The Last Princess
By Craze, Galaxy
Poppy Copyright © 2012 Craze, Galaxy
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316185486
THE DAY BEGAN AS A BEAUTIFUL AND VIVID DREAM. It was one of those rare days when the sun was out, and the light was soft and warm, Easter yellow. We were in the garden, just my mother and me; Mary had gone out with our father, but my mother was eight months pregnant and tired, so I had stayed to keep her company.
“Oh.” Mother rested her hands on her pregnant belly. We had packed a picnic, with bamboo mats and a lime-green gingham tablecloth and a few pillows to lie on. “I think your brother wants to join us.”
I was reaching for her belly to feel my brother moving when we heard our butler, Rupert, calling to us. There was a delivery.
Standing at the doorway was a handsome man with golden-blond curls. In his arms he held a basket of fresh, perfectly ripe fruit: peaches and plums, apricots and apples, deep red strawberries. I hadn’t tasted fruit since the Seventeen Days.
“Who is it from?” my mother asked, unable to take her eyes from the gift.
The man smiled as he handed over the basket, revealing a row of perfectly white teeth. I remember staring at his teeth, thinking they looked plastic.
“Long live the queen,” he said, and she smiled as he backed out the door. My mother had always been embarrassed by the expression.
We carried the basket outside to the blanket and sat down in the emerald grass.
Mother reached into the basket and plucked out a perfect-looking peach. She brought it to her nose, closing her eyes as she breathed in its scent.
“Look, there’s a card inside.” I plucked a small white note from the pile of strawberries, and read it aloud.
To the royal family and the new baby. Enjoy.
“Who is C.H.?” Mother asked.
I ignored her, distracted by the fruit, wondering what to try first: a plum? A strawberry?
My mother opened her mouth, biting into the peach. A drop of juice rolled down her chin.
“Oh, it’s delicious. It’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.” As she took another bite, her serene smile turned to a look of concern. She plucked something off her tongue and placed it on her palm. “But peaches don’t have seeds,” she said.
I leaned forward, looking at her hand; in it lay a tiny metal star.
My mother’s face drained of color as she fell back onto the blanket, her hands clawing at the grass, her fingernails digging into the earth. In the breeze, I heard a rasping sound.
It was my mother’s last breath.
CAREFULLY, I UNCLASPED THE LOCKET FROM MY NECK, LETTING the weight of the Welsh gold fall into the palm of my hand. It was the end of August, but it was cool inside the castle’s thick stone walls. Even in summer, a draft wafted through its rooms like a lonely ghost.
I opened the locket and stared at the miniature portrait of my mother, then at my reflection in the window’s leaded glass, then back again, until my eyes blurred. We had the same dark hair and light blue eyes. Would I grow up to look like her? I closed my eyes, trying to feel her arms around me, hear the low murmur of her voice, smell the rose oil she dabbed on the inside of her wrists every morning. But the memories weren’t coming back as clearly today. I snapped the locket shut and wiped away my tears.
I could stare at my reflection all day, but I would never recognize myself. I would never be the girl I was before the Seventeen Days, before my mother was killed. My family had grown hollow inside, like an old tree dead at the roots but still standing. Our hearts were broken.
They never caught Cornelius Hollister, the man who had killed my mother. He haunted my dreams. His blond hair, his intense blue eyes, his gleaming white teeth followed me down darkened streets while I slept. Sometimes I dreamed I was killing him, stabbing him in the heart over and over again, until I woke up drenched in sweat, my hands clenched in fists. Then I would curl up and weep for what I had lost, and what I had found in myself during those dreams.
Outside Balmoral Castle, a gray veil of rain fell over the barren landscape. The color of the rain had changed since the Seventeen Days. It was no longer clear and soft like teardrops. This rain was gray, sometimes dark as soot. And it was bitter cold.
I watched the soldiers circling the courtyard, rain beading off their heavy black rain gear. Round, half-empty ammunition belts hung around their necks, carefully protected from the weather. No cartridge could be wasted with ammunition so low. Like the bags of flour in the pantry, the jars of oats, the salted snakes and pigeons hanging in the larder—nothing could be wasted. Everything, scarce.
A thick dust swirled through the air, marking the sky like a bruise. Six years ago, everything had changed. For seventeen straight days, the world was battered by earth-splitting quakes, torrential hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis. Volcanoes erupted, filling the sky with fiery smoke that blocked out the sun and covered the fields with strange purple ash that suffocated crops.
