Chapter no 6

Red Queen (Red Queen, 1)

ONCE THE DOOR SLAMS OPEN at dawn, I’m not afraid. Security searches have become commonplace, although we usually only receive them once or twice a year. This will be the third.

“Come on, Gee,” I muttered, helping him up from the couch and down the stairs. Gisa moved carefully, leaning on her uninjured hand, while Mother waited for us on the floor. His arms were around Gisa’s body, but his gaze was fixed on me. Unexpectedly, Mother didn’t seem angry or even disappointed with me. His gaze was actually gentle.

Two officers waited at the door, their rifles hanging at their sides. I recognized them from outposts in the village. However, there are others. A young woman in red clothes with a tri-colored crown badge pinned to her chest. A royal servant, a Red in the service of the King, I realized, and slowly I began to understand. This is no ordinary search.

“We are subject to search and seizure.” My father grumbled, spewing out the obligatory words every time this event occurred. However, instead of splitting up to search our house, the security officers stood still.

The young woman stepped forward and, to her surprise, called my name. “Mare Barrow, you have been summoned to Summerton.”

Gisa’s uninjured hand held mine, as if she could stop me from leaving. “W-what?” I managed to stammer out a reply.

“You have been summoned to Summerton.” He repeated, then pointed towards the door. “We will escort you. Please come with us.”

Calling. For a Red. I have never heard of such a thing in my life. So, why me? What have I done to deserve this?

In retrospect, I was a criminal and probably considered a terrorist because of my relationship with Farley. My body shivered, every muscle in my body tensed and alert. I had to escape, even though the guards were blocking the door. It would be a miracle if I could make it to the window.

“Don’t worry, everything has returned to normal after yesterday’s events.” The woman chuckled, misreading the reason for my fear. “The hall and market are safely under control now. Come follow us .” To my surprise, the woman smiled, even though the officers were clutching their rifles. My body shuddered.

To refuse the officer’s request, to refuse the royal summons , meant death—and not just for me. “Okay,” I muttered, removing my hand from Gisa’s grasp. He moved to reach for me, but my mother pulled him back. “We’ll meet again, right?”

The question hung in the air, and I felt Dad’s warm hand brush my arm. Dad said goodbye. Mother’s eyes filled with tears, and Gisa tried not to blink, trying to remember every last second of me. I don’t even have anything I can leave for him . However, before I could linger or allow myself to cry, an officer grabbed my arm and dragged me away.

The words forced themselves past my lips, though they came out as nothing more than a whisper. “I love you guys.”

Then, the door slammed behind me, separating me from my home and my life.

They told me to speed up my steps through the village, through the streets to the market square. We passed Kilorn’s dilapidated house. Normally, he would have been awake by now, already halfway to the river to start the day early while it was still cold. However, those days are gone. Now I’m sure he slept until midday, enjoying what little comfort he still had before the net. Part of me wanted to shout goodbye to him but I didn’t. He’ll come looking for me later, and Gisa will tell him everything. With a silent laugh I remembered that Farley would be expecting my arrival today, with a large sum of money as payment. He will be disappointed.

In the square, a shiny black vehicle awaited us. Four wheels, glass windows, anchored to the ground—it looked like a beast was preparing to devour me. Another officer sat at the controls and revved the engine as we approached, spewing black smoke into the morning air. I was forced

slid into the back without a word, and the valet barely had time to sit his butt down next to me as the vehicle sped off, racing down the road at a speed I’d never even imagined. This will be my first—and last—experience riding this vehicle.

I wanted to talk, to ask what happened, how they would punish me for my crimes, but I knew my words would only fall on deaf ears. So I glanced out the window, watching the village disappear as we entered the forest, driving along the familiar northern road. This street was not as busy as yesterday, and security officers were scattered around the street. “The hall is safely under control,” said the previous servant. I think this is what he meant.

The diamond glass wall shines in front, reflecting the light as the sun rises from the forest. I wanted to squint, but restrained myself. I have to keep my eyes open.

The gates were filled with people in black uniforms, all of them Security officers who checked and double-checked passers-by as they entered. When we slowed to a complete stop, the service lady pulled me out of the vehicle, through the line, and straight through the gate. No one protested, or even bothered to check IDs. The woman must be known here.

Once we were inside, he turned to me. “By the way, my name is Ann, but here we usually call them by their last name. Call me Walsh.”

Walsh . The name sounded familiar. Combined with his pale hair and dark, sunburned skin, it could only mean one thing

matter. “You come from…?”

