Home > Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(12)

Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(12)
Author: Victoria Aveyard

“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.

Dad wheezes to himself, his chest clicking with each breath. Maybe Gisa will be like him now, her hand a metallic mess, her brain torn and bitter with the thought of what could have been.

“Why don’t you just use the ’lec papers I get you?”

In response, Dad pulls a ration paper from his shirt and feeds it into the box. Normally, the thing would spark to life, but nothing happens. Broken.

“No use,” Dad sighs, sitting back in his chair. We both stare at the utility box, at a loss for words, not wanting to move, not wanting to go back upstairs. Dad ran just like I did, unable to stay in the house, where Mom was surely crying over Gisa, weeping for lost dreams, while my sister tried not to join her.

He bats the box like hitting the damn thing can suddenly bring light and warmth and hope back to us. His actions become more harried, more desperate, and anger radiates from him. Not at me or Gisa but the world. Long ago he called us ants, Red ants burning in the light of a Silver sun. Destroyed by the greatness of others, losing the battle for our right to exist because we are not special. We did not evolve like them, with powers and strengths beyond our limited imaginations. We stayed the same, stagnant in our own bodies. The world changed around us and we stayed the same.

Then the anger is in me too, cursing Farley, Kilorn, conscription, every little thing I can think of. The metal box is cool to the touch, having long lost the heat of electricity. But there are vibrations still, deep in the mechanism, waiting to be switched back on. I lose myself in trying to find the electricity, to bring it back and prove that even one small thing can go right in a world so wrong. Something sharp meets my fingertips, making my body jolt. An exposed wire or faulty switch, I tell myself. It feels like a pinprick, like a needle spiking in my nerves, but the pain never follows.

Above us, the porch light hums to life.

“Well, fancy that,” Dad mutters.

He spins in the mud, wheeling himself back to the pulley. I follow quietly, not wanting to bring up the reason we are both so afraid of the place we call home.

“No more running,” he breathes, buckling himself into the rig.

“No more running,” I agree, more for myself than him.

The rig whines with the strain, hoisting him up to the porch. I’m quicker on the ladder so I wait for him at the top, then wordlessly help detach him from the rig. “Bugger of a thing,” Dad grumbles when we finally unsnap the last buckle.

“Mom will be happy you’re getting out of the house.”

He looks up at me sharply, grabbing my hand. Though Dad barely works now, repairing trinkets and whittling for kids, his hands are still rough and callused, like he just returned from the front lines. The war never leaves.

“Don’t tell your mother.”

“But—”

“I know it seems like nothing, but it’s enough of something. She’ll think it’s a small step on a big journey, you see? First I leave the house at night, then during the day, then I’m rolling around the market with her like it’s twenty years ago. Then things go back to the way they were.” His eyes darken as he speaks, fighting to keep his voice low and level. “I’m never getting better, Mare. I’m never going to feel better. I can’t let her hope for that, not when I know it’ll never happen. Do you understand?”

All too well, Dad.

He knows what hope has done to me and softens. “I wish things were different.”

“We all do.”

Despite the shadows, I can see Gisa’s broken hand when I get up to the loft. Normally she sleeps in a ball, curled up under a thin blanket, but now she lies on her back, with her injury elevated on a pile of clothes. Mom reset her splint, improving my meager attempt to help, and the bandages are fresh. I don’t need light to know her poor hand is black with bruises. She sleeps restlessly, her body tossing, but her arm stays still. Even in sleep, it hurts her.

I want to reach out to her, but how can I make up for the terrible events of the day?

 

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