READ, RED AS THE DAWN! We have posted the first three chapters from GLASS SWORD for your reading pleasure/anguish. And you can now read chapters 4-7 here so you can anguish some more. (In case you have no idea what we’re talking about, Glass Sword is the sequel to Red Queen, the crazy awesome fantasy/dystopian/action debut novel by Queen Victoria Aveyard and it goes on sale February 9th!)
As we’re sure all you members of the Scarlet Guard remember, RED QUEEN ends with Mare being HORRIBLY BETRAYED. Now, she’s on the run and looking to recruit others Reds with powers like hers. Will she shatter under the weight of the lives that are the cost of rebellion? Or have treachery and betrayal hardened her forever?
Omg omg just start reading already!!!!!
I flinch. The rag she gives me is clean, but it still smells like blood. I shouldn’t care. I already have blood all over my clothes. The red is mine, of course. The silver belongs to many others. Evangeline, Ptolemus, the nymph lord, all those who tried to kill me in the arena. I suppose some of it is Cal’s as well. He bled freely on the sand, cut and bruised by our would-be executioners. Now he sits across from me, staring at his feet, letting his wounds begin the slow process of healing naturally. I glance at one of the many cuts on my arms, probably from Evangeline. Still fresh, and deep enough to leave a scar. Part of me delights in the thought. This jagged gash will not be magically wiped away by a healer’s cold hands. Cal and I are not in the Silver world anymore, with someone to simply erase our well-earned scars. We have escaped. Or at least, I have. Cal’s chains are a firm reminder of his captivity.
Farley nudges my hand, her touch surprisingly gentle. “Hide your face, lightning girl. It’s what they’re after.”
For once, I do as I’m told. The others follow, pulling red fabric up over their mouths and noses. Cal is the last uncovered face, but not for long. He doesn’t fight Farley when she ties his mask into place, making him look like one of us.
If only he was.
An electric hum sets my blood on fire, reminding me of the pulsing, screeching Undertrain. It carries us inexorably forward, to a city that was once a haven. The train races, screaming over ancient tracks like a Silver swift running over open ground. I listen to the grating metal, feel it deep in my bones where a cold ache settles in. My rage, my strength back in the arena seem like faraway memories, leaving behind only pain and fear. I can scarcely imagine what Cal must be thinking. He’s lost everything, everything he ever held dear. A father, a brother, a kingdom. How he’s holding himself together, still but for the rocking of the train, I do not know.
No one needs to tell me the reason for our haste. Farley and her Guardsmen, tense as coiled wire, are enough explanation for me. We are still running.
Maven came this way before, and Maven will come again. This time with the fury of his soldiers, his mother, and his new crown. Yesterday he was a prince; today he is king. I thought he was my friend, my betrothed, now I know better.
Once I trusted him. Now I know to hate him, to fear him. He helped kill his father for a crown, and framed his brother for the crime. He knows the radiation surrounding the ruined city is a lie—a trick—and he knows where the train leads. The sanctuary Farley built is no longer safe, not for us. Not for you.
We could already be speeding into a trap.
An arm tightens around me, sensing my unease. Shade. I still can’t believe my brother is here, alive and, strangest of all, like me. Red and Silver—and stronger than both.
“I won’t let them take you again,” he murmurs, so low I can barely hear him. I suppose loyalty to anyone but the Scarlet Guard, even family, is not allowed. “I promise you that.”
His presence is soothing, pulling me backward in time. Past his conscription, to a rainy spring when we could still pretend to be children. Nothing existed but the mud, the village, and our foolish habit of ignoring the future. Now the future is all I think of, wondering what dark path my actions have set us upon.
“What are we going to do now?” I direct the question at Farley, but my eyes find Kilorn. He stands at her shoulder, a dutiful guardian with a clenched jaw and bloody bandages. To think he was a fisherman’s apprentice not so long ago. Like Shade, he seems out of place, a ghost of a time before all this.
“There’s always somewhere to run,” Farley replies, more focused on Cal than anything else.
She expects him to fight, to resist, but he does neither.
“You keep your hands on her,” Farley says, turning back to Shade after a long moment. My brother nods, and his palm feels heavy on my shoulder. “She cannot be lost.”
I am not a general or a tactician, but her reasoning is clear. I am the little lightning girl—living electricity, a lightning bolt in human form. People know my name, my face, and my abilities. I am valuable, I am powerful, and Maven will do anything to stop me from striking back. How my brother can protect me from the twisted new king, even though he is like me, even though he’s the fastest thing I’ve ever seen, I do not know. But I must believe, even if it seems a miracle. After all, I have seen so many impossible things. Another escape will be the least of them.
The click and slide of gun barrels echo down the train as the Guard makes ready. Kilorn shifts to stand over me, swaying slightly, his grip tight on the rifle slung across his chest. He glances down, his expression soft. He tries to smirk, to make me laugh, but his bright green eyes are grave and afraid.
In contrast, Cal sits quietly, almost peaceful. Though he has the most to fear—chained, surrounded by enemies, hunted by his own brother—he looks serene. I’m not surprised. He’s a soldier born and bred. War is something he understands, and we are certainly at war now.
“I hope you don’t plan to fight,” he says, speaking for the first time in many long minutes. His eyes are on me, but his words bite at Farley. “I hope you plan to run.”
“Save your breath, Silver.” She squares her shoulders. “I know what we have to do.”
I can’t stop the words from bursting out. “So does he.” The glare she turns on me burns, but I’ve dealt with worse. I don’t even flinch. “Cal knows how they fight, he knows what they’ll do to stop us. Use him.”
How does it feel to be used? He spit those words at me in the prison beneath the Bowl of Bones and it made me want to die. Now it barely stings.
She doesn’t say anything, and that is enough for Cal.
“They’ll have Snapdragons,” he says grimly.
Kilorn laughs aloud. “Flowers?”
“Airjets,” Cal says, his eyes sparking with distaste. “Orange wings, silver bodies, single pilot, easy to maneuver, perfect for an urban assault. They carry four missiles each. Times one squadron, that’s forty-eight missiles you’re going to have to outrun, plus light ammunition. Can you handle that?”
He’s met only with silence. No, we can’t.
“And the Dragons are the least of our worries. They’ll just circle, defend a perimeter, keep us in place until ground troops arrive.”
He lowers his eyes, thinking quickly. He’s wondering what he would do, if he were on the other side of this. If he were king instead of Maven. “They’ll surround us and present terms. Mare and I for your escape.”
Another sacrifice. Slowly, I suck in a breath. This morning, yesterday, before all this madness, I would have been glad to give myself over to save just Kilorn and my brother. But now . . . now I know I am special. Now I have others to protect. Now I cannot be lost.
“We can’t agree to that,” I say. A bitter truth. Kilorn’s gaze weighs heavy, but I don’t look up. I can’t stomach his judgment.
Cal is not so harsh. He nods, agreeing with me. “The king doesn’t expect us to give in,” he replies. “The jets will bring the ruins down on us, and the rest will mop up the survivors. It will be little more than a massacre.”
Farley is a creature of pride, even now when she’s terribly cornered. “What do you suggest?” she asks, bending over him. Her words drip disdain. “Total surrender?”
Something like disgust crosses Cal’s face. “Maven will still kill you. In a cell or on the battlefield, he won’t let any of us live.”
