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 (7 page)

BOOK: Steel Scars
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-Get RED WEB to Stage 2. Collab with other teams to begin removal.

    
-Will explore other transit options for #3.

    
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.

    
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED

    
CONFIDENTIAL, SENIOR CLEARANCE REQUIRED

    
—LAMB get your ass in line, or it's your head. —RAM—

Another message to the fire.

“Charming,” I mutter, watching the Colonel's words burn up.

This time, Cara doesn't bother to ask. But her lips purse into a thin line, holding back a torrent of questions. Five days now since I've responded to any messages, official or otherwise. She obviously knows something is afoot.

“Cara—,” I begin, but she holds up a hand.

“I don't have clearance,” she replies. Her eyes meet mine with startling ferocity. “And I don't care to know what path you're leading us down, so long as you think it's the right one.”

A warmth fills my insides. I do my best to keep it from showing, but a bit of a smile bleeds out anyways. My hand finds her shoulder, offering her the smallest touch of thanks.

“Don't get sappy on me now, Captain.” She chuckles, tucking away the broadcaster.

“Will do.” I straighten, turning around to face the rest of my team. They cluster at the edge of the steaming alley, a respectful distance away to allow for my private correspondences. To hide our presence, Tristan and Rasha sit on the alley curb, facing the street beyond. They keep their hands out and their hoods up, begging for food or money.
Everyone slides past, looking elsewhere.

“Tye, Big Coop.” The pair in question steps forward. Tye tips her head, pointing her good ear at me, while Big Coop lives up to the nickname. With a chest like a barrel and almost seven feet of heavy muscle, he's nearly twice the size of his brother, Little Coop. “Stay with Cara, keep the second radio ready.”

She extends a hand, all but itching to get hold of our newest prize. One of three top-of-the-line, techie-made, long-range secure radios, all swiped from the Corvium stores by Barrow's light fingers. I pass along the radio, though I keep the second tucked close. Barrow kept the third. Should he need to get in touch. Not that he's used it yet. Not that I'm keeping tally of his communications. Usually Barrow just shows up when he wants to trade information, always without warning, slipping past every spotter I put around the farmhouse. But today we're beyond even his sly reach. Twenty-five miles east, in the middle of Rocasta.

“As for the rest. Cristobel, Little Coop, you're on over watch. Get high, get hidden. Usual signals.”

Cris grins, showing a mouth of missing teeth. Punishment for “smirking” at her Silver master, back when she was a twelve-year-old serving girl in a Trial mansion. Little Coop is just as eager. His size and mousy demeanor, not to mention his brick wall of a brother, hide a skilled operative with a steel spine. Needing nothing more, they set to their work. Little Coop picks a drain pipe, scrabbling up the brick walls of the alley, while Cris scrambles to a fence, using it to boost herself onto a narrow window ledge. Both disappear in moments, to follow us from the Rocastan rooftops.

“The rest of you, track your marks. Keep your ears open. Memorize movements. I want to know everything from birthdays to shoe sizes. Gather whatever you can in the time we can.” The words are
familiar. Everyone knows why I called for this scout. But it serves as a rallying cry, one last thread drawing us together.
Tying them to your disobedience, you mean
.

My fist curls, nails digging into my palm where no one can see. The sting erases the thought quite nicely. As does the breeze sweeping through the alley. It stinks of garbage, but it's cool at least, blowing off Lake Eris to the north.

“The more we know about the Corvium supply convoy, the easier it'll be to infiltrate.”
As good a reason as any to be here, to stay when all the Colonel does is tell me to leave
. “Gates close at sundown. Return to rally point within the hour. Understood?”

Their heads bob in taut unison, their eyes alive, bright, and eager.

A few blocks away, a clock tower chimes nine times. I move without thought, stepping through my Guardsmen as they fall in line behind me. Tristan and Rasha are the last to stand. My lieutenant looks bare without his rifle, but I know there's a pistol on him somewhere, probably collecting sweat at the base of his back.

