Authors: Anna Carey
About thirty feet below the earth was a giant pile of rubble. A bulldozer pushed concrete back, against the edge of the foundation. Another crane sat motionless, its giant yellow fist lowered to the ground. Throughout the site, boys from the labor camps were clearing brick and ash using shovels and wheelbarrows. They were thinner than the boys I'd seen inside the City previously. There'd been rumors that with the liberation of the camps, the boys who'd been here at the time were now trapped and worked doubly as hard to make up for the others.
One of the older boys pointed at us from below. Charles turned and started up the incline, pausing for a moment by a tangled heap of steel rods and concrete. He yelled something at two younger boys who had their shirts off. They were darting around the far end of the site, kicking something. I squinted against the sun, slowly making out the dark hollows in its side. It was a human skull.
I covered my nose, overtaken by the dry stench. I'd heard hundreds had been buried inside the hotel, their bodies wrapped in sheets and towels. There were rumors that some had still been alive, suffering from the plague; that terrified family members had left them there in their last hours. Dust had settled on every surface within a quarter of a mile. The pavement, the surrounding buildings, the rusted cars that sat, wheels off, in a vacant parking lotâit was all covered with a thin layer of gray.
I kept my head down as Charles came toward us, walking up the plywood ramp that had been anchored to the side of the ditch. I tucked my thumb under the strap of the bag, reminding myself of its contents. The nearest tunnel was still thirty minutes away, even if I ran. The best chance I had was to take the car back with my father and escape when we turned onto the main road. The south tunnel would be just ten minutes from there. Using the alleys in the Outlands, there was a chance I could lose the soldiers who followed me, if I moved quickly enough.
“We have some news for you,” my father called out when Charles came closer. The shoulders of his navy jacket were covered with dust. He pulled off the yellow construction hat he wore, cradling it like a baby.
He glanced from my father to me, then to the car idling behind us. The soldier was standing outside it, his rifle slung over his shoulder. “It must be important. I can't remember a time when Genevieve visited me on a project.”
The King rested his hand on my back, pushing me forward ever so slightly. “Go on, Genevieve,” he whispered. “Tell Charles the happy news.” He was watching me, his eyes fixed on the side of my face.
It was over now, I could sense it, as my gaze met Charles's. He looked at once hopeful and nervous, as he smoothed down a tuft of black hair that had fallen in his eyes. I filled my lungs, holding it there until it was too much to take. “I'm pregnant,” I said, my throat tight. “The City will be thrilled, I'm sure.”
The bulldozer moved along the construction floor below, a low, beeping sound filling the air. I rested my hand on my chest, feeling my heart alive beneath my breastbone, the steadiness of it calming me.
Just say it
, I thought, watching as Charles dropped his head, his eyes on the pavement.
Don't drag this out any further.
“As am I.” He came toward me, his arms over my shoulders, until I was pressed tightly against his chest. I breathed in, my body slowly relaxing, settling in beside him. He rested his hand on the back of my head so gently, I had to blink back tears. “I've never been happier.”
THE PARTY WAS STILL GOING ON, EVEN AFTER THE MUSICIANS
had left for the night and the last of the cups and saucers had been cleared from the tables in the parlor. My father was more animated than I'd ever seen him, gesturing with his crystal glass, rambling on to Harold Pollack, an engineer in the City. “It's something to celebrate,” I heard him say, as Charles and I started for the door.
“In a time when things aren't as certain,” Harold agreed.
At this the King waved his hand dismissively, as if swatting away a fly. “Don't believe everything you hear,” he said. “A few riots at the labor camps are hardly a threat to the City.”
I lingered there for a moment, watching them as Charles spoke with the Head of Finance. My father withstood Harold's presence a moment longer before excusing himself. There had been talk of the labor camp riots all night. In between congratulations, people mentioned rumors about the labor camps, asking my father about the rebels outside the City. With every question he laughed a little harder, made more of a show of just how confident he was. He called them riots, not sieges, and made it sound like it had only happened at one or two of the camps.
