Share to access exclusive excerpts from The One, the third book in the #1 New York Times bestselling Selection series.
This time we were in the Great Room enduring another etiquette lesson when bricks came flying through the window. Elise immediately hit the ground and started crawling for the side door, whimpering as she went. Celeste let out a high-pitched scream and bolted toward the back of the room, barely escaping a shower of glass. Kriss grabbed my arm, pulling me, and I broke into a run alongside her as we made our way to the exit.
“Hurry, ladies!” Silvia cried.
Within seconds, the guards had lined up at the windows and were firing, and the bursts of sound echoed in my ears as we fled. Whether they came with guns or stones, anyone showing the smallest level of aggression within sight of the palace would die. There was no more patience left for these attacks.
“I hate running in these shoes,” Kriss muttered, a heap of dress draped over her arm, eyes focused on the end of the hall.
“One of us is going to have to get used to it,” Celeste said, her breath labored.
I rolled my eyes. “If it’s me, I’ll wear sneakers every day. I’m already over this.”
“Less talking, more moving!” Silvia yelled.
“How do we get downstairs from here?” Elise asked.
“What about Maxon?” Kriss huffed.
Silvia didn’t answer. We followed her through a maze of hallways, looking for a path to the basement, watching as guard after guard ran in the opposite direction. I found myself admiring them, wondering at the courage it took to run toward danger for the sake of other people.
The guards passing us were completely indistinguishable from one another until a set of green eyes locked with mine. Aspen didn’t look afraid or even startled. There was a problem, and he was on his way to fix it. That was simply who he was.
Our gaze was brief, but it was enough. It was like that with Aspen. In a split second, without a word, I could tell him Be careful and stay safe. And saying nothing, he’d answer I know, just take care of yourself.
While I could easily be at peace with the things we didn’t need to say, I had no such luck with the things we’d said out loud. Our last conversation wasn’t exactly a happy one. I had been about to leave the palace and had asked him to give me some space to get over the Selection. And then I’d ended up staying and had given him no explanation as to why.
Maybe his patience with me was falling short, his ability to see only the best in me running dry. Somehow I would have to fix that. I couldn’t see a life for me that didn’t include Aspen. Even now, as I hoped Maxon would choose me, a world without Aspen felt unimaginable.
“Here it is!” Silvia called, pushing a mysterious panel in a wall.
We started down the stairs, Elise and Silvia heading the charge.
“Damn it, Elise, pick up the pace!” Celeste yelled. I wanted to be irritated that she said it, but I knew we were all thinking the same thing.
As we descended into the darkness, I tried to reconcile myself to the hours that would be wasted, hiding like mice. We continued on, the sound of our escape covering the shouts until one man’s voice rang out right on top of us.
“Stop!” he yelled.
Kriss and I turned together, watching as the uniform became clear. “Wait,” she called to the girls below. “It’s a guard.”
We stood on the steps, breathing heavily. He finally reached us, gasping himself.
“Sorry, ladies. The rebels ran as soon as the shots were fired. Weren’t in the mood for a fight today, I guess.”
Silvia, running her hands over her clothes to smooth them, spoke for us. “Has the king deemed it safe? If not, you’re putting these girls in a very dangerous position.”
“The head of the guard cleared it. I’m sure His Majesty—”
“You don’t speak for the king. Come on, ladies, keep moving.”
“Are you serious?” I asked. “We’re going down there for nothing.”
She fixed me with a stare that might have stopped a rebel in his tracks, and I shut my mouth. Silvia and I had built a friendship of sorts as she unknowingly helped me distract myself from Maxon and Aspen with her extra lessons. After my little stunt on the Report a few days ago, it seemed that had dissolved into nothing. Turning to the guard, she continued. “Get an official order from the king, and we’ll return. Keep walking, ladies.”
The guard and I shared an exasperated look and parted ways.
Silvia showed absolutely no remorse when, twenty minutes later, a different guard came, telling us we were free to go upstairs.
I was so irritated by the whole situation, I didn’t wait for Silvia or the other girls. I climbed the stairs, exiting somewhere on the first floor, and continued to my room with my shoes still hooked on my fingers. My maids were missing, but a small silver platter holding an envelope was waiting on the bed.
I recognized May’s handwriting instantly and tore open the envelope, devouring her words.
We’re aunts! Astra is perfect. I wish you were here to meet her in person, but we all understand you need to be at the palace right now. Do you think we’ll be together for Christmas? Not that far away! I’ve got to get back to helping Kenna and James. I can’t believe how pretty she is! Here’s a picture for you. We love you!
I slipped the glossy photo from behind the note. Everyone was there except for Kota and me. James, Kenna’s husband, was beaming, standing over his wife and daughter with puffy eyes. Kenna sat upright in the bed, holding a tiny pink bundle, looking equal parts thrilled and exhausted. Mom and Dad were glowing with pride, while May’s and Gerad’s enthusiasm jumped from the image. Of course Kota wouldn’t have gone; there was nothing for him to gain from being present. But I should have been there.
I wasn’t though.
I was here. And sometimes I didn’t understand why. Maxon was still spending time with Kriss, even after all he’d done to get me to stay. The rebels unrelentingly attacked our safety from the outside, and inside, the king’s icy words did just as much damage to my confidence. All the while, Aspen orbited me, a secret I had to keep. And the cameras came and went, stealing pieces of our lives to entertain the people. I was being pushed into a corner from every angle, and I was missing out on all the things that had always mattered to me.
I choked back angry tears. I was so tired of crying.
Instead I went into planning mode. The only way to set things right was to end the Selection.
Though I still occasionally questioned my desire to be the princess, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be Maxon’s. If that was going to happen, I couldn’t sit back and wait for it. Remembering my last conversation with the king, I paced as I waited for my maids.
I could hardly breathe, so I knew eating would be a waste. But it would be worth the sacrifice. I needed to make some progress, and I needed to do it fast. According to the king, the other girls were making advances toward Maxon—physical advances—and he’d said I was far too plain to have a chance of matching them in that department.
As if my relationship with Maxon wasn’t complicated enough, there was a whole new issue of rebuilding trust. And I wasn’t sure if that meant I wasn’t supposed to ask questions or not. While I felt pretty sure he hadn’t gone that far physically with the other girls, I couldn’t help but wonder. I’d never tried to be seductive before—pretty much every intimate moment I’d had with Maxon came about without intention—but I had to hope that if I was deliberate, I could make it clear that I was just as interested in him as the others.
I took a deep breath, raised my chin, and walked into the dining hall. I was purposely a minute or two late, hoping everyone would already be seated. I was right on that count. But the reaction was better than I’d hoped.
I curtsied, swinging my leg around so the slit in the dress fell open, leading nearly all the way up my thigh. The dress was a deep red, strapless and practically backless, and I was almost positive my maids had used magic to make it stay up at all. I rose, locking eyes with Maxon, who I noticed had stopped chewing. Someone dropped a fork.
Lowering my gaze, I walked to my seat, settling in next to Kriss.
“Seriously, America?” she whispered.
I tilted my head in her direction. “I’m sorry?” I replied, feigning confusion.
She put her silverware down, and we stared at each other. “You look trashy.”
“Well, you look jealous.”
I’d hit pretty close to the mark, because she flushed a bit before returning to her food. I took limited bites of my own, already miserably constricted. As dessert was being set in front of me, I chose to stop ignoring Maxon, and as I had hoped, his eyes were on me. He reached up and grabbed his ear immediately, and I demurely did the same. My gaze flickered quickly toward King Clarkson, and I tried not to smile. He was irritated, another trick I’d managed to get away with.
I excused myself first, giving Maxon a chance to admire the back of the dress, and scurried to my room. I closed the door to my room behind me and unzipped the gown immediately, desperate for a breath.
“How’d it go?” Mary asked, rushing over.
“He seemed stunned. They all did.”
Lucy squealed, and Anne came to help Mary. “We’ll hold it up. Just walk,” she ordered. I did as I was told. “Is he coming tonight?”
“Yes. I’m not sure when, but he’ll definitely be here.” I perched on the edge of my bed, arms folded around my stomach to keep the open dress from falling down.
Anne gave me a sad face. “I’m sorry you’ll have to be uncomfortable for a few more hours. I’m sure it’ll be worth it though.”
I smiled, trying to look like I was fine dealing with the pain. I’d told my maids I wanted to get Maxon’s attention. I’d left out my hope that, with any luck, this dress would be on the floor pretty soon.
“Do you want us to stay until he arrives?” Lucy asked, her enthusiasm bubbling over.
“No, just help me zip this thing back up. I need to think some things through,” I answered, standing so they could help me.
Mary took hold of the zipper. “Suck it in, miss.” I obeyed, and as the dress cinched me in again, I thought of a soldier going to war. Different armor but the same idea.
Tonight I was taking down a man.
I opened the balcony doors, letting the air sweeten my room. Even though it was December, the breeze was light and tickled my skin. We weren’t allowed to go outside at all anymore, not without guards by our sides, so this would have to do.
I scurried around the room, lighting candles, trying to make the space inviting. The knock came at the door, and I blew out the match, bolted over to the bed, picked up a book, and fanned out my dress. Why yes, Maxon, this is how I always look when I read.
“Come in,” I offered, barely loud enough to be heard. Maxon entered, and I lifted my head delicately, catching the wonder in his eyes as he surveyed my dimly lit room. Finally he focused on me, his gaze traveling up my exposed leg.
“There you are,” I said, closing the book and standing to greet him.
He shut the door and came in, his eyes locked on my curves. “I wanted to tell you that you look fantastic tonight.”
I flicked my hair over my shoulder. “Oh, this thing? It was just sitting in the back of the closet.”
“I’m glad you pulled it out.”
I laced my fingers through his. “Come sit with me. I haven’t seen you much lately.”
He sighed and followed. “I’m sorry about that. Things have been a bit tense since we lost so many people in that rebel attack, and you know how my father is. We sent several guards to protect your families, and our forces are stretched thin, so he’s worse than usual. And he’s pressuring me to end the Selection, but I’m holding my ground. I want to have some time to think this through.”
We sat on the edge of the bed, and I settled close to him. “Of course. You should be in charge of this.”
He nodded. “Exactly. I know I’ve said it a thousand times, but when people push me, it makes me crazy.”
I gave him a little pout. “I know.”
He paused, and I couldn’t read his face. I was trying to figure out how to move this forward without being pushy, but I wasn’t sure how to manufacture a romantic moment.
“I know this is silly, but my maids put this new perfume on me today. Is it too strong?” I asked, tilting my neck so he could lean in and breathe.
He came near, his nose hitting a soft patch of skin. “No, dear, it’s lovely,” he said into the curve that led to my shoulder. Then he kissed me there. I swallowed, trying to focus. I needed to have some level of control.
“I’m glad you like it. I’ve really missed you.”
I felt his hand snake around my back, and I brought my face down. There he was, eyes looking into mine, our lips millimeters apart.