Scientists called it a catastrophic coincidence. Zealots said it was the act of a vengeful God, punishing us for polluting His universe. But I just remembered it as one of the last times I had my mother with me. We spent those seventeen days in the bomb shelter below Buckingham Palace, along with government aides and palace staff, holding each other tight as the world shattered around us. Only my mother kept calm. She was in constant motion, passing out blankets and canned soup, her soft voice reassuring everyone that it would be okay.
When we finally came to the surface, everything had changed.
I missed the light the most. The watery early-morning sunshine, the hot blaze of a summer afternoon, the sparkle of Christmas tree lights, even the soft glow of a naked lightbulb. We emerged from the dark into smoke and ashes, into a world lit by fire.
I felt something cold on my hand and looked down to see my dog, Bella, staring up at me with her large, dark eyes. I had found her with Polly, the groundskeeper’s daughter and my best friend, shivering under the garden shed when she was just a tiny puppy. We had fed her milk from a doll’s bottle and nursed her back to health.
“Let me guess—you want to go for a walk. Even in this soaking rain?” My voice sounded quiet in the high-ceilinged bedroom.
Bella wagged her tail in excitement, looking up hopefully.
“Okay, in a minute. But I have to finish packing first, or Mary will nag me to death.”
Bella barked again, as though she understood. My suitcase lay open on the four-poster bed, under the shade of a white eyelet canopy. This was our last day in Scotland. We were taking the train to London this afternoon to make it home in time for the Roses Ball tomorrow. The annual Roses Ball marked the traditional opening of Government Offices and Parliament after the summer recess, and my father always made a speech. Even though I hated leaving Scotland, I was ready to see him again. This was the first summer he hadn’t spent at least part of the holiday with us. He kept sending notes with the Carriers, saying that he was busy with the rebuilding projects and would visit as soon as he could, but he never did.
After our mother was killed, my father had retreated from the world. Once, right after it happened, I found him alone in his office in the middle of the night. Without turning to look at me, he said, “I wish I had eaten the peach. It should have been me. That poison was meant for me.”
I grabbed my hairbrush, my toothbrush, my pajamas, and my book, quickly throwing them into the suitcase. It wasn’t exactly neat, but it would do.
Bella barked impatiently by the door. “I’m hurrying.” I grabbed my raincoat from the hook on the wall, slipped my feet into a pair of bright yellow Wellingtons, and ran into the hallway.
I knocked softly on Jamie’s door but didn’t wait for a response before opening it. Inside, the curtains were drawn; only a hazy line of light crept in to illuminate the dark room. The astringent smell of Jamie’s medicine hung in the stifling air. A small cup of the deceivingly cheerful cherry-red syrup sat untouched on his bedside table, next to a bowl of oatmeal and a cold chamomile tea. It was already midday and he hadn’t taken his medicine yet?
My younger brother had barely made it into the world. After our mother was poisoned, the doctors had to force his birth surgically. He survived, but his blood had been tainted by the mysterious poison. It would be with him, slowly killing him from the inside, for the rest of his life.
Our sister, Mary, had made Jamie stay in his room most of the summer, bundled up against the constant drafty dampness so he wouldn’t risk catching a cold. She had the best intentions, but I knew how depressed he felt, trapped inside. Today was his last chance to be outside in the fresh air before returning to the smog-filled London streets.
I walked over to where Jamie lay sleeping under the covers. I hated to wake him, especially from what seemed to be a peaceful sleep. The medicine kept him alive but also stole his energy and fogged his thoughts. Worst of all, it gave him terrible nightmares.
I gently turned back the pale blue comforter with pictures of the planets on it. “Jamie?” I whispered. But the bed was empty.
I was about to turn away when I spotted the corner of his writing pad hidden beneath the pillow. The book where he drew intricate drawings of what he imagined the world looked like before the Seventeen Days. The animals were far too big, the cars looked like spaceships, and the colors were all off, but Mary and I never had the heart to tell him. So what if he imagined the world from before as a wonderful, impossible place? It wasn’t as though he would ever get to see it.
I turned the page of the notebook to his most recent entry, and my heart started to beat faster.
Last night I heard two of the housekeepers talking in the kitchen. They said my name and I stopped to listen. I know I shouldn’t eavesdrop. They said how worried my father and sister are about me. How difficult it is to get my medicine now and how expensive and hard to find it is. They could do so much good for the people with the petrol and ammunition they have to trade for it. They said I’m a burden to my family.