“Ready to go?” Charles asked, offering me his arm. I threaded mine through it as we started down the hall. Neither of us spoke. Instead I listened to the sound of our footsteps and the faint echo of the soldier's behind us.
We got to the suite, the lock clicking shut behind us. I watched Charles as he moved around the room, slinging his suit jacket over the armchair and loosening his tie. “You didn't have to do that today,” I said. His back was toward me as he stepped out of his shoes.
“Of course I did,” he said, pushing his hair off his face. “I wasn't about to tell your father the truth. You know what kind of position that would've put you in.” He turned, and for the first time I noticed that his cheeks were splotchy and pink, as if he'd just come in from the cold. “No one can find out, Genevieveâno one.”
“It's not your problem to fix,” I said. “I did this.”
After what happened at the construction site, I'd gone to my appointment with the doctor, then met Charles at the reception. The gratitude I'd felt for him had lessened, giving way to a kind of quiet resentment. He had saved me. He believed he had, at least, and I could feel the implied debt between us whenever his hand found mine, his fingers clamped down on my palm.
We're in this together
, he seemed to say.
I won't leave you now.
He pressed his palms to his face, then shook his head. “Is this your way of thanking me? I didn't want this, you know, when we were married. I didn't want to feel like I was some horrible, second choice forced upon you. I am
here, and I always have been. You could've at least told me before you ambushed me at the site.”
“I didn't know until this morning,” I said. I stepped away from the door, trying to keep my voice down. I
thankful. What he'd done was kind and decent. He'd given me at least one more day inside the City walls, a chance to speak with Moss before I escaped. But I had never asked for his help.
Charles rubbed his forehead. “You spend hours in the gardens, walking in circles, taking the same path three times as if it's always new. I see the way you stare off when we're at dinner. It's like you're in this unseen world that no one else can reach. I know you had feelings for himâ”
for him,” I corrected. “I
. He's gone,” Charles said. My whole body went rigid, as if he'd pressed his fingers into a new bruise. “I don't like what happened either, but I believe you could be happy. I believe that's possible still.”
Not with you
. The words were so close to coming out. I held them somewhere behind my teeth, trying not to launch them unkindly. I studied Charles's face, how oddly hopeful he looked, his eyes fixed on me, waiting. Yes, it would be easier if I felt something for him. But I couldn't ignore the small, cowardly things about him. How he always said “what happened,” as if Caleb's murder were some uncomfortable dinner party we'd attended weeks before.
“I'm grateful for what you did today,” I said. “But it won't change how I feel.” His eyes filled suddenly and he turned, hoping I wouldn't see. I grabbed his hand without thinking. I held it there for a moment, feeling the heat in his palm. Even here and by my own doing, it felt strange and forced. Our fingers didn't naturally fold into each other's the way Caleb's and mine had, the ease of it making it seem that was just the way fingers were supposed to beâentangled forever with someone else's. I let go first, our arms dropping back to our sides.
He sat on the edge of the bed, his elbows on his knees, cradling his head in his hands. He was more upset than I'd ever seen him. I sat down beside him, watching the side of his face, waiting until he turned to me. “Tell me this,” he said softly. “You were involved with the rebels. Is what they're saying true?”
I fixed my gaze on the floor. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“How they took the labor camps, and they're coming here. There are all sorts of rumorsâthat they'll burn the City, that there's a huge faction already inside the walls.” He let his head fall back as he spoke. “They say everyone who works for the King will be executed. No one will survive.”
I remembered Moss's warning of the dissidents who'd been reported and killed, some tortured inside the City prisons. I could not tell Charles anythingâI wouldn't. And yet as I sat there, listening to his uneven breaths, I wished there was some way I could warn him. I rested my hand on his back, feeling his chest expand through his shirt. “You might've saved my life today.”