“Then better we die fighting.” Kilorn’s voice sounds stronger than it should, but there’s a tremble in his fingers. He looks like the rest of the rebels, willing to do anything for the cause, but my friend is still afraid. Still a boy, no more than eighteen, with too much to live for, and too little reason to die.
Cal scoffs at Kilorn’s forced but brazen declaration, yet he doesn’t saying anything else. He knows a more graphic description of our impending death won’t help anyone.
Farley doesn’t share his sentiment and waves a hand, dismissing both of them outright. Behind me, my brother mirrors her determination.
They know something we don’t, something they won’t say yet. Maven has taught us all the price of trust misplaced.
“We are not the ones who die today,” is all she says, before marching toward the front of the train. Her boots sound like hammer falls on the metal flooring, each one smacking of stubborn resolve.
I sense the train slow before I feel it. The electricity wanes, weakening, as we glide into the underground station. What we might find in the skies above, white fog or orange-winged airjets, I do not know. The others don’t seem to mind, exiting the Undertrain with great purpose. In their silence, the armed and masked Guard looks like true soldiers, but I know better. They’re no match for what is coming.
“Prepare yourself.” Cal’s voice hisses in my ear, making me shiver. It reminds me of days long past, of dancing in moonlight. “Remember how strong you are.”
Kilorn shoulders his way to my side, separating us before I can tell Cal my strength and my ability are all I’m sure of now. The electricity in my veins might be the only thing I trust in this world.
I want to believe in the Scarlet Guard, and certainly in Shade and Kilorn, but I won’t let myself, not after the mess my trust, my blindness toward Maven got us into. And Cal is out of the question altogether. He is a prisoner, a Silver, the enemy who would betray us if he could—if he had anywhere else to run.
But still, somehow, I feel a pull to him. I remember the burdened boy who gave me a silver coin when I was nothing. With that one gesture he changed my future, and destroyed his own.
And we share an alliance—an uneasy one forged in blood and betrayal. We are connected, we are united—against Maven, against all who deceived us, against the world about to tear itself apart.
Silence waits for us. Gray, damp mist hangs over the ruins of Naercey, bringing the sky down so close I might touch it. It’s cold, with the chill of autumn, the season of change and death. Nothing haunts the sky yet, no jets to rain destruction down upon an already destroyed city. Farley sets a brisk pace, leading up from the tracks to the wide, abandoned avenue. The wreckage yawns like a canyon, more gray and broken than I remember.
We march east down the street, toward the shrouded waterfront. The high, half-collapsed structures lean over us, their windows like eyes watching us pass. Silvers could be waiting in the broken hollows and shadowed arches, ready to kill the Scarlet Guard. Maven could make me watch as he struck rebels down one by one. He would not give me the luxury of a clean, quick death. Or worse, I think. He would not let me die at all.
The thought chills my blood like a Silver shiver’s touch. As much as Maven lied to me, I still know a small piece of his heart. I remember him grabbing me through the bars of a cell, holding on with shaking fingers. And I remember the name he carries, the name that reminds me a heart still beats inside him. His name was Thomas and I watched him die. He could not save that boy. But he can save me, in his own twisted way.
No. I will never give him the satisfaction of such a thing. I would rather die.
But try as I might, I can’t forget the shadow I thought him to be, the lost and forgotten prince. I wish that person were real. I wish he existed somewhere other than my memories.
The Naercey ruins echo strangely, more quiet than they should be. With a start, I realize why. The refugees are gone. The woman sweeping mountains of ash, the children hiding in drains, the shadows of my Red brothers and sisters—they have all fled. There’s no one left but us.
“Think what you want of Farley, but know she isn’t stupid,” Shade says, answering my question before I get a chance to ask. “She gave the order to evacuate last night, after she escaped Archeon. She thought you or Maven would talk under torture.”
She was wrong. There was no need to torture Maven. He gave his information and his mind freely. He opened his head to his mother, letting her paw through everything she saw there. The Undertrain, the secret city, the list. It is all hers now, just like he always was.
The line of Scarlet Guard soldiers stretches out behind us, a disorganized rabble of armed men and women. Kilorn marches directly behind me, his eyes darting, while Farley leads. Two burly soldiers keep Cal on her heels, gripping his arms tensely. With their red scarves, they look like the stuff of nightmares. But there are so few of us now, maybe thirty, all walking wounded. So few survived.
“There’s not enough of us to keep this rebellion going, even if we escape again,” I whisper to my brother. The low-hanging mist muffles my voice, but he still hears me.
The corner of his mouth twitches, wanting to smile. “That’s not your concern.”
Before I can press him, the soldier in front of us halts. He is not the only one. At the head of the line, Farley holds up a fist, glaring at the slate-gray sky. The rest mirror her, searching for what we cannot see. Only Cal keeps his eyes on the ground. He already knows what our doom looks like.
A distant, inhuman scream reaches down through the mist. This sound is mechanical and constant, circling overhead. And it is not alone. Twelve arrow-shaped shadows race through the sky, their orange wings cutting in and out of the clouds. I’ve never seen an airjet properly, not so close or without the cover of night, so I can’t stop my jaw from dropping when they come into view. Farley barks orders at the Guard, but I don’t hear her. I’m too busy staring at the sky, watching winged death arc overhead. Like Cal’s cycle, the flying machines are beautiful, impossibly curved steel and glass. I suppose a magnetron had something to do with their construction—how else can metal fly? Blue-tinged engines spark beneath their wings, the telltale sign of electricity. I can barely feel the twinge of them, like a breath against skin, but they’re too far away for me to affect. I can only watch—in horror.
They screech and twist around the island of Naercey, never breaking their circle. I can almost pretend they’re harmless, nothing but curious birds come to see the obliterated remnants of a rebellion. Then a dart of gray metal sails overhead, trailing smoke, moving almost too fast to see. It collides with a building down the avenue, disappearing through a broken window. A bloom of red-orange explodes a split second later, destroying the entire floor of an already crumbling building. It shatters in on itself, collapsing onto thousand-year-old supports that snap like toothpicks. The entire structure tips, falling so slowly the sight can’t be real. When it hits the street, blockading the way ahead of us, I feel the rumble deep in my chest. A cloud of smoke and dust hits us head-on, but I don’t cower. It takes more than that to scare me now.
Through the gray-and-brown haze, Cal stands with me, even while his captors crouch. Our eyes meet for a moment, and his shoulders droop. It’s the only sign of defeat he’ll let me see.
Farley grabs the nearest Guardsman, hoisting her to her feet. “Scatter!” she shouts, gesturing to the alleys on either side of us. “To the north side, to the tunnels!” She points to her lieutenants as she speaks, telling them where to go. “Shade, to the park side!” My brother nods, knowing what she means. Another missile careens into a nearby building, drowning her out. But it’s easy to tell what she’s shouting.
Part of me wants to hold my ground, to stand, to fight. My purple-and-white lightning will certainly make me a target and draw the jets away from the fleeing Guard. I might even take a plane or two with me. But that cannot be. I’m worth more than the rest, more than red masks and bandages. Shade and I must survive—if not for the cause, then for the others. For the list of hundreds like us—hybrids, anomalies, freaks, Red-and-Silver impossibilities—who will surely die if we fail.
