Chapter no 8

Red Queen (Red Queen, 1)

I WAS ON THE PORAGE, looking at Mom saying goodbye to my sister Bree. Mother cried, hugged him tightly, stroked his freshly cut hair. Shade and Tramy were waiting to support Mom’s body if her legs wobbled. I know they also want to cry, watching their eldest brother leave, but for Mother’s sake, they hold back. Beside me, Father didn’t say anything, just stared at the legion members. In fact, in his steel plate armor and bulletproof cloth, the soldier looked small next to my brother. Bree could have swallowed him alive, but she didn’t. He didn’t do anything when the legion member grabbed his arm, pulling his body away from us. The shadows followed, following his departure with their terrible dark wings. The world spun around me, then I fell.

I landed a year later, my feet buried in a puddle of mud beneath my house. Now Mother was holding on to Tramy, pitying the legion members. Shade was forced to pull his body away. Somewhere, Gisa cried for her beloved brother. Dad and I kept silent, saving our tears. The shadows returned, this time circling around me,

staining the sky and the sun. I closed my eyes tightly, hoping the shadows would leave me alone.

When I opened my eyes again, I was in Shade’s arms, holding him as tight as I could. He hadn’t cut his hair yet, and his chin-length brown hair tickled the top of my head. When I hugged his chest tightly, I winced. My ears pricked, and I pulled away, seeing drops of red blood on my brother’s shirt. Gisa and I just got our ears pierced again, with a little gift Shade left us. I guess I got it pierced wrong, just like everything else I do. This time, I felt the shadow’s presence before seeing it. And it looks like the shadows are angry.

Shadows drag me through a parade of memories, all fresh wounds that have yet to heal. Some of them are even sleeping flowers. No, those are nightmares. My worst nightmares.

A new world materialized around me, forming a shadowy landscape of smoke and ash. Choke Plains. I’ve never set foot there, but I’ve heard enough to imagine it. The ground was flat, filled with craters from thousands of dropped bombs. Soldiers in shabby red uniforms huddled in each hole, as blood filled the wounds. I floated past them all, looking for familiar faces, looking for brothers lost to smoke and shrapnel.

Bree appears first, wrestling with a blue-clad Lakelander in a mud puddle. I wanted to help him, but I just kept floating past him

disappeared from my sight. Tramy appeared later, bending over a wounded soldier, trying to help him from dying of blood loss. The lines of her soft face, similar to Gisa’s, looked full of suffering. I will never forget that scream of frustration and pain. Meanwhile, Bree, I couldn’t help her.

Shade waits at the forefront, even at the head of the bravest warriors. He stood on the ridge without caring about the bombs or guns or the Lakelander army waiting on the other side. He even had the guts to throw me a smile. I could only watch as the ground his feet were standing on exploded, destroying his body in a cloud of fire and smoke.

“Stop it!” I managed to scream, reaching towards the smoke that was previously my brother’s body.

The ash took shape, reappearing in shadow. Covering me in darkness, until waves of memories take me back. Gisa’s hands. Kilorn Networking. Father’s return as an undead. The memories blended together, a swirl of colors so bright they hurt my eyesight. There is something wrong. The memories flashed back through the years, as if I was watching my life replay. Then there were events I can’t possibly remember: learning to talk, walking, my little brothers pushing me between them while my mother scolded them. This is impossible.

“Impossible,” the shadow said to me. That’s the sound

sharp, to the point where I was afraid it would crack my skull. I fell to my knees, hitting what felt like concrete.

Then they disappeared. My brothers, my parents, my little sister, my memories, my nightmares, all disappeared. Concrete and iron bars rise all around me. A cage.

I tried to stand up. One hand held my head in pain, as everything came into focus. A figure was looking at me from behind the bars. A crown glittered on his head.

“I want to bow, but I might fall,” I said to Queen Elara, and immediately regretted saying those words. He’s a Silver , I can’t talk to him like that. He could have put me in a slaughterhouse, taken away my life, punished me, punished my family. No, I was awakened by the growing horror. She is the queen. He could have killed me. He could kill us all.

