Chapter no 3

Red Queen (Red Queen, 1)

THIS EVENT HAS BEEN going on for hundreds of years. In my opinion, it should no longer be called a war, but there are no words that fit to describe the form of massive destruction that occurred. At school, they told us that wars start from fighting over land. The Lakelands region is flat and fertile, surrounded by large lakes full of fish. It’s different with the Norta hills with their forests and rocks. The agricultural area could barely feed us. In fact, the Silvers also felt the tension that was occurring. That’s why the king declared war, plunging us into a conflict that neither side could win.

The Lakelander King, again a Silver, responded with generosity, with the full support of his own royal family. They want our rivers, to gain access to a sea that doesn’t freeze half the year, and the waterwheels that adorn our rivers. It was the waterwheels that made our country strong, providing enough electricity so that even the Reds could get some of their share. I’ve heard rumors about cities far to the south, near the capital, Archeon, where the Red faction with great skill builds machines beyond my comprehension.

For transportation on land, water, and air, or weaponry to rain destruction wherever the Silvers might need it. Our teacher was proud to tell us that Norta was a beacon of the world, a country renowned for technology and power. The rest, like the Lakelands or Piedmont in the south, still live in darkness. We are truly lucky to be born here. Lucky . That word makes me want to scream.

But despite our power supplies, the Lakelanders’ food, our weapons, their numbers, neither side had much of an advantage over its opponents. Both had Silver officers and Red soldiers, fighting with the skill, rifles, and shields of thousands of Redmen’s bodies. The war that should have ended less than a century ago still continues today. I always thought it was funny that we fought wars over food and water. Even the noble-and-powerful Silvers need to eat.

However, that fact was no longer so funny now. Not when Kilorn will be the next person I say goodbye to. I wondered if he would give me earrings so I could remember him when the legions in their shining armor took him away.

“A week, Mare. I’ll be gone in a week.” His voice cracked, even though he coughed to try to cover it. “I can not do it. They—they won’t pick me up.”

But I could see the resistance dim in his eyes. “There’s got to be something we can do,” I exclaimed spontaneously.

“There’s nothing anyone can do. No one has managed to free himself from the web of war and survive.”

He didn’t need to tell me that. Every year, there are people who try to escape. And every year, they were dragged back to the town square and hanged there.

“No. We will find a way.”

In fact, even now he found the strength to grin widely at me. “We?”

The heat in my cheeks spread faster than any flame. “I’m just as entangled in war as you, but they won’t be able to force me either. So it’s better if we just run away.”

Armed forces have always been my destiny, my punishment, I know it. However, not for Kilorn. They had taken so much from him.

“There’s nowhere we can go,” he grumbled, but at least he argued. At least he didn’t give up. “We won’t be able to survive the winter weather in the north, the east is the sea, the west is more war, the south is all hell—and everywhere in between is filled with Silvers and Security officers.”

The words flowed out of me like a river. “Likewise in this village. Filled with Silvers and Security officers. And we can still pickpocket right under their noses and escape safely.” My mind raced, trying as hard as I could to find something, anything, that might be useful. Then an idea hit me like a bolt of lightning. “The black market, which we help to survive,

by smuggling everything from grain to light bulbs. Who says they can’t smuggle people in?”

His mouth was agape, about to spew out a thousand reasons why the idea wouldn’t work. But then he smiled. And nodded.

I actually don’t like involving myself in other people’s affairs. I don’t have time for that. Yet here I was, hearing myself utter three doom-mongering words.

“Leave everything to me.”

Items that we couldn’t sell to regular shopkeepers we had to take to Will Whistle. He was old, too weak to work in the lumber yard, so he swept the streets during the day. At night, he sells anything from his shabby cart, from extremely rare coffee to exotic items from Archeon. I was only nine years old with a fist full of stolen buttons when I took my chance with Will. He paid three copper pieces for the buttons, without asking this or that. Now I’m his best customer and probably the reason he still survives in such a small place. On good days, I might even call him a friend. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that Will was part of a much larger operation. Some call it an underground network, some a black market, but all I care about is what they can do. They have barricades, people like Will, everywhere. Even in Archeon, no matter how impossible it sounds. They transport illegal goods to

throughout the country. And now I bet they might make an exception and transport humans for once.

“Of course not.”

For eight years, Will has never rejected me. Now the wrinkly old fool was clearly slamming the carriage door shut in my face. I’m glad Kilorn isn’t coming, so he won’t have to see me fail to help him.

“Will, please . I know you can do it—”

He shook his head, his white beard flicking. “Even if I could , I’m a trader. The people I worked with weren’t the type to spend their time and energy transporting escapees from one place to another. That’s none of our business.”

I could feel my only hope, Kilorn’s only hope, slipping through my fingers.

