A world of trouble
Jin skulked out of sight behind a group of grimy dockworkers, waiting for the noisy crowd in front of the burned building to leave. With a stab of fear, he recognized one of the voices in the crowd and ducked into the shadows, not daring even to look. Ogney had been looking for him for months, suspicious that Jin had been the one to take Mr. Andel’s money. He’d beat Jin bloody just to find out. Maybe the alley would be safer instead. Jin had to get inside the building soon, and Ogney was in no hurry to go anywhere.
The alley was empty, and even better, had a gutter pipe still mostly attached to the brick wall. Jin glanced around and climbed as quickly and quietly as he could to a thick piece of stone trim, and from there to an empty window. The wood frame was charred. Inside, nothing remained of the old warehouse but rubble and ash. A beam had fallen near the window, one end resting on a pile of fallen brick from the upper stories and the other down near the middle of the building. He could just reach it with his toes if he dangled from the windowsill.
Jin shivered and forced himself forward, stepping carefully on the charred beam. The smell of smoke was strong enough to make him cough, and he muffled his face in the crook of his arm. He had to hurry—the light was fading fast in the sky, and he could barely feel his feet anymore. The rags he’d tied around them were not enough to keep them warm. If he still had his hidey-hole in the stables it wouldn’t matter so much, but thanks to the fire, he didn’t. He hadn’t even been able to grab the ratty wool blanket he’d kept there or the few pennies he’d saved. He had nothing but the clothes he wore on his back.
Jin took another step and his foot slipped on a hidden layer of ice under the ash. The beam shifted with a thud, and Jin froze in fear. If anyone heard, they might come nosing around. He wasn’t stealing; not really. Taking things nobody wanted anymore wasn’t stealing. Even Mr. Andel said so. Before the fire the warehouse had been empty and abandoned for years. The billies might nab him for a rab anyway, though. Some of them thought he stole, when he really was just good at finding things. He didn’t want to give them any reason to think it harder. Besides, if nobody knew he was there, they couldn’t make him leave before he found what he was looking for.
Fear made him move again. The soot-covered skeletal brick walls were still sharp against the evening sky, but soon they would all blend together in darkness. The roof was completely gone and most of the few windows broken by the fire brigade. He had to find something, anything, valuable enough to sell. Old Coffers under the bridge wouldn’t let Jin stay by the fire for the night unless he paid. If he didn’t get warm, he would die. He tucked his fingers, numb with cold, under his arms and ignored the hollow ache in his stomach. He’d been hungry before. You just couldn’t let it get to you, that’s all.
No, he wasn’t stealing. The fire had destroyed everything he had, so it was only fair the old warehouse give up a few dibs in return. And best of all, the gobbers and door-fumblers like Ogney and Thumbless Bode wouldn’t give it a second look. Nothing for them in a burned-out building.
Jin, however, had read the faded, peeling letters on the brick front while he watched the fire with the rest of the street folk. Vanter Exotics Co. Even if Ogney and Bode could read, it wouldn’t have meant much to them. But Jin had heard about Vanter from Mr. Andel many times, so he knew how they got their exotic goods. They had been jinxers, some of the very first.
Jinxers could make things out of magic, things that had never existed before in all of Galetan. Everybody knew they could make fiery gems and gold silk that glowed with light, all with magic. The way Mr. Andel talked about them, besides knowing how to make rare treasures, they liked hiding things. Just like Mr. Andel had. Maybe Vanter had cleared out when they moved shop years ago, but people forgot stuff all the time. Maybe Jin wouldn’t find gold silk or gems, but something valuable enough he could sleep where it was warm. Something that didn’t burn.
But where to look? If anything had survived the fire, it would likely be near the walls. Jin moved rough iron brackets, twisted with heat, stirring up ash that covered his face, tasting dry and sour. A section of brick wall had fallen nearby, and he used a length of iron rod as a lever to shift it. The piles of ash and cinders yielded nothing of value, only a few bent and pitted nails. They snapped when Jin tried to straighten them, and he gave up. Even the tinkers wouldn’t give him anything for that.
He kept going. The glint of metal caught his eye, making his heart pound. Yellow metal. Just under a big piece of stone with fancy carving round the edge. It must have come from the roof, then. Jin dug a bit more, getting excited. It looked like the nozzle of a fire hose that had gotten trapped when the stone trim fell. It was brass and nearly as long as his forearm. Watchmakers paid good coin for brass, and if he went down by the river, he could find one that wouldn’t ask how a ragged boy like him came by a bit of firefighter’s gear.
He couldn’t work it free. The stone piece had landed on a section of concrete, trapping the nozzle, and he couldn’t dig underneath. The stone itself was much too heavy for him to even budge, although he tried every way he could. Jin hunkered down, staring at the battered piece of brass that was so tantalizingly close.
Maybe he could break a piece free. Or smash a bit of the concrete floor and get it out that way. It would make noise, but that wasn’t the real problem. He wasn’t sure he had the strength to do it. It was harder to think, to even care. His fingers weren’t working like they should. The brass was valuable enough to feed him and keep him warm for days, but it was useless where it was. He had to find something else.
