Home > Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(10)

Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(10)
Victoria Aveyard

The bastard actually winks at me. “Well, we can’t all be brutes.”

In spite of Tristan’s many warnings, I follow Barrow unarmed. If I’m caught in Corvium, I can plead as a simple Red Nortan in the wrong place at the wrong time. But not if I’m carrying my Lakelander pistol or a well-worn hunting knife. Then it’ll be execution on the spot, not only for bearing arms without permission, but for being a Lakelander to boot. They’d probably slap me in front of a whisper for good measure, and that is the worst fate of all.

While most cities sprawl, with smaller towns and neighborhoods ringing round their walls and boundaries, Corvium stands alone. Barrow stops just before the end of the tree line, looking north at the cleared landscape around a hill. My eyes scan over the fortress city, noting anything of use. I’ve pored over the stolen maps of Corvium, but seeing it with my own eyes is something else entirely.

Black granite walls, spiked with gleaming iron, as well as other “weapons” to be harnessed by Silver abilities. Green vines thick as columns coil up the dozen or so watchtowers, a moat of dark water fed by piping rings the entire city, and strange mirrors dot between the metal prongs fanging the parapets. For Silver shadows, I assume, to concentrate their ability to harness light. And of course, there are more traditional weapons to take stock of. The oil-dark watchtowers bristle with grounded heavy guns, artillery ready to fire on any- and everything in the vicinity. And behind the walls, the buildings rise high, made tall by the cramped space. They too are black, tipped in gold and silver, a shadow beneath brightest sunlight. According to the maps, the city itself is organized like a wheel, with roads like spokes, all branching from the central square used to muster armies and stage executions.

The Iron Road marches straight through the city, from east to west. The western Road is quiet. No marching this late in the afternoon. But the eastern Road bustles with transports, most of them Silver-issue, carrying blue-blushing nobles and officers away from the fortress. The last, the slowest, is a Red delivery convoy returning to the markets of Rocasta, the nearest supply city. It consists of servants in wheeled transports, in horse-drawn carts, even on foot, all making the twenty-five-mile journey only to return again in a few days. I fish the spyglass from my jacket and hold it to my eye, following the ragged train.

A dozen transports, as many carts, maybe thirty Reds walking. All slow, keeping pace with each other. It’ll take them at least nine hours to get where they’re going. A waste of manpower, but I doubt they mind. Delivering uniforms is safer than wearing them. As I watch, the last of the convoy leaves the eastern gate.

“The Prayer Gate,” Barrow mutters.

“Hmm?”

He taps my glass, then points. “We call it the Prayer Gate. As you enter, you pray to leave. As you leave, you pray never to return.”

I can’t help but scoff. “I didn’t know Norta found religion.” He only shakes his head. “Then who do you pray to?”

“No one, I guess. Just words, at the end of it all.”

Somehow, in the shadow of Corvium, Shade Barrow’s eyes find a bit of warmth.

“You get me in that gate, I’ll teach you a prayer of my own.” Rise, Red as the Dawn. Annoying as Barrow might be, I have a sneaking feeling he’ll be Scarlet soon enough.

He tips his head, watching me as keenly as I watch him. “Deal.”

“Although I don’t see how you plan to do it. Our best chance was that convoy, but unfortunately you’re—what did you say? Chronologically challenged?”

“No one’s perfect, not even me,” he replies with a shit-eating grin. “But I said I’d get you inside today, and I mean what I say. Eventually.”

I look him up and down, gauging his manner. I do not trust Barrow. It’s not in me to truly trust anyone. But risk is part of the game. “Are you going to get me shot?”

His grin widens. “I guess you’ll have to find out.”

“Well then, how do we do this?”

To my surprise, he extends a long-fingered hand. I stare at it, confused. Does he mean to skip up to the gates like a pair of giggling children? Frowning, I cross my arms and turn my back.

“Well, let’s get moving—”

A curtain of black blots my vision as Barrow slips a scarf over my eyes.

I would scream if I could, signaling to Tristan following us from a quarter mile away. But the air is suddenly crushed from my lungs and everything seems to shrink. I feel nothing but the tightening world and the warm bulk of Barrow’s chest against my back. Time spins, everything falls. The ground tips beneath my feet.

I hit concrete hard, enough to rattle an already rattling brain. The blindfold slips off, not that it does me much good. My vision spots, black against something darker, all of it still spinning. I have to shut my eyes again to convince myself I’m not spinning with it.

My hands scrabble against something slick and cold—hopefully water—as I try to push myself back up. Instead, I fall backward, and force my eyes open to find blue, dank darkness. The spots recede, slow at first, then all at once.

“What the f—!”

I turn onto my knees, throwing up everything in my belly.

Barrow’s hand finds my back, rubbing what he assumes are soothing circles. But his touch makes my skin crawl. I spit, finished retching, and force myself to uneasy feet, if only to get away from him.

He puts out a hand to steady me but I smack it away, wishing I’d kept my knife.

“Don’t touch me,” I snarl. “What was that? What happened? Where am I?”

“Careful, you’re turning into a philosopher.”

I spit acidic bile at his feet. “Barrow!” I hiss.

He sighs, annoyed as a schoolteacher. “I took you through the pipe tunnels. There’s a few in the tree line. Had to keep you blinded, of course. Can’t let all my secrets go for free.”

“Pipes my ass. We were standing outside a minute ago. Nothing moves that fast.”

Barrow tries his best to smother a grin. “You hit your head,” he says after a long moment. “Passed out on the slide down.”

That would explain the vomiting. Concussion. Yet I’ve never felt so alert. All the pain and nausea of the last few seconds are suddenly gone. Gingerly, I feel along my skull, searching for a bump or a tender spot. But there’s nothing at all.

He watches my examination with strangely focused attention. “Or do you think you ended up a half mile away, beneath the fortress of Corvium, some other way?”

“No, I suppose not.”

As my eyes adjust to the gloom, I realize we’re in a supply cellar. Abandoned or forgotten, judging by the dust on the empty shelves and the inch of standing water on the floor. I avoid looking at the fresh pile of sick.

“Here, put these on.” He fishes a grimy bundle of cloth from somewhere in the dark, carefully hidden but easy to find. It sails my way, colliding with my chest in a puff of dust and odor.

“Wonderful,” I mutter, unfolding it to find a regulation uniform. It’s well worn, patched and stained with who-knows-what. The insignia is simple, a single white bar outlined in black. An infantry soldier, enlisted. A walking corpse. “Whose body did you swipe this off?”

The shock of cold sparks in him again, only for a moment. “It’ll fit. That’s all you need to worry about.”

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