Will must have seen the desperation in my eyes because he softened, leaning against the door of his carriage. He let out a long breath and looked back, into the darkness of his carriage. After a moment, he turned to me again, and invited me inside. I followed happily.

“Thanks, Will,” I babbled. “You don’t know what this means to me


“Sit down and be quiet, child,” a high voice called out.

From the shadows of the carriage, barely visible in the dim light of Will’s single blue candle, a woman stood. A girl, I guessed, as she barely looked older than me. But his body was much taller, with the charisma of an experienced knight. The gun on his hip, that

tucked into the belt of a red scarf decorated with sun patterns, was clearly illegal. He was too blonde and pale to be from Stilt Village, and judging by the sweat on his face, he was not used to the heat or humidity. He was a stranger, a runaway, and a fugitive. The exact person I wanted to meet.

The girl invited me to sit on a bench connected to the train wall, and she only sat back down when I had sat down. Will trailed and plopped down on a worn bench, his eyes darting between the girl and me.

“Mare Barrow, meet Farley,” he murmured, and the girl tightened her jaw.

His gaze landed on my face. “You want to transport cargo.”

“Myself and another young man—” However, he raised his large, calloused hand, cutting me off. “Cargo,” he said again, his eyes full of meaning. My heart pounded in my chest. This girl named Farley might be willing

help. “And where is it headed?”

I racked my brain, trying to think of a safe place. The old maps in my classroom used to swim before my eyes, thickening coastlines and rivers, marking towns and villages and everything in between. From Harbor Bay in the west to the Lakelands, the tundra in the north to the radiation waste of the Ruin and Erosion landscape, all the plains are dangerous to us.

“Somewhere safe from the Silvers. Just that.”

Farley blinked at me, his expression unchanged. “Safety comes at a price, son.”

“Everything has a price, kid ,” I replied, matching his tone. “Nobody realizes that more than me.”

A long silence stretched across the entire train. I could feel the night running out, taking precious minutes away from Kilorn. Farley must have sensed my unease and impatience, but was in no rush to speak. After what felt like an eternity, his mouth finally opened.

“The Red Guards grant, Mare Barrow.”

It took all the self-control I had to keep from jumping up in my chair with excitement. However, something tugged at me, preventing a smile from sweeping across my face.

“Payment is expected in full, worth a thousand crowns ,” Farley continued.

His words almost choked me. Even Will looked surprised, his bushy white eyebrows disappearing behind his hairline. “One thousand?” I managed to spit out the word. No one had ever held that much money, not in Jangkungan Village. That amount of money can feed my family for a year. For years.

However, Farley wasn’t done yet. I feel like he’s enjoying this. “The amount can be paid in banknotes, tetrarch coins, or barter of equal value. For one item, of course.”

Two thousand crowns . The price is exorbitant. Our freedom is worth a fortune.

“Your cargo will be moved the day after tomorrow. You have to pay at that time.”

I could barely breathe. It took less than two days to collect more than the total ever

I stole all my life. It is impossible.

He didn’t even give me a chance to protest.

“Do you accept the terms?” “I need more time.”

He shook his head and leaned forward. I could smell the smell of gunpowder on his body. “Do you accept the terms?”

This is impossible. This is really ridiculous. This is our best chance.

“I accept the terms.”

The next moment passed in a blur as I dragged my feet home through the shadowy mud. My mind was racing, trying to find a way to snatch anything close to Farley’s price. There’s nothing of that value in Stilts, that’s for sure.

Kilorn was still waiting in the dark, looking like a lost boy.

I guess that’s what he is.

“Bad news?” he said, trying to keep his voice even, but it still shook.

“The underground network can get us out of here.” For his sake, I calmed myself down while explaining. Two thousand crowns is as much as a king’s throne, but I make it sound trivial. “If anyone can do it, it’s us. We certainly can .”

“Mare.” His voice was cold, colder than winter, but his empty gaze was worse. “It is over. We have lost.”

“But if only we—”

Kilorn grabbed both of my shoulders, keeping me at arm’s length in his strong grip. It didn’t hurt, but it surprised me. “Don’t do this to me, Mare. Let’s not pretend there is a way out of this. Don’t give me hope.”

He’s right. It is cruel to give someone hope when there is none. It will only turn into disappointment, resentment, anger—all the things that make life more difficult than it actually is.

“Just let me take it. Maybe—maybe then I can really accept it with common sense, train myself the best I can, give myself a fighting chance out there.”

My hands grabbed his wrists and held them tightly. “You talk as if you were already dead.”

“Perhaps that is so.” “My brothers—”

“Your father made sure they knew what they were doing long before they left. And all of them being the size of a house comes in handy.” He forced a big smile, trying to make me laugh. It didn’t work. “I am a good swimmer, as well as a sailor. They need me at the lake.”

