Chapter no 23

Red Queen (Red Queen, 1)

BY THE TIME THE SHIP MOTORED on the west bank of the river and we returned to land, night had fallen. At home, this means turning off the power and going to sleep but that’s not the case on the Archeon. Instead, the city seemed to grow brighter while the rest of the world turned pitch black. Fireworks crackled overhead, shedding light on the Bridge, and at the peak of the White Flame, red and black flags fluttered. The king has returned to his throne.

Thankfully there are no more torturous parades to go through; we were greeted by an armored vehicle to take us up from the pier. Luckily Maven and I had our own vehicle, accompanied only by two Sentinels. Maven pointed out important objects as we passed, explaining almost every statue and street bend. He even mentioned his favorite bakery, even though it was on the other side of the river.

“The Bridge and the Eastern Archeon are for civilians, Silver commoners, although most are richer than some of the nobles.”

“Silver commoners ?” I almost laughed. “There really is that kind?” Maven just shrugged. “Of course. They were merchants, businessmen, soldiers, officers, shopkeepers, politicians, lords

land, artists, and intellectuals. Some married into Prominent Clans, some rose in rank, but they didn’t have royal blood, and their abilities weren’t very, well, strong .”

Not everyone is special . Lucas once said that

to me. I didn’t know he meant the Silvers too. “Meanwhile, the Western Archeon is aimed at the king’s palace.” Maven

continue. We passed a street lined with pretty stone houses with flowering, neatly trimmed trees. “All the Prominent Clans settled here, to be close to the king and government. In fact, the entire country could be controlled from this cliff, if necessary.”

That explains the reason for its location. The western bank has steep slopes, with palaces and other government buildings perched on hilltops overlooking the Bridge. Another wall surrounds the hilltop, enclosing the heart of the land. I tried not to stare as we walked through the gates, revealing a tiled plaza the size of an arena. Maven calls it Caesar’s Square, after the first king of his dynasty. Julian had mentioned King Caesar before, but only briefly. Our study didn’t get much further than the Age of the First Separation, when red and silver became more than just colors.

The White Flame Palace filled the southern side of the Square, while the court, financial, and administrative center buildings took up the rest. There were even visible military barracks, with troops training in walled courtyards. They were Cal’s Shadow Legion, who had gone before us into the city. To appease the nobles, as Maven calls it. Para

soldiers were present within the walls, to protect us if another attack came.

Despite the late hour, the Square was bustling with activity as people ran towards a menacing-looking building next to a row of barracks. Red and black flags, decorated with swords as symbols of the army, hung from the pillars. I could see a small stage set up in front of the building, with a podium surrounded by dazzling spotlights and a growing crowd.

Suddenly the gaze of a number of cameras, heavier than I was used to, was on our vehicle, following us as the line of vehicles passed the stage. Luckily we kept going, moving through a gate into a small yard but then we stopped.

“What is this?” I whispered, holding on to Maven. Until now, I had managed to control my fear, but between the lights, cameras, and crowds of people, my walls were starting to crumble.

Maven exhaled heavily, looking very upset. “Father will definitely give a speech. Just a kind of show of power to make the masses happy. People most like a leader who promises victory.”

Maven stepped out, pulling me with him. Even with my makeup and clothes on, I suddenly felt so naked. This is for a broadcast. Thousands, even millions of eyes, will witness it.

“Don’t worry, we just need to stand still and look firm,” he muttered in my ear.

“I think that’s enough of a play by Cal.” I nodded towards where the prince looked gloomy, still shoulder to shoulder with Evangeline.

Maven chuckled to himself. “He thinks speeches are just a waste of time. Cal likes action, not words.”

So do I, but I don’t want to admit that I have anything in common with Maven’s sister. Maybe I have, I think so but not now. Never again.

