Chapter no 1

Red Queen (Red Queen, 1)

I HATE FIRST FRIDAYS . The day had packed the entire village, and right now, in the heat of peak summer, that was the last thing anyone wanted. From where I stood in the shadows, the heat wasn’t so bad, but the smell of people drenched in sweat from work in the morning was enough to make the milk curdle. The air shimmered with heat and humidity. In fact, the puddles left over from yesterday’s storm were hot, with swirls of rainbow spots of oil and grease.

The market is starting to quiet down. Everyone was busy closing their stalls. The merchants were distracted, distracted, and made it easy for me to take whatever I wanted from their merchandise. Once I was done, my pockets were bulging with trinkets, and I had an apple for the road. Not bad, for just a few minutes of work. As the crowd moved, I let myself be pushed by the flow of people. My hands reached in and out nimbly, always a fleeting touch. A few bills from a man’s pocket, a bracelet from a woman’s wrist—nothing too big. The villagers were too busy moving forward to notice the pickpocket in their midst.

The tall buildings on stilts that give rise to the village’s name (Village of Stilts—very original, isn’t it?) towered around us, three meters above the muddy ground. In spring, the riverbanks recede, but this is August, when dehydration and sunstroke stalk the village. Almost everyone looks forward to the arrival of First Friday of each month, when work and school end early. But not with me. No, I’d rather stay at school, without learning anything in a classroom full of kids.

Not that I’ll be at school much longer. My eighteenth birthday was coming up, and with it, the call to arms. I’m not an intern, I don’t have a job, so I’m going to be sent to war like everyone else who is unemployed . No wonder there was no work left because every man, woman, and child was trying to avoid the army.

My brothers left for the war when they turned eighteen, all three of them were sent to fight against the Lakelanders. Only Shade was good at writing, and he took the time to send me letters whenever possible. I haven’t heard from my other two brothers, Bree and Tramy, in over a year. However, no news is good news. Relatives could go years without hearing the slightest news, only to find their sons and daughters waiting at the door, home on leave or sometimes, mercifully, dismissed. But most often we will receive a letter made of thick paper, stamped with the king’s crown beneath a short thank you for

our child’s life. Perhaps we could even recover a few buttons from their torn and destroyed uniforms.

I was thirteen when Bree left. He kissed my cheek and gave me a pair of earrings to share with my little sister, Gisa. The earrings were dangling glass beads, faded pink like the setting sun. We got our ears pierced that night. Tramy and Shade carry on the tradition as they go. Now Gisa and I have an earring in one ear with three small stones to commemorate our brothers who are fighting somewhere. At first I couldn’t believe they had to leave, not until the legionnaires in shining armor appeared and took them away one by one. And this fall, they will come for me. I’ve started saving—and pickpocketing—to buy Gisa earrings when I leave.

Don’t worry about that. That’s what Mother always said, about the troops, about my brothers, about everything. Good advice, ma’am.

Midway, at the intersection of Mill and Marcher Streets, the crowd grew and more and more villagers joined the flow of the crowd. A group of kids, snotty pickpockets, were reaching through the crowd with sticky, clever fingers. They were still too young to be good at it, and the Security officers quickly took over. Normally the children would be sent to slaughterhouses, or to prisons in remote areas, but officials wanted to see First Friday. They were satisfied for a bit

beat up the gang leaders before letting them go. A little forgiveness.

The slight touch on my waist made my body twist, moving on instinct. I snatched the hand of anyone stupid enough to pickpocket away from me, gripping it tightly so the brat couldn’t escape. But instead of a skinny boy, I found myself looking at a face grinning broadly.

Kilorn Warren. An apprentice fisherman, a war orphan, and perhaps my only true friend. We used to fight each other as kids, but now that I’m older—and he’s thirty inches taller than me—I try to avoid fighting with him. He has a use for himself. To reach high shelves, for example.

“You’re getting nimble.” He chuckled, releasing his grip on my hand.

“Or you’re getting slower.”

He rolled his eyes and snatched the apple from my hand. “Are we waiting for Gisa?” he asked, taking a bite of the apple. “He got permission today. Work.”

“Then let’s go. Don’t miss the show.”

“It would be a tragedy if that happened.”

