THE Sakcha family had it coming. They didn’t know it yet, and that was fine. The Miner relished in knowing their iron empire would soon fall.

His best friend, Mykiv, walked down the twelfth gallery alongside him. Down here, it was pitch-black. Thankfully, Mykiv was an essencecaster. His veins glowed just bright enough to cast faint light around them.

For a few precious moments, the mine would be empty except for water-men like Mykiv and himself. A nasty bout of witherlung had thinned out camp over winter. To keep the miasma low, the head overseer sent one shift down at a time, by gallery level. Since he and Mykiv worked at the lowest reaches of the mine—gallery twelve—they would be the first to arrive.

“I can’t believe it,” Mykiv whispered, thin black lips twisted up into the wryest of grins. He twirled his pickaxe round and round in his hand. “Their greed’s their own undoing.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the Miner snapped.

Too much had been sacrificed to bring this plan to fruition to risk it folding in on them now. Not long ago, the overseers forced everyone to dig down until they reached rock and clay that seemed to bleed water at an overwhelming speed. Eight miners drowned trying to quell the flow. No amount of adits, water-wheels, screw-pumps, or buckets could drain it, not even with the help of watercasters brought from Igna by special request. Eventually, the head overseer gave up and ordered the shaft sealed.

Water-men like themselves worked in shifts day and night to bail out the water, never resting, all of them slaves in everything but name to the Sakcha Family and, because of that, the Red Queen. It seemed the Red Queen’s favorite method to get rid of undesirables was to seal them in one of her mines, never again to see the light of day.

Eight years ago, he’d been a simple farmer none the wiser about any wars or any Red or Yellow queens. But, the Rosehearts had come and given him a choice: turn over his farm and join the war, or work in the mines. “Sod off” was, apparently, the incorrect answer.

The only thing that stopped him from jumping down the main shaft the day he arrived was meeting his wife. Now, it was the burning desire to protect the child they were soon to bring into the world. One of the overseers had a soft spot for pregnant women. It was already arranged that she’d help Oleva escape. The child would never know their father, but the thought of Oleva smiling with the sun in her face and their baby cooing in her arms, free of this dismal cave, was worth far more than spending another eight years down here with her, stealing kisses and finger-touches when the guards weren’t looking during shift changes.

He and Mykiv did not go to the shaft in which their water-wheels turned. They carried on to find the sealed adit and, finally, its door.

Someone had packed clay into the jamb and the threshold, but it wasn’t enough. Water leaked through the gaps.

The Miner turned to Mykiv. “Once we break through, run. Don’t stop, don’t gawp at it when you get on the ladder, don’t turn around to make sure it’s working. Understand?”

“Aye,” Mykiv replied, raising his pickaxe.

They struck the door offset from one another, Mykiv counting evens and the Miner calling odds. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. Water gushed out. On Mykiv’s next strike, the door collapsed. They abandoned their axes and bolted.

They reached the ladder. Mykiv went up first. Water surged into the stope. Soon, it reached the Miner’s hips. He put a hand on one of the rungs. “Don’t stop, don’t gawp, don’t look down,” he bellowed at Mykiv. “I’m right behind you.”

He wasn’t. The water reached his chest, his shoulders, his neck. He watched Mykiv reach the top rung and disappear.

The water reached the Miner’s chin. He climbed one rung, two rungs, three rungs, four. Maybe this didn’t have to be the end. He had yet ample time to follow Mykiv before his absence was noticed. But what was left for him after this? His wife and child would be safe. The mine would be unusable if not forever, for long enough at least to hit the Sakcha Family and the Rosehearts where it hurt.

If the mine proved too much work to reopen, they’d just disperse the miners elsewhere anyway. The Sakcha Family practically owned the mountains for how many mines they lorded over.

Eight years he wasted in this mine aiding a cause he didn’t much care for. The water tickled his chin.

No. He let go of the rung. He wouldn’t waste eight years more.

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