The Guard
Page 7

 Kiera Cass

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“Sure thing.”
Charlie nodded, and I tucked my letter away to get a better hold of the basket.
The furnaces were near the soldiers’ quarters, and I set the basket down before carefully opening the door. The embers were low, so I tossed the papers in gingerly, leaving room for air to get to them.
If I hadn’t needed to be so careful, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the letter to Lamay stuck in with the empty envelopes and scraps of miswritten addresses.
Charlie, what were you thinking?
I stood there, debating. If I took it back, he would know he’d been caught. Did I want him to know he was caught? Did I want him to be caught at all?
I threw the letter in, watching to make sure it burned. I’d done my job, and the rest of the mail would go out. There would be no place to put blame, and who knew how many lives would be spared?
There’d been enough death, enough pain.
I walked away, washing my hands of it all. True justice would come eventually, to whomever was right or wrong in that situation. Because just now, it was hard to tell.
Back in my room, I tore into my letter, eager to hear from home. I didn’t like Mom being without me. It was a small comfort that I could send her money, but I always worried for my family’s safety.
It seemed the feeling was mutual.
I know you love her. But don’t be stupid.
Of course she was two steps ahead of me, guessing things without prompting. She knew about America before I told her, knew how angry I was about things when I’d never said a word. And here she was, a country away, warning me to not do what she was positive I would.
I stared at paper. The king looked to be in the middle of a vicious streak, but I was sure I could keep out of his grasp. And my mother had never steered me wrong, but she didn’t know how good I was at my job. I ripped the letter up and dropped it in the furnace on my way to meet America.
I HAD TIMED IT PERFECTLY. If America made it within the next five minutes, no one would be aware of either of us. I knew what I was risking, but I couldn’t stay away from her. I needed her.
The door creaked open then quickly shut. “Aspen?”
I’d heard her voice like that so often before. “Just like old times, eh?”
“Where are you?” I stepped from behind the curtain and heard her draw in a breath. “You startled me,” she said playfully.
“Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last.”
America was many things, but stealthy wasn’t one of them. As she tried to meet me in the middle of the room, she hit a sofa, two side tables, and tripped over the edge of a rug. I didn’t want to make her nervous, but she really needed to be more careful.
“Shhh! The entire palace is going to know we’re in here if you keep pushing things over,” I whispered, more teasing than warning.
She giggled. “Sorry. Can’t we turn on a light?”
“No.” I moved into a more direct path for her. “If someone sees it shining under the door, we might get caught. This corridor isn’t checked a lot, but I want to be smart.”
She finally reached me, and everything in the world felt better the second I touched her skin. I held her for a second before ushering her to the corner.
“How did you even know about this room?”
I shrugged. “I’m a guard. And I’m very good at what I do. I know the entire grounds of the palace, inside and out. Every last pathway, all the hiding spots, and even most of the secret rooms. I also happen to know the rotations of the guards, which areas are usually the least checked, and the points in the day when the guards are at their fewest. If you ever want to sneak around the palace, I’m the guy to do it with.”
In a single word, she was incredulous and proud. “Unbelievable.”
I gave her a gentle tug, and she sat with me, the tiny scrap of moonlight barely making her visible. She smiled before turning serious.
“Are you sure this is safe?” I knew she was seeing Woodwork’s backside and Marlee’s hands, thinking about the shame and loss that would be waiting if we were discovered. And that was if we were lucky. But I had faith in my skills.
“Trust me, Mer. An extraordinary number of things would have to happen for someone to find us here. We’re safe.”
The doubt didn’t leave her eyes, but when I wrapped an arm around her, she fell into me, needing this moment as much as I did.
“How are you doing?” It was nice to finally ask.
Her sigh was so heavy it rattled me. “Okay, I guess. I’ve been sad a lot, and angry.” She didn’t seem to realize that her hand had instinctively gone to the patch of skin just above my knee, the exact place where she used to fiddle with the frayed hole on my jeans. “Mostly I wish I could undo the last two days and get Marlee back. Carter, too, and I didn’t even know him.”
“I did. He’s a great guy.” His family flitted through my mind, and I wondered how they were surviving without their main provider. “I heard he was telling Marlee he loved her the whole time and trying to help her get through it.”
“He was. At least in the beginning anyway. I got hauled off before it was over.”
I smiled and kissed the top her head. “Yeah, I heard about that, too.” The second after I said it, I wondered why I didn’t say that I saw it. I’d known what she did before the staff started whispering about it. But that seemed to be the way I took it in: through everyone else’s surprise and, usually, admiration. “I’m proud you went out with a fight. That’s my girl.”
She leaned in even closer. “My dad was proud, too. The queen said I shouldn’t act that way, but she was glad I did. It’s been confusing. Like it was almost a good idea but not really, and then it didn’t fix anything anyway.”
I held her tight, not wanting her to doubt what seemed natural to her. “It was good. It meant a lot to me.”
“To you?”
It was awkward to admit my worries, but she had to know. “Yeah. Every once in a while I wonder if the Selection has changed you. You’ve been so taken care of, and everything is so fancy. I keep wondering if you’re the same America. That let me know that you are, that they haven’t gotten to you.”
“Oh, they’re getting to me all right, but not like that,” she spat, her voice sharp. “Mostly this place reminds me that I wasn’t born to do this.”
Then her anger faded to sadness, and she turned toward me, burrowing her head into my chest, like if she tried hard enough she could hide under my ribs. I wanted to keep her in my arms, so close to my heart that she could practically be a part of it, and bat away all the pain that might come her way.