Home > Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(11)

Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(11)
Author: Victoria Aveyard

A bellow of laughter rises as a few men stumble from the inn, drunk and happy. Their coin purses jingle, heavy with the day’s pay. Silver money, for serving, smiling, and bowing to monsters dressed as lords.

I caused so much harm today, so much hurt to the ones I love most. I should turn around and go home, to face everyone with at least some courage. But instead I settle against the shadows of the inn, content to remain in darkness.

I guess causing pain is all I’m good for.

It doesn’t take long to fill the pockets of my coat. The drunks filter out every few minutes and I press against them, pasting on a smile to hide my hands. No one notices, no one even cares, when I fade away again. I’m a shadow and no one remembers shadows.

Midnight comes and goes and still I stand, waiting. The moon overhead is a bright reminder of the time, of how long I’ve been gone. One last pocket, I tell myself. One more and I’ll go. I’ve been saying it for the past hour.

I don’t think when the next patron comes out. His eyes are on the sky, and he doesn’t notice me. It’s too easy to reach out, too easy to hook a finger around the strings of his coin purse. I should know better by now that nothing here is easy, but the riot and Gisa’s hollow eyes have made me foolish with grief.

His hand closes around my wrist, his grip firm and strangely hot as he pulls me forward out of the shadows. I try to resist, to slip away and run, but he’s too strong. When he spins, the fire in his eyes puts a fear in me, the same fear I felt this morning. But I welcome any punishment he might summon. I deserve it all.

“Thief,” he says, a strange surprise in his voice.

I blink at him, fighting the urge to laugh. I don’t even have the strength to protest. “Obviously.”

He stares at me, scrutinizing everything from my face to my worn boots. It makes me squirm. After a long moment, he heaves a breath and lets me go. Stunned, I can only stare at him. When a silver coin spins through the air, I barely have the wits to catch it. A tetrarch. A silver tetrarch worth one whole crown. Far more than any of the stolen pennies in my pockets.

“That should be more than enough to tide you over,” he says before I can respond. In the light of the inn, his eyes glint red-gold, the color of warmth. My years spent sizing people up do not fail me, even now. His black hair is too glossy, his skin too pale to be anything but a servant. But his physique seems more like a woodcutter’s, with broad shoulders and strong legs. He’s young too, a little older than me, though not nearly as assured of himself as any nineteen- or twenty-year-old should be.

I should kiss his boots for letting me go and giving me such a gift, but my curiosity gets the better of me. It always does.

“Why?” The word comes out hard and harsh. After a day like today, how can I be anything else?

The question takes him aback and he shrugs. “You need it more than I do.”

I want to throw the coin back in his face, to tell him I can take care of myself, but part of me knows better. Has today taught you nothing? “Thank you,” I force out through gritted teeth.

Somehow, he laughs at my reluctant gratitude. “Don’t hurt yourself.” Then he shifts, taking a step closer. He is the strangest person I’ve ever met. “You live in the village, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I reply, gesturing to myself. With my faded hair, dirty clothes, and defeated eyes, what else could I be? He stands in stark contrast, his shirt fine and clean, and his shoes are soft, reflective leather. He shifts under my gaze, playing with his collar. I make him nervous.

He pales in the moonlight, his eyes darting. “Do you enjoy it?” he asks, deflecting. “Living there?”

His question almost makes me laugh, but he doesn’t look amused. “Does anyone?” I finally respond, wondering what on earth he’s playing at.

But instead of retorting swiftly, snapping back like Kilorn would, he falls silent. A dark look crosses his face. “Are you heading back?” he says suddenly, gesturing down the road.

“Why, scared of the dark?” I drawl, folding my arms across my chest. But in the pit of my stomach, I wonder if I should be afraid. He’s strong, he’s fast, and you’re all alone out here.

His smile returns, and the comfort it gives me is unsettling. “No, but I want to make sure you keep your hands to yourself for the rest of the night. Can’t have you driving half the bar out of house and home, can we? I’m Cal, by the way,” he adds, stretching out a hand to shake.

I don’t take it, remembering the blazing heat of his skin. Instead, I set off down the road, my steps quick and quiet. “Mare Barrow,” I tell him over my shoulder, and it doesn’t take much for his long legs to catch up.

“So are you always this pleasant?” he prods, and for some reason, I feel very much like an experiment being examined. But the cold silver in my hand keeps me calm, reminding me of what else he has in his pockets. Silver for Farley. How fitting.

“The lords must pay well for you to carry whole crowns,” I retort, hoping to scare him off the topic. It works beautifully and he retreats.

“I have a good job,” he explains, trying to brush it off.

“That makes one of us.”

“But you’re—”

“Seventeen,” I finish for him. “I still have some time before conscription.”

He narrows his eyes, lips twisting into a grim line. Something hard creeps into his voice, sharpening his words. “How much time?”

“Less every day.” Just saying it aloud makes my insides ache. And Kilorn has even less than me.

His words die away and he’s staring again, surveying me as we walk through the woods. Thinking. “And there are no jobs,” he mutters, more to himself than me. “No way for you to avoid conscription.”

His confusion puzzles me. “Maybe things are different where you’re from.”

“So you steal.”

I steal. “It’s the best I can do,” falls from my lips. Again, I remember that causing pain is all I’m good for. “My sister has a job though.” It slips out before I remember—No she doesn’t. Not anymore. Because of you.

Cal watches me battle with the words, wondering whether or not to correct myself. It’s all I can do to keep my face straight, to keep from breaking down entirely in front of a complete stranger. But he must see what I’m trying to hide. “Were you at the Hall today?” I think he already knows the answer. “The riots were terrible.”

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