Once they were gone, I stepped out of my fancy slippers and stretched my toes on the floor. It felt good, natural, to be barefoot. I went to unpack my things, which was quick. I kept my change of clothes tucked in the bag and stored it in my massive closet. I surveyed the dresses as I did so. There were only a few. Enough to get me through a week or so. I assumed this was the same for everyone. Why make a dozen dresses for a girl who might leave the next day?
I took the few photos I had of my family and stuck them in the edge of my mirror. It stretched so high and wide, I could look at the pictures without having anything interrupt my view of myself. I had a small box of personal trinkets—earrings and ribbons and headbands I loved. They’d probably look incredibly plain here, but they were all so personal that I’d had to have them with me. The few books I’d brought found their way to the helpful shelf near the doors that opened to my balcony.
I peeked out the entry to the balcony and saw the garden. There was a maze of paths with fountains and benches. Flowers blossomed everywhere, and each hedge was perfectly trimmed. Past this obviously manicured piece of land was a short, open field and then a massive forest. It stretched back so far that I couldn’t tell if it was entirely closed in by palace walls. I wondered for a moment why it existed and then debated the last article from home that I held in my hand.
My tiny jar with its rattling penny. I rolled it in my hands a few times, listening to the penny skate around the edges of the glass. Why had I even brought this? To remind myself of something I couldn’t have?
That tiny thought—that this love I had been building in a quiet, secret place for years was really beyond my reach now—made my eyes well up. On top of all the tension and excitement of the day, it was just too much. I didn’t know where the jar’s permanent place here would be, but for the moment I set it on the table by my bed.
I dimmed the lights, crawled up on top of the luxurious blankets, and stared at my jar. I let myself be sad. I let myself think of him.
How had I lost so much in such a short period of time? It would seem like leaving your family, living in some foreign place, and being separated from the person you love should be events that take years to roll into place, not just a day.
I wondered what exactly he had wanted to tell me before I left. The only thing I could deduce was that he didn’t feel comfortable saying it out loud. Was it about her?
I stared at the jar.
Maybe he was trying to say he was sorry? I had given him a sound scolding last night. So perhaps that was it.
That he’d moved on? Well, I could see that pretty clearly myself, thank you very much.
That he hadn’t moved on? That he still loved me?
I shut the thought down. I couldn’t let that hope build in me. I needed to hate him right now. That anger would keep me going. Staying as far away from him as I could for as long as possible was half my reason for being here.
But the hope ached. And with the hope came homesickness, wishing May was sneaking into my bed like she sometimes did. And then fear that the other girls wanted me gone, that they might keep trying to make me feel small. And then nervousness at being presented to the nation on television for as long as I was here. And terror that people might try to kill me just to make a political statement. It all came at me too fast for my dizzy head to compute after such a long day.
My vision got blurry. I didn’t even register that I’d started crying. I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking. I jumped up and ran to the balcony. I was so panicked, it took me a moment to open the latch, but I did. I thought the fresh air would be enough, but it wasn’t. My breaths were still shallow and cold.
There was no freedom in this. The bars of my balcony caged me in. And I could still see the walls around the palace, high with guards atop the points. I needed to be outside the palace, and no one was going to let that happen. Desperation made me feel even weaker. I looked at the forest. I’d bet I couldn’t see anything but greenery from there.
I turned and bolted. I was a little unsteady with the tears in my eyes, but I managed to get out the door. I ran down the one hallway I knew, not seeing the art or the drapery or golden trim. I barely noticed the guards. I didn’t know my way around the palace, but I knew if I got down the stairs and turned the right way, I’d see the massive glass doors that led to the garden. I just needed the doors.
I ran down the grand stairwell, my bare feet making slapping sounds on the marble. There were a few more guards along the way, but no one stopped me. That is, until I actually found the place I was looking for.
Just like earlier, two men were stationed at either side of the doors, and when I tried to run for them, one of them stepped in my way, the spearlike staff in his hand barring me from the exit.
“Excuse me, miss, you need to go back to your room,” he said with authority. Even though he wasn’t speaking loudly, his voice seemed thunderous in the still of the elegant hallway.
“No … no. I need … outside.” The words were tangled; I couldn’t breathe right.
“Miss, you need to get back to your room now.” The second guard was taking steps toward me.
“Please.” I started gasping. I thought I might faint.
“I’m sorry… Lady America, is it?” He found my pin. “You need to go back to your room.”
“I … I can’t breathe,” I stammered, falling into the guard’s arms as he moved close enough to push me away. His staff fell to the ground. I feebly clawed at him, feeling woozy with the effort.
“Let her go!” This was a new voice, young but full of authority. My head half turned, half fell in its direction. There was Prince Maxon. He looked a little odd, thanks to the angle my head was hanging at, but I recognized the hair and the stiff way he stood.
“She collapsed, Your Majesty. She wanted to go outside.” The first guard looked nervous as he explained. He would be in terrible danger if he damaged me. I was the property of Illéa now.
“Open the doors.”
“Open the doors and let her go. Now!”
“Right away, Your Highness.” The first guard went to work, pulling out a key. My head stayed in its strange position as I heard the sound of keys clanking against one another and then one sliding into the lock. The prince looked at me warily as I tried to stand. And then the sweet smell of fresh air pulsed through me, giving me all the motivation I needed. I pulled myself out of the guard’s arms and ran like a drunk into the garden.
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