Orenda Nochdifache’s world was covered in a layer of soot and grime; the oil that kept the assembly line moving, the wheels turning, each cog in place, became, over time, corrupted with filth and needed to be replaced. It would drip down and dry into a sticky paste that attracted all manner of dirt and stick to the side of the machinery, which would then transfer to her apron, and, without fail, her dress.
She worked knocking clumps of ore free from dirt and stone; they had been delivered by dwarven merchants from a mine she had never seen. Orenda felt she had seen very little of the world, as it was, but she had heard many stories.
She set each piece back onto the assembly line, looking much more like metal and less like a clod of dirt, then picked up the next. The line kept moving, taking them away to the next room, then the next, and eventually they would be made into a usable material, perfect for a variety of uses, to be built into new things and new life.
The workhouse was, essentially, a birthplace for machinery, weapons, armor, carriages, fences, and an almost incomprehensible number of other things that could be made from metal. Somewhere within the building other children shoveled coal into fires, and worked billows, that would melt the metal down and give it a new purpose.
The workhouse, Orenda had been told, repeatedly, existed to give children a rebirth, a purpose. As far as Orenda knew, none of the children in the workhouse had parents of any kind, so she was not alone in the fact that she did not know where she came from or how she had come to be there. They had been told that sometimes children were unwanted; that those who had nowhere else to go came here.
Most of the children in the workhouse were human; these came in all manner of shapes, sizes, and colors. Others were elves, as Orenda was, though Orenda was unique among elves; several of the human children more closely resembled her in appearance- but she did consider herself unique even among the other children, taken as a whole. Some of the others had bright red hair, others flesh the color of burnt umber, and still others the tight curls or high bones or strong profile; but none of them had all of these things at once, and none of them had eyes the color of a raging fire or the yellow gold that sometimes came into their workplace.
Orenda Nochdifache was a fire elf, and she had never seen another one.
Orenda suspected that outside of the workhouse, people were treated differently based on something, some thing they were born with that could not be quantified, because here, they were frequently told that this was not the case. They were told that no one would be given special treatment- and this made Orenda wonder why one would expect special treatment.
Orenda suspected that this lesson would only be repeated so often because it was a lie.
The workhouse was located in the Fire Colony, which was, itself, located in the Great Urillian Empire. There were posters to this effect put up around the workhouse, but as Orenda could not read, she knew only what she had been told of them. The woman on the posters was the leader of the Empire, the Empress Xadra Uril, and she was the most beautiful woman on Xren. Her symbol, which appeared in a great many places, including on the completed goods they shipped out, was a bright, blooming rose.
The Empress lived in a great palace far across the sea, with tall towers and large windows, with a courtyard full of blooming flowers. She ruled by divine right, because she had been chosen by the great god Thesis to unite all of Xren under one leader. She was the latest in a long line of such rulers.
Orenda attempted to clean the piece of ore in her hand and thought of how much easier it would be if they had more water. Her hands were coated with a layer of filth, similar to the machinery, but no longer felt sticky to the touch. If one worked at this particular job, they could use the dirt on the ore to form a sort of protective layer; it would stick to the oil and dry it up a bit.
Empress Xandra Uril appeared to Orenda to be an emaciated woman who would likely be knocked to the ground by a particularly strong gust of wind. She was so thin that Orenda wondered if she was actually able to hold herself upright under her many layers of dress. Orenda set the piece of cleaned ore she had been holding back on the line and picked up a new piece without wondering how heavy it was; her mind was on royalty.
Orenda did not believe that the empress was chosen by divine right, because Orenda thought that a real ruler would appear to be stronger. Orenda did not think that someone who appeared so frail could inspire the type of intimidation and awe she was supposed to be feeling. So she never felt it, she just set down a clean piece of ore and picked up a dirty one.
Orenda thought that a real queen would not live somewhere far away across the sea, but here in the fire colony. Orenda had heard that there had once been a war. Long ago, longer than any of the children remembered, there had been a war. Before the war, fire elves had lived here, in the fire colony, but it had not been a colony then. Fire elves were brutish and hot tempered; emotional and unpredictable. They could not maintain relationships, not even long enough to produce a child, and were in danger of dying off altogether. So they rejoiced when Xandra and the earth elves came; when they taught them to build large structures, like the workhouse, when they taught them the civility of Urillian culture, when they taught them everything the Urillians knew to improve their lives with agriculture and industry, when they were pulled from savagery into civilization.
Orenda thought these two ideas were incompatible. She thought that wars involved fighting, not education, but she had never been educated herself and could not articulate this idea as well as she would have liked. Instead, she set down the ore she had cleaned and picked up another.
Orenda thought that perhaps the real queen would not have been an earth elf like Xandra at all; would not have had pale flesh and thin yellow hair that blew out of shape in the wind, would not have been so lythe as to appear sickly. Orenda thought a real queen would have been tall and strong, strong enough to create real inspiration, and wise enough to know when to retreat, when to go into hiding to rebuild her forces.
Orenda Nochdifache thought that such a person would, if she had children, perhaps have to leave them somewhere for safekeeping, where they could learn the ways of the world as it was now, not as it had once been.
Orenda Nochdifache was, undoubtedly, the long lost princess of the fire elves.
But she was knocked from these thoughts by something she very rarely saw: color.
Something sparkled in the clump of ore she held; something she had never seen in her ten long years of life. It was bright red, amidst the sea of grey that was her life, and looked more fragile than she suspected it was. She looked around at the other children, and softly tinked the jewel from where it had been embedded in the ore. It fell into her hand, and she stared down at it, because it did not feel like a cold, dead thing. It felt…
Orenda had never felt anything like it before. The crystal was only about as big as the unkempt nail of her pinky finger- but it felt so much bigger. Orenda closed her hand around it, and she suddenly felt everything.
She felt the blood pumping through her veins so intensely that it could have been a coursing river- forced along by a pump so strong that it could have torn her to shreds. She felt something in the world around her, something she had always noticed, she supposed- yet never noticed. These two things were incompatible, and the nature of that incompatibility pressed against her sweat-soaked skin, and her blood pressed back, and the thin layer between the two rubbed, and rubbed, and rubbed- until it broke.
Orenda felt the fires from the forges in another room. She felt the body heat given off by every other being in the building. She felt the magma that she did not know existed, so far below her that it gave no indication of its presence. She felt the core of the sun, radiating outward, toward Xren, breathing life into everything that grew or moved. She felt the heat radiating outward from her own heart, one with all these things, with the lifeforce that moved from the sacred fires that fueled every living thing on the planet-
And she heard the screaming.
Orenda had been on fire. As soon as she realized this, she stuffed the crystal into her pocket- and wondered why she still had a pocket. Clothes were flammable; she had seen more than one accident that attested to that fact. But she was not scarred, not injured, not naked. She was completely unharmed.
But she had been found out. Her supervisor, two years older than Orenda had been when she had arrived at the workhouse as an infant and seeming very adult at twelve, marched toward her, grabbed her by the shoulder, and Orenda knocked her away. She glared at the girl she had never liked, and could not see that her eyes begin to glow as she smiled- but this time she felt the flames engulf her.
The screams drew adults.