Home > Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(9)

Steel Scars (Red Queen 0.2)(9)
Victoria Aveyard

I force my way out of the stuffy, shuttered closet we use for transmissions, the only part of the abandoned house with four walls and an intact roof. The rest of the structure does its job well, serving as the safe house for our dealings in Corvium. The main room, as long as it is wide, has brick walls, though one side is collapsed along with the rusted tin roof. And the smaller chamber, probably a bedroom, has no roof at all. Not that we mind. The Scarlet Guard has suffered worse, and the nights have been unseasonably warm, albeit humid. Summer is coming to Norta. Our plastic tents keep out the rain, but not the moist air. It’s nothing, I tell myself. A mild discomfort. But sweat drips down my neck anyway. And it’s not even midday yet.

Trying to ignore the sticky sensation that comes with the rising humidity, I pile my braid on top of my head, wrapping it like a crown. If this weather keeps up, I might just cut it all off.

“He’s late,” Tristan says from his lookout at a glassless window. His eyes never still, always darting, searching.

“I’d be worried if he wasn’t.” Barrow hasn’t been on time once in the past two weeks, not for any of our meetings.

Cara joins Tye in the corner, dropping down with a merry flop. She sets to cleaning her glasses as intently as Tye cleans pistols. Both of them share the same look, fair-haired Lakelanders. Like me, they’re not used to the May heat, and they cluster together in the shade.

Tristan is not so affected. He’s a Piedmont boy originally, a son of mild winter and swampy summer. The heat doesn’t bother him. In fact the only indicator of the changing season are his freckles, which seem to breed. They dot his arms and face, more every day. And his hair is longer too, a dark red mop that curls in the humidity.

“I told him as much,” Rasha says from the opposite corner. She busies herself braiding her hair out of her dark face, taking care to divide her curling black locks into even pieces. Her own rifle, not so long as Tristan’s but just as well used, props against the wall next to her. “Starting to think they don’t sleep down in Piedmont.”

“If you want to know more about my sleeping habits, all you have to do is ask, Rasha,” Tristan replies. This time he turns over his shoulder, just for a second, to meet her black eyes. They share a knowing look.

I fight the urge to scoff. “Keep it to the woods, you two,” I mutter. Hard enough sleeping on the ground without listening to rustling tents. “Scouts still out?”

“Tarry and Shore are taking the ridge, they won’t be back until dusk, same as Big Coop and Martenson.” Tristan ticks off the rest of our team on his fingers. “Cristobel and Little Coop are about a mile out, in the trees. Waiting on your Barrow boy, and looking to wait awhile.”

I nod. All in order then.

“Command happy so far?”

“Happy as they can be,” I lie as smoothly as I can. Thankfully, Tristan doesn’t turn from his watch. He doesn’t notice the flush I feel creeping up my neck. “We’re feeding good intelligence. Worth our time for sure.”

“They looking to oath Eastree or Barrow?”

“What makes you say that?”

He shrugs. “Seems like a long time to put into a pair we don’t mean to recruit. Or are you suggesting them for Stage Two?”

Tristan doesn’t mean to pry. He’s a good lieutenant, the best I’ve ever seen, loyal to his bones. He doesn’t know what he’s picking at, but it stings all the same.

“Still working that out,” I mumble, doing my best to walk slow as I run from his questions. “I’m going to do a turn around the property. Grab me if Barrow shows his face.”

“Will do, boss,” echoes from the room.

Keeping my steps even is a battle, and it seems like an eternity before I’m safely into the green trees. I heave a single collecting breath, forcing myself to calm down. It’s for the best. Lying to them, disobeying the orders, it’s for the best. It’s not your fault the Colonel doesn’t understand. It’s not your fault. The old refrain levels me out, as comforting as a stiff drink. Everything I’ve done and everything I will do is for the cause. No one can say otherwise. No one will ever question my loyalty, not once I give them Norta on a silver platter.

A smile slowly replaces my usual scowl. My team doesn’t know what’s coming. Not even Tristan. They don’t know what Command has planned for this kingdom in the coming weeks, or what we’ve done to put things in motion. Grinning, I remember the whirring video camera. The words I said in front of it. Soon, the world will hear them.

I don’t like the woods here. They’re too still, too quiet, with the smell of ash still clinging to the air. Despite the living trees, this is a dead place.

“Nice time for a walk.”

My pistol jams against his temple before I have time to think. Somehow, Barrow doesn’t flinch. He only raises his palms in mock surrender.

“You’re a special kind of stupid,” I say.

He chuckles. “Must be, since I keep wandering back to your ragtag rebel club.”

“And you’re late.”

“I prefer chronologically challenged.”

With a humorless scoff, I holster the gun, but keep my hand on it. I narrow my eyes at him. Usually his uniform is turned inside out for camouflage, but this time he hasn’t bothered. His jacket is red as blood, dark and worn. He sticks out against the greenery.

“I’ve got two spotters waiting on you.”

“They must not be very good.” Again, that smile. Another would think Shade Barrow was warm, open, always laughing. But there’s a chill beneath all that. An iron cold. “I came the usual way.”

Sneering, I pat his jacket. “Did you now?”

There. His eyes flash, chips of frozen amber. Shade Barrow has secrets of his own. Just like everyone else.

“Let me tell my crew you’re here,” I press on, taking a step back from Barrow’s lean form. His eyes follow my movements, quietly assessing. He’s only nineteen, little more than a year into his military service, but his training certainly stuck.

“You mean tell your watchdog.”

A corner of my mouth lifts. “His name is Tristan.”

“Tristan, right. Ginger hair, permanently glued to his rifle.” Barrow gives me my space, but follows all the same as I pick back toward the farmhouse. “Funny, I never expected to find a Southie embedded with you.”

“Southie?” My voice doesn’t quaver, despite Barrow’s not-so-vague probing.

His pace quickens, until he’s almost stepping on my heels. I fight the urge to kick back into his knee. “He’s from Piedmont. Has to be, with his drawl. Not that it’s much of a secret. Just like the rest of your bunch. All Lakelanders, yeah?”

I glance over my shoulder. “What gave you that idea?”

“And you’re from the deep north, I suppose. Farther than our maps go,” he presses on. I get the feeling he enjoys this, like a puzzle. “You’re in for some fun come true summer, when the days run long and thick with heat. Nothing like a week of storm clouds that never break, and air that threatens to drown.”

“No wonder you’re not a trench soldier,” I say as we reach the door. “There’s no need for a poet on the front lines.”

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