We head into the street, a main avenue through the Red sector of the city. Safe for now, surrounded by nothing more than Red homes and businesses, with few if any Silver officers to watch us pass. As in Harbor Bay, Rocasta maintains its own Red Watch, to protect what Silvers won't. Though we're heading for the same place, my team splits into their pairs, putting space between us. Can't exactly rove into the city center looking like a jumped-up assault squad, let alone a gang. Tristan keeps close again, letting me lead us to our destination—the Iron Road. As in Corvium, the Road bisects Rocasta, driving right through its heart like river through valley. As we get closer to the main thoroughfare, traffic picks up. Late servants hurrying to the homes of their masters, volunteer watchmen returning from their night posts,
parents hustling their children to ramshackle schools.

And of course, more officers with every passing street. Their uniforms, black with silver trim, are severe in the harsh sun of late spring, as are the gleaming guns and clubs at their waists. Funny, they feel the need to wear uniforms, as if they're at risk of being mistaken for Red. One of us.
Not a chance
. Their skin, undershot with blue and gray, leached of everything alive, is distinguishing enough. There is no Red on earth so cold as a Silver.

Ten yards ahead of us, Rasha stops so quickly her partner, Martenson, almost trips over her. No mean feat, considering she has about six inches on the graying Little Papa. Next to me, Tristan tenses, but doesn't break formation. He knows the rules. Nothing is above the Guard, not even affection.

The Silver legionnaires drag a boy by the arms. His feet kick at open air. He's small, looking young for eighteen. I doubt he needs to shave. I do my best to block out the sound of his begging, but his mother's wail cannot be ignored. She follows, two more children on her heels, with a solemn father trailing behind. Her hands clutch at her son's shirt, offering one last bout of resistance to his conscription.

The street seems to hold its breath as one, watching the familiar tragedy.

A crack echoes and she falls backward, clutching a bruising cheek. The legionnaire didn't even lift a finger or even look up from his grim work. He must be a telkie and used his abilities to swat the woman away.

“You want worse?” he snaps when she moves to stand.

“Don't!” the boy says, using his last free words to beg.

This will not last. This will not continue. This is why I'm here
.

Even so, it makes me sick to know I cannot do anything for this boy
and his mother. Our plans are falling into place, but not fast enough for him.
Perhaps he will survive
, I tell myself. But one look at his thin arms and the eyeglasses trampled beneath a legionnaire's foot says otherwise. The boy will die like so many others. In a trench or in a wasteland, alone at the very end.

“I can't watch this,” I mutter, and turn down another alley.

After a long moment of strange hesitation, Tristan follows.

I can only hope Rasha stays the course as well as he does. But I understand. She lost two sisters to Lakelander conscriptions, and fled her home before meeting the same fate.

Rocasta is not a walled city, and has no gates to choke the ends of the Iron Road. An easy place to enter, but it makes our task a bit more difficult. The main body of the returning supply convoy comes along the Road, but a few of the walking escorts peel off, taking different shortcuts to the same destination. On another day, my team would spend hours tracking them all to their homes, only to watch them sleep off the long journey. Not so now. Because it's First Friday. Today is the Feat of July.

A ridiculous Nortan tradition, albeit an effective one, if the intelligence is to be believed. Arenas in almost every town and city, casting long shadows and spitting blood once a month. Reds are required to attend, to sit and watch Silver champions exchange blows and abilities with the glee of stage performers. We have no such thing in the Lakelands. Silvers don't feel the need to show off against us, and the storied threat of Norta is enough to keep everyone terrified.

“They do it in Piedmont too,” Tristan mutters. He leans against the poured concrete fence edging the promenade around the arena's entrance. Our gazes flick in unison, one of us always watching our
marks, another always watching the band of officers directing people into the gaping maw of Arena Rocasta.

“Call them Acts, not Feats. And we didn't just have to watch. Sometimes, they made Reds fight too.” I hear the tremor of rage in his voice, even above the organized chaos of today's spectacle.

I nudge his shoulder as gently as I can. “Fight each other?”
Kill Reds, or be killed by Silvers?
I don't know which is worse.

“Targets are moving,” he simply growls.

One more glance at the officers, now occupied with a band of mangy kids halting foot traffic. “Let's go.”
And let that wound fester with the rest
.