I’m sick and useless. The doctors say I won’t live much longer anyway. I can’t stay here. I don’t want to be a burden anymore.
I RACED DOWN THE LONG HALLWAY TO THE BACK STAIRCASE, Bella following close at my heels. I jumped down the stone steps three, four at a time, keeping one hand on the banister for balance.
My Wellingtons squelched in the mud as I ran down the winding trail to the stables. Only three horses were out to pasture, and Jamie’s mare, Luna, was missing. Hurrying, I unlatched the wooden gate to the field.
“Jasper! Quick, quick!” I called to my horse. There was no time to bother with a saddle or reins, but I’d been riding bareback on Jasper since I could walk. I clambered up onto his back and turned toward the woods. We were almost out the gate when I saw a pale green cardigan looped over the post. It was Jamie’s. He must have left it when the rain stopped. I felt an immediate pang of relief. He hadn’t been gone long, and on gentle old Luna, he couldn’t have gotten far.
If he was in the woods, I’d need a weapon. The Roamers could be out there. I grabbed the only thing I could find, an old knife with a broken leather-bound handle. I could throw it or, if I had to, fight with it. After the Seventeen Days, without phones or computers or television, Mary and I amused ourselves play-fighting with the Royal Swords. The Master of Arms gave us lessons, teaching us to slash, stab, and parry. Mary and I would fence against each other, betting on the little luxuries that were still left over from before: a square of Cadbury chocolate, a piece of spearmint gum. Later, when the government food rations were gone, we would take spears and throwing knives to the woods around Balmoral, hunting the snakes and pigeons and few other creatures that remained. I was surprised to find that I had quite good aim, unlike Mary, who never could get the hang of throwing a knife.
“Bella, come!” I held out the sweater for her to sniff. Bella could catch almost any scent you gave her. Polly and I had trained her one summer, hiding things in the woods—a toy, a shirt, an old shoe—rewarding her with a treat when she found them. Bella sniffed the sweater up and down. “Track,” I said firmly.
She placed her nose to the ground. After a few seconds, she took off running toward the fields.
The brown earth blurred beneath me as Jasper galloped behind Bella. I leaned forward and wrapped my arms around his neck, closing my eyes. I hated seeing my woods like this. The Seventeen Days had transformed the sun-drenched forest of my childhood into a dark, tangled place. Most woodland animals had died in the destruction, or were later hunted to extinction by the Roamers. Only the worms, leeches, and snakes were left. The ground was covered with gnarled, rotting tree roots, spreading out in every direction like giant hands.
I pulled Jasper to a stop at the top of the hill, scanning the woods for signs of the Roamers—smoke, fire pits, grave markers. Or worse, the hearts of their prey, human and animal, mounted on sticks. The Roamers had banded together after the Seventeen Days, when electric security in the prisons failed and the inmates were able to escape. They gathered in the woods, eating anything they could kill. Since most wild animals were dead, they hunted humans. You could tell a Roamer camp by the sickly sweet smell of roasting human flesh.
I felt something brush against my forehead and looked up. It was a frayed rope, hung from a high branch. The base was knotted to the tree, a piece of webbing left hooked on a branch. A trap. I fingered the edge of the rope, looking for footprints. They were there, clear outlines in the mud.
“Go!” I shouted to Jasper, trying not to think of Jamie caught in a web of rope. Bella raced up the logging trail along the side of the hill. Finally, I spotted Jamie’s small figure in the distance, hunched over on Luna, riding deeper into the woods.
“Jamie!” I yelled, even though I knew the Roamers might hear us. “Jamie, stop!” He paused but didn’t turn around. The small backpack on his shoulders was filled to bursting, and I wondered what he had packed for the outside world. A pillow? A flashlight? I spurred Jasper on, and quickly reached Jamie and Luna.
I slid off Jasper and ventured closer. “Jamie,” I said softly. “Please come home.”
He turned to look at me. Dark circles like bruises spread below his blue eyes, which were sunk into the hollows of his face. His skin was white as rice paper, and in the dim light of the forest, he seemed almost translucent.
“I don’t want to be a burden anymore,” he said simply, his voice so weak it was nearly lost.
I took a step closer. “You can’t just leave us.” My words sounded awkward and slight, even to me. “You can’t just give up.”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” he said. “You’ll never understand.”
