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Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(7)
Victoria Aveyard

Day 11 of Operation RED WEB, Stage 1.

Operative: Captain REDACTED.

Designation: LAMB.

Origin: Albanus, NRT.

Destination: RAM at REDACTED.

-ALBANUS/STILTS WHISTLE willing to collaborate w/Stage 2.

-Has eyes inside SUMMERTON/King’s seasonal palace.

-Also mentioned contacts within the Red Army at CORVIUM. Will pursue.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

Designation: RAM.

Origin: REDACTED.

Destination: LAMB at Albanus.

-Not orders, too dangerous. Continue with RED WEB.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Day 12 of Operation RED WEB, Stage 1.

Operative: Captain REDACTED.

Designation: LAMB.

Origin: Siracas, NRT.

Destination: RAM at REDACTED.

-Intent of RED WEB Stage 1 is to introduce SG into NRT via existing networks. Army within orders.

-Red Army contacts invaluable. Will pursue. Pass up message to COMMAND.

-En route to CORVIUM.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

Designation: RAM.

Origin: REDACTED.

Destination: LAMB at Siracas.

-Stand down. Do not proceed to CORVIUM.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Operative: General REDACTED.

Designation: DRUMMER.

Origin: REDACTED.

Destination: LAMB at Siracas, RAM at REDACTED.

-Proceed to CORVIUM. Assess Red Army contacts for information and Stage 2/Asset Removal.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, COMMAND CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Day 12 of Operation RED WEB.

Operative: Captain REDACTED.

Designation: LAMB.

Origin: Corvium, NRT.

Destination: COMMAND at REDACTED, RAM at REDACTED.

-Acknowledged.

-Clearly not too dangerous.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

CONFIDENTIAL, COMMAND CLEARANCE REQUIRED

Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

Designation: RAM.

Origin: REDACTED.

Destination: COMMAND at REDACTED.

-Please note my strong opposition to developments in RED WEB. LAMB needs a short leash.

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 REDACTED.

-Noted.

RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

I can smell the Choke from here. Ash, smoke, corpses.

“It’s a slow day. No bombs yet.” Tye fixes her eyes on the northwest horizon, and the dark haze in the distance that can only be the front of this pointless war. She served on the lines herself, albeit on the opposite side we are now. She fought for Lakelander masters and lost an ear to a frostbitten winter in trenches. She doesn’t hide the deformity. Her blond hair is pulled back tightly, letting everyone see the ruined stump her so-called loyalty bought her.

Tristan scans the landscape for the third time, squinting through the scope of his long rifle. He lies on his belly, half-hidden by the ropy spring grass. His motions are slow and methodical, practiced in the gun range at Irabelle, as well as the deep forests of the Lakelands. The notches on the barrel, tiny scratches in the metal, stand out brightly in the daylight. Twenty-two in all, one for every Silver killed with that very weapon. For all his itchy paranoia, Tristan has a surprisingly steady trigger finger.

From our place on the rise, we have a commanding view of the surrounding woods. The Choke some miles to the northwest, clouded even under the morning sun, and Corvium another mile to the east. There are no more towns here, or even animals. Too close to the trench lines for anything but soldiers. But they keep to the Iron Road, the main thoroughfare that passes through Corvium and ends at the front lines. Over the last few days, we’ve learned much about the Red legions constantly moving, replacing defeated soldiers on the lines, only to march back with their own dead and wounded a week later. They march in at dawn and late evening. We keep our distance from the Road, but we can still hear them when they go. Five thousand in each legion, five thousand of our Red brothers and sisters resigned to living targets. Supply convoys are harder to predict, moving when required, and not on any schedule. They too are manned by Red soldiers and Silver officers, albeit officers of the useless kind. There’s no honor in commanding a transport full of stale food and worn bandages. The supply convoys are a punishment for Silvers, and a reprieve for Reds. And best of all, they are poorly guarded. After all, the Lakelander enemy is firmly on the other side of the Choke, separated by miles of wasteland, trenches, and popping artillery. No one looks to the trees as they pass. No one suspects another enemy already inside their diamondglass walls.

I can’t see the Iron Road from this ridge—the trees are in full leaf, obscuring the paved avenue—but we’re not watching the Road today. We aren’t gathering intelligence from troop movements. We’re going to talk to the troops themselves.

My internal clock tells me they are late.

“Could be a trap,” Tristan mutters, always eager to voice his panicked opinion. He keeps his eye firmly pressed to the scope in warning. He’s been expecting a trap since the moment Will Whistle told us about his army contacts. And now that we’re going to meet them, he’s been on edge more than usual, if that’s possible. Not a bad instinct to have, but not a helpful one at the moment. Risk is part of the game. We won’t get anywhere if we think only of our own skins.

But there is a reason only three of us are waiting,

“If it’s a trap, we’ll get out of it,” I reply. “We’ve beaten worse.”

It’s not a lie. We all have scars and ghosts of our own. Some drove us to the Scarlet Guard, and some were because of it. I know the sting of both.

My words are for Tye more than Tristan. Like all who escaped the trenches, she’s not at all happy to be back, even if she isn’t wearing a Lakelander’s blue uniform. Not that she would ever complain about this out loud. But I can tell.

“Movement.”

Tye and I crouch lower, whipping in the direction of Tristan’s gaze. The rifle nose tracks at a snail’s pace, following something in the trees. Four shadows. Outnumbered.

They emerge with their palms out, showing empty hands. Unlike the soldiers on the Road, these four have their uniforms turned inside out, favoring stained brown and black lining over their usual rust colors. Better camouflage for the woods. Not to mention their names and ranks. I can’t see any insignia or badges of any kind. I have no idea who they are.

A calm breeze rustles the grass. It ripples like a pond disturbed by a single stone, its green waves breaking against the four as they approach in single file. I narrow my eyes at their feet. They’re careful to step in the leader’s footprints. Any tracker would think only one person came this way, not four. Smart.

A woman leads, her jaw like an anvil. She’s missing both her trigger fingers. Unable to shoot, but still a soldier, judging by the crags of weariness on her face. Like the willowy, copper-skinned girl on her heels, her head is shaved to the scalp.

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