It was only when he put his arms around me, hugging me, that I realized my body was shaking. “Kilorn—” I mumbled into his chest. But the next words never came. I should be the one in this position . But my time is getting closer. I could only hope that Kilorn would survive long enough for me to see him again, in the barracks or in the trenches.

Maybe then I will find the right words to say. Maybe then I will understand my own feelings.

“Thank you, Mare. Over everything.” He pulled away, releasing me too quickly. “If you save, you’ll have enough by the time the legion comes to pick you up.”

For his sake, I nodded. However, I don’t plan on letting him fight and die alone.

As I lay down on my bed, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight. There had to be something I could do, and even if it would take all night, I would find out.

Gisa coughed in her sleep, and it was a small, polite cough. Even in her sleep she can act like a respectable girl. It’s no wonder he blends in so well with the Silvers. He was the kind of Red they liked: quiet, content with his condition, and unpretentious. Luckily he was the one who had to deal with them, helping those stupid superhumans pick out silks and fine fabrics for clothes they would only wear once. Gisa says we’ll get used to dealing with the amount of money they waste on trivial things. And at the Great Garden, a market in Summerton, that amount of money increases tenfold. Together with her apprentice teacher, Gisa sewed lace, silk, feathers and even gemstones to create works of art that could be worn by the Silver elite who seemed to always follow the royal members everywhere. The parade, as Gisa called it, was an endless line of dandy peacocks,

each one appearing more flashy and ridiculous than the next. All Silver, all silly, and all obsessed with status.

I hated them more than usual tonight. The stockings they lost alone would probably be enough to save myself, Kilorn, and half of the Stilts from being caught in the war.

For the second time tonight, lightning struck.

“Gisa. Get up.” I didn’t whisper. The girl slept like the dead. “Gisa.”

He shifted and groaned into his pillow. “Sometimes it feels like I want to kill you,” he grumbled.

“Very sweet. Now, get up !”

His eyes were still closed when I pounced, landing on top of him like a giant cat. Before he could scream, whine, and get my mother involved, I covered his mouth with my hand. “Please, just listen to me. Don’t talk, just listen.”

He snorted into my palm, but nodded anyway. “Kilorn—”

His skin flushed bright red when he heard his name. He even laughed amusedly, something he never did. But I don’t have time to respond to her young girl’s dissatisfaction, not now.

“Stop that, Gisa.” I took a shaky breath. “Kilorn will be called to war.”

Then his laughter disappeared. Pick-up is no joke, not to us.

“I found a way to get him out of here, to save him from going to war, but I need your help to do it.” It hurt to say it but somehow the words managed to escape my lips. “I need your help, Gisa. Do you want to help me?”

He didn’t hesitate to answer, and I felt a surge of great love for my sister.


Luckily I’m short. Otherwise, Gisa’s spare uniform would never fit me. The material was thick and dark, completely unsuitable for wearing in the summer sun, with the buttons and zipper looking ripe in the heat. The bundle on my back shifted, almost toppling me with the weight of the fabric and sewing tools. Gisa had her own bundle and harness, but that didn’t seem to bother her at all. He was used to hard work and a hard life.

We sailed upstream, squeezed between bushels of wheat on a barge owned by a kind farmer Gisa had known for years. People trust him here, just as they could never trust me. The farmer let us down with a mile to go, near the winding traders’ path towards Summerton. Now we walked with them, towards what Gisa called the Garden Door, although there was no garden in sight. It was actually a gate made of sparkling glass that was blinding before we could even step inside. The rest of the wall appears to be made of

there, but I couldn’t believe the Silver king would be stupid enough to hide behind glass walls.

“It’s not glass,” Gisa told me. “Or at least, not completely glass. The Silvers discovered how to heat diamonds and mix them with other materials. This gate is truly impregnable. In fact, even a bomb won’t be able to penetrate it.”

Diamond wall.

“That seems necessary.”

“Keep your head down. Let me do the talking,” he whispered.

I followed behind him, my eyes glued to the road as it changed from cracked black asphalt to smooth white stone. It was so smooth that I almost slipped, but Gisa held my arm, keeping my balance. Kilorn would have no problem walking here, not with his sailor’s legs. However, Kilorn would never be here anyway. He had given up. I will not give up.

As we got closer to the gate, I squinted against the glare of the light to look at the other side. Although Summerton is only present this season, abandoned before the first snow falls, it is the largest town I have ever seen. There was a buzz in the streets, shops, bars, rows of houses, and squares, all centered on giant, sparkling glass diamonds and marble. And now I know where this city got its name. The Sun Hall shines like the sun, reaching hundreds of feet into the sky in a tangle of spires and criss-crossing bridges. Some of the buildings darken certain areas deliberately, to give their occupants privacy. Farmers were not allowed to look at the king and his royal members. Place

it was astonishing, intimidating, mesmerizing—and this was just his summer residence.

