by Mary Ruth Pursselley -
There hadn’t been any choice but to send Celia to Zirconia. Well…there had been. Celeste slapped a cloud of ash loose from her canvas pack and shrugged it onto her back to begin the trek down the mountain to Adagio. She supposed she could have let her little sister stay land-side with her to grow up like the other orphaned kids in the settlement: dirty, hungry, a master thief by age twelve.
Their parents had killed themselves—literally—working to make sure Celeste and Celia never had to face that kind of life. Their mom had succumbed to ash lung only a few months before a mining accident killed their dad. Celeste had been thirteen Foundings old, and Celia just eight.
A harsh wind kicked up, and Celeste shut her eyes as it blasted her with dust. Once it subsided, she wiped the grit from her eyes, then reached back and pulled a pair of goggles from the side pocket of her pack. She fitted them snugly over her eyes, blinked a few times, and kept moving. It was getting cold. By morning it would be full winter—every bit as miserable as summer, just in a different way. At least she had a place to stay, relatively safe from heat and cold alike.
She and Celia had been evicted a week after their dad died. One of their mom’s friends, Maddie, had let them live in the back room of the tavern she owned for a few weeks, while Celeste tried to figure out what to do. It was Maddie who had suggested sending Celia to Zirconia.
It was one of the tavern’s patrons, a bug hunter named Trebs, who’d told Celeste about the buried city and the market for artifacts. It hadn’t seemed like a good idea to her, and she had said so. But Trebs fired back with a good question: what else could she do? Aside from thievery or some even worse profession, the only options were mining and hunting. He told her to her face that she wouldn’t be able to “hack it” in either one.
He’d also given her the name of a dealer who, he’d heard, was in the market for relics and artifacts. She’d decided to give it a try, and within six months she had enough money to pay for Celia’s transportation to Zirconia and the first semester’s tuition at the boarding school there. Trebs had been right.
Sure, there were times like this when Celeste crawled out of a tunnel at the end of the day, caked with crusty ash, exhausted, miserable, and wishing she’d never met Trebs, much less been dumb enough to take his advice. But the fact was, without him, Celia would be just another hungry street urchin.
She owed him one.