Read Steel Scars Online

Authors: Victoria Aveyard

Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Paranormal & Fantasy, #Sword & Sorcery

Steel Scars

BOOK: Steel Scars
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CONTENTS

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, COMMAND CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Day 61 of Operation LAKER, Stage 3.

    
Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

    
Designation: RAM.

    
Origin: Solmary, LL.

    
Destination: COMMAND at REDACTED.

    
-Operation LAKER completed ahead of schedule, deemed successful. Canals and lock points of LAKES PERIUS, MISKIN, and NERON under control of the Scarlet Guard.

    
-Operatives WHIPPER and OPTIC will control LAKER moving forward, maintain close contact, open channels to MOBILE BASE and COMMAND. Stand-and-report protocol, awaiting action orders.

    
-Returning to TRIAL with LAMB at present.

    
-LAKER overview: Killed in action: D. FERRON, T. MILLS, M. PERCHER
(3).

    
Wounded: SWIFTY, WISHBONE (2).

    
Silver casualty count (3): Greenwarden (1), Strongarm (1), Skin healer? (1).

    
Civilian casualty count: Unknown.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

“Storms ahead.”

The Colonel speaks to fill the silence. His one good eye presses to a crack in the compartment wall, fixing on the horizon. The other eye stares, though it can hardly see through a film of scarlet blood. Nothing new. His left eye has been like that for years.

I follow his gaze, peering through slats in the rattling wood. Dark clouds gather a few miles off, trying to hide behind the forested hills. In the distance, thunder rolls. I pay it no mind. I only hope the storms don't slow the train down, forcing us to spend one second longer hidden here, beneath the false floor of a cargo car.

We don't have time for thunderstorms or pointless conversation. I haven't slept in two days and I have the face to prove it. I want nothing more than quiet and a few hours of rest before we make it back to the base in Trial. Luckily there's not much to do here but lie down. I'm too tall to stand in such a space, as is the Colonel. We both have to sprawl, leaning as best we can in the dim partition. It'll be night soon, with only darkness to keep us company.

I can't complain about the mode of transportation. On the trip out to Solmary, we spent half the journey on a barge shipping fruit. It stalled out on Lake Neron, and most of the cargo rotted. Spent the first week of operations washing the stink from my clothes. And I'll
never forget the mess before we started Laker, in Detraon. Three days in a cattle car, only to find the Lakelander capital utterly beyond reach. Too close to the Choke and the warfront to have shoddy defenses, a truth I willingly overlooked. But I wasn't an officer then, and it wasn't my decision to try to infiltrate a Silver capital without adequate intelligence or support. That was the Colonel. Back then he was only a captain with the code name Ram and too much to prove, too much to fight for. I only tagged along, barely more than an oathed soldier. I had things to prove too.

He continues to squint at the landscape. Not to look outside, but to avoid looking at me.
Fine
. I don't like looking at him either.

Bad blood or not, we make a good team. Command knows it, we know it, and that's why we keep getting sent out together. Detraon was our only misstep in an endless march for the cause. And for them, for the Scarlet Guard, we put aside our differences each and every time.

“Any idea where we go next?” Like the Colonel, I won't abide the heavy silence.

He pulls back from the wall, frowning, still not looking my way. “You know that's not how it works.”

I've spent two years as an officer, two more as an oathed soldier of the Guard, and a lifetime living in its shadow.
Of course I know how it works
, I want to spit.

No one knows more than they must. No one is told anything beyond their operation, their squadron, their immediate superiors. Information is more dangerous than any weapon we possess. We learned that early, after decades of failed uprisings, all laid low by one captured Red in the hands of a Silver whisper. Even the best-trained soldier cannot resist an assault of the mind. They are always unraveled, their secrets always discovered. So my operatives and my soldiers answer to me, their captain.
I answer to the Colonel, and he answers to Command, whoever they might be. We know only what we must to move forward. It's the only reason the Guard has lasted this long, surviving where no other underground organization has before.

But no system is perfect.

“Just because you haven't received new orders doesn't mean you don't have an
idea
as to what they might be,” I say.

A muscle in his cheek twitches. To pull a frown or a smile, I don't know. But I doubt it's the latter. The Colonel doesn't smile, not truly. Not for many years.

“I have my suspicions,” he replies after a long moment.

“And they are . . . ?”

“My own.”

I hiss through my teeth.
Typical
. And probably for the best, if I'm being honest with myself. I've had enough close shaves of my own with Silver hunting dogs to know exactly how vital the Guard's secrecy is. My mind alone contains names, dates, operations, enough information to cripple the last two years of work in the Lakelands.

“Captain Farley.”

We don't use our titles or names in official correspondence. I'm Lamb, according to anything that could be intercepted. Another defense. If any of our messages fall into the wrong hands, if the Silvers crack our cyphers, they'll have a hard time tracking us down and unraveling our vast, dedicated network.

“Colonel,” I respond, and he finally looks at me.

Regret flashes in his one good eye, still a familiar shade of blue. The rest of him has changed over the years. He's noticeably harder, a wiry mass of old muscle, coiled like a snake beneath threadbare clothes. His blond hair, lighter than mine, has begun to thin. There's white at
the temples. I can't believe I never noticed it before. He's getting old. But not slow. Not stupid. The Colonel is just as sharp and dangerous as ever.

I keep still under his quiet, quick observation. Everything is a test with him. When he opens his mouth, I know I've passed.

