Mare Barrow is about to return in Victoria Aveyard’s King’s Cage, the third installment of the bestselling Red Queen series.
This new novel, coming in FebruaryÂ 2017, starts with Mare as a prisoner. She lives at the mercy of Maven, a boy she once loved. Now the king, Maven Calore does everything he canÂ to maintain control over his country and his prisoner.
Meanwhile, Mare’s once-ragtag band of newbloods and Reds continue organizing, training, and expanding – preparing for war. And Cal, the exiled prince with his own claim on Mare’s heart, will stop at nothing to bring her back.
About the author
Photo from Bustle
Victoria Aveyard is an American young adult and fantasy author. Her debut novel, Red Queen, was released in 2015.Â That year, it was nominated for the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction and it won her theÂ Goodreads Choice Award for Debut Goodreads Author.
Here’s the excerpt
The cards are carefully typed, outlining what I must say. I canâ€™t even look at them, and leave them lying on my bedside table.
I very much doubt Iâ€™ll get the benefit of maids to make me up into whatever Maven imagines presenting to the court. It looks like an arduous task, buttoning and zipping myself into the scarlet gown. It has a high collar, trailing hem, and long sleeves to hide not just Mavenâ€™s brand on my collarbone but the manacles still attached to my wrists and ankles.
No matter how many times I escape this elegant pageantry, I seem doomed to play a role in it. The dress will be too big when I finally get it on, loose around the arms and waist. Iâ€™m thinner here, no matter how much I force myself to eat. Based on what I can glean from my reflection in the window, my hair and skin have also suffered under the weight of silence. My face is yellowed and sunken, sickly-looking, while red rims my eyes. And my dark brown hair, still tinged by the slow creep of gray at the ends, is rattier than ever, tangled to the root. I braid it back hastily, working the knotted strands.
No amount of silk can change what I look like beneath Mavenâ€™s costume. But itâ€™s no matter. Iâ€™ll never wear it, if all goes to plan.
The next step in my preparation makes my heart pound. I do my best to look calm, for the cameras in my bedroom at least. They cannot know what Iâ€™m about to do, not if itâ€™s going to work. And even if I manage to fool my guards, thereâ€™s another rather large obstacle.
This could kill me.
Maven did not put cameras in my bathroom. Not to protect my privacy, but to placate his own jealousy. I know enough of him to realize he wonâ€™t let another person see my body. The added weight of Silent Stone, the slabs set into walls, is confirmation. Maven made sure guards would never have a reason to escort me in here. My heart beats sluggishly in my chest, but I push through it. I have to.
The shower hisses and steams, scalding hot as soon as I turn it on to full blast. If not for the bathroom Stone, I would have spent many days enjoying the singular comfort of a hot wash. I must work quickly, or let myself be smothered.
Back at the Notch we were lucky to bathe in cold rivers, while on Tuck the showers were timed and lukewarm. I laugh at the thought of what passed for bathing at home. A tub filled from the kitchen faucet, warm in the summer, cold in the winter, with stolen soap to clean with. I still donâ€™t envy my motherâ€™s job of helping my father wash.
With any luckâ€”lots of luckâ€”Iâ€™ll see them again soon.
I push the showerhead, angling it away from the basin and onto the floor of the bathroom. The water pelts against white tile, drenching it. The spray hits my bare feet, and the heat shivers my skin, gentle and inviting as a warm blanket.
As water seeps out beneath the bathroom door, I work quickly. First I put the long shard of glass on the counter, well within armâ€™s length. Then I reach for the true weapon.
Whitefire Palace is a marvel in every inch, and my bathroom is no exception. Itâ€™s lit by a modest chandelier, if there is such a thing: worked in silver, with curling arms like tree branches giving bud to a dozen lightbulbs. I have to stand on the sink, precariously balanced, to get at it. A few forceful but focused tugs pull the dangling fixture forward, its wiring peeling through the ceiling. Once I have enough slack, I crouch, the still-lit chandelier in hand. I brace it on the sink to wait.
The pounding starts a few minutes later. Whoever is watching my room has noticed the water spilling out from underneath my bathroom door. Ten seconds later, two sets of feet troop into my bedroom. Which Arvens, Iâ€™m not sure, but it doesnâ€™t really matter.
â€œBarrow!â€ a manâ€™s voice calls, accompanied by a fist knocking on the bathroom door.
They waste no time when I donâ€™t respond, and neither do I.
Egg pushes the door in, his white face almost blending into the tiled walls as he steps inside, sloshing through. Clover does not follow, but stands with one foot in the bathroom, the other in my bedchamber. It doesnâ€™t matter. Both her feet are in the puddle of steaming water.
â€œBarrowÂ .Â .Â .Â ?â€ Egg says, slack-jawed at the sight of me.
It doesnâ€™t take much to let the chandelier drop, but the action feels heavy all the same.
It smashes against the wet tile. When the electricity hits the water, a surge pulses through the room, shorting out not just the other bathroom lights, but the lights in my bedroom. Probably this entire wing of the palace.
Both Arvens jump and twitch as the sparks dance through their flesh. They crumple quickly, muscles seizing.
