Meira stood in the shadows of a balcony on the seventh floor of a sad, dilapidated building. The neighborhood was called the Bottom Rung, and she thought that was appropriate since most people believed you must climb past it to achieve anything in life. But she had lived further up — much further up — and she preferred life down here.
Her face was smudged from a long day of work in the mines, and her hair was bundled on top of her head and covered by a headwrap that was so dirty no one could make out the colorful pattern it once had. Her job made her muscular, but the lack of dependable food kept her lean. She was in her mid-twenties, but she could have passed for over thirty. The mine tended to do that to its workers.
A green sign swung a few floors below where Meira stood. It advertised tailoring with a picture of a needle and thread, but this was just a front. The building was really used for much more than mending and altering clothing.
Packed inside was a group of men, women, and children from every neighborhood on the mountain who denounced Damien as king. They vowed to follow Adwin, even though it was widely believed that the old king — creator, god, prophet, whatever someone wanted to call him — had not stepped foot on Mount Damien for nearly fifty years. It seemed as though he had abandoned the mountain, but these were the people who refused to give up on him and a better way of life.
They gathered in this headquarters as often as possible without being caught. Those at risk of arrest moved there permanently. It was a safehouse that would quickly become very dangerous if discovered. Luckily for them, those closest to the king usually avoided the Bottom Rung.
They called themselves the Hidden Heart, for each of them had a strange marking on the inside of their left palm, a roughly-drawn brown heart. Everyone on the mountain was born with it, but most faded over time. Damien had made the possession of this heart illegal, an illogical move since no one was certain what it meant or how to control it. The members of the Hidden Heart had hearts that were still well-defined and visible, and they hid them beneath gloves in their daily lives.
All the grass and trees withered away decades ago under the hot mountain sun, and the only breaks from the monotony of their royally-assigned work were brief holidays celebrating Damien’s reign. But there were stories — oh there were stories! Greener, more jubilant times when children sought adventures and parents had time to worry about something other than taxes, royal guards, and food for the table.
There was movement in the street below, and Meira’s eyes followed the footsteps of two people, both with fiery orange hair. Leeto and Rhaxma. Siblings. Two members of the Council of Masters. In the stillness of the night, their arguing echoed off the cobbled streets and tall buildings.
“We need to stick together,” the sister demanded, putting a hand on her brother’s arm.
Leeto stopped and grabbed hold of Rhaxma above the elbows. “No, we don’t. I am making progress, and everything would be a waste if we were noticed down there. You must agree that it’s hard to keep the both of us hidden. We don’t exactly blend in with the surroundings.” He gently tugged at her long orange hair. “Go on your own for all I care, but you can’t come with me.”
“Since when do you strike out on your own? We are a team. We are a family.”
“Of course, we are. Our family is the top priority of my life. That is why I must go alone. I am going to win this for us, Rhax. It’s all going to be ours. Trust me.” He walked away toward the mines, leaving his sister fuming in his wake. She waited a few seconds and then took off after him, silently following his footsteps.
Meira walked inside the top floor of the Hidden Heart Headquarters and descended to the fifth floor. Several people were huddled at a table, illuminated by a single candle in the middle. She took her seat and said, “Thad, I just saw two of your dear siblings down below. It appears the game is still on.”
Orange-haired, yellow-eyed Thad didn’t look surprised in the least. “Of course, the game is still on. Damien won’t give up on getting an Adian that quickly. I’m just impressed those valley dwellers haven’t fallen for any of it yet. They are made of tougher stuff than I imagined. Is there anything we can do for them to keep them strong against the Masters? To keep them strong against my dear brother and sister?”
A man in his late thirties with green hair and a kind face answered, “I don’t think we can help without being noticed. We need to focus on our mission here.”
“You’re right,” Meira said. “Let’s get started.” All eyes moved to hers and several heads nodded. “Who has a newly-discovered heart to report?”
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