I push off the wall next to him and slip into the crowd, eyes trained on the four red uniforms up ahead. It isn't easy. This close to Corvium, there's a lot of Red military, either marching through to take their places in the Choke or attached to different convoys like the one we're tailing. But the four men, three bronze, one dark skinned, all bone tired, keep close to each other. We haunt their footsteps. They manned a horse cart for the convoy, carrying what, I'm not sure. It was empty when they returned with the rest. But judging by the lack of Security and Silvers, I know their supply train isn't for weaponry or ammunition. The three bronze men are brothers, I assume, judging by their similar faces and mannerisms. It's almost comical to watch them spit and scratch their behinds in staggered unison. The fourth, a burly fellow with vividly blue eyes, is subdued in his itching, though he smiles more than the rest put together. Crance, I think his name is, based on my eavesdropping.

We enter the arches of the arena entrance like prowling cats, close enough to hear our marks but not be noticed. Overhead, harsh electric lights flicker, illuminating the high-ceilinged chamber connecting the
outer promenade to the interior. The crowd thickens to our left, where a variety of Reds wait to place their bets on the ensuing match. Above it, the boards announce the Silvers to fight, and their odds of victory.

Flora Lerolan, Oblivion, 3/1

Maddux Thany, Stoneskin, 10/1

“Hang on a second,” Crance says, halting the rest by the betting boards. With a grin, one of the bronze men joins him. The pair dig in their pockets for something to gamble.

Under the pretense of doing the same, Tristan and I stop no more than a few feet away, hidden in the swelling crowd. The betting boards are popular among the Reds of Rocasta, where a thriving military economy keeps most from going hungry. There are several well-to-do among the crowd—merchants and business owners in proudly clean clothes. They make their bets and hand over dull coppers, even a few silver tetrarchs. I bet the till of Arena Rocasta is nothing to sneer at, and make a note to pass on such information to Command.
If they'll still listen to me
.

“Come on, look at the odds—it's easy money!” Still smiling infectiously, Crance points between the boards and the betting windows. The other two tailing along don't look so convinced.

“You know something about stoneskins we don't?” the tallest says. “He'll get blown to pebbles by the oblivion.”

“Suit yourself, Horner. But I didn't trudge all the way from Corvium to sit bored in the stands.” Bills in hand, Crance slips away with his friend on his heels, leaving Horner and the other man to wait. Somehow, despite Crance's size, he's surprisingly good at cutting through a crowd. Too good.

“Watch them,” I murmur with a touch to Tristan's elbow. And then I'm weaving too, careful to keep my head angled at the ground. There
are cameras here, enough to be wary of. Should the next few weeks go as planned, I might want to start hiding my face.

I see it as Crance passes his paper through the window. His sleeve lifts as it scrapes the betting ledge, pulling back to reveal a tattoo. It almost blends into his umber skin, but the shape is unmistakable. I've seen it before. Blue anchor. Red rope.

We're not the only crew working this convoy. The Mariners already have a man inside.

This is good. We can work with this
. My mind fires as I fight my way back.
Pay for their information. Less Guard involvement, but the same outcome. And odds are the Mariner is alone, working the job solo. We could try to turn him, get our own eyes inside the Mariners. Start pulling strings, absorb the gang into the Guard
.

Tristan stands a head above the crowd, still watching the other two marks. I fight the urge to sprint to his side and divulge everything.

But an obstacle sprouts between us. A bald man and a familiar sheen of sweat across his brow.
Lakelander
. Before I can run or shout, a hand closes around my throat from behind. Tight enough to keep me quiet, loose enough to let me breathe, and certainly enough to drag me through the crowd with Baldy keeping close.

Another might thrash or fight, but I know better. Silver officers are everywhere here, and their “help” is not anything I want to risk. Instead I put my trust in myself, and in Tristan. He must keep watch, and I must get free.

The crowd takes us in its current, and still I cannot see who it is marching me through. Baldy's bulk hides most of me, as does the scarf my captor tosses around my neck. Funny, it's scarlet. And then we climb. Up the steps, high above the arena floor, to long slab seats that are mostly abandoned.

BOOK: Steel Scars
11.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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