Hold on to your banner’s Scarlet Guard, here’s an excerpt for KING’S CAGE that will surely keep you ’til February 7th!
As we itch and fuss for the release of King’s Cage Epic Reads has given us an excerpt of two chapters from the third installment to the Red Queen series. Read Chapter 6 of King’s Cage below then follow the link after to read Chapter 7!
The cards are carefully typed, outlining what I must say. I can’t even look at them, and leave them lying on my bedside table.
I very much doubt I’ll get the benefit of maids to make me up into whatever Maven imagines presenting to the court. It looks like an arduous task, buttoning and zipping myself into the scarlet gown. It has a high collar, trailing hem, and long sleeves to hide not just Maven’s brand on my collarbone but the manacles still attached to my wrists and ankles.
No matter how many times I escape this elegant pageantry, I seem doomed to play a role in it. The dress will be too big when I finally get it on, loose around the arms and waist. I’m thinner here, no matter how much I force myself to eat. Based on what I can glean from my reflection in the window, my hair and skin have also suffered under the weight of silence. My face is yellowed and sunken, sickly-looking, while red rims my eyes. And my dark brown hair, still tinged by the slow creep of gray at the ends, is rattier than ever, tangled to the root. I braid it back hastily, working the knotted strands.
No amount of silk can change what I look like beneath Maven’s costume. But it’s no matter. I’ll never wear it, if all goes to plan.
The next step in my preparation makes my heart pound. I do my best to look calm, for the cameras in my bedroom at least. They cannot know what I’m about to do, not if it’s going to work. And even if I manage to fool my guards, there’s another rather large obstacle.
This could kill me.
Maven did not put cameras in my bathroom. Not to protect my privacy, but to placate his own jealousy. I know enough of him to realize he won’t let another person see my body. The added weight of Silent Stone, the slabs set into walls, is confirmation. Maven made sure guards would never have a reason to escort me in here. My heart beats sluggishly in my chest, but I push through it. I have to.
The shower hisses and steams, scalding hot as soon as I turn it on to full blast. If not for the bathroom Stone, I would have spent many days enjoying the singular comfort of a hot wash. I must work quickly, or let myself be smothered.
Back at the Notch we were lucky to bathe in cold rivers, while on Tuck the showers were timed and lukewarm. I laugh at the thought of what passed for bathing at home. A tub filled from the kitchen faucet, warm in the summer, cold in the winter, with stolen soap to clean with. I still don’t envy my mother’s job of helping my father wash.
With any luck—lots of luck—I’ll see them again soon.
I push the showerhead, angling it away from the basin and onto the floor of the bathroom. The water pelts against white tile, drenching it. The spray hits my bare feet, and the heat shivers my skin, gentle and inviting as a warm blanket.
As water seeps out beneath the bathroom door, I work quickly. First I put the long shard of glass on the counter, well within arm’s length. Then I reach for the true weapon.
Whitefire Palace is a marvel in every inch, and my bathroom is no exception. It’s lit by a modest chandelier, if there is such a thing: worked in silver, with curling arms like tree branches giving bud to a dozen lightbulbs. I have to stand on the sink, precariously balanced, to get at it. A few forceful but focused tugs pull the dangling fixture forward, its wiring peeling through the ceiling. Once I have enough slack, I crouch, the still-lit chandelier in hand. I brace it on the sink to wait.
The pounding starts a few minutes later. Whoever is watching my room has noticed the water spilling out from underneath my bathroom door. Ten seconds later, two sets of feet troop into my bedroom. Which Arvens, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter.
“Barrow!” a man’s voice calls, accompanied by a fist knocking on the bathroom door.
They waste no time when I don’t respond, and neither do I.
Egg pushes the door in, his white face almost blending into the tiled walls as he steps inside, sloshing through. Clover does not follow, but stands with one foot in the bathroom, the other in my bedchamber. It doesn’t matter. Both her feet are in the puddle of steaming water.
“Barrow . . . ?” Egg says, slack-jawed at the sight of me.
It doesn’t take much to let the chandelier drop, but the action feels heavy all the same.
It smashes against the wet tile. When the electricity hits the water, a surge pulses through the room, shorting out not just the other bathroom lights, but the lights in my bedroom. Probably this entire wing of the palace.
Both Arvens jump and twitch as the sparks dance through their flesh. They crumple quickly, muscles seizing.