“You’re right, I can’t possibly understand.” I choked back a sob. I had no idea what he suffered every day. “But think of all the pain you’ll cause everyone by leaving us. Think of Father, think of Mary. Please stay… for me?” I held out my hand.
Jamie slid down from his horse and took a step toward me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wisp of smoke rising above the trees in the distance. I stiffened, pressing my fingers to my lips so that he would know to be quiet.
I heard the deep rumbling of men’s voices. A strange whirring. The sound of a motor starting. Jamie stared up at me, his eyes wide. “What is it?” he whispered.
I shook my head and took his hand. He didn’t know about the Roamers; Mary and I had tried to protect him from the world’s worst horrors. We ran for the granite rock at the edge of the clearing and crawled underneath. I held Bella in my lap, grabbing her snout with both hands so she wouldn’t bark. One sound and we would be caught. Jasper’s ears pricked up as if he sensed the danger. He and Luna trotted into the woods and vanished from sight just in time.
A band of men entered the clearing just a few yards away. They were dressed in tattered gray prison uniforms, the words “MaxSec” tattooed in coarse black letters on their foreheads. A few had guns. Most carried makeshift weapons: hooks, chains, gardening shears, bludgeons, old pipes filed down and sharpened to points, and what appeared to be a hedge trimmer that had been stripped of its casing so that the blade rotated menacingly. Two of the men carried a thick branch between them. A sack, soaked red with blood, hung from it heavily.
I tried to cover Jamie’s eyes with my hands, but I knew he had seen. He had seen the worst of humanity. Don’t look over here, don’t look over here, I thought desperately. If the Roamers gave the rock a second glance, they would notice the shadowy area underneath and come looking for us. We would be as good as dead.
I tried to hold Bella close, but in a burst of strength she wriggled away from me and sprinted toward the men, barking aggressively. I wanted to call her back, but I bit my lips until I tasted blood.
The two men carrying the bloodied bundle stopped and laid the branch down on the ground. One of them stepped forward, aiming his pistol into the darkness of the surrounding forest.
“Who’s there?” he called.
I pressed closer to the rock, holding my breath.
“Stop jumping at nothing,” the second man told him. “It’s just a wild dog. A dirty old mutt.”
The man with the gun turned toward Bella. He was missing one eye, a metal plate covering the empty socket.
“Come on, the others are ahead of us,” the second man complained. “Can’t waste the bullet on a stringy, skinny dog. We’ve got other food needs eating.” The first man lowered his gun with a sigh. They lifted the branch and its bloodied cargo onto their shoulders and started walking into the distance.
Jamie and I waited under the rock, holding each other and shaking. When I finally smelled the sickly sweet burning smell, I knew we could make our escape.
THE SUN WAS FINALLY STARTING TO EMERGE FROM BEHIND THE heavy blanket of clouds when we returned to Balmoral Castle.
“Eliza! Jamie!” Mary’s voice rang out in the still air.
“You can’t tell her,” I reminded my younger brother. “You promised.”
“I know,” he said, his voice shaking.
“Jamie, I need you to know something.” I pulled Luna’s reins toward me so our horses were side by side. “You have to understand that people didn’t used to eat other people. Before the Seventeen Days, there was no such thing as the Roamers. You have to believe things will get better.” I thought of him alone in those woods. “You know there are good people in the world. That’s our side. If we give up, if we run away, then the bad people win.”
Jamie nodded, his eyes wide. Mary galloped toward us, pulling the reins fiercely to reach a sudden stop. Her long blonde hair fell around her face, and her ivory complexion was flushed from the wind and exercise.
“Where have you been?” she yelled, looking from me to Jamie. “I’ve been looking everywhere. The train is leaving in an hour. Did you forget we were going back today?”
“Jamie! You know better than to leave your room,” she said, ignoring my protests. “You have to take care of yourself!”
She swung back to me, her eyes narrowing. “How could you let this happen?”
“I know, it’s my fault,” I said, fighting the urge to break down and tell her everything that had happened. “We wanted to have a nice last day…”
“No, it’s my fault,” Jamie interrupted. “I begged Eliza to let me go riding.”
“While I did all the cleaning and packing as usual.” She sighed. “I hope you didn’t go near the woods.”
“Of course not! Just the fields.” I hated lying to Mary, but sometimes I had no choice.
