The Everlasting Rose (The Belles, #2)(8)

“Invisible post-balloons—undetectable for the utmost privacy. Leas-back insurance guarantee. We have the best price.”

I adjust the mask on my face. Sweat soaks through the lace and velvet.

A trio of guards steps into my path.

I avoid them, making a sharp left into the seedier areas of the market—the part Rémy warned us to avoid. Gris women and men hold signs begging for food, leas coins, and spintria. Others with skin nearing gray and hair poking like straw out of their hats skulk about toting tattered baskets and peddling shoddy wares. Shopkeepers and stall owners chase them away to make the passageways clear for customers.

“Make way for the Orléans Press Corps,” someone yells. “The morning reports are in!”

Newsies swarm the market like the rush of snow flurries that have started to fall. They thrust their papers about, the animated ink scrambling to hold on to their headlines, and their screams assault my ears.

“From the Orléansian Times,” one shouts. “Must be indoors at three hours after sunset! Imperial curfew moved up until dangerous fugitives caught!”

“The Daily Spice Sentinel states if the poor can be beautiful, what’s the point?! Beauty lobbyists petition new queen for spintria increase,” another hollers.

I press my hands to the sides of my head as I rush through the throng of bodies but can’t block out their voice-trumpets.

“The Trianon Tribune first to report. New imperial law decree straight from the Minister of Law and Her Majesty. Any person caught with beauty work that mirrors the looks of the criminals will be fined and jailed.”

“The Imperial Inquirer is holding the most lucrative kingdom-wide lottery,” one boasts. “Place your bets! Guess the date when the fugitive Belles will be caught. Pot is up to twenty thousand spintria for the most accurate prediction. A bonus of five thousand for location of capture.”

“The Chrysanthemum Chronicle has the exclusive—Queen Sophia’s wedding to Minister of the Seas’ youngest son, Auguste Fabry, will take place on the first warm day of the new year!”

The sound of his name is a punch to the chest.

I stop. Bodies shove into me.

“Move out of the way,” one complains.

“Keep going!” another says.

“No standing here,” a third barks.

Memories of Auguste—the clever smile in his eyes, the way his too-long hair always escaped the knot he put it in, the taste of his lips—flood through my arms and legs and stomach, creating a circle around my heart where the warmth of it all hardens like glass ready to shatter.

I remember his touch. I hear him whisper my name. I can almost see him standing there before me in the masses: shoulders arrogant and pulled back, the pitch of his voice full of confidence, and everyone turning to listen to every word he has to say.

The thoughts fill me with rage.

“Get away from my stall,” a cardamom merchant shrieks, startling me. “You’re blocking customers.” She thumps a porcelain spice scoop on my shoulder, and her sharp voice stamps out Auguste’s image like a candle extinguished.

I step back into the crowd. A second wave of newsies gluts the market.

“We’ve got Her Majesty’s favorite paper, the Herald of Orléans. In eight days on the first day of our new year, the queen is to present the body of her beloved sister, Princess Charlotte, before the court and the people of Orléans. It will signal the start of her Coronation and Ascension celebration. The deceased princess will lie in honor and remembrance.”

My heart all but stops. But Charlotte isn’t dead. What body will she present? A look-alike? How will she forge the identification ink on Charlotte’s neck? Or did Sophia find her before I could, and kill her?

No. I refuse to believe that. This is just one of Sophia’s games. Still, dread rattles me. We have to leave right now and find Charlotte before this lie becomes truth.

I hurry down the street where Pruzan’s Boardinghouse sits. This news bubbles in my chest, ready to spill out. A blimp skates over my head with fluttering silkscreen banners that hold portraits of my sisters’ faces as well as my own and Rémy’s. They sparkle and flash like lightning trapped on parchment, the sky candles creating bright pictures even in the daylight.

Soldiers choke all the alleys. “Out of the way!” they shout.

“There’s been a sighting of the fugitives!” someone hollers.

My stomach plummets. I push through the bodies and sprint up the creaking staircase into the boardinghouse. Other boarders dart to their rooms as the noise of the soldiers grows louder. I leap up the stairs two at a time to the second floor and rush into our room.

“They’re everywhere,” I whisper, yanking off my mask. “They know we’re here!”

Rémy pulls me inside and presses a finger to his mouth, signaling me to be silent. He goes to the window, glancing out at the street below.

Heavy footsteps reverberate through the house.

“We have to get out of here.” Edel scrambles to pack our things into satchels.

“How did they find us?” Amber asks.

“I don’t know. Maybe the housemistress reported us,” Rémy says. “Hurry.”

I tie my waist-sash around me and tuck the sleepy teacup dragons into it. Shouts echo through the walls.

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