But he didn’t seem offended. Instead, he smiled. A wave of nausea washed over me as our eyes met, and I hunched back in pain.

“That looks like a bend to me,” he said, enjoying my pain.

I fought the urge to vomit and reached out to grab the bars. My fist tightened around the cold steel. “What did you do to me?”

“It’s nothing now. But this—” He reached through the bars to touch my temple. The pain tripled under his fingers, and I collapsed

against the bars, barely conscious enough to hang on. “This is to prevent you from doing anything stupid.”

Tears pricked my eyes, but I shook them away. “Like standing on my own feet?” I blurted out. I could barely think through the pain, let alone be polite, but I still managed to hold back the torrent of curses. For God’s sake, Mare Barrow, hold your tongue.

“Like electrocuting anything,” he snapped.

The pain subsided, giving me enough strength to walk over to the iron bench. As I rested my head against the cool stone wall, the words only dawned on me. Electrocute.

Memories flashed through my mind, emerging in rough chunks. Evangeline, the lightning shield, the sparks, and me. That’s impossible .

“You are not a Silver. “Your parents are Red, you are Red, and your blood is red,” muttered the queen, pacing back and forth in front of the cage. “You are a miracle, Mare Barrow, an impossibility. Something I can’t even understand, even though I’ve watched your entire life story.”

“That’s you?” I nearly screamed, reaching up to hold my head again. “You were in my mind? My memories? My nightmares ?”

“If you know someone’s fears, you will know them.” He blinked at me as if I were some stupid creature. “And I need to know what we’re dealing with.”

“I’m not ‘it’ .”

“Exactly what kind of creature you are still needs to be investigated, but be grateful for one thing, Lightning Girl,” he grinned, resting his face against the bars. Suddenly my legs went numb, losing all feeling as if I was sitting wrong. It’s as if my body is paralyzed . Panic welled up in my chest when I realized I couldn’t even move my toes. This must be how Dad felt, broken and useless. But somehow I finally managed to stand up, my legs moved on their own, bringing me closer to the bars. On the other side, the queen was watching me. The blink of his eyes matched the movement of my steps.

He’s a whisperer, and he’s playing with me. When my body was close enough, his hands grabbed my face. I screamed as the pain in my head doubled. I would like to give up everything right now for the simple disaster of military service.

“You did that in front of hundreds of Silvers, people who would ask questions, people with power.” He hissed in my ear, his cloyingly scented breath wafting my face. “That’s the only reason you’re alive right now.”

My hands were clenched into fists. I wanted to summon the lightning again but it didn’t appear. He knew what I was doing and laughed loudly. Stars exploded behind my eyes, blurring my vision, but I heard him leave in a whirl of rustling silk. My vision returned just in time, until I saw the dress disappear around the corner, leaving me alone in the cell. I could barely make it back to the bench, fighting the urge to vomit.

Exhaustion crashed over me in crashing waves, starting in my muscles and sinking into my bones. I’m only human, and humans shouldn’t face days like today. With a jolt, I realized my wrists were bare. The red bracelet was gone, taken. What does this mean? Tears pricked my eyes, threatening to spill, but I didn’t want to cry. I still have some self-respect left.

I could fight back the tears, but not the questions. Not with the doubts that are getting stronger in my heart.

What happened to me? Who am I?

When I opened my eyes, I saw a Security officer looking at me from the other side of the bars. His silver buttons shone in the dim light, but they were nothing compared to the bright shine that bounced off his shaved head.

“You have to tell my family where I am,” I babbled, sitting up straight. At least I had time to say that I loved them, I recalled, remembering our last moments.

“I don’t have to do anything other than take you upstairs,” he answered, but without much action. The officer was a pillar of calm. “Change your clothes.”

Suddenly, I realized I was still wearing the half-charred uniform hanging from my body. The officer pointed to a pile of clean clothes near the grate. He turned around, giving me some privacy.

