Once / Page 48

Page 48


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I looked into her eyes, searching for recognition. She nodded. “I don’t know when my next visit will be,” I added, not looking away. “I have a lot of obligations in the Palace, duties to the King. I wanted to come now, because I might not be back for some time.” My voice trembled as I spoke. “I wanted you to look after Ruby and Pip for me.”

“I understand.” Arden’s eyes were red and wet. She covered my hand with hers, the stone table hot on our skin. “It’s just really good to see you,” she said, nodding. “I didn’t know if I ever would again.” She wiped her face with her gown.

We sat like that for a minute. Above us a flock of birds wheeled in the sky, their tiny bodies scattering, then coming back together, then scattering again. “I’ve missed you,” I said. Arden would be able to get out, I kept telling myself. She’d gotten beyond the School walls once before. She had made it to Califia. If anyone would be able to get out of that brick building, if anyone could help Ruby and Pip escape, she could.

Joby stepped forward, gesturing for Arden to stand. “I’ll bring the others,” she said.

Arden hugged me. Her body felt much smaller beneath mine. With her back turned to Joby she brought her fingers to her mouth and slipped the key inside, like she was popping a sucking candy. Then she smiled, squeezing my hand before she walked away.

I stood there, watching her return to that building, her hands behind her back so Joby could see them. I thought of her subtle smirk as she flattened the key under her palm, as she listened to me speak of the apple tree and the wall beside it. She had understood. I knew she had. But looking around the fenced-in yard, at the guard’s rifles, I wondered how long it would be before she escaped, if the days would pass too quickly. If, soon, she’d be stuck here indefinitely.

The door swung open, the rusty hinges letting out a terrible, screeching sound. Ruby appeared first. Her steps were even, her long black hair secured in a ponytail. “You came back,” she said. She squeezed the breath from my body. Her stomach pressed against mine, the small lump not yet noticeable under her loose green gown. When she pulled back, her eyes were a little sad. “I knew you were still alive. I knew you hadn’t disappeared. I had this memory of you. You were standing right over there, by the gate.” She pointed to the place I’d last seen her, where she’d held onto the fence, staring vacantly beyond me.

“I did,” I said, squeezing Ruby’s arm. Whatever pills they’d given her then no longer had a hold on her. “I saw you that day. It was the day they brought Arden here.”

“I kept telling Pip that I’d seen you.” Ruby nodded. “I kept telling her but she didn’t believe me.”

Pip was walking out of the building, her head down. She kept her hands behind her back. The door banged shut, the sound loud enough that I flinched. She played with the ends of her curly red hair, which had grown so much longer in the months that had passed.

“Pip, I’m here,” I said. She didn’t respond. “I came to see you.” She inched closer. I hugged her, but her body felt like stone. Instead she pulled back, freeing herself from my grip.

She rubbed her arm where I’d touched her. “That hurt,” she said softly. “Everything hurts.”

“Sit down on the bench,” Joby said, guiding Pip by the elbow.

“Why are you wearing that?” Ruby asked, pointing to my dress. “Where have you been?”

My mouth was dry. I didn’t want to tell them the truth—that I’d been living in the City of Sand. That I was the daughter of the same person who had put them here, in this building. The man who had lied to them—to all of us—for so many years. It wasn’t how I wanted things to begin, this short meeting between us. “I was taken to the City of Sand,” I said. “I found out I’m the King’s daughter.”

Pip lifted her head. “You went to the City of Sand without me.” It was a statement, not a question. “You’ve been in the City of Sand this whole time.”

“I know how this must seem,” I said, reaching out for her hand. She pulled it away before I could touch her. “But it’s not like that.” I stopped myself, knowing I couldn’t reveal too much in front of Joby. “I’m here now,” I offered. But it sounded so small, so pathetic, even to me.

Ruby was staring at me. She bit at her nails. “Why are you here?” she asked.

To help you get out, I thought, the words dangerously close to leaving my mouth. Because I don’t know when I’ll be able to see you again. Because I’ve thought of you both every day since I left. “I had to come,” I said instead. “I needed to know you were okay.”

“We’re not,” Pip mumbled. She stared at the table, her finger making idle circles. Her cuticles were bloody and swollen. Her pregnant belly was visible when she sat down, the green gown jutting out around her midsection. “We get to sit out here once a day, for an hour. That’s all.” She lowered her voice, her eyes darting to Joby. “Once a day. The girls who are on bed rest are strapped down. They give us pills sometimes that make it hard to think.”

“They said it won’t be long,” Ruby offered. “They said we’ll be released soon.”

I tried to keep calm, feeling the guards staring at me. The King hadn’t yet decided what would happen to the first generation of girls from the birthing initiative, but I’d heard it would still be years until they were released. I thought of the key that I’d given to Arden. Of the dissidents somewhere below the City, working on the tunnels. Of the rest of the Trail, leading away from the Schools, winding through the wild, to Califia. Arden would get them out. And if she didn’t, if she couldn’t, I would find a way. “Yes, it’s going to be all right.”

“That’s what they say,” Pip continued. “That’s what all the girls keep saying. Maxine and Violet, and the doctors. Everyone thinks it’s going to be all right.” She gave a sad little laugh. “It’s not.”

I watched her as she ran her fingers over the stone table, her knee bouncing up and down. She wasn’t the same person who’d slept in the twin bed beside me all those years, who had done handstands on the lawn, who I sometimes caught humming to herself as she dressed, stepping to the side, then back, in a secret solitary dance. “Pip, you have to believe that,” I tried. “It will be.”

“Let’s get you two back inside,” Joby said, stepping forward. Pip kept staring at the table.

“Pip?” I asked, waiting until her gaze finally met mine. Her skin was pale, her freckles faded from so many hours indoors. “I promise everything is going to be okay.” I wanted to go on, but they were already getting up, their hands crossed at the wrists behind them, ready to go inside.

“Will you come back?” Ruby asked, turning to me.

“I’ll try my best.”

Pip slipped inside the building without saying goodbye. Ruby followed after, glancing over her shoulder one final time. Then they were gone, the door falling shut behind them, the hollow click of the lock stiffening my spine.

forty

WHEN I RETURNED TO THE CITY, I GRANTED REGINALD MORE interviews. I spoke of my great excitement for the wedding, of Charles’s commitment to The New America, and of my visit to the School, all the while comforted by the questions that would arise once I disappeared. People would have to wonder what had happened to me, their Princess, why I had gone missing on one of the biggest days in recent history. The King wouldn’t be able to explain it away so easily, as he’d explained away everything else. Each day that I was out in the wild, on the run, meant one more day for the City to think about where I was, to question what I had said, to remember all the rumors that had circulated after Caleb’s capture. Enough people had seen the soldiers grab me, had watched as my hands were bound and I was brought inside.


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