“Tsk, tsk, Mare,” he taunted, shaking his finger at me. “The show is supposed to be fun.”

“That show was supposed to be a warning, you fool.” However, he was already walking with long strides,

forcing me to jog to keep up with him. His steps were unsteady, he lost his balance. Sailor legs , he calls them, though

Kilorn had never been to the open sea. I think spending a day on his master’s fishing boat, even on a river, had its own effect on him.

Like my father, Kilorn’s father was sent to war, but while my father came home missing a leg and a lung, Mr. Warren came home in a shoe box. Kilorn’s mother ran away after the incident, leaving her little son alone. He almost starved to death, but somehow he still enjoyed picking fights with me. I fed him so I wouldn’t have to fight someone so skinny, and now, ten years later, here he is. At least he was an apprentice and wouldn’t face war.

We arrived at the foot of the hill, where the crowd grew denser, pushing and elbowing in all directions. First Friday attendance is mandatory, unless we, like my sister, are “essential workers.” As if weaving silk cloth was important. But the Silvers really loved their silk. Even the security officers, at least some of them, could be bribed with a piece of silk woven by my sister. Not that I know anything about it.

The shadows around us grew thicker as we climbed the stone steps, towards the top of the hill. Kilorn took two steps at a time, almost leaving me behind, but he stopped to wait. He grinned at me below while brushing a tuft of tawny hair from his pair of green eyes.

“Sometimes I forget that you have baby feet.”

“Better than a child’s brain,” I bluffed, giving him a light pat on the cheek as I passed. His laughter followed me up the stairs.

“You’re fiercer than usual.” “I just hate these things.”

“I know,” he muttered, suddenly quiet.

Then we arrived at an arena, the sun shining brightly overhead. Built ten years ago, the arena is clearly the largest building in Jangkungan Village. The building was nothing compared to the grand buildings in the city, but still, the towering steel arches, thousands of feet of concrete, were enough to make a country girl gasp.

Security Guards were everywhere, their black-and-silver uniforms standing out in the crowd. It’s First Friday, and they can’t wait to see the event. They carry long-handled rifles or pistols, even though they don’t need them. As if it had become commonplace, the Security officers came from the Silver Clan, and for them there was nothing to fear from the Red Clan. Everyone knows that too. We’re no match for them, although you wouldn’t know it just from looking at us. The only thing that could differentiate us, at least from the outside, was the Silvers standing tall. While our backs are bent from hard work, unanswered hopes, and inevitable disappointment in our fate.

The air inside the roofless arena was as hot as outside, and Kilorn, ever alert, led me under a shady shelter. We don’t get seats here, just long concrete steps, but

some of the Perak nobles above enjoyed the cool and comfortable seats. There, they had drinks, food, ice even in the height of summer, benches with cushions, electric lights, and other comforts I would never enjoy. The Silvers didn’t bother at all, complaining about “misfortune.” I would like to give that misfortune to them, if only I had the chance, so that they would know the feeling. All we got were hard benches and several video screens that were too bright for the eyes and too deaf for the ears.

“Be willing to bet your daily wage, the mighty arm will win today,” said Kilorn, throwing an apple onto the arena floor.

“No bet,” I said. Most Reds bet their money on the fight, hoping to win a little money to help them get through the next week. But that doesn’t apply to me, nor to Kilorn. It is easier to make a profit from picking a bookie’s wallet than winning money from betting. “You shouldn’t waste money like that.”

“It’s not a waste if I’m right. It is always the mighty arm that conquers someone.”

The mighty arms usually dominate at least half of the fights held. Their skills and abilities are better suited to the arena than most of the other Silvers. They seem to enjoy it, using their superhuman strength to toss the other fighters around like rag dolls.

“How about the others?” I asked, thinking about the ranks of other Silvers that could appear. The telkies—telekineticists, speedmen, nymphs—waterbenders, greenhorns, stonekinks, were all terrible to behold.

“Who knows. I hope, though, something cool. I want to be entertained.” Kilorn and I don’t see eye to eye on Celebration

First Friday. For me, watching two fighters finish each other off isn’t entertainment, but Kilorn enjoyed it. Just let them destroy each other, he said. They are not our people.

