Chapter no 2

Red Queen (Red Queen, 1)

OUR HOUSE IS SMALL, EVEN by Jangkungan standards, but at least we have a beautiful view. Before he was injured, during one of his holidays from the army, my father built this house high so that we could look across the river. Even through the summer haze, we could clearly see pockets of barren land that were once forests, now all but forgotten. The patches looked like disease. However, to the north and west, the untouched hills are a silent reminder. There’s so much more out there . Beyond ourselves, beyond the Silvers, beyond everything I know.

I climb the stairs to the house, the weathered wood shaped by hands that rise and fall each day. From this height I could see several boats heading upstream, proudly flying their bright flags. The Silvers . They are the only group rich enough to use private transportation. While they enjoyed wheeled vehicles, boats to laze around in, even high-flying jet planes, we didn’t have more than our own two legs, or a motopet if we were lucky enough.

The boats were bound for Summerton, a bustling little town surrounding the king’s summer residence. Gisa was there today, helping the tailor who was her teacher. They often went to the market there when the king visited, to peddle their wares to the Perak merchants and nobles who trailed behind the royal officials like a flock of ducklings. The palace was known as the Hall of the Sun, and it was supposed to be amazing, but I never saw it. I don’t understand why royal members have second homes, especially since the capital palace is already so magnificent and beautiful. However, like all Silvers, they do not act out of necessity. They are controlled by desire. And whatever they want, they get.

Before I opened the door to the usual chaos, I patted the flag fluttering from the porch. Three red stars on a piece of yellow cloth, one for each of my brothers, and there was plenty of room left for extras. Space for me . Most homes have flags like this, some with black stripes instead of stars to commemorate dead children.

Inside, Mother was busy in front of the stove, stirring the stew in the cauldron while my father glared at her from his wheelchair. Gisa was busy embroidering at the table, creating something truly beautiful, elegant, and completely beyond my comprehension.

“I’m going home,” I said casually. Father responded with a wave, Mother with a nod, and Gisa didn’t look up at all from her piece of silk cloth.

I dropped the bag containing my stolen goods to the side, letting the coins jingle as noisily as possible. “I think I earned enough money to buy Dad a decent cake for his birthday. And more battery, enough to last a whole month.”

Gisa’s eyes swept over the bag, frowning in disapproval. He was only fourteen years old, but quite intelligent for his age. “One day someone will come and take everything you have.”

“You’re not usually jealous, Gisa,” I scolded, patting her head. Her hands rose to her shiny, perfect red hair, smoothing it back into its intricate bun.

I’ve always coveted her hair, although I would never tell her that. While his hair was like fire, mine was the color of what we call mud brown. Dark at the roots, pale at the ends, as the color drained from our hair under the stress of life on Stilts. Most people cut their hair short to hide their gray ends, but not me. I’m glad for the reminder that even my hair realizes life shouldn’t work like this.

“I’m not jealous,” he snorted, then returned to his busy life. She sewed flowers made of fire, each flower a beautiful blaze of thread on shiny black silk.

“That’s beautiful, Gee.” I let my hand trail along one of the flowers, admiring its silky texture. He looked up and smiled slightly, showing a row of even teeth.

No matter how often we fight, he always knows that he is my little star.

And everyone knows that I’m the one who’s always jealous, Gisa. I can’t do anything other than pickpocket from people who can actually do something.

Once her apprenticeship ends, Gisa can open her own shop. The Silvers would come from all over to buy him handkerchiefs and flags and clothes. Gisa can achieve what only a handful of Reds can achieve and live a decent life. He would support our parents and give me and my brothers menial tasks to get us out of the war. Gisa will save us one day, armed only with a needle and thread.

“It’s like night and day, my daughters,” Mother murmured, running her fingers through her gray hair. He didn’t mean it as an insult, but rather a sharp truth. Gisa is a skilled, beautiful, and gentle girl. I was a little rougher, Mother put it mildly. Darkness to Gisa’s light. I think the only thing we have in common is the earrings we share, memories of our brothers.