A busy secretary called us. His clothing is blue and grey, the colors of the Macanthos Clan. Perhaps he knew the colonel; maybe he was his brother, his cousin. Don’t, Mare. This is the last place for you to lose your courage . He didn’t spare us a glance when we got into line, standing behind Cal and Evangeline, while the king and queen were at the front. Strangely, Evangeline didn’t seem like her usual haughty self; I could see his hands shaking. He was scared. She wanted to be the center of attention, she wanted to be Cal’s bride, but she was also afraid of that. How could that possibly happen?

Then we were on the move, walking into a building with too many Sentinels and servants to count. Inside, the building was built for function, with maps, office space, and meeting rooms instead of paintings or guest halls. Men in gray uniforms seemed busy in the hallway, although they stopped to let us pass. Most of the doors were closed, but I managed to peek behind a few. The officers and soldiers were poring over maps of the war zone, arguing

regarding the placement of several legions. Another room overflowing with roaring energy seemed to house a hundred video screens, each operated by a soldier in battle uniform. They speak using headsets , barking orders to people in faraway places. The words are different, but the meaning is the same.

“Stay in line.”

Cal lingered for a long time in front of the door to the video room, craning his neck to get a better look, but the door suddenly slammed in his face. He was furious but didn’t protest, re-entering the line with Evangeline. Evangeline muttered softly to him but Cal brushed it off, which I watched with glee.

However, my smile faded as soon as we stepped out back into the blinding lights on the front steps of the building. A bronze plaque beside the door reads War Command . This place is the heart of the military—every soldier, every squad, every gun is controlled from here. My stomach churned at the electricity here, but I couldn’t afford to lose courage, not in front of so many people. Cameras flashed, blinding my vision. As I flinched, I heard a voice in my head.

The secretary thrust a piece of paper into my hand. Just one glance at the paper made me almost scream. Now I know what I was saved for.

Make yourself worthy of being saved, Elara’s voice whispered in my head. He glanced over at Maven, trying his best not to grin.

Maven followed his sly gaze and noticed the piece of paper in my shaking hand. Slowly, he laced his fingers around mine, as if he could pour his power into me. I just wanted to tear the paper, but he held me steady.

“You have to do it.” That’s all he said, whispered so softly I could barely hear him. “Must.”

“My heart grieves for the lives lost, but realizes that these lives were not lost in vain. Their blood will fuel our resolve and encourage us to overcome the difficulties ahead. We are a country facing war, we have been for almost a century, and we are no stranger to the obstacles that stand in the way of victory. The perpetrators will be found, they will be punished, and this disease they call rebellion will not survive in my country.”

The video screen in my new bedroom seemed as useless as a leaky boat, repeating last night’s broadcast of the king’s speech in a nauseating loop. Right now I can recite the entire contents of the speech word for word, but I can’t stop watching it. Because I know who will show up next.

My face looked strange on the screen, too pale, too cold. I still can’t believe I was able to keep my face straight while reading those words. When I stepped onto the podium, taking the king’s place, I didn’t even tremble.

“I was raised by the Reds. I believe I am one of them. And I witnessed firsthand the generosity of His Majesty the King, the just ways of our Perak nobles, and the great privileges they granted us. The right to work, to serve the country, to live in prosperity.” On the screen, Maven put her hand on my arm. He nodded while listening to my speech. “Now I know I was born a Silver, a princess of the Titanos Clan, and one day, a princess to Norta. My eyes have opened. A world I never imagined existed, and it was unbeatable. Full of generosity. And these terrorists, these most despicable murderers, are trying to destroy the foundations of our country. We cannot allow this.”

Within the protection of my room, I exhaled heavily. The worst is yet to come.

“In his wisdom, the King of Tiberias has designed a Provision, to end this disease of rebellion, and to protect the civilians of our land. The provisions are as follows: Starting from today, a curfew from sundown will be applied to all Reds. Security officers will be doubled in every Red village and town. New guard posts will be set up on the roads and manned at full capacity. All crimes of the Reds, including breaking the curfew, will be executed. And”—at this point, my voice faltered for the first time—“the age for war enlistment has been lowered , from fifteen. Anyone who provides information leading to the arrest of Red Front members or the prevention of Red Front actions will be awarded acquittal

war obligations, and exempts up to five members of the same family from military assignment.”

