The Guard
Page 13

 Kiera Cass

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“Did Lady America ring for you? Is everything all right?” I reached for the handle to open the door for them.
Lucy put a delicate hand on her chest, seeming nervous. “Oh, everything’s fine. Um, we were coming to see if you were here.”
I squinted, moving my hand back. “Well, I am. Do you need something?”
They looked at each other before Mary spoke up. “We just noticed you’ve been working a lot of shifts the last few days. We thought you might be hungry.”
Mary pulled back the cloth, revealing a small assortment of muffins, pastries, and bread, probably overspill from breakfast preparations.
I gave a half smile. “That’s very nice of you, but, one, I’m not supposed to eat while I’m on duty, and, two, you might have noticed that I’m a pretty strong guy.” I flexed my free arm and they giggled. “I can take care of myself.”
Lucy tilted her head. “We know you’re strong, but accepting help is its own kind of strength.”
Her words nearly took the breath out of me. I wished someone had told me that months ago. I could have saved myself so much grief.
I looked at their faces, so much like America’s that last night in the tree house: hopeful, excited, warm. My eyes moved to the basket of food. Was I really going to keep doing this? Alienating the few people who genuinely made me feel like myself?
“Here’s the deal: if anyone comes, you wrestled me to the ground and forced me to eat. Got it?”
Mary grinned, holding out the basket. “Got it.”
I took a piece of cinnamon bread and bit it. “You’re gonna eat, too, right?” I asked as I chewed.
Lucy clasped her hands together enthusiastically before hunting through the basket, and Mary quickly followed suit.
“So, how good are your wrestling skills?” I joked. “I mean, I want to make sure we’ve got our story straight.”
Lucy covered her mouth, giggling. “Funny enough, that’s not part of our training.”
I gasped. “What? This is important stuff here. Cleaning, serving, hand-to-hand combat.”
They chuckled as they ate.
“I’m serious. Who’s in charge? I’m going to write a letter.”
“We’ll mention it to the head maid in the morning,” Mary promised.
“Good.” I took a bite and shook my head in mock outrage.
Mary swallowed. “You’re so funny, Officer Leger.”
She smiled again. “Aspen. Are you going to stay when your term is up? I’m sure if you applied, the palace would want you as a permanent guard.”
Now that I was a Two, I knew I wanted to keep being a soldier . . . but at the palace?
“I don’t think so. My family is back in Carolina, so I’ll probably try to serve there if I can.”
“That’s a shame,” Lucy whispered.
“Don’t get sad just yet. I still have four years to go.”
She gave a tiny smile. “True.”
But I could tell she hadn’t really shaken it off. I remembered Lucy mentioning earlier that people she cared about tended to leave, and it felt bittersweet that somehow I’d become important to her. She mattered to me, too, of course. So did Anne and Mary. But their connection to me was almost exclusively through America. How had I become significant to them?
“Do you have a big family?” Lucy asked.
I nodded. “Three brothers: Reed, Becken, and Jemmy, and three sisters: Kamber and Celia, who are twins, and then Ivy is the youngest. Plus my mom.”
Mary started covering the basket again. “What about your dad?”
“He died a few years ago.” I’d finally gotten to a place where I could say that without it tearing me apart. It used to feel crippling, because I still needed him. We all did. But I was lucky. Sometimes fathers would simply disappear in the lower castes, leaving those behind to fend for themselves or sink.
But my dad did everything he could for us, right up until the end. Because we were Sixes, things would always be hard, but he kept us above a line, let us maintain some pride in what we did and who we were. I wanted to be like that.
The paychecks would be nicer at the palace, but I could do a better job of providing if I was at least closer to home.
“I’m sorry,” Lucy said softly. “My mom died a few years ago, too.”
Knowing Lucy lost the most important person in her life reframed her in my mind, pulling everything together.
“Never quite the same, is it?”
She shook her head, eyes focused on the carpet. “But still, we have to look for the good.”
Her face came up, and there was the faintest whisper of hope in her expression. I couldn’t help but stare.
“It’s so funny that you said that.”
She looked to Mary and back to me. “Why?”
I shrugged. “Just is.” I popped the last bite of bread in my mouth and wiped a few crumbs off my fingers. “Thank you, ladies, for the food, but you should go. It’s not exactly safe to be running around the palace at night.”
“Okay,” Mary said. “We should probably start working on those wrestling skills anyway.”
“Go jump on Anne,” I advised her. “Never underestimate the element of surprise.”
She laughed again. “We won’t. Good night, Officer Leger.” She turned to walk down the hall.
“Hold on,” I urged, and they both stopped. I nodded toward the wall that held a secret passage. “Would you take the back way? It’d make me feel a lot better.”
They smiled. “Of course.”
Mary and Lucy waved as they passed, but when they got to the wall and Mary pushed it open, Lucy whispered something to her. Mary nodded and scurried downstairs, but Lucy came back to me.
She fidgeted with her hands, those little tics surfacing again as she approached.
“I’m not . . . I’m not good at saying things,” she admitted, rocking a bit on her feet. “But I wanted to thank you for being so nice to us.”
I shook my head. “It’s nothing.”
“Not to us, it isn’t.” There was an intensity in her eyes I’d never seen before. “No matter how many times the laundry maids or the kitchen maids tell us we’re lucky, it doesn’t really feel that way unless someone appreciates you. Lady America does, and none of us were expecting that. But you do it, too.
“You’re both kind without even thinking about it.” She smiled to herself. “I just thought you should know it was significant. Maybe to Anne more than anyone, but she’d never say it.”