Red Queen Page 2

“It’s supposed to be a warning, you dumb fool.”

But he’s already walking off with his long strides, forcing me to almost trot to keep up. His gait weaves, off balance. Sea legs, he calls them, though he’s never been to the far-off sea. I guess long hours on his master’s fishing boat, even on the river, are bound to have some effect.

Like my dad, Kilorn’s father was sent off to war, but whereas mine returned missing a leg and a lung, Mr. Warren came back in a shoe box. Kilorn’s mother ran off after that, leaving her young son to fend for himself. He almost starved to death, but somehow kept picking fights with me. I fed him so that I wouldn’t have to kick around a bag of bones, and now, ten years later, here he is. At least he’s apprenticed and won’t face the war.

We get to the foot of the hill, where the crowd is thicker, pushing and prodding on all sides. First Friday attendance is mandatory, unless you are, like my sister, an “essential laborer.” As if embroidering silk is essential. But the Silvers love their silk, don’t they? Even the Security officers, a few of them anyway, can be bribed with pieces sewn by my sister. Not that I know anything about that.

The shadows around us deepen as we climb up the stone stairs, toward the crest of the hill. Kilorn takes them two at a time, almost leaving me behind, but he stops to wait. He smirks down at me and tosses a lock of faded, tawny hair out of his green eyes.

“Sometimes I forget you have the legs of a child.”

“Better than the brain of one,” I snap, giving him a light smack on the cheek as I pass. His laughter follows me up the steps.

“You’re grouchier than usual.”

“I just hate these things.”

“I know,” he murmurs, solemn for once.

And then we’re in the arena, the sun blazing hot overhead. Built ten years ago, the arena is easily the largest structure in the Stilts. It’s nothing compared to the colossal ones in the cities, but still, the soaring arches of steel, the thousands of feet of concrete, are enough to make a village girl catch her breath.

Security officers are everywhere, their black-and-silver uniforms standing out in the crowd. This is First Friday, and they can’t wait to watch the proceedings. They carry long rifles or pistols, though they don’t need them. As is customary, the officers are Silvers and Silvers have nothing to fear from us Reds. Everyone knows that. We are not their equals, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at us. The only thing that serves to distinguish us, outwardly at least, is that Silvers stand tall. Our backs are bent by work and unanswered hope and the inevitable disappointment with our lot in life.

Inside the open-topped arena is just as hot as out and Kilorn, always on his toes, leads me to some shade. We don’t get seats here, just long concrete benches, but the few Silver nobles up above enjoy cool, comfortable boxes. There they have drinks, food, ice even in high summer, cushioned chairs, electric lights, and other comforts I’ll never enjoy. The Silvers don’t bat an eye at any of it, complaining about the “wretched conditions.” I’ll give them a wretched condition, if I ever have the chance. All we get are hard benches and a few screechy video screens almost too bright and too noisy to stand.

“Bet you a day’s wages it’s another strongarm today,” Kilorn says, tossing his apple core toward the arena floor.

“No bet,” I shoot back at him. Many Reds gamble their earnings on the fights, hoping to win a little something to help them get through another week. But not me, not even with Kilorn. It’s easier to cut the bookie’s purse than try and win money from it. “You shouldn’t waste your money like that.”

“It’s not a waste if I’m right. It’s always a strongarm beating up on someone.”

Strongarms usually make up at least one half of the fights, their skills and abilities better suited to the arena than almost any other Silver. They seem to revel in it, using their superhuman strength to toss other champions around like rag dolls.

“What about the other one?” I ask, thinking about the range of Silvers that could appear. Telkies, swifts, nymphs, greenys, stoneskins—all of them terrible to watch.

“Not sure. Hopefully something cool. I could use some fun.”

Kilorn and I don’t really see eye to eye on the Feats of First Friday. For me, watching two champions rip into each other is not enjoyable, but Kilorn loves it. Let them ruin each other, he says. They’re not our people.

He doesn’t understand what the Feats are about. This isn’t mindless entertainment, meant to give Reds some respite from grueling work. This is calculated, cold, a message. Only Silvers can fight in the arenas because only a Silver can survive the arena. They fight to show us their strength and power. You are no match for us. We are your betters. We are gods. It’s written in every superhuman blow the champions land.

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