I vault over the water and their bodies, almost gasping as the weight of the bathroom’s Silent Stone melts away. The manacles still weigh on my limbs, and I waste no time searching the Arvens, careful to keep out of the water. I turn out their pockets as quickly as I can, searching for the key that haunts my waking moments. Shaking, I feel a curl of metal beneath Egg’s collar, lying flush to his breastbone. With trembling hands, I yank it free and set to loosening my manacles one by one. As they drop away, the silence lifts, bit by bit. I gasp down air, trying to force lightning into myself. It’s coming back. It must.
But I still feel numb.
Egg’s body is at my mercy, warm and alive beneath my hands. I could cut his throat and Clover’s, slice their jugulars with any one of the jagged bits of glass I keep well hidden. I should do it, I tell myself. But I’ve already wasted too much time. I leave them living.
As expected, the Arvens are trained enough in their duties to have locked my bedroom door behind them. No matter. A hairpin is just as good as a key. I pop the lock in a second.
It’s been a few days since I stepped outside my prison, and then I was leashed to Evangeline, guarded on all sides. Now the hallway is empty. Dead lightbulbs march down the hall overhead, taunting in their emptiness. My electrical sense is weak, barely a spark across the darkness. It has to come back. This won’t work if it doesn’t come back. I fight a swell of panic—what if it’s gone for good? What if Maven took my lightning from me?
I sprint as fast as I can, holding on to what I know of Whitefire. Evangeline took me left, to the ballrooms and the great halls and the throne room. Those places will be crawling with guards and officers, not to mention the nobility of Norta, dangerous on their own. So I go right.
Cameras follow, of course. I spot them at every corner. I wonder if they shorted out too, or if I’m entertainment for a few officers. They might be making bets on how far I get. The doomed endeavor of a doomed girl.
A service stair takes me down a landing, and I almost knock over a servant in my haste.
My heart leaps at the sight of him. A boy, my age, maybe, his face already flushing as he holds on to his tea tray. Flushing red.
“It’s a trick!” I shout at him. “What they’re going to make me do, it’s a trick!”
At the top of the stairs, and the bottom, a pair of doors bang open in succession. Cornered again. A bad habit I’ve developed.
“Mare—” the boy says, my name trembling on his lips. I frighten him.
“Find a way; tell the Scarlet Guard. Tell whoever you can. It’s another lie!”
Someone seizes me around my middle, pulling me backward, up and away. I keep my focus on the serving boy. The uniformed officers ascending from below shove him away, pressing him up against the wall without thought. His tray clatters to the floor, spilling tea.
“It’s all a lie!” I manage to get out before a hand clamps over my mouth.
I try to spark, reaching for lightning that I still barely feel. Nothing happens, so I bite down hard enough to taste blood.
The Security officer drops his hand, swearing, while another comes up in front of me, deftly grabbing my kicking legs. I spit blood in her face.
When she backhands me, the action full of deadly grace, I recognize her.
“Good to see you, Sonya,” I hiss. I try to kick her in the stomach, but she dodges with boredom.
Please, I beg in my mind, as if the electricity can hear me. Nothing responds, and I choke back a sob. I’m too weak. It’s been too long.
Sonya is a silk, too swift and agile to be bothered with the resistance of a weak girl. I glance at her uniform. Black piped with silver, with the blue and red of House Iral on her shoulders. Judging by the badges on her chest and the pins on her collar, she’s a ranking officer of Security now. “Congratulations on the promotion,” I growl in frustration, lashing out because it’s all I can do. “Done with Training so soon?”
She tightens her grip on my feet, her hands like pincers.
“Too bad you never finished Protocol.” Still carrying my legs, she rubs her face on her shoulder, trying to wipe away the silver blood on her cheek. “You could use some manners.”
It’s only been a few months since I last saw her. Standing with her grandmother Ara and Evangeline, dressed in mourning black for the king. She was one of many who watched me in the Bowl of Bones, who wanted to see me die. Her house is famed for their skill not just in body, but in mind. Spies all, trained to discover secrets. I doubt she believed Maven when he told everyone I was a trick, a Scarlet Guard creation sent to infiltrate the palace. And I doubt she’ll believe what’s about to happen.
“I saw your grandmother,” I tell her. A daring card to play.
Her flawless composure does not change, but I feel her grip on my legs weaken, if only a little. Then she dips her chin. Continue, she’s trying to say.
“In Corros Prison. Starved, weakened by Silent Stone.” Like I am now. “I helped free her.”
Another might call me a liar. But Sonya remains quiet, her eyes anywhere but me. To anyone else, she looks disinterested.
