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Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(4)
Victoria Aveyard

Designation: RAM.

Origin: Trial, LL.

Destination: COMMAND at REDACTED.

-EYES ON team led by HOLIDAY met opposition in ADELA.

-ADELA safe house destroyed.

-EYES ON overview: Killed in action: R. INDY, N. CAWRALL, T. TREALLER, E. KEYNE (4).

Silver casualty count: Zero (0).

Civilian casualty count: Unknown.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Day 4 of Operation RED WEB, Stage 1.

Operative: Captain REDACTED.

Designation: LAMB.

Origin: Harbor Bay, NRT.

Destination: RAM at REDACTED.

-Transit smooth through ADERONACK, GREATWOODS, MARSH COAST regions.

-BEACON region transit difficult, heavy NRT military presence.

-Made contact with MARINERS. Entered HARBOR BAY with their aid.

-Meeting with EGAN, head of the MARINERS. Will assess.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

As any good cook can tell you, there are always rats in the kitchen.

The Kingdom of Norta is no different. Its cracks and crevices crawl with what the Silver elite would call vermin. Red thieves, smugglers, army deserters, teenagers fleeing conscription, or feeble elders trying to escape punishment for the idle “crime” of growing old. In the backcountry, farther north toward the Lakeland border, they keep to the woods and small villages, finding safety in the places no self-respecting Silver would condescend to live. But in cities like Harbor Bay, where Silvers keep fine houses and ugly laws, Reds turn to more desperate measures. And so must I.

Boss Egan is not easy to get to. His so-called associates take me and my lieutenant, Tristan, through a maze of tunnels under the walls of the coastal city. We double back more than once, to confuse me as well as anyone who might try to follow. I all but expect Melody, the soft-voiced and sharped-eyed thief leading the way, to blindfold us. Instead, she lets the darkness do its work, and by the time we emerge, I can barely find true north, let alone my way out of the city.

Tristan is not a trusting man, having learned well at the hands of the Scarlet Guard. He hovers at my side, one hand inside his jacket, always gripping the long knife he keeps close. Melody and her men laugh off the obvious threat, pulling back coats and shawls to reveal edged weapons of their own.

“Not to worry, Stretch,” she says, raising an eyebrow at Tristan’s scraping height. “You’re well protected.”

He flushes, angry, but doesn’t loosen his grasp. And I’m still keenly aware of the knife in my boot, not to mention the pistol tucked into the back of my pants.

Melody keeps walking, leading us through a market trembling with noise and the sharp smell of fish. Her thick body cuts through the crowd, which parts to let her pass. The tattoo on her upper arm, a blue anchor surrounded by red, coiling rope, is warning enough. She’s a Mariner, a member of the smuggling operation Command assigned me to feel out. And judging by the way she orders her own detachment, three of them following her lead, she’s highly ranked and well respected.

I feel her assessing me, even though her eyes are forward. For this reason, I decided not to take the rest of my team into the city to meet with her boss. Tristan and I are enough to evaluate his operation, judge his motives, and report back.

Egan, it seems, takes the opposite approach.

I expect a subterranean stronghold much like ours at Irabelle, but Melody leads us to an ancient lighthouse, its walls weathered by age and the salty air. Once a beacon used to guide ships into port; now it’s too far from the water, as the city expanded out into the harbor. From the outside, it looks abandoned, its windows shuttered and doors barred. The Mariners pay it no mind. They don’t even bother to hide their approach, though every instinct in me screams for discretion. Instead, Melody leads us across the open market, head high.

The crowd moves with us like a school of fish. Providing camouflage. Escorting us all the way to the lighthouse and a battered, locked door. I blink at the action, noting how well organized the Mariners seem to be. They command respect, that’s obvious, not to mention loyalty. Both valuable prizes to the Scarlet Guard, things that cannot truly be bought with money or intimidation. My heart leaps in my chest. The Mariners look to be viable allies indeed.

Once safely inside the lighthouse, at the foot of an endless, spiraling stair, I feel a cord of tension release in my chest. I’m no stranger to infiltrating Silver cities, prowling the streets with poor intent, but I certainly don’t enjoy it. Especially without the Colonel at my side, a gruff but effective shield against anything that might befall us.

“You’re not afraid of officers?” I wonder aloud, watching as one of the Mariners locks the door behind us. “They don’t know you’re here?”

Again, Melody chuckles. She’s already a dozen steps up, and still climbing. “Oh, they know we’re here.”

Tristan’s eyes almost bug out of his head. “What?” He blanches, mirroring my thoughts.

“I said, Security knows we’re here,” she repeats. Her voice echoes.

When I put a foot on the first step, Tristan grabs my wrist. “We shouldn’t be here, Cap—” he murmurs, forgetting himself. I don’t give him the chance to say my name, to go against the rules and protocols that have protected us for so long. Instead I jam my forearm into his windpipe, pushing him back against stairs with all my strength. He sprawls, falling, his weedy length stretched across several steps.

My face flushes with heat. This isn’t something I want to do, in front of outsiders or not. Tristan is a good lieutenant, if overprotective. I don’t know what’s more damaging—showing the Mariners dissension in our ranks or showing them fear. I hope it’s the latter. With a calculated shrug, I step back and offer my hand to Tristan but no apology. He knows why.

And without another word, he follows me up the stairs.

Melody lets us pass and I feel her eyes with every step. She is certainly watching me now. And I let her, my face and manner impassive. I do my best to be like the Colonel, unreadable and unflinching.

At the crown of the lighthouse, the boarded-up windows give way to a wide view of Harbor Bay. Literally built on top of another ancient city, the Bay is an old knot. The narrow lanes and twists are better suited to horses rather than transports, and we had to duck into alleys to avoid being run over. From this vantage point, I can see everything centers around the famous harbor, with too many alleys, tunnels, and forgotten corners to fully patrol. Paired with a high concentration of Reds, Harbor Bay is a perfect place for the Scarlet Guard to start. Our intelligence identified the city as the most viable root of Red rebellion in Norta, when an uprising comes. Unlike the capital, Archeon, where the seat of government demands absolute command, Harbor Bay is not so controlled.

But it is not undefended. There’s a military base built out on the water, dividing the perfect semicircle of land and waves in two. Fort Patriot. A hub for the Nortan army, navy, and air force, the only one of its kind to serve all three branches of the Silver military. Like the rest of the city, its walls and buildings are painted white, tipped with blue roofs and tall silver spires. I try to memorize it from this vantage point. Who knows when the knowledge might come in handy? And thanks to the useless war currently being fought in the north, Fort Patriot is entirely blind to the city around it. The soldiers keep to their walls, while Security keep the city in line. According to reports, they protect their own, the Silver citizens, but the Reds of the Bay largely govern themselves, with separate groups and bands keeping their own sort of order. Three in particular.

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