Once / Page 39

Page 39


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“It’s been a dream,” I said, my smile tight as I took in her curls, stiff with spray, and the lipstick crusted in the corners of her mouth.

Some guests reclined on Gregor’s long, S-shaped couch, their happy chatter filling the air. The women all wore gowns and silk shawls, while the men donned starched shirts, ties, and buttoned vests. It was a different world than the one beyond the wall, and at times like these, surrounded by the smells of mulled cider and lamb, the wild felt far away, another planet in some far-off galaxy.

“Baby lamb chop?” a waiter asked, presenting me with a silver tray.

I picked up a piece of the pink meat by the bone and brought it to my mouth, the sharp smell of mint stinging my nostrils. As I held it between my forefinger and thumb, a memory rose up: Pip and I on the School lawn, hovering over the gray mound we’d discovered in the bushes. A mound of fur, its tail hiding the rest of its body. Pip crept toward it, determined to pick it up, to figure out if it was sick or dead. She reached down and pinched its foot, then pulled, and the rotted flesh came loose. We started screaming, darting out of the bushes, but she had held it just one second—the thin, bloody bone.

Bile rose in the back of my throat. I could still hear Pip’s scream. I dropped the lamb chop on the platter and stepped away.

“What is it?” Charles asked, his hand still on the small of my back.

“I’m feeling sick,” I said, ducking away from him. I pressed a napkin to my forehead and lips, trying to calm myself. I had dreamed of her last night. Pip in those metal beds, Ruby beside her, then Arden. Another girl had appeared, a younger girl, her features faint in the haze of the dream. When are you coming back? Pip had asked, her stomach protruding nearly two feet, breasts swollen and red hair sticking to her forehead. You’ve forgotten about us.

“Would you like a drink?” Charles asked. “Water maybe?” He signaled to a server in the corner.

“Just space,” I said, stepping away. “Give me one minute.” I held up a finger. Then I ducked out of the crowded room, not stopping until I was down the hall, beyond the kitchen, my back resting against the wall.

I stayed there until my breath slowed. I had promised Beatrice. I’d promised her that I would help her find her daughter, and yet in the days that had passed I’d stood stupidly by Charles’s side as he opened the zoo in the old Grand hotel. I’d attended parties and galas and hosted a brunch for the wives of the Elite.

“Are you all right, Princess?” Mrs. Lemoyne asked as she passed on the way to the bathroom. “You look ill.” She was a mousy woman with rigid manners, always reprimanding someone for making some perceived misstep.

I patted my forehead with my napkin. “Yes, Grace, thank you. Just needed a breath.”

“You should go by the window then,” she urged. “Over there.” She directed me into the formal dining room, where a server was hunched over the table, getting ready to serve the evening tea. Another was kneeling by a china cabinet, pulling cups and saucers from a shelf. Thankfully, the window was open, the cool night air rippling the curtains.

I stepped into the room, the murmurs of the party still audible down the hall. “I hope you don’t mind,” I said as I passed the man at the table. “I’ll only be a minute.”

A moment passed. He didn’t answer. I turned around and he was staring at me. He wasn’t wearing his glasses. His black hair was smoothed down and his body was rigid, his shoulders back, looking so different from the last time I’d seen him. I covered my mouth to stop myself from saying his name aloud.

Curtis balanced the tray on his hand. I glanced at the server kneeling just a few feet away, humming slightly as he arranged the cups on a silver tray. One of the chefs strode down the hallway with an empty platter. Mrs. Lemoyne returned from the ladies’ room, smiling at me as she passed.

I looked into Curtis’s stone-gray eyes, trying to decipher the meaning behind his silence. I wanted to ask if they’d heard anything more about Caleb’s release. I wanted to know how far along the tunnels were, if they’d resumed work on the first one, if the plans had been correct. If they could reach me in the Palace I had a chance still—I could escape.

But he just leveled his gaze at me, his expression cold. “Tea, Princess?” he asked, holding out the tray. I reached down, my fingers trembling as I took a cup. He tilted the pot, letting the boiling water fall, the steam clouding the air between us.

In seconds he was gone, striding back down the long corridor, the china rattling against the silver tray. He never looked back. I stood there, the drink hot in my hands, until I heard the King calling from the next room.

“Genevieve!” he said, his voice cheerful and light. “Come now. It’s time for the celebratory toast.”

thirty-three

I STARED OUT THE WINDOW, FAR ACROSS THE CITY, TO THE point where the Outlands met the wall. From fifty stories up it seemed so small, an innocuous thing you could skip a stone over. All night I had been replaying that moment. Curtis’s expression was the same as it had been the day we’d met in the hangar. I’d imagined him going back to the others and telling them I’d paraded around the apartment, chatting happily with Gregor Sparks, or how I’d stood there smiling stupidly as the King went on about the new royal couple.

I hated what he thought of me—what they all must’ve thought. That with Caleb gone, I’d returned to the Palace and set my sights on marrying Charles. There was no way to explain. Whatever I’d done to prove my loyalty didn’t matter now. I was a traitor in their eyes. I accepted that a little more each day, and a sadness settled in—making every breakfast, every gala, every toast that much lonelier.

“Your Royal Highness,” Beatrice said, curtsying as she entered the suite. “I’ve had the dresses delivered to the downstairs parlor. They’re waiting for you.”

I studied my reflection in the glass, wondering how anyone could believe I was happy. The skin under my eyes was swollen. My cheeks had the same hollow look they did those first days after I arrived. I blinked a few times, willing back tears. “You don’t have to do that,” I said finally.

“Would you prefer them in the upstairs sitting room?” she asked.

“No—the ‘Royal Highness’ nonsense,” I said, turning to her. “It’s unnecessary here.”

Beatrice sighed. “Well, I can’t go around the Palace calling you Genevieve. The King won’t have that.”

I picked at the hem of my blue dress, feeling satisfied when a loose thread gave, puckering the silk. I knew she was right. Still, I was desperate to hear my real name spoken out loud—not Princess Genevieve, not Princess or Your Royal Highness, just Eve. “I’ve been thinking about your daughter,” I said. “I just need some time. I need to find out what School she’s in, who the Headmistress is. Maybe after I’m married,” I stumbled over that word, “I’ll have a better chance at negotiating her release. Thankfully we have time before …”

Beatrice started toward me. “Yes, I know …,” she said, her voice a whisper. We stood there in silence, and then I took her hand, cradling it in my own. I squeezed, trying to stop the trembling in her fingers and the tears that pooled in her eyes, threatening to spill onto her cheeks. “We should go,” she finally said, turning to the door.


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