Don’t act nervous. Elaria sneaked a look at the Purifiers. They laughed about something she couldn’t hear. Their white robes slide over their armor and caught the sunlight, making her eyes hurt when she looked at them. There were four of them, not five. Everything was fine.
She pressed the back of her hands against her skirt. If they saw the black flame etched on her hands it wouldn’t matter whether she was doing anything wrong or not. She knew that to them a Burnt Child was like a cockroach. You squashed it when you saw one.
Taking a deep breath, she looked around. The streets swelled with the late afternoon bustle. People pushed their way in and out of shops. Some people stopped to call out to friends or haggled with the peddlers on the walk. A dog begged at one of the stands, while small, rodent-like skuivels scampered up trees and into garbage heaps.
No one paid much attention to her or the other Burnt Children that shuffled through alleys and along the back of stores. None of the Burnt Children dared to step into traffic where people would kick and sneer at them. As long as they stayed out of sight they were mostly safe, but Elaria wasn’t lurking in alleys. She walked down the pathways like everyone else. The only thing saving her from harassment was that she didn’t look like a Burnt Child. Unlike the worn and ragged clothes of the other Burnt Children, her clothes were good quality and while her hair wasn’t up in the latest fashion it was clean and neat, giving her the appearance of just a normal worker. The Purifiers shouldn’t even notice her.
Why are they outside the warehouse?
Quelling the panic threatening to overwhelm her, she kept walking. She kept her eyes fixed on the entrance, where a carved sign proclaimed, Himmel’s Crafters. From the corner of her eye, she saw one of the Purifiers glance at her, but he made no move to pursue her. She was a shop away from the warehouse when her mother stepped out of the shop with Mr. Himmel. Elaria swiftly stepped into a crowd of people in front of a fruit stand. Turning her head slightly and making sure not to stare, she looked back at the two. Her mother was talking to Mr. Himmel with a stern expression as the looked at her with concern. Elaria’s brow furrowed. What was her mother doing there?
Her mother gave Mr. Himmel a short nod and, with a glance at the Purifiers, left the warehouse. Mr. Himmel went back inside, frowning.
Elaria didn’t move until her mother was gone. Still confused and even warier, she walked to the entrance and stepped into the warehouse.
The heavy scent of wood and tong oil assailed her nose. The warehouse was filled with workers carving intricate designs into wood, while others were putting the final coat of varnish on chairs and desks. Elaria adjusted the yellow scarf covering her hair and grinned. Even the rancid smell of the tong oil couldn’t dampen the exhilaration she felt every time she entered Himmel’s Crafters. Here, she was more than a Burnt Child.
Many of the workers looked up when she entered and then looked away with disinterest.
“Elaria! You’re early, girl.” Even with the loud bangs of hammers, Mr. Himmel’s voice carried across the warehouse.
She smiled. Burnt Child or not, Himmel always had a smile for her.
The bulky man ambled over, weaving around roped sections that divided builders and carvers from painters and polishers. None of the workers were Melitan and so they didn’t need the precautions magic users needed. Himmel was always proud of saying woodwork was better when a man’s hands did it. These sections were open so the men could talk to each other, unlike the enclosed sections that segregated the Burnt Children from the normal workers.
Once Himmel reached her, he thumped her on the back. He didn’t even flinch when he touched her. “Good news,” he said. “A new shipment came in.”
Elaria bit her lip. No one knew what they spoke of, but it still made her nervous.
“Promising?” she asked.
“Very. Up from Xhigano University. One of their professors fizzled out.” He shook his head and sniffed. “Even with all their studies, they still haven’t uncovered how to outsmart Meli’s Price.”
Elaria frowned and maneuvered around a basket of brass knobs as they continued across the warehouse floor. “They should ask the Evaion Kings.”
Himmel laughed. “They probably have and came back in pieces.”
She didn’t say anything. She knew the stories about the Evaion Kings – thugs with powers.
They can’t be as bad as the rumors say.
In Evaion Hills a Burnt Child had rights, not like here in Jelam, where the Purifiers made sure to cleanse them. If the Evaion Kings were willing to let the Burnt Children live at least somewhat free, even if they had to work the mines, then they must have some good in them.
“I know that look of yours.”
Elaria jerked and focused on Himmel. He grinned at her. She lowered her head, a blush darkening her light brown skin.
Himmel leaned close and whispered, “So, have you decided to join my scouts?”
Elaria hesitated. If she joined the scouts, she would travel to foreign lands, gather magic artifacts, but if the Purifiers found out…
Himmel squeezed her shoulder. “You don’t have to worry. We’ll keep you safe.”
She averted her gaze. “You said I had until the end of the week to decide.”
“I know.” He sighed and dropped his hand. “I don’t mean to be impatient with you. I’m thinking how much money I’ll save once I have you on board. I’m sure my latest shipment is filled with junk.”
Elaria smiled awkwardly. “At least you know what some of that junk can do.”
He chuckled. “That I do.”
Elaria studied the shop. Large sections of people clustered around their workbenches, working together to build something a person could use to make a home — tables, chairs, doors, and so much more. It was something she longed to be apart of.
She wanted to join Himmel’s scouts. The danger didn’t bother her. If anything, the possibility of perilous adventures made her want it even more. If the Purifiers found out she was a Burnt Child handling artifacts…she shuddered at the thought. But the Purifiers could catch her whether she was in the shops or out as a scout. She had already taken that risk. What made her pause was simple. If she joined Himmel’s scouts she would never be able to return to Sanzela or even Jelam. She would have to give up her family and Korvin. Even so, she knew she had already made her choice. There was no place for her in Jelam, but for just a little longer she wanted to enjoy her last moments with those she cared about.
Himmel turned the corner and they passed through a wide doorway, bringing them to the Embedment section. The Embedment section was enclosed and a safety line ran through to the other side, keeping visitors away from the possible explosions that could happen. Among all the sections within the warehouse, Embedments was the quietest. Only the clink of bowls could be heard as workers lifted rokas stones and gently placed them in the different wooden items lined up for them. One mistake could cause the stone to explode.
Each cautious hand that picked up a rokas stone and placed it into a premade hole bore a black flame. Elaria eyed her flame, brushing it with her thumb. It was smooth, no uprising — a symbol of every Burnt Child’s corruption. Bitterness swelled inside her as she watched them. It only took one stone; one stone that refused to be embedded into the wood and the worker could be killed.
Elaria scanned the stones, searching for any unstable strands. Her gaze landed on a boy, probably no older than ten. He clutched a green rokas stone and eyed a chair warily. He didn’t see what she saw, no one did. Misty white strands swirled faster and faster around the stone as he lifted it to the wood.
“Wait!” Elaria ducked underneath the safety line and ran.
The boy didn’t hear her. He pushed in the stone just as Elaria reached him. She grabbed his arm and yanked him back. The stone flared. Elaria pulled the boy down and shielded him with her body. The stone exploded.
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