Mary looked at me, the frown between her eyes softening. “Do you know what it’s like for me, always having to take care of you?”
“You’re not our mother!” I said angrily, immediately regretting it.
“Someone has to be the mother here,” Mary replied quietly. I wanted to apologize, but she was already riding away.
On my way back to the castle, I saw George, our grounds-keeper. He had unlocked the steel doors of the gardening shed and unwound the thick metal chain holding them shut. The petrol tanks were in there, guarded by shepherd dogs, as protected as we could keep them without electricity.
The black Jeep we always drove to the train station stood next to the shed. I watched as George tipped the end of the gasoline spout into its tank, a grim look on his face. Even from where I stood, I could hear the slow drip-drip-drip of the gasoline.
“It’s almost gone?”
George turned toward me, and I noticed for the first time how he had aged this summer. There was a hollowness in his cheeks, a troubled look in his eyes that hadn’t used to be there.
“They should get the rigs mended soon enough,” George said, which we both knew was a lie.
“We can take the horses. They don’t need oil.”
I was trying to make a joke, but George didn’t laugh. “We have enough for this trip. The roads are too dangerous to go in an open carriage and risk the horses getting stolen.”
I looked over at the Jeep. It was made of bulletproof steel and glass, but George had added an extra layer of steel over the windows. Shields of metal now protected the tires, and sharp spikes had been welded to the roof and sides. He had also sanded away the W that stood for Windsor. Without it, I realized, no one would know us. Ever since my mother’s death, my father had refused to let us appear in public or even to circulate royal portraits. Only our name was recognizable.
“Is it the Roamers?” I asked.
“The Roamers don’t go on the roads.”
“Then what’s all this for?”
“Just extra protection. Don’t worry your pretty head about it,” he said, turning away from me to pour the last of the petrol in the Jeep.
I shook off the comment, knowing George didn’t mean to offend me, and continued on. “Who was in the kitchen last night? Late?”
George looked at me curiously. “Why?”
“One of the staff called Jamie a burden. He heard her say it. Find out who it was. Please,” I added, in as polite and princesslike a voice as I could muster. “It nearly killed him hearing her say that.”
The door of my room creaked as I pushed it open. The girl at my writing desk turned around, her blue eyes wide with surprise.
“Eliza!” Polly jumped up out of the chair, holding a piece of paper behind her back. “I thought you were out riding.” Her voice wavered with unshed tears.
“What’s the matter?” I said, walking toward her. Her hand shook as she kept the paper hidden from my sight.
“Nothing.” She forced a smile. “I was just writing you a good-bye note. Not finished yet.”
“I’ll miss you so much, Polly.” I drew my best friend in for a close hug, blinking back tears of my own.
We heard footsteps approaching the door, and Clara walked in. “Eliza, honey, it’s time to go.” She was carrying a basket of food and a blanket. “I’ve packed you some sandwiches for the train.”
I leaned in to give Polly’s mother a big hug. She’d been like a second mother to me ever since my own died. Wrapped in her arms, her rough wool sweater scratching my cheek, I felt safe.
“Eliza! Hurry!” I heard Mary’s voice from the courtyard. Polly and I rolled our eyes at each other as we grabbed my luggage and raced down the stairs, starting to laugh.
In the courtyard, Mary was standing at the door to the Jeep, tapping her foot in impatience. I was surprised to see that Eoghan, our stablemaster, was in the front passenger seat next to George.
“Why is he coming? We’re not taking the horses,” I whispered as I slid in the back next to Jamie.
“I asked Eoghan to come,” Mary mumbled, and I was even more surprised to see that she was blushing. “We need help carrying the bags.”
I refrained from pointing out that we’d always done fine with just George. I leaned back, closing my eyes against the rattling and sputtering of the motor, which was protesting the watered-down fuel. George had been adding corn oil to the petrol to make it last longer. Bella jumped in beside me and I patted her soft dark fur.
“Wait!” I heard a tapping and opened my eyes to see Polly running alongside the truck, waving at me. I quickly rolled down the window, and she tossed a white envelope into my lap.
“I almost forgot,” she gasped, “to give this to you.”
I clutched it tight to my chest. “I’ll read it on the train! Good-bye, Polly!” I turned and waved out the back of the Jeep, watching her figure grow smaller and smaller until she disappeared in the mist.