It was plain, but nice, subtler than anything I’d ever worn before. A long-sleeved white shirt and black trousers, both decorated with a single silver stripe on each side. There were shoes too, shiny black boots that went up to my knees. With a start, I realized there wasn’t a single speck of red stitching on my clothes. However, I don’t understand the reason at all. My confusion is getting worse.

“Okay.” I grumbled, struggling to get the last pair of boots onto my feet. Once the shoes were in place, the officer turned away. I didn’t hear the sound of keys jingling, but I never saw a padlock either. I have absolutely no idea how he plans to get me out of the doorless cage.

But instead of opening a hidden gate, his hand twitched, and the iron bars bent open. Of course. The warden was a—

“Magnetron, that’s right,” he said with a snap of his fingers. “And in case you’re wondering, the girl you almost roasted was my cousin.”

I nearly choked on the air in my lungs, not knowing how to respond. “Forgive me.” My apology sounded more like a question.

“Sorry you missed it.” He replied without any sign of joking. “Evangeline is really annoying.” “Talent in the family?” My mouth moves faster than my brain,

and I gasped, realizing what I had just said.

He didn’t rebuke me for speaking without waiting to be asked, even though he had every right to do so. Instead,

the officer’s face wrinkled into a small smile. “I guess you’ll find out for yourself,” he said, his black eyes softening. “My name is Lucas Samos. Follow me.”

I didn’t need to ask to know I had no choice in the matter.

He guided me out of the cell and up the winding stairs, towards no less than twelve Security officers. Without a word, they surrounded me in a well-trained formation and forced me to walk with them. Lucas stayed by my side, marching in sync with the others. They held weapons in their hands, as if ready to face battle. My gut feeling tells me that these men’s job is not to protect me, but to protect others from me.

When we reached the prettier top floor, the glass walls looked strangely black. Darkened, I thought, remembering what Gisa had said about the Hall of the Sun. The diamond glass can darken on command to hide things the eye cannot see. Obviously, I fall into that category.

With a jolt, I realized the windows were changing not because of a mechanism, but because of a red-haired officer. The woman waved at every wall we passed, and the power within her blocked the light from entering, clouding the glass with a thin layer of shadow.

“He’s a shadow, a bender of light,” Lucas whispered, realizing my surprise.

The cameras are here too. My skin crawled, feeling the electric gaze of the camera run through my bones. Normally my head would hurt from receiving that much electricity, but there wasn’t any pain

come. Something in that shield had changed me. Or perhaps I’ve released something, uncovered a part of myself that was locked away for so long. Who am I? echoed back in my head, more threatening than before.

It was only when we passed through the giant double doors that the electric sensation subsided. Those spies can’t see me here . The space inside can accommodate ten of my houses, complete with stilts. And right in front of me, with burning eyes piercing my eyes, was the figure of the king, sitting on a diamond glass throne carved into the shape of flames. Behind him, a window lit by sunlight quickly darkened. That will probably be the last glimpse of the sun I see.

Lucas and the other officers herded me forward, but they didn’t stay long. With just a glance back, Lucas guided the others away.

The king sat in front of me, the queen stood on his left side, the two princes on the right side. I refuse to look at Cal, but I know he must be glaring at me. I focused my gaze on my new boots, focusing on my big toe so I wouldn’t let myself give in to the fear that was turning my body to lead.

“Kneel,” the queen murmured, her voice soft as velvet.

should kneel, but my pride won’t let me. Even here, before the Silver Clan, before the King, my knees cannot bend. “I’m not going to kneel,” I said, finding the strength to look up.

“Are you enjoying your cell, kid?” Tiberias said, his kingly voice filling the room. The threat in his words was as clear as day

during the day, but I remained standing. He tilted his head, looking at me as if I were an experimental object to be observed.

“What do you want from me?” I managed to spit out the words.

The queen leaned to the king’s side. “I told you, he’s a Red to the core—” However, the king brushed him off like he was swatting away flies. The Queen pursed her lips and pulled back, her hands clenched tightly. Let him know how he feels. “What I want from you is the impossible,” Tiberias snarled.