Shade knows this as well as I do. He loops his arm into mine, his grip so tight as to be bruising. It’s almost too easy to run in step with him, to let him guide me off the wide avenue and into a gray-green tangle of overgrown trees spilling into the street. The deeper we go, the thicker they become, gnarled together like deformed fingers. A thousand years of neglect turned this little plot into a dead jungle. It shelters us from the sky, until we can only hear the jets circling closer and closer. Kilorn is never far behind. For a moment, I can pretend we’re back at home, wandering the Stilts, looking for fun and trouble. Trouble is all we seem to find.
When Shade finally skids to a stop, his heels scarring the dirt beneath us, I chance a glance around. Kilorn halts next to us, his rifle aimed uselessly skyward, but no one else follows. I can’t even see the street anymore, or the red rags fleeing into the ruins.
My brother glares up through the boughs of the trees, watching and waiting for the jets to fly out of range.
“Where are we going?” I ask him, breathless.
Kilorn answers instead. “The river,” he says. “And then the ocean. Can you take us?” He glances at Shade’s hands, as if he could see his ability plain in his flesh. But Shade’s strength is buried like mine, invisible until he chooses to reveal it.
My brother shakes his head. “Not in one jump, it’s too far. And I’d rather run, save my strength.” His eyes darken. “Until we really need it.”
I nod, agreeing. I know firsthand what it is to be ability-worn, tired in your bones, barely able to move, let alone fight.
“Where are they taking Cal?”
My question makes Kilorn wince.
“Hell if I care.”
“You should,” I fire back, even as my voice shakes with hesitation. No, he shouldn’t. Neither should you. If the prince is gone, you must let him go. “He can help us get out of this. He can fight with us.”
“He’ll escape or kill us the second we give him the chance,” he snaps, tearing away his scarf to show the angry scowl beneath.
In my head, I see Cal’s fire. It burns everything in its path, from metal to flesh. “He could’ve killed you already,” I say. It’s not an exaggeration, and Kilorn knows it.
“Somehow I thought you two would outgrow your bickering,” Shade says, stepping between us. “How silly of me.”
Kilorn forces out an apology through gritted teeth, but I do no such thing. My focus is on the jets, letting their electric hearts beat against mine. They weaken with each second, getting farther and farther away. “They’re flying away from us. If we’re going to go, we need to do it now.”
Both my brother and Kilorn look at me strangely, but neither argue. “This way,” Shade says, pointing through the trees. A small, almost invisible path winds through them, where the dirt has been swept away to reveal stone and asphalt beneath. Again, Shade links his arm through mine, and Kilorn charges ahead, setting a swift pace for us to follow.
Branches scrape against us, bending over the narrowing path, until it’s impossible for us to run side by side. But instead of letting me go, Shade squeezes even tighter. And then I realize he’s not squeezing me at all. It’s the air, the world. Everything and anything tightens in a blistering, black second. And then, in a blink, we’re on the other side of the trees, looking back to see Kilorn emerge from the gray grove.
“But he was ahead,” I murmur aloud, looking back and forth between Shade and the pathway. We cross into the middle of the street, with the sky and smoke drifting overhead. “You—”
Shade grins. The action seems out of place against the distant scream of jets. “Let’s say I . . . jumped. As long as you’re holding on to me, you’ll be able to come along,” he says, before hurrying us into the next alley.
My heart races with the knowledge that I just teleported, to the point where it’s almost possible to forget our predicament.
The jets are quick to remind me. Another missile explodes to the north, bringing down a building with the rumble of an earthquake. Dust races down the alley in a wave, painting us in another layer of gray. Smoke and fire are so familiar to me now that I barely smell it, even when ash begins to fall like snow. We leave our footprints in it. Perhaps they will be the last marks we make.
Shade knows where to go and how to run. Kilorn has no trouble keeping up, even with the rifle weighing him down. By now, we’ve circled back to the avenue. To the east, a swirl of daylight breaks through the dirt and dust, bringing with it a salty gasp of sea air. To the west, the first collapsed building lies like a fallen giant, blocking any retreat to the train. Broken glass, the iron skeletons of buildings, and strange slabs of faded white screens rise around us, a palace of ruins.
What was this? I dimly wonder. Julian would know. Just thinking his name hurts, and I push the sensation away.
A few other red rags dart through the ashen air, and I look for a familiar silhouette. But Cal is nowhere to be seen, and it makes me so terribly afraid.
“I’m not leaving without him.”
Shade doesn’t bother to ask who I’m talking about. He already knows.
“The prince is coming with us. I give you my word.”
My response cuts my insides. “I don’t trust your word.”
Shade is a soldier. His life has been anything but easy, and he is no stranger to pain. Still, my declaration wounds him deeply. I see it in his face.
I’ll apologize later, I tell myself.
If later ever comes.
Another missile sails overhead, striking a few streets away. The distant thunder of an explosion doesn’t mask the harsher and more terrifying noise rising all around.
The rhythm of a thousand marching feet.
The air thickens with a cloak of ash, buying us a few seconds to stare down our oncoming doom. The silhouettes of soldiers move down the streets from the north. I can’t see their guns yet, but a Silver army doesn’t need guns to kill.
Other Guardsmen flee before us, sprinting down the avenue with abandon. For now, it looks like they might escape, but to where? There’s only the river and the sea beyond. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. The army marches slowly, at a strange shuffling pace. I squint through the dust, straining to see them. And then I realize what this is, what Maven has done. The shock of it sparks in me, through me, forcing Shade and Kilorn to jump back.
“Mare!” Shade shouts, half-surprised, half-angry. Kilorn doesn’t say anything, watching me wobble on the spot.
My hand closes on his arm and he doesn’t flinch. My sparks are already gone—he knows I won’t hurt him. “Look,” I say, pointing.
We knew soldiers would come. Cal told us, warned us, that Maven would send in a legion after the airjets. But not even Cal could have predicted this. Only a heart so twisted as Maven’s could dream up this nightmare.
The figures of the first line are not wearing the clouded gray of Cal’s hard-trained Silver soldiers. They are not even soldiers at all. They are servants in red coats, red shawls, red tunics, red pants, red shoes. So much red they could be bleeding. And around their feet, clinking against the ground, are iron chains. The sound scrapes against me, drowning out the airjets and the missiles and even the harsh-barked orders of the Silver officers hiding behind their Red wall. The chains are all I hear.
Kilorn bristles, growling. He steps forward, raising his rifle to shoot, but the gun shudders in his hands. The army is still across the avenue, too far for an expert shot even without a human shield. Now it’s worse than impossible.
“We have to keep moving,” Shade mutters. Anger flares in his eyes, but he knows what must be done, what must be ignored, to stay alive. “Kilorn, come with us now, or we’ll leave you.”
My brother’s words sting, waking me up from my horrified daze. When Kilorn doesn’t move, I take his arm, whispering into his ear, hoping to drown out the chains.
“Kilorn.” It’s the voice I used on Mom when my brothers went to war, when Dad had a breathing attack, when things fell apart. “Kilorn, there’s nothing we can do for them.”
The words hiss through his teeth. “That’s not true.” He glances over his shoulder at me. “You have to do something. You can save them—”
To my eternal shame, I shake my head. “No, I can’t.”
We keep running. And Kilorn follows.
