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 stoneground 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. “No.” 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. “I’m so sorry,” Larkin whispered. Besides the mines, the farms were the only other place Empaths were sent to toil. Edric could have been someone from her own family. He could have been Garran, or her father. “My other brothers left this morning to help with the mess and to try to find him,” said Adina. “I don’t even know if they were able to get a permit to leave the city.” “I’m sure they did.” Garran exchanged glances with Larkin.
Larkin knew what he was thinking. As soon as Nolaa Farm was repaired, Melay would assign another batch of Empaths to tend the land, as if they were nothing but bodies. None of Larkin’s family had been reassigned yet, but the strands of luck she clung to were shredding beneath her fingers. Garran put his hand on Larkin’s shoulder, and she knew he sensed her fury. Anger changed nothing. Not in this damned gilded city. The chamber widened. Adina was jostled into another line. Larkin and Garran only had time for a quick farewell before they found their own line to the smelter. She reeled from Adina’s story.
Nolaa Farm may have looked like it had been destroyed by a storm, but Larkin knew better. She’d heard about destruction magic of that scale once, several years ago—rumors of a young boy who destroyed an entire village in the foothills. Melay had the boy executed. If the same thing was happening again, then perhaps an Empath was to blame. But destruction magic wouldn’t explain the missing harvesters. “You think it’s magic,” Garran said. It wasn’t a question. “I don’t want to think it’s magic,” she replied, ignoring the churning in her stomach that told her otherwise. The cavernous mouth of the mine echoed with the conversations of hundreds of miners. Larkin sensed the usual bubble of anxiety.
They were nervous to see how many marks they would be taking home. She pressed a hand to her belly as it flipped. No, not anxiety. Confusion. Both roiled through her gut, but the confusion made her nauseous. “Where are the guards?” Garran asked. The smelters’ tables were always accompanied by a handful of city guards, but Larkin didn’t spot any today. Normally, she would be grateful for their absence—she hated the way their eyes followed her particularly close—but now it was troubling. “I’m surprised a riot hasn’t broken out,” said Garran. “Don’t give anyone ideas,” Larkin muttered.
When there were riots, Melay’s soldiers converged at the capital and Empaths died. The last was a year ago, the memory still fresh and raw, the haunting stench of blood still potent. Plus, she had no interest in rioting against the smelters. It was the guards who knocked the hilt of their swords against her head when she wasn’t walking fast enough, the guards who visited Empath homes to reassign mothers or fathers or children to the farms, tearing families apart with glee. Fantasies ran rampant in her head of what she wanted to do to them—what she could do to them— with the magic she possessed. They approached the smelter’s table, and Garran dropped their bucket on the scale. A small man with sizable spectacles glanced inside, raising thick eyebrows. He made some charcoal scratches in his ledger. From his coin purse, he counted out twenty-four marks and placed them in Larkin’s cupped hands. Larkin clenched her soiled fingers around the coins until her fingernails bit into her palms.
“I’m short,” she said. The smelter shrugged and shooed her along with a wave of his hand. Larkin’s pulse beat in her ears. She ached to siphon Garran’s disappointment. She needed to break something. Maybe the smelter’s spectacles. Garran muttered a thanks to the smelter, shoving Larkin away and up the steps to the mine entrance. Larkin took a few deep breaths of the dusty air. It’s not his fault, she chanted until the beat of her heart slowed. Smelters had no control over the wages.
Only Queen Melay did. “Tomorrow she could drop the price of ore to a quarter-mark an ounce,” Larkin said. “The mines would be filled with starved corpses because all of us would have to work until we keeled over—” “Stop.” Larkin turned to Garran, flustered. He was smiling. “What’s in your hand?” “Twenty-four marks, Garran. You were standing right there.” “Exactly.” He gripped her shoulders. “Flour, meat, salt, oil … All of that will be fifteen marks at most.
That’s nine left over.” “Nine marks left over for what?” His giddiness, as weightless as it was, also annoyed all hells out of her. He laughed at her. “Don’t play daft. For your birthday, or did you forget already?” She didn’t forget. Seventeen felt old. Trees had rings, and she had another layer of soot on her olive skin, now sallow from days spent in darkness. Another hot coil of rage tightening around her heart. Was this what older meant—the same, but filthier and angrier? She should save any leftover marks. That was the responsible thing to do.
But Garran was right. She deserved something nice, and so did he. Vania, her mother, her father. These marks were for them. Larkin funneled the coins into the purse on her belt. “I guess this could only mean one thing.” Garran followed her up the steps to the entrance, satisfied. “Cake.” TWO The late sun clung to the sky like an overripe fruit. Soot from nearby smelteries curled up from limestone bricks and disappeared into the bath of light, and as Larkin emerged from the mine, her eyes watered.
It was her favorite time of the year: early summer. The dry city smelled of baked stone and pine. The sun’s warmth soaked her face as she lifted her chin. When her eyes adjusted to the still-bright evening, she saw a boy her age watching her from across the cobblestone path. Larkin stalled. She’d seen him before; the capital was small enough that she recognized most faces, and he had a carefree one that matched the contentment Larkin sensed in him. He was much taller than she was, with bronze skin and eyes like smoked quartz, and he smiled at her like he knew her. Larkin felt herself smile back, her cheeks flushing. “Ilona’s blessings!” he said. “Will I see you at the temple this afternoon?” She froze.