“I don’t know how long she spent in there, but she put up more of a fight than anyone else.” I remember her now, flashing across my memories. An old woman with the vicious strength of her namesake, the Panther. She even saved my life, plucking a razor-sharp wheel out of the air before it could take my head. “Ptolemus got her in the end, though. Right before he killed my brother.”
Her gaze falls to the floor, brow furrowed slightly. Every inch of her tightens. For a second I think she might cry, but the threatening tears never spill. “How?” I barely hear her.
“Through the neck. Quickly.”
Her next slap is well aimed, but without much strength behind it. A show, like everything else in this hellish place.
“Keep your filthy lies to yourself, Barrow,” she hisses, ending our conversation.
I end up in a heap on my bedroom floor, both cheeks stinging, with the crushing weight of four Arven guards washing over me. Egg and Clover look a bit rumpled, but healers have already seen to their injuries, whatever they were. Pity I didn’t kill them.
“Shocked to see me?” I drawl at them, chuckling at the horrific joke.
In response, Kitten forces me into the scarlet gown, making me strip in front of them all. She takes her time in the humiliation. The dress smarts as it pulls across my brand. M for Maven, M for monster, M for murder.
I can still taste the Security officer’s blood when Kitten shoves the speech cards into my chest.
* * *
The full strength of the Silver court has been summoned to the throne room. The High Houses press together in their usual riot. Every color is an assault, a firework of gems and brocade. I join the chaos, adding blood red to the collection. The doors to the throne room seal shut behind me, caging me in with the worst of them. The houses part to let me pass, forming a long corridor from the entrance to the throne. They whisper as I go, noting every imperfection and every rumor. I catch snippets. Of course they all know about my little adventure this morning. The Arven guards, two in front, two behind, are confirmation enough of my continued status as prisoner.
So Maven’s newest lie is not for them this time. I try to puzzle out his motives, the turns of his labyrinthine manipulations. He must have weighed the costs of what to tell them—and decided bringing his closest nobles in on such a delicious secret was worth the risk. They won’t mind his lies if he isn’t lying to them.
As before, he sits on his throne of gray stone slabs, both hands clawed to the armrests. Sentinels have his back, lining the wall behind him, while Evangeline takes his left, standing proud. She glitters, a lethal star, with a cape and slashed gown of intricate silver scales. Her brother, Ptolemus, matches in a new suit of armor, close as a guardian for both his sister and the king. Another bitterly familiar face holds Maven’s right. He does not wear armor. He does not need armor. His mind is weapon and shield enough.
Samson Merandus grins at me, a vision in dark blue and white lace, colors I hate above all others. Even silver. I am a butcher, he warned me before my interrogation. He was not lying. I will never fully recover from the way he carved me up: a pig on a hook, bled dry.
Maven notes my appearance, pleased with it. The same Skonos healer attempted to do something with my hair, pulling it back into a neat tail while swiping a bit of makeup across my frazzled features. She didn’t take long, but I wish she’d lingered. Her touch was cool and soothing, fixing up whatever bruises I earned in my doomed escape.
I feel no fear as I approach, walking before the eyes of dozens of Silvers. There are far worse things to be afraid of. Like the cameras ahead, for example. They aren’t trained on me yet, but they will be soon. I can hardly stomach the thought.
Maven stops us short with a single gesture, holding up his palm. The Arvens know what it means and peel away, leaving me to walk the last few yards by myself. That’s when the cameras switch on. To show me walking alone, unguarded, unleashed, a free Red standing with Silvers. The image will be broadcast everywhere, to everyone I love, and anyone I could ever hope to protect. This simple action might be enough to doom dozens of newbloods, and strike a heavy blow against the Scarlet Guard.
“Come forward, Mare.”
That is Maven’s voice. Not Maven, but Maven. The boy I thought I knew. Gentle, tender. He keeps that voice stored away, ready to be drawn and used against me like a sword. It strikes me to my core, as he knows it will. In spite of myself, I feel the familiar longing for a boy who does not exist.
My footsteps echo on the marble. In Protocol, the late Lady Blonos tried to teach me how to hold my face at court. Her ideal expression was cold, emotionless, beyond unfeeling. I am none of those things, and I fight the urge to slip behind such a mask. Instead, I try to school my features into something that will both satisfy Maven and somehow let the country know this is not my choice at all. A hard line to walk.
Still grinning, Samson takes a step sideways, leaving space next to the throne. I shiver at the intention, but do as I must. I take Maven’s right side.
What a picture this must be. Evangeline in silver, me in red, with the king in black between.
Yearning for more? Go to Epic Reads to read Chapter 7!
Pick up your copy of King’s Cage on February 7th!
Source: Epic Reads