More missiles explode, faster and closer with each passing second. I can barely hear over the ringing in my ears. Steel and glass sway like reeds in the wind, bending and breaking until biting silver rain falls down upon us. Soon, it’s too dangerous to run, and Shade’s grip tightens on me. He grabs Kilorn too, jumping all three of us as the world collapses. My stomach twists every time the darkness closes in, and every time, the falling city gets closer. Ash and concrete dust choke our vision, making it difficult to breathe. Glass shatters in a bright storm, leaving shallow cuts across my face and hands, shredding my clothes. Kilorn looks worse than I do, his bandages red with fresh blood, but he keeps moving, careful not to outpace us. My brother’s grip never weakens, but he begins to tire, paling with every new jump. I’m not helpless, using my sparks to deflect the jagged metal shrapnel that even Shade can’t jump us away from. But we’re not enough, not even to save ourselves.
“How much farther?” My voice sounds small, drowned out by the tide of war. Against the haze, I can’t see farther than a few feet. But I can still feel. And what I feel are wings, engines, electricity screaming overhead, swooping closer and closer. We might as well be mice waiting for hawks to pluck us from the ground.
Shade stops us short, his honey-colored eyes sweeping back and forth. For one frightening second, I fear he might be lost. “Wait,” he says, knowing something we don’t.
He stares upward, at the skeleton of a once great structure. It’s massive, taller than the highest spire of the Hall of the Sun, wider than the great Caesar’s Square of Archeon. A tremor runs down my spine when I realize—it’s moving. Back and forth, side to side, swaying on twisting supports already worn by centuries of neglect. As we watch, it starts to tip, slumping slowly at first, like an old man settling into his chair. Then faster and faster, falling above us and around us.
“Hold on to me,” Shade shouts over the din, adjusting his grip on us both. He wraps his arm around my shoulders, crushing me to him, almost too tight to bear. I expect the now unpleasant sensation of jumping, but it never comes. Instead, I’m greeted by a more familiar sound.
Now it isn’t Shade’s ability saving my life, but his flesh. A bullet meant for me catches him in the meat of his upper arm, while another strafes his leg. He roars in anguish, almost falling to the cracked earth beneath. I feel the shot through him, but I have no time for pain. More bullets sing through the air, too fast and numerous to fight. We can only run, fleeing both the collapsing building and the oncoming army. One cancels out the other, with the twisted steel falling between the legion and us. At least, that’s what should happen. Gravity and fire made the structure fall, but the might of magnetrons stop it from shielding us. When I look back, I can see them, with silver hair and black armor, a dozen or so sweeping away every falling beam and steel support. I’m not close enough to see their faces, but I know House Samos well enough. Evangeline and Ptolemus direct their family, clearing the street so the legion can press on. So they can finish what they started and kill us all.
If only Cal had destroyed Ptolemus in the arena; if only I had shown Evangeline the same level of kindness she showed me. Then we might have a chance. But our mercy has a cost, and it might be our lives.
I hold on to my brother, supporting him as best I can. Kilorn does most of the heavy lifting. He takes the bulk of Shade’s weight, half dragging him toward a still smoking impact crater. We gladly dive into it, finding some refuge from the storm of bullets. But not much. Not for long.
Kilorn pants and sweat beads on his brow. He rips off one of his own sleeves, using it to bandage up Shade’s leg. Blood stains it quickly. “Can you jump?”
My brother furrows his brow, feeling not his pain but his strength. I understand that well enough. Slowly he shakes his head, his eyes going dark. “Not yet.”
Kilorn curses under his breath. “Then what do we do?”
It takes me a second to realize he’s asking me, and not my older brother. Not the soldier who knows battle better than either of us. But he’s not really asking me either. Not Mare Barrow of the Stilts, the thief, his friend. Kilorn is looking to someone else now, to who I became in the halls of a palace and the sands of an arena.
He’s asking the lightning girl.
“Mare, what do we do?”
“You leave me, that’s what you do!” Shade growls through clenched teeth, answering before I can. “You run to the river, you find Farley. I’ll jump to you as soon as I can.”
“Don’t lie to a liar,” I say, trying my best to keep from shaking. My brother was only just returned to me, a ghost back from the dead. I won’t let him slip away again, not for anything. “We’re getting out of here together. All of us.”
The legion’s march rumbles the ground. One glance over the edge of the crater tells me they’re less than a hundred yards away, advancing fast. I can see the Silvers between the gaps in the Red line. The foot soldiers wear the clouded gray uniforms of the army, but some have armor, the plates chased with familiar colors. Warriors from the High Houses. I see bits of blue, yellow, black, brown, and more. Nymphs and telkies and silks and strongarms, the most powerful fighters the Silvers can throw at us. They think Cal the king’s killer, me a terrorist, and they’ll bring the whole city down to destroy us.
Only my brother’s blood and Kilorn’s uneven breathing keeps me from vaulting out of the crater. I must find him, I must. If not for myself then for the cause, to protect the retreat. He’s worth a hundred good soldiers. He’s a golden shield. But he’s probably gone, escaped, having melted his chains and run when the city began to crumble.
No, he wouldn’t run. He would never run from that army, from Maven, or from me.
I hope I’m not wrong.
I hope he isn’t already dead.
“Get him up, Kilorn.” In the Hall of the Sun, the late Lady Blonos taught me how to speak like a princess. It is a cold voice, unyielding, leaving no room for contest.
Kilorn obeys, but Shade still has it in him to protest. “I’ll only slow you down.”
“You can apologize for that later,” I reply, helping him hop to his feet. But I’m barely paying attention to them, my concentration elsewhere. “Get moving.”
“Mare, if you think we’re leaving you—”
When I turn on Kilorn, I have sparks in my hands and determination in my heart. His words die on his lips. He glances past me, toward the army advancing with every passing second. Telkies and magnetrons scrape debris out of the street, opening the obliterated way with resounding scrapes of metal on stone.
Again, he obeys and Shade can do nothing but limp along, leaving me behind. As they clamber out of the crater, scrambling west, I take measured steps east. The army will stop for me. They must.
After one terrifying second, the Reds slow, their chains clinking as they halt. Behind them, Silvers balance black rifles on their shoulders, as if they were nothing at all. The war transports, great machines with treaded wheels, grind to a screeching stop somewhere behind the army. I can feel their power thrum through my veins.
The army is close enough now that I hear officers bark orders. “The lightning girl!” “Keep the line, stand firm!” “Take aim!” “Hold your fire!”
The worst comes last, ringing out against the suddenly quiet street. Ptolemus’s voice is familiar, full of hatred and rage.
“Make way for the king!” he shouts.
I stagger back. I expected Maven’s armies, but not Maven himself. He is not a soldier like his brother, and he has no business leading an army. But here he is, stalking through the parting troops, with Ptolemus and Evangeline on his heels. When he steps out from behind the Red line, my knees almost buckle. His armor is polished black, his cape crimson. Somehow he seems taller than he did this morning. He still wears his father’s crown of flames, though it has no place on a battlefield. I suppose he wants to show the world what he’s won with his lies, what a great prize he’s stolen. Even from so far away, I can feel the heat of his glare and his roiling anger. It burns me from inside out.
Nothing but the jets whistle overhead; it is the only sound in the world.
“I see you’re still brave,” Maven says, his voice carrying down the avenue. It echoes among the ruins, taunting me. “And foolish.”