“How much have you missed me?” he breathed.
His stare, combined with his voice being so low, was doing funny things to my heartbeat. “So much,” I whispered back. “So, so much.”
I leaned forward, aching to be kissed. Maxon was confident, pulling me closer with one hand and stringing the other through my hair. My body wanted to melt into the kiss, but the dress stopped me. Then, suddenly nervous again, I remembered my plan.
Sliding my hands down Maxon’s arms, I guided his fingers to the zipper on the back of my dress, hoping that would be enough.
His hands lingered there for a moment, and I was seconds away from just asking him to unzip it when he burst out laughing.
The sound sobered me up pretty quickly.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, horrified, trying to think of an inconspicuous way to check my breath.
“Of everything you’ve done, this is by far the most entertaining!” Maxon bent over, hitting his knee as he laughed.
He kissed me hard on my forehead. “I always wondered what it would be like to see you try.” He started laughing again. “I’m sorry; I have to go.” Even the way he stood held a sense of amusement. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
And then he left. He just left!
I sat there, completely mortified. Why in the world did I think I could pull that off ? Maxon may not know everything about me, but at the very least he knew my character—and this? It wasn’t me.
I looked down at the ridiculous dress. It was way too much. Even Celeste wouldn’t have gone this far. My hair was too perfect, my makeup too heavy. He knew what I was trying to do from the second he walked through the doorway. Sighing, I went around the room, blowing out candles and wondering how I was supposed to face him tomorrow.
I debated claiming the stomach flu. Or an incapacitating headache. Panic attack. Really, anything to get out of going to breakfast.
Then I thought of Maxon and how he always talked about putting on a brave face. That wasn’t a particular strength of mine. But if I went downstairs at least, if I could just be present, maybe he’d give me some credit.
In hopes that I could erase some of what I’d done, I asked my maids to put me in the most demure dress I had. Based on that request alone, they knew not to ask about the night before. The neckline was a bit higher than the ones we typically wore in the warm Angeles weather, and it had sleeves that went nearly to my elbows. It was flowery and cheerful, the opposite of last night’s getup.
I could barely look at Maxon when I entered the dining hall, but I walked tall at least.
When I finally peeked at him, he was watching me, grinning. As he chewed his food, he winked at me; and I ducked my head again, pretending to be very interested in my quiche.
“Glad to see you in actual clothes today,” Kriss spat.
“Glad to see you in such a good mood.”
“What in the world has gotten into you?” she hissed.
Dejected, I gave up. “I’m not up for this today, Kriss. Just leave me alone.”
For a moment, she looked as if she might fight back, but I guessed I wasn’t worth it. She sat up a little straighter and continued eating. If I’d had any level of success last night, then I could justify my actions; as it was, I couldn’t even fake being proud.
I risked another glance at Maxon, and even though he wasn’t watching me, he was still suppressing a smug expression as he cut his food. That was it. I wasn’t going to suffer through a day like this. I was about to swoon or clutch my stomach or do anything to get me out of the room when a butler came in. He carried an envelope on a silver platter, and he bowed before placing it in front of King Clarkson.
The king took the letter and read it quickly. “Damn French,” he muttered. “Sorry, Amberly, it looks like I’ll be leaving within the hour.”
“Another problem with the trade agreement?” she asked quietly.
“Yes. I thought we’d settled all this months ago. We need to be firm on this one.” He stood, throwing his napkin on his plate, and made his way to the door.
“Father,” Maxon called, standing. “Don’t you want me to come?”
It had struck me as odd that the king didn’t bark out a command for his son to follow when he exited, seeing as that was his usual method of instructing. Instead he turned to Maxon, his eyes cold and his voice sharp.
“When you’re ready to behave the way a king should, you’ll get to experience what a king does.” Without saying anything more, he left us.
Maxon stood for a moment, shocked and embarrassed by his father’s choice to call him out in front of everyone. As he sat down, he turned to his mother. “Wasn’t really looking forward to that flight, if I’m being honest,” he said, joking away the tension. The queen smiled, as of course she must, and the rest of us ignored it.
The other girls finished their breakfasts and excused themselves to the Women’s Room. When it was just Maxon, Elise, and me remaining at our tables, I looked up at him. We both tugged our ears at the same time, then smiled. Elise finally left, and we met in the middle of the room, not bothered by the maids and butlers cleaning up around us.
“It’s my fault he’s not taking you,” I lamented.
“Perhaps,” he teased. “Trust me, this isn’t the first time he’s tried to put me in my place, and he has a million reasons in his head why he thinks he should. It wouldn’t surprise me if his only motive this time was spite. He doesn’t want to lose control, and the closer I am to picking a wife, the more of a likelihood that is for him. Though we both know he’ll never truly let go.”
“You might as well just send me home. He’s never going to let you pick me.” I still hadn’t told Maxon about how his father had cornered me, threatening me in the middle of the hall after Maxon talked him into letting me stay. King Clarkson had made it clear I was to keep my mouth shut about our conversation, and I didn’t want to cross him. At the same time, I hated keeping it from Maxon.
“Besides,” I added, crossing my arms, “after last night, I can’t imagine you’re that keen on keeping me anyway.”
He bit his lips. “I’m sorry I laughed, but really,what else could I do?”
“I had plenty of ideas,” I muttered, still embarrassed at my attempt to seduce him. “I feel so stupid.” I buried my head in my hands.
“Stop,” he said gently, pulling me in for an embrace. “Trust me when I say, it was very tempting. But you’re not that girl.”
“But shouldn’t I be? Shouldn’t that be part of what we are?” I whined into his chest.
“Don’t you remember the night in the safe room?” he said, his voice low.
“Yes, but that was basically us saying good-bye.”
“It would have been a fantastic good-bye.”
I stepped away and swatted at him. He laughed, happy to have broken through the uneasiness.
“Let’s forget about it,” I proposed.
“Very well,” he agreed. “Besides, we have a project to work on, you and I.”
“Yes, and since my father is gone, this will be a convenient time to start brainstorming.”
“All right,” I said, excited to be a part of something that was just between the two of us.
He sighed, making me nervous about what he was planning. “You’re right. Father doesn’t approve of you. But he might be forced to bend if we can manage one thing.”
“We have to make you the people’s favorite.”
I rolled my eyes. “That is what we’re working on? Maxon, that’s never going to happen. I saw a poll in one of Celeste’s magazines after I tried to save Marlee. People can hardly stand me.”
“Opinions change. Don’t let that one moment bring you down too much.”
I still felt hopeless, but what could I say? If this was my only option, I had to at least try.
“Fine,” I said. “But I’m telling you, this won’t work.”
With an impish grin on his face, he came very close and gave me a long, slow kiss. “And I’m telling you it will.”
I walked into the Women’s Room, thoughts focused on Maxon’s new plan. The queen hadn’t shown up yet, and the girls were all laughing in a clump by the windows.
“America, come here!” Kriss said urgently. Even Celeste turned back smiling, waving me over.
I was a little uneasy about what could be waiting for me, but I walked to the huddle anyway.
“Oh, my goodness!” I squealed.
“I know,” Celeste sighed.
There, running laps in the garden without their shirts on, were half of the guards in the palace. Aspen had told me that all guards got injections to help keep them strong, but apparently they also did a lot of work to keep their bodies in peak condition.
While we were all devoted to Maxon, the sight of cute boys was something we couldn’t ignore.
“The guy with blond hair,” Kriss said. “Well, I think he’s a blond. Their hair is so short!”
“I like this one,” Elise said quietly as another guard ran past our window.
Kriss giggled. “I can’t believe we’re doing this!”
“Oh, oh! That guy, right there with the green eyes,” Celeste said, pointing to Aspen.
Kriss sighed. “I danced with him at Halloween, and he’s as funny as he is good-looking.”
“I danced with him, too,” Celeste bragged. “Easily the most gorgeous guard in the palace.”
I had to laugh a little. I wondered how she would feel if she knew he used to be a Six.
I watched him run and thought about the hundreds of times those arms had embraced me. The distance growing between Aspen and me felt unavoidable, but even now I had to wonder if there was a way to keep some piece of what we had. What if I needed him?
“What about you, America?” Kriss asked.
The only one who really caught my eye was Aspen, and after feeling that ache for him, this felt kind of stupid. I dodged the question.
“I don’t know. They’re all kind of nice.”
“Kind of nice?” Celeste echoed. “You have to be kidding! These are some of the best-looking guys I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s only a bunch of boys without their shirts on,” I countered.
“Yeah, why don’t you enjoy it for a minute before it’s just the three of us you have to look at,” she said snippily.
“Whatever. Maxon looks just as good without his shirt on as any of those guys.”
“What?” Kriss shrieked.
A second after the words slipped out of my mouth, I realized what I’d said. Three sets of eyes focused in on me.
“When were you and Maxon topless, exactly?” Celeste demanded.
“But he was?” Kriss asked. “Was that what that god-awful dress was about yesterday?”
Celeste gasped. “You slut!”
“Excuse me!” I yelled.
“Well, what else would you expect?” she snapped, crossing her arms. “Unless you want to tell us all what happened and why we’re so wrong.”
But there was no way to explain this. Undressing Maxon hadn’t exactly been a romantic moment, but I couldn’t tell them I’d been tending to wounds on his back specifically delivered by his father. He’d spent his life guarding that secret. If I betrayed him now, it would be the end of us.
“Celeste was half-naked up against him in a hallway!” I accused, pointing a finger at her.
Her mouth popped open. “How did you know?”
“Has everyone been getting naked with Maxon?” Elise asked, horrified.
“We weren’t naked!” I shouted.
“Okay,” Kriss said, putting out her arms. “We need to clear this up. Who has done what with Maxon?”
Everyone was quiet for a moment, not wanting to speak up first.
“I’ve kissed him,” Elise said. “Three times, but that’s it.”
“I haven’t kissed him at all,” Kriss confessed. “But that’s by my own choosing. He would kiss me if I’d let him.”
“Really? Not once?” Celeste asked, shocked.
“Well, I’ve kissed him plenty.” Celeste flipped her hair, deciding to be proud instead of embarrassed. “The best was in the hallway one night.” She eyed me. “We kept whispering about how exciting it was that we might get caught.”
Finally all eyes were on me. I thought of the king’s words, suggesting that maybe the other girls were being much more promiscuous than I was prepared to be. But now I knew it was one more weapon in his arsenal, a way to make me feel insignificant. I came clean.
“I was Maxon’s first kiss, not Olivia. I didn’t want anyone to know. And we’ve had a few . . . more intimate moments, and one of those times Maxon’s shirt came off.”
“Came off ? Like it magically flew over his head?” Celeste pressed.
“He took it off,” I admitted.
Not satisfied, Celeste pushed on. “He took it off or you took it off ?”
“I guess we both did.”
After a charged moment, Kriss started again. “Okay, so now we all know where we stand.”
“And where is that?” Elise asked.
No one answered.