I vault over the water and their bodies, almost gasping as the weight of the bathroomâ€™s Silent Stone melts away. The manacles still weigh on my limbs, and I waste no time searching the Arvens, careful to keep out of the water. I turn out their pockets as quickly as I can, searching for the key that haunts my waking moments. Shaking, I feel a curl of metal beneath Eggâ€™s collar, lying flush to his breastbone. With trembling hands, I yank it free and set to loosening my manacles one by one. As they drop away, the silence lifts, bit by bit. I gasp down air, trying to force lightning into myself. Itâ€™s coming back. It must.
But I still feel numb.
Eggâ€™s body is at my mercy, warm and alive beneath my hands. I could cut his throat and Cloverâ€™s, slice their jugulars with any one of the jagged bits of glass I keep well hidden. I should do it, I tell myself. But Iâ€™ve already wasted too much time. I leave them living.
As expected, the Arvens are trained enough in their duties to have locked my bedroom door behind them. No matter. A hairpin is just as good as a key. I pop the lock in a second.
Itâ€™s been a few days since I stepped outside my prison, and then I was leashed to Evangeline, guarded on all sides. Now the hallway is empty. Dead lightbulbs march down the hall overhead, taunting in their emptiness. My electrical sense is weak, barely a spark across the darkness. It has to come back. This wonâ€™t work if it doesnâ€™t come back. I fight a swell of panicâ€”what if itâ€™s gone for good? What if Maven took my lightning from me?
I sprint as fast as I can, holding on to what I know of Whitefire. Evangeline took me left, to the ballrooms and the great halls and the throne room. Those places will be crawling with guards and officers, not to mention the nobility of Norta, dangerous on their own. So I go right.
Cameras follow, of course. I spot them at every corner. I wonder if they shorted out too, or if Iâ€™m entertainment for a few officers. They might be making bets on how far I get. The doomed endeavor of a doomed girl.
A service stair takes me down a landing, and I almost knock over a servant in my haste.
My heart leaps at the sight of him. A boy, my age, maybe, his face already flushing as he holds on to his tea tray. Flushing red.
â€œItâ€™s a trick!â€ I shout at him. â€œWhat theyâ€™re going to make me do, itâ€™s a trick!â€
At the top of the stairs, and the bottom, a pair of doors bang open in succession. Cornered again. A bad habit Iâ€™ve developed.
â€œMareâ€”â€ the boy says, my name trembling on his lips. I frighten him.
â€œFind a way; tell the Scarlet Guard. Tell whoever you can. Itâ€™s another lie!â€
Someone seizes me around my middle, pulling me backward, up and away. I keep my focus on the serving boy. The uniformed officers ascending from below shove him away, pressing him up against the wall without thought. His tray clatters to the floor, spilling tea.
â€œItâ€™s all a lie!â€ I manage to get out before a hand clamps over my mouth.
I try to spark, reaching for lightning that I still barely feel. Nothing happens, so I bite down hard enough to taste blood.
The Security officer drops his hand, swearing, while another comes up in front of me, deftly grabbing my kicking legs. I spit blood in her face.
When she backhands me, the action full of deadly grace, I recognize her.
â€œGood to see you, Sonya,â€ I hiss. I try to kick her in the stomach, but she dodges with boredom.
Please, I beg in my mind, as if the electricity can hear me. Nothing responds, and I choke back a sob. Iâ€™m too weak. Itâ€™s been too long.
Sonya is a silk, too swift and agile to be bothered with the resistance of a weak girl. I glance at her uniform. Black piped with silver, with the blue and red of House Iral on her shoulders. Judging by the badges on her chest and the pins on her collar, sheâ€™s a ranking officer of Security now. â€œCongratulations on the promotion,â€ I growl in frustration, lashing out because itâ€™s all I can do. â€œDone with Training so soon?â€
She tightens her grip on my feet, her hands like pincers.
â€œToo bad you never finished Protocol.â€ Still carrying my legs, she rubs her face on her shoulder, trying to wipe away the silver blood on her cheek. â€œYou could use some manners.â€
Itâ€™s only been a few months since I last saw her. Standing with her grandmother Ara and Evangeline, dressed in mourning black for the king. She was one of many who watched me in the Bowl of Bones, who wanted to see me die. Her house is famed for their skill not just in body, but in mind. Spies all, trained to discover secrets. I doubt she believed Maven when he told everyone I was a trick, a Scarlet Guard creation sent to infiltrate the palace. And I doubt sheâ€™ll believe whatâ€™s about to happen.
â€œI saw your grandmother,â€ I tell her. A daring card to play.
Her flawless composure does not change, but I feel her grip on my legs weaken, if only a little. Then she dips her chin. Continue, sheâ€™s trying to say.
â€œIn Corros Prison. Starved, weakened by Silent Stone.â€ Like I am now. â€œI helped free her.â€
Another might call me a liar. But Sonya remains quiet, her eyes anywhere but me. To anyone else, she looks disinterested.