Like in the arena, I will not give him the satisfaction of my anger and fear.
“They should call you the Little Quiet Girl.” He laughs coldly, and his army laughs with him. The Reds remain silent, their eyes fixed on the ground. They don’t want to watch what’s about to happen. “Well, Quiet Girl, tell your rat friends it is over. They are surrounded. Call them out, and I will give them the gift of good deaths.”
Even if I could give such an order, I never would. “They’re already gone.”
Don’t lie to a liar, and Maven is the grandest liar of all.
Still, he looks unsure. The Scarlet Guard has escaped so many times already, in Caesar’s Square, in Archeon. Perhaps they might escape even now. What an embarrassment that would be. What a disastrous start to his reign.
“And the traitor?” His voice sharpens, and Evangeline moves closer to him. Her silver hair glints like the edge of a razor, brighter than her gilded armor. But he moves away from her, batting her aside like a cat would a toy. “What about my wretched brother, the fallen prince?”
He never hears my answer, for I have none.
Maven laughs again and this time it stabs through my heart. “Has he abandoned you too? Did he run away? The coward kills our father and tries to steal my throne, only to slink off and hide?” He bristles, pretending for the sake of his nobles and soldiers. For them, he must still seem the tragic son, a king never meant for a crown, who wants nothing more than justice for the dead.
I raise my chin in challenge. “Do you think Cal would do such a thing?”
Maven is far from foolish. He is wicked, but not stupid, and he knows his brother better than anyone else alive. Cal is no coward and never will be. Lying to his subjects will never change that. Maven’s eyes betray his heart and he glances sidelong, at the alleys and streets leading away from the war-torn avenue. Cal could be hiding in any one, waiting to strike. I could even be the trap, the bait to draw out the weasel I once called my betrothed and my friend. When he turns his head, his crown slips, too big for his skull. Even the metal knows it does not belong to him.
“I think you stand alone, Mare.” He speaks softly. Despite all he’s done to me, my name in his mouth makes me shiver, thinking of days gone by. Once he said it with kindness and affection. Now it sounds like a curse. “Your friends are gone. You have lost. And you are an abomination, the only one of your wretched kind. It will be a mercy to remove you from this world.”
More lies, and we both know it. I mirror his cold laugh. For a second, we look like friends again. Nothing is further from the truth.
A jet overhead sweeps by, its wings almost scraping the tip of a nearby ruin. It’s so close. Too close. I can feel its electric heart, its whirring engines somehow keeping it aloft. I reach for it as best I can, like I have so many times before. Like the lights, like the cameras, like every wire and circuit since I became the lightning girl, I take hold of it—and shut it off.
The airjet dips, nose down, gliding for a moment on heavy wings. Its original trajectory meant to take it above the avenue, high over the legion to protect the king. Now it dives headfirst into them, sailing over the Red line to collide with hundreds of Silvers. The Samos magnetrons and Provos telkies aren’t quick enough to stop the jet as it plows into the street, sending asphalt and bodies flying. The resounding boom as it explodes nearly knocks me off my feet, pushing me farther away. The blast is deafening, disorienting, and painful. No time for pain repeats in my head. I don’t bother to watch the chaos of Maven’s army. I am already running, and my lightning is with me.
Purple-and-white sparks shield my back, keeping me safe from the swifts trying to run me down. A few collide with my lightning, trying to break through. They fall back in piles of smoked flesh and twitching bone. I’m grateful I can’t see their faces, or else I might dream of them later. Bullets come next, but my zigzagging sprint makes me a difficult target. The few shots that get close shriek apart in my shield, like my body was supposed to when I fell into the electric net at Queenstrial. That moment seems so long ago. Overhead, the jets scream again, this time careful to keep their distance. Their missiles are not so polite.
The ruins of Naercey stood for thousands of years, but will not survive this day. Buildings and streets crumble, destroyed by Silver powers and missiles alike. Everything and everyone has been unleashed. The magnetrons twist and snap steel support beams, while telkies and strongarms hurl rubble through the ashen sky. Water bleeds up from the sewers as nymphs attempt to flood the city, flushing out the last of the Guardsmen hiding in the tunnels below us. The wind howls, strong as a hurricane, from the windweavers in the army. Water and rubble sting my eyes, the gusts so sharp they are nearly blinding. Oblivions’ explosions rock the ground beneath me and I stumble, confused. I never used to fall. But now my face scrapes against the asphalt, leaving blood in my wake. When I get back up, a banshee’s glass-shattering scream knocks me down again, forcing me to cover my ears. More blood there, dripping fast and thick between my fingers. But the banshee who flattened me has accidentally saved me. As I fall, another missile blasts over my head, so near I feel it ripple the air.
It explodes too close, the heat pulsing through my hasty lightning shield. Dimly, I wonder if I’ll die without eyebrows. But instead of burning through me, the heat stands constant, uncomfortable but not unbearable. Strong, bruising hands wrench me to my feet, and blond hair glints in the firelight. I can just make out her face through the biting windstorm. Farley. Her gun is gone, her clothes torn, and her muscles quiver, but she keeps holding me up.
Behind her, a tall, familiar figure cuts a black silhouette against the explosion. He holds it back with a single, outstretched hand. His shackles are gone, melted or cast away. When he turns, the flames grow, licking at the sky and the destroyed street, but never us. Cal knows exactly what he’s doing, directing the firestorm around us like water around rock. As in the arena, he forms a burning wall across the avenue, protecting us from his brother and the legion beyond. But now, his flames are strong, fed by oxygen and rage. They leap up into the air, so hot the base burns ghostly blue.
More missiles drop, but again, Cal contains their power, using it to feed his own. It’s almost beautiful, watching his long arms arc and turn, transforming destruction into protection with steady rhythm.
Farley tries to pull me away, overpowering me. With the flames defending us, I turn to see the river a hundred yards away. I can even see the hulking shadows of Kilorn and my brother, limping toward supposed safety.
“Come on, Mare,” she growls, half dragging my bruised and weakened body.
For a second, I let her pull me along. It hurts too much to think clearly. But one glance back and I understand what she’s doing, what she’s trying to make me do.
“I’m not leaving without him!” I shout for the second time today.
“I think he’s doing fine on his own,” she says, her blue eyes reflecting the fire.
Once, I thought like her. That Silvers were invincible, gods upon the earth, too powerful to destroy. But I killed three just this morning; Arven, the Rhambos strongarm, and the nymph lord Osanos. Probably more with the lightning storm. And they almost killed me, and Cal, for that matter. We had to save each other in the arena. And we must do so again.
Farley is bigger than me, taller and stronger, but I’m more agile. Even banged up and half-deaf. One flick of my ankle, one well-timed shove, and she stumbles backward, letting go. I turn in the same motion, palms outstretched, feeling for what I need. Naercey has far less electricity than Archeon or even the Stilts, but I don’t need to leach power from anything now. I make my own.
The first blast of nymph water pounds against the flames with the strength of a tidal wave. Most of it flash boils into vapor, but the rest falls on the wall, extinguishing the great tongues of fire. I answer the water with my own electricity, aiming for the waves curling and crashing in midair. Behind the wave, the Silver legion marches forward, lunging for us. At least the chained Reds have been pulled away, relegated to the back of the line. Maven’s doing. He won’t let them slow him down.
His soldiers meet my lightning instead of open air, and behind it, Cal’s fire jumps back up from the embers.
