Once / Page 18

Page 18


AN HOUR LATER, THE CONSERVATORY WAS FILLED WITH PEOPLE. Women in ball gowns strolled through the indoor garden, admiring the peach-colored roses and blooming hydrangeas. Giant balloon sculptures drifted over the crowd. After the parade ended, many of the Outlanders, as the King had called them, had disappeared into the far reaches of the City, where the land was barren except for a few houses and motels. Others had taken the elevated trains back to their apartment buildings. Only a small group—members of the Elite—had been invited to the parade reception. Some waited on lines to ride the giant balloons. A few climbed up into the baskets beneath them and lifted up to the glass ceiling.

I stood there watching it all, unable to stop smiling. Caleb was alive. He was inside the City’s walls. I pressed my fingers to the neck of my dress, feeling for the tiny slip of paper, just to be certain it was real.

“Isn’t it incredible?” A young man strode up beside me. He had a thick mop of black hair and a strong, angular face. A cluster of women turned when he approached. “It’s become one of my favorite spots in the Palace mall. In the morning it’s quiet, nearly empty. You can actually hear the birds in the trees.” He pointed to some sparrows on a branch above a small fountain.

“It’s impressive,” I replied, only half paying attention. I stared straight ahead as the King greeted the Head of Finance and the Head of Agriculture, two men in dark suits who always seemed to be whispering to one another. I didn’t mind them now. I didn’t hate the crowd congratulating the Lieutenant. Everything seemed more certain now, the whole City a more manageable place. I’d slipped into the bathroom after the parade, savoring a few solitary moments in the cold space. Caleb had drawn a map on one side of the paper. The line snaked out of the Palace and across the overpass, where the land was less developed. An X was scrawled on a dead-end street. I’d run my fingers along the message, reading it again and again. Meet me at 1 AM, he’d written at the bottom of the page. Take only the marked route.

The man was still looking at me, his lips twisted in quiet amusement. I turned to him, for the first time noticing his clear blue eyes, his flawless, creamy complexion, the way he stood with one hand in his pocket, so self-assured. “I think you’re impressive,” he whispered.

The heat rose in my cheeks. “Is that right?” I knew it now, the playful tone in his voice, the way he leaned forward as he spoke: He was flirting.

“I read about your adventure in the paper, how you were lost in the wild all those days. How you survived after being kidnapped by that Stray.”

I shook my head, careful not to reveal too much. “So you’ve read one article and now you think you know me?”

I stared out into the conservatory gardens, at Reginald, the King’s Head of Press—the very man who’d written the story. He was tall, with chestnut skin and cropped graying hair. The King had briefly introduced us the day after I arrived at the Palace. Reginald never bothered to ask about the pink marks on my wrists or the stitches on my arm. He didn’t ask me much at all. Instead he’d completely fabricated a story about how I’d escaped the School to find my father, who I didn’t even know was the King. How I’d traveled through the wild until I was kidnapped by some vicious Stray. The article ended with a quote from Stark detailing how I’d been “saved.”

“I’ve never understood Strays.” The man shook his head. “Who would choose that life when they could have this?” He gestured around the room.

My thoughts drifted to Marjorie and Otis at their kitchen table, content to live by themselves, free from the King’s rules. “A lot of people.”

The man narrowed his eyes at me, as if he wasn’t sure he’d heard me correctly. I was about to excuse myself when the King started toward us.

“Genevieve!” he called out, his face breaking into a genuine smile. “I see you’ve met Charles Harris. He’s the one I was telling you about.” He gestured at the domed ceiling, the planted gardens and marble floor. “His family has overseen nearly every building and restoration project inside the City walls. The City of Sand wouldn’t be what it is without him.”

So this was the Head of Development. He seemed surprisingly normal with his crisp buttoned shirt and huge blue eyes. Every inch of him seemed to imply he was decent, nice even—a person to be trusted. I wondered if he was the one who worked the boys in the labor camps, or if he made someone else do it.

“I was just telling Genevieve how incredible it is that she arrived here safely. A testament to her strength, I’m sure.”

“I’m happy she’s home.” The King held a glass in his hand. “Charles here has been in the City since it was founded. His family was one of the lucky ones—both his parents survived the plague. They donated assets to help fund the new capital. His father was the Head of Development until he passed away last year.” I studied Charles, his shiny, clean-shaven face and mop of thick black hair. He couldn’t have been more than five years older than me. So little separated him from the boys in the dugout—their parents had died, and his hadn’t.

“It’s been an honor to take over my father’s legacy,” he said matter-of-factly.

The King gestured at the domed ceiling above us. “This was Charles’s first project. He spent a good six months studying the recovered plans for the conservatory, looking at pictures from before the plague to get it all just right. With a few improvements, of course.”

Charles pointed to the far end of the dome. “A small plane had crashed into that side of the conservatory, leaving a giant hole in the ceiling.”

The string quartet in the corner struck up a song, and a few couples ventured into the center of the room to dance. People clinked their glasses together, toasting. The King raised his hand, waving two women over. The younger one seemed about my age, with straw-colored hair and thin, glossy lips. The other woman looked similar but older, her eyelashes clumped together with thick mascara. Her hair was styled in a stiff gold bob. “Perfect timing,” the King started, resting his hand on the older woman’s back. “Genevieve, I’d like you to meet my sister-in-law, Rose, and my niece, Clara. Rose was married to my late brother.”

The King had mentioned them the day before—my aunt and cousin. I offered my hand to the girl but she looked away as if she didn’t notice. Rose quickly took it in hers instead. “We’re happy you’re here, Princess,” she said slowly, as if it took great effort to get each word out.

Clara’s eyes darted from Charles to me, then back to Charles again. She sidled up next to him, resting her hand on his arm. “Let’s go on the balloon ride, Charles,” she said softly. She turned to me, surveying the satin gown Beatrice had helped me into, the shoes with the gold clasps on their sides, the low bun my hair had been twisted into. I’d been in her presence for less than five minutes, but I could tell, with complete certainty, that she hated me.

Charles stepped forward. “I was just about to ask Genevieve,” he said. “She hasn’t been yet, and it’s a novelty every new citizen should experience. I promise I’ll take you later.” He offered me his arm. Clara glared at me, her cheeks flushed.

“I actually wanted to look at the greenhouse,” I said, pointing to the enclosed glass room on the other side of the conservatory, the lush flowers filling every inch of it.

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