â€œI donâ€™t know how long she spent in there, but she put up more of a fight than anyone else.â€ I remember her now, flashing across my memories. An old woman with the vicious strength of her namesake, the Panther. She even saved my life, plucking a razor-sharp wheel out of the air before it could take my head. â€œPtolemus got her in the end, though. Right before he killed my brother.â€
Her gaze falls to the floor, brow furrowed slightly. Every inch of her tightens. For a second I think she might cry, but the threatening tears never spill. â€œHow?â€ I barely hear her.
â€œThrough the neck. Quickly.â€
Her next slap is well aimed, but without much strength behind it. A show, like everything else in this hellish place.
â€œKeep your filthy lies to yourself, Barrow,â€ she hisses, ending our conversation.
I end up in a heap on my bedroom floor, both cheeks stinging, with the crushing weight of four Arven guards washing over me. Egg and Clover look a bit rumpled, but healers have already seen to their injuries, whatever they were. Pity I didnâ€™t kill them.
â€œShocked to see me?â€ I drawl at them, chuckling at the horrific joke.
In response, Kitten forces me into the scarlet gown, making me strip in front of them all. She takes her time in the humiliation. The dress smarts as it pulls across my brand. M for Maven, M for monster, M for murder.
I can still taste the Security officerâ€™s blood when Kitten shoves the speech cards into my chest.
* * *
The full strength of the Silver court has been summoned to the throne room. The High Houses press together in their usual riot. Every color is an assault, a firework of gems and brocade. I join the chaos, adding blood red to the collection. The doors to the throne room seal shut behind me, caging me in with the worst of them. The houses part to let me pass, forming a long corridor from the entrance to the throne. They whisper as I go, noting every imperfection and every rumor. I catch snippets. Of course they all know about my little adventure this morning. The Arven guards, two in front, two behind, are confirmation enough of my continued status as prisoner.
So Mavenâ€™s newest lie is not for them this time. I try to puzzle out his motives, the turns of his labyrinthine manipulations. He must have weighed the costs of what to tell themâ€”and decided bringing his closest nobles in on such a delicious secret was worth the risk. They wonâ€™t mind his lies if he isnâ€™t lying to them.
As before, he sits on his throne of gray stone slabs, both hands clawed to the armrests. Sentinels have his back, lining the wall behind him, while Evangeline takes his left, standing proud. She glitters, a lethal star, with a cape and slashed gown of intricate silver scales. Her brother, Ptolemus, matches in a new suit of armor, close as a guardian for both his sister and the king. Another bitterly familiar face holds Mavenâ€™s right. He does not wear armor. He does not need armor. His mind is weapon and shield enough.
Samson Merandus grins at me, a vision in dark blue and white lace, colors I hate above all others. Even silver. I am a butcher, he warned me before my interrogation. He was not lying. I will never fully recover from the way he carved me up: a pig on a hook, bled dry.
Maven notes my appearance, pleased with it. The same Skonos healer attempted to do something with my hair, pulling it back into a neat tail while swiping a bit of makeup across my frazzled features. She didnâ€™t take long, but I wish sheâ€™d lingered. Her touch was cool and soothing, fixing up whatever bruises I earned in my doomed escape.
I feel no fear as I approach, walking before the eyes of dozens of Silvers. There are far worse things to be afraid of. Like the cameras ahead, for example. They arenâ€™t trained on me yet, but they will be soon. I can hardly stomach the thought.
Maven stops us short with a single gesture, holding up his palm. The Arvens know what it means and peel away, leaving me to walk the last few yards by myself. Thatâ€™s when the cameras switch on. To show me walking alone, unguarded, unleashed, a free Red standing with Silvers. The image will be broadcast everywhere, to everyone I love, and anyone I could ever hope to protect. This simple action might be enough to doom dozens of newbloods, and strike a heavy blow against the Scarlet Guard.
â€œCome forward, Mare.â€
That is Mavenâ€™s voice. Not Maven, but Maven. The boy I thought I knew. Gentle, tender. He keeps that voice stored away, ready to be drawn and used against me like a sword. It strikes me to my core, as he knows it will. In spite of myself, I feel the familiar longing for a boy who does not exist.
My footsteps echo on the marble. In Protocol, the late Lady Blonos tried to teach me how to hold my face at court. Her ideal expression was cold, emotionless, beyond unfeeling. I am none of those things, and I fight the urge to slip behind such a mask. Instead, I try to school my features into something that will both satisfy Maven and somehow let the country know this is not my choice at all. A hard line to walk.
Still grinning, Samson takes a step sideways, leaving space next to the throne. I shiver at the intention, but do as I must. I take Mavenâ€™s right side.
What a picture this must be. Evangeline in silver, me in red, with the king in black between.
The so-called â€œlightning alertâ€ echoes through the main floor of Irabelle, up and down the scaffolded landings, back and forth between passages. Runners go out, seeking those of us deemed important enough to get updates on Mare. Usually Iâ€™m not a priority. No one drags me down to be debriefed with the rest of her club. The kids find me later on, at work, and hand me a paper detailing whatever snippets the Guard spies gathered on precious Barrowâ€™s cell time. Useless stuff. What she ate, her guard rotation, that kind of thing. But today the runner, a little girl with slick, straight black hair and russet skin, tugs on my arm.
â€œLightning alert, Miss Cole. Come with me,â€ she says, adamant and cloying.