“Move back slowly,” Cal says, gesturing with an open hand. I mirror his measured steps, careful not to look away from the oncoming doom. Together we alternate back and forth, protecting our own retreat. When his flame falls, my lightning rises, and so on. Together, we have a chance.
He mutters little commands: when to step, when to raise a wall, when to let it drop. He looks more exhausted than I’ve ever seen him, his veins blue-black beneath pale skin, with gray circles rimming his eyes. I know I must look worse. But his pacing keeps us from giving out entirely, allowing little bits of our strengths to return just when we need.
“Just a little farther,” Farley calls, her voice echoing from behind. But she’s not running off. She’s staying with us, even though she’s just human. She’s braver than I gave her credit for.
“Farther to what?” I growl through gritted teeth, tossing up another net of electricity. Despite Cal’s commands, I’m getting slower, and a bit of rubble flies through. It breaks a few yards away, crumbling into dust. We are running out of time.
But so is Maven.
I can smell the river, and the ocean beyond. Sharp and salty, it beckons, but to what end, I have no idea. I only know that Farley and Shade believe it will save us from Maven’s jaws. When I glance behind me, I see nothing but the avenue, dead-ending at the river’s edge. Farley stands, waiting, her short hair stirring in the hot wind. Jump, she mouths, before plunging off the edge of the crumbled street.
What is it with her and leaping into an abyss?
“She wants us to jump,” I tell Cal, turning back just in time to supplant his wall.
He grunts in agreement, too focused to speak. Like my lightning, his fires grow weak and thin. We can almost see through them now, to the soldiers on the other side. Flickering flame distorts their features, turning eyes into burning coals, mouths into smiling fangs, and men into demons.
One of them steps up to the wall of fire, close enough to burn. But he doesn’t. Instead, he draws the flames apart like a curtain.
Only one person can do that.
Maven shakes embers from his silly cape, letting the silk burn away while his armor holds firm. He has the gall to smile.
And somehow, Cal has the strength to turn away. Instead of tearing Maven apart with his bare hands, he takes my wrist in his searing-hot grip. We sprint together, not bothering to defend our backs. Maven is no match for either of us, and he knows it. Instead, he screams. Despite the crown and the blood on his hands, he is still so young.
“Run, murderer! Run, lightning girl! Run fast and far!” His laughter echoes off the crumbling ruins, haunting me. “There is nowhere I won’t find you!”
I’m dimly aware of my lightning failing, giving out as I get farther away. Cal’s own flame crumbles with it, exposing us to the rest of the legion. But we’re already jumping through midair, to the river ten feet below.
We land, not with a splash but the resounding clang of metal. I have to roll to keep from shattering my ankles, but still feel a hollow, aching pain run up my bones. What? Farley waits, knee-deep in the cold river, next to a cylindrical metal tube with an open top. Without speaking she clambers into it, disappearing into whatever lies beneath us. We have no time to argue or ask questions, and follow blindly.
At least Cal has the good sense to close the tube behind us, shutting out the river and the war above. It hisses pneumatically, forming an airtight seal. But that won’t protect us for long, not against the legion.
“More tunnels?” I ask breathlessly, whirling to Farley. My vision spots with the motion and I have to slump against the wall, my legs shaking.
Like she did on the street, Farley puts one arm under my shoulder, supporting my weight. “No, this isn’t a tunnel,” she says with a puzzling smirk.
And then I feel it. Like a battery humming somewhere, but bigger. Stronger. It pulses all around us, down the strange hallway swimming with blinking buttons and low, yellow lights. I glimpse red scarves moving down the passage, hiding the faces of the Guardsmen. They look hazy, like crimson shadows. With a groan, the whole hall shudders and drops, angling downward. Into the water.
“A boat. An underwater boat,” Cal says. His voice is faraway, shaky, and weak. Just like I feel.
Neither of us makes it more than a few feet before we collapse against the sloping walls.
In the past few days, I’ve woken up in a jail cell and then on a train. Now it’s an underwater boat. Where will I wake up tomorrow?
I’m beginning to think this has all been a dream, or a hallucination, or worse. But can you feel tired in dreams? Because I certainly do. My exhaustion is bone-deep, in every muscle and nerve. My heart is another wound entirely, still bleeding from betrayal and failure. When I open my eyes, finding cramped, gray walls, everything I want to forget comes rushing back. It’s like Queen Elara is in my head again, forcing me to relive my worst memories. As much as I try, I can’t stop them.
My quiet maids were executed, guilty of nothing but painting my skin. Tristan, speared like a pig. Walsh. She was my brother’s age, a servant from the Stilts, my friend—one of us. And she died cruelly, by her own hand, to protect the Guard, our purpose, and me. Even more died in the tunnels of Caesar’s Square, Guardsmen killed by Cal’s soldiers, killed by our foolish plan. The memory of red blood burns, but so does the thought of silver. Lucas, a friend, a protector, a Silver with a kind heart, executed for what Julian and I made him do. Lady Blonos, decapitated because she taught me how to sit properly. Colonel Macanthos, Reynald Iral, Belicos Lerolan. Sacrificed for the cause. I almost retch when I remember Lerolan’s twin boys, four years old, killed in the explosion that followed the shooting. Maven told me it was an accident—a punctured gas line, but now I know better. His evil runs too deep for such coincidence. I doubt he minded throwing a few more bodies on the blaze, if only to convince the world the Guard was made of monsters. He’ll kill Julian too, and Sara. They’re probably dead already. I can’t think of them at all. It’s too painful. Now my thoughts turn back to Maven himself, to cold blue eyes and the moment I realized his charming smile hid a beast.
The bunk beneath me is hard, the blankets thin, with no pillow to speak of, but part of me wants to lie back down. Already my headache returns, throbbing with the electric pulse of this miracle boat. It is a firm reminder—there is no peace for me here. Not yet, not while so much more must be done. The list. The names. I must find them. I must keep them safe from Maven and his mother. Heat spreads across my face, my skin flushing with the memory of Julian’s little book of hard-won secrets. A record of those like me, with the strange mutation that gives us Red blood and Silver abilities. The list is Julian’s legacy. And mine.
I swing my legs over the side of the cot, almost thwacking my head on the bunk above me, and find a neatly folded set of clothing on the floor. Black pants that are too long, a dark red shirt with threadbare elbows, and boots missing laces. Nothing like the fine clothes I found in a Silver cell, but they feel right against my skin.
I barely have the shirt over my head when my compartment door bangs open on great iron hinges. Kilorn waits expectantly on the other side, his smile forced and grim. He shouldn’t blush, having seen me in various stages of undress for many summers, but his cheeks redden anyway.
“It’s not like you to sleep so long,” he says, and I hear worry in his voice.
I shrug it off and stand on weak legs. “I guess I needed it.” An odd ringing in my ears takes hold, piercing but not painful. I shake my head back and forth, trying to get rid of it, looking like a wet dog in the process.
“That’ll be the banshee scream.” He crosses to me and takes my head in gentle but callused hands. I submit to his examination, sighing in annoyance. He turns me sideways, glancing at ears that ran red with blood however long ago. “You’re lucky it didn’t hit you head-on.”
“I’m a lot of things, but I don’t think lucky is one of them.”
