The library was almost empty now, with everyone off enjoying the PoP festivities. Only a few students lingered, giving Lottie free rein to untangle her thoughts in the sunlit space.
Her first stop was the history section. She flicked through what felt like hundreds of titles until she found what she was looking for. It was a recent title called Reign and Conquer: A Brief History of the World’s Most Impactful Shifts in Power. Her history professor was always singing the author’s praises.
Grabbing it, she marched over to a table by the closed library cafe and spread out her tiny collection of clues: the numbers, the book and Oscar’s diary, turning to the page about the banquet. Licking her lips, she read the start of the passage, drinking it all up.
There have been times in which being a Portman has allowed me insight into rather scandalous affairs. Last year, for example, I had to remain tight-lipped when an older countess from Genovia divulged during Alexis Wolfson’s commemorative banquet that she wondered if I would like to add myself to the list of Maravish royalty who have disgraced themselves on her behalf. I politely declined, but now remain forever curious about which members of this household she was speaking upon.
Despite the allure of the scandalous tale, this was not the information she was looking for. This entry had been dated 1860, meaning the year before had been 1859. Turning back to the numbers in her notebook, she scrutinized the four lines and with a great gasp realized her mistake.
2 2 1
0 0 9
1 0 9
9 9 9
It wasn’t four lines of numbers; it was three lines, written downwards from right to left. 1999, 2009, 2019. It had been right there the whole time, Arabic numerals written from right to left just as the rest of the diary had been.
With shaking hands, she grabbed the history book, flicking through to find the passage she needed.
Sometimes revolution can occur within the nation itself. This is rather common. What is not common is for unanimous provision in said overthrowing, as in the case of Alexis Wolfson of Maradova, who on 12 August 1589 overthrew the current ruler and was met with unbridled support, even from within the palace. Rumour went so far as to declare that when he seized the throne, flowers bloomed and the sun shined in Maradova for the first time in ten years.
Lottie felt dizzy. Everything plummeted into place.
The numbers weren’t codes or combinations or anything to do with her dorm room. It was so much simpler. They were dates, and not just any dates – they corresponded to the Maravish Golden Flower Festival, held every ten years to celebrate the day Alexis Wolfson had seized the throne.
Lottie didn’t know what the plan was and she didn’t know how they intended to execute it, but she knew with gut-wrenching certainty that whatever terrible thing Claude had in store for them would happen during the ball this summer.
Moving with desperate speed, as if her life depended on it, Lottie raced out of the library. It was the fastest she’d run since she’d been chased by Ingrid in the Rose Wood, her feet flying over the cobbled path as if she was light itself – because she had to get to Ellie. She had to warn her.
Reaching Ivy Wood, she bolted up the steps, aching from the effort of sprinting so hard, and she pushed the door open with so much force it banged against the wall.
‘Ellie, I figured it out. Claude –’ But Lottie stopped short, the words drying up in her mouth while her breathing continued ragged and confused, sure her mind was playing tricks on her.
Ellie wasn’t there. And nor were any of her belongings.
Where her and Ellie’s stuff usually blended together like a Rorschach print, there was nothing. Everything that wasn’t Lottie’s was gone. The only thing to show that Ellie had ever been there at all was the sun-bleached paint around where her posters had hung and a stain on the wooden floor where she’d once spilled ink. Other than the shadows of her presence, Ellie was gone. All her angry teenage rebellion and passionate pop-culture references had vanished, leaving the room cold and empty. Lottie’s things looked lifeless without Ellie’s, only taking up a small amount of the space in the wide half-empty room.
Lottie started backing out, still not understanding.
Samuel? she thought. Where’s Samuel? When had he stopped being at her side?
It was right after she saw Ellie in the hall. He hadn’t followed her to the library, so he must have gone with Ellie. She had to find them.
‘Congratulations on your painting, Lottie.’ Nana Lai, an Ivy girl from Lottie’s art class, appeared at her bedroom door, umber hair in a bun, her face full of genuine pride. ‘It’s really amazing. I’m thinking of applying to art school next year. Maybe we’ll cross paths in the future.’