His sharp gaze was burning, as if he was trying to burn me.

I remembered the queen’s words. “Well, I’m not sorry you couldn’t kill me.”

The king chuckled. “They didn’t say you were smart.”

Relief flooded me. Death does not await me here. Not yet. The king threw down a stack of papers, all covered in writing.

The top sheet had the usual information, including my name, date of birth, my parents, and the brown stain that was my blood. My photo is also displayed there, the same as the one listed on my identification card. I looked at the photo of myself, into the bored eyes of having to wait in line to be photographed. If only I could jump into that photo, into the figure of a girl whose only worries were war and a hungry stomach.

“Mare Molly Barrow, born November seventeenth, 302 in New Era, of parents named Daniel and Ruth Barrow,” Tiberias recited from memory, describing my life candidly. “You don’t have a job and are scheduled for wartime on your next birthday. You

attending school infrequently, your academic test scores are low, and you have a list of offenses that would get you jailed in most cities. Theft, smuggling, resisting arrest, just to name a few. It can be concluded, you are poor, rude, immoral, uneducated, destitute, bitter, stubborn, and a curse to your village and my kingdom.”

The shock of his sharp words took a moment to sink in, but once it was over, I didn’t deny it. He’s completely right.

“Even so,” he continued, rising to his feet. At this close distance, I can see that the crown is very sharp. The edges of that crown could kill. “You are also something else. Something I can’t understand. You are both Red and Silver, a monstrosity with deadly consequences you cannot comprehend. So, what should I do with you?”

Did he ask me? “You can free me. I won’t say a word.”

The queen’s cynical laughter cut me off. “And what about the Notable Clans? Will they also keep their mouths shut? Will they forget the lightning girl in the red uniform?”

No. No one will forget.

“You know my advice, Tiberias.” The queen added, her eyes fixed on the king. “And that could solve both of our problems.”

That must have been bad advice, bad for me, because Cal clenched his fists. The movement caught my eye, and my attention finally fell on him. He remained unmoved, silent and calm. He must have been trained to act like that, but fire

burning behind his eyes. For a moment, his eyes met mine, but I looked away before I could call out to him and ask him to save me.

“Yes, Elara,” said the king, nodding to his wife. “We can’t kill you, Mare Barrow.” Can’t hang in the air yet. “So we will hide you openly where we can watch you, protect you , and try to understand you.”

The way his eyes flashed made me feel like a meal ready to be devoured.

“Father!” The word burst out of Cal. However, his younger brother—the paler, slimmer prince—grabbed his arm, restraining him from making any further protests. He had a calming effect, and Cal stepped back into line.

Tiberias continued, ignoring his son. “You are no longer Mare Barrow, a Red maiden from Stilt Village.”

“Then who am I?” I asked, my voice trembling with fear, thinking of all the bad things they could do to me.

“Your father was Ethan Titanos, general of the Iron Legion, killed when you were still a baby. A warrior, a Red man, adopted you as his own son and raised you in the mud, never revealing your true lineage. You grew up believing yourself to be nothing, and now, thanks to an opportunity, you have become your true self again. You are a Silver, a princess of a disappeared Prominent Clan, a noble with great power, and one day, the princess of Norta.”

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t hold back a cry of surprise. “A Silver—a princess?”

My eyes betray me, drifting to Cal. A princess must marry a prince.

“You will marry my son Maven, and you will do so by following the existing rules.”

I swear I heard my jaw hit the floor. A miserable, humiliating groan escaped my mouth as I searched for something to say, but I was completely at a loss for words. In front of me, the younger prince looked just as surprised, grumbling loudly as I wanted to. This time, it was Cal’s turn to restrain his brother, even though his eyes were on me.

The young prince managed to find his voice. “I don’t understand,” he spat, shrugging at Cal. He took quick steps towards his father. “He—why

—?” Normally I would be offended, but I was forced to agree with the prince’s refusal.

“Shut up,” his mother snapped. “You must obey.”

