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He catches my eye once or twice, noting my twitching fingers and darting glances. He always seems to know what I’m up to, and now is no different. He even rolls his chair back, allowing me a better view of the yard. I nod at him, quietly thankful.
The guards remind me of the Silvers back in the Stilts, before the Measures, before Queenstrial. They were lazy, content in my quiet village, where insurrection was rare. How wrong they were. Those men and women were blind to my thieving, to the black market, to Will Whistle and the slow creep of the Scarlet Guard. And these Guardsmen are blind too, this time to my advantage.
They don’t notice me watching, or Kilorn when he approaches with a tray of fish stew. My family eats gratefully, Gisa most of all. She twists her hair when Kilorn isn’t looking, letting it curl over one shoulder in a ruby fall of red.
“Fresh catch?” she says, indicating the bowl of stew.
He wrinkles his nose and pretends to grimace at the gray glops of fish meat. “Not from me, Gee. My old master, Cully, would never sell this. Except to the rats, maybe.”
We laugh together, me out of habit, following a half second later. For once, Gisa is less ladylike than I am and she giggles openly, happily. I used to envy her practiced, perfect ways. Now I wish I wasn’t so trained and could shed my forced politeness as easily as she has.
While we force down the lunch, Dad pours out his bowl when he thinks I’m not looking. No wonder he’s getting thin. Before I—or, worse, Mom—can scold him he runs a hand over a blanket, feeling the fabric.
“These are Piedmont made. Fresh cotton. Expensive,” he mutters when he realizes I’m standing next to him. Even in the Silver court, Piedmont cotton was considered very fine, a common alternative to silk, reserved for high-ranking Security, Sentinel, and military uniforms. I remember Lucas wore it, up until the moment he died. I realize now I never saw him out of uniform. I can’t even picture it. And his face is already fading. A few days and I’m forgetting him, a man I sent to his death.
“Stolen?” I wonder aloud, running a hand over the blanket, if only for distraction.
Dad continues his investigation and runs a hand down the side of a crate. Sturdy, wide planks of wood, freshly painted white. The only distinguishing mark is a dark green triangle, smaller than my hand, stamped in the corner. What it means, I don’t know.
“Or given,” Dad says.
He doesn’t need to speak for me to know we’re thinking about the same thing. If there are Lakelanders with us here, on this very island, then the Scarlet Guard could easily have friends elsewhere, in different nations and kingdoms. We seem weak because we want to.
With a stealth I didn’t know he possessed, Dad takes my hand quickly and quietly. “Be careful, my girl.”
But while he is afraid, I feel hope. The Scarlet Guard has deeper roots than I knew, than any Silver could imagine. And the Colonel is only one of a hundred heads, just like Farley. An opposition definitely, but one I can overcome. After all, he’s not a king. Of those, I’ve had my fair share.
Like Dad, I pour my stew into a crack in the concrete. “I’m finished,” I say, and Kilorn jumps up. He knows his cues.
We’re going to visit Shade, or at least that’s what we say out loud, for the benefit of the others close by. My family knows better, even Mom. She blows me a kiss as I walk away, and I tuck it close to my heart.
When I pull up my collar, I become just another refugee, and Kilorn is no one at all. The soldiers pay us no mind. It’s easy to walk the length of the concrete yard, away from the docks and the beach, following the thick white line.
In the light of midday, I see the concrete extends toward gentle, sloping hills, looking very much like a wide road to nowhere. The painted line continues ahead, but a thinner, more worn line branches off at a right angle. It connects the central line to another structure, located at the end of the barracks, towering over everything else on the island. It looks like a larger version of the hangars on the beach, tall and wide enough to fit six transports stacked on top of one another. I wonder what it holds, knowing the Guard does their own share of thieving. But the doors are shut fast, and a few Lakelander men idle in the shade. They chat among themselves, keeping their guns close. So my curiosity will have to wait, perhaps forever.
Kilorn and I turn right, toward the gap between Barracks 8 and 9. The high windows of both are dark, abandoned—the buildings are empty. Waiting for more soldiers, more refugees, or worse, more orphans. I shiver as we pass through their shadows.
The beach isn’t hard to get to. After all, this is an island. And while the main base is well developed, the rest of Tuck is empty, covered only in dunes, hills swathed in tall grass, and a few pockets of ancient trees. There aren’t even paths through the grass, with no animals large enough to make them. We disappear nicely, winding through the swaying plants until we reach the beach. The dock stands a few hundred yards away, a wide knife jutting out into the waves. From this distance, the patrolling Lakelanders are only smudges of dark blue pacing back and forth. Most focus on the cargo ship approaching from the far side of the dock. My jaw drops at the sight of such a large vessel obviously controlled by Reds. Kilorn is more focused.