Prodigy


Page 18


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"Thanks for the tip," I reply, smiling coldly at Thomas's reflection in the rearview mirror. "I'll be sure to give him my best curtsy." In reality, though, I'm starting to feel nervous. The Elector is someone I've been taught to revere since birth, someone I thought I'd never hesitate to give my life for. Even now, even after everything I know about the Republic, I still feel that deep-rooted commitment trying to resurface, a familiar blanket I want to wrap myself with. Strange. I didn't feel this when I heard about the Elector's death, or when I saw Anden's first televised speech. It's been hidden until now, when I'm only a few hours from seeing him in person.
I'm not the prized prodigy I was when we first met. What will he think of me?
* * *
COLBURN HALL, ROYAL DINING CHAMBER.
It echoes in here. I sit alone at one end of a long table (twelve feet of dark cherrywood, hand-carved legs, ornate gold trim probably painted on with a fine-detail millimeter brush), my back straight against the chair's red velvet cushioning. Far against the opposite wall, a fireplace crackles and pops, with a giant portrait of the new Elector hanging above it, and eight gold lamps light the sides of the chamber. Capital patrol soldiers are everywhere-fifty-two line the walls, shoulder to shoulder, and six stand at attention to either side of me. It's still bitterly cold outside, but in here it's warm enough for the servants to have clothed me in a light dress and thin leather boots. My hair has been washed, dried, and brushed, and it falls straight and shining down to the middle of my back. It's been adorned with strands of tiny cultivated pearls (easily worth two thousand Notes apiece). At first I admire them with ginger touches-but then I recall the poor people gathered at the train station in their threadbare clothes, and I pull my fingers away from my hair, disgusted with myself. Another servant had dabbed translucent powder across my eyelids so they gleam in the low firelight. My dress, a creamy white accented by stormy grays, flows down to my feet in layers of chiffon. The inner corset makes me short of breath. An expensive dress, no doubt; fifty thousand Notes? Sixty?
The only things that seem out of place in this picture are the heavy metal shackles that bind my ankles and wrists, chaining me down to my chair.
A half hour passes before another soldier (wearing the distinctive black-and-red coat of the capital's patrols) enters the chamber. This one holds the door open, stands at attention, and lifts his chin. "Our glorious Elector Primo is in the building," he announces. "Please rise."
He tries to look like he's talking to no one in particular, but I'm the only one sitting. I push up from my chair and stand with a clink of my chains.
Five more minutes pass. Then, just as I'm starting to wonder whether anyone's going to come at all, a young man steps quietly through the door and nods to the soldiers at the entrance. The guards snap to a salute. I can't salute with these shackled hands, and I can't bow or curtsy properly either-so I just stay the way I am and face the Elector.
Anden looks almost exactly like he did when I first met him at the celebratory ball-tall and regal and sophisticated, his dark hair tidy, his evening coat a handsome charcoal gray with gold pilot stripes on the sleeves and gold epaulettes on the shoulders. His green eyes are solemn, though, and there's a very slight slouch to his shoulders, as if a new weight had settled there. It seems as though his father's death has affected him after all.
"Sit, please," he says, holding a white gloved hand (condor flight gloves) out in my direction. His voice is very soft, but still carries in the large room. "I hope you've been comfortable, Ms. Iparis."
I do as he says. "I have. Thank you."
Once Anden has seated himself at the other end of the table and the soldiers have all gone back to their regular stances, he speaks again. "I received word that you requested to see me in person. I imagine you don't mind wearing the clothes I've provided." He pauses here for a split second, just enough time for a coy smile to light up his features. "I thought you might not want to spend dinner in a prison uniform."
There's something patronizing about his tone that grates on my nerves. How dare he dress me like a doll? an indignant part of me thinks. At the same time, I'm impressed by his air of command, his ownership of his new status. He has suddenly come into power, a great deal of it, and he wears it so confidently that my old feelings of loyalty press heavily against my chest. The uncertainty he'd once had is quickly disappearing. This man was born to rule. Anden seems to have developed an attraction to you, Razor had told me. So I tilt my face down and look up at him through my lashes. "Why are you treating me so well? I thought I was an enemy of the state now."
"I would be ashamed to treat our Republic's most famous prodigy like a prisoner," he says as he carefully straightens his forks, knives, and champagne glass into perfect alignment. "You don't find this unpleasant, do you?"