I want to snap that my priority is to get the heat working in my barracks, not find out how many times Mare used the bathroom today, but her sweet face stops the impulse. Farley mustâ€™ve sent the cutest bleeding kid in the base. Damn her.
â€œAll right, Iâ€™ll go,â€ I huff, tossing my tools back into their case. When she takes my hand, Iâ€™m reminded of Morrey. Heâ€™s shorter than I am, and back when we were kids working the assembly line, he used to hold my hand when the noisy machines frightened him. But this little girl shows no signs of fear.
She pulls me through curling passages, proud of herself for knowing which way to go. I frown at the red scrap tied around her wrist. Sheâ€™s too young to be oathed to rebels, let alone living in their tactical headquarters. But then, I was sent to work when I was five, sorting scrap from the junk piles. Sheâ€™s twice that age.
I open my mouth to ask what brought her here, but think better of it. Her parents, obviously, either by their lifeâ€™s choices or their lifeâ€™s ending. I wonder where they might be. Just like I wonder about mine.
Passages 4 and 5 and Sub 7 need wire stripping. Barracks A needs heat. I repeat the always-growing list of tasks to dull the sudden pain. My own parents fade from my thoughts as I push away their faces. Daddy driving a transport truck, his hands sure as ever on the wheel. Mama in the factory alongside me, quicker than Iâ€™ll ever be. She was sick when we left, her hair thinning while her dark skin seemed to gray. I almost choke on the memory. Both of them are out of my reach. But Morrey isnâ€™t. Morrey I can get to.
Passages 4 and 5 and Sub 7 need wire stripping. Barracks A needs heat. Morrey Cole needs to be saved.
We reach the passage to central control the same time Kilorn does. His own runner trails behind, sprinting to keep up with the lanky boy tearing around the corner. Kilorn must have been topside, out in the frozen air of oncoming winter. His cheeks bloom red from the cold. As he walks, he pulls off a knit hat, upending uneven tawny locks.
â€œCam.â€ He nods at me, stopping where our paths cross. He vibrates with fear, eyes vividly green in the fluorescent lights of the passage. â€œAny ideas?â€
I shrug. I know less than anyone where Mare is concerned. I donâ€™t even know why they bother to keep me in the loop. Probably to make me feel included. Everyone knows I donâ€™t want to be here, but I have nowhere else to go. Not back to New Town, not to the Choke. Iâ€™m stuck.
â€œNone,â€ I reply.
Kilorn glances back at his runner, offering a smile. â€œThanks,â€ he says, kindly dismissive. The kid takes a hint, turning away with relief. I do the same to mine, gesturing with a bob of my head and a grateful smile. She takes off in the other direction, disappearing around a bend.
â€œStarting them young,â€ I canâ€™t help but whisper under my breath.
â€œNot as young as we were,â€ Kilorn replies.
I frown. â€œTrue.â€
In the past month or so, Iâ€™ve learned enough about Kilorn to know I can trust him as much anyone down here. Our lives are similar. He started apprenticing at a young age, and, like me, he had the luxury of a job to keep him from conscription. Until the rules changed on us both, and we ended up pulled into the lightning girlâ€™s orbit. Kilorn would argue that his presence here is by choice, but I know better. He was Mareâ€™s best friend, and he followed her into the Scarlet Guard. Now blind stubbornnessâ€”not to mention his fugitive statusâ€”keeps him here.
â€œBut we werenâ€™t indoctrinated into something, Kilorn,â€ I continue, hesitating to take the next few steps. The control-room guards wait a few yards away, silent in their duties at the door. Theyâ€™re watching us both. I donâ€™t like the feeling.
Kilorn offers a strange, sad twitch of a smile. His eyes lower to my tattooed neck, where I am permanently marked with my profession and place. The black ink stands out, even against my dark skin. â€œYes, we were, Cam,â€ he says quietly. â€œCome on.â€
He slips an arm around my shoulders, moving us both forward. The guards stand aside, letting us pass through the door.
This time, the control room is more crowded than Iâ€™ve ever seen. Every technician sits in rapt attention, their focus on the several screens at the front of the room. Each displays the same thing: the Burning Crown, the emblem of Norta, its flames of red, black, and silver. Usually the symbol bookends official broadcasts, and I assume Iâ€™m about to be subjected to the latest message from King Mavenâ€™s regime. Iâ€™m not the only one to think so.
â€œWe might see her,â€ Kilorn breathes, his voice tempered by equal parts longing and fear. On-screen, the image jumps a little. Frozen, paused. â€œWhat are we waiting for?â€
â€œMore like who,â€ I reply, casting a look about the room. As far as I can see, Cal is here already, stoically folded at the back of the room, keeping his distance from everyone. He feels me watching, but doesnâ€™t do much more than nod.
To my dismay, Kilorn waves him over. After a second of hesitation, Cal complies, moving gently through the room as it crowds full. For whatever reason, this lightning alert has drawn many to control, all of them as on edge as Kilorn. Most of them I donâ€™t recognize, but a few newbloods join the mix. I spot Rash and Tahir at their usual position, seated with their radio equipment, while Nanny and Ada stick close together. Like Cal, they occupy the back wall, reluctant to draw any attention to themselves. As the prince gets closer, Red officers all but jump out of his way. He pretends to ignore it.