Get up. Keep moving. It took everything he had to stand again, and to move. If only he could stop, just for a minute. If only the fire had started in the evening instead of the morning. He’d have had a chance to rescue his things, and he could have kept warm tonight. But there wouldn’t have been a need for a lantern at the stables during the day, and he’d heard a fallen lantern had started it, landing in the straw.
No luck. No luck at all.
Now it felt like pins stabbing him everywhere when he moved. Jin shuffled his feet in the loose debris, hoping to uncover something that way. He felt so dizzy he was afraid he would fall if he bent over to lift anything, and his heart was beating so hard it felt like it was shaking him.
Maybe he was dying.
Fear shivered through him. He couldn’t die now. He had to…he had to get better first. You could make up for bad things you’d done if you tried real hard and meant it. Mr. Andel had told him that. But if Jin died now, before making it better, well, he’d go to hell, wouldn’t he? He wouldn’t see Mr. Andel there, he was sure. And Mr. Andel would feel sad and wouldn’t enjoy heaven as much. Jin didn’t want to disappoint him like that.
He took another careful step, but his foot snagged on something hidden in the ash and cinders and he fell hard. Jin felt a little warmer and wondered if some of the fire still burned. Maybe he could dig in, stay here overnight?
No. It isn’t really warm. You just can’t feel the wind, that’s all.
Jin struggled to get back on his feet, grabbing anything in reach to pull himself up. The black shape he gripped wasn’t a block of stone as he had thought, though. It rocked, creaking. Wood. Big as a door, but thick, and lying on its side. He managed to get his feet back under him and stood, finally making sense of what it was. A cabinet? It was charred all over and had metal locks on the doors, top and bottom.
If he could get the locks out, that might be enough. Worth more with the keys, of course, but the river dealers knew how to make replacements. Jin shoved the cabinet over hard, onto a patch of concrete. It landed with a smash, shattering and stirring up a cloud of ash. Someone would definitely hear that. He needed to move fast.
Jin ripped the doors open, the wood crumbling in his hands. Inside he could see big flakes of grey ash and fragments of paper, too small to read anything. He pulled one of the iron locks free from the door and stuffed it in a pocket. He rummaged through the debris inside, pricking his fingers on what turned out to be a handful of brass brads, like leather bank boxes had. Maybe the papers inside had been valuable—but then, someone like Jin would never be able to sell those without trouble.
He tugged at the second set of doors. This lock took more effort to free, and the wood was more sturdy here. The inside was full of charred material, and he pulled it free to get a better look in the fading light.
Jin heard a faint ping as something fell and hit the ground. A coin?
He scrabbled in the rough ash, feeling the smooth surface before he saw it. Not a coin—something round. He pulled it out, almost dropping it when he saw the bright, fiery gleam inside. But it wasn’t a coal—the little crystal sphere looked like it held a flame, surrounded by a suspended swirl of tiny flecks of gold. Jin stared at it agape, marveling at its perfection. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it had to be valuable.
He should have been running by now. Someone would have heard the noise. He had two metal locks, enough to get him a warm place to sleep and a little food. The little sphere was extra. Jin knew he should go, but he could not tear his eyes away. It was strange, the more he stared, the more the sphere seemed to glow and burn and…get larger. There was a humming noise he could feel in his bones, soothing and numbing his fear.
A warm gust of wind hit his chilled face and made his hands tingle. Jin frowned, puzzled. The warm air smelled strange, dry and hot and like the bakery shop when they made ginger drops.
And then he looked away from the sphere in his fingers. There was something larger in front of him, glowing. It was round, like the crystal sphere, and taller than he was. It looked like a magic lantern scene, bright and mysterious, but not any of the usual subjects Jin had seen, such as the Caerdon Crown castle or famous battles. What was the brownish block in the distance? Why was the ground bare and empty? Then he realized this wasn’t a lantern show. Even the best of them didn’t have warm air like that, or scents. It’s magic. Jinxer magic.
The crystal sphere made heat; that was clear. Now he could make it warm wherever he wanted! Jin went closer to the picture, sagging in relief. He’d just get warm first, then find somewhere safe to sleep. Where the light wouldn’t get seen, maybe under the docks. In the morning he would sell the locks and keep looking here. Maybe he’d find more jinxer gear.
Hot air kept streaming from the picture. Jin smiled and shuffled closer. And tripped. And fell.
Fell on hot sand.
The crystal sphere fell from his hand and rolled away. Jin snatched it back up and looked over his shoulder. A dark hole slowly shrank in midair and vanished with a crackling hiss. Directly overhead, a bright sun hung in a pure blue sky, without a cloud to be seen. A vast expanse of sand surrounded him. No burned warehouse, no ash, no snow.
Jin sat up, more frightened than ever. It wasn’t a picture. And he wasn’t in Thama anymore.