“Tall, just like you. I know your brother Tramy, and I wish I didn’t know Bree. He breaks girls’ hearts.” Bree had a reputation around the village before she left. He once told me that he wasn’t as afraid of the prospect of war as other people were because the dozens of bloodthirsty girls he would leave behind were far more dangerous. “I didn’t know you then, but I definitely will now.”

I got goosebumps. “It means?”

“I mean, you’re going to spend a lot of time working with me. I don’t know who hired you or what they told you about the work, but after a while you get used to it. His job is not just changing bed sheets and washing dishes. You must look without looking, listen without hearing. We are objects up there, living statues who exist only to serve.” He sighed softly and turned around, trying to open a door built right to the side of the gate. “Especially now, with the Red Front problem. It was always bad luck to be a Red. But especially now, things are even worse.”

He stepped through the door, seemingly into a solid wall. It took me a moment to realize he was descending some stairs, disappearing into the shadows.

“Work?” I pressed. “What kind of job? What’s this?”

He turned over on the stairs, rolling his eyes at me. “You have been called to fill the position of servant,”

he said as if it was something that was very clear.

Work. A position . I almost tripped thinking about it.

Cal . He said he had a great job—and now he was using his influence to do the same for me. I might even work with him. My heart leapt at the thought of that possibility, realizing what this meant. I won’t die, I won’t even fight. I will work and I will live. And later, when I found Cal, I could convince him to do the same to Kilorn.

“Hurry up, I don’t have time to hold your hand!”

I stepped down, rushing after him into a very dark tunnel. Small lamps glowed on the walls, just to make it possible to see the road. Pipes crisscrossed overhead, humming with running water and electricity.

“Where are we going?” I finally breathed.

I could almost hear Walsh’s worry as he turned to look at me, looking confused. “Sun Hall, of course.”

For a moment, I thought I could feel my heart stop beating. “Wh-what? That palace… that real palace?”

He tapped the badge on his uniform. The crown twinkled in the dim light.

“You serve the king now.”

They had prepared a uniform for me but I barely noticed. I was too amazed by my surroundings, by the yellowish brown stones and sparkling mosaic floors of the forgotten halls of the king’s residence. The other servants seemed busy going back and forth in a parade of red uniforms. I looked around for faces

they, looking for Cal, want to thank him, but he never shows up.

Walsh stood by my side, whispering advice. “Don’t say anything. Don’t listen to anything. Don’t talk to anyone because they will never talk to you.”

I could barely process his words; The last two days have broken my heart and soul. I think life has finally decided to open its dike doors, trying to drown me in a whirlpool of twists and turns full of surprises.

“You’ve come just in time for a very busy day, perhaps the busiest we’ll ever see.”

“I saw boats and airships—the Silvers have been moving upstream for weeks,” I said. “More than usual, even for this time of year.”

Walsh rushed me, pushing a tray of sparkling cups into my hands. Of course these things can buy me and Kilorn’s freedom. However, the Hall was guarded at every door and window. I would never have been able to escape the scrutiny of so many officers, even with all my skills.

“What happened today?” I stupidly asked. A tuft of my dark hair fell over my eyes, and before I could try to brush it away, Walsh had combed my hair back and secured it with a small pin, his movements quick and precise. “Is that a stupid question?’

“No, I didn’t know anything about today’s events either, until we started getting ready. After all, they haven’t held one for the past twenty years, since the Queen

Elara was chosen.” He spoke so quickly that his words almost overlapped and became blurry. “Today is the time for the Queen’s Election. The daughters of the Prominent Clans, the prominent Silver families, all came to offer themselves to the prince. There will be a big banquet tonight. They were currently in Spiral Gardens, getting ready to present themselves, hoping to be chosen. One of the girls is going to be the next queen, and they are fighting each other ridiculously to get that chance.”

An image of a flock of peacocks flashed through my mind. “So what are they going to do? Spinning around on the spot, saying a few words, batting their eyelashes?”

Walsh snorted at me, shaking his head. “Absolutely not.” Then his eyes lit up. “It’s your turn to serve, so you’ll see for yourself later.”

Doors towered ahead, made of carved wood and sleek glass. A servant opened the doors, allowing a line of people in red uniforms to pass through. Then it was my turn.

“Aren’t you coming?” I could hear the desperation in my voice, almost begging for Walsh to stay with me. However, he moved back, leaving me alone. Before I could jam the line or even disrupt the orderly rhythm of the line of servants, I forced myself to move forward and out into the sunlight, to a place he called the Spiral Garden.

