choice forced upon you. I am trying here, and I always have been. You couldâve at least told me before you ambushed me at the site.â
âI didnât know until this morning,â I said. I stepped away from the door, trying to keep my voice down. I was thankful. What heâd done was kind and decent. Heâd 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. âYou spend hours in the gardens, walking in circles, taking the same path three times as if itâs always new. I see the way you stare off when weâre at dinner. Itâs like youâre in this unseen world that no one else can reach. I know you had feelings for himââ
âI didnât have feelings for him,â I corrected. âI love him.â
â Loved . Heâs gone,â Charles said. My whole body went rigid, as if heâd pressed his fingers into a new bruise. âI donât like what happened either, but I believe you could be happy. I believe thatâs possible still.â
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 Charlesâs 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 couldnât ignore the small, cowardly things about him. How he always said âwhat happened,â as if Calebâs murder were some uncomfortable dinner party weâd attended weeks before.
âIâm grateful for what you did today,â I said. âBut it wonât change how I feel.â His eyes filled suddenly and he turned, hoping I wouldnât 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 didnât naturally fold into each otherâs the way Calebâs and mine had, the ease of it making it seem that was just the way fingers were supposed to beâentangled forever with someone elseâs. 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 Iâd ever seen him. I sat down beside him, watching the side of his face, waiting until he turned to me. âTell me this,â he said softly. âYou were involved with the rebels. Is what theyâre saying true?â
I fixed my gaze on the floor. âWhat do you mean?â I asked.
âHow they took the labor camps, and theyâre coming here. There are all sorts of rumorsâthat theyâll burn the City, that thereâs a huge faction already inside the walls.â He let his head fall back as he spoke. âThey say everyone who works for the King will be executed. No one will survive.â
I remembered Mossâs warning of the dissidents whoâd been reported and killed, some tortured inside the City prisons. I could not tell Charles anythingâI wouldnât. 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. âYou mightâve saved my life today.â
âAnd I would do it again.â 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 Mossâs 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