“And I would do it again.” He turned and went in the bathroom, the door closing tightly behind him. I sat, listening to the tap running, the drawers sliding open, then banging shut. He worked for my father, just as his father had. In Moss's mind he was no better than the King. But right then he was just Charles, the person who stole peonies from the Palace gardens because he knew I liked to press them in books. He hated tomatoes and was tyrannical about flossing, and he sometimes held the smell of the construction sites in his hair, even after a shower.
I pulled on my nightgown and lay under the covers. He stayed in the shower for nearly an hour. Then he finally flipped off the light and curled up on the lounge in the corner, his breath slowing in sleep. I remained awake, studying the shadows on the wall, trying to imagine what it would be like to be here, inside the City, when the rebels came. How long would it take them to reach the Palace? I imagined the terror of it, pictured Charles in the stairwell, his hands bound. What would he think, what would he say when they came for him? They'd kill him, I felt certain of it now.
My limbs went cold. I lay there, willing myself to stay quiet, willing myself to keep the secrets I'd promised to keep. But I knew something elseâperhaps just as certainly, the thought tightening my lungs.
He didn't deserve it.
MY FATHER WASN'T AT BREAKFAST. I WAITED, LETTING THE SECOND
hand make its slow lap around the clock, once and again. Two minutes passed. He always came in at nine, not a second later. But still the empty plate sat there, the silverware untouched.
“Just one more minute,” Aunt Rose said, nodding to his chair. Sweat ran down the side of his water glass, pooling on the table. I pushed my stiff eggs around the plate, trying to keep my eyes off Clara and Charles. I hadn't slept the night before. Today, sitting here, I felt like I was surrounded by ghosts. The siege would happen tomorrow, Moss had said. Once support from the colonies arrived, they could take the Palace within the week. That planâour planâseemed so much more complicated now. No matter what my allegiances were, no matter what had been promised, how could I leave them all here?
Clara fingered her small, straw-colored braid. “You don't know where he is?” she asked, her eyes meeting mine. We hadn't spoken since the reception, where she congratulated me and Charles as if she hadn't witnessed the events of the morning. Her gaze kept catching mine, and I knew she was desperate to talk to me. I'd avoided walking by her room last night, afraid she'd hear me and ask again about the knife and the tiny bag I'd tucked away in my pocket. They were waiting on the bookshelf, ready for me to take them tonight when I left.
Charles turned his fork over in his hand, rubbing his thumb against the silver. I watched that simple gesture, bringing the air into my lungs, trying to lessen the nausea. It had already started. My father was already sick. It was the only reason he wouldn't be here. Moss had wanted the poisoning to go undetected for as long as possible. He'd hoped the illness would confuse the doctors, and while they were running tests the rebels would make their way toward the City.
“I'm going to go check on him,” I said, glancing around the table. “You can start without us.”
Clara watched me as I left the room. I didn't dare look at her. Instead I kept my eyes on the door, then the hallway in front of me, on the spot where it dead-ended at my father's suite. I rapped my knuckles against the wood, letting my hand rest there for a moment, not quite ready to go inside. I heard the faint murmur of voices. Then there were footsteps as someone approached the door.
The doctor opened it just enough so I could see his face but not the room behind him. His glasses had slid down the bridge of his nose, his skin wet with perspiration. “Yes, Princess Genevieve?”
“Can I come in?” I stepped forward but he held the door, not letting me inside. He put up one finger and disappeared for a moment, shutting it tightly behind him. There was more murmuring. I heard my father cough. Then the door swung open again.
The suite looked the same as it had the day before, every surface slick and shined, the wide plate-glass windows exposing the gleaming City below. But a sour stench had settled into everything. That smellâof rot and sweatâhit me in an instant, sending the bile rising up the back of my throat. I swallowed it down, covering my nose with my hand.
The doctor stood in the doorway to my father's bedroom, waiting for me to come inside. I brought my shawl to my face as I entered the dim room. The curtains were open only an inch. A thin sliver of light fell across the floor and over the end of the bed. The vents blew above me, making the room feel smaller, stuffier, the sweat already covering the back of my neck.