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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 (4 page)

BOOK: Steel Scars
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The Whistle in Orienpratis, a quarry city on the edge of the Beacon, is the reason we're here. She assured us that another one of her kind operated in Albanus, serving as a fence for the town's thieves and not-so-legal dealings. But she told us only that a Whistle existed, not
where to find him or her. Not because she didn't trust me but because she didn't know who operated in Albanus. Like in the Scarlet Guard, the Whistles use their own secrets as a shield. So I keep my eyes open and searching.

The Stilts market throbs with activity. It's going to rain soon, and everyone wants to finish their errands before the downpour. I brush my braid over my left shoulder. A signal. Without looking, I know my Guardsmen split off, moving in the usual pairs. Their orders are clear. Case the market. Feel out potential leads. Find the Whistle if you can. With their packs of harmless contraband—glass beads, batteries, stale ground coffee—they'll attempt to trade or sell their way to the fence.
So will I
. My own pouch dangles at my hip, heavy but small, hidden by the untucked hem of a rough cotton shirt. Inside are bullets. Mismatched, of different calibers, seemingly stolen. In fact, they came from our own cache at our new Nortan safe house, a glorified cave tucked away in the Greatwoods region. But no one in the town can know that.

As always, Tristan keeps close. But he's more relaxed here. Smaller towns and villages are not dangerous, not by our standards. Even though Silver Security officers patrol the market, they are few, and uninterested. They don't care much if Reds steal from each other. Their punishments are reserved for the bold, the ones who dare look a Silver in the eye, or make enough trouble they have to get off their asses and involve.

“I'm hungry,” I say, turning to a stall selling coarse bread. The prices are astronomical compared to what we're used to in the Lakelands, but then, Norta is no good at growing grain. Their soil is too rocky for much success in farming. How this man supports himself selling bread no one can buy is a mystery. Or it would be, to someone else.

The bread baker, a man too slim for his occupation, barely glances at us. We don't look like promising customers. I jingle the coins in my pocket to get his attention.

He finally looks up, eyes watery and wide. The sound of coinage this far from the cities surprises him. “What you see is what I have.”

No nonsense. I like him already. “These two,” I reply, pointing to the finest baked loaves he has. Not a very high bar.

Still, his eyebrows raise. He snaps up the bread, wrapping the loaves in old paper with practiced efficiency. When I produce the copper coins without haggling for a lower price, his surprise deepens. As does his suspicion.

“I don't know you,” he mutters. He glances away, far to the right, where an officer busies himself berating several underfed children.

“We're traders,” Tristan offers. He leans forward, bracing himself on the rickety frame of the bread stall. One sleeve lifts, showing something on his wrist. A red band circling all the way around, the mark of the Whistles as we've come to find. It's a tattoo, and a false one.
But the baker doesn't know that
.

The man's eyes linger on Tristan for only a moment, before trailing back to me. Not so foolish as he looks, then. “And what are you looking to trade?” he says, pushing one of the loaves into my hands. The other he keeps. Waiting.

“This and that,” I reply. And then I whistle, soft and low, but unmistakable. The two-note tune the last Whistle taught me. Harmless to those who know nothing.

The baker does not smile or nod. His face betrays nothing. “You'll find better business in the dark.”

“I always do.”

“Down Mill Road, around the bend. A wagon,” the baker adds.
“After sunset, but before midnight.”

Tristan nods. He knows the place.

I dip my head as well, in a tiny gesture of thanks. The baker doesn't offer his own. Instead, his fingers curl around my other loaf of bread, which he puts back down on the stall counter. In a single motion, he tears off its paper wrappings and takes a taunting bite. Crumbs flake into his meager beard, each one a message. My coin has been traded for something more valuable than bread.

Mill Road, around the bend
.

Fighting a smile, I pull my braid over my right shoulder.

All over the market, my soldiers abandon their pursuits. They move as one, a school of fish following their leader. As we make our way back out of the market, I try to ignore the grumblings of two Guardsmen. Apparently, someone picked their pockets.

“All those batteries, gone in a second. Didn't even notice,” Cara grumbles, pawing through her satchel.

I glance at her. “Your comm?” If her broadcaster, a tiny radio that passes our messages in beeps and clicks, is gone, we'll be in serious trouble.

Thankfully, she shakes her head and pats a bump in her shirt. “Still here,” she says. I force a simple nod, swallowing my sigh of relief.

“Hey, I'm missing some coin!” another Guardsman, the muscle-bound Tye, mutters. She shoves her scarred hands into her pockets.

This time, I almost laugh. We entered the market looking for a master thief, and my soldiers fell prey to a pickpocket instead. On another day, I might be angry, but the tiny hiccup rolls right off my shoulders. A few lost coins are of no matter in the scheme of things. After all, the Colonel called our endeavor a suicide mission only a few weeks ago.

But we are succeeding. And we are still very much alive
.

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Day 11 of Operation RED WEB, Stage 1.

    
Operative: Captain REDACTED.

    
Designation: LAMB.

    
Origin: Albanus, NRT.

    
Destination: RAM at REDACTED.

