Once / Page 41

Page 41


“Have you completely lost your mind?” she asked. She slammed the drawer shut, nearly closing my fingers inside. “Get out of my room.”

“Not until you give that back to me,” I said, scanning the night tables beside the bed. The fluffy pink comforter was covered with pillows of all sizes. Some were lace, others embroidered with delicate white lilies. There was nothing on the top of her dressers. Nothing in the trashcan beside the desk. She’d probably hidden it away somewhere, waiting until she had the perfect opportunity to expose me.

“What does it matter? I already read it.” Clara crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s that boy, isn’t it? The one you were seeing at night?”

I shook my head. “Just leave it alone, Clara.”

“I wonder what Charles would think about this. You sending messages through the paper.” Her cheeks were red and blotchy, her fingers still rubbing the tender spot on her arm. “At least this time you can’t call me a liar. Now I have proof.”

I let out a long, rattling breath, unable to contain myself anymore. “Do you think I chose this? If it were up to me I never would’ve come to the City in the first place. I never wanted to be here.”

Clara’s thin brows were knitted together. “Then why are you marrying him? I was standing right there when he asked you. No one made you say yes.”

I stared at my shadow on the floor, debating what to tell her. She already had enough to turn me in. The truth couldn’t make things any worse. “Because they were going to kill him—Caleb. Agreeing to marry Charles was the only way I could stop it.”

Clara walked toward me, her head cocked slightly to the side. “So help me understand this. You would leave the Palace right now if you could?”

“Of course,” I said softly. “But I can’t even leave my room. Everywhere I go someone is watching me. When I step into the hallway, Beatrice will be waiting there with the soldier by the parlor. Charles escorts me to every meal.” I glanced at her window, which was open just a crack, the curtains billowing in the breeze. “Haven’t you noticed I’m never alone?”

We stood there in the quiet room, facing each other. She looked more hopeful than she had in days. I straightened up, realizing I did have something to offer her, after all. “So if you want to tell Charles,” I went on, “or the King, or your mother about that message, then fine. I’ll marry Charles in a week and that will be it. But if you want me gone, those codes are my only chance.”

I could see her considering it, weighing what she had to gain by outing me against what would happen if I escaped. She pursed her lips. “You don’t love Charles?” she asked. Her eyes were clear when they met mine, the resentment in them diminished.

“No,” I said. “I don’t.”

She walked over to a porcelain piggy bank on her nightstand. Its paint was chipped in places and one eye was nearly rubbed off. She held it up, a faint smile crossing her lips. “I’ve had this since I was three.” She shrugged. “I wouldn’t move to the City without him.” She flipped it over, pulling a broken piece of cork out of the bottom. The ripped newspaper was inside, my writing scribbled in the margins. She handed it back to me. “You have my promise, then. I won’t tell anyone.”

I ripped the square into the tiniest pieces I could, tucking them away in the pocket of my jumper. She’d given it back. She’d said she wouldn’t tell. And she had no reason to—it would guarantee that I could never leave the Palace. She opened the door for me, and I started down the hall, turning over the scraps in my pocket, finally able to breathe.


THAT NIGHT I COULDN’T EAT. I SAT AT THE DINNER TABLE, thinking of Caleb in prison. I saw the gash on his forehead, a soldier landing another blow on his back, twisting his arm so it met his shoulder blade. They would want names. I knew they would. It was only a matter of time before they gave up, realizing he would never give them the information they needed. How much time did I have before they killed him?

“What’s the matter, dear?” the King asked, glancing at my plate. “Did you want something else? We could have the chef prepare whatever you like.” He reached out and put his hand on my arm. My entire body tensed at his touch.

I took a deep breath, trying to calm my voice. “I’m not hungry,” I said. The roast chicken on my plate repulsed me.

The table was full. Clara and Rose sat next to the Head of Finance. Clara chatted happily with him now, her eyes meeting mine as she peppered him with questions about a new business venture. Charles was sitting beside me, talking to Reginald, the Head of Press, about an upcoming opening in the City.

“I’m glad that you two are getting along so well.” The King offered a slight nod in Charles’s direction. “I always thought you would.” He squeezed my arm, then turned back to his plate.

I had the sudden urge to pick up my glass of water and throw it in his face. To plunge my fork into the soft flesh of his hand. He had lied. He thought I would never know, that I would walk through the wedding procession with a lightness in my step, content to imagine Caleb alive somewhere in the wild.

The King pushed away from the table and stood, signaling that he was ready to leave. I felt the piece of paper in the pocket of my cardigan, running my fingers over its blunt corners to comfort myself. After my conversation with Clara, I had gone back to the parlor and picked out a wedding dress. I chose the next one I tried on, not bothering to look in the mirror to see how it fit. I followed Beatrice back to the suite, stopping in the upstairs parlor to throw the ripped newspaper into the fire, watching as the advertisement and the message it contained twisted in the flames. Then I sat down at my desk and wrote.

I was careful with each word I chose, puzzling out the sequence so that the code could be applied backward, from the end of the text to the beginning, using every ninth character. It took me two hours of rearranging, moving words and phrases around, until I managed something. The piece was a formal address to the people of The New America, a missive about the great honor it was to be serving as their Princess. I spoke of the upcoming wedding, my great excitement about the nuptials, and how I had first come to meet Charles in the Palace weeks before. I reread it, lingering over the word love. A sickness settled in my stomach. I kept thinking of Caleb, alone in some cold prison, his skin crusted with blood.

KIN WE METE? the message spelled. NO TYM TO DLAY. I wished I had more to offer—a plan, a promise that I could secure Caleb’s freedom. But if I confronted the King about the lies he would know I had a connection on the outside, telling me of Caleb’s whereabouts. Everything I did would become suspect again, and all the work I had done in the past weeks to secure his confidence would be for nothing.

“Would you like to go down to the marketplace for dessert?” Charles asked as he helped me up from my chair. He’d been quieter in the past few days, seeming embarrassed by our conversation. Clara took off with the Head of Finance, glancing back over her shoulder at me.

I pulled the folded paper from my pocket. “Actually, I’d like to speak with Reginald.” He turned when he heard his name.

“What for?” the King asked. He and Charles gathered around me, the room smaller in their presence. The Head of Education lingered by the door to eavesdrop.

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