Once / Page 40

Page 40


The hallway was quiet. Charles and the King were in the City, visiting one of the new factory farms near the wall. The faint sounds of vacuuming came from another room.

The elevator opened up on the floor below, where giant white boxes were stacked in one corner. Rose and Clara sat in another, eating blueberry muffins and sipping coffee, a drink I’d yet to try. Rose was still in her silk pajamas, her blond hair pinned on top of her head, the day’s paper in hand. Neither of them looked up when we walked in.

“So, these are the dresses,” Beatrice said, walking over to the stack. “They’re all from before the plague, but they were treated and preserved, so the fabric is still bright. You’ll see all the lace is intact. It’s quite remarkable.” She pulled the lid off a long box on the floor, revealing a white dress stuffed with paper. Its bodice was covered with tiny beads. I was supposed to be excited, I knew, but as my fingers touched the neckline, winding over the hard, puffy sleeves, I felt nothing but dread.

“Do you have to do this now?” Rose said, setting down her paper. “We’re having breakfast.” She swished her coffee around before taking another sip.

Beatrice let out a sigh. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but it’s the King’s orders. This must be done this morning, and I don’t suppose we can move these boxes now.”

Clara rolled her eyes. She pushed her plate away from the edge of the table and stood, leveling her gaze at me before heading out the door. Her mother followed behind her. Even after they turned down the hall I could hear their angry whispers, Clara muttering something about my nerve.

Beatrice pulled the first dress from the box. “That girl has wanted to be with Charles for years. Her maid says she’s not handling this well, carrying on and whatnot.”

As Beatrice closed the heavy wooden doors I stripped down to my underwear, the air-conditioning raising goose bumps on my skin. I climbed into the dress and Beatrice zipped it up, spinning me around to face the mirror on the far wall. It plunged in a deep V in the front, sheer fabric with white beading clinging to my arms and chest. I pulled at the collar, nearly ripping it. “I can’t breathe,” I murmured.

“There are more, love,” Beatrice said. She unzipped it and pulled another from its box. It was a puffy thing with a giant tail that followed behind me for nearly ten feet. I walked past the mirror, hating how it exposed the pale skin of my shoulders.

“What does it matter?” I said sadly, as Beatrice packed it away. “Any will do.” Still, another was taken out. Another was put on. My thoughts drifted away from the room, from the Palace and the dresses and the incessant sound of zippers going up and down. Caleb must’ve reached a stop on the Trail by now. He would be back in communication with Moss soon. It wouldn’t be long before he would be able to tell people inside the walls what had happened.

Beatrice buttoned up another dress. It was tight, the top of it squeezing my chest, suffocating me. “I’m sorry, Beatrice,” I whispered. “Can I please take a break?”

“Don’t apologize.” Beatrice sighed, undoing the back of the dress. “Of course you can.” She unbuttoned it halfway and released me, handing me the simple jumper I’d worn downstairs. I slunk toward the table, collapsing in Clara’s vacant seat. “I’ll ask the kitchen for some ice water,” she said, disappearing out the door.

The morning sun streamed through the window, hot on my skin. I imagined myself in the wedding procession, the shiny car that would wind through the City streets, the cheering crowd reaching beyond the metal barricades, banging against the glass overpass. In one week I would be Charles Harris’s wife. I would move out of my suite and into his. I would lie beside him every night, his hands reaching out for me in the darkness, his lips searching for mine.

I was staring at the newspaper, half in the room, half somewhere else, when the boldface type came into focus—PRINCESS TEA. The same words Curtis had uttered were now right in front of me, printed on one of the paper’s back pages.

The advertisement section was the one place where citizens could post messages to one another. There they offered to trade or sell items that they’d made, brought to, or acquired in the City, under the consent of the King. I ran my fingers over the bold font, knowing immediately what it was. The Trail often used coded messages to communicate. I remembered what Caleb had said at the prison, when he had leaned in and whispered in my ear. You’re not the only one in the paper. I thought of Curtis’s face in the dining room. His eyes had darted sideways as he spoke to me, his voice tense. It was strange that he’d said only those two words and nothing more. Now it all made sense.

I looked at the small type that described the tea—four boxes had been recovered from an old warehouse in the Outlands. The ad listed the year, the date on which they had been acquired, the brand and city they were from, and a desired price. Perfect to celebrate the royal wedding, the last lines read. Enjoy with friends after watching the procession. I kept staring at it, studying the way the letters lined up on top of each other, trying to figure out the code, if it ran vertically or horizontally.

Beatrice returned with two glasses of water, setting them down in front of me. “Do you have a pen?” I asked, counting every second letter, then every third, trying to find a pattern.

She pulled one from her vest and sat down beside me, watching as I counted every fifth, then every sixth character, copying them down next to one another to see if they spelled anything. Line after line was complete nonsense. I finally found the code running straight down the second to last column. C, 1, N, P, R, $, N, I copied into the paper’s margins. K, L, 1, 3, D.

“Caleb’s in prison,” I repeated, ripping the advertisement out of the paper. “The King lied.”

“Who’s Caleb?” a voice asked.

I turned around. Clara was standing in the hall, her hand resting on the doorframe. Before I could think she rushed toward me, reaching for the ad. In one swift motion she yanked it from my grasp. I jumped up, trying to pry it from her hands, but I couldn’t get a good hold on her. Then it was too late. She darted down the hall and into her room, slamming the door shut behind her.


I STOOD OUTSIDE, KNOCKING UNTIL MY KNUCKLES HURT. “Open the door, Clara,” I yelled. “This isn’t a joke.” I glanced down the hallway. A soldier stationed by the parlor was watching me. Beatrice stood beside him, whispering something, trying to explain away the fight. I finally gave up, letting my forehead rest against the wood door. I could hear her pacing the length of her room, the muffled smacking of her bare feet against the floors.

She paused on the other side of the door. There was the familiar electric sound of the keypad. She opened it a few inches, revealing a sliver of her face. She no longer had the scribbled note in her hands. “Wow, Princess,” she said, barely able to get the words out without laughing. “I never would’ve pegged you for a subversive.”

I gave the door one big push, shoving my way inside. She rubbed her arm where the door had bumped her. “Where did you put that slip of paper?” I opened the top drawer of her desk, thumbing through a stack of thin notebooks. Beside them was a creased picture of a little boy and girl sitting in a wooden porch swing, a kitten curled up in the boy’s lap. It took me a moment to realize that the girl was Clara. The boy looked just a few years younger, with thick black hair and ivory skin.

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