He didn’t understand what the meaning behind the Celebration was. This is not pure entertainment, intended to give us a break from exhausting work. It’s a measured and cruel message. Only Silvers can fight in the arena because only a Silver can survive in the arena. They fight to show us their strength and power. You are no match for us. We are better than you. We are gods. It’s written in every superhuman punch the fighters land.

And they are right. A month ago, I watched a fight between a telky and a speedy human, and even though the speedy human could move more swiftly than the eye could see, the telky beat him soundly. With just the power of his mind, he lifted his opponent’s fighter off the ground. The swift began to suffocate; I think the telky is strangling his throat with something invisible. As the humans’ faces quickly turned blue, they stopped the fight. Kilorn cheered. He bet on the telky.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Silver and Red, welcome to the First Friday, the Battle of August.” The host’s voice echoed throughout the arena, amplified by the walls. He sounded bored, and I didn’t blame him.

Once upon a time, Celebration was not a contest at all, but an execution. Prisoners and enemies of the state would be transported to Archeon, the nation’s capital, and killed in front of the Silver group. I guess the Silvers liked that so games started being held. Not for killing each other, but for entertainment. Later, the activity became a Celebration and spread to other cities, to different arenas and audiences. In the end the Reds were allowed in, although stuck in the cheap seats. Not long afterward, the Perak set up arenas like that in all corners, even in villages like Jangkungan. And the presence that was once a gift has now become a mandatory curse. Shade said that the number of Red Crimes, disputes, and even some acts of rebellion were drastically reduced in cities that had arenas. Now the Silvers don’t need to use execution processes or legionaries or even Security officers to keep the peace; two fighters were enough to scare us easily.

Today, two fighter candidates prepare to face their tasks. The first fighter to step out onto the white sands was announced as Cantos Carros, a Silver from Harbor Bay in the east. The video screen displayed a clear image of the warrior’s figure, and no one needed to tell me that he was from the mighty arm faction. He has arms as big as

tree trunks, with a tangle of tendons and veins stretching beneath the bark. When he smiled, I saw that all his teeth had fallen out or were broken. Maybe he had a fight with his own toothbrush when he was little.

Next to me, Kilorn cheered and the voices of the other villagers roared with him. A Security officer threw a piece of bread at the people who were too noisy because of their trouble. To my left, someone handed a yellow piece of paper to a screaming child. Electricity papers—extra electricity allowance. All this in order to make us cheer loudly, to make us scream, to force us to watch, even though we don’t want to.

“Yes, let him hear your cheers!” the host stretched his speech, forcing as much enthusiasm into his voice as possible. “And now let us welcome the opponent, straight from the capital, Samson Merandus.”

The other fighter looked pale and skinny besides being muscular. But his blue steel armor looked majestic and polished to a sharp shine. He is perhaps the second son of a father who is also the umpteenth son, trying to find fame in the arena. Even though he should be scared, he actually looked calm.

His last name sounded familiar, but it wasn’t unusual. Most Silvers come from famous families, called clans, with dozens of members. The family that rules our territory, Capital Valley, is from the Welle Clan, although I have never met Governor Welle in my life. He never visited more than once or twice a year. Even when visiting, he was never condescending

himself to set foot in a Red Village like mine. I saw the boat once, a state-of-the-art thing with green-and-gold flags. He was from the green class, and as he passed by, the trees on the riverbank bloomed and flowers bloomed from the ground. I thought it was really beautiful, until one of the bigger boys threw a rock at the boat. The stones splashed into the river without harming the boat. However, they then sent the boy to the slaughterhouse.

“It is certain that the mighty arm will win.”

Kilorn frowned at the small fighter. “How did you know? What is Samson’s strength?”

“Who cares, he’s still going to lose,” I joked, getting ready to watch.

The usual call thundered throughout the arena. Most of the people rose to their feet, eager to watch, but I remained seated, protesting silently. However calm I may appear, anger boils within my skin. Anger, and jealousy. We are the gods , echoed in my mind.

“Fighters, get ready.”

They planted their heels on both opposite sides of the arena. Guns were not allowed in the arena, so Cantos drew a short, wide dagger. I doubt he’ll need it. Samson didn’t take out a weapon at all, only his fingers twitched at his sides.

A soft hum of electricity coursed through the arena. I hate this part . The sound shook my teeth, my bones, continued to throb

until I thought something was going to break. The sound ended abruptly with the screech of a bell. Has begun. I exhale.

