Flamecaster (Shattered Realms, #1)(10)
Written By: Cinda Williams Chima
“I have a little girl at home,” the queen said softly, in Common, “only she’s younger than you. Her name is Madeleine.”
Maggi looked up at her, her eyes a startling blue in her coal-smirched face. She reached out her hand, as if to touch the queen’s dress, then jerked it back, as if realizing that her grubby hand wouldn’t do the queen’s dress any good.
The queen didn’t seem worried. “What’s your name?” she said.
“Do your mommy and daddy work in the mine?” she asked.
“No’m,” Maggi said, looking puzzled. “They’re dead.” She jabbed a thumb into her chest. “I work in the mine. Since I was six.”
The queen reared back as if she’d been slapped, her eyes widening with horror. “Oh, no,” she whispered, shaking her head. “You must be mistaken.” But the queen must have seen that Maggi was telling the truth, because she took a quick look over her shoulder to see where the king was. Jenna looked, too, just in time to see an object fly through the air and splat at Gerard’s feet, spattering his clothing all the way to his waist.
Jenna knew right away what it was—steaming dung, dropped by the horses that pulled the coal wagons. She had to pick her way around it on a daily basis.
“Scummer,” Fletcher muttered. “There’ll be hell to pay now. If they was going to do anything, they should of gone ahead and shot him, and done us all some good.”
Jenna took a step away from him. Fletcher was like a plague you might catch if you got too close.
Things moved fast after that. Black-jacketed guards closed in around the king, leaving the queen on her own at the edge of the stage until two soldiers hustled her to safety. Other blackbirds formed a ring around the gathered miners, so none of them could slip away. Shively’s club-wielding thugs swarmed to the front of the stage.
Jenna shrank back, suddenly sorry she’d pushed to the front. Riley wrapped an arm around her, sheltering her.
“All right,” Shively snarled, slapping his club against his other hand. “Who did that?”
Nobody made eye contact. Nobody said anything. Nobody dared to move, afraid to call attention to themselves.
“I’m warning you, give him up, or you’ll be sorry.”
That’s when the king of Arden broke free from his guards and strode to the edge of the stage.
“These people have no imagination, Shively,” the king said, his voice like melted ice. “You have to make the consequences very clear.” As he spoke the last word, he reached down, gripped Maggi by the arm, and hauled her up onto the stage. Wrapping one arm around her, he lifted her up high while she wriggled and whimpered in fear. “Now. The guilty party had better step forward, or I’ll kill the ratling.”
Everyone stood and stared at the king of Arden and the struggling Maggi, frozen with shock. Jenna wanted to turn away, but she couldn’t. It was like she was hypnotized, like the king had cast some kind of monstrous spell.
“Your Majesty, please! Have mercy! She’s just a child.” The queen lunged toward him, but the blackbirds grabbed her arms, holding her fast.
Maybe the dung-thrower would have stepped forward, but the king didn’t give him much of a chance. With a quick, vicious move, he snapped Maggi’s neck. Tossing the small body aside, Gerard looked out across the crowd. “Let’s just keep doing this, shall we, until somebody confesses. Now then. Who’s next?”
Jenna couldn’t remember deciding to kill the king of Arden. It was like everybody else was frozen—even the blackbirds—and she was moving. Before she put two thoughts together, she had vaulted up and over the edge of the stage and smashed right into him, putting him flat on his back. Looking down into his startled eyes, she rammed her fist into his blueblood nose, wishing it was a knife between the ribs instead.
The king’s royal nose spouted blood like a fountain. It smelled like anybody else’s blood, and it wasn’t really blue. Gerard was stronger than she expected, though, and flipped her over, pinning her with his knee in her chest. He wrapped his blood-slick hands around her neck and began to squeeze. The strength drained out of her arms and legs and she knew she was dying.
“No!” Somebody smashed into them, sending the king of Arden sprawling. Jenna sucked in air through her bruised throat. Hands grabbed hold of her, and she kicked and struggled, but it wasn’t the blackbirds, it was the miners, dragging her off the stage and pushing her toward the rear of the crowd. “Stay down!” Brit Fletcher said into her ear.
But Jenna didn’t stay down, because she knew who had come to her rescue. She worked her way to a place where she could see the stage.
The king of Arden was back on his feet, behind a wall of blackbirds, trying to plug his nose with a snowy handkerchief. Blackbirds stood all along the edge of the stage, their crossbows aimed into the crowd. Riley stood nearby, his arms pinioned, his face battered almost beyond recognition. The queen sat forgotten, cradling Maggi’s body in her arms.
When he’d got the bleeding stopped, King Gerard crossed the stage to where Riley stood.
“Who are you?” Gerard said. “Another hero?”
Riley shook his head. “No, sir. It was me. I was the one that done it. I threw the scummer at you. I did it, and I’m sorry.”