“I just want to say . . . ,” I started. “All of those moments were really important to me, and I care about Maxon.”
“Are you implying that we don’t?” Celeste barked.
“I know that you don’t.”
“How dare you?”
“Celeste, it’s no secret that you want someone with power. I’m willing to bet you like Maxon well enough, but you’re not in love with him. You’re shooting for the crown.”
Without denying it, she turned on Elise. “What about this one? I’ve never seen a speck of emotion out of you!”
“I’m reserved. You should try it sometime,” Elise fired back quickly. Seeing a spark of anger in Elise made me like her more. “In my family, all the marriages are arranged. I knew what was coming for me, and that’s all this is. I may not be head over heels for Maxon, but I respect him. Love can come later.”
Sympathetically, Kriss spoke. “That actually sounds kind of sad, Elise.”
“It’s not. There are bigger things than love.”
We stared at Elise, her words echoing. I fought for my family out of love, and for Aspen, too. And now, though it scared me to think it, I was sure that all my actions where Maxon was concerned—even when they were hopelessly stupid—were driven by that feeling. Still, what if there was something more important here than that?
“Well, I’ll say it: I love him,” Kriss blurted. “I love him, and I want him to marry me.”
Snapped back into the discussion at hand, I ached to melt into the carpet. What had I started?
“All right, America, fess up,” Celeste demanded.
I froze, breathing shallowly. It took me a moment to find the right words.
“Maxon knows how I feel, and that’s all that matters.”
She rolled her eyes at my answer but didn’t press any further. No doubt she was worried I would do the same to her if she did.
We stood there, looking at one another. The Selection had been going on for months, and now we could finally see the real lines of competition. We’d all gotten a peek into everyone else’s relationship with Maxon—at least one aspect of it—and could look at them side by side.
Moments later the queen walked in, wishing us a good morning. After curtsying to her, we all retreated. Into corners, into ourselves. Maybe it was always supposed to come to this. There were four girls and one prince, and three of us would be leaving soon with little more than an interesting story of how we spent our fall.
I was wringing my hands as I paced the downstairs library, trying to put the words together in my head. I knew I needed to explain what had just happened to Maxon before he heard about it from the other girls, but that didn’t mean I was looking forward to the conversation.
“Knock, knock,” he said, coming in. He took in my worried expression. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t get mad,” I warned as he approached.
His pace slowed, and the concerned look on his face became guarded instead. “I’ll try.”
“The girls know I saw you without your shirt on.” I saw the question coming to his lips. “I didn’t say anything about your back,” I vowed. “I wanted to, because now they just think we were in the middle of some big make-out fest.”
He smiled. “It did end up that way.”
“Don’t joke, Maxon! They hate me right now.”
The light didn’t leave his eyes as he hugged me. “If it’s any consolation, I’m not mad. So long as you kept my secret, I don’t mind. Though I am a little shocked you told them. How did it even come up?”
I buried my head in his chest. “I don’t think I can tell you.”
“Hmm.” His thumb rubbed up and down my back. “I thought we were supposed to be working on our trust.”
“We are. I’m asking you to trust that this will only get worse if I tell you.” Maybe I was wrong, but I was pretty sure confessing to Maxon that we were checking out half-dressed, sweaty guards would get us all into some kind of trouble.
“Okay,” he finally said. “The girls know you’ve seen me partly undressed. Anything else?”
I hesitated. “They know I was your first kiss. And I know everything you have and haven’t done with them.”
He pulled back. “What?”
“After I let the whole shirtless thing slip, there was a lot of finger-pointing, and everyone came clean. I know you’ve spent plenty of time kissing Celeste and that you would have kissed Kriss long before now if she would have let you. It all came out.”
He wiped his hand over his face, taking a few paces as he processed this. “So I have absolutely no privacy anymore? None? Because the four of you had to check scores with each other?” His frustration was clear.
“You know, for someone concerned with honesty, you ought to be grateful.”
He stopped and stared. “I beg your pardon?”
“Everything is out in the open now. We all have a pretty good idea of where we stand, and I, for one, am thankful.”
He rolled his eyes. “Thankful?”
“If you had told me that Celeste and I were at about the same point with you physically, I would never have tried to come on to you like I did last night. Do you know how humiliated I was?”
He scoffed and started pacing again. “Please, America, you’ve said and done so many foolish things, I’m surprised you can even be embarrassed anymore.”
Maybe it was because I had been raised with less of an articulate education, but it took a second for the full impact of his words to hit me. Maxon had always liked me, or so he’d said. I knew it was against the better judgment of other people. Was it also against his?
“I’ll go then,” I said quietly, unable to look him in the eye. “Sorry I let the whole shirt thing out.” I started walking away, feeling so small I wondered if he even noticed.
“Come on, America. I didn’t mean it like—”
“No, it’s fine,” I mumbled. “I’ll watch my words better.”
I made my way upstairs, unsure of whether I wanted Maxon to come after me or not. He didn’t.
When I got to my room, Anne, Mary, and Lucy were in there, changing my sheets and dusting the shelves.
“Hello, my lady,” Anne greeted. “Would you like some tea?”
“No, I’m just going to sit on the balcony for a moment. If any visitors come, tell them I’m resting.”
Anne frowned a bit but nodded. “Of course.”
I spent some time taking in the fresh air, then went over the assigned reading Silvia had prepared for us. I took a short nap and played my violin for a little while. So long as I could avoid the other girls and Maxon, I really didn’t care what I was doing.
With the king away, we were allowed to take our meals in our rooms, so I did. Halfway through my lemon-and-pepper chicken, a knock came at the door. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I was sure it was Maxon. There was no way I could see him right now. I grabbed Mary and Anne and headed to the bathroom.
“Lucy,” I whispered. “Tell him I’m taking a bath.”
“Him? A bath?”
“Yes. Don’t let him in,” I instructed.
“What’s this all about?” Anne asked as I closed the door, pressing my ear up against it.
“Can you hear anything?” I asked.
They both put their ears to the door, too, waiting to see if something intelligible came through.
I heard Lucy’s muffled voice, but then I put my ear to the crack of the door and the following conversation was much clearer.
“She’s in the bath, Your Majesty,” Lucy answered calmly. It was Maxon.
“Oh. I was hoping she’d be eating still. I thought maybe I could have my dinner with her.”
“She decided to take a bath before she ate.” There was a tiny waver in her voice, uncomfortable with being dishonest.
Come on, Lucy. Hold it together.
“I see. Well, maybe you could have her send for me when she’s done. I’d like to speak with her.”
“Umm . . . it might be a very long bath, Your Majesty.”
Maxon paused. “Oh. Very well. Then could you please let her know I came by and tell her to send for me if she’d like to talk. Tell her not to worry about the hour; I’ll come.”
It was quiet for a long time, and I was starting to think he had left.
“Um, thank you,” he said finally. “Good night.”
“Good night, Your Majesty.”
I hid for a few seconds longer to make sure he was gone. When I came out, Lucy was still standing by the door. I looked at all my maids, seeing the questions in their eyes.
“I just want to be alone tonight,” I said vaguely. “In fact, I think I’m ready to wind down. If you could take my dinner tray, I’m going to get ready for bed.”
“Do you want one of us to stay?” Mary asked. “In case you decide to send for the prince?”
I could see the hope in their eyes, but I had to let them down.
“No, I just need some rest. I’ll see Maxon in the morning.”
It was strange tucking myself into bed, knowing something was hanging between Maxon and me, but I didn’t know how to talk to him right now. It didn’t make sense. We’d already been through so many ups and downs together, so many attempts to make this relationship real; but it was clear that if that was going to happen, we still had a very long way to go.
I was gruffly awoken before dawn. The light from the hallway flooded my room, and I rubbed my eyes as a guard entered.
“Lady America, wake up, please,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, yawning.
“There’s an emergency. We need you downstairs.”
At once my blood turned cold. My family was dead; I knew it. We’d sent guards; we’d warned those at home this was possible, but the rebels were too much. The same thing had happened to Natalie. She left the Selection an only child after the rebels killed her little sister. None of our families was safe anymore.
I threw off the covers and grabbed my robe and slippers. I ran down the hall and stairs as quickly as I could, nearly slipping twice on the steps.
When I got to the first floor, Maxon was there, talking intently to a guard. I ran up to him, forgetting about everything from the last two days.
“Are they all right?” I asked, trying not to cry. “How bad is it?”
“What?” he asked, taking me in for an unexpected hug.
“My parents, my brothers and sisters. Are they okay?”
Quickly Maxon held me at arm’s length and looked me in the eye. “They’re fine, America. I’m sorry; I should have realized that’s what you would have thought of first.”
I nearly started weeping I was so relieved.
Maxon seemed a bit confused as he continued. “There are rebels in the palace.”
“What?” I shrieked. “Why aren’t we hiding?”
“They’re not here to attack.”
“Then why are they here?”
He sighed. “It’s only two rebels from the Northern camp. They’re unarmed, and they’re specifically asking to speak to me . . . and to you.”
“I’m not sure; but I’m going to talk to them, so I thought I would give you the chance to speak to them as well.”
I looked down at myself and ran my hand over my hair. “I’m in my nightgown.”
He smiled. “I know, but this is very informal. It’s fine.”
“Do you want me to talk to them?”
“That is truly up to you, but I’m curious as to why they want to speak with you in particular. I’m not sure they’ll tell me if you’re not there.”
I nodded, weighing this in my head. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to rebels. Unarmed or not, they were probably far deadlier than I could ever be. But if Maxon thought I could do it, maybe I should. . . .
“Okay,” I said, pulling myself up. “Okay.”
“You won’t get hurt, America. I promise.” His hand was still on mine, and he gave my fingers a tiny squeeze. He turned to the guard. “Lead the way. Keep your holster unlocked, just in case.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” he answered, and escorted us around the corner into the Great Room, where two people were standing, surrounded by more guards.
It took me seconds to find Aspen in the crowd.
“Could you call off your dogs?” one of the rebels asked. He was tall and slim and blond. His boots were covered in mud, and his outfit looked like something a Seven might wear: a pair of heavy pants taken in to fit him closely and a patched-up shirt beneath a beaten leather jacket. A rusting compass on a long chain swung around his neck, moving as he shifted. He looked rugged without being terrifying, which wasn’t what I’d expected.
Even more unexpected was that his companion was a girl. She, too, wore boots; but as if she was trying to be resourceful and fashionable at the same time, she had on leggings and a skirt constructed from the same material as the male’s pants. Her hip jutted out confidently to the side despite her being surrounded by guards. Even if I hadn’t recognized her face, I would have remembered her jacket. Denim and cropped, covered with what looked like dozens of embroidered flowers.
Making sure I remembered who she was, she gave me a little curtsy. I made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a gasp.
“What’s wrong?” Maxon asked.
“Later,” I whispered.
Confused but calm, he gave me a comforting squeeze and focused again on our guests.