It was both a brilliant and terrifying maneuver. The Reds will attack each other in exchange for liberation.

“This provision will be enforced at all costs until this disease known as the Red Front is destroyed.” I looked into my own eyes on the screen, watching as I stopped myself from being choked by my speech. My eyes were wide, hoping people would know what I was trying to convey. Words can lie . “Glory be the King.”

Anger rippled through my body, and the screen went dead, replacing my face with a black void. However, I can still see each of the new provisions in my mind. More and more officers patrolled, more bodies hung from gallows, and more mothers cried for their children who had been snatched away. We killed a dozen of them, while they killed thousands of us . Part of me knew this blow would push some Reds to the Barisan camp, but many more would side with the king. For the sake of their lives, for the lives of their children , they would give up whatever shred of freedom they had left.

I thought being their puppet would be easy compared to everything else. In fact I was wrong. But I can’t let them break me, not now. Not even when my own doom is right around the corner. I have to do whatever I can until my blood is matched and my game is over. Until they dragged me away and ended my life.

At least my window faces the river, looking out to sea to the south. When I looked at the water, I could ignore my fading future. My eyes moved from the rushing water to the dark stain on the horizon. While the rest of the sky was clear, dark clouds floated to the south, never moving from the forbidden lands of the coast. City of Ruins . Radiation and fire once engulfed the city and never let go. Now the city is just a dark ghost sitting just out of reach, a relic of the old world.

Part of me wanted Lucas to knock on my door and rush me into a new schedule, but he wasn’t back yet. I think he’s better off being away from me who could cost him his life.

Julian’s gift sits perched on the side of the wall, a powerful reminder of another lost friend. The gift was a large map, framed and gleaming behind glass. As I lifted it, something thudded to the floor, falling out from behind the frame.

I had expected it.

My heart raced, pounding wildly as I fell to my knees, hoping to find a secret note from Julian. However, there was only a book.

Even though I was disappointed, I couldn’t help but smile. Of course Julian would leave me a story, a collection of words to calm me down when he couldn’t anymore.

I opened the cover, hoping to find some new history, but instead the handwritten words stared at me from the title page. Red and silver. It was clearly Julian’s scribble.

The line of sight from my bedroom cameras aimed at my back, reminding me I wasn’t alone. Julian knew that too. Julian is absolutely brilliant.

The book seemed normal, a boring study of relics found at Delphie. But hidden in the middle of the words, in the same type of letters, was a big secret. It took me quite a while to find every additional line, and I was grateful to wake up so early. Finally, I found it all, and it was like I forgot how to breathe.

Dane Davidson, Red soldier, Storm Legion, killed on routine patrol, body never found. August 1, 296 N.E. Jane Barbaro, Red soldier, Storm Legion, killed by misdirected attack, body cremated. November 19, 297 N.E. Pace Gardner, Red soldier, Storm Legion, executed for insubordination, body misplaced. June 4, 300 NE . There are many more names, spanning the last twenty years, all of whom were either cremated or their remains disappeared or “misplaced.” I don’t understand how someone could mistakenly bury an executed person. The name at the end of the list made my eyes water. Shade Barrow, Red soldier, Storm Legion, executed for desertion, body cremated. July 27, 320 N.E.

Julian’s own words followed my brother’s name, and I felt as if he were by my side again, slowly and calmly teaching me his lesson.

According to military law, all Red soldiers must be buried in

Choke’s funeral. Executed soldiers had no graves and were placed in mass graves. Cremation is not common

done. The misplaced bodies never existed. However, I found 27 names, 27 soldiers, including your brother, who suffered these fates.

All of them died on patrol, killed by Lakelanders or their own units, even executed on baseless charges. All of them were transferred to the Legion of Storms a few weeks before they died. And all their bodies were either destroyed or declared missing. Why? The Storm Legion was not a death squad—hundreds of Red soldiers served under General Eagrie without suffering any unnatural death. So, why kill these twenty-seven people?

