley, because he was so strong that it made it easy on the thrusters, and he was always careful of the trappers, especially at the end of the shift, when everyone was tired.

Riley also had a way of getting between the bosses and the lytlings when they were handing out beatings. And showing up when this particular wormy-lipped guard tried to drag a little girl into a side tunnel. He didn’t say anything, he’d just be there until the guard let her go.

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