At first I thought I was in the middle of another arena like the one in my village. The room curves down into a giant bowl, but instead of stone benches, rows of plush tables and chairs fill the spiral terraces. Plants and fountains cascade down the steps, dividing the terraces into boxes. They joined at the bottom, dotting a circle of grass surrounded by stone statues. In front of me was a box area decorated with red and black silk. Four benches, each made of sturdy iron, looked down at the floor below.

What place is this?

My task passed in a blur, following the lead of the other Reds. I’m the kitchen maid, devoted to cleaning, assisting the chef, and for now, preparing the arena for the upcoming event. I wonder why the royal members need an arena. In my home village, those arenas were only used for Battles, to watch fellow Silvers fight each other, but what was the purpose of those arenas here? This is a palace. Blood will never stain these floors. Even so, this unclear arena hit me with a bad feeling. The prickling sensation was back, pulsing under my skin. Once my duties were finished and I returned to the servant’s entrance, the Queen Selection event would soon begin.

The other servants removed themselves from sight, moving towards a high platform surrounded by light curtains. I ran after them and crashed into line, just as the other doors opened, between the royal box and the servants’ entrance.

Has begun.

My thoughts flashed back to the Great Garden, to the beautiful, vile creatures who called themselves humans. All of them appeared flashy and arrogant, with cold looks and bad tempers. These Silvers, the Notable Clans, as Walsh put it, would be no different. They could even be worse.

They stepped in as a group, in a colorful mass that separated itself around the Spiral Gardens with cool grace. Different families or clans are easy to identify; they all wore similar colors to each other. Purple, green, black, yellow, the colors of the rainbow moved towards their family boxes. I quickly lost count while observing them. Exactly how many families are there actually? More people joined the crowd, some stopping to talk, while others greeted each other stiffly. I realize, this is a party for them. Most probably had no hope of proposing a queen and they only thought of this moment as a holiday.

But others didn’t seem to blend in with the celebratory mood. A silver-haired family in black silk sat in focused silence on the right side of the king’s box. The head of the family had a sharp beard and a pair of black eyes. Further down, a family in dark blue and white clothes murmured to each other. How surprised I was when I recognized one of them. Samson Merandus, the whisperer I saw in the arena a few days ago. Not like the others, he is

staring glumly at the floor, his attention elsewhere. I made a mental note not to cross paths with him or his deadly abilities.

But strangely, I didn’t see any girl of suitable age to marry the prince. Perhaps they were preparing in one place, eagerly awaiting their chance to win a crown.

Every once in a while, someone presses a square metal button on their table to turn on the light, indicating that they need a waiter. Whoever was closest to the door went to serve them, and the rest shuffled forward, waiting their turn to serve. Of course, as soon as I moved to the side of the door, it was the damn black-eyed patriarch who pressed the button on his desk.

I am grateful for the nimble feet that never let me down. I almost blended in with the crowd, dancing among the bodies while my heart pounded loudly in my chest. Instead of stealing from these people, I’m here to serve them. Mare Barrow a week ago didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this version of herself. However, she was a stupid girl, and now I have to pay the price.

“Sir?” I said, facing the head of the family who had just called for service. In my mind, I cursed myself. Don’t say a word is the first rule, and I’ve broken it.

But he didn’t seem to notice and just raised his empty drinking glass, with a bored look on his face. “They’re playing with us, Ptolemus,” he said

grumbled to a burly young man beside him. I suspect he was the man unfortunate enough to be called Ptolemus.

“A show of power, Father,” Ptolemus replied, draining the contents of his own glass. He held it out to me, and I took it without hesitation. “They make us wait just because they can.”

They are royal members who have not yet appeared. However, hearing these Perak people talk about the royal family like that, so condescendingly, was surprising. We Reds used to insult the king and the nobility whenever possible, but I thought that was our prerogative. These people have never suffered a day in their lives. What problems could they have with each other?

I wanted to stay and eavesdrop, but even I knew that was against the rules. I turned around, climbed some stairs, access out of their box. There was a sink hidden behind brightly colored flowers, perhaps so I wouldn’t have to travel all the way back, returning around this unreal arena to refill their drinks. That’s when a loud metallic sound reverberated throughout the room, just like the sound that started the First Friday Celebration. It squeaked several times, giving off a majestic melody, perhaps announcing the presence of the king. All around, the Prominent Clans stood up, unwillingly or not. I noticed Ptolemus mumbling something to his father again. From my vantage point, hidden behind the flowers, my vision was level with the king’s box and slightly behind it.