Dad gasped from the corner, beating his chest with his fists. This is a common occurrence because he only has one functioning lung. Luckily, the skill of a Red medic managed to save him, replacing his damaged lungs with a device that could help him breathe. It wasn’t the Silvers’ interference, considering they didn’t need such things. They

has its own healers. However, the healers wouldn’t bother spending their time saving the lives of the Reds, or even working on the front lines of the war to keep the soldiers alive. Most of them survived in the cities, prolonging the lives of the Silver elders, repairing hearts that had been destroyed by alcohol and such. So, we are forced to content ourselves with technology and black market inventions to improve our own conditions. Some of it was pretty stupid, most of it didn’t work—but a few ticks of metal saved my father’s life. I could always hear it ticking, a faint pulse that kept Dad breathing.

“Daddy doesn’t want cake,” he grumbled. My father’s gaze at his bulging stomach did not escape my eyes.

“Then tell me what Father wants . New watch or


“Mare, Dad doesn’t consider the thing you stole from someone else’s wrist to be something new . ”

Before a new war broke out in the Barrow residence, Mother lifted a pot of stew from the stove. “Dinner is ready.” He brought it onto the table, and the steam washed over me.

“It smells good, Mom,” Gisa lied. Dad was more blunt and frowned at the dish.

Not wanting to be insulted, I forced some of the stew down my throat. To my surprise, it didn’t feel as bad as usual. “Did you use the pepper I brought?”

Instead of nodding, smiling, and thanking me for noticing, her face turned red and she didn’t answer.

Mom knows I stole it, just like all my other gifts.

Gisa rolled her eyes over her bowl of soup, realizing where the conversation was leading.

Maybe I should be immune to it by now, but their disapproval had an effect on me.

Sighing, Mother lowered her face into her lap. “Mare, you know I appreciate it—it’s just that I hope—”

I finished the sentence. “Can I be like Gisa?”

Mother shook her head. Another lie. “No, of course not.

That is not what I mean.”

“Correct.” I’m sure they could feel my bitterness from across the village. I tried my best to prevent my voice from breaking. “That was the only way I could help before—before I left.”

Mentioning war was a quick way to silence my household. Even Dad’s labored breathing stopped. Mother looked away, her cheeks red with anger. Under the table, Gisa’s hand held mine.

“I know you tried your best, for the right reasons,” Mom whispered. It wasn’t easy for him to say that, but it still calmed me down.

I closed my mouth and forced myself to nod.

Then Gisa jumped from her chair, as if she had just been electrocuted. “Oh, I almost forgot. I stopped by the post office on my way home from Summerton. There was a letter from Shade.”

It was like defusing a bomb. Father and Mother ran, immediately grabbing the dirty envelope that Gisa had taken out of their pocket

the jacket. I let them pass each other by, checking the paper. Neither of them could read so they scavenged whatever they could from the scraps of paper themselves.

Dad sniffed the letter, trying to determine the location of the smell. “The smell of cypress trees. Not smoke. That’s good. He has moved away from Choke.”

We all breathed a sigh of relief hearing that. The choke is a bombed-out stretch of land that connects Norta to the Lakelands, where most of the fighting took place. The soldiers spent most of their time there, hiding in trenches about to be blown up, or charging forward with courage that ended in mass slaughter. The rest of the border consists mostly of lakes, although in the far north it becomes tundra that is too cold and bare to fight. Dad was injured in the Choke area years ago, when a bomb was dropped on his unit. Now Choke has been so destroyed by decades of war, the smoke from the explosion has become an eternal fog and no plants can grow there. The land was dead and gray, like our warring future.

Dad finally handed me the letter to read, and I opened it with anticipation, both excited and afraid to read what Shade had written.

My dear family, I am still alive. That’s clear.

