Once / Page 51

Page 51


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But I was barely listening, my mind instead running over the events of the morning. He’d ordered Harper and Caleb killed. But who had told him about the tunnel beneath the wall? How had Stark gotten there before me? The questions ran through my mind on an endless loop. Caleb is dead, I kept repeating, but nothing could make it feel real.

“There are nearly half a million people downstairs,” he continued, “waiting for their Princess to come down the street with her father, to offer their good wishes before she is married. I will not keep them waiting.” He headed to the door, his fingers pounding the keypad. “Beatrice! Come help the Princess get ready!” he yelled before disappearing down the hall.

The door slammed shut behind him. I let out a deep breath, feeling the room expand in his absence. I looked down at my hands, which burned now, my wrists red from where the restraints had been. I kept seeing Caleb, his face before he fell, the way his arm was crushed beneath him. I closed my eyes. It was too much. I knew he couldn’t have survived, but the idea that he was gone, that he would never cradle my head in his hands again, never smile at me, never tease me for taking myself so seriously …

I heard Beatrice come in, but I couldn’t stop looking at the scraped skin on my wrists, the only proof that the last several hours had really happened. When I looked up, she was standing there, staring at a spot on the carpet.

“It was Clara, wasn’t it?” I said slowly. “What did she tell them? How much do they know?”

But Beatrice was silent. When she looked up, her eyes were swollen. She kept shaking her head back and forth, mouthing the words “I’m so sorry.” She finally said it aloud. “I had to.”

Something about her expression frightened me. Her lips were twisted and trembling. “You had to what?”

“He told me he would kill her,” she said, coming toward me, wrapping her hands around mine. “He came up early, just after you left. You weren’t here. They’d discovered Caleb’s empty cell. He said he would kill her if I didn’t reveal where you were. I told him about the tunnel.”

I pulled away, my hands shaking.

“I’m so sorry, Eve,” she said, reaching out for me, trying to stroke my face. “I had to, I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t,” I said. “Please go.” She came to me again, her hand on my arm, but I slunk back. It wasn’t her fault. I knew that. But I didn’t want her comfort either, this person who had played a part in Caleb’s death. I turned toward the window, listening to the sound of her choked sobs until they settled into silence. Finally, I heard the door close. When I was certain she was gone I turned, studying the crumpled papers on the floor.

I picked the first one up, calmed by the familiar handwriting. It was the same yellowed paper I’d carried with me since School. The old letter, the one I’d read a thousand times, was now sitting in a backpack off Route 80, outside of that warehouse. I would never see it again.

The sheet was worn around the edges. Wedding day was scrawled along the front in wobbly letters. I sat on my bed, pressing the paper between my fingers, trying to smooth out the hard crease from where he’d crumpled it in his hand.

My sweet girl,

It’s impossible to know if and when you will read this, where you will be or how old. In the passing days I’ve imagined it many times over. The world is always as it once was. Sometimes the church doors open up to a bustling street, and you stride out, your new husband beside you. Someone helps you inside a waiting car. Other times it’s just you and him and a small crowd of friends. I can see the glasses raised in your honor. And once I imagined there was no wedding—no ceremony, no big white dress, none of the tradition—just you and him lying beside each other one night and deciding that was it. From now on, you’d always be together.

Whatever circumstance it is, wherever you are, I know that you are happy. My hope is that it is a big, boundless happiness that works its way into every corner of your life. Know that I am with you now, as I’ve always been.

I love you, I love you, I love you,

Mom

I folded the letter in my lap. I didn’t move. I sat there on the bed, my face swollen and pink, until I heard the King’s voice, as if startling me from a dream. “Genevieve,” he said, his voice stern. “It’s time.”

forty-three

I STOOD IN THE BACK OF THE PALACE CATHEDRAL, THE GAUZY veil shielding me from a thousand staring eyes. The King was beside me, his face fixed in a grotesque smile. He offered me his arm. As the music started I threaded my hand through his elbow and took the first step toward the altar, where Charles waited for me, the wedding band already out, pressed between his thin fingers.

The string quartet played a long, sorrowful note as I took one step, then another. The eaves were crowded with people clad in their finest silk dresses, ornate hats, and jewels. Their plastic smiles were too much to bear. Clara and Rose were on one aisle, their hair done up in stiff, overblown waves. Clara’s face was drained of color. She didn’t look at me as I passed, instead wrapping her satin sash tightly around her fingers, squeezing all the blood from her hands. I scanned the pews for Moss, finally spotting him in the middle of the front row. We locked eyes for a moment before he turned away.

I was trapped here. The horrible, stifled feeling had returned. I closed my eyes for just a moment and Caleb’s voice came back to me, the smell of smoke as real as it had been hours before. We were supposed to be out of the tunnel by now, moving through the abandoned neighborhood, our packs full of supplies. I took another step, then another, all the should-haves presenting themselves before me, one after the other. We were supposed to be leaving the City, going away from the wall and the soldiers and the Palace, moving east as the sun made its slow arc across the sky, finally warming our backs. We were supposed to be arriving at the first stop on the Trail.

We were supposed to be together.

But instead I was here, more alone than I’d ever been, the diamond tiara heavy on my head. The King paused in front of the altar and lifted the veil for a moment. He gazed at me, playing the role of the loving father, the camera flashing, freezing us forever in this terrible place. He pressed his thin lips against my cheek and let the veil fall back over my face.

Then—finally—he was gone. I stepped up the three short stairs and took my place beside Charles. The music stopped, the people were silent. I focused on my breathing, the only reminder that I was still alive. I steadied my hands, remembering Moss’s words.

The ceremony was about to begin.


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