Authors: Anna Carey
For you, the readerâ
for following me here
CHARLES RESTED HIS HAND FIRMLY ON MY BACK AS WE SPUN
once, then again around the conservatory, the guests watching. I kept my eyes over his shoulder, steeling myself against his short breaths. The choir stood at the back of the domed hall, trilling out the first holiday songs of the year. “Merry merry merry merry Christmas,” they sang, their mouths moving in unison, “merry merry merry merry .Â .Â .”
“At least smile,” Charles whispered into my neck as we took another turn around the floor. “Please?”
“I'm sorry, I didn't realize my unhappiness was bothering you. Is this better?” I raised my chin, widening my eyes as I smiled directly at him. Amelda Wentworth, an older woman with a round, waxy face, stared quizzically as we passed her table.
“You know that's not what I meant,” Charles said. We turned quickly, so Amelda didn't see. “It's just .Â .Â . people notice. They talk.”
“So let them notice,” I said, though in truth I was too exhausted to really argue. Most nights I awoke before dawn. Strange shadows would move in, surrounding me, and I'd call for Caleb, forgetting he was gone.
The song droned on. Charles spun me again around the floor. “You know what I meant,” he said. “You could at least try.”
. That's what he was always asking: that I try to make a life for myself inside the City, that I try to move on from Caleb's death. Couldn't I try to get out of the tower every day, to walk for a few hours in the sun? Couldn't I try to put all that had happened behind me, behind
? “If you want me to smile,” I said, “then we probably shouldn't have this conversationânot here.”
We started toward the far tables, covered with bloodred cloth, the wreaths set up as centerpieces. The City had transformed in the past few days. Lights went up on the main road, coiling around the lamp poles and trees. Fake plastic firs had been assembled outside the Palace, their thin branches bald in places. Everywhere I turned there was some stupid, grinning snowman or a gaudy bow with gold trim. My new maid had dressed me in a red velvet gown, as if I were part of the dÃ©cor.
It was two days after Thanksgiving, a holiday I'd heard of before but never experienced. The King had sat at the long table, going on about how thankful he was for his new son-in-law, Charles Harris, the City of Sand's Head of Development. He was thankful for the continued support of the citizens of The New America. He held his glass in the air, his shadowed eyes fixed on mine, insisting that he was most thankful for our reunion. I couldn't believe him, not after all that had transpired. He was always watching, waiting for me to show any signs of betrayal.
“I don't understand why you went through with it,” Charles whispered. “What's the point of all this?”
“What choice do I have?” I said, looking away, hoping to end the conversation. Sometimes I wondered if he would put it together, the regular interviews I did with Reginald, who sat at my father's table, working as his Head of Press, but was secretly Moss, leader of the rebel movement. I refused to sleep in the same bed as Charles, waiting until he left for the suite's sitting area every night. I held his hand only in public, but as soon as we were alone, I put as much distance between us as possible. Didn't he realize that these past months, his very marriage, were all for some other purpose?
The song ended, the music giving way to scattered claps. The Palace staff circled the tables with plates of iced red cake and steaming coffee. Charles kept my hand in his as he led me back to the long banquet table where the King sat. My father was dressed for the part, his tuxedo jacket open, revealing a crimson cummerbund. A rose was pinned to his lapel, the petals wilted at the edges. Moss sat two seats down, a strange look on his face. He stood, greeting me. “Princess Genevieve,” he said, offering me his hand. “May I have this dance?”
“I suppose you want to pry another quote from me,” I said, giving him a tense smile. “Come then; just don't step on my toes this time.” I rested my hand in Moss's, starting back onto the floor.
Moss waited until we were in the center of the room, the nearest couple two yards away. Finally he spoke. “You're getting better at this,” he said with a laugh. “Then again, I guess you've learned from the master.” He looked different today, nearly unrecognizable. It took me a moment to realize what it wasâhe was smiling.
“It's true,” I whispered, glancing at the inside of his sleeve, where his cufflink was threaded through his shirt. I half expected to see the small packet of poison nestled against his wrist. Ricin, he had called it. Moss had been waiting months for the substance, which was to be supplied by a rebel in the Outlands. “Your contact came through?”
Moss glanced at the King's table. My aunt Rose was speaking animatedly to the Head of Finance, gesturing with her hands as my father looked on. “Better,” he said. “The first of the camps was liberated. The revolt has begun. I got word from the Trail this afternoon.”
It was the news we'd been waiting months to hear. Now that the boys in the labor camps were free, the rebels on the Trail would bring them into the fight. There was speculation that an army was forming in the east, composed of supporters from the colonies. A siege on the City couldn't be more than a few weeks off. “Good news, then. You haven't heard from your contact, though,” I said.
