Home > Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(4)

Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(4)
Author: Victoria Aveyard

“I’m home,” I say to no one in particular. Dad answers with a wave, Mom a nod, and Gisa doesn’t look up from her scrap of silk.

I drop my pouch of stolen goods next to her, letting the coins jingle as much as they can. “I think I’ve got enough to get a proper cake for Dad’s birthday. And more batteries, enough to last the month.”

Gisa eyes the pouch, frowning with distaste. She’s only fourteen, but sharp for her age. “One day people are going to come and take everything you have.”

“Jealousy doesn’t become you, Gisa,” I scold, patting her on the head. Her hands fly up to her perfect, glossy red hair, brushing it back into her meticulous bun.

I’ve always wanted her hair, though I’d never tell her that. Where hers is like fire, my hair is what we call river brown. Dark at the root, pale at the ends, as the color leeches from our hair with the stress of Stilts life. Most keep their hair short to hide their gray ends but I don’t. I like the reminder that even my hair knows life shouldn’t be this way.

“I’m not jealous,” she huffs, returning to her work. She stitches flowers made of fire, each one a beautiful flame of thread against oily black silk.

“That’s beautiful, Gee.” I let my hand trace one of the flowers, marveling at the silky feel of it. She glances up and smiles softly, showing even teeth. As much as we fight, she knows she’s my little star.

And everyone knows I’m the jealous one, Gisa. I can’t do anything but steal from people who can actually do things.

Once she finishes her apprenticeship, she’ll be able to open her own shop. Silvers will come from all around to pay her for handkerchiefs and flags and clothing. Gisa will achieve what few Reds do and live well. She’ll provide for our parents and give me and my brothers menial jobs to get us out of the war. Gisa is going to save us one day, with nothing more than needle and thread.

“Night and day, my girls,” Mom mutters, running a finger through graying hair. She doesn’t mean it as an insult, but a prickly truth. Gisa is skilled, pretty, and sweet. I’m a bit rougher, as Mom kindly puts it. The dark to Gisa’s light. I suppose the only common things between us are the shared earrings, the memory of our brothers.

Dad wheezes from his corner and hammers his chest with a fist. This is common, since he only has one real lung. Luckily the skill of a Red medic saved him, replacing the collapsed lung with a device that could breathe for him. It wasn’t a Silver invention, as they have no need for such things. They have the healers. But healers don’t waste their time saving the Reds, or even working on the front lines keeping soldiers alive. Most of them remain in the cities, prolonging the lives of ancient Silvers, mending livers destroyed by alcohol and the like. So we’re forced to indulge in an underground market of technology and inventions to help better ourselves. Some are foolish, most don’t work—but a bit of clicking metal saved my dad’s life. I can always hear it ticking away, a tiny pulse to keep Dad breathing.

“I don’t want cake,” he grumbles. I don’t miss his glance toward his growing belly.

“Well, tell me what you do want, Dad. A new watch or—”

“Mare, I do not consider something you stole off someone’s wrist to be new.”

Before another war can brew in the Barrow house, Mom pulls the stew off the stove. “Dinner is served.” She brings it to the table and the fumes wash over me.

“It smells great, Mom,” Gisa lies. Dad is not so tactful and grimaces at the meal.

Not wanting to be shown up, I force down some stew. It’s not as bad as usual, to my pleasant surprise. “You used that pepper I brought you?”

Instead of nodding and smiling and thanking me for noticing, she flushes and doesn’t answer. She knows I stole it, just like all my gifts.

Gisa rolls her eyes over her soup, sensing where this is going.

You’d think by now I’d be used to it, but their disapproval wears on me.

Sighing, Mom lowers her face into her hands. “Mare, you know I appreciate—I just wish—”

I finish for her. “That I was like Gisa?”

Mom shakes her head. Another lie. “No, of course not. That’s not what I meant.”

“Right.” I’m sure they can sense my bitterness on the other side of the village. I try my best to keep my voice from breaking. “It’s the only way I can help out before—before I go away.”

Mentioning the war is a quick way to silence my house. Even Dad’s wheezing stops. Mom turns her head, her cheeks flushing red with anger. Under the table, Gisa’s hand closes around mine.

“I know you’re doing everything you can, for the right reasons,” Mom whispers. It takes a lot for her to say this, but it comforts me all the same.

I keep my mouth shut and force a nod.

Then Gisa jumps in her seat, like she’s been shocked. “Oh, I almost forgot. I stopped at the post on the way back from Summerton. There was a letter from Shade.”

It’s like setting off a bomb. Mom and Dad scramble, reaching for the dirty envelope Gisa pulls out of her jacket. I let them pass it over, examining the paper. Neither can read so they glean whatever they can from the paper itself.

Dad sniffs the letter, trying to place the scent. “Pine. Not smoke. That’s good. He’s away from the Choke.”

We all breathe a sigh of relief at that. The Choke is the bombed-out strip of land connecting Norta to the Lakelands, where most of the war is fought. Soldiers spend the majority of their time there, ducking in trenches doomed to explode or making daring pushes that end in a massacre. The rest of the border is mainly lake, though in the far north it becomes tundra too cold and barren to fight over. Dad was injured at the Choke years ago, when a bomb dropped on his unit. Now the Choke is so destroyed by decades of battle, the smoke of explosions is a constant fog and nothing can grow there. It’s dead and gray, like the future of the war.

He finally passes the letter over for me to read and I open it with great anticipation, both eager and afraid to see what Shade has to say.

Dear family, I am alive. Obviously.

That gets a chuckle out of Dad and me, and even a smile from Gisa. Mom is not as amused, even though Shade starts every letter like this.

We’ve been called away from the front, as Dad the Bloodhound has probably guessed. It’s nice, getting back to the main camps. It’s Red as the dawn up here, you barely even see the Silver officers. And without the Choke smoke, you can actually see the sun rise stronger every day. But I won’t be in for long. Command plans to repurpose the unit for lake combat and we’ve been assigned to one of the new warships. I met a medic detached from her unit who said she knew Tramy and that he’s fine. Took a bit of shrapnel retreating from the Choke, but he recovered nicely. No infection, no permanent damage.

 

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