“We’ve come to speak to you in peace,” the man said. “We are unarmed, and your guards have searched us. I know asking for privacy would be inappropriate, but we have things to discuss with you that no one else should hear.”
“What about America?” Maxon asked.
“We want to speak with her as well.”
“To what end?”
“Again,” the young man said, almost cockily, “we need to be out of earshot of these guys.” He playfully gestured around the room.
“If you think you can harm her—”
“I know you’re skeptical of us, and for good reason, but we have no cause to hurt either of you. We want to talk.”
Maxon deliberated for a minute. “You,” he said, looking toward one of the guards, “pull down one of the tables and four chairs. Then all of you, please stay back to give our guests some room.”
The guards obeyed, and we were all silent for a few uncomfortable minutes. When the table was finally down from the stack and in the corner with two chairs on either side, Maxon gestured that the pair should join us over there.
As we walked, the guards stepped back, wordlessly forming a perimeter around the room and focusing their eyes on the two rebels as if they were prepared to fire at a second’s notice.
As we reached the table, the male stuck out his hand. “Don’t you think introductions are in order?”
Maxon eyed him warily but then relented. “Maxon Schreave, your sovereign.”
The young man chuckled. “Honored, sir.”
“And you are?”
“Mr. August Illéa, at your service.”
Maxon and I looked at each other, then back to the rebels.
“You heard me right. I’m an Illéa. And by birth, too. This one will be by marriage sooner or later,” August said, nodding to the girl.
“Georgia Whitaker,” she said. “And of course, we know all about you, America.”
She gave me another smile, and I returned it. I wasn’t sure I trusted her, but I certainly didn’t hate her.
“So Father was right.” Maxon sighed. I looked over to him, confused. Maxon knew there were direct descendants of Gregory Illéa walking around? “He said you’d come for the crown one day.”
“I don’t want your crown,” August assured us.
“Good, because I intend to lead this country,” Maxon shot back. “I’ve been raised for it, and if you think you can come in here claiming to be Gregory’s great-great-grandson—”
“I don’t want your crown, Maxon! Destroying the monarchy is more up the Southern rebels’ alley. We have other goals.” August sat at the table, leaning back in his seat. Then as if it was his home we’d stepped into, he swept his arm across the chairs, inviting us to sit.
Maxon and I eyed each other again and joined him, Georgia following quickly. August looked at us awhile, either studying us or trying to decide where to start.
Maxon, perhaps reminding us who was in charge, broke the tension. “Would you like some tea or coffee?”
Georgia lit up. “Coffee?”
In spite of himself, Maxon smiled at her enthusiasm and turned behind him to get a guard’s attention. “Could you have one of the maids bring some coffee, please? For goodness’ sake, make sure it’s strong.” Then he focused again on August.
“I can’t begin to imagine what you want from me. It seems you made a point to come while the palace was asleep, and I’m guessing you’d like to keep this visit as secretive as possible. Say what you must. I can’t promise to give you what you want, but I will listen.”
August nodded and leaned forward. “We’ve been looking for Gregory’s diaries for decades. We knew they existed long ago and had a recent confirmation from a source I cannot reveal.” August looked at me. “It wasn’t your presentation on the Report that gave it away, just so you know.”
I sighed in relief. The second he mentioned the diaries, I began silently cursing myself and bracing for later when Maxon would add this to the list of stupid things I’d done.
“We have never desired to take down the monarchy,” he said to Maxon. “Even though it came about in a very corrupt way, we have no problem with having a sovereign leader, particularly if that leader is you.”
Maxon was still, but I could sense his pride. “Thank you.”
“What we would like are other things, specific freedoms. We want nominated officials, and we want to end the castes.”
August said all this as if it was easy. If he’d seen my presentation get cut off on the Report, he ought to know better.
“You act like I’m already the king,” Maxon answered in frustration. “Even if it was possible, I can’t simply give you what you’re asking for.”
“But you’re open to the idea?”
Maxon raised his hands and dropped them to the table. “What I’m open to is irrelevant at the moment. I am not king.”
August sighed, looking over to Georgia. They seemed to communicate wordlessly, and I was impressed at their easy intimacy. Here they were, in a very tense situation—one they’d entered maybe suspecting they wouldn’t be able to get out of—and their feelings for each other were so close to the surface.
“Speaking of kings,” Maxon added, “why don’t you explain to America who you are. I’m sure you’d do a better job than I would.”
I knew this was a way for Maxon to stall, to think of a way to get control of this situation, but I didn’t mind. I was dying to understand.
August smiled humorlessly. “That is an interesting story,” he promised, the vibrancy in his voice hinting at how exciting his tale would be. “As you know, Gregory had three children: Katherine, Spencer, and Damon. Katherine was married off to a prince, Spencer died, and Damon was the one who inherited the throne. Then when Damon’s son, Justin, died, his cousin Porter Schreave became prince, marrying Justin’s young widow, who had won the Selection barely three years earlier. And now the Schreaves are the royal family. No more Illéas ought to exist. But we do.”
“We?” Maxon asked, his tone calculated, like he was hoping for numbers.
August only nodded. The click of heels announced that the maid was coming. Maxon put a finger to his lips, like August would dare to say more with her in hearing distance. The maid set down the tray and poured coffee for all of us. Georgia’s hands were on her cup immediately, waiting for it to be filled. I didn’t really care for coffee—it was too bitter for my tastes—but I knew it would help me wake up, so I braced myself to take a drink.
Before I could even sip, Maxon slid the bowl of sugar in front of me. Like he knew.
“You were saying?” Maxon prompted, taking his coffee black.
“Spencer didn’t die,” August said flatly. “He knew what his father had done to take over the country, he knew his older sister had basically been sold into marriage, and he knew the same was expected of him. He couldn’t do it, so he ran.”
“Where did he go?” I asked, speaking for the first time.
“He hid with relatives and friends, eventually making a camp with some like-minded people in the north. It’s colder up there, wetter, and so hard to navigate that no one tries. We live there quietly most of the time.”
Georgia nudged him, her face a little shocked.
August came to his senses. “I suppose I’ve now given you directions to invade us yourself. I want to remind you that we’ve never killed any of your officers or staff, and we avoid injuring them at all costs. All we ever wanted was to put an end to the castes. To do that we needed proof that Gregory was the man we’d always been told he was. We have that now, and America hinted at it enough that we feel we could exploit that if we wanted to. We really don’t though. Not if we don’t have to.”
Maxon took a deep swig and set down his cup. “I’m honestly not sure what I’m supposed to do with this information. You’re a direct descendant of Gregory Illéa, but you don’t want the crown. You’ve come looking for things only the king could provide, but you asked for an audience with me and one of the Elite. My father isn’t even here.”
“We know,” August said. “This was deliberate timing.”
Maxon huffed. “If you don’t want the crown and only want things I can’t give you, why are you here?”
August and Georgia looked at each other, perhaps preparing themselves for their biggest request yet.
“We came to ask you for these things because we know you’re a reasonable man. We’ve watched you all your life, and we can see it in your eyes. I can see it now.”
I tried to be inconspicuous as I studied Maxon’s reaction to these words.
“You don’t like the castes either. You don’t like the way your father holds the country under his thumb. You don’t want to fight wars you know are nothing more than a distraction. More than anything, you want peace during your lifetime.
“We’re guessing that once you’re king, things could really change. And we’ve been waiting a long time for that. We’re prepared to wait longer. The Northern rebels are willing to give you our word never to attack the palace again and to do our best to stop or slow the Southern rebels. We see so much that you can’t from behind these walls. We would swear our allegiance to you, without question, if you would be willing to give us a sign of your readiness to work with us toward a future that would finally give the people of Illéa a chance to live their own lives.”
Maxon didn’t seem to know what to say, so I spoke up.
“What do the Southern rebels want anyway? Just to kill us all?”
August moved his head in a motion that was neither a shake nor a nod. “That’s part of it, sure, but only so they’ll have no one to combat them. Too much of the population is oppressed, and this growing cell has bought in to the idea that they could rule the country themselves. America, you’re a Five; I know you’ve seen your share of people who hate the monarchy.”
Maxon discreetly moved his eyes my way. I gave a brief nod.
“Of course you have. Because when you’re on the bottom, your only choice is to blame the top. In this case, they’ve got good reason—after all, it was a One who sentenced them to their lives with no real hope for bettering them. Those in charge of the Southern rebels have convinced their disciples that the way to get back what they think is theirs is to take it from the monarchy. But I’ve had people defect from the Southerner rebel leadership and end up with me. I know for a fact that once the Southerners get control, they have no intention of sharing the wealth. When in history has that ever happened?
“Their plan is to obliterate what Illéa has, take over, make a bunch of promises, and leave everyone in the same place they are now. For most people, I’m sure it’ll get worse. The Sixes and Sevens won’t move up, except for a select few the rebels will manipulate for the sake of the show. Twos and Threes will have everything stripped from them. It’ll make a bunch of people feel vindicated, but it won’t fix anything. “If there are no pop stars churning out those mind-numbing songs, then there are no musicians in the booths backing them up, no clerks running back and forth with tapes, no shop owners selling the music. Taking out one person at the top destroys thousands at the bottom.”
August paused for a moment, looking consumed with worry. “It’ll be Gregory all over again, only worse. The Southerners are prepared to be far more cutthroat than you could ever be, and the chances of the country bouncing back are slim. It’ll be the same old oppression under a brand-new name . . . and your people will suffer like never before.” He looked into Maxon’s eyes. They seemed to have some understanding between them, something that maybe came from being born to lead.
“All we need is a sign, and we’ll do everything we can to help you change things, peacefully and fairly. Your people deserve a chance.”
Maxon looked at the table. I couldn’t imagine the debate in his head. “What kind of sign?” he asked hesitantly. “Money?”
“No,” August said, nearly laughing. “We have more funds than you might guess.”
“How is that possible?”
“Donations,” he replied simply.
Maxon nodded, but I was surprised. Donations meant there were people—who knew how many—supporting them. How big was the Northern rebel force when those supporters were taken into account? How much of the country was asking for exactly what these two had come here requesting?
“If not money,” Maxon said finally, “what do you want?”
August flicked his head toward me. “Pick her.”
I buried my face in my hands, knowing how Maxon would take this.
There was a long moment of silence before he lost his temper. “I will not have anyone else telling me who I can and cannot marry! This is my life you’re playing games with!”
I looked up in time to see August stand across the table. “And the palace has been playing with other people’s lives for years. Grow up, Maxon. You’re the prince. You want your damn crown, then keep it. But responsibilities come with that privilege.”
Guards were cautiously walking our way, alerted by Maxon’s tone and August’s aggressive stance. Certainly they could hear everything by now.
Maxon stood to counter him. “You don’t get to choose my wife. End of story.”
August, completely undeterred, stepped back and crossed his arms. “Fine! We have another option if this one doesn’t work.”
August rolled his eyes. “As if I would tell you, given how calmly you reacted the first time.”
“Come off it.”