Trying to absorb the compliment, Lottie told herself to respond.
‘Thank you, maybe.’ Lottie felt the words in her mouth like someone else was talking for her. ‘Have you seen Ellie anywhere? I can’t think where she’s gone.’
Nana shrugged, shoulders rising and falling. ‘I thought she left a little while ago.’
‘Yeah, she had a bunch of suitcases.’
Lottie couldn’t make sense of it. It was like the whole world was spinning too fast, everything blurring out of focus. ‘Oh … OK.’ It was all Lottie could manage, and her feet heavily carried her down the steps while Nana stared on in confusion.
Suddenly Lottie thought of Ellie’s look when their hands had parted, as if it were the last time she’d ever see her.
Lottie nearly bumped right into Professor Devine on the path towards the main hall, her purple cloak twirling behind her in a big wave when she stopped abruptly. ‘Lottie, excellent! We’re hoping, with your permission, to display your painting permanently in the grand hall.’ The professor gazed down at her from beneath her crop of red hair. ‘Lottie, are you all right?’
But all Lottie could do was stare back vacantly. She needed to find Ellie; that’s all she knew. Everything else was a jumble.
‘I’m looking for Ellie,’ she said, because it was the only thing that she could understand right then.
The professor’s eyes narrowed. ‘Eleanor has gone home early. Did she not inform you?’ There was a pointed tone. ‘She left no more than half an hour ago. Surely she told you, Lottie?’
Lottie felt her mouth open and close a few times, but no sound came out, like all the air had gone from inside her.
‘Yes, of course,’ she managed eventually, shuffling past the professor and out of the door.
Lottie’s mind went round and round in delirious circles.
Ellie was gone.
Ellie had left, and she was gone. She’d left not long ago.
It had to be a mistake. The look in her eye. The ache in her smile.
I’m really glad we got to have this time together.
It wasn’t until Lottie was approaching the edge of the Rosewood grounds that she even realized what she was doing. Vaguely aware of the black-clad security calling for her to stop, Lottie pushed past them and flung herself at full pelt down the hill, feet crunching on the stone path, down, down, past the rows of flowers and the trees, through the cast-iron gates, past the drop-off zone with the wooden canopy, and down, down further along the road.
Then the town was in view, and she could see the station shining like a beacon. Part of her was searching endlessly for a blacked-out car, for Ellie.
Her mind hurtled her back to the first time she had seen Ellie. Leather jacket, dark eyes hidden behind sunglasses, a storm clinging to her, the electric smell of wet earth. If she just thought about it hard enough, she’d be with her again.
She was on her own in the town, the purple tartan pinafore making her completely conspicuous.
People stared as she ran. Children filtered out of shops, pointing. The exposure made her afraid in a way she hadn’t felt in years, since long before she came to Rosewood Hall.
Ducking out of view, she bolted down a grey-stone alley, hoping to stick to the shadows on the way to the train station. She only had a vague idea of what she was doing. Make it to the train station, call Ellie on the public phone, wait for them to pick her up.
She reached out to steady herself and was shocked to find her hand shaking. If Ellie was really gone, if her worst nightmare was real, then she was entirely alone.
This wasn’t right. She’d made her peace with Ellie; she’d proven they could be together even when she wasn’t her Portman. So why had she gone? Why was everyone gone and she was left behind again?
Legs crumbling, she slid down the stone. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. She was supposed to have one more year with her; they were going to face this together. They were going to find Jamie. And now she was completely alone, sitting in a dirty dark alley, no Jamie, no Ellie – and without them she couldn’t find herself; she didn’t know who she was.
‘Ellie, Jamie, where are you?’ she croaked.
The loneliness was nauseating and swirled up inside her. She was faced with a version of herself she thought she’d never see again. The sad little girl hidden away in the attic, no family, only drawings and fairy tales for company, dreaming of Rosewood and who she’d become there. Now it was all being ripped away. She was sure she was about to be sick.
‘What’s that?’ A voice from the end of the alley drifted over.
Lottie peered through her hands to see three indistinct figures in the chink of sunlight.
‘Looks like someone’s lost.’