AFTER THE SEVENTEEN DAYS, MY FATHER HAD AN OLD VICTORIAN steam train taken out of the underground tunnels, where it had been used as a museum piece. We visited it once when I was very little: I remembered chasing Mary around the red velvet seats, drinking tea in the dark-paneled dining carriage. Now, as the only train in the country that ran on coal, it was also the only train able to run at all. A few coaches were kept open for passengers, but its main purpose was to haul heavy crates of coal, scrap metal, broken glass, wood—anything that could be melted down or welded into something usable—back to London.
We walked up to find the beautiful coaches of the old train hidden behind reams of barbed wire fencing. Men wearing mesh masks perched on top, their guns aimed down into the crowd, holding giant three-pronged hooks so that they could pry off any stowaways. Crowds of people shoved and pushed on the platform; some had tickets, while others tried to barter cans of food, dried meat, even clothes and mittens for a seat.
“Ticket holders only!” the conductor shouted at the crowd. “Stowaways will be thrown off on sight!” I held tight to Jamie’s hand as George and Eoghan rushed us through the crowd to the Royal Compartment.
We were quiet as the train pulled out of the station. Jamie drew stick figures in the misted glass of the window, then wiped them away with his sleeve. Bella curled up on her blanket by my feet. I looked out at the abandoned towns we were passing. The setting sun cast eerie shadows on an old playground. The chains had been cut from the rusted swing sets, probably to be made into weapons, or to be used by the Roamers to tie up their captives. I shuddered, thinking of how close to danger Jamie and I had come.
Eventually, the moon appeared in the sky, but even the moon was different after the Seventeen Days. It was a grayish color, and splotchy, as though it too was covered in the fine gray ash that had fallen over everything. Jamie had once asked me if the moon was sick, just like him.
The cabin grew dark. Mary reached for the coal-light, compressed coal ash inside a heat-resistant glass bulb. Slowly the black mound turned blue, then red, casting a circle of golden light above us. She pulled out two ball gowns and a sewing kit from her case. Jamie fished out a book of crosswords and a packet of colored pencils, and started drawing pictures of colorful, fiery trains. I looked at the gowns spilling over Mary’s knees. One was the color of wine, with crystal beading sewn around the neckline, while the other was a simple peach-colored silk gown with a ruffle along the sleeves.
“Which one are you going to wear?” I asked, realizing that I hadn’t even thought about tomorrow night’s ball.
“The red one. I’m mending this one for you. It will be perfect with your eyes.”
“Thank you, Mary,” I said softly.
“It was Mum’s, so it’ll look good on you.”
I said nothing, just watched the careful movement of Mary’s needle along the seam. Once upon a time we had a whole staff of royal seamstresses, but Mary had learned to do a lot since the Seventeen Days. “I found them in the storage wardrobe. Remember how she used to let us play dress-up in there? This was the dress she was wearing the night she met Dad.”
I thought of the room in Buckingham Palace filled with dresses belonging to past princesses and queens. The magnificent white wedding gowns worn by Princess Diana and Princess Kate, the fur-lined cloak Queen Elizabeth wore the day of her coronation. But I couldn’t remember the story behind the peach dress.
I made myself smile, but inside I ached. Mary had so much more of our mother than I would ever have, and Jamie, none at all.
He looked up from his notebook, his wide blue eyes shifting anxiously from Mary to me. “Do you think Dad will be happy to see us?”
“Of course he will,” Mary scolded. “Why would you even ask that?”
Jamie shrugged. “Because he never came this summer. He’s been gone since June.”
Mary gently brushed his hair away from his forehead. “He’s been very busy with work this summer. He had to meet with the prime minister almost every day,” she explained.
“Did he ever say why exactly?” I asked.
Mary shook her head, but I had the feeling she knew more than she was saying. “The rebuilding projects, I guess.” Strands of her thick blonde hair fell loose from her ponytail and down the shoulders of her cream-colored blouse. Our mother always said Mary had roses in her cheeks, but I couldn’t help noticing how very pale she looked these days.
Silence fell as we ate the sandwiches Clara had packed for us and shared the jar of well water. It tasted cool and fresh. Like the gasoline, the well was guarded day and night. Clean water was so hard to find now, a treasured commodity.
I turned to the train window as we passed through the outskirts of an abandoned coastal city called Callington. The buildings had collapsed like a pile of toy blocks. Pieces of debris floated like dead flies on the water. A peeling, faded billboard was scrawled in black paint with the words THE NEW GUARD IS RISING.