“This one or that one doesn’t really matter. We just need to know you’ll have a partner who’ll be on the same page for this plan.”
“My name is America,” I said fiercely, standing and looking him straight in the eye, “not This One. I’m not some toy in your little revolution. You keep talking about everyone in Illéa having a chance at the life they want. What about me? What about my future? Do I not count in that plan?”
I searched their faces, waiting for an answer. They were silent. I noticed the guards, surrounding us, on edge.
I lowered my voice. “I’m all for killing off the castes, but I’m not something to be played with. If you’re looking for a pawn, there’s one girl upstairs so in love with him, she’d do anything you asked if it meant a proposal at the end of the day. And the other two . . . between duty and prestige, they’d be game, too. Go get one of them.”
Without waiting to be excused, I turned to leave, storming away as best I could in a robe and slippers.
“America! Wait!” Georgia called. I got out the door before she caught up with me. “Stop for a minute.”
“We’re sorry. We thought you two were in love. We didn’t realize we were asking for something he’d be opposed to. We were sure he’d be on board.”
“You don’t understand. He’s so tired of being bullied and bossed around. You have no idea what he’s been through.” I felt the tears rising, and I blinked them away, focusing on the designs on Georgia’s jacket.
“I know more than you think,” she said. “Maybe not everything, but a lot. We’ve been watching the Selection very closely, and it looks like you two get along so well. He seems so happy around you. And then . . . we know about how you rescued your maids.”
It took me a second to realize what that meant. Who was watching us on their behalf ?
“And we saw what you did for Marlee. We saw you fight. And then your presentation a few days ago.” She stopped to laugh. “That took some guts. We could use a girl with guts.”
I shook my head. “I wasn’t trying to be a hero. Most of the time, I don’t feel anything close to brave.”
“So? It doesn’t really matter how you feel about your character; it just matters what you do with it. You, more than the others, act on what’s right before thinking about what it will mean for yourself. Maxon has some great candidates up there, but they won’t get their hands dirty to make things better. Not like you.”
“A lot of that was selfish. Marlee was important to me, and so are my maids.”
She stepped closer. “But didn’t those actions come with consequences?”
“And you probably knew they would. But you acted for those who couldn’t speak up for themselves. That’s special, America.”
This was different praise from what I was used to. I could handle my dad telling me I was a beautiful singer or Aspen saying I was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen . . . but this? It was almost overwhelming.
“Honestly, with some of the stuff you’ve done, I can’t believe the king let you stay. The whole thing on the Report . . .” She let out a whistle.
I laughed. “He was so angry.”
“I was shocked you made it out alive!”
“It was by the skin of my teeth, let me tell you. And most days I feel like I’m only seconds away from being kicked out.”
“But Maxon likes you, right? The way he guards you . . .”
I shrugged. “There are days when I feel so sure and then others where I have no idea. Today isn’t a good day. Neither was yesterday. Or the day before, if I’m honest.”
She nodded. “Well, we’re pulling for you, all the same.”
“Me and someone else,” I corrected.
Again she gave no clue as to her other favorite.
“What was the deal with that curtsy in the woods? Just messing with me?” I asked.
She smiled. “I know it might not seem like it by the way we act sometimes, but we really do care about the royal family. If we lose them, the Southern rebels will win. If they get true control . . . well, you heard August.” She shook her head. “Anyway, I’d felt certain I was looking at my future queen, so I figured the least you deserved was a curtsy.”
Her reasoning was so silly, it made me laugh again. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to talk to a girl I’m not competing with.”
“Getting a bit old?” she asked with a sympathetic expression.
“As it’s gotten smaller, it’s gotten worse. I mean, I knew it would, but . . . it feels like it’s moving away from trying to be the girl that Maxon would pick to making sure the other girls won’t be the one he picks. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
She nodded. “It does. But, hey, this is what you signed up for.”
I chuckled. “Actually, I didn’t. I was sort of . . . encouraged to put my name in. I didn’t want to be a princess.”
She smiled. “Not wanting the crown means you’re probably the best person to have it.”
I stared at her, convinced by her wide eyes that she believed that without a doubt. I hoped to ask more, but Maxon and August came out of the Great Room, looking surprisingly calm. A single guard followed at a distance. August was looking at Georgia like it had hurt him to be away from her even for a few minutes. Maybe that was the only reason she was here today.
“Are you okay, America?” Maxon asked.
“Yes.” My ability to look him in the eye had disappeared again.
“You should go get ready for the day,” he commented.
“The guards have been sworn to secrecy, and I’d appreciate the same from you.”
He seemed displeased with my coolness, but how else was I supposed to act right now?
“Mr. Illéa, it was a pleasure. We’ll talk again soon.” Maxon held out his hand. August took it easily.
“If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask. We truly are on your side, Your Majesty.”
“Georgia, let’s go. Some of these guards look a little too trigger-happy.”
She chuckled. “See you around, America.”
I nodded, sure I’d never see her again and sad because of it. She walked past Maxon and slid her hand into August’s. With a guard in tow, they walked out the gaping doors of the palace, leaving Maxon and me alone in the foyer.
His eyes rose to mine. I mumbled something and pointed upstairs, moving as I did so. His quick objection to choosing me only drove home the pain of his words yesterday in the library. I thought after the safe room there was some kind of understanding between us. But it seemed as if everything had gotten even more muddled than it had been when I was still trying to decide how much I liked Maxon in the first place.
I didn’t know what this meant for us. Or if there was still an us worth worrying about.
For as fast as I was at getting to my room, Aspen was faster. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Aspen knew the palace so well, this was probably nothing to him now.
“Hey,” I started, a little unsure of what to say.
Quickly, he wrapped his arms around me, then pulled away. “That’s my girl.”
I smiled. “Yeah?”
“You put ’em in their place, Mer.” Risking his life, Aspen ran a thumb down my cheek. “You do deserve to be happy. We all do.”
Smiling, he dropped his hand to move the bracelet Maxon had brought me from New Asia and reached underneath to touch the one I’d made of a button he’d given me. His eyes looked sad as he stared at our little memento.
“We’ll talk soon. Really talk. There’s a lot we need to work out.”
With that, Aspen moved down the hall. I sighed and put my head in my hands. Did he assume my rejection meant that I was pushing Maxon away for good? Did he think I wanted to rekindle things with him?
Then again, hadn’t I just pushed Maxon away?
Hadn’t I thought yesterday that Aspen needed to stay in my life?
So then why did everything feel awful?
The mood in the Women’s Room was dark. Queen Amberly sat writing her letters, and from time to time, I’d notice her peek up to take in the four of us. After yesterday, we were avoiding doing anything that might require us to interact with one another. Celeste had a pile of magazines and was stretched out on the couch. In a very wise move, Kriss had taken her journal and settled in to write, once again positioning herself near the queen. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Elise had gotten out a collection of drawing pencils and was working on something by the window. I was in a wide chair near the door, reading a book.
As it was, we didn’t even have to make eye contact.
I tried to concentrate on the words in front of me, but mostly I wondered who the Northern rebels wanted as princess if they couldn’t have me. Celeste was very popular, and it would be easy to get people to follow her. I wondered if they were aware of how manipulative she could be. If they knew things about me, maybe they did. Was there more to Celeste than I’d guessed?
Kriss was sweet, and according to that poll a while back, she was one of the people’s favorites. Her family didn’t have much sway, but she was more of a princess than the rest of us. She had that air about her. Maybe that was her big draw; she wasn’t perfect, but she was so lovable. There were days when even I wanted to follow Kriss.
The one I suspected the least was Elise. She’d admitted she didn’t love Maxon and that she was here because of duty. I genuinely thought that when she spoke of duty she meant to her family or to her New Asian roots, not to the Northern rebels. Besides that, she was so stoic and calm. There was nothing close to rebellious about her.
And that was why I was suddenly positive she was their favorite. She seemed to be trying the least to compete and had openly admitted her coolness toward Maxon. Maybe she didn’t have to try because, at the end of the day, she had a quiet army of supporters to put her under the crown anyway.
“That’s it,” the queen said suddenly. “All of you, come here.” She pushed her little table away and stood as we all walked over nervously.
“Something’s wrong. What is it?” she demanded.
We looked at one another, none of us wanting to explain. Finally too-perfect Kriss piped up.
“Your Majesty, we’ve just suddenly realized how intense this competition is. We’re a bit more aware of where we each stand with the prince, and it’s difficult to let it sink in and still want to chat right now.”
The queen nodded in understanding. “How often do you all think of Natalie?” she asked. Natalie had been gone barely a week. I thought of her nearly every day. I also thought of Marlee all the time, and some of the other girls would pop into my head at random as well.
“Always,” Elise said quietly. “She was so lighthearted.”
A smile came to her lips as she said this. I had always assumed that Natalie got on Elise’s nerves since she was so reserved and Natalie was so spacey. But maybe it was one of those opposites-attract kinds of friendships.
“Sometimes she would laugh over the littlest thing,” Kriss added. “It was contagious.”
“Exactly,” the queen said. “I’ve been where you are, and I know how difficult it is. You second guess the things you do; you second guess everything he does. You wonder over every conversation, trying to read into the breaths between sentences. It’s exhausting.”
It was as though I could see a weight lifting from everyone. Someone got us.
“But know this: as much tension as you feel with one another now, you will ache every time one of you leaves. No one will ever understand this experience like the other girls who have been through it, the Elite especially. You may fight, but that’s what sisters do. These girls,” she said, pointing to each of us, “will be the ones you call nearly every day for the first year, terrified of making a mistake and needing their support. When you have parties, these are the names you’ll put at the top of your guest lists, just under the names of your family members. Because that’s what you are now. You’ll never lose these relationships.”
We looked at one another. If I was the princess and something was happening where I needed a rational perspective, I’d call Elise first. If I was fighting with Maxon, Kriss would remind me of every good thing about him. And Celeste . . . well, I wasn’t so sure, but if anyone was ever going to tell me to toughen up about something, it would be her.
“So take your time,” she advised. “Adjust to where you are. And let it go. You don’t choose him; he chooses you. There’s no point in hating the others for that.”
“Do you know who he wants the most?” Celeste asked. And for the first time, I heard worry in her voice.
“I don’t,” Queen Amberly confessed. “Sometimes I think I could guess, but I don’t pretend to understand everything Maxon feels. I know who the king would choose, but that’s about it.”
“Who would you choose?” I asked, then cursed myself for being so blunt.
She smiled kindly. “I honestly haven’t let myself think about it. It would break my heart to start loving one of you like a daughter and then lose you. I couldn’t bear it.”
I lowered my eyes, not sure if those words were meant to be a comfort or not.
“I will say I’d be happy to have any of you in my family.” I looked up and watched as she took the time to meet each set of eyes. “For now, there’s work to do.”