“Name,” a hoarse voice was heard, and Gisa’s steps immediately stopped.

“Gisa Barrow. This is my sister, Mare Barrow. He helped me carry some equipment for my boss.” He didn’t flinch, keeping his voice even, almost bored. The Security Officer nodded at me and I shifted my bundle, trying to show it. Gisa handed us our ID cards, both torn and dirty sheets that were almost destroyed, but they were enough.

The man checking us in must have known my sister because he barely glanced at her ID. Meanwhile he studied my card closely, looking between my face and my photo for a few moments. I wondered if he was also a whisperer and could read my mind. That would immediately put an end to this little trip and probably also give me a noose around my neck.

“Wrists,” he sighed, looking bored with us.

I was confused for a moment, but Gisa stretched out her right hand without thinking. I followed his movements, showing my arm to the officer. He put a pair of red rubber bracelets around our wrists. The loops shrunk until they gripped tightly like handcuffs—there was no way we could remove these bracelets on our own.

“Go,” said the officer, gesturing with a lazy wave of his hand. Two girls weren’t a threat in his eyes.

Gisa nodded in thanks, but I didn’t. This man does not deserve an iota of gratitude from me. The gates opened around us and we moved forward. My heartbeat pounded in my ears, drowning out the sounds of the Great Garden as we entered another world.

It was a market unlike any I had ever seen in my life, full of flowers, trees and fountains. The Reds were only a handful in sight, going back and forth and peddling their own wares, all marked with their red bracelets. Even though the Silvers don’t wear rubber bands, they are easy to spot. They were adorned with an abundance of jewels and precious metals, accessories of great value to each of them. One swipe of the hand and I can go home with everything I need. All Silvers were tall, handsome, and cool, moving with a slow grace that a Red could never imitate. We just don’t have time to move that slowly.

Gisa guided me past a bakery with cakes covered in gold icing, a vendor displaying brightly colored fruit I’d never seen before, and there was even a collection of wild animals beyond my comprehension. A little girl, a Silver judging by her attire, was feeding apple slices to a spotted, horse-like creature with an unusually high neck. A few streets ahead, jewelry stores sparkle in all the colors of the rainbow. I made a mental note of it, but keeping my mind clear here was extremely difficult. The air seemed to shimmer, full of life.

Just when I thought there was nothing more fantastic than this place, I looked at the Perak people and remembered who they really were. The little girl was a telky, floating apples three meters in the air to feed the long-necked creature. A flower vendor ran his fingers through a pot of white flowers and the flowers immediately grew violently, reaching up to his elbow. He is a greenie, a manipulator of plants and the earth. A pair of nymphs sat beside the fountain, casually entertaining children with floating balls of water. One of the nymphs had orange hair and eyes full of hatred, even as children ran around him. Throughout the square, all kinds of Silvers were busy with their extraordinary lives. There are so many silver men; each so majestic, stunning, powerful, and utterly alien from the world I knew.

“This is how the other half of the population lives,” Gisa muttered, sensing my amazement. “It’s enough to make you sick.”

Guilt rumbled through me. I always envied Gisa, with her talent and all the privileges she achieved, but I never expected the sacrifices she required. He doesn’t spend much time at school and only has a handful of friends in Jangkungan Village. If Gisa lived a normal life, she would already have lots of friends. He will smile. Instead, this fourteen year old girl marched forward with needle and thread, carrying her family’s future on her back, immersed in a world she hated.

“Thanks, Gee,” I whispered into his ear. He knows I don’t mean just today.

“The Salla shop is over there, with the blue awning.” He pointed towards the side of the street, to a small shop sandwiched between two cafes. “I’ll be inside, if you need me.”

“No need,” I answered quickly. “Even if something goes wrong, I won’t involve you.”

“Good.” Then he grabbed my hand, squeezing it tightly for a moment. “Be careful. Today is very busy, more than usual.”

“More places to hide,” I said with a big smile.

However, his voice sounded serious. “More officers too.”

We kept walking, each step bringing us closer to the moment when he would leave me alone in this strange place. A pang of panic coursed through me as Gisa slowly lifted the bundle from my shoulders. We have reached the shop.

To calm myself, I babbled softly. “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t make eye contact. Keep moving. I left the way I came, through the Garden Door. The officer would take off my rubber band and I would keep walking.” He nodded as I spoke, his eyes wide, alert, and maybe even hopeful. “It’s ten miles—sixteen kilometers, to the house.”

“Ten miles to the house,” he repeated.

Wishing I could go with him, I watched Gisa disappear behind the blue tent. He has taken me this far. Now it’s my turn.[]

You'll Also Like