Home > Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(3)

Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(3)
Victoria Aveyard

I grin and push past her. She’s shorter than me, like most people, and has to work to keep up. “Is he ever?”

“You know what I mean. This is different.”

Her dark eyes flash, betraying a rare fear. I saw it last in the infirmary, as she stood over the body of another captain. Saraline, code named Mercy, who ended up losing a kidney during a routine arms raid. She’s still recovering. The surgeon was shaky at best. Not your fault. Not your job, I remind myself. But I did what I could. I’m no stranger to blood and I was the best medic we had at the moment. Still, it was the first time I held a human organ in my hand. At least she’s alive.

“She’s walking,” Indy offers, reading the guilt on my face. “Slow, but she’s doing it.”

“That’s good,” I say, neglecting to add that she should’ve been walking weeks ago. Not your fault echoes again.

When we make it back to the central hub, Indy breaks off, heading to the infirmary. She hasn’t left Saraline’s side for anything but assignments and, apparently, the Colonel’s errands. They came to the Guard at the same time, close as sisters. And then, quite obviously, not sisters anymore. No one minds. There’s no rules against fraternizing within the organization, so long as the job gets done and everyone comes back alive. So far, no one at Irabelle has been foolish or sentimental enough to let something so petty as a feeling jeopardize our cause.

I leave Indy to her worries and head in the opposite direction, to where I know the Colonel waits.

His office would make a marvelous tomb. No windows, concrete walls, and a lamp that always seems to burn out at precisely the wrong moment. There are far better places in Irabelle for him to conduct business, but he likes the quiet and the closed space. He’s tall enough, and the low ceiling makes him seem like a giant. Probably why he likes the room so much.

His head scrapes the ceiling when he stands to greet my entrance.

“New orders?” I ask, already knowing the answer. We’ve been here two days. I know better than to expect any kind of vacation, even after the grand success of Operation Laker. The central passages of three lakes, each one key to the inner Lakelands, now belong to us, and no one is the wiser. For what higher purpose, I don’t know. That’s for Command to worry about, not me.

The Colonel slides a folded paper across the table to me. Sealed edges. I have to snap it open with a finger. Strange. I’ve never received sealed orders before.

My eyes scan the page, widening with every passing word. Command orders. Straight from the top, past the Colonel, directly to me.

“These are—”

He holds up a hand, stopping me short. “Command says your eyes only.” His voice is controlled, but I hear the anger anyway. “It’s your operation.”

I have to clench a fist to keep calm. My own operation. Blood pounds in my ears, pressed on by a rising heartbeat. My jaw clenches, grinding my teeth together so I don’t smile. I look back at the orders again to make sure they’re real. Operation Red Web.

After a moment, I realize something is missing.

“There’s no mention of you, sir.”

He raises the eyebrow of his bad eye. “Do you expect there to be? I’m not your nanny, Captain.” He bristles. The mask of control threatens to slip and he busies himself with an already pristine desk, flicking away a piece of dust that doesn’t exist.

I shrug off the insult. “Very well. I assume you have orders of your own.”

“I do,” he says quickly.

“Then a bit of a celebration is in order.”

The Colonel all but sneers. “You want to celebrate being a poster girl? Or would you rather cheer a suicide mission?”

Now I really do smile. “I don’t see it that way.” Slowly, I fold the orders again and slip them into my jacket pocket. “Tonight, I drink to my first independent assignment. And tomorrow, I head to Norta.”

“Your eyes only, Captain.”

When I reach the door, I glare at him over my shoulder. “As if you didn’t already know.”

His silence is admission enough.

“Besides, I’ll still be reporting to you, so you can pass on my relays to Command,” I add. I can’t help but goad him a little. He deserves it for the nanny comment. “What’s that called? Oh yes. The middleman.”

“Careful, Captain.”

I nod my head, smiling as I wrench open the office door. “Always, sir.”

Thankfully, he doesn’t let another uncomfortable silence linger. “Your broadcast crew is waiting in your barracks. Best get on.”

“I do hope I’m camera ready.” I giggle falsely, pretending to preen.

He waves a hand, officially dismissing me from his sight. I go willingly, weaving through the halls of Irabelle with enthusiasm.

To my surprise, the excitement pulsing through me doesn’t last long. I started out sprinting to the barracks, intending to hunt down my team of oathed soldiers and tell them the good news. But my pace soon slows, my delight giving way to reluctance. And fear.

There’s a reason they call us Ram and Lamb, other than the obvious. I’ve never been sent anywhere without the Colonel to follow. He’s always been there, a safety net I’ve never wanted, but one I’ve become far too familiar with. He’s saved my life too many times to count. And he’s certainly why I’m here instead of a frozen village, losing fingers to every winter and friends to every round of conscription. We don’t see eye to eye on much, but we always get the job done, and we always stay alive. We succeed where others can’t. We survive. Now I must do the same alone. Now I have to protect others, taking their lives—and deaths—onto my shoulders.

My pace halts, allowing me a few more moments to collect myself. The cool shadows are calming, inviting. I press up against the slick concrete wall, letting the cold seep through me. I must be like the Colonel when I assemble my team. I am their captain, their commander, and I must be perfect. No room for mistakes and no hesitation. Forward at all costs. Rise, Red as the dawn.

The Colonel may not be a good person, but he’s a brilliant leader. That’s always been enough. And now I’ll do my best to be the same.

I think better of my plan. Let the rest idle a few minutes longer.

I enter my barracks on my own, chin raised. I don’t know why I was chosen for this, why Command wants me to be the one to shout our words. But I’m sure there’s a good reason. A young woman holding a flag is quite a striking figure—but also a puzzling one. Silvers might send men and women to die on the lines in equal measure, but a rebel group led by a woman is easier to underestimate. Just what Command wants. Or they simply prefer I’m the one eventually identified and executed, rather than one of their own.

The first crewman, a slumtown escapee judging by his tattooed neck, waves me to the camera already waiting. Another hands me a red scarf and a typed message, one that will not be heard for many months.

But when it is, when it rings out across Norta and the Lakelands, it will land with the strength of a hammer’s fall.

I face the cameras alone, my face hidden, my words steel.

“Rise, Red as the dawn.”

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, COMMAND CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

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