“They promised it for tomorrow,” he said. “I'll have to find some way to get it to you.”
“So it's happening.” Though I had agreed to poison my fatherâI was the only one who had unguarded access to himâI couldn't quite comprehend what it meant to actually go through with it. He was responsible for so many deaths, Caleb's included. It should've been an easy choice; I should've wanted it more. But now that it was close, a hollow feeling spread out in the bottom of my stomach. He was my father, my blood, the only other person who'd loved my mother. Had there been some truth to what he'd said, even now, even in the wake of Caleb's death? Was it possible he did love me?
We took a slow lap around the outside of the ballroom floor, trying to keep our steps light. My eyes lingered for a moment on the King as he laughed at something Charles said. “It'll be finished in a few days,” Moss whispered, his voice barely audible over the music. I knew what
meant. Fighting along the City walls. Revolts in the Outlands. More death. I could still see the faint cloud of smoke that had appeared when Caleb was shot, could still smell the stink of blood on the concrete floor of the airplane hangar. We'd been caught while escaping the City, just minutes before descending into the tunnels the rebels had dug.
Moss said they'd taken Caleb into custody after he was wounded. The prison doctor recorded the death at eleven thirty-three that morning. I found myself watching the clock at that hour, waiting for it to stop for the minute on those numbers, the second hand quietly circling. He'd left so much space in my life. The expansive, hollow feeling seemed impossible to fill with anything else. In the past weeks I felt it in everything I did. It was in the shifting current of my thoughts, the nights now spent alone, the sheets beside me cold.
This is where he used to be
, I'd think.
How can I possibly live with all this empty space?
“The soldiers won't let the City be taken,” I said, blinking back a sudden rush of tears. My gaze settled on my father, who had pushed his chair back from the table and stood, walking across the ballroom. “It doesn't matter if he's dead or not.”
Moss shook his head slightly, signaling that someone was within earshot. I glanced over my shoulder. Clara was dancing with the Head of Finance just a few feet away. “You're right, the Palace does come alive this time of year,” Moss said loudly. “Well put, Princess.” He stepped away from me as the song ended, releasing my hand and taking a quick bow.
As we walked off the dance floor, a few people in the crowd applauded. It took me a moment to locate my father. He was standing by the back exit, his head tilted as he spoke to a soldier.
Moss followed after me, and within a few steps the soldier's face came into view. I hadn't seen him in more than a month, but his cheeks were still thin, his hair still cropped close to his skull. His skin was a deep reddish brown from the sun. The Lieutenant stared at me as I took my seat at the table. He lowered his voice, but before the next song started I could hear him saying something about the labor camps. He was here to bring news of the revolt.
The King's head was cocked so his ear was level with the Lieutenant's mouth. I didn't dare look at Moss. Instead I kept my eyes on the mirrored wall opposite me. From where I was sitting I could see my father's reflection in the glass. There was a nervousness in his expression I'd never seen before. He held his chin in his hand, his cheeks drained of all color.
Another song began, the conservatory filling with the sound of the choir. “To the Princess,” Charles said, holding up a thin flute of cider. I clinked my glass against his, thinking only of Moss's words.
Within the week, my father would be dead.
AT FIRST I WASN'T CERTAIN WHAT I WAS HEARING; THE SOUND
existed in the hazy space of dreams. I pulled the covers closer, but the noise persisted. The room slowly came into focus, the wardrobe and chairs lit by the soft glow from outside. Charles was sleeping as he always did on the chaise in the corner, his feet hanging a few inches off the short cushion. Whenever I saw him like that, curled up, his expression softened by sleep, guilt ripped through me. I had to remind myself who he was, why we were both here, and that he wasn't anything to me.
I sat up and listened. The sharp, sporadic squeaking of brakes was fainter from so high up, but unmistakable. I'd heard it as we moved west toward Califia and on the long drive to the City of Sand. I went to the window and looked out at the main road, where a line of government Jeeps snaked through the City, their headlights lighting up the dark.
“What is it?” Charles asked.
From twenty stories up, I could just make out the shadowy figures packed into the beds. “I think they're taking people out of the City,” I said, watching as the Jeeps moved south along the road. The line stretched on forever in each direction, one after the next.
Charles wiped the sleep from his eyes. “I didn't think they would do it,” he muttered.
“What do you mean?” I turned to him, but he refused to look at me. “Where are they taking them?”
He joined me at the window, our reflections barely visible in the glass. “They're coming, not going,” he said finally. He pointed to the abandoned hospital in the Outlands. “The girls.”