We stood there silently, soaking in her wisdom. I’d never taken the time to look at the competitors in the last Selection, to f ind their pictures or anything. I knew a handful of names, mostly because older women would drop them into conversations when I sang at parties. It was never that important to me; we already had a queen, and even as a girl, the possibility of becoming a princess never crossed my mind. But now I wondered how many of the women who showed up to visit the queen or came for Halloween were her former competition, now her closest friends.
Celeste walked away first, heading back to the comfort of the couch. It didn’t seem as if Queen Amberly’s words meant much to her. For some reason that was the tipping point for me. Everything from the last few days crashed back onto my heart, and I could feel it was seconds away from cracking.
I curtsied. “Excuse me, please,” I mumbled, before moving swiftly to the door. I didn’t have a plan. Maybe I could go sit in the bathroom for a minute or tuck myself away in one of the numerous parlors downstairs. Maybe I would just go to my room and cry my eyes out.
Unfortunately, it looked like the universe was plotting against me. Just outside the Women’s Room, Maxon was pacing back and forth, looking as if he was trying to solve a riddle. Before I could hide somewhere, he saw me.
Of everything I wanted to do right now, this was the last thing on my list.
“I was debating asking you to come out,” he said.
“What do you need?” I answered shortly.
Maxon stood there, still working up the nerve to say something that was obviously driving him crazy. “So there’s one girl who loves me beyond reason?”
I crossed my arms. After the last few days, I should have seen his change of heart coming. “Yes.”
I looked up at him, almost irritated that he needed me to explain. Don’t you already know how I feel? I wanted to scream. Don’t you remember the safe room?
But, honestly, I needed some confirmation right now, too. What had happened to make me so unsure so quickly?
The king. His insinuations about what the other girls had done, his praise of their merits made me feel small. And it was compounded by all my missteps with Maxon this week. The only way we would have ever been brought together was because of the Selection; but it seemed that as long as it went on, there was no way for anything to feel certain.
“You told me you didn’t trust me,” I accused. “The other day you made a point of humiliating me, and yesterday you basically said I was an embarrassment. And not a few hours ago, the suggestion of marrying me sent you into a rage. Forgive me for not feeling so secure in our relationship right now.”
“You forget that I’ve never done this, America,” he said passionately, but without any anger. “You have someone to compare me to. I don’t even know how to have a typical relationship, and I only get one chance. You’ve had at least two. I’m going to make mistakes.”
“I don’t mind mistakes,” I shot back. “I mind the uncertainty. Most of the time I can’t tell what’s going on.”
He was quiet for a moment, and I realized that we’d come to a very serious crossroad. We’d implied so many things, but we couldn’t go on like this for much longer. Even if we ended up together, these moments of insecurity would haunt us.
“We keep doing this,” I breathed, exhausted with this game. “We get close and then something happens and it falls apart, and you never seem to be able to make a decision. If you want me as much as you’ve always claimed to, why isn’t this over?”
Even though I’d accused him of not caring about me at all, his frustration melted into sadness. “Because half the time I’ve been sure you loved someone else and the other half I’ve doubted you could love me at all,” he answered, making me feel positively awful.
“Like I haven’t had my own reasons to doubt? You treat Kriss like she’s heaven on earth, and then I catch you with Celeste—”
“I explained that.”
“Yes, but it still hurt to see.”
“Well, it hurts me to see how quickly you shut down. Where does that even come from?”
“I don’t know, but maybe you should stop thinking about me for a while.”
The silence was abrupt. “What does that mean?”
I shrugged. “There are three other girls here. If you’re so worried about your one shot, you might want to make sure you’re not wasting it on me.”
I walked away, angry with Maxon for making me feel this way . . . and angry with myself for making things so much worse.
I watched as the palace was transformed. Almost overnight, lush Christmas trees lined the hallways of the first floor, garlands were strung down the stairways, and all the floral arrangements were changed to include holly or mistletoe. The strange thing was, if I opened my window, it still felt like the edge of summer outside. I wondered if the palace could somehow manufacture snow. Maybe if I asked Maxon, he’d look into it.
Then again, maybe not.
Days passed. I tried not to be upset that Maxon was doing exactly what I’d asked, but as the space between us grew icy, I regretted my pride. I wondered if this was always bound to happen. Was I destined to say the wrong thing, make the wrong choice? Even if Maxon was what I wanted, I was never going to get myself together long enough for it to be real.
The whole thing just felt tired; it was the same problem I’d been facing since Aspen walked through the doorway of the palace. And I ached from it, from feeling so torn, so confused.
I’d taken to walking around the palace during the afternoons. With the gardens off-limits, the Women’s Room day after day was too confining.
It was while I was walking that I felt the shift. As if some unseen trigger had set off everyone in the palace. The guards stood a bit stiller, and the maids walked a bit faster. Even I felt strange, like I wasn’t quite so welcome here as I was only moments ago. Before I knew what it was I was feeling, the king rounded the corner, a small entourage behind him.
Then it all made perfect sense. His absence made the palace warmer, and now that he was home, we were all subject to his whims again. No wonder the Northern rebels were excited about Maxon.
I curtsied as the king approached. While he walked, he put up a hand, and the men behind him paused as he came close, leaving us with a small bubble of space in which to speak.
“Lady America. I see you’re still here,” he said, his smile and his words at odds with each other.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“And how have you been in my absence?”
I smiled. “Silent.”
“That’s a good girl.” He started to walk away but then remembered something and came back. “It was brought to my attention that of the girls left, you’re the only one still receiving money for your participation. Elise gave hers up voluntarily almost immediately after the payments were stopped for the Twos and Threes.”
That didn’t surprise me. Elise was a Four, but her family owned high-end hotels. They weren’t hurting for money the way the shopkeepers back in Carolina were.
“I think that should end,” he announced, snapping me back into the moment.
My face fell.
“Unless, of course, you’re here for a payout and not because you love my son.” His eyes burned into me, daring me to challenge his decision.
“You’re right,” I said, hating the way the words felt in my mouth. “It’s only fair.”
I could see he was disappointed not to get more of a fight. “I’ll see to it immediately.”
He walked away, and I stood there, trying not to feel sorry for myself. Really, it was fair. How did it look that I was the only one getting checks? It would all end eventually anyway. Sighing, I headed toward my room. The least I could do was write home and warn them that the money wouldn’t be coming anymore.
I opened my door, and, for the first time, I was completely ignored by my maids. Anne, Mary, and Lucy were in the back corner, hovering over a dress that they appeared to be working on, bickering about their progress.
“Lucy, you said you were going to finish this hem last night,” Anne said. “You left early to do it.”
“I know, I know. I got sidetracked. I can do it now.” Her eyes were pleading. Lucy was already a bit sensitive, and I knew Anne’s rigid manner sometimes got to her.
“You’ve been getting sidetracked an awful lot these last few days,” Anne commented.
Mary held out her hands. “Calm down. Give me the dress before you mess it up.”
“I’m sorry,” Lucy said. “Just let me take it now, and I’ll get it done.”
“What’s going on with you?” Anne demanded. “You’ve been acting so funny.”
Lucy looked up at her, eyes frozen. Whatever her secret was, she looked terrified to share it.
I cleared my throat.
They whipped their heads in my direction, all curtsying in turn.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” I said as I walked toward them, “but I highly doubt the queen’s maids argue like that. Besides, we’re wasting time if there’s work to be done.”
Anne, still angry, pointed her finger at Lucy. “But she—”
I silenced her with a small gesture of my hand, a bit surprised that it worked so easily.
“No arguing. Lucy, why don’t you take that down to the workroom to finish, and we can all get some room to think.”
Lucy happily scooped up the fabric, so grateful for the means to escape that she practically ran from the room. Anne watched her go, a full pout on her face. Mary looked worried but dutifully went to work without another word.
It took all of two minutes for me to realize that the mood in my room was too dreary for me to focus. I grabbed some paper and a pen and headed back downstairs. I wondered if I’d done the right thing, sparing Lucy. Maybe they’d all be fine if I’d let them air out whatever was happening. Perhaps my meddling would shake their resolve in helping me. I’d never really bossed them around like that before.
I paused outside the Women’s Room. That didn’t feel like the right place either. I moved down the main hallway, finding a little nook with a bench. That seemed nice. I ran into the library and picked up a book to lean on and went back to the nook, finding myself practically hidden by the large plant beside the bench. The wide window looked into the garden, and, for a minute, the palace didn’t seem so small. I watched birds fly outside the window and tried to form the kindest way to tell my parents there wouldn’t be any more checks.
“Maxon, can’t we go on a real date? Somewhere outside the palace?” I recognized Kriss’s voice immediately. Hmm. The Women’s Room might not have been so full after all.
I could hear the smile in his voice as he answered. “I wish we could, sweetheart, but even if things were calm, that would be difficult.”
“I want to see you somewhere where you’re not the prince,” she whined lovingly.
“Ah, but I’m the prince everywhere.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do. I’m sorry I can’t give that to you, really. I think it would be nice to see you somewhere where you weren’t an Elite. But this is the life I live.”
His voice grew a little sad.
“Would you regret it?” he asked. “For the rest of your life, it would be like this. Beautiful walls, but walls all the same. My mother scarcely leaves the palace more than once or twice a year.” Through the thick leaves of the planted shrub, I watched as they passed me, completely unaware. “And if you think the public is intrusive now, it would be much worse when you’re the only girl they’re watching. I know your feelings for me run deep. I feel it every day. But what about the life that comes along with me? Do you want that?”
It seemed as if they’d stopped somewhere in the hallway, as Maxon’s voice wasn’t fading.
“Maxon Schreave,” Kriss started, “you make it sound like it’s a sacrifice for me to be here. Each day I’m thankful for being chosen. Sometimes I try to imagine what it would have been like if we’d never met. . . . I’d rather lose you now than have gone a lifetime without this.”
Her voice was getting thick. I didn’t think she was crying, but she was close.
“I need you to know I’d want you without the beautiful clothes and the gorgeous rooms. I’d want you without the crown, Maxon. I just want you.”
Maxon was momentarily speechless, and I could imagine him holding her close or wiping away the tears that might have come by now.
“I can’t tell you what it means to me to hear that. I’ve been dying for someone to tell me that I was what mattered,” he confessed quietly.
“You are, Maxon.”
There was another quiet moment between them.
“I . . . I don’t think I want to wait anymore.”
Even though I knew I’d regret it, at those words I silently put down my paper and pen, slipped off my shoes, and scurried to the end of the hall. I peeked around and saw the back of Maxon’s head as Kriss’s hand slid just barely into the neck of his suit. Her hair fell to the side as they kissed, and, for her first, it seemed like it was going really well. Better than Maxon’s, that was for sure.
I ducked back around the corner and heard her giggle a second later. Maxon let out a sigh that was half triumph and half relief. I walked to my seat quickly, angling myself toward the window again, just in case.
“When can we do that again?” she asked quietly.
“Hmm. How about in as much time as it takes to get from here to your room?”
Kriss’s laugh faded as they moved down the hallway. I sat there for a minute, then I picked up my pen and paper, finding the words easily now.
