Once / Page 33

Page 33


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Eight thirty. Beatrice must have already entered my room to wake me, was probably stalling now as the maids set up for breakfast. In less than half an hour the King would stride into the dining hall and sit down at the massive chair at the end of the banquet table. The meal always started at nine o’clock, not a minute later. Always.

“I’m going,” I said, my throat dry. I ducked out the door, squeezing Caleb’s arm in good-bye. “I’ll just leave the way I came.” Harper was wringing his hands together. I darted down the metal staircase, fumbling around in my pockets, looking for the folded map.

“Wait!” Caleb called after me. He pulled his shoe on as he ran, hopping part of the way. “You can’t go on those roads. There could be checkpoints set up. I’ll take you.” He reached out his hand for me to hold.

“You shouldn’t.” I shook my head as we started toward the door of the hangar. We ran under plane after plane, our footsteps echoing off the concrete floor. “There’s more at risk for you. I don’t want you getting involved in this.”

But he followed anyway, striding behind me as I pushed out the door and into the blinding light. He reached for my arm, pulling me back. His eyes met mine for a brief second. “I can’t let you go alone,” he pleaded. He plucked the map from my hands and tore it in half. “Please just follow behind me. Stay a few yards back.”

Then he was off, darting through the Outlands, the decrepit buildings spitting out the City’s first shift of workers. The morning was colder than usual, the wind kicking up dust and garbage. A foil bag drifted past, DORITOS printed on its side. I kept my head down to blend in with everyone else. We were all moving toward the City center, wearing identical red vests, a quickness to our steps. We moved past another old hotel and an office building with burned-out windows. A row of houses was boarded up, the walls cracked, sand piled on the window-sills. In less than ten minutes we reached the City limit, and Caleb turned down a street lined with thin trees. I followed, the paved road hard beneath my feet.

As we got closer to the Palace the crowd thinned out. It was harder to avoid being noticed. A woman strode past with two small children. The little girl pointed at my face. “It’s the Princess, Mom,” she said, staring at me over her shoulder as I passed.

I kept walking, the wind pushing my hair away from my face. I was thankful when I heard her mother’s frustrated Shhhhhh. “Enough, Lizzie,” she chided. “Stop saying silly things.”

Ten minutes passed, then twenty. Right now the King was sitting down at the table, staring at the empty seat beside him, his fork clinking nervously against the edge of his plate. Maybe he was searching my room. Beatrice would tell them I’d been there when she’d left me the night prior, and she wouldn’t be lying—I had. I had stayed in bed until she was down the hall, in her own room, her door shut. I could make up a story. Needing a drink in the middle of the night, feeling claustrophobic in that suite. Maybe the door lock had broken, letting me out. But whatever happened, whatever story I chose, one thing was certain: From now on it would be nearly impossible to leave the Palace.

We were getting closer. Caleb walked confidently, unhurried, both hands in his pockets. He looked over his shoulder occasionally to make sure I was still there. We passed a baseball field I remembered from my walk home from the hangar. We can’t be far now, I told myself, quickening my steps.

We started through an old parking lot and down a narrow road. The monorail flew by above our heads, the well-dressed citizens sitting comfortably in the train’s wide cars. The wind was relentless, the sun hidden behind a flat gray blanket of cloud. As we crept along the old Flamingo hotel the intersection opened up before us to reveal a small patch of the main road. One more block, I thought, watching Caleb edge toward the corner, where the narrow street emptied out beside the Palace’s front fountain. He would turn right and I would take the overpass to the other side of the road, blending in with the workers in the Palace mall.

When he was steps from the corner he kneeled down, pretending to tie his shoe. He looked at me, his mouth turned up in a half smile, his green eyes bright. We had made it. I didn’t know when I would see him again, or how, but we would find a way. I touched the rim of my cap, a barely perceptible salute.

Then he stood. He took his last few steps, turning right on the main road to loop back toward the Outlands. I climbed up the overpass stairs, keeping my head down to avoid being seen. It took me a second to hear the soldiers’ loud voices, to see the crowd that had assembled by the Palace’s front entrance, workers and patrons alike, all trying to get inside. The troops had closed the building, blocking off the street just north and just south of it. We were trapped.

I froze on the overpass, watching Caleb’s panicked face as he approached the Palace. He darted behind some workers, then turned, trying to go back the way we came, down the narrow street. It was too late. A soldier at the end of the checkpoint was already stepping out of line, his eyes fixed on the stranger in the wrinkled pants and partially untucked shirt—the only one who had come toward the Palace, then turned away.

I didn’t think. I just ran. I pushed through the crowded overpass and down the stairs, darting across the street. Caleb was walking quickly in the opposite direction, his head down, trying to disappear into the crowd. The soldier was nearly on him. Then he reached out and grabbed Caleb’s collar, yanking him back.

“It’s him!” he called out to the others.

I pumped my arms as fast as I could, not stopping until I was right behind him. I jumped on the soldier’s back, trying to pull him down, to give Caleb just a few seconds—a chance—but my body was too light to do damage.

Another soldier grabbed me from behind. “I’ve got the Princess,” he called, and then we were in the center of all of them, soldiers swarming around us, one taking hold of my hands, another my legs.

“Caleb!” I yelled, straining to see through the men moving frantically around me. “Where are you?”

I twisted my wrists, trying to free myself, but the restraints were too tight. They dragged me back toward the Palace entrance, through the low row of shrubs, past the fountains and winged, marble statues. The last thing I saw was a soldier’s baton, the black rod rising above the feverish crowd, then landing, with a terrible thud, on Caleb’s back.

twenty-eight

“SO. CLARA WAS RIGHT THEN. SHE DID SEE YOU LEAVING THE Palace that night,” the King began. I didn’t respond. He paced the length of his office, his hands behind his back. “How long have you been sneaking around like this, lying to me, to all of us?”

As I was dragged into the Palace mall, he had been right there waiting for me. He ordered the men to let me go so they didn’t scare the employees stuck inside the stores. A woman in the restored jewelry shop peeked out from behind a glass case of necklaces, watching them untie my hands, my father keeping a firm grip on my arm. “Genevieve,” he said, his voice flat. “I asked you a question.”

“I don’t know,” I managed. I rubbed at my wrists, the skin still red from where they had tightened the restraints. I kept seeing Caleb’s body on the ground. The troops surrounding him. One soldier had turned away from the pack and spat on the side of the road. Wish I could shoot him myself.


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