Once / Page 45

Page 45


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“I understand.”

“Your father reached out to me regarding this visit. I’ve been told that you’re speaking tonight on the value of your education and your royal duties in The New America. And that you will reassure these young women of the gift they have been given just by being here.”

“That’s correct,” I said, the heat creeping into my cheeks. “Are these all the girls in the School?” I glanced sideways at Beatrice.

“Yes,” Headmistress said, turning on her heel. “Shall we begin then? There’s only an hour until lights out.”

We went down the same tiled corridor I’d walked through hundreds of times before, Pip and Ruby arm in arm as we went to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’d crept in late one night, trying to sneak extra puddings from the kitchen, when Ruby had screamed, swearing a rat had darted over her feet. We ran all the way back up to the dorm room, not stopping until we were crowded in my cot, the blanket pulled over our heads.

Beatrice was wringing her fingers together. I set my hand on her back to calm her, but it didn’t help. I could feel each breath, short and fast, beneath her sweater. We finally reached the main hall, a giant room with metal tables bolted to the floor. More than one hundred girls sat there, all over the age of twelve. The youngest ones had probably been given over by parents who now lived in the City—parents like Beatrice who’d believed their daughters would have a better life. The oldest were orphans like me.

They straightened up in their seats when they saw me, their whispers giving way to complete silence. “You all know Princess Genevieve,” Headmistress Burns said, her voice drained of all enthusiasm. “Please rise and show her your respect.”

The girls stood and curtsied at the same time. They were wearing the same jumpers I’d worn every day that I was here, the New American crest pasted unflatteringly over the front. “Good evening, Your Royal Highness,” they said in unison. I recognized a black-haired eleventh year in the front. She’d played in the band the night before graduation, the music swirling in the air above the lake.

I gestured for them to sit. “Good evening,” I said, my voice echoing in the room. I scanned the crowd, recognizing the faces of some of the students who had been below me in School. Seema, a dark-eyed girl with smooth, almond-colored skin, offered me a tiny wave. She’d helped Teacher Fran in the library, checking out the weathered art history books I’d loved. She was always apologizing for the missing volumes. “Thank you for inviting me back. I recognize many of you from my time here. For so many years this place was my home. I felt so safe here, and well loved.” Headmistress Burns crossed her arms over her chest, watching me from the side of the room. Beatrice stood beside her, worrying the buttons on her dress as she scanned the crowd, studying each girl, searching each face. “I know my leaving School caused some confusion for all of you. And now you’ve heard the news from the City—my father is the King, and I am the Princess of The New America.”

At that, the girls cheered. I stood there, trying to smile, but my face felt stiff. My stomach was twisted and tense, my dinner threatening to come up. “I’ve wanted to speak to you directly and tell you that there will be no greater champion for you inside the City of Sand. I will do everything I can to advocate for your needs.” It was sincere. It was vague enough to invite interpretation. I couldn’t lie to them, their excited faces reminding me of my own so many years before.

“I was given so much time for my studies. I became an artist, a pianist, a reader, a writer, among many other things. Take advantage of that.” A hand shot up in the back of the crowd, then another, then a third, until a quarter of the girls had theirs raised, waiting for me to call on them. “I guess we’re ready for questions,” I said. It’s just a matter of time, I kept telling myself, looking into their faces. The tunnels would be finished, the rest of the weapons smuggled through. The dissidents would organize soon. We just had to wait.

I called on a short girl in the back with a long black braid. “What are your duties as Princess?” she asked.

I picked at the skin on my finger. I wanted to tell her how all power had been taken from me the moment I’d stepped inside the Palace, how the King would only let me speak if it was to support the regime. “I’ve been visiting a lot of the people in the City, in all different places, to tell them about the King’s vision for The New America.”

“Who are your friends?” another girl asked.

I turned to Beatrice, who was standing beside Headmistress Burns. She bit down on her finger as she looked over the front row of girls, searching each face for Sarah. I couldn’t speak, hardly noticed the girl’s Excuse me, Princess? As Beatrice reached the end of the row her hands shook, her features twisting in a pained expression. Then she started to cry, the tears coming so fast she didn’t have time to stop them. Instead she turned and ran out, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve.

I didn’t think. I just darted out into the hall, past the two soldiers who stood on either side of the door. “Beatrice?” I called, starting down the tile corridor. “Beatrice?” But the only sound was my own voice, echoing in the hall, repeating her name in a question.

thirty-eight

“YOU’LL BE STAYING ON THE THIRD FLOOR,” TEACHER AGNES said as we started up the stairs. She glanced every now and then at Beatrice, whose face was still swollen and red. “It’s good to see you again,” she added. Her gaze met mine.

Teacher Agnes’s shoulders hunched forward as she conquered each step, moving slowly beside me, her knotted fingers clutching the railing. She had been a constant presence in my life, even after I’d left School. I heard her voice sometimes when Caleb touched the nape of my neck, when his fingers danced over my stomach. I had hated her, the fury coming to me as I remembered everything she had said in those classes, how she’d spoken of the manipulative nature of all men, how love was just a lie, the greatest tool wielded against women to make them vulnerable.

But now she looked so small beside me. Her neck was bent, making it seem like she was always looking at the ground. Her breaths were raspy and slow. I wondered if she had really aged or if it was the time that had passed, the months in the wild that allowed me to see her through a stranger’s eyes. “Yes, it’s been quite awhile,” I said.

I reached out and took Beatrice’s hand in my own as we started on to the third floor. I’d found her hiding in the doorway to the kitchen, her sweater pressed to her face, trying to quiet her sobs. Sarah wasn’t here. There was nothing I could say, nothing I could do except hold her, her cheek pressed against my chest as she cried. After a few minutes I’d returned to the girls and Headmistress Burns, answered their questions and assured them my friend was fine, just sick from all those hours trapped in the Jeep’s stuffy cab.

“The guards have brought up your bags.” Teacher Agnes turned in to a room on the right, moving through it, lighting the lanterns on the bedside tables. The familiar sounds of the students filled the corridor. The girls were huddled in the bathroom, brushing their teeth, their laughs louder against the tile walls. A Teacher strode out of the bathroom, turning when she noticed me. We stared at each other a moment before her face broke into a smile, which disappeared so quickly I wondered if I’d imagined it.


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