That made Dad and me chuckle, even Gisa smiled. Mother didn’t seem amused, even though Shade always started his letters like this.

We were called back from the vanguard, as Dad, who had the sense of smell like a hunting dog, might have guessed. It felt good, returning to the main camp. The sky was as red as dawn here, we barely saw any Perak officers. And without the smoke from Choke, we could actually watch the sun rise brighter every day. But I won’t stay in the camp for long. Command plans to reorganize the unit to face the battle on the lake, and we have been assigned to one of the new warships. I met a medical officer who had just been released from his unit who said that he knew Tramy and that he was fine. Had some cannon fragments while moving back from Choke, but he recovered well. No infection, no permanent damage.

Mother exhaled loudly, shaking her head. “No permanent damage,” he quipped.

Still haven’t heard anything from Bree but I’m not worried.

He was the best of us all, and he was nearing the end of his five years in office. He’ll be home soon, Mom, so don’t worry. There’s nothing else to report, at least that I can put in a letter. Gisa, don’t be too arrogant even though you deserve to be arrogant. Mare, don’t be so impudent all the time, and stop beating up that Warren boy. Dad, I’m proud of you. Always. I love you all.

Your beloved son and brother, Shade.

As usual, Shade’s words pierced our hearts. I could almost hear his voice if I tried hard enough. Then, the lights above us suddenly started to groan.

“Didn’t anyone put in the ration papers I got yesterday?” I asked before the lights went out again, plunging us into darkness. As my vision began to adjust, I could see Mom shaking her head.

Gisa groaned. “Can’t we not argue once in a while?” His chair scraped loudly as he stood up. “I will go to sleep. Try not to scream.”

But we didn’t scream. That seems to be how things work in my world— too tired to fight. Mom and Dad went back to their room, leaving me alone at the table. Normally I would sneak out, but right now I couldn’t find the desire to do anything other than sleep.

I climbed another ladder to the attic, where Gisa was already snoring. He usually falls asleep easily, falling asleep in just a matter of minutes, while I can spend hours. I entered my bed, ready to just lie there while hugging Shade’s letter. As Father said, the letter gave off a sharp pine smell.

The river gurgled melodiously tonight, slipping over the rocks on the banks as it lulled me to sleep. Even the ancient refrigerator, a rusty battery-powered machine that used to hum so loud it made my head hurt, didn’t bother me tonight. However, then the call of a bird disturbed me from falling asleep. Kilorn.

No. Go.

There was another call, louder this time. Gisa stretched a little, shifting her head against her pillow.

Grumbling to myself, cursing Kilorn, I rolled off my couch and slid down the stairs. Anyone else would have been knocked over by the chaos in the main room, but I had solid footing thanks to years of experience running from pursuing officers. I was off the stilts in seconds, landing with my ankles in the mud. Kilorn was waiting, emerging from the shadows behind the house.

“I hope you’ll like the bruise on your eye because I have no problem giving you my raw fist—”

His gaze immediately stopped my actions.

He’s been crying. Kilorn never cries . His knuckles were bleeding too, and I was sure there was an equally badly injured wall nearby. Even though it was against my wishes, even though it was so late, I couldn’t help but feel worried, even afraid for him.

“What is it? What is wrong?” Without thinking, I grabbed his hand, feeling the blood beneath my fingers. “What happened?”

He took his time to respond, gathering his courage. Now I’m the one who’s scared.

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

I tried to stop myself from gasping, but the words still echoed, taunting us. Even though he didn’t have to,

Even though I knew what he was trying to say, Kilorn continued.

“I haven’t even finished training and now—” He stuttered. “I’m eighteen. The other fishermen already have students. I’m unemployed. I can’t get a job.”

His next words were like a stab to my heart. Kilorn took a sharp breath, and in my heart I wished I didn’t have to hear it.

“They will send me to war.”[]

You'll Also Like