Mom and Dad,
There’s so much to do these days, I have to keep this short. In an effort to show my devotion to Maxon and not to the luxuries of being in the Elite, I’ve given up receiving payments for my participation. I realize this is short notice, but I’m sure with everything we’ve been given by now, there’s not much more we could want for.
I hope you won’t be too disappointed by this news. I miss you and hope we’ ll get to see each other again soon.
I love you all.
The Report was lacking material following what the public would see as a rather uneventful week. After the brief updates from the king on his visit to France, the floor was turned over to Gavril, who was now interviewing the remaining Elite in a casual manner about things that didn’t seem to matter at this point in the competition.
Then again, the last time they’d asked us about something that did matter, I suggested dissolving the castes and nearly got thrown out of the competition.
“Lady Celeste, have you seen the princess’s suite?” Gavril asked jovially.
I grinned to myself, grateful he didn’t ask me the same question. Celeste’s perfect smile managed to widen, and she flipped her hair over her shoulder playfully before answering.
“Well, Gavril, not yet. But I’m certainly hoping to earn the privilege. Of course, King Clarkson has provided us with the most beautiful accommodations, I can’t imagine anything better than what we already have. The, um . . . the beds are so . . .”
Celeste stammered just a bit as her eyes caught two guards rushing into the studio. Our seats were arranged in such a way that I could see them as they ran to the king, but Kriss and Elise had their backs to the action. They both tried to turn their heads discreetly, but it did them no good.
“Luxurious. And it would be more than I could dream of to . . .” Celeste continued, not totally focused on her answer.
But it appeared she didn’t need to be. The king stood and came over, cutting her off.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the interruption, but this is very urgent.” He clutched a piece of paper in one hand as he smoothed his tie with the other. He was composed as he spoke. “Since our country’s birth, the rebel forces have been the bane of our society. Over the years, their means of attacking the palace, not to mention the common man, have become far more aggressive.
“It appears they have sunk to new lows. As you may well know, the four remaining young ladies of the Selection represent a wide range of castes. We have a Two, a Three, a Four, and a Five. We’re honored to have such a varied group, but this has given a strange incentive to the rebels.”
The king looked over his shoulder at us before continuing.
“We are prepared for attacks on the palace, and when the rebels attack the public, we intercede as best we can. And I would not worry you if I thought that I, as your king, could protect you, but . . .
“The rebels are attacking by caste.”
The words hung in the air. In an almost friendly gesture, Celeste and I shared a confused glance.
“They have wanted to end the monarchy for a long time. Recent attacks on the families of these young girls have shown the lengths that they’re prepared to go to, and we’ve sent guards from the palace to protect the Elite’s loved ones. But now that is not enough. If you are a Two, Three, Four, or Five—that is, in the same caste as any of these ladies—you may be subject to an attack from the rebels based on that fact alone.”
I covered my mouth and heard Celeste suck in a breath.
“Beginning today, the rebels intend to attack Twos and work their way down the castes,” the king added solemnly.
It was sinister. If they couldn’t get us to abandon the Selection for our families, they would get a very large portion of the country to want us out. The longer we held on, the more the people would hate us for risking their lives.
“That is sad news, indeed, my king,” Gavril said, breaking the silence.
The king nodded. “We will seek a solution, of course. But we have reports of eight attacks today in five different provinces, all of them against Twos and all of them resulting in at least one death.”
The hand that had been frozen over my mouth dropped to my heart. People had died today at our expense.
“For now,” King Clarkson continued, “we encourage you to stay close to home and to take any security measures possible.”
“Excellent advice, my king,” Gavril said. He turned to us. “Ladies, anything you’d like to add?”
Elise merely shook her head.
Kriss took a deep breath. “I know that Twos and Threes are being targeted, but your homes are safer than most of the ones for lower castes. If you can take in a family of Fours or Fives that you know well, I think that would be a good idea.”
Celeste nodded. “Stay safe. Do what the king says.”
She turned to me, and I realized I needed to say something. When I was on the Report and feeling a bit lost, I tended to look to Maxon, as if he could silently give me advice. Falling into that habit, I searched for his eyes. But all I saw was his blond hair as he stared into his lap, his dejected frown the only thing visible.
Of course he was worried about his people. But this was about more than protecting his citizens. He knew we might leave.
And shouldn’t we? How many Fives could lose their lives because I sat on my stool in the bright lights of the palace studio?
But how could I—or any of the girls—shoulder that burden? We weren’t the ones taking their lives. I remembered everything August and Georgia said to us, and I knew there was only one thing we could do.
“Fight,” I said to no one in particular. Then remembering where I was, I turned to the camera. “Fight. The rebels are bullies. They’re trying to scare you into doing what they want. And what if you do? What kind of future do you think they’ll offer you? These people, these tyrants, aren’t going to suddenly stop being violent. If you give them power, they’re going to be a thousand times worse. So fight. However you can, fight.”
I felt blood and adrenaline pulsing through me, like I was ready to attack the rebels myself. I’d had enough. They’d kept us all in terror, victimized our families. If one of those Southern rebels was in front of me right now, I wouldn’t run.
Gavril started speaking again, but I was so angry, all I could hear was my heart beating in my ears. Before I knew it, the cameras were off and the lights were powering down.
Maxon went over to his father and whispered something to which the king shook his head.
The girls stood and started to leave.
“Go straight to your rooms,” Maxon said gently. “Dinner will be brought up, and I’ll be visiting you all soon.”
As I walked past them, the king put a single finger on my arm, and in that small gesture, I knew he meant for me to stop.
“That wasn’t very smart,” he said.
I shrugged. “What we’re doing isn’t working. Keep this up and you won’t have anyone left to rule over.”
He flicked his hand, dismissing me, fed up with me again.
Maxon quietly knocked on my door, letting himself in. I was already in my nightgown, reading in my bed. I’d begun to wonder if he was going to come at all.
“It’s so late,” I whispered, though there was no one to disturb.
“I know. I had to speak with all the others, and it’s been extremely taxing. Elise was very shaken. She’s feeling particularly guilty. I wouldn’t be surprised if she left in the next day or two.”
Even though he’d expressed his lackluster feelings for Elise more than once, I could see just how much this hurt him. I curled my legs to my chest so he could sit.
“What about Kriss and Celeste?”
“Kriss is almost too optimistic. She’s sure that people will be careful and protect themselves. I don’t see how that’s possible if there’s no way to tell when or where the rebels will attack next. They’re all over the country. But she’s hopeful. You know how she is.”
He sighed. “Celeste is fine. She’s concerned, of course; but as Kriss pointed out, the Twos are most likely to be the safest during all this. And she’s always so determined.” He laughed to himself, staring at the floor. “Mostly she seemed concerned that I would be upset with her if she stayed. As if I could hold it against her for choosing this over going home.”
I sighed. “It’s a good point. Do you want a wife who isn’t worried about her subjects being threatened?”
Maxon looked at me. “You’re worried. You’re just too smart to be worried the way everyone else is.” He shook his head and smiled. “I can’t believe you told them to fight.”
I shrugged. “It seems like we do a whole lot of cowering.”
“You’re absolutely right. And I don’t know if that will scare the rebels off or make them more determined, but there’s no doubt you changed the game.”
I cocked my head. “I don’t think I’d call a group of people trying to kill the population at random a game.”
“No, no!” he said quickly. “I can’t think of a word bad enough to call that. I meant the Selection.” I stared at him. “For better or worse, the public got a real glimpse into your character tonight. They can see the girl who drags her maids to safety, who stands up to kings if she thinks she’s right. I’ll bet everyone will look at you running after Marlee in an entirely different light now. Before this, you were just the girl who yelled at me when we met. Tonight, you became the girl who’s not afraid of the rebels. They’ll think of you differently now.”
I shook my head. “That’s not what I was trying to do.”
“I know. For all the planning I was doing to get you to show the people who you are, it turns out you just do it on an impulse. It’s so you.” There was a look of astonishment in his eyes, as if he should have been expecting this all along.
“Anyway, I think it was the right thing to say. It’s about time we did more than hide.”
I looked down at my bedspread, tracing the seams with my finger. I was glad he approved, but the way he spoke—as if it was one more of my little quirks—felt too intimate at the moment.
“I’m tired of fighting with you, America,” he said quietly. I looked up and saw the sincerity in Maxon’s eyes as he continued. “I like that we disagree—it’s one of my favorite things about you, actually—but I don’t want to argue anymore. Sometimes I have a bit of my father’s temper. I fight it, but it’s there. And you!” he said with a laugh. “When you’re upset, you’re a force!”
He shook his head, probably remembering a dozen things at the same time I did. A knee to the groin, the whole thing with the castes, Celeste’s busted lip when she talked about Marlee. I’d never thought of myself as temperamental, but apparently I was. He smiled, and I did, too. It was kind of funny when I thought about all my actions piled up like that.
“I’m looking at the others, and I’m being fair. It makes me nervous to feel some of the things I do. But I want you to know, I’m still looking at you, too. I think you know by now I can’t help it.” He shrugged, seeming so boyish at that moment.
I wanted to say the right thing, to let him know that I still wanted him to look at me. But nothing felt right, so I slid my hand into his. We sat there quietly, looking at our hands. He toyed with my two bracelets, seeming very concerned with them, and spent a little while rubbing the back of my hand with his thumb. It was nice to have a still moment, just the two of us.
“Why don’t we spend the day together tomorrow?” he asked.
I smiled. “I’d like that.”
“So, long story short: more guards?”
“Yeah, Dad. Lots more.” I laughed into the phone, though the situation was hardly a funny one. But Dad had a way of making the toughest things light. “We’re all staying. For now anyway. And even though they say they’re starting with Twos, don’t let anyone be careless. Warn the Turners and the Canvasses to stay safe.”
“Aw, kitten, everyone knows to be careful. After what you said on the Report, I think people will be braver than you’d guess.”
“I hope so.” I looked down at my shoes and had a funny flashback. Right now my feet were covered with jeweled heels. Five months ago they were wearing dingy flats.
“You made me proud, America. Sometimes I’m surprised at the things you say, but I don’t know why. You were always stronger than you knew.”
Something about his voice then was so genuine that I was humbled. No one’s opinion of me mattered as much as his.
“I’m serious, now. Not every princess would say something like that.”
I rolled my eyes. “Uh, Dad, I’m not a princess.”
“Matter of time,” he shot back playfully. “Speaking of which, how is Maxon?”
“Good,” I said, fidgeting with my dress. The silence grew. “I really like him, Dad.”
I thought for a minute. “I’m not really sure. But part of it is that he makes me feel like me, I think.”
“Did you ever feel like not you?” Dad joked.
“No, it’s like . . . I’ve always been aware of my number. Even when I came to the palace, I obsessed about it for a while. Was I a Five or a Three? Did I want to be a One? But now I’m not conscious of it at all. And I think it’s because of him.
