Flamecaster (Shattered Realms, #1)(9)

Written By: Cinda Williams Chima

The bosses didn’t like Riley because of what he said and did, and because the other miners looked up to him, even though he was only fifteen.

Jenna was sorry that Riley was in the mine. At the same time, having him there made her life bearable.

When the end of the shift finally came, they rode up in the cage together, holding hands. They walked out into the twilight, blinking like cave creatures, joining a jostling crowd of miners just outside.

The wagons were not lined up as usual, but had been pulled over to one side. A tented pavilion had been set up a short distance from the mine, and the red hawk of Arden flew from the tent poles. There were armed soldiers everywhere—surrounding the pavilion and keeping a close watch on the collected miners. The soldiers wore black coats marked with the red hawk, too. The usual name for them was blackbirds.

“What’s going on?” Riley asked Brit Fletcher, who always seemed to know.

“It seems we’re about to hear some scummer from His Majesty, King Gerard.” Fletcher spat on the ground.

“He’s here?” Jenna shrank back a little. “What’s he doing here?”

“It seems that he and the missus are promenading around the empire, showing how they an’t scairt of a few Patriots.”

“What do you mean?”

“An’t you heard? There’s been riots in Tamron Seat, and rebels took over the keep at Baston Bay a few months ago. Didn’t hold it long, but still. Word is that some of the thanes is getting restless ’cause they’re tired of war.” Fletcher smiled, like he approved.

“Shhh,” Riley said, glancing around. “Somebody might hear.”

Fletcher made no secret that he hated the king of Arden. Some whispered that he was an actual Patriot—one of those who fought back against the king and his blackbird guards. His family had died when Arden took the city, so he didn’t have a lot to lose. He was old—near to forty, some said—so he’d be dead before long anyway.

“That must be him,” Jenna murmured, pointing.

A small group of people had emerged from the pavilion amid a crowd of soldiers. Jenna recognized Delphi’s greasy mayor, Willett Peters, along with Ned Shively, the Big Boss at the mine. Swiving Shively, the miners called him.

With them was a finely dressed pair. It was hard to get a good look from that distance.

“Let’s move up closer,” Jenna said, thinking it might be her one chance to see a king or a queen in person.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Riley began, but she was already sliding through the crowd to the front so she could get a better view. Still murmuring protests, Riley followed after, pulling his new red cloak closer around himself.

Now at the front, Jenna got a good look at the king. He was a narrow man of medium height with nearly colorless blue eyes and a thin, cruel mouth. He wore a slate-gray velvet jacket with a fine blue cape over top, already spotted from the sleet. The wind that blew down out of the mountains ruffled his mouse-brown hair.

The woman with him was taller than the king, but she hunched down a little, maybe so people wouldn’t notice. She looked to be a foreigner, with her tawny skin and brown eyes and a mouth as full as the king’s was stingy. She wore a pale yellow dress with a white fur wrap, yellow silk slippers, and white gloves.

“Who’s that lady?” Maggi asked Fletcher, pointing. She’d wormed her way up front, too.

“That’s Queen Marina, poor thing,” Fletcher said. “She was a princess in Tamron, daughter of the king. Gerard murdered her whole family, took over the kingdom, and married her.”

“She’s beautiful,” Maggi whispered.

Fletcher snorted. “Did you ever see anything like it? Little fancy shoes and white gloves—in Delphi? They won’t be white for long.”

The king of Arden moved to the front of the pavilion, his queen a foot behind him, and looked down at the collected miners.

“Miners of Delphi!” he said in a carrying voice. “Queen Marina and I have come north to thank you for your hard work this past year. I know it hasn’t always been easy, but I’m pleased to announce that coal and steel production is at an all-time high.”

Mayor Peters and Boss Shively clapped like mad, but the miners just stood in stony silence.

“Now is not the time to pull back, however,” the king said. “Indeed, we must redouble our efforts to put weapons into the hands of our soldiers. I have advised Mayor Peters and Master Shively that production goals for next year will be increased by ten percent.”

This was met by a rumble of protest. The queen looked from the miners to the king, frowning and biting her lower lip, as if this was bad news to her, too. Then her face went back to blank.

“I know this is an ambitious goal. But with Saint Malthus’s help, we will defeat the witch queen in the north and bring peace and prosperity to the Empire.”

Nobody in Delphi looked for much help from Saint Malthus. Although Arden had sent Malthusian missionaries into Delphi, they hadn’t made much headway in converting people to the state church.

“How about you send old Saint Malthus down into the mine?” somebody shouted. “We could use the help.”

The soldiers moved forward, scanning the crowd, trying to identify whoever had spoken up. Meanwhile, the queen knelt at the edge of the stage to speak to Maggi. Jenna was right there, so she heard everything that was said.

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