Mare Barrow, only a few meters away from the king. What would my family, or even Kilorn, think? This man sent us to war to die, and I volunteered to serve as his servant. That fact makes me sick.

The king entered quickly, his shoulders square and level. Even from behind, he was much fatter than he appeared on the coins and broadcasts, but also taller. His uniform was red and black, with a military-style cut, although I doubt he ever spent a day in the trenches where the Reds died in them. Badges and medals glittered on his chest, a testament to the things he never did. He even carried a gold-plated sword despite the presence of many bodyguards surrounding him. The crown on his head looked familiar, made of twisted red gold and black iron, each pointy end a curved burst of flame. It looked like the fire was burning his jet black hair interspersed with gray. How fitting, the king must have been an arsonist, just as his father had been, and his grandfather before him, and so on. A destructive heat and fire controller with great power. Once upon a time, our kings used to burn rebels with nothing more than a fiery touch. This king may not burn the Reds any more, but he still kills us with war and destruction. I’ve known his name since I was a little girl sitting in the classroom, still eager to learn, as if he could take me somewhere. Tiberias Calore Sixth, King of Norta, Northern Fire .

A most complicated name. I would spit out his name if I could.

Her Majesty followed suit, nodding towards the crowd. While the king’s clothes were dark and cut, the queen’s blue and white clothes were cool and light. The Queen just bowed towards the Samson clan, and I noticed she was wearing the same colors as them. He must be the same blood as them, judging from the family resemblance. The same ash blonde hair, with blue eyes and a curved smile, which made him look like a wild predatory cat.

As intimidating as the royal members looked, they were nothing compared to the guards following them. Even though I was a Red born in the swamp, I knew who they were. Everyone knows what a Sentinel looks like because no one wants to meet them. They flanked the king in every broadcast, in every speech or proclamation. As usual, their uniforms looked like flames, flickering between red and orange, and their eyes gleamed behind their eerie black masks. They carried black rifles with gleaming silver bayonets that could tear bone. Their abilities were even more terrifying than their appearance—elite warriors from various Perak clans, trained from childhood, swearing loyalty to the king and his family for the rest of their lives. Their presence was enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. However, the Prominent Clans were not afraid at all.

Somewhere in the boxes, the screaming began. “Death to the Red Guards!” someone can be heard screaming, and others

quickly joined. A chill ran through my body as I remembered the events of yesterday, which now seemed so far away. How quickly this crowd can change….

The king looked disturbed, alert to the commotion. He wasn’t used to dealing with sudden hubbub like this and almost rebuked the cheers.

“The Red Guard—and all our enemies—are being dealt with!” Tiberias shouted firmly, his voice echoing through the crowd. His words silenced them like the stroke of a whip. “But our goal here is not to discuss that. Today we honor a tradition, and no Red Devil can stand in its way. Currently is the Queen Selection ceremony, to present the most talented princess to marry the noblest son. It is here that we find strength, to bind the Leading Clans, and power, to ensure leadership of the Silvers until the end of time, to defeat our enemies, on their borders, and within their territories.”

“Power,” the crowd roared back at him. How scary. “Power.”

“The time has come to uphold these ideals, and my two sons honor our most noble customs.” The king waved his hand, and two figures moved forward, flanking their father. I couldn’t see their faces, but both of them were tall and had black hair, just like the king. Both of them wore military uniforms. “Prince Maven, of the Calore and Merandus Clans, son of the empress, Queen Elara.”

The second prince, paler and slimmer than the other, raised his hand in a firm greeting. He turned left and…

right, and I caught a glimpse of his face. Although he had a noble and serious look on his face, he couldn’t be more than seventeen. With his firm features and blue eyes, he could freeze fire with his smile—he hated these contests. In this case, I agree with him.

“And the crown prince of the Calore and Jacos Clans, son of my late wife, Queen Coriane, heir to the Kingdom of Norta and the Fire Throne, the Seventh of Tiberias.”

I was too busy laughing at the absurd name to realize who the young man was smiling and waving. Finally I raised my gaze, just so I could say that I had once been so close to the future king. However, I got a reality that was far from what I expected.

The glass cups in both my hands fell, landing harmlessly in the sink.

I know that smile, and I know those eyes. Those burning eyes pierced mine just last night. He is the one who gave me this job; he is the one who saved me from the trap of war. He is one of us. How could this happen?

Then he turned his body completely around, waving around. No doubt.

The crown prince is Cal .[]

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