Home > Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(6)

Red Queen (Red Queen #1)(6)
Author: Victoria Aveyard

The words pour out of me like a river. “So is the village. Crawling with Silvers and Security. And we manage to steal right under their noses and escape with our heads.” My mind races, trying my hardest to find something, anything, that might be of use. And then it hits me like a bolt of lightning. “The black market trade, the one we help keep running, smuggles everything from grain to lightbulbs. Who’s to say they can’t smuggle people?”

His mouth opens, about to spout a thousand reasons why this won’t work. But then he smiles. And nods.

I don’t like getting involved with other people’s business. I don’t have time for it. And yet here I am, listening to myself say four dooming words.

“Leave everything to me.”

The things we can’t sell to the usual shop owners we have to take to Will Whistle. He’s old, too feeble to work the lumberyards, so he sweeps the streets by day. At night, he sells everything you could want out of his moldy wagon, from heavily restricted coffee to exotics from Archeon. I was nine with a fistful of stolen buttons when I took my chances with Will. He paid me three copper pennies for them, no questions asked. Now I’m his best customer and probably the reason he manages to stay afloat in such a small place. On a good day I might even call him a friend. It was years before I discovered Will was part of a much larger operation. Some call it the underground, others the black market, but all I care about is what they can do. They have fences, people like Will, everywhere. Even in Archeon, as impossible as that sounds. They transport illegal goods all over the country. And now I’m betting that they might make an exception and transport a person instead.

“Absolutely not.”

In eight years, Will has never said no to me. Now the wrinkled old fool is practically slamming shut the doors of his wagon in my face. I’m happy Kilorn stayed behind, so he doesn’t have to see me fail him.

“Will, please. I know you can do it—”

He shakes head, white beard waggling. “Even if I could, I am a tradesman. The people I work with aren’t the type to spend their time and effort shuttling another runner from place to place. It’s not our business.”

I can feel my only hope, Kilorn’s only hope, slipping right through my fingers.

Will must see the desperation in my eyes because he softens, leaning against the wagon door. He heaves a sigh and glances backward, into the darkness of the wagon. After a moment, he turns back around and gestures, beckoning me inside. I follow gladly.

“Thank you, Will,” I babble. “You don’t know what this means to me—”

“Sit down and be quiet, girl,” a high voice says.

Out of the shadows of the wagon, hardly visible in the dim light of Will’s single blue candle, a woman rises to her feet. Girl, I should say, since she barely looks older than me. But she’s much taller, with the air of an old warrior. The gun at her hip, tucked into a red sash belt stamped with suns, is certainly not authorized. She’s too blond and fair to be from the Stilts, and judging by the light sweat on her face, she’s not used to the heat or humidity. She is a foreigner, an outlander, and an outlaw at that. Just the person I want to see.

She waves me to the bench cut into the wagon wall, and she sits down again only when I have. Will follows closely behind and all but collapses into a worn chair, his eyes flitting between the girl and me.

“Mare Barrow, meet Farley,” he murmurs, and she tightens her jaw.

Her gaze lands on my face. “You wish to transport cargo.”

“Myself and a boy—” But she holds up a large, callused hand, cutting me off.

“Cargo,” she says again, eyes full of meaning. My heart leaps in my chest; this Farley girl might be of the helping kind. “And what is the destination?”

I rack my brain, trying to think of somewhere safe. The old classroom map swims before my eyes, outlining the coast and the rivers, marking cities and villages and everything in between. From Harbor Bay west to the Lakelands, the northern tundra to the radiated wastes of the Ruins and the Wash, it’s all dangerous land for us.

“Somewhere safe from the Silvers. That’s all.”

Farley blinks at me, her expression unchanging. “Safety has a price, girl.”

“Everything has a price, girl,” I fire back, matching her tone. “No one knows that more than me.”

A long beat of silence stretches through the wagon. I can feel the night wasting away, taking precious minutes from Kilorn. Farley must sense my unease and impatience but makes no hurry to speak. After what seems like an eternity, her mouth finally opens.

“The Scarlet Guard accepts, Mare Barrow.”

It takes all the restraint I have to keep from jumping out of my seat with joy. But something tugs at me, keeping a smile from crossing my face.

“Payment is expected in full, to the equivalent of one thousand crowns,” Farley continues.

That almost knocks the air from my lungs. Even Will looks surprised, his fluffy white eyebrows disappearing into his hairline. “A thousand?” I manage to choke out. No one deals in that amount of money, not in the Stilts. That could feed my family for a year. Many years.

But Farley isn’t finished. I get the sense that she enjoys this. “This can be paid in paper notes, tetrarch coins, or the bartering equivalent. Per item, of course.”

Two thousand crowns. A fortune. Our freedom is worth a fortune.

“Your cargo will be moved the day after tomorrow. You must pay then.”

I can barely breathe. Less than two days to accumulate more money than I have stolen in my entire life. There is no way.

She doesn’t even give me time to protest.

“Do you accept the terms?”

“I need more time.”

She shakes her head and leans forward. I smell gunpowder on her. “Do you accept the terms?”

It is impossible. It is foolish. It is our best chance.

“I accept the terms.”

The next moments pass in a blur as I trudge home through the muddy shadows. My mind is on fire, trying to figure out a way to get my hands on anything worth even close to Farley’s price. There’s nothing in the Stilts, that’s for sure.

Kilorn is still waiting in the darkness, looking like a little lost boy. I suppose he is.

“Bad news?” he says, trying to keep his voice even, but it trembles anyway.

“The underground can get us out of here.” For his sake, I keep myself calm as I explain. Two thousand crowns might as well be the king’s throne, but I make it seem like nothing. “If anyone can do it, we can. We can.”

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