For the first time, I felt relieved that there was a blood base. Even though they were long “dead,” their blood samples were still available. And now I have to apologize, Mare, because all this time I haven’t been completely honest with you. You trusted me to train you, to help you, and I did. However, I also help myself. I’m a curious man, and you’re the strangest thing I’ve ever met. I can’t help myself. I compared your blood sample with theirs, only to find an identical marker in their blood, which was different from all the others.

I’m not surprised no one noticed, because they weren’t looking for it. However, now I know what that marker is

actually easy to find. Your blood is red, but that’s not the same. There is something new inside you, something no one has ever seen before. And this is also true of the other twenty-seven. A mutation, a change that could be the key to your entire existence.

You’re not the only one, Mare. You’re not alone. You’re just the first protected by thousands of eyes, the first they can’t kill and hide. Like the others, you are both Red and Silver, and the stronger of the two.

In my opinion, you are the future. In my opinion, you are a new dawn.

And if there were 27 before, of course there are others. There are definitely more.

I felt frozen; I felt numb; I felt all kinds of feelings and emptiness. Other people who are just like me.

Using the mutation in your blood, I searched for remains

existing blood base, found the same thing in other samples. I’ve included them all here, for you to pass on.

I know there’s no need to tell you the importance of this list, of what it might mean for you and the rest of the world. Pass it on to people you trust, find others, protect it

them, train them, because it’s only a matter of time before someone with bad intentions finds out what I have—and hunts them down.

His words ended there, followed by a list that made my fingers tremble. There are names and locations, so many, all waiting to be discovered. Everyone is waiting to fight.

My mind feels like it’s on fire. The other people. Even more. Julian’s words floated before my eyes, burning into my soul.

Stronger than both.

The little book lay comfortably in my jacket, tucked next to my heart. But before I could go to Maven, to show him Julian’s findings, Cal found me. He cornered me in a sitting room that resembled the room where we used to dance together, although the moon and the music were long gone. I once wanted everything he could give me, but now just looking at him makes my stomach churn. He could see the disgust on my face, no matter how hard I tried to hide it.

“You’re angry with me,” he said. That’s not a question. “No.”

“Don’t lie,” he growled, his eyes suddenly on fire. I’ve been lying since the first day we met . “Three days ago you kissed me, but now you can’t even look at me.”

“I’m your sister’s fiancé,” I told him, pulling away.

He dismissed the point with a wave of his hand. “That didn’t stop you before. What changed?”

I’ve seen the real you, I want to scream. You are not the gentle knight, perfect prince, or even the confused young man you try to appear to be. No matter how much you try to fight it, you are just like everyone else.

“Is it about those terrorists?”

My teeth were gritted until they hurt. “The rebels.” “They killed people, children, other people

sinful .”

“You and I know it wasn’t their fault ,” I spat back, not at all caring how vile those words sounded. Cal flinched, taken aback for a moment. He almost looked nauseous as he thought of the Sun Shot—and the accidental explosion that followed. But it passed, slowly replaced by anger.

“But they still caused it,” he growled. “What I ordered the Sentinels was for the sake of the dead, for justice.”

“And what did the torment give you? Do you know their names, how many there are? Do you even know the contents of their demands ? Are you even willing to listen?”

He exhaled heavily, trying to save the conversation. “I know you have your own reasons to—to sympathize , but their methods cannot—”

“Their methods are your own fault. You make us work, you make us bleed, you make us die for your wars, factories

you guys, and other trivial comforts that you don’t even realize, it’s all just because we’re different. How can you expect us to remain silent all the time?”

Cal shifted restlessly, his cheek muscles twitching. He didn’t have an answer for that.

“The only reason I haven’t died in some ditch somewhere is because you took pity on me. The only reason you’re even listening to me right now is because some crazy miracle, I just happen to be a different kind of different.”

Slowly, sparks began to radiate in both of my hands. I can’t imagine life before my body buzzed with energy, but I can clearly remember it.

