Home > Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(2)

Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(2)
Victoria Aveyard

“With comparable populations. Dense cities, a more advanced basis of infrastructure—”

“All the better for us. Crowds are easy to hide in.”

He grits his teeth, annoyed. “Do you have an answer to everything?”

“I’m good at what I do.”

Outside, the thunder rumbles again, closer than before.

“So we go to Norta next. Do what we’ve done here,” I press on. Already, my body buzzes with anticipation. This is what I’ve been waiting for. The Lakelands are only one spoke of the wheel, one nation in a continent of many. A rebellion contained to its borders would eventually fail, stamped out by the other nations of the continent. But something bigger, a wave across two kingdoms, another foundation to explode beneath the Silvers’ cursed feet—that has a chance. And a chance is all I require to do what I must.

The illegal gun at my hip has never felt so comforting.

“You must not forget, Captain.” Now he’s staring. I wish he wouldn’t. He looks so much like her. “Where our skills truly lie. What we started as, what we came from.”

Without warning, I slam my heel against the boards below us. He doesn’t flinch. My anger is not a surprise.

“How could I forget?” I sneer. I resist the urge to tug at the long blond braid over my shoulder. “My mirror reminds me every day.”

I never win arguments with the Colonel. But this feels like a draw at least.

He looks away, back to the wall. The last bit of sunlight glints through, illuminating the blood of his wounded eye. It glows red in the dying light.

His sigh is heavy with memory. “So does mine.”

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, COMMAND CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

Designation: RAM.

Origin: Trial, LL.

Destination: COMMAND at REDACTED.

-Returned to TRIAL with LAMB.

-Reports of LL Silver pushback in ADELA verified.

-Request permission to dispatch HOLIDAY and her team to observe/respond.

-Request permission to begin assessment of contact viability in NRT.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Operative: General REDACTED.

Designation: DRUMMER.

Origin: REDACTED.

Destination: RAM at Trial, LL.

-Permission to dispatch HOLIDAY granted. Observe only, EYES ON Operation.

-Permission to assess contact viability in NRT granted.

-LAMB will take point on Operation RED WEB, making contact with smuggling and underground networks in NRT, emphasis on the WHISTLE black market ring. Orders enclosed, her eyes only. Must dispatch to NRT within week.

-RAM will take point on Operation SHIELDWALL. Orders enclosed, your eyes only. Must dispatch to Ronto within week.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

Trial is the single largest city on the Lakelander border, its intricately carved walls and towers looking across Lake Redbone and deep into the heart of the Nortan backcountry. The lake hides a flooded city, all raided and stripped by nymph divers. Meanwhile, the slave workers of the Lakelands built Trial on the shores, in mockery of the drowned ruins and the Nortan wilderness.

I used to wonder what kinds of idiots are fighting this Silver war, if they insist on containing the battlegrounds to the forsaken Choke. The northern border is long and winding, cutting along the river, mostly forested on both sides, always defended but never attacked. Of course, in the winter, it’s a brutal land of cold and snow, but what about the late spring and summer? Now? If Norta and the Lakelands hadn’t been fighting for a century, I would expect an assault on the city at any moment. But there’s nothing at all, and never will be.

Because the war is not a war at all.

It is an extermination.

Red soldiers conscript, fight, and die in the thousands, year after year. They’re told to fight for their kings, to defend their country, their families, who would surely be overrun and overthrown if not for their forced bravery. And the Silvers sit back, moving their toy legions to and fro, trading blows that never seem to do much of anything. Reds are too small, too restricted, too uneducated to notice. It’s sickening.

Only one of a thousand reasons I believe in the cause and in the Scarlet Guard. But belief doesn’t make it easy to take a bullet. Not like the last time I returned to Irabelle, bleeding from the abdomen, unable to walk without the damned Colonel’s aid. At least then I got a week to rest and heal. Now I doubt I’ll be here much longer than a few days before they send us back out again.

Irabelle is the only proper Guard base in the region, to my limited knowledge at least. Safe houses scatter along the river and deeper into the woods, but Irabelle is certainly the beating heart of our organization. Partly underground and entirely overlooked, most of us would call Irabelle home if we had to. But most of us have no true home to speak of, none but the Guard and the Reds alongside us.

The structure is much larger than we need, easy for an outsider—or an invader—to get lost in. Perfect for seeking quiet. Not to mention most of the entrances and halls are rigged with floodgates. One order from the Colonel and the whole place goes under, drowned like the old world before it. It makes the place damp and cool in summer, frigid in winter, with walls like sheets of ice. No matter the season, I like to walk the tunnels, taking a lonely patrol through dim concrete passages forgotten by anyone but me. After my time on the train, avoiding the Colonel’s accusing, crimson gaze, the cool air and open tunnel before me feels like the closet brush of freedom I’ll ever know.

My gun spins idly on my finger, a careful balance I’m good at keeping. It’s not loaded. I’m not stupid. But the lethal weight of it is still pleasing. Norta. The pistol keeps spinning. Their arms laws are stricter than the Lakelands. Only registered hunters are allowed to carry. And those are few. Just another obstacle I’m eager to overcome. I’ve never been to Norta, but I assume it’s the same as the Lakelands. Just as Silver, just as dangerous, just as ignorant. A thousand executioners, a million to the noose.

I’ve long stopped questioning why this is allowed to continue. I was not raised to accept a master’s cage, not like so, so many are. What I see as a maddening surrender is the only survival to so many others. I suppose I have the Colonel to thank for my stubborn belief in freedom. He never let me think otherwise. He never let me accept what we came from. Not that I’ll ever tell him that. He’s done too much to ever earn my thanks.

But so have I. That’s fair, I suppose. And don’t I believe in fairness?

Footsteps turn my head, and I slip the gun to my side, careful to keep it hidden. A fellow Guardsman would not mind the weapon, but a Silver officer certainly would. Not that I expect one to find us down here. They never do.

Indy doesn’t bother with a greeting. She halts a few feet away, her tattoos evident against her tan skin even in the meager light. Thorns up one side, from her wrist to the crown of her shaved head, with roses winding down the other arm. Her code name is Holiday, but Garden would’ve been more fitting. She’s a fellow captain, another one of us who answers to the Colonel. There’s ten in all under his command, each with a larger detachment of oathed soldiers sworn to their captains.

“The Colonel wants you in his office. New orders,” she says. Then her voice lowers, even though no one can hear us this deep into Irabelle. “He isn’t happy.”

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