Cal and Kilorn trade weak smiles. Their usual rivalry is long gone, but replaced by trepidation.
â€œWish the Colonel would move his ass a little faster,â€ a voice says on my right.
I turn to see Farley sidle up to us, doing her best to remain inconspicuous despite her belly. Itâ€™s mostly hidden by her large jacket, but itâ€™s hard to keep secrets in a place like this. Sheâ€™s close to four months and doesnâ€™t care who knows. Even now, she balances a plate of fried potatoes in one hand, a fork in the other.
â€œCameron, boys,â€ she adds, nodding at us in turn. I do the same, as does Kilorn. She gives Cal a mock salute with her fork, and he barely grunts a response. His jaw clenches so tightly his teeth might shatter.
â€œThought the Colonel slept in here,â€ I reply, fixing my gaze on the screen. â€œTypical. The one time we need him around.â€
Any other day, I would wonder if his absence was a ploy. Maybe to let us know whoâ€™s in charge. As if any of us could forget. Even next to Cal, a Silver prince and general, or a host of newbloods with a terrifying array of abilities, he somehow manages to hold all the cards. Because here, in the Scarlet Guard, in this world, information is more important than anything, and heâ€™s the only one who knows enough to keep control of us all.
I can respect that. Parts of a machine donâ€™t need to know what the other pieces are doing. But Iâ€™m not just a gear. Not anymore.
The Colonel enters, flanked by Mareâ€™s brothers. Still no sign of her parents, who remain stowed away somewhere, alongside her sister with the dark red hair. I thought I saw her once, a smart, quick thing darting through the mess hall, but I never got close enough to ask. Iâ€™ve heard rumors, of course. Whispers from the other technicians and soldiers. A Security officer crushed the girlâ€™s foot, forcing Mare to beg at the summer palace. Or something like that. I have a feeling that asking Kilorn for the real story would be inconsiderate.
The control center turns to watch for the Colonel, eager for him to start whatever weâ€™re here to see. So we react together, stifling gasps or surprised expressions when another Silver follows the Colonel into the already-crowded room.
Every time I see him, I want to hate him. He was the reason Mare forced me to join her, forced me to return to my prison, forced me to kill, forced others to die so this insignificant dry twig of a man could live. But those choices werenâ€™t his. He was a prisoner as much as I was, doomed to the cells of Corros and the slow, crushing death of Silent Stone. Itâ€™s not his fault the lightning girl loves him, and he must bear the curse that love brings with it.
Julian Jacos does not shrink against the back wall with the newbloods, and he doesnâ€™t take the spot next to his nephew Cal either. Instead, he keeps close to the Colonel, allowing the crowd to part so that he might see this broadcast as best he can. I focus on his shoulders as he settles into place. His posture reeks of Silver decadence. Straight-backed, perfect. Even in the hand-me-down uniform, faded by use, with gray in his hair and the pallid, cold look we all take on underground, thereâ€™s no denying what he is. Others share my sentiments. The soldiers around him touch their holstered guns, keeping one eye on the Silver man. The rumors are more pointed where is he concerned. Heâ€™s Calâ€™s uncle, a dead queenâ€™s brother, Mareâ€™s old tutor. Woven into our ranks like a thread of steel among wool. Embedded, but dangerous and easily pulled free.
They say he can control a man with his voice and his eyes. Like the queen could. Like many still can.
One more person I will never, ever turn my back on. Itâ€™s a long list.
â€œLetâ€™s see it,â€ the Colonel barks, cutting off the low murmur born of Julianâ€™s presence. The screens respond in kind, jittering into motion.
No one speaks, and the sight of King Mavenâ€™s face cuts through us all.
He beckons from that hulking throne, deep in the heart of the Silver court, eyes wide and inviting. I know heâ€™s a snake, so I can ignore his well-chosen disguise. But I imagine most of the country cannot see through the mask of a young boy called to greatness, dutifully doing what he can for a kingdom on the edge of chaos. Heâ€™s good-looking. Not broad like Cal, but finely shaped, a sculpture of sweeping cheekbones and glossy black hair. Beautiful, not handsome. I hear someone scratching notes, probably recording everything on-screen. Allowing the rest of us to watch unfettered, focused only on what horror Maven is about to perform.
He leans forward, one hand extended, as he stands to call someone to him.
â€œCome forward, Mare.â€
The cameras turn, revolving smoothly to show Mare standing before the king. I expected rags, but instead she wears finery I could never dream of. Every inch of her is covered in bloodred gemstones and embroidered silk. It all shimmers as she walks down a grand aisle parting the crowd of Silvers assembled for whatever this is. No more collar, no more leash. Again I see through the mask. Again I hope the kingdom does tooâ€”but how can they? They donâ€™t know her like we do. They donâ€™t see the shadows in her dark eyes, flickering with every step. Her hollow cheeks. The purse of her lips. The twitching fingers. A tightening jaw. And thatâ€™s only what I notice. Who knows what Cal or Kilorn or her brothers can see in the lightning girl?
