Home > Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(10)

Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(10)
Victoria Aveyard

“Thief,” he says, a strange surprise in his voice.

I blink at him, fighting the urge to laugh. I don’t even have the strength to protest. “Obviously.”

He stares at me, scrutinizing everything from my face to my worn boots. It makes me squirm. After a long moment, he heaves a breath and lets me go. Stunned, I can only stare at him. When a silver coin spins through the air, I barely have the wits to catch it. A tetrarch. A silver tetrarch worth one whole crown. Far more than any of the stolen pennies in my pockets.

“That should be more than enough to tide you over,” he says before I can respond. In the light of the inn, his eyes glint red-gold, the color of warmth. My years spent sizing people up do not fail me, even now. His black hair is too glossy, his skin too pale to be anything but a servant. But his physique seems more like a woodcutter’s, with broad shoulders and strong legs. He’s young too, a little older than me, though not nearly as assured of himself as any nineteen- or twenty-year-old should be.

I should kiss his boots for letting me go and giving me such a gift, but my curiosity gets the better of me. It always does.

“Why?” The word comes out hard and harsh. After a day like today, how can I be anything else?

The question takes him aback and he shrugs. “You need it more than I do.”

I want to throw the coin back in his face, to tell him I can take care of myself, but part of me knows better. Has today taught you nothing? “Thank you,” I force out through gritted teeth.

Somehow, he laughs at my reluctant gratitude. “Don’t hurt yourself.” Then he shifts, taking a step closer. He is the strangest person I’ve ever met. “You live in the village, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I reply, gesturing to myself. With my faded hair, dirty clothes, and defeated eyes, what else could I be? He stands in stark contrast, his shirt fine and clean, and his shoes are soft, reflective leather. He shifts under my gaze, playing with his collar. I make him nervous.

He pales in the moonlight, his eyes darting. “Do you enjoy it?” he asks, deflecting. “Living there?”

His question almost makes me laugh, but he doesn’t look amused. “Does anyone?” I finally respond, wondering what on earth he’s playing at.

But instead of retorting swiftly, snapping back like Kilorn would, he falls silent. A dark look crosses his face. “Are you heading back?” he says suddenly, gesturing down the road.

“Why, scared of the dark?” I drawl, folding my arms across my chest. But in the pit of my stomach, I wonder if I should be afraid. He’s strong, he’s fast, and you’re all alone out here.

His smile returns, and the comfort it gives me is unsettling. “No, but I want to make sure you keep your hands to yourself for the rest of the night. Can’t have you driving half the bar out of house and home, can we? I’m Cal, by the way,” he adds, stretching out a hand to shake.

I don’t take it, remembering the blazing heat of his skin. Instead, I set off down the road, my steps quick and quiet. “Mare Barrow,” I tell him over my shoulder, and it doesn’t take much for his long legs to catch up.

“So are you always this pleasant?” he prods, and for some reason, I feel very much like an experiment being examined. But the cold silver in my hand keeps me calm, reminding me of what else he has in his pockets. Silver for Farley. How fitting.

“The lords must pay well for you to carry whole crowns,” I retort, hoping to scare him off the topic. It works beautifully and he retreats.

“I have a good job,” he explains, trying to brush it off.

“That makes one of us.”

“But you’re—”

“Seventeen,” I finish for him. “I still have some time before conscription.”

He narrows his eyes, lips twisting into a grim line. Something hard creeps into his voice, sharpening his words. “How much time?”

“Less every day.” Just saying it aloud makes my insides ache. And Kilorn has even less than me.

His words die away and he’s staring again, surveying me as we walk through the woods. Thinking. “And there are no jobs,” he mutters, more to himself than me. “No way for you to avoid conscription.”

His confusion puzzles me. “Maybe things are different where you’re from.”

“So you steal.”

I steal. “It’s the best I can do,” falls from my lips. Again, I remember that causing pain is all I’m good for. “My sister has a job though.” It slips out before I remember—No she doesn’t. Not anymore. Because of you.

Cal watches me battle with the words, wondering whether or not to correct myself. It’s all I can do to keep my face straight, to keep from breaking down entirely in front of a complete stranger. But he must see what I’m trying to hide. “Were you at the Hall today?” I think he already knows the answer. “The riots were terrible.”

“They were.” I almost choke on the words.

“Did you . . .,” he presses in the quietest, calmest way. It’s like poking a hole in a dam, and it all comes spilling out. I couldn’t stop the words even if I wanted to.

I don’t mention Farley or the Scarlet Guard or even Kilorn. Just that my sister slipped me into Grand Garden, to help me steal the money we needed to survive. Then came Gisa’s mistake, her injury, what it meant to us. What I’ve done to my family. What I have been doing, disappointing my mother, embarrassing my father, stealing from the people I call my community. Here on the road with nothing but darkness around me, I tell a stranger how terrible I am. He doesn’t ask questions, even when I don’t make sense. He just listens.

“It’s the best I can do,” I say again before my voice gives out entirely.

Then silver shines in the corner of my eye. He’s holding up another coin. In the moonlight, I can just see the outline of the king’s flaming crown stamped into the metal. When he presses it into my hand, I expect to feel his heat again, but he’s gone cold.

I don’t want your pity, I feel like screaming, but that would be foolish. The coin will buy what Gisa no longer can.

“I’m truly sorry for you, Mare. Things shouldn’t be like this.”

I can’t even summon the strength to frown. “There are worse lives to live. Don’t feel sorry for me.”

He leaves me at the edge of the village, letting me walk through the stilt houses alone. Something about the mud and shadows makes Cal uncomfortable, and he disappears before I get a chance to look back and thank the strange servant.

My home is quiet and dark, but even so, I shudder in fear. The morning seems a hundred years away, part of another life where I was stupid and selfish and maybe even a little bit happy. Now I have nothing but a conscripted friend and a sister’s broken bones.

“You shouldn’t worry your mother like that,” my father’s voice rumbles at me from behind one of the stilt poles. I haven’t seen him on the ground in more years than I care to remember.

My voice squeaks in surprise and fear. “Dad? What are you doing? How did you—?” But he jabs a thumb over his shoulder, to the pulley rig dangling from the house. For the first time, he used it.

“Power went out. Thought I’d give it a look,” he says, gruff as ever. He wheels past me, stopping in front of the utility box piped into the ground. Every house has one, regulating the electric charge that keeps the lights on.

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