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

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

Mom sighs aloud, shaking her head. “No permanent damage,” she scoffs.

Still nothing about Bree but I’m not worried. He’s the best of us and he’s coming up on his five-year leave. He’ll be home soon, Mom, so stop your worrying. Nothing else to report, at least that I can write in a letter. Gisa, don’t be too much of a show-off even though you deserve to be. Mare, don’t be such a brat all the time and stop beating up that Warren boy. Dad, I’m proud of you. Always. Love all of you.

Your favorite son and brother, Shade.

Like always, Shade’s words pierce through us. I can almost hear his voice if I try hard enough. Then the lights above us suddenly start to whine.

“Did no one put in the ration papers I got yesterday?” I ask before the lights flicker off, plunging us into darkness. As my eyes adjust, I can just see Mom shaking her head.

Gisa groans. “Can we not do this again?” Her chair scrapes as she stands up. “I’m going to bed. Try not to yell.”

But we don’t yell. Seems to be the way of my world—too tired to fight. Mom and Dad retreat to their bedroom, leaving me alone at the table. Normally I’d slip out, but I can’t find the will to do much more than go to sleep.

I climb up yet another ladder to the loft, where Gisa is already snoring. She can sleep like no other, dropping off in a minute or so, while it can sometimes take me hours. I settle into my cot, content to simply lie there and hold Shade’s letter. Like Dad said, it smells strongly of pine.

The river sounds nice tonight, tripping over stones in the riverbank as it lulls me to sleep. Even the old fridge, a rusty battery-run machine that usually whines so hard it hurts my head, doesn’t trouble me tonight. But then a birdcall interrupts my descent into sleep. Kilorn.

No. Go away.

Another call, louder this time. Gisa stirs a little, rolling over into her pillow.

Grumbling to myself, hating Kilorn, I roll out of my cot and slide down the ladder. A normal girl would have tripped over the clutter in the main room, but I have great footing thanks to years of running from officers. I’m down the stilt ladder in a second, landing ankle deep in the mud. Kilorn is waiting, appearing out of the shadows beneath the house.

“I hope you like black eyes because I have no problem giving you one for this—”

The sight of his face stops me short.

He’s been crying. Kilorn does not cry. His knuckles are bleeding too and I bet there’s a wall hurting just as hard somewhere nearby. In spite of myself, in spite of the late hour, I can’t help but feel concerned, even scared for him.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Without thinking, I take his hand in mine, feeling the blood beneath my fingers. “What happened?”

He takes a moment to respond, working himself up. Now I’m terrified.

“My master—he fell. He died. I’m not an apprentice anymore.”

I try to hold in a gasp, but it echoes anyway, taunting us. Even though he doesn’t have to, even though I know what he’s trying to say, he continues.

“I hadn’t even finished training and now—” He trips over his words. “I’m eighteen. The other fishermen have apprentices. I’m not working. I can’t get work.”

The next words are like a knife in my heart. Kilorn draws a ragged breath and somehow I wish I wouldn’t have to hear him.

“They’re going to send me to the war.”

THREE

It’s been going on for the better part of the last hundred years. I don’t think it should even be called a war anymore, but there isn’t a word for this higher form of destruction. In school they told us it started over land. The Lakelands are flat and fertile, bordered by immense lakes full of fish. Not like the rocky, forested hills of Norta, where the farmlands can barely feed us. Even the Silvers felt the strain, so the king declared war, plunging us into a conflict neither side could really win.

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.”

 

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