Home > Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(5)

Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(5)
Victoria Aveyard

The Lakelander king, another Silver, responded in kind, with the full support of his own nobility. They wanted our rivers, to get access to a sea that wasn’t frozen half the year, and the water mills dotting our rivers. The mills are what make our country strong, providing enough electricity so that even the Reds can have some. I’ve heard rumors of cities farther south, near the capital, Archeon, where greatly skilled Reds build machines beyond my comprehension. For transport on land, water, and sky, or weapons to rain destruction wherever the Silvers might need. Our teacher proudly told us Norta was the light of the world, a nation made great by our technology and power. All the rest, like the Lakelands or Piedmont to the south, live in darkness. We were lucky to be born here. Lucky. The word makes me want to scream.

But despite our electricity, the Lakelander food, our weapons, their numbers, neither side has much advantage over the other. Both have Silver officers and Red soldiers, fighting with abilities and guns and the shield of a thousand Red bodies. A war that was supposed to end less than a century ago still drags on. I always found it funny that we fought over food and water. Even the high-and-mighty Silvers need to eat.

But it isn’t funny now, not when Kilorn is going to be the next person I say good-bye to. I wonder if he’ll give me an earring, so I can remember him when the polished legionnaire takes him away.

“One week, Mare. One week and I’m gone.” His voice cracks, though he coughs to try and cover it up. “I can’t do this. They—they won’t take me.”

But I can see the fight going out of his eyes.

“There must be something we can do,” I blurt out.

“There’s nothing anyone can do. No one has escaped conscription and lived.”

He doesn’t need to tell me that. Every year, someone tries to run. And every year, they’re dragged back to the town square and hanged.

“No. We’ll find a way.”

Even now, he finds the strength to smirk at me. “We?”

The heat in my cheeks surges faster than any flame. “I’m doomed for conscription same as you, but they’re not going to get me either. So we run.”

The army has always been my fate, my punishment, I know that. But not his. It’s already taken too much from him.

“There’s nowhere we can go,” he sputters, but at least he’s arguing. At least he’s not giving up. “We’d never survive the north in winter, the east is the sea, the west is more war, the south is radiated to all hell—and everywhere in between is crawling with Silvers and Security.”

The words pour out of me like a river. “So is the village. Crawling with Silvers and Security. And we manage to steal right under their noses and escape with our heads.” My mind races, trying my hardest to find something, anything, that might be of use. And then it hits me like a bolt of lightning. “The black market trade, the one we help keep running, smuggles everything from grain to lightbulbs. Who’s to say they can’t smuggle people?”

His mouth opens, about to spout a thousand reasons why this won’t work. But then he smiles. And nods.

I don’t like getting involved with other people’s business. I don’t have time for it. And yet here I am, listening to myself say four dooming words.

“Leave everything to me.”

The things we can’t sell to the usual shop owners we have to take to Will Whistle. He’s old, too feeble to work the lumberyards, so he sweeps the streets by day. At night, he sells everything you could want out of his moldy wagon, from heavily restricted coffee to exotics from Archeon. I was nine with a fistful of stolen buttons when I took my chances with Will. He paid me three copper pennies for them, no questions asked. Now I’m his best customer and probably the reason he manages to stay afloat in such a small place. On a good day I might even call him a friend. It was years before I discovered Will was part of a much larger operation. Some call it the underground, others the black market, but all I care about is what they can do. They have fences, people like Will, everywhere. Even in Archeon, as impossible as that sounds. They transport illegal goods all over the country. And now I’m betting that they might make an exception and transport a person instead.

“Absolutely not.”

In eight years, Will has never said no to me. Now the wrinkled old fool is practically slamming shut the doors of his wagon in my face. I’m happy Kilorn stayed behind, so he doesn’t have to see me fail him.

“Will, please. I know you can do it—”

He shakes head, white beard waggling. “Even if I could, I am a tradesman. The people I work with aren’t the type to spend their time and effort shuttling another runner from place to place. It’s not our business.”

I can feel my only hope, Kilorn’s only hope, slipping right through my fingers.

Will must see the desperation in my eyes because he softens, leaning against the wagon door. He heaves a sigh and glances backward, into the darkness of the wagon. After a moment, he turns back around and gestures, beckoning me inside. I follow gladly.

“Thank you, Will,” I babble. “You don’t know what this means to me—”

“Sit down and be quiet, girl,” a high voice says.

Out of the shadows of the wagon, hardly visible in the dim light of Will’s single blue candle, a woman rises to her feet. Girl, I should say, since she barely looks older than me. But she’s much taller, with the air of an old warrior. The gun at her hip, tucked into a red sash belt stamped with suns, is certainly not authorized. She’s too blond and fair to be from the Stilts, and judging by the light sweat on her face, she’s not used to the heat or humidity. She is a foreigner, an outlander, and an outlaw at that. Just the person I want to see.

She waves me to the bench cut into the wagon wall, and she sits down again only when I have. Will follows closely behind and all but collapses into a worn chair, his eyes flitting between the girl and me.

“Mare Barrow, meet Farley,” he murmurs, and she tightens her jaw.

Her gaze lands on my face. “You wish to transport cargo.”

“Myself and a boy—” But she holds up a large, callused hand, cutting me off.

“Cargo,” she says again, eyes full of meaning. My heart leaps in my chest; this Farley girl might be of the helping kind. “And what is the destination?”

I rack my brain, trying to think of somewhere safe. The old classroom map swims before my eyes, outlining the coast and the rivers, marking cities and villages and everything in between. From Harbor Bay west to the Lakelands, the northern tundra to the radiated wastes of the Ruins and the Wash, it’s all dangerous land for us.

“Somewhere safe from the Silvers. That’s all.”

Farley blinks at me, her expression unchanging. “Safety has a price, girl.”

“Everything has a price, girl,” I fire back, matching her tone. “No one knows that more than me.”

A long beat of silence stretches through the wagon. I can feel the night wasting away, taking precious minutes from Kilorn. Farley must sense my unease and impatience but makes no hurry to speak. After what seems like an eternity, her mouth finally opens.

“The Scarlet Guard accepts, Mare Barrow.”

It takes all the restraint I have to keep from jumping out of my seat with joy. But something tugs at me, keeping a smile from crossing my face.

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