“He screws up a lot, don’t get me wrong.” Dad chuckled.
“But when I’m with him I feel like I’m America. I’m not a caste or a project. I don’t even think of him as elevated, really. He’s just him, and I’m just me.”
Dad was quiet for a moment. “That sounds really nice, kitten.”
Boy talk with my dad was a little awkward, but he was the only one back home who I thought saw Maxon more like a person than a celebrity; no one else would get it like he would.
“Yeah. It’s not perfect though,” I added as Silvia poked her head in the doorway. “I feel like there’s always something going wrong.”
She gave me a pointed look and mouthed Breakfast. I nodded.
“Well, that’s okay, too. Mistakes mean it’s real.”
“I’ll try to remember that. Listen, Dad, I’ve got to go. I’m late.”
“Can’t have that. Take care, kitten, and write your sister soon.”
“I will. Love you, Daddy.”
As the girls exited after breakfast, Maxon and I lingered in the dining room. The queen passed, winking in my direction, and I felt my cheeks redden. But the king came along soon after, and the look in his eyes took away any lingering blush.
Once we were alone, Maxon walked over to me and laced his fingers through mine. “I’d ask what you want to do today, but our options are pretty limited. No archery, no hunting, no riding, no anything outside.”
I sighed. “Not even if we took a slew of guards?”
“I’m sorry, America.” He gave me a sad smile. “But what about a movie? We can watch something with spectacular scenery.”
“It’s not the same.” I pulled on his arm. “Come on. Let’s go make the best of it.”
“That’s the spirit,” he said. Something about that actually made me feel better, like we were in this together. It had been a while since it really felt that way.
We went into the hallway and were headed toward the stairway to the theater when I heard the musical clinks on the window.
I turned my head to the sound and gasped in wonder. “It’s raining.”
I let go of Maxon’s arm and pressed my hand against the glass. In the months I’d been at the palace, it had yet to rain, and I’d wondered if it ever would. Now that I could see it, I realized I missed it. I missed the ebb and flow of seasons, the way things changed.
“It’s so beautiful,” I whispered.
Maxon stood behind me, wrapping an arm around my waist. “Leave it to you to find beauty in something others would say ruins a day.”
“I wish I could touch it.”
He sighed. “I know you do, but it’s just not—”
I turned to Maxon, trying to see why he cut himself off. He looked up and down the hall, and I did the same. Besides a couple of guards, we were alone.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing my hand. “Let’s hope we’re not seen.”
I smiled, ready for whatever adventure he had in mind. I loved when Maxon was like this. We wound our way up the stairs, heading for the fourth floor. For a moment, I got nervous, worried he’d show me something similar to the hidden library. That hadn’t turned out so well for me.
We walked down to the middle of the floor, passing one guard on his rounds but no one else. Maxon pulled me into a large parlor and steered me to the wall next to a wide, dormant fireplace. He reached inside the lip of the fireplace and, sure enough, found a hidden latch. He pushed open a panel in the wall, and it led to yet another secret stairwell.
“Hold my hand,” he said, stretching his out to me. I did so, following him up the dimly lit steps until we came to a door. Maxon undid the simple lock, pulled open the door . . . and there was a wall of rain.
“The roof ?” I asked over the sound.
He nodded. There were walls surrounding the entrance, leaving an open space about as large as my bedroom to walk on. It didn’t matter that all I could see were walls and sky. At least I was outside.
Positively beside myself, I stepped forward, reaching into the water. The drops were fat and warm as they collected on my arm and ran down to my dress. I heard Maxon laugh once before shoving me out into the downpour.
I gasped, soaked in seconds. Turning around, I grabbed his arm, and he smiled as he pretended to fight. His hair fell in strands around his eyes as we were both quickly drenched, and he was still grinning as he pulled me over to the edge of the wall.
“Look,” he said into my ear.
I turned, noticing our view for the first time. I stared in awe as the city spread out in front of me. The web of streets, the geometry of buildings, the array of colors—even dimmed in the gray hue of rain, it was breathtaking.
I found myself feeling attached to it all, as if it belonged to me somehow.
“I don’t want the rebels to take it, America,” he said over the rain, as if he was reading my mind. “I don’t know how bad the death toll is, but I can tell that my father is keeping it a secret from me. He’s afraid I’ll call off the Selection.”
“Is there a way to find out the truth?”
He debated. “I feel like, if I could get in touch with August, he’d know. I could get a letter to him, but I’m afraid of putting too much in writing. And I don’t know if I could get him into the palace.”
I considered that. “What if we could get to him?”
Maxon laughed. “How do you suggest we do that?”
I shrugged playfully. “I’ll work on it.”
He stared at me, quiet for a minute. “It’s nice to say things out loud. I’m always watching what I say. I feel like no one can hear me up here, I guess. Just you.”
“Then go ahead and say anything.”
He smirked. “Only if you will.”
“Fine,” I answered, happy to play along.
“Well, what do you want to know?”
I wiped the wet hair from my forehead, starting with something important but impersonal. “Did you really not know about the diaries?”
“No. But I’m up to speed now. Father made me read them all. If August had come two weeks ago, I would have thought he was lying about everything, but not anymore. It’s shocking, America. You only scratched the surface with what you read. I want to tell you about it, but I can’t yet.”
He stared me down, determined. “How did the girls find out about you taking off my shirt?”
I looked at the ground, hesitating. “We were watching the guards work out. I said you looked as good as any of them without your shirt on. It slipped out.”
Maxon threw back his head and laughed. “I can’t be mad about that.”
I smiled. “Have you ever brought anyone else up here?”
He looked sad. “Olivia. One time, and that’s it.”
I actually remembered that, come to think of it. He’d kissed her up here, and she’d told us all about it.
“I kissed Kriss,” he blurted out, not looking at me. “Recently. For the first time. It seems only right that you should know.”
He peeked down, and I gave him a small nod. If I hadn’t seen them kiss myself, if this had been how I found out, I might have broken down. And even though I already knew, it hurt to hear him say it.
“I hate dating you this way.” I fidgeted, my dress getting heavy with water.
“I know. It’s just how it is.”
“Doesn’t make it fair.”
He laughed. “When has anything in either of our lives ever been fair?”
I gave him that. “I’m not supposed to tell you—and if you let on that you know, he’ll get worse, I’m sure—but . . . your father’s been saying things to me. He also took away the payments for my family. None of the other girls has them anymore, so I guess it looked bad anyway.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He looked out over the city. I was temporarily distracted by the way his shirt was sticking to his chest. “I don’t think there’s a way to undo that one, America.”
“You don’t have to. I just wanted you to know it was happening. And I can handle it.”
“You’re too tough for him. He doesn’t understand you.” He reached down for my hand, and I gave it to him freely.
I tried to think of anything else I might want to know, but it mostly pertained to the other girls, and I didn’t want to bother with that. I was sure at this point I could guess close enough to the truth, and if I was wrong, I didn’t think I wanted that to ruin this.
Maxon looked down at my wrist. “Do you . . .” He looked up at me, seeming to rethink his question. “Do you want to dance?”
I nodded. “But I’m awful.”
“We’ll go slow.”
Maxon pulled me close, placing a hand on my waist. I put one hand in his and used the other to pick up my soaking dress. We swayed, barely moving. I settled my cheek on Maxon’s chest, he rested his chin on my head, and we spun to the music of the rain.
As he made his grip on me a little bit tighter, it felt like all the bad had been erased and Maxon and I were stripped to the core of our relationship. We were friends who realized they didn’t want to be without each other. We were the other’s opposite in many ways but also so very similar. I couldn’t call our relationship fate, but it did seem bigger than anything I’d known before.
I raised my face to Maxon’s, placing a hand on his cheek, pulling him down for a kiss. His lips, wet, met mine with a brush of heat. I felt both his hands wrap around my back, holding me to him as if he’d fall apart otherwise. While the rain pummeled the roof, the whole world went silent. It felt like there wasn’t enough of him, not enough skin or space or time.
After all these months of trying to reconcile what I wanted and hoped for, I realized then—in this moment Maxon created just for us—that it would never make sense. All I could do was move forward and hope that whenever we drifted, we would somehow find a way back to each other.
And we had to. Because . . . because . . .
For as long as it took to get to this moment, when it came it was fast.
I loved Maxon. For the first time, I could feel it solidly. I wasn’t keeping the feeling at a distance, holding on to Aspen and all the what-ifs that went along with him. I wasn’t walking into Maxon’s affections while keeping one foot out the door in case he let me down. I simply let it come.
I loved him.
I couldn’t pinpoint what made me so certain, but I knew it then, as surely as I knew my name or the color of the sky or any fact written in a book.
Could he feel it, too?
Maxon broke the kiss and looked at me. “You’re so pretty when you’re a mess.”
I laughed nervously. “Thank you. For that and for the rain and for not giving up.”
He ran his fingers along my cheek and nose and chin. “You’re worth it. I don’t think you get that. You’re worth it to me.”
I felt as if my heart was on the edge of bursting, and I just wanted everything to end today. My world had settled onto a new axis, and it felt like the only way to handle how dizzy it made me was for us to finally be real. I felt certain now that it would come. It would have to. Soon.
Maxon kissed the tip of my nose. “Let’s go get dry and watch a movie.”
I carefully tucked my love for Maxon away in my heart, a little afraid of this feeling. Eventually, it would have to be shared, but for now it was my secret.
I tried to wring out my dress in the little canopy where the door was, but it was hopeless. I was going to leave a little trail of water back to my room.
“I vote for a comedy,” I said as we went down the stairs, Maxon leading the way.
“I vote for action.”
“Well, you just said I was worth it, so I think I’m going to win this one.”
Maxon laughed. “Nicely done.”
He chuckled again as he pushed on the panel that led us back into the parlor only to stop dead in his tracks a second later.
I peeked over his shoulder to see King Clarkson standing there, looking as irritated as ever.
“I’m assuming this was your idea,” he said to Maxon.
“Do you have any idea how much danger you put yourself in?” he demanded.
“Father, there are no rebels waiting on the roof,” Maxon countered, trying to sound rational but looking a bit ridiculous in his dripping clothes.
“One well-aimed bullet is all it would take, Maxon.” He let the words hang in the air. “You know we’re stretched tight, sending guards to watch the girls’ homes. And dozens of those who’ve been sent have gone AWOL. We’re vulnerable.” He glared past his son at me. “And why is it that when anything happens these days, she’s got her hands all over it?”
We stood there, silent, knowing there was nothing we could say anyway.
“Get cleaned up,” the king ordered. “You have work to do.”
A single look from his father told Maxon that any plans he’d had for the day were done.
“Very well,” he said, caving.
King Clarkson took Maxon’s arm and pushed him away, leaving me behind. Over his shoulder, Maxon mouthed the word Sorry, and I gave him a little smile.
I wasn’t afraid of the king. Or the rebels. I knew how much Maxon meant to me, and I was sure that it was all going to work, somehow.