The prince glared at his mother, every inch of the young son rebelling against his parents. However, his mother was more assertive, and the prince finally backed down, as aware of the queen’s fury and power as I was.

My voice was weak, barely audible. “This sounds a bit too… over the top.” There’s no other way to explain it. “You guys don’t want to make me a noble girl, let alone a princess.”

Tiberias’ face broke into a sinister smile. Just like the queen, her teeth were dazzling white. “Oh, of course I want it.

For the first time in your trivial, basic life, you have a purpose.” The blow felt like a slap to the face. “This is where we are now, in the early stages of an unwanted insurrection, with terrorist groups or freedom fighters, or whatever other names these idiot Reds have given themselves, putting bombs there. -here in the name of equality.”

“Red March.” Farley. Shades . As soon as that name crossed my mind, I prayed that Queen Elara would stay away from my mind. “They bombed—”

“The capital city, right.” The king shrugged, scratching his neck.

My years in the shadows have taught me many things. Who brings the most money, who won’t notice you’re there, and what a fraudster looks like. The king was a fraud, I realized, watching him force himself to shrug again. He tried to act nonchalant, but it didn’t work. Something about Farley, about the Red Row, had frightened him. Against something much bigger than a number of explosions.

“And you,” he continued, leaning forward. “You might be able to help us stop them from carrying out further actions.”

I would have laughed out loud if I hadn’t been so scared. “By marrying—sorry, what was your name?”

The prince’s cheeks were white with what I assumed was the Silver’s version of a blush. After all, their blood is silver. “My name is Maven,” he said, his voice soft and low. Same

like Cal and his father, his hair was shiny black but their similarities ended there. If his father and brother were wide and stocky, Maven was slim, with eyes like clear water. “And I still don’t understand.”

“What Dad is saying is that he represents an opportunity for us,” Cal said, interrupting to explain. Unlike his younger brother, Cal’s voice was firm and full of authority. It was the voice of a king. “If the Silvers saw him, a man of Silver blood, but in character like a Red, rising with us, they would be appeased. Like an ancient fairy tale, a commoner who becomes a princess. He is the figure they champion. They can support themselves instead of the terrorists.” Then quieter, but more important than anything: “He was a distraction.”

But this is not a fairy tale, or even a dream. This is a nightmare . I will be locked up for the rest of my life, forced to be someone else. Become one of them. A doll. A play to keep the people happy, silent, and trampled on.

“And if the story goes as it should, even the Leading Clans will be satisfied. You are the lost daughter of a warrior. What other honor could we bestow upon you?”

I looked into his eyes, begging silently. He helped me once, maybe he can do it again. However, Cal shook his head slowly. He couldn’t help me this time.

“This is not a request, Lady Titanos,” Tiberias said. He used my new name, my new title . “You will live it

all this, and you will do it properly .”

Queen Elara turned her pale eyes to me. “You will stay here, as is tradition for royal brides. Every day there will be a schedule drawn up at my discretion, and you will receive instruction in everything possible to make yourself”—he searched for a word, biting his lip— “fit.” I don’t want to know what that means. “You will be examined carefully. From now on, you live on the edge of a knife. One wrong step, one wrong word, and you will suffer for it.”

My throat closed, as if I could feel the chains that the king and queen had tied around my body. “What about my life—?”

“What life?” groaned Elara. “Kid, you just fell straight into a miracle.”

Cal closed his eyes tightly for a moment, as if the sound of the queen’s laughter hurt him. “He means his family. Mare—that girl—has a family.”

Gisa, Mother, Father, her brothers, Kilorn—a life taken away.

“Oh, that,” the king snorted, dropping his bottom back onto the chair. “I thought we could give them severance, to shut them up .”

“I want my brothers to be sent home from the battlefield.” For once, I felt as if I had said the right thing. “And my friend, Kilorn Warren. Don’t let the legion members take him too.”

Tiberias responded in just a split second. Some Red soldiers meant nothing to him. “It’s done.”

It sounds more like a death sentence than an acquittal.[]

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