Mare returns to her family’s small house on stilts. From the ladder, Mare can see the private boats of rich Silvers heading to the king’s summer residence in Summerton, where Gisa apprentices to a seamstress. Mare looks at the porch flag on the way inside. It has a star for each of Mare’s brothers, with room left for her and Gisa.
Mare’s family, which consists of Mare, her parents, her sister, and her three brothers, has historically existed in the confines of this small house. The Silvers, meanwhile, have their own private boats, and the king has multiple residences. The power differential between the Silvers and Reds thus manifests in (and is no doubt supported by) a grand division of wealth.
Inside, Mare’s mother cooks while fourteen-year-old Gisa embroiders. Her red hair contrasts Mare’s, which is brown at the root and light at the ends from stress of Stilts life. Mare keeps her hair long as a “reminder that even my hair knows life shouldn’t be this way.” Mare’s father, who sits in a wheelchair and uses a black-market contraption to breathe despite his collapsed lung, rejects Mare’s offer to buy a cake for his upcoming birthday. Mare’s mother disapproves of Mare’s subsequent offers of gifts that would surely be stolen, just like everything Mare brings home.
Mare’s family relationships all appear to be strained as a direct effect of the poor conditions under which Reds are forced to live. Mare is jealous of Gisa because Gisa has a legitimate job that makes her mother proud. Mare feels that her efforts to support her family through theft are rejected by her mother, despite everyone’s reliance on the goods Mare brings home. Mare’s father is probably unable to leave the house much because it would require climbing down a ladder, and his physical movement is restricted by injuries from his forced military service.
Mare protests that she is contributing what she can before she goes away. Her reference to the war makes everyone fall silent, until Gisa remembers a letter from Shade that she got from the post on the way back from Summerton today. After everyone touches the letter, Mare reads her brother’s words aloud because her parents cannot read. Shade describes his new encampment as “Red as the dawn,” with barely any Silver officers. He assures them that he is safe and that he has heard similar news of his brother Tramy. There is no word of Bree, but Shade says he is not worried about “the best” of his siblings. As Mare finishes reading the letter, the lights flicker because no one turned in the electricity rations Mare brought home yesterday. Everyone goes to bed, “too tired to fight.”
Just as Mare is more willing than most of her fellow citizens to accept that she has seen a whisper in action, she is more willing than the rest of her family to discuss the brutality and injustice of the draft. Gisa seems to be family peacekeeper, as does Shade even in his absence. Although the reader has not met Shade, the tone of his letter seems oddly upbeat given his circumstances. The fact that Mare is able to read the note when her parents cannot indicates that despite the bleak political landscape Mare has been laying out in her narration, there has been some generational progress in recent years.
Lying in her cot, Mare hears a birdcall that she knows to be Kilorn. She tries to ignore the call, but it persists. Mare reluctantly climbs down the ladder out of the house. Her annoyance fades when she sees that Kilorn has been crying, which is out of character for him. He tells her that his master died and that he is no longer an apprentice. He is eighteen, there are no vacant fisherman’s apprenticeships, and there is no hope for Kilorn to find a job. Kilorn says what Mare already knows to be true: “They’re going to send me to the war.”
Kilorn’s tears provide a contrast to his giddy excitement in the arena. It is only when Kilorn himself faces the harsh reality of conscription that he feels the full weight of the Reds’ oppression. Not only does this moment set the plot of the novel in motion, but it also demonstrates that Mare is better equipped than many others to understand political injustice, even when it is affecting her personally in subtle ways.