I shivered at the menacing words, uncertain what they meant. “Mary, what is that?” I asked.
“What, Eliza?” But by the time she turned to look, we had already passed it.
The train rocked rhythmically over the rails and soon Jamie lay asleep between us. I covered him with the blanket and tucked it under his chin.
“He looks so peaceful when he sleeps,” I whispered.
Mary nodded, placing her hand on his cheek. “It’s the only time he’s not in pain.”
I held my breath. I wondered if she suspected what had happened this afternoon. I wanted so badly to tell her, but she had enough to worry about.
“I’m getting sleepy too.” Mary unfolded another plaid woolen blanket and covered herself with it. I turned down the coal lamp and laid my head on the pillow.
“Eliza?” Mary whispered, and my heart skipped a beat. I was certain she would ask me about what happened. “Do you think the red dress is too dark for my skin?”
I stared up at the dark ceiling, fighting a strange urge to laugh. Why were we holding a ball while bands of criminals stalked our lands? Roses didn’t even grow anymore. But I knew that the Roses Ball was one last thread of tradition that Parliament could cling to. Like the thread in Mary’s needle, desperately trying to repair the holes.
“Mary, you know you’d look beautiful in a potato sack.”
I was about to close my eyes when a burst of orange flame came cascading through the sky, leaving smaller trails of fire in its wake. I sat up, watching it anxiously to see where it would land. A flash of heat passed the train window, then disappeared in an instant. The sky went black again. The sunball had died out falling to earth.
The flare was gone, but I couldn’t bear to take my eyes from the dark fields. I watched, waited, just in case another one fell from the sky. The sunballs—pieces of the sun that spun off toward Earth—had been falling out of the sky since the Seventeen Days. No one knew exactly what caused them, but getting caught in their fiery rain was fatal.
Even after the destruction of the Seventeen Days, we had been hopeful. There was still electricity thanks to the backup generators, which my father allotted for use in the hospitals and fire and police stations. The hum of the generators was oddly comforting—it was the sound of rebuilding, of putting the pieces back together. The water lines were destroyed, the sun was hidden behind a cloud of ash, but as long as I heard the generators, I hoped everything would somehow be okay.
Except that England was utterly alone.
My father had sent the Queen Mary, the navy’s eight-thousand-ton steel warship, to find news of the rest of the world. The earth had stilled, laying itself down among the mess like an exhausted child after a temper tantrum, but the oceans were still furious. The Queen Mary only made it a few miles offshore before the ocean swallowed her whole. There wasn’t enough fuel to send another ship, and no one had answered a single one of our radio transmissions. Maybe we were the only survivors.
I pressed my hand against the window glass, still warm from the burst of the sunball’s flame. The cabin suddenly felt unbearably cold. I shrugged into my coat, putting my hands in the pockets, and felt the sharp corner of an envelope. I’d forgotten about Polly’s letter. I unfolded it with a smile and started to read.
I am so sorry to have to tell you this. You are my best friend and if anything happened to you I would never feel whole again.
Do you remember my uncle, the one who worked in a metal factory before the electricity stopped? Late last night he banged on our door with his wife and their baby son. They said they had been lucky enough to escape a raid on the district LS12 in Manchester, a raid led by a group calling themselves the New Guard. They had weapons, guns, and ammunition, and they were shooting everyone who resisted. My uncle’s family was able to escape through the underground to another district. They were the lucky ones.
My uncle said the New Guard have already seized many of the districts in London. They are led by Cornelius Hollister, who wants to kill your entire family and become king.
Please be careful, Eliza. Your life is in danger.
My hands trembled as I held the letter. In the dim glow of the coal lamp, I looked at my brother and sister sleeping soundly.
It dawned on me that all summer I had not heard any news of the outside world. Usually the Carriers brought us updates from London when they delivered letters from our father, but this year Clara had collected the mail for us. I thought of the time I walked into the kitchen and saw her with her ear pressed to the radio. She had switched it off as soon as she saw me, claiming that all she could find was static.
I sank back into the train’s seat, staring out at the dark night. I wondered how much my father knew of Cornelius Hollister’s plan and how much he was trying to hide from us. Maybe that was the reason he had stayed in London all summer. Continues...
Excerpted from The Last Princess by Craze, Galaxy Copyright © 2012 by Craze, Galaxy. Excerpted by permission.
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