"Not at all." I glance around the chamber again, memorizing the positions of the lamps, the wall décor, the location of each soldier, and the weapons they carry. The elaborate elegance of this encounter makes me realize that Anden hasn't arranged the dress and the dinner just to be flirtatious. He wants news about how well he's treating me to leak to the public, I think. He wants people to know that the new Elector is taking good care of Day's savior. My initial distaste wavers-this new thought intrigues me . Anden must be very aware of his poor public reputation. Perhaps he's hoping for the people's support. If that's the case, then he's taking pains to do something that our last Elector cared little about. It also makes me wonder: If Anden is actually looking for public approval, what does he think of Day? He certainly won't win people over by announcing a manhunt for the Republic's most celebrated criminal.
Two servants bring out trays of food (a salad with real strawberries, and exquisitely roasted pork belly with hearts of palm), while two others place fresh white cloth napkins across our laps and pour champagne into our glasses. These servants are from the upper class (they walk with the signature precision of the elite), although probably not of the rank that my family had.
Then the most curious thing happens.
The servant pouring Anden's champagne brings the bottle too close to his glass. It tips over, and the liquid spills all over the tablecloth, then the glass rolls off the table and shatters on the floor.
The servant lets out a squeak and drops to her hands and knees. Red curls tumble out of the neat bun tied behind her head; a few strands fall across her face. I notice how dainty and perfect her hands are-definitely an upper-class girl. "So sorry, Elector," she says over and over. "So sorry. I'll have the cloth changed right away and get you a new glass."
I don't know what I expected Anden to do. Scold her? Give her a stern warning? Frown, at least? But to my shock, he pushes back his chair, stands up, and holds out his hand to her. The girl seems to have frozen. Her brown eyes go wide, and her lips tremble. In one motion Anden leans down, takes both her hands in his, and pulls her up. "It's just a glass of champagne," he says lightly. "Don't cut yourself." Anden waves a hand at one of the soldiers near the door. "A broom and tray, please. Thank you."
The soldier nods in a hurry. "Of course, Elector."
While the servant rushes away for a new glass and a janitor comes in to sweep the broken one safely away, Anden takes his seat again with all the grace of royalty. He picks up a fork and knife with impeccable etiquette, then cuts a small piece of pork. "So tell me, Agent Iparis. Why did you want to see me in person? And what happened on the evening of Day's execution?"
I follow his lead, picking up my own fork and knife and cutting into my meat. The chains on my wrists are exactly long enough for me to eat, as if someone had taken the trouble to measure them out. I push the surprise of the champagne incident out of my mind and start planting the story that Razor made up for me. "I did help Day escape his execution, and the Patriots helped me. But after it was over, they wouldn't let me go. It seemed like I'd finally gotten away from them when your guards arrested me."
Anden blinks slowly. I wonder if he believes anything I'm saying. "You've been with the Patriots for the last two weeks?" he says after I've finished chewing a slice of pork. The food's exquisite; the meat so tender, it practically melts in my mouth.
"Yes."
"I see." Anden's voice tightens with distrust. He dabs his mouth with a cloth napkin, then puts his silverware down and leans back. "So. Day is alive, or he was when you left him? Is he also working with the Patriots?"
"When I left, he was. I don't know about now."
"Why is he working with them, when he always avoided them in the past?"
I shrug a little, trying to feign puzzlement. "He needs help finding his brother, and he's indebted to the Patriots for fixing his leg. He had an infected bullet wound from . . . all this."
Anden pauses long enough to take a small sip of champagne. "Why did you help him escape?"
I flex my wrist so that the cuffs don't leave imprints against my skin. My shackles clank loudly against each other. "Because he didn't kill my brother."
"Captain Metias Iparis." The sound of my brother's full name sends a wave of anguish through me. Does he know how my brother died? "I'm sorry for your loss." Anden bows his head a little, an unexpected sign of respect that makes a lump rise in my throat.
"I remember reading about your brother when I was younger, you know," he continues. "I read about his grades in school, how well he performed on his Trial, and especially how good he was with comps."
I spear a strawberry, chew it thoughtfully, then swallow. "I never knew my brother had such an esteemed fan."
"I wasn't a fan of him, per se, although he was certainly impressive." Anden picks up his new champagne glass and sips. "I was a fan of you."
Remember, be obvious. Make him think you're flattered. And attracted to him. He is handsome, for sure-so I try to focus on that. The light from the wall lamps catches the wavy edges of his hair, making it shine; his olive skin has a warm, golden glow; his eyes are rich with the color of spring leaves. Gradually I feel a blush growing on my cheeks. Good, keep going. He's some mix of Latin blood, but the ever-so-slight slant of his large eyes and the delicateness of his brow reveal a hint of Asian heritage. Like Day. Suddenly, my attention scatters, and all I can see is me and Day kissing in that Vegas bathroom. I remember his bare chest, his lips against my neck, his intoxicating defiance that makes Anden pale by comparison. The subtle blush on my cheeks flares into bright heat.
The Elector tilts his head to the side and smiles. I take a deep breath and compose myself. Thank goodness I still managed to get the reaction I was aiming for.

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