    
-ALBANUS/STILTS WHISTLE willing to collaborate w/Stage 2.

    
-Has eyes inside SUMMERTON/King's seasonal palace.

    
-Also mentioned contacts within the Red Army at CORVIUM. Will pursue.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

    
Designation: RAM.

    
Origin: REDACTED.

    
Destination: LAMB at Albanus.

    
-Not orders, too dangerous. Continue with RED WEB.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Day 12 of Operation RED WEB, Stage 1.

    
Operative: Captain REDACTED.

    
Designation: LAMB.

    
Origin: Siracas, NRT.

    
Destination: RAM at REDACTED.

    
-Intent of RED WEB Stage 1 is to introduce SG into NRT via existing networks. Army within orders.

    
-Red Army contacts invaluable. Will pursue. Pass up message to COMMAND.

    
-En route to CORVIUM.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

    
Designation: RAM.

    
Origin: REDACTED.

    
Destination: LAMB at Siracas.

    
-Stand down. Do not proceed to CORVIUM.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Operative: General REDACTED.

    
Designation: DRUMMER.

    
Origin: REDACTED.

    
Destination: LAMB at Siracas, RAM at REDACTED.

    
-Proceed to CORVIUM. Assess Red Army contacts for information and Stage 2/Asset Removal.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, COMMAND CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Day 12 of Operation RED WEB.

    
Operative: Captain REDACTED.

    
Designation: LAMB.

    
Origin: Corvium, NRT.

    
Destination: COMMAND at REDACTED, RAM at REDACTED.

    
-Acknowledged.

    
-Clearly not too dangerous.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, COMMAND CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
Operative: Colonel REDACTED.

    
Designation: RAM.

    
Origin: REDACTED.

    
Destination: COMMAND at REDACTED.

    
-Please note my strong opposition to developments in RED WEB. LAMB needs a short leash.

    
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 REDACTED.

    
-Noted.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

I can smell the Choke from here. Ash, smoke, corpses.

“It's a slow day. No bombs yet.” Tye fixes her eyes on the northwest horizon, and the dark haze in the distance that can only be the front of this pointless war. She served on the lines herself, albeit on the opposite side we are now. She fought for Lakelander masters and lost an ear to a frostbitten winter in trenches. She doesn't hide the deformity. Her blond hair is pulled back tightly, letting everyone see the ruined stump
her so-called loyalty bought her.

Tristan scans the landscape for the third time, squinting through the scope of his long rifle. He lies on his belly, half-hidden by the ropy spring grass. His motions are slow and methodical, practiced in the gun range at Irabelle, as well as the deep forests of the Lakelands. The notches on the barrel, tiny scratches in the metal, stand out brightly in the daylight. Twenty-two in all, one for every Silver killed with that very weapon. For all his itchy paranoia, Tristan has a surprisingly steady trigger finger.

From our place on the rise, we have a commanding view of the surrounding woods. The Choke some miles to the northwest, clouded even under the morning sun, and Corvium another mile to the east. There are no more towns here, or even animals. Too close to the trench lines for anything but soldiers. But they keep to the Iron Road, the main thoroughfare that passes through Corvium and ends at the front lines. Over the last few days, we've learned much about the Red legions constantly moving, replacing defeated soldiers on the lines, only to march back with their own dead and wounded a week later. They march in at dawn and late evening. We keep our distance from the Road, but we can still hear them when they go. Five thousand in each legion, five thousand of our Red brothers and sisters resigned to living targets. Supply convoys are harder to predict, moving when required, and not on any schedule. They too are manned by Red soldiers and Silver officers, albeit officers of the useless kind. There's no honor in commanding a transport full of stale food and worn bandages. The supply convoys are a punishment for Silvers, and a reprieve for Reds. And best of all, they are poorly guarded. After all, the Lakelander enemy is firmly on the other side of the Choke, separated by miles of wasteland, trenches, and popping artillery. No one looks to the trees as they pass. No one
suspects another enemy already inside their diamondglass walls.

I can't see the Iron Road from this ridge—the trees are in full leaf, obscuring the paved avenue—but we're not watching the Road today. We aren't gathering intelligence from troop movements. We're going to talk to the troops themselves.

My internal clock tells me they are late.

“Could be a trap,” Tristan mutters, always eager to voice his panicked opinion. He keeps his eye firmly pressed to the scope in warning. He's been expecting a trap since the moment Will Whistle told us about his army contacts. And now that we're going to meet them, he's been on edge more than usual, if that's possible. Not a bad instinct to have, but not a helpful one at the moment. Risk is part of the game. We won't get anywhere if we think only of our own skins.

But there is a reason only three of us are waiting,

“If it's a trap, we'll get out of it,” I reply. “We've beaten worse.”

It's not a lie. We all have scars and ghosts of our own. Some drove us to the Scarlet Guard, and some were because of it. I know the sting of both.

My words are for Tye more than Tristan. Like all who escaped the trenches, she's not at all happy to be back, even if she isn't wearing a Lakelander's blue uniform. Not that she would ever complain about this out loud. But I can tell.

“Movement.”

BOOK: Steel Scars
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