When I wake, it takes a long time to remember where I am. Then I move my arms, trying to assure myself of where I’m not. The bed is soft and warm, so I know that last night I didn’t have an incident. But I also know that what happened wasn’t a dream. Oh how I wish it were a dream …
The Scarred Man was there.
I lie perfectly still, trying to control my breathing, desperate to convince myself that I could have been seeing things. I could have been hearing things. After all, I was jet-lagged and exhausted, compromised by adrenaline and subpar lighting. I try to tell myself there was no Scarred Man last night — that I have absolutely nothing to fear. But that’s before I roll over and kick the woman sitting on the end of my bed.
“Good morning, Grace,” Ms. Chancellor says. She’s wearing a purple suit today, but it’s almost a carbon copy of the same one she wore yesterday. “It’s time to get up, dear.”
“And what time is that?”
I huff and roll over. I was sneaking into a hostile country just five hours ago. But I can’t tell Ms. Chancellor that.
“I’m jet-lagged,” I say, pulling my pillow over my head to block out the light that streams through the window. She must have opened the shades.
Ms. Chancellor pulls my pillow away. “The best way to combat jet lag is to put yourself on your new time as quickly as possible. Now, come on. Up. Up. Up.”
She’s laughing as she says it, teasing. She really wants to be my friend, I realize, and suddenly I feel sorry for her. She doesn’t know what a terrible thing it is she’s asking for.
“Is he up?” I ask, pushing myself upright.
“Your grandfather has always been an early riser. Well, he has been for as long as I’ve known him. I’m afraid he can’t join us for breakfast, though. He had an early meeting at the palace.”
“Well, if he was needed at the palace …”
Ms. Chancellor forces a smile. “Why don’t you get dressed, Grace? Come downstairs. There is something you and I need to discuss over breakfast.”
When Ms. Chancellor leaves, I go into the bathroom. My mother kept snapshots tucked inside the mirror’s frame. There are probably a dozen, and I have no choice but to study them as I brush my teeth.
Mom and the grandmother I never knew. My mother and her best friend, smiling on the beach. Mom as a little girl, sitting at Grandpa’s desk. Part of me wants to yell and scream and throw every piece of my dead mother out the window. But I just put my toothbrush in the cup beside hers. I pull my hair onto the top of my head and go downstairs.
When I reach the doors to the dining room, Ms. Chancellor is standing behind a chair at the head of a table that probably seats at least forty. Maybe fifty. I don’t stop to count. I’m too busy staring at the silverware, and then wondering if you can still call it silverware if it’s actually made of gold.
“Come in, Grace,” Ms. Chancellor tells me.
“I usually eat in the kitchen.”
“Come in,” she says again. “And close the doors.”
I’m careful to do exactly as she says as I walk around the edge of the room, as far away from the ornately set table as possible.
None of our plates at home even match, I realize. One of the many downsides of moving every six to eighteen months of your life. I learned from an early age to never own anything I didn’t want to end up in a million pieces at the bottom of a box.
“I thought you were getting dressed,” Ms. Chancellor says, and I look down at the T-shirt I slept in, my yoga pants with a bleach stain on the hem. I bring my hand up to touch the ponytail that sits lopsided on the top of my head and regret every decision I’ve ever made. Ever. Which makes this a perfectly average morning. Just with better silver (or gold) ware.
“Oh. Right. Sorry. You know, I think I left an iron on upstairs, and I —”
“Grace, if you have used an iron within the last six months, I will eat that fork,” Ms. Chancellor says.
“Which one?” I try to tease. “You’ve got a lot of forks to choose from.”
“From which to choose, Grace. Do not end your sentences in prepositions, dear.”
“Of course. I totally see what you’re getting at. I mean, at what you’re getting.”
I force a smile and move to the head of the table, take hold of the chair, but before I can pull it back, Ms. Chancellor singsongs, “Not that chair.”
“Okay,” I say, moving to the chair beside it.
“And not yet,” Ms. Chancellor says, moving to the head of the table. “You may sit after the head of the table sits, Grace. Never before.”
“Okay,” I say as she sits down regally. When she nods, I take the chair beside her.
“Have you ever studied etiquette, dear?”
“Yeah. My dad and brother were super big on that. Right after they covered the proper cleaning and storage of military-grade side arms, of course.”
“Grace.” The word is a warning.
“What?” I ask.
“I know. I’m sorry.” And the bizarre part is that I really am. I want to be good, to use the right fork and wear a pretty linen dress to breakfast. I want to be the girl in the pictures upstairs. But I can’t be. That girl is dead.
“Your arrival here is quite good timing. Did you know that?” Ms. Chancellor takes the napkin and places it gently in her lap.
I mimic the gesture as I tell her, “Uh … no. I didn’t know.”
It hadn’t seemed like good timing to me.
I don’t pick up my gold fork until Ms. Chancellor picks up hers. I mimic everything, right down to the small sliver of ham she slices and puts in her mouth.
“Oh, well, Adria is a place that takes its traditions very seriously. History matters here, in the best possible sense. And one of the traditions that matters most is about to be upon us.”
“Oh.” I prepare to take another bite. “What would that be?”
“Every year, the ambassadors who are stationed here must visit the palace and present their credentials to the king. It’s a very old, very important tradition.”
“Okay,” I say, then risk a sip of water.
“Always wipe your mouth before you take a drink, Grace.”