“You’re alive, Mare,” he says sharply, pulling away. “That’s more than many can say.” His glare brings me back to Naercey, when I told my brother I didn’t trust his word. Deep in my heart, I know I still don’t.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter quickly. Of course I know others have died, for the cause and for me. But I’ve died too. Mare of the Stilts died the day she fell onto a lightning shield. Mareena, the lost Silver princess, died in the Bowl of Bones. And I don’t know what new person opened her eyes on the Undertrain. I only know what she has been and what she has lost, and the weight of it is almost crushing.
“Are you going to tell me where we’re going, or is that another secret?” I try to keep the bitterness from my voice, but fail miserably.
Kilorn is polite enough to ignore it and leans back against the door. “We left Naercey five hours ago, and we’re headed northeast. That’s honestly all I know.”
“And that doesn’t bother you at all?”
He only shrugs. “What makes you think the higher-ups trust me, or you, for that matter? You know better than anyone how foolish we’ve been, and the high cost we’ve paid.” Again, I feel the sting of memory. “You said yourself, you can’t even trust Shade. I doubt anyone’s going to be sharing secrets anytime soon.”
The jab doesn’t hurt as much as I expected it to. “How is he?”
Kilorn tosses his head, gesturing out to the hallway. “Farley carved out a nice little medical station for the wounded. He’s doing better than the others. Cursing a lot, but definitely better.” His green eyes darken a bit, and he turns his gaze away. “His leg—”
I draw in a startled breath. “Infected?” At home in the Stilts, infection was as bad as a severed arm. We didn’t have much medicine, and once the blood went bad, all you could do was keep chopping, hoping to outrun fever and blackened veins.
To my relief, Kilorn shakes his head. “No, Farley dosed him good, and the Silvers fight with clean bullets. So that’s big of them.” He laughs darkly, expecting me to join him. Instead, I shiver. The air is so cold down here. “But he’ll definitely be limping for a while.”
“Will you take me to him or do I have to figure out the way myself?”
Another dark laugh and he extends his arm. To my surprise, I find that I need his support to help me walk. Naercey and the Bowl of Bones have certainly taken their toll.
Mersive. That’s what Kilorn calls the strange underwater boat. How it manages to sail beneath the ocean is beyond both of us, though I’m sure Cal will figure it out. He’s next on my list. I’ll find him after I make sure my brother is still breathing. I remember Cal being barely conscious when we escaped, just like me. But I don’t suppose Farley will set him up in the medical station, not with injured Guardsmen all around. There’s too much bad blood and no one wants an inferno in a sealed metal tube.
The banshee’s scream still rings in my head, a dull whine that I try to ignore. And with every step, I learn about new aches and bruises. Kilorn notes my every wince and slows his pace, allowing me to lean on his arm. He ignores his own wounds, deep cuts hidden beneath yet another set of fresh bandages. He always had battered hands, bruised and cut from fishing hooks and rope, but they were familiar wounds. They meant he was safe, employed, free from conscription. If not for one dead fish master, little scars would be his only burden.
Once that thought would have made me sad. Now I feel only rage.
The main passage of the mersive is long but narrow, divided by several metal doors with thick hinges and pressurized seals. To close off portions if need be, to stop the entire vessel from flooding and sinking. But the doors give me no comfort whatsoever. I can’t stop thinking about dying at the bottom of the ocean, locked in a watery coffin. Even Kilorn, a boy raised on water, seems uncomfortable. The dim lights set into the ceiling filter strangely, cutting shadows across his face to make him appear old and drawn.
The other Guardsmen aren’t so affected, coming and going with great purpose. Their red scarves and shawls have been lowered, revealing faces set in grim determination. They carry charts, trays of medical supplies, bandages, food, or even the occasional rifle down the passage, always hurrying and chattering to each other. But they stop at the sight of me, pressing back against the walls to give me as much room as possible in the narrow space. The more daring ones look me in the eye, watching me limp past, but most stare at their feet.
A few even seem afraid.
I want to say thank you, to somehow express how deeply indebted I am to every man and woman aboard this strange ship. Thank you for your service almost slips past my lips, but I clench my jaw to keep it back. Thank you for your service. It’s what they print in the notices, the letters sent to tell you your children have died for a useless war. How many parents did I watch weep over those words? How many more will receive them, when the Measures send even younger children to the front?
None, I tell myself. Farley will have a plan for that, just like we will come up with a way to find the newbloods—the others like me. We will do something. We must do something.
The Guardsmen against the wall mutter among themselves as I pass. Even the ones who can’t stand to look at me whisper to each other, not bothering to mask their words. I suppose they think what they’re saying is a compliment.
“The lightning girl” echoes from them, bouncing off the metal walls. It surrounds me like Elara’s wretched whispers, ghosting into my brain. Little lightning girl. It’s what she used to call me, what they called me.
No. No, it isn’t.
Despite the pain, I straighten my spine, standing as tall as I can.
I am not little anymore.
The whispers follow us all the way to the medical station, where a pair of Guardsmen keeps watch at the closed door. They’re also watching the ladder, a heavy metal thing reaching up into the ceiling. The only exit and only entrance in this slow bullet of a ship. One of the guards has dark red hair, just like Tristan, though he’s nowhere near as tall. The other is built like a boulder, with nut-brown skin, angled eyes, a broad chest, and massive hands better suited to a strongarm. They bow their heads at the sight of me but, to my relief, don’t spare me much more than a glance. Instead, they turn their attentions to Kilorn, grinning at him like school friends.
“Back so soon, Warren?” The redhead chuckles, waggling his eyebrows in suggestion. “Lena’s gone off her shift.”
Lena? Kilorn tenses beneath my arm, but says nothing to betray his discomfort. Instead, he laughs along, grinning. But I know him better than any, enough to see the force behind his smile. To think, he’s been spending his time flirting while I’ve been unconscious and Shade lies wounded and bleeding.
“The boy’s got enough on his plate without chasing pretty nurses,” the boulder says. His deep voice echoes down the passage, probably carrying all the way to Lena’s quarters. “Farley’s still making rounds, if you’re after her,” he adds, jabbing a thumb at the door.
“And my brother?” I speak up, disentangling myself from Kilorn’s supporting grip. My knees almost buckle, but I stand firm. “Shade Barrow?”
Their smiles fade, stiffening into something more formal. It’s almost like being back in the Silver court. The boulder grips the door, spinning the massive wheel lock so he doesn’t have to look at me. “He’s recovering well, miss, er, my lady.”
My stomach drops at the title. I thought I was done with such things.
“Please call me Mare.”
“Of course,” he replies without any kind of resolve. Though we are both part of the Scarlet Guard, soldiers together in our cause, we are not the same. This man, and many others, will never call me by my given name, no matter how much I want them to.
He swings open the door with a tiny nod, revealing a wide but shallow compartment filled with bunks. Sleeping quarters at one time, but now the stacked beds are full of patients, the single aisle buzzing with men and women in white shifts. Many have clothes spattered with crimson blood, too preoccupied setting a leg or administering medication to notice me limping into their midst.
Kilorn’s hand hovers by my waist, ready to catch me should I need him again, but I lean on the bunks instead. If everyone’s going to stare at me, I might as well try to walk on my own.
