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Beneath Larkin’s glowing lantern, luminite shimmered like fish scales in the darkness of Ethera Mine. Her heart jolted as she unearthed a vein as wide as her thumb. It was the most valuable mineral in all of Demura Isle.
Larkin brushed a few dark curls from her brow and shut her eyes, searching for a shift in emotion within the other miners further down the tunnel. But their pickaxes continued to sing against stone. They weren’t close enough for her to sense, which meant they weren’t close enough to catch a glimpse of what she’d found.
The sensation of Garran’s surprise ignited her spine, and she peeled one eye open to see her little brother lowering his axe and wiping the sweat from his face. “Sweet Ilona.”
Larkin pressed a finger to her lips, scowling. Garran knew better than to attract the attention of any greedy thieves. Hells, she’d almost sent a pickaxe through the face of a miner just last week for trying to pinch her ore. She didn’t want to fight today. She only wanted to celebrate.
She handed Garran a chisel and wedged her own into the stone crack, striking it with her hammer. The lode crumbled into chunks of hardened clay and mineral.
Larkin grinned at Garran, excitement pulsing through her. They were never this lucky. Too often she left the mine sore, with nothing to prove for her labor. Their mother had used the last of the stone-ground flour this morning. Larkin needed marks, or her family wouldn’t eat.
She knelt and reached down. The feeling of Garran’s surprise evaporated as her fingers grazed the luminite. She cupped the ore in her hand, the iridescent mineral glimmering. It was as beautiful as it was crippling, suppressing her magic, just as it would suppress the magic of every Empath in the capital.
Hatred for the mineral rose inside her, but Larkin forced herself to remember that she and Garran were fortunate. The presence of luminite should have doused her ability to sense entirely, but the two of them were stronger than the other miners. A resistance, her mother called it. Larkin and Garran had inherited the gift from her.
The moment Larkin dropped the ore into her bucket, Garran’s amazement came fluttering back. She curled her fingers into her palm and reveled in the thrill as she siphoned his emotion.
Garran grasped her wrist. “Don’t you dare.” He sounded like their father. Hells, the older he became, the more he looked like their father too, caution ingrained into every one of his soft features. Even his threat was as mild as a lullaby.
“The handle on the bucket is broken.” Larkin stole her arm back. “Won’t take long to fix it.”
“I’ll carry it.”
“It’s my birthday.” She smiled defiantly.
Larkin dropped her hand. Garran was right; magic was as forbidden as luminite was coveted, the mineral drawn from the bowels of the isle to be crushed and smelted and gilded onto every surface in the capital. Protection against the likes of Larkin and her family—Empaths—who could siphon the emotions of others and use them to conjure or destroy.
And yet Garran was also wrong. Larkin knew that no one was watching them, because she was always careful. No miner or guard paced their tunnel.
She could argue this with him a thousand more times and it wouldn’t matter, so she chose to change the subject. “Thirty marks?”
Garran dug through the ore. “At least. Canyon rumor has it our benevolent Queen Melay raised the price of luminite today, just for you.” He winked at her.
“Just for me?” Larkin clasped her hands.
“She wants you to have a birthday feast.”
She gasped dramatically. “Such mercy! What fortune!”
“Shh—keep it down.” Garran looked over his shoulder. “Next thing I know, you’ll be Melay’s newest advocate.”
Larkin raised an eyebrow. “Never. Cross my heart and spit on Ilona’s grave.” She pointed at the remainder of the lode. “Shift’s about to end. Hurry!”
She and Garran had only gutted half the vein when the bell sounded. Larkin rammed her chisel into the loosened rock and cursed when the falling ore nicked her hand. She examined the wound in the lantern light before wiping her blood-glazed knuckles on her trousers.
Garran tossed the ore into the bucket. “Be careful.”
“I’m fine.” Larkin grabbed her knapsack and stood. She thought of their sister Vania’s glittering joy every time Larkin and Garran brought anything home from the market district. A full bucket was well worth a few cuts and scratches.
Garran covered the bucket with a filthy handkerchief and picked it up, hugging the ore to his chest. Larkin kept an eye on him as they fell in line with the others, worming their way to the mine’s main artery. The shallow chambers of Ethera had been picked clean, and miners like Larkin and Garran had been burrowing deeper for years now, the snaking tunnels shored with timber. The line of tired workers stretched endlessly before and behind them. The air stank of salt and sweat. Five years in these mines and the crawl to Ethera’s entrance was still as agonizing as the first time. At least Larkin’s nightmares of being buried alive had stopped.
To distract herself, Larkin focused on deciphering the swell of emotions surrounding her—the crackling abrasion of Garran’s annoyance with the long lines. The miners carrying empty buckets, their disappointment like cold water to glowing steel.
At the conflux of two tunnels, Larkin almost collided with Adina, a girl whose family lived two doors down from them. Dirt and sweat coated Adina’s fair skin, clay caked in her feathery hair.
“Any luck?” Adina clutched her own bucket with buoyant delight.
“A bit,” said Garran. Larkin sensed his eagerness at seeing Adina and smirked. He jabbed her in the ribs.
“Where are your brothers?” Larkin asked, frowning. Adina was never alone.
Adina’s face fell. “They’ve gone to find Edric.”
“Is he well?” Larkin pressed, sensing Adina’s worry. Edric was Adina’s older brother, who had been reassigned from the mines to one of the farms. Before he left, Edric was a cheerful companion in Ethera, even on days when he found no ore. His smile was a welcome change from the drudgery of the mine.
“Nolaa Farm was destroyed. The cottages are nothing but splinters, like the worst storm you could ever imagine came through. No one can explain it. Most of the harvesters are missing. Edric, and our aunt…”
A chill numbed the tips of Larkin’s fingers, and she squeezed her hands into fists. Sure, there had been rumors for the past year or so of strange disturbances beyond the city gates—structures crumbling to dust, farmers disappearing. Larkin had heard the stories only through echoing conversation within the mines; workers had picked up word from the farms in the vale. Queen Melay had yet to make an official statement.
But this was real, not a rumor. Edric was someone whom Larkin had shared an axe with. He’d offered her a shoulder when a cart had run over her boot last spring, before he was reassigned.
Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Harian