Turning on her heel, she grabbed Garran’s arm. “Walk.” They sped away from the boy, who still beckoned them toward the Temple of Light. “Aren’t you going to say hello?” Garran teased. “Sure, and then I’ll tell him to shove his goddess’s blessings up his—” “Really, Larkin. He was only being polite.” “Just like how the goddess Ilona wanted to politely smite our kind?” “He’s an Empath, too,” argued Garran as they melted into the crowd’s current. “Clearly a miner. Did you see his clothes?” “Then he’s a stupid Empath if he believes in the goddess.” All of the pretty ones are stupid, she thought.
If Queen Ilona, the first in the dynasty, truly had been immortalized, surely she made the stupid ones pretty to spite Larkin. It didn’t matter anyway. There was no time to be distracted by pretty Empaths. She had the market to visit and supper to help with. “You were so captivated for a moment.” Garran elbowed her. She pushed him away, rubbing at her side. “Don’t make me cuff you in luminite.” Larkin ignored Garran’s smugness as they hiked past mine entrances. Workers poured from them and made their way up the mountain toward the market district.
Demura’s capital was etched into the mountain, every shop and building fashioned from granite. Queen Melay’s palace was built into the very peak, sculpted towers frosted with luminite balconies. The apex of the entire capital. The rest of the city coated the mountain like snow: the city gates and the gilded Temple of Light below to the east, the mining district down the north slope, and the canyon —her home—slicing through the mountain’s base to the west. Everything glistened with luminite, as though ready to melt and collect in the central canal that ran down the face of the alp, drainage and dust and sparkling minerals. Larkin and Garran followed the canal to the crowded market stalls nestled in a bowl beneath the palace. Most of those who bartered with the street vendors were miners from the canyon, sifting through barrels of threshed wheat and baskets brimming with shriveled fruit. Their determination bordered on desperation; a successful haggle was the difference between food on the table or another supper of clear broth. The stalls were surrounded by bronze-doored shops and pillars of granite. Guards normally patrolled the entrances, forcing patrons to display a full coin purse before they could enter.
They were absent today, just like in the mines. They’ll be back, she thought, dipping her hand beneath her frayed tunic and grazing her purse. Her father would want her to barter at the stalls instead of entering one of the shops. But that would mean forfeiting … “Cake?” Garran asked encouragingly. Larkin nodded, knowing he could sense her nerves. “Two of us in the shop will look suspicious. I’ll meet you in the canyon.” Garran frowned. “Let me go in.” “You know I’ll be fine,” Larkin said.
“Then I’ll wait for you outside.” “Garran.” She stared hard at him. “Go home.” Garran bounced on his toes, uncomfortable, but Larkin would win. She’d die on the steps of this shop before going home first. Most shopkeepers thought Empaths loathsome, and Larkin much preferred to take the brunt of their cruelty rather than subjecting Garran to it. Garran gave in, his shoulders sagging. “Don’t be too long. I’m starving,” he said, casting one final glance at Larkin before crossing the canal bridge home.
Larkin approached the nearest bronze door and ducked into the shop. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the low light, and she saw a candlelit effigy of Ilona in the center of the room. Larkin almost laughed. The goddess’s face was deformed with the help of the artist’s poor skill. As in every shop she’d been in before, small luminite trinkets were strung along the edges of the ceiling. The shopkeeper must have paid a small fortune for them. She thought of the Empath boy who regularly peddled fake luminite trinkets in the market, wondering if these were fake too. Beneath the trinkets, a woman and a young girl in an embroidered dress browsed shelves stuffed with sugar-glazed pastries and imported candies. The woman’s eyes kept darting over her shoulder. She’s used to guards, Larkin thought.
How wonderful it must be to find comfort in those polished suits of armor. Larkin was only able to glimpse at the shelves before the shop owner, dressed in a crisp linen tunic and leather apron, strode over to her. She felt the sensation of mud dribbling down her skin. Disgust. Her unkemptness disgusted him. Larkin stared back, forcing herself not to swipe at the dust on her cheeks. “Can I help you?” “I have twenty-four marks.” She proceeded to rattle off everything she wanted, allowing him to do the math for the cuts of meat and pounds of flour. The man busied himself, scurrying about to fulfill her request. Larkin stood by the counter and waited, the child behind her chattering with glee as she and her mother made decisions on sweet rolls and toffee.
Every so often, the shop owner glanced at Larkin, but his indulgent smile was laced with the kind of suspicion that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She met his smile, widening her eyes innocently. The shop owner returned with her requested items. “Twenty-two marks.” Larkin emptied her purse into her palm, counting out coins as he wrapped her cut of salted meat. As she held the marks out, he stalled, studying her hand. Black clay crusted over the fresh scab on her knuckle, black clay beneath her fingernails. Black clay lined her palms like roads on a map. Only Empath miners burrowed deep enough to hit black clay.