“You can stop it, Cal. You will be king, and you can stop this war. You can save thousands, even millions of lives, from generations of glorified slavery, if you say enough is enough.”

Something broke inside Cal, extinguishing the fire he was trying so hard to hide. He approached the window, his hands linked behind his back. With the sun rising on his face and shadows on his back, he seemed torn between two worlds. Deep in my heart, I know that. The small part of me that still cared about him wanted to close the distance between us, but I wasn’t that stupid. I’m not a snotty girl in love.

“I thought about that.” He muttered. “However, that would lead to rebellion on both sides, and I don’t want to be the king who destroys this country. This is my legacy, my father’s legacy, and I have an obligation

towards him.” Heat slowly rose from him, making the glass windows steam. “Would you trade millions of lives for what they want?”

Millions of lives . My mind flashed back to the corpse of Belicos Lerolan, with her dead children by her side. Then other faces joined the corpses—Shade, Kilorn’s father, every Red soldier who had died in their war.

“The line won’t stop,” I said quietly, but I knew he wasn’t listening anymore. “And although they are to blame, so are you. There is blood on your hands, Prince.” And Maven’s hand. Also my hands.

I left him standing there frozen, wishing I had changed him but realizing the chances were slim. He is his father’s son.

“Julian disappeared, didn’t he?” he exclaimed to me, immediately stopping me in my tracks.

I slowly turned away, contemplating what I could possibly say. I decided to play dumb. “Disappear?”

“The events of last night’s escape left holes in the memories of most Sentinels, as did the video footage. My uncle rarely uses his powers, but I know the signs.”

“You think he helped them escape?”

“Right,” he said painfully, looking at his hands. “That’s why I gave him enough time to slip away.”

“You did what?” I couldn’t believe my ears. Cal, the soldier, the one who always follows orders, breaks the rules

for Julian’s sake.

“He is my uncle, I will do what I can for him. Do you think I’m that heartless?” He grinned sadly at me, not looking forward to an answer. It makes me sick. “I delayed detention as long as possible, but everyone leaves traces, and the queen will eventually find herself,” he sighed, placing his hand on the glass. “And he will be executed.”

“You would do that to your uncle?” I didn’t try to hide my disgust, or the fear behind it. If he could kill Julian, even after letting him go, what would he do to me once I was caught red-handed?

Cal’s shoulders shrugged as he straightened his back, turning back into a soldier. He didn’t want to hear any more about Julian or the Red Front.

“Maven has an interesting proposal.”

That’s not what I expected . “Oh?”

He nodded, somehow seeming distracted thinking about his sister. “Maven is always quick to come up with ideas. He inherited it from his mother.”

“Is that supposed to scare me?” I knew better that Maven was nothing like her mother, or any damn Silver for that matter. “What exactly are you trying to say, Cal?”

“You’re well known now,” he spat. “After your speech, all citizens of the country know your name and face. And many more will wonder who and what you really are.”

I could only frown and shrug my shoulders. “Perhaps you should think about that before making me read that disgusting speech.”

“I am a soldier, not a politician. You know I have nothing to do with those Terms.”

“But you will follow him. You will follow him without question.”

He didn’t argue with her. Despite all his mistakes, Cal wouldn’t lie to me. Not currently. “All your documents have been deleted. Officers, archivists, no one will find proof that you were born Red,” he said, his eyes on the floor. “That’s what Maven proposed.”

Even though I was angry, I gasped loudly. That blood base. That document . “What does it mean?” I didn’t have the strength to keep my voice from shaking.

“Your school archives, your birth certificate, blood prints, even your identity card have been destroyed.” I could barely hear it over the sound of my pounding heart.

If this had happened before, I would have hugged him straight away. But I have to restrain myself. I couldn’t let Cal know that he had saved me again. No, not Cal . This is Maven’s doing. This is the shadow of controlling the flame.

“That sounds like the right thing to do,” I said loudly, trying to sound disinterested.

However, my pretend attitude will not last long. After bowing once stiffly towards Cal, I hurriedly left

room, while hiding my wide grin.[]

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