The dress covers her from just below her neck to wrist and ankle. Probably to hide bruises, scars, and the brand she bears from the king. Itâ€™s not a dress at all, but a costume.
Iâ€™m not the only one to suck in a breath of fear when she reaches the king. He takes her hand in his, and she hesitates to close her fingers. Only a fraction of a second, but enough to cement what we already know. This is not her choice. Or if it is, the alternative was much, much worse.
A current of heat ripples on the air. Kilorn does his best to sidle away from Cal without drawing attention, bumping into me. I make room as best I can. No one wants to be too close to the fire prince if things go south.
Maven does not have to gesture. Mare knows him and his schemes well enough to understand what he wants from her. The camera image pulls back as she moves to the right of his throne. What we see now is a display of ultimate strength. Evangeline Samos, the kingâ€™s betrothed, a future queen in power and appearance, on one side, with the lightning girl on the other. Silver and Red.
Other nobles, the greatest of the High Houses, stand in assembly on the dais. Names and faces I donâ€™t know, but Iâ€™m sure many here do. Generals, diplomats, warriors, advisers. Every one of them dedicated to our complete annihilation.
The king takes his throne again, slowly, eyes locked deep into the camera, and so into us.
â€œBefore I say anything else, before I begin this speechâ€â€”he gestures, confident and almost charmingâ€”â€œI want to thank the fighting men and women, Silver and Red, who serve to protect our borders, who are currently defending us from enemies outside this nation, and the enemies within. To the soldiers of Corvium, the loyal warriors resisting the constant and deplorable terrorist attacks of the Scarlet Guard, I salute you, and I am with you.â€
â€œLiar,â€ someone snarls in the room, but theyâ€™re quickly hushed.
On-screen, Mare looks like she shares the sentiment. She does her best not to twitch or let her face betray her emotions. It works. Almost. A flush creeps up her neck, partially hidden by her high collar. Not high enough. Maven would have to put a bag over her head to hide her feelings.
â€œIn recent days, after much deliberation with my council and the courts of Norta, Mare Barrow of the Stilts was sentenced for her crimes against this kingdom. She stood accused of murder and terrorism, and we believed her to be the worst of the rats gnawing at our roots.â€ Maven glances up at her, face still and focused. How many times heâ€™s practiced this, I donâ€™t want to know. â€œHer punishment was to face a lifetime in prison, after first being interrogated by my own cousins of House Merandus.â€
At the kingâ€™s bidding, a man in dark blue steps forward. He comes within inches of Mare, close enough to brush a hand against whatever part of her he chose. She freezes in place, snapping every centimeter still to keep from flinching.
â€œI am Samson of House Merandus, and I performed the interrogation of Mare Barrow.â€
Ahead of me, Julian raises a hand to his mouth. The only indication of how affected he is.
â€œAs a whisper, my ability allows me to bypass the usual lies and twists of speech that most prisoners rely on. So when Mare Barrow told us the truth of the Scarlet Guard and its horrors, I confess I did not believe her. I testify here, on record, that I was wrong to doubt her. What I saw in her memories was painful and chilling.â€
Another round of whispers through the room, another round of hushing. The tension is still palpable, though, as well as the confusion. The Colonel straightens, arms crossed. Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™re all thinking on their sins, and what this Samson fool could be rattling on about. On one side, Farley taps her fork against her lip, eyes narrowed. She curses under her breath, but I canâ€™t ask why.
Mare lifts her chin, looking like she might vomit on the kingâ€™s boots. I bet she wants to.
â€œI went to the Scarlet Guard willingly,â€ she says. â€œThey told me my brother had been executed while serving in the legions, for a crime he did not commit.â€ Her voice cracks at the mention of Shade. Next to me, Farleyâ€™s breath quickens and her hand curls over her stomach. â€œThey asked if I wanted vengeance for his death. I did. So I swore my allegiance to their cause, and I was placed as a servant inside the royal residence at the Hall of the Sun.
â€œI came to the palace as a Red spy, but even I did not know I was something else entirely. During the right of Queenstrial, I discovered I somehow possessed electrical ability. After consultation, the late King Tiberias and Queen Elara decided to take me in, to quietly study what I was and, hopefully, teach me what my ability could become. They disguised me as a Silver to protect me. They rightfully knew that a Red with an ability would be considered a freak at best, an abomination at worst, and they hid my identity to keep me safe from the prejudices of both Red and Silver. My blood status was known to a few, Maven included, as well as Caâ€”Prince Tiberias.
â€œBut the Scarlet Guard discovered what I was. They threatened to expose me publicly, both to ruin the credibility of the king and to put me in danger. I was forced to serve them as a spy, to follow their orders, and to facilitate their infiltration of the kingâ€™s court.â€
The next outcry from the room is louder, and not easily put down.
â€œThis is some impressive bullshit,â€ Kilorn growls.
â€œMy ultimate mission was to gain Silver allies for the Scarlet Guard. I was instructed to target Prince Tiberias, a cunning warrior and the heir to the throne of Norta. He wasÂ .Â .Â .â€ She hesitates, her eyes boring into ours. They shift back and forth, searching. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Cal lower his head. â€œHe was easily convinced. Once I figured out how to convince him, I also aided the Scarlet Guard in their plans for the Sun Shooting, which left eleven dead, and the bombing of the Bridge of Archeon.