“What do you know about Norta?”

I grin harshly. “So they've finally decided to expand out.”

“I asked you a question, Little Lamb.”

The nickname is laughable. I'm almost six feet tall.

“Another monarchy like the Lakelands,” I spit out. “Reds must work or conscript. They center on the coast, their capital is Archeon. At war with the Lakelands for nearly a century. They have an alliance with Piedmont. Their king is Tiberias—Tiberias the—”

“The Sixth,” he offers. Chiding as a schoolteacher, not that I spent much time in school. His fault. “Of the House Calore.”

Stupid. They don't even have brains enough to give their children different names
.

“Burners,” I add. “They lay claim to the so-called Burning Crown. Fitting opposite to the nymph kings of the Lakelands.” A monarchy I know all too well, from a lifetime living beneath their rule. They are as unending and unyielding as the waters of their kingdom.

“Indeed. Opposite but also horribly alike.”

“Then they should be just as easy to infiltrate.”

He raises an eyebrow, gesturing to the cramped space around us. He almost looks amused. “You call this easy?”

“I haven't been shot at today, so, yes, I'd say so,” I reply. “Besides, Norta is what, half the size of the Lakelands?”

“With comparable populations. Dense cities, a more advanced basis of infrastructure—”

“All the better for us. Crowds are easy to hide in.”

He grits his teeth, annoyed. “Do you have an answer to everything?”

“I'm good at what I do.”

Outside, the thunder rumbles again, closer than before.

“So we go to Norta next. Do what we've done here,” I press on. Already, my body buzzes with anticipation. This is what I've been waiting for. The Lakelands are only one spoke of the wheel, one nation in a continent of many. A rebellion contained to its borders would eventually fail, stamped out by the other nations of the continent. But something bigger, a wave across two kingdoms, another foundation to explode beneath the Silvers' cursed feet—that has a chance. And a chance is all I require to do what I must.

The illegal gun at my hip has never felt so comforting.

“You must not forget, Captain.” Now he's staring. I wish he wouldn't.
He looks so much like her
. “Where our skills truly lie. What we started as, what we came from.”

Without warning, I slam my heel against the boards below us. He doesn't flinch. My anger is not a surprise.

“How could I forget?” I sneer. I resist the urge to tug at the long blond braid over my shoulder. “My mirror reminds me every day.”

I never win arguments with the Colonel. But this feels like a draw at least.

He looks away, back to the wall. The last bit of sunlight glints through, illuminating the blood of his wounded eye. It glows red in the dying light.

His sigh is heavy with memory. “So does mine.”

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, COMMAND CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

    
Designation: RAM.

    
Origin: Trial, LL.

    
Destination: COMMAND at REDACTED.

    
-Returned to TRIAL with LAMB.

    
-Reports of LL Silver pushback in ADELA verified.

    
-Request permission to dispatch HOLIDAY and her team to observe/respond.

    
-Request permission to begin assessment of contact viability in NRT.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Operative: General REDACTED.

    
Designation: DRUMMER.

    
Origin: REDACTED.

    
Destination: RAM at Trial, LL.

    
-Permission to dispatch HOLIDAY granted. Observe only, EYES ON Operation.

    
-Permission to assess contact viability in NRT granted.

    
-LAMB will take point on Operation RED WEB, making contact with smuggling and underground networks in NRT, emphasis on the WHISTLE black market ring. Orders enclosed, her eyes only. Must dispatch to NRT
within week.

    
-RAM will take point on Operation SHIELDWALL. Orders enclosed, your eyes only. Must dispatch to Ronto within week.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

Trial is the single largest city on the Lakelander border, its intricately carved walls and towers looking across Lake Redbone and deep into the heart of the Nortan backcountry. The lake hides a flooded city, all raided and stripped by nymph divers. Meanwhile, the slave workers of the Lakelands built Trial on the shores, in mockery of the drowned ruins and the Nortan wilderness.

I used to wonder what kinds of idiots are fighting this Silver war, if they insist on containing the battlegrounds to the forsaken Choke. The northern border is long and winding, cutting along the river, mostly forested on both sides, always defended but never attacked. Of course, in the winter, it's a brutal land of cold and snow, but what about the late spring and summer?
Now?
If Norta and the Lakelands hadn't been fighting for a century, I would expect an assault on the city at any moment. But there's nothing at all, and never will be.

Because the war is not a war at all.

It is an extermination.

Red soldiers conscript, fight, and die in the thousands, year after year. They're told to fight for their kings, to defend their country, their families, who would surely be overrun and overthrown if not for their forced bravery. And the Silvers sit back, moving their toy legions to and fro, trading blows that never seem to do much of anything. Reds are too small, too restricted, too uneducated to notice. It's sickening.

Only one of a thousand reasons I believe in the cause and in the
Scarlet Guard. But belief doesn't make it easy to take a bullet. Not like the last time I returned to Irabelle, bleeding from the abdomen, unable to walk without the damned Colonel's aid. At least then I got a week to rest and heal. Now I doubt I'll be here much longer than a few days before they send us back out again.

Irabelle is the only proper Guard base in the region, to my limited knowledge at least. Safe houses scatter along the river and deeper into the woods, but Irabelle is certainly the beating heart of our organization. Partly underground and entirely overlooked, most of us would call Irabelle home if we had to. But most of us have no true home to speak of, none but the Guard and the Reds alongside us.

BOOK: Steel Scars
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