Once / Page 36

Page 36


“All of them,” he said, his words slow. He rested his chin on my shoulder. I ran my hand along his back, wincing as I felt the welts where the baton had landed. I touched each one, wishing we could go back to the night before, wishing we could undo everything that had happened since we awoke.

“They told me they’re releasing me outside the walls,” he continued. “That I can’t come within five hundred miles of the City again. What did you say to them?”

The King was just outside the door, his profile visible in the tiny window. I looked down at the concrete. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “It was the only way I could get them to let you go.”

Caleb lowered his head. “Eve—tell me. What did you say?” he asked, his face screwed up with worry.

I leaned in, my arms wrapped around his sides. “I said I would marry Charles Harris,” I whispered. “That if they let you go I would …” I trailed off, my throat tight. Standing by the fountain that day, Charles had appeared harmless, sweet even. The moment had been a welcome respite from the Palace. But now every word he’d spoken seemed steeped in ulterior motives. I wondered how many conversations he’d had with the King—if he always knew we were both speeding inevitably toward this, a future that bound us together.

Caleb shook his head no. “You can’t, Eve,” he said. “You can’t.”

“We don’t have any other options,” I said. The guard’s eyes were on me, his stare boring into my skin.

Caleb leaned down, trying to meet my gaze. “We can find some way. Once you marry him there is no more you and me—there’s no more us. You can’t.”

“I don’t want this either,” I said, my voice threatening to break. “But what other choice do we have?”

“I just need more time.” His voice was pleading, desperate. “There has to be a way.”

The King rapped twice on the door. “Time’s up,” the guard called. He stepped forward, glancing outside at my father. I leaned in, trying to pull Caleb to me one last time, holding the back of his head to bring his chin to my shoulder. I kissed his cheek, felt the tender skin around the gash, let my fingers stroke his temple.

“You have to stay away from here. Promise me you will,” I said, my eyes watering. I knew that if he had any chance he’d use the tunnels to come find me. “We can’t do this again.”

The guard approached him, yanking his arm. Caleb leaned in, his lips right against my ear. He spoke so low I could barely make out what he said. “You’re not the only one in the paper, Eve.”

I looked at him, trying to decipher the meaning behind his words, but the guard was already taking him away. As he dragged him by the arm, Caleb shuffled backward, trying to keep his balance, his eyes searching my face for understanding.


CHARLES RESTED HIS HAND ON MY BACK. I COULD FEEL HIS fingers trembling through my thin satin dress. “Do you mind?” he asked, his voice tentative. He’d been like that for days, wanting to know if he could sit beside me, if I’d like to walk with him through the new Parisian storefronts or tour the upper floors of the Palace mall. It made me dislike him even more, his constantly asking permission, as if we were pursuing a real relationship. All of it would be tolerable if we didn’t bother pretending to one another, if we could just say the truth out loud: I’d never be with him by choice.

“If you have to,” I whispered, turning to the small crowd who’d gathered around us. The restaurant was in the Eiffel Tower, a nearly five-hundred-foot replica of the Paris original, with lush red carpets and one wall of glass windows that overlooked the main road. A select few sat at tables covered in white linens, cutting into tender pink steaks. A few men sucked on cigars. The white smoke hung around us, making it seem as if I were seeing everything through a heavy veil.

Charles took my hand. He had the ring in his palm, the diamond catching the light. I hadn’t eaten all day. My stomach seized thinking of the endlessness of it, the weeks that would drag on as the previous one had, the obligatory exchange of polite conversation passed back and forth between us. It wasn’t his fault—part of me knew that—but I hated Charles for going along with it. He’d sat with me every evening at dinner, offering stories about life before the plague, how he’d spent summers on the beach by his parents’ house, letting the waves carry him to shore. He told me of his latest project in the City. He never mentioned Caleb or our impending engagement, as if ignoring it would undo the facts. No matter what was said, no matter how much he tried, we were just two strangers sitting across from each other, on an awful collision course.

It had been eight days. The King took me back to the prison to show me Caleb’s empty cell. He’d pointed to the exact spot on the map where Caleb had been let go, an abandoned town just north of Califia called Ashland. I’d pored over the pictures they’d taken of the release—the only proof I had that it had been done. Caleb was already halfway into the woods, a knapsack on his back, his face turned in profile. He wore the same blue shirt he’d had on the last time I’d seen him. I recognized the stains on the collar.

His words still haunted me. I had looked at the paper every day, waiting to hear that something had happened outside the City’s walls, that Caleb had been spotted somewhere, despite the public “report” of his execution. But every day it was the same inane nonsense. They speculated about my growing relationship with Charles, if a proposal was imminent. People wrote in, saying where we’d been seen inside the City. I spent nights alone in my room, staring up at the ceiling, tears rolling down and pooling. In little more than a week my life had been drained of everything real.

The King rapped his fork against his glass, the clinking splitting the air. Clara stood across the room with Rose, her face ashen. She’d avoided me since Charles and I had been announced as a couple. I only saw her at the obligatory social events—dinners and cocktail receptions in the City. Her eyes seemed permanently bloodshot. She spoke softly and always excused herself early. I’d heard that her mother was now pushing her toward the Head of Finance, a man in his forties who constantly spit into his handkerchief. Whenever I was certain there couldn’t be anyone in the Palace as miserable as I was, I thought of Clara.

Charles reached for my hand, waiting until I rested my palm in his. Then he cleared his throat, the sound filling the quiet room. “Some of you may have noticed that things have been different for me lately. That I’ve been happier since Genevieve arrived in the Palace. Now that we’ve been spending more time together I can’t imagine being without her.” He kneeled down in front of me, his eyes focused on mine. “I know we’ll be happy together—I’m certain of it.” As he spoke, the rest of the crowd disappeared. He was only talking to me, saying all the things unsaid between us. I’m sorry it had to happen like this. He squeezed my hand, his lips still moving as he went on about when he saw me for the first time, about the afternoon by the fountain, how he had loved the sound of my laugh, the way I’d just stood there, not caring that the water soaked my gown. But I’m still glad it happened.

“All I really need now is for her to say yes.” He let out an awkward laugh and held the ring up for people to see. I saw Clara out of the corner of my eye. She was hurrying toward the exit, squeezing through the crowd, trying to hide her face with her hand. “Will you marry me?”

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