â€œWhen Prince Tiberias killed his father, King Maven acted swiftly, making the only choice he thought he could,â€ her voice warbles. Next to her, Maven does his best to look sad at the mention of his murdered father. â€œHe was grieving, and we were sentenced to execution in the arena. We escaped with our lives only because of the Scarlet Guard. They took us both to an island stronghold off the Nortan coast.
â€œI was held prisoner there, as were Prince Tiberias and, I discovered, the brother I thought Iâ€™d lost. Like me, he had an ability, and like me, he was feared by the Scarlet Guard. They intended to kill us, the ones they call newbloods. When I discovered that others like me existed, and the Scarlet Guard was hunting them down to exterminate them, I managed to escape with my brother and a few others. Prince Tiberias came with us. I know now that he intended to build himself an army to challenge his brother. After a few months, the Scarlet Guard caught up with us all, and they killed the few abilitied Reds we were able to find. My brother was murdered in the conflict, but I escaped alone.â€
For once, the heat in the room isnâ€™t coming from Cal. Everyone boils with rage. This isnâ€™t Mare. These arenâ€™t her words. But still I feel anger as much as the rest. How can she even let this out of her mouth? Iâ€™d spit blood before speaking Mavenâ€™s lies. But what choice does she have?
â€œWith nowhere else to go, I turned myself in to King Maven and whatever justice he saw to give me.â€ Her resolve breaks piece by piece, until tears course down her cheeks. Iâ€™m ashamed to say they help her little speech more than anything else. â€œI stand here now a willing prisoner. I am sorry for what Iâ€™ve done, but I am ready to do whatever I can to stop the Scarlet Guard and their terrifying hope for the future. They stand for no one but themselves and the people they can control. They kill everyone else, everyone who stands in their way. Everyone who is different.â€
The last words stick, refusing to come out. On the throne, Maven sits still, but his throat works a little. Emitting a noise the camera cannot hear, urging her to finish as he demands.
Mare Barrow raises her chin and glares forward. Her eyes seem black with rage. â€œWe, the newbloods, are not fit for their dawn.â€
Shouts and protests erupt through the room, hurling obscenities at Maven, at the Merandus whisper, even at the lightning girl for speaking the words.
â€œâ€”vile beast of a kingâ€”â€
â€œâ€”would rather kill myself than sayâ€”â€
â€œâ€”barely a puppetâ€”â€
â€œâ€”traitor, plain and simpleâ€”â€
â€œâ€”not her first time singing their songâ€”â€
Kilorn is the first to break, both hands curling into fists. â€œYou think she wanted to do this?â€ he says, his voice loud enough to carry, but not harsh. His face reddens with frustration, and Cal puts a hand on his shoulder, standing with him. It silences more than a few, particularly the younger officers. They look embarrassed, apologetic, even, shamed by the reprimand of an eighteen-year-old boy.
â€œQuiet, all of you!â€ the Colonel rumbles, shutting up the rest. He turns once to glare with his mismatched eyes. â€œThe brat is still speaking.â€
â€œColonelÂ .Â .Â .Â ,â€ Cal growls. His tone is a threat plain as day.
In reply, the Colonel points on-screen. At Maven, not Mare.
â€œ.Â .Â . offer refuge to any fleeing the terror of the Scarlet Guard. And to the newbloods among you, hiding from what seems to be little more than genocide, my own doors are open. I have instructed the royal palaces of Archeon, Harbor Bay, Delphie, and Summerton, as well as the military forts of Norta, to protect your kind from slaughter. You will have food, shelter, and, if you wish it, training for your abilities. You are my subjects to protect, and I will do it with every resource I have to give. Mare Barrow is not the first of you to join us, and she will not be the last.â€ He has the smug audacity to lay a hand on her arm.
So this is how barely more than a boy becomes a king. Heâ€™s not only ruthless and remorseless, but just plain brilliant. If not for the rage curling in me, I would be impressed. His ploy will cause problems for the Guard, of course. Personally, Iâ€™m more concerned with the newbloods still out there. We were recruited to Mare and her rebellion with little choice in the matter. Now thereâ€™s even less. The Guard or the King. Both see us as weapons. Both will get us killed. But only one will keep us in chains.
I glance over my shoulder, seeking out Ada. Her eyes are glued to the screen, effortlessly memorizing every tick and inflection to be scrutinized later. Like me, she frowns, thinking about the deeper worry no member of the Scarlet Guard has yet. What will happen to the people like us?
â€œTo the Scarlet Guard, I say only this,â€ Maven adds, standing up from his throne. â€œYour dawn is little more than darkness, and it will never take this country. We fight to the last. Strength and power.â€
On the dais, and across the rest of the throne room, the chant echoes from every mouth. Including Mareâ€™s. â€œStrength and power.â€
The image holds for a second, burning the sight into every brain. Red and Silver, the lightning girl and King Maven, united against the great evil theyâ€™ve made us out to be. I know it isnâ€™t Mareâ€™s choice, but it is her fault. Didnâ€™t she realize he would use her if he didnâ€™t kill her?