It was clear the fight would be violent. Cantos charged forward like a bull, leaving a cloud of sand in his wake. Samson tried to dodge Cantos, using his shoulder to slide to Silver’s side, but the mighty arm was quite nimble. He caught Samson’s legs and threw his body across the arena as if he were made of feathers. The cheers that followed covered up Samson’s roar of pain as his body hit the cement wall, but the pain was visible on his face. Before he could hope to stand up, Cantos was already standing above him, lifting his body towards the sky. His body hit the sand in a mound of crushed bones, but he somehow managed to get back up.

“Is he a punching bag?” Kilorn laughed. “Give him a little chance, Cantos!”

Kilorn didn’t care at all about an extra loaf of bread or a few extra minutes of electricity. That wasn’t the reason he was cheering. He really wanted to see blood shed, Silver blood— silver blood —stain the arena. It doesn’t matter if the blood is everything that is contrary to us, everything that we cannot be, everything that we want. Kilorn only needed to see them and delude himself into thinking that they were real people, that they could be hurt and defeated. However, I understand better. Their blood is a threat, a warning, a promise. We are not the same and will never be the same.

Kilorn wasn’t disappointed. Even those in the seats in the box could see the glint of liquid metal dripping from Samson’s mouth. The liquid reflected the summer sun like a water mirror, painting streams along his back and into his armor.

This is the true divide between the Silvers and the Reds: the color of our blood. This simple difference somehow makes them stronger, smarter, better than us.

Samson spat out the gore, flinging the silver blood as bright as sunlight across the arena. Ten meters in front of him, Cantos tightened his grip on his sword, preparing to slash Samson and end it all.

“Poor fool,” I muttered. It seemed that Kilorn’s guess was correct. Just a punching bag.

Cantos galloped along the sand, sword held high, eyes gleaming fiercely. Then in the middle of his steps, his body froze, his armor clanking as his movements suddenly stopped. From the center of the arena, the bloodied warrior pointed at Cantos, with a sharp gaze capable of breaking bones.

Samson snapped his fingers and Cantos took a step, following Samson’s movements perfectly. His mouth was agape, as if he had become slow or stupid. It was as if his mind was lost.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Silence gripped the entire arena as we watched, not understanding the scene unfolding below us. In fact, Kilorn was speechless.

“Whisperer,” I said quietly.

I’ve never seen a whisperer in the middle of the arena—I doubt anyone ever has. Whisperers are rare, dangerous, and powerful, even among the Silvers, even in the capital . There are many rumors circulating about them, but in essence it boils down to something simple and frightening: they can enter our minds, read our minds, and control our thoughts. And this was exactly what Samson was doing, whispering through Cantos’ armor and muscles, entering directly into his brain, where it had no protection.

Cantos raised the sword, both hands shaking. He tried to fight Samson’s power. However, no matter how strong he was, it was impossible to fight against the enemy in his mind.

One turn of Samson’s hand, and silver blood spilled onto the sand as Cantos thrust his sword straight through his armor, through the flesh of his own stomach. Even from the row of seats, I could hear the sickening smack of metal piercing flesh.

As blood spurted from Cantos’ body, the audience’s gasps echoed throughout the arena. We’ve never seen that much blood before.

Blue lights flashed, bathing the arena floor in a faint glow, signaling the end of the fight. The Silver healers ran across the sand, rushing over to Cantos’ collapsed body. The Silvers weren’t supposed to die here. Silvers should fight bravely, show off their skills, give

great show—but not dead . After all, they weren’t Reds.

The Security officers moved faster than I had ever seen them before. Some very nimbly darted here and there in a blur as they led us out. They don’t want us there if Cantos dies in the sand. Meanwhile, Samson marched out of the arena like a Titan. His gaze was fixed on Cantos’ body, and I thought he would show a look of regret. But his face looked flat, emotionless, and so cold. This fight was nothing to him. We are nothing to him.

At school, we learn about the world before our time, about

angels and gods who live in the sky, guiding the earth with a helping hand full of kindness and compassion. Some say it’s just a fairy tale, but I don’t believe it.

The gods still rule over us. They have descended from the stars. And they are no longer kind.[]

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