I stood by the wall, my hands clutching the tiny bag I had been given. I had tried to put it down, but my mother had insisted I carry it. Apparently it made me look better. To me, it just made me feel more of a fool than I already did.
Glancing down, I used my left hand to cover the tattoo on the back of my right hand, rendering me anonymous. Well, almost anonymous. My bodyguard, a tall, muscle-bound Four, was stood behind me. I didn’t know his name, I didn’t bother any more. He was good looking, which meant that within a month, he would be caught in bed with my older sister, and he would be gone as well, like so many others before him.
I sighed and stepped forward, ducked around a black suited waiter, and then almost collided with a man of my own age. I blinked in surprise. I’d thought that I knew everyone, but I was sure I hadn’t seen this man before.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, trying to step around him, but he caught my wrist and I froze.
“It was my fault. You’re Zia James, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” I deliberately didn’t ask who he was. I just wanted to get away from him. Something about him unsettled me.
“I’m Matthew. Matthew Blunt. Remember me?” He let his voice trail off as realisation dawned. I looked down at the hand clenched around my arm and saw the black ten inked there. The Prime Minister’s son.
“Nice to see you again,” I managed. He smiled.
“Nice to see you too, Zia.” Finally, he let go of my wrist and let me move past him. I heard him laugh.
I fought to keep my breathing under control as I pushed quickly through the crowd of people filling the room. Suddenly, it was claustrophobic in there and I couldn’t breathe.
My bodyguard put a hand on my back to guide me out of the room and I was briefly grateful for the support. He led me carefully outside, and then pushed me down on the wall.
“Stay there for a while,” he told me, and I nodded. I wasn’t going back in there.
Instead, I watched his feet moving as he paced in front of me, trying to distract myself from thinking about Matthew. His shoes were brightly polished – I could see my reflection in them at times.
“What’s your name?” I asked after a few minutes. His feet paused for a split second.
“Daniel,” he said. He ended the word almost questioningly and I flinched. I knew what was coming. “Miss Zia, can I ask why you reacted so badly to seeing Mr. Blunt?”
I didn’t answer for a long time, but I eventually shrugged and looked up. Daniel stopped and stared down at me.
“When I was younger, about sixteen, I made friends with one of the servants. We got on really well – I could tell him everything. It was before the numbers, so anyone could be the best they could be. He wanted to be a doctor.” I sucked in a breath.
“But then Matthew found out – he was at my house with his father one day and heard me talking to Taylor – and he told my mother. Taylor was fired and banned from the house. I was banned from seeing him. And then the numbers were introduced and suddenly, he was an Odd – a Seven – and I was an Even, and that was that. I haven’t seen him in two years.” I dropped my gaze.
“Taylor Davis? The terrorist?” I nodded wretchedly, refusing to meet Daniel’s gaze. “You said you last saw him two years ago, but that’s impossible. The numbers were put in place four years ago.”
“I ran away from home and met him in the park,” I confessed, silently cursing myself. If he told my mother any of this, I’d be in for it. But I carried on anyway. It was a relief to be able to talk about it.
“I stayed there all night. We only talked,” I added quickly. “And we walked through Area Six for a while. And then he dropped me off by the back gate, kissed me goodbye… and that’s it. That’s the last time I saw him.
“The next week, his face was everywhere and he was suddenly public enemy number one. I think that’s why he wanted me to meet him that night: to say goodbye properly.”
I kept my eyes on the ground while I waited for Daniel to respond. I’d only just realised what I’d done. If he decided to go to the press – or my mother – with what I’d just said, my life would be hell for at least the next six months.
“That can’t have been much fun for you,” he murmured. He sat down on the wall beside me.
“It wasn’t. But I got through it.”
“They’ll be wondering where you are,” he said.
“Yeah.” I stood up quickly. “I’m going back in.” With that, I hurried away from him. I walked quickly through the silent garden, my dress brushing against my thighs. I could feel my high heels sinking into the soft, dewy ground.
Daniel followed me silently and I ignored him completely. I shouldn’t have trusted him and I silently vowed that I wouldn’t open up to anyone again. I wouldn’t let my emotions get the better of me anymore.
The crowd inside was thinning slightly and I was able to weave between people without too much difficulty. I smiled and nodded to the people who tied to talk to me, and hurried past. I didn’t care if they thought I was rude; I just needed to be alone.
I kicked off my shoes at the bottom of the stairs and ran up them barefoot, carrying my heels in my hand. Daniel followed, matching my pace until I slammed into my room, leaving him outside on the landing.
I flung my shoes onto the floor angrily, and then sank down against the wall, suddenly empty. Tay… Tonight was the first time I’d thought of him in months and that just made it all the worse. A wave of emptiness swept through me, and suddenly I felt completely alone. I had always been completely alone, I just hadn’t realised it.
I found my eyes straying again and again to the black eight inked into my hand. It had recently been redone and it stood out very sharply against my pale skin. I clenched my fist, pounding it into the thick carpet, again and again, until my knuckles were red and raw.
I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, it was completely dark outside and the moon was slanting through the window, trickling silver light over my face. I straightened up slowly and got to my feet slowly. My bare feet sank into the carpet as I padded over to the window.
Outside in the garden, I could see the five black-suited guards pacing along the white tiles. They stood out clearly, even in the pitch darkness, and I couldn’t help thinking that if anyone had been interested in harming us, it would be a simple matter to shoot the guards from a distance. The thought made me smile slightly. Not at the thought of the men dying, but at the idea of being so vulnerable, despite my mother’s best efforts.
Not that anyone was foolish enough to try and break in. I pulled off my creased dress and closed the curtains before padding back across the room and collapsing into my bed.