She didnâ€™t think he would do it. Cal said that before, about her interrogation. They are both weak where Maven is concerned, and that weakness continues to plague us all.
Back at the Notch, Mare did her best to school me in my ability. I practice here when I can, together with the other newbloods learning their limits. Cal and Julian Jacos attempt to help, but I and many others are loath to trust their tutelage. Besides, Iâ€™ve found someone else to help me.
I know my ability has grown in strength, if not control. I feel it now, prodding beneath my skin, a blissful emptiness to still the chaos around me. It begs, and I clench a fist against it, keeping the silence back. I canâ€™t turn my anger on the people in this room. They arenâ€™t the enemy.
When the screen cuts to black, signaling the end of the address, a dozen voices sound at once. Calâ€™s palm slams against the desk in front of him, and he turns, muttering to himself.
â€œIâ€™ve seen enough,â€ I think he says before he pushes his way out of the room. Stupid. He knows his own brother. He can dissect Mavenâ€™s words better than any of us.
The Colonel knows it too. â€œGet him back here,â€ he says under his breath, leaning in to speak to Julian. The Silver nods, moving smoothly to retrieve his nephew. Many stop talking to watch him go.
â€œCaptain Farley, your thoughts?â€ the Colonel says, his sharp voice drawing attention back where it belongs. He crosses his arms and turns to face his daughter.
Farley snaps to focus, seemingly unaffected by the speech. She swallows a bite of potato. â€œThe natural response would be a broadcast of our own. Refuting Mavenâ€™s claims, showing the country who we saved.â€
Using us as propaganda. Doing exactly what Maven is doing to Mare. My stomach tightens at the thought of being shoved in front of a camera, forced to sing the praises of the people I barely tolerate and cannot fully trust.
Her father nods. â€œI agreeâ€”â€
â€œBut I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s the right course of action.â€
The Colonel raises the brow of his ruined eye.
She takes it as an invitation to continue. â€œItâ€™ll just be words. Nothing of use in the end, in the scheme of whatâ€™s going on.â€ Her fingers tap against her lips, and I can almost see the wheels turning in her head. â€œI think we keep Maven talking, while we keep on doing. Already our infiltration of Corvium is placing strain on the king. See how he singled out the city? Its military? Heâ€™s bolstering morale. Why do that if they donâ€™t need it?â€
At the back of the room, Julian returns, one hand on Calâ€™s shoulder. Theyâ€™re of the same height, though Cal looks about fifty pounds heavier than his uncle. Corros Prison certainly took as much of a toll on Julian as it did the rest of us.
â€œWe have a good deal of information regarding Corvium,â€ Farley adds. â€œAnd its importance to Nortan military, not to mention Silver morale, makes it the perfect place.â€
â€œFor what?â€ I hear myself ask, surprising everyone in the room, myself included.
Farley is good enough to address me directly. â€œThe first assault. The Scarlet Guardâ€™s official declaration of war against the king of Norta.â€
A strangled sort of yelp erupts from Cal, not the kind anyone would expect from a prince and soldier. His face pales, eyes wide with what can only be fear. â€œCorvium is a fortress. A city built with the sole purpose of surviving a war. There are a thousand Silver officers in there, soldiers trained toâ€”â€
â€œTo organize. To fight Lakelanders. To stand behind a trench and mark places on a map,â€ Farley fires back. â€œTell me Iâ€™m wrong, Cal. Tell me your kind is prepared to fight inside its own walls.â€
The glare he levels at her would cut through anyone else, but Farley stands firm. If anything, she strengthens in her opposition.
â€œItâ€™s suicide, for you and for anyone in your way,â€ he tells her. She laughs at the blatant dodge, inciting him further. He controls himself well, a fire prince reluctant to burn. â€œIâ€™m not part of this,â€ he snarls. â€œGood luck assaulting Corvium without whatever intelligence you counted on from me.â€
Farleyâ€™s emotions are not so hindered by a Silver ability. The room will not burn with her, no matter how red her face flushes. â€œThanks to Shade Barrow, I already have everything I need!â€
The name usually has a sobering effect. To remember Shade is to remember how he died, and what it did to the people he loved. For Mare, it turned her cold, empty, into the person willing to trade herself to keep her friends and family from the same fate. For Farley, it left her alone, singular in her pursuits, focused only on the Scarlet Guard and nothing else. I didnâ€™t know either of them for very long before Shade died, but even I lament who they were. The loss changed them both, and not for the better.
She forces herself through the pain Shadeâ€™s memory brings, if only to shove Calâ€™s nose in it. â€œBefore we faked his execution, Shade was our key operative in Corvium. He used his ability to feed us as much information as he could give. Donâ€™t think for one second you are our only card to play in this,â€ Farley says evenly. Then she turns back to the Colonel. â€œI advise a full assault, utilizing newbloods in conjunction with Red soldiers and our infiltrators already inside the city.â€
Utilizing newbloods. The words sting, stab, and burn, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.
I guess itâ€™s my turn to storm from the room.
Cal watches me go, mouth pressed into a grim, firm line.
Youâ€™re not the only one who can be dramatic, I think as I leave him behind.
Are you excited for this?
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