Shade props up against a single thin pillow, supported mostly by the sloping metal wall. He can’t possibly be comfortable, but his eyes are closed, and his chest rises and falls in the easy rhythm of sleep. Judging by his leg, suspended from the ceiling of his bunk by a hasty sling, and his bandaged shoulder, he’s surely been medicated a few times. The sight of him so broken, even though I thought him dead just yesterday, is shockingly hard to bear.
“We should let him sleep,” I murmur to no one in particular, expecting no answer.
“Yes, please do,” Shade says without opening his eyes. But his lips quirk into a familiar, mischievous smile. Despite his grim, injured figure, I have to laugh.
The trick is a familiar one. Shade would pretend to sleep through school or our parents’ whispered conversations. I have to laugh at the memory, remembering how many little secrets Shade picked up in this particular way. I may have been born a thief, but Shade was born a spy. No wonder he ended up in the Scarlet Guard.
“Eavesdropping on nurses?” My knee cracks as I sit on the side of his bunk, careful not to jostle him. “Have you learned how many bandages they’ve got squirreled away?”
But instead of laughing at the joke, Shade opens his eyes. He draws Kilorn and me closer with a beckoning hand. “The nurses know more than you think,” he says, his gaze flickering toward the far end of the compartment.
I turn to find Farley busying herself over an occupied bunk. The woman in it is out cold, probably drugged, and Farley monitors her pulse closely. In this light, her scar stands out rudely, twisting one side of her mouth into a scowl before cutting down the side of her neck and under her collar. Part of it has split open, and was hastily stitched up. Now the only red she wears is the swath of blood across her white nurse’s shift and the half-washed stains reaching to her elbows. Another nurse stands at her shoulder, but his shift is clean, and he whispers hurriedly in her ear. She nods occasionally, though her face tightens in anger.
“What have you heard?” Kilorn asks, shifting so that his body blocks Shade entirely. To anyone else, it looks like we’re adjusting his bandages.
“We’re headed to another base, this time off the coast. Outside Nortan territory.”
I strain to remember Julian’s old map, but I can’t think of much more than the coastline. “An island?”
Shade nods. “Called Tuck. It must not be much, because the Silvers don’t even have an outpost there. They’ve all but forgotten it.”
Dread pools in my stomach. The prospect of isolating myself on an island with no means of escape scares me even more than the mersive. “But they know it exists. That’s enough.”
“Farley seemed confident in the base there.”
Kilorn scoffs aloud. “I remember her thinking Naercey was safe too.”
“It wasn’t her fault we lost Naercey,” I say. It’s mine.
“Maven tricked everyone, Mare,” Kilorn replies, nudging my shoulder. “He got past me, you, and Farley. We all believed in him.”
With his mother to coach him, to read our minds and mold Maven to our hopes, it’s no wonder we were all fooled. And now he is king. Now he will fool—and control—our whole world. What a world that will be, with a monster for its king, and his mother holding his leash.
But I push through such thoughts. They can wait. “Did Farley say anything else? What about the list? She still has it, doesn’t she?”
Shade watches her over my shoulder, careful to keep his voice low. “She does, but she’s more concerned with the others we’re meeting in Tuck, Mom and Dad included.” A rush of warmth spreads through me, an invigorating curl of happiness. Shade brightens at the sight of my small but genuine smile, and he takes my hand. “Gisa too, and the lumps we call brothers.”
A cord of tension releases in my chest, but is soon replaced by another. I tighten my grip on him, one eyebrow raised in question. “Others? Who? How can that be?” After the massacre beneath Caesar’s Square and the evacuation of Naercey, I didn’t think anyone else existed.
But Kilorn and Shade don’t share my confusion, electing to exchange furtive glances instead. Yet again, I’m in the dark, and I don’t like it one bit. But this time, it’s my own brother and best friend keeping secrets, not an evil queen and scheming prince.
Somehow, this hurts more. Scowling, I glare at them both until they realize I’m waiting for answers.
Kilorn grits his teeth and has the good sense to look apologetic. He gestures to Shade. Passing the blame. “You know more than I do.”
“The Guard likes to play things close to the chest, and rightfully so.” Shade adjusts himself, sitting up a little more. He hisses at the motion, clutching at his wounded shoulder, but waves me off before I can help him. “We want to look small, broken, disorganized—”
I can’t help but snort, eyeing his bandages. “Well, you’re doing a terrific job.”
“Don’t be cruel, Mare,” Shade snaps back, sounding very much like our mother. “I’m trying to tell you that things aren’t so bad as they seem. Naercey was not our only stronghold and Farley is not our only leader. In fact, she’s not even true Command. She’s just a captain. There are others like her—and even more above her.”
Judging by the way she orders around her soldiers, I would think Farley was an empress. When I chance another glance at her, she’s busy redoing a bandage, all while scolding the nurse who originally set the wound. But my brother’s conviction can’t be ignored. He knows much more than I do about the Scarlet Guard, and I’m inclined to believe what he says about them is true. There’s more to this organization than what I see here. It’s encouraging—and frightening.
“The Silvers think they’re two steps ahead of us, but they don’t even know where we stand,” Shade continues, his voice full of fervor. “We seem weak because we want to.”
I turn back quickly. “They seem weak because they are. Because Maven tricked you, trapped you, slaughtered you, and ran you out of your own house. Or are you going to try and tell me that was all part of another plan?”
“Mare—” Kilorn mumbles, putting his shoulder against mine in a display of comfort. But I shove him away. He needs to hear this too.
“I don’t care how many secret tunnels and boats and bases you have. You’re not going to win against him, not like this.” Tears I didn’t know I still had sting my eyes, prickling at Maven’s memory. It’s hard to forget him as he was. No. As he pretended to be. The kind, forgotten boy. The shadow of the flame.
“Then what do you suggest, lightning girl?”
Farley’s voice shocks through me like my own sparks, setting every nerve on edge. For a brief, blistering second, I stare at my hands knotted in Shade’s sheets. Maybe she’ll leave if I don’t turn around. Maybe she’ll let me be.
Don’t be such a fool, Mare Barrow.
“Fight fire with fire,” I tell her as I stand. Her height used to intimidate me. Now glaring up at her feels natural and familiar.
“Is that some kind of Silver joke?” she sneers, crossing her arms.
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
She doesn’t reply, and that’s answer enough. In her silence, I realize the rest of the compartment has gone quiet. Even the injured stifle their pain to watch the lightning girl challenge their captain.
“You thrive on looking weak and striking hard, yes? Well, they do everything they can to look strong, to seem invincible. But in the arena, I proved they are not.” Again, stronger, so everyone can hear you. I call on the firm voice Lady Blonos brought to life in me. “They are not invincible.”
Farley isn’t stupid, and finds it easy to follow my train of thought. “You’re stronger than they are,” she says, matter-of-fact. Her eyes stray to Shade, lying tense in his bunk. “And you’re not the only one who is.”
I nod sharply, pleased that she already knows what I want. “Hundreds of names, hundreds of Reds with abilities. Stronger, faster, better than they are, with blood as red as the dawn.” My breath catches, as if it knows it stands on the edge of the future. “Maven will try to kill them, but if we get to them first, they could be—”
“The greatest army this world has ever seen.” Farley’s eyes glass at the thought. “An army of newbloods.”
When she smiles, her scar strains against its stitches, threatening to split open again. Her grin widens. She doesn’t mind the pain.
But I certainly do. I suppose I always will.