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She smiled, then looked around the room, checking to make sure no one could hear us.

"Maxon and I had our date," she whispered.

"Yeah?" I asked. I knew I seemed overly eager, but I couldn't help it. I wanted to know if he'd managed to be any less stiff around her. And I wanted to know if he liked her.

"He sent a letter to my maids and asked if he could see me on Thursday." I smiled as Marlee spoke and thought of how the day before he'd done that, Maxon and I had decided to eliminate those formalities. "I sent one back saying yes, of course, like I'd ever turn him down! He came to get me, and we walked around the palace. We got to talking about movies, and it turns out we like a bunch of the same ones. So we went downstairs to the bas.e.m.e.nt. Have you seen the movie theater down there?"

"No." I'd never actually been in a movie theater, and I couldn't wait for her to describe it.

"Oh, it's perfect! The seats are wide and they recline and you can even pop some popcorn-they have a popper. Maxon stood there and made a batch just for us! It was so cute, America. He measured the oil wrong and the first batch burned. He had to call someone to come and clean it up and try again."

I rolled my eyes. Smooth, Maxon, real smooth. At least Marlee seemed to think it was endearing.

"So we watched the movie, and when we got to the romantic part at the end, he held my hand! I thought I'd faint. I mean, I'd taken his arm when we walked, but that's just what you're supposed to do. Here he was taking my hand...." She sighed and fell back into her chair.

I giggled out loud. She looked completely smitten. Yes, yes, yes!

"I can't wait for him to visit me again. He's just so handsome, don't you think?" she asked.

I paused. "Yeah, he's cute."

"Come on, America! You have to have noticed those eyes and his voice...."

"Except when he laughs!" Just remembering Maxon's laugh had me grinning. It was cute but awkward. He pushed his breaths out, and then made a jagged noise when he inhaled, almost like another laugh in itself.

"Yes, okay, he does have a funny laugh, but it's cute."

"Sure, if you like the lovable sound of an asthma attack in your ear every time you tell a joke."

Marlee lost it and doubled over in laughter.

"All right, all right," she said, coming up for air. "You have to think there's something attractive about him."

I opened my mouth and shut it two or three times. I was tempted to take another jab at Maxon, but I didn't want Marlee to see him in a negative light. So I thought about it.

What was attractive about Maxon?

"Well, when he lets his guard down, he's okay. Like when he just talks without checking his words or you catch him just looking at something like ... like he's really looking for the beauty in it."

Marlee smiled, and I knew she'd seen that in him, too.

"And I like that he seems genuinely involved when he's there, you know? Like even though he's got a country to run and a thousand things to do, it's like he forgets it all when he's with you. He just dedicates himself to what's right in front of him. I like that.

"And ... well, don't tell anyone this, but his arms. I like his arms."

I blushed at the end. Stupid ... why hadn't I just stuck to the general good things about his personality? Luckily, Marlee was happy to pick up the conversation.

"Yes! You can really feel them under those thick suits, can't you? He must be incredibly strong," Marlee gushed.

"I wonder why. I mean, what's the point of him being that strong? He does deskwork. It's weird."

"Maybe he likes to flex in front of the mirror," Marlee said, making a face and flexing her own tiny arms.

"Ha, ha! I bet that's it. I dare you to ask him!"

"No way!"

It sounded like Marlee had had a great time. I wondered why Maxon seemed so reluctant to mention that last night. Based on his reaction, it seemed like they hadn't been together at all. Maybe he was shy?

I looked around the room and saw that more than half the girls seemed tense or unhappy. Janelle, Emmica, and Zoe were listening intently to something Kriss was saying. Kriss was smiling and animated, but Janelle's face was tight with worry, and Zoe was biting her nails. Emmica was absently kneading a spot just below her ear, as if she was in pain. Beside them the mismatched pair of Celeste and Anna sat having another intense discussion. True to her usual form, Celeste looked incredibly smug as she spoke. Marlee noted my staring and clarified what was happening.

"The grumpy ones are the girls he hasn't been out with yet. He told me I was his second date on Thursday alone. He's trying to spend time with everyone."

"Really? You think that's it?"

"Yeah. I mean, look at you and me. We're fine, and it's because he's seen us both one-on-one. We know he liked us enough to see us and not kick us out right afterward. It's getting around who he's spent time with and who he hasn't. They're worried he's waiting on them because he isn't interested, and that once he does see them, he'll just let them go."

Why hadn't he told me any of this? Weren't we friends? A friend would talk about this. He'd seen at least a dozen girls based on their smiles. We'd spent the better part of the evening together last night, and all he did was make me cry. What kind of friend held those kinds of secrets while making me spill all my own?

Tuesday, who had been listening to Camille with an anxious expression on her face, got up from her seat and looked around the room. She found Marlee and me in the corner and quickly walked over.

"What did you guys do on your date?" she asked abruptly.

"Hi, Tuesday," Marlee said cheerfully.

"Oh, hush!" she cried, and turned back to me. "Come on, America, spill."

"I told you."

"No. The one last night!" A maid came to the corner and offered us tea, which I was prepared to take, but Tuesday shooed her away.

"How...?"

"Tiny saw you together and told," Marlee said, trying to explain Tuesday's mood. "You're the only one he's been alone with twice. A lot of the girls who haven't seen him yet were complaining. They don't think it's right. But it's not your fault if he likes you."

"It's completely unfair," Tuesday whined. "I haven't seen him outside of mealtimes, not even in pa.s.sing. What in the world did you two do?"

"We ... uh ... we went back to the gardens. He knows I like it outside. And we just talked." I felt nervous, like I was in trouble. Tuesday's face was so intense, I looked away. When I did, I saw that a few girls at nearby tables were listening in.

"You just talked?" she asked skeptically.

I shrugged. "That's it."

Tuesday huffed and went to Kriss's table, urging her to tell her story over again, quite energetically. I, however, was stunned.

"Are you okay, America?" Marlee asked, snapping me back into reality.

"Yes. Why?"

"You just look upset." Marlee's brow furrowed in concern.

"Nope. Not upset. Everything's great."

Suddenly, in a move so swift I would have missed it if they weren't so close, Anna Farmer-a Four who worked land for a living-reached up and slapped Celeste across the face.

Several people gasped, including myself. Those who missed it turned around and asked what had happened, most notably Tiny, whose high voice pierced the quiet left in the room.

"Oh, Anna, no," Emmica said with a sigh.

The moment after it happened, Anna slowly comprehended what she'd just done. She would probably be sent home; we weren't supposed to physically a.s.sault another Selected. Emmica started tearing up while Anna sat in stunned silence. They were both farm girls and had bonded early on. I couldn't imagine how I'd feel if it was Marlee suddenly leaving.

Anna, who I'd only met in pa.s.sing, had always struck me as an effervescent creature. I knew there was nothing in her that would naturally seek to harm another person. During a large part of the rebel attack, she'd been on her knees in prayer.

Undoubtedly, she had been provoked, but no one was sitting within earshot to prove that. It would be Anna's word against Celeste's as far as any exchange of words went, but Celeste would have a roomful of people who could back up that she'd been hit. Maxon would presumably be urged to send Anna home as an example to the others.

Tears welled in Anna's eyes as Celeste whispered something to her and swiftly left the room.

Anna was gone before dinner.

CHAPTER 17.

"WHO WAS THE PRESIDENT OF the United States during the Third World War?" Silvia quizzed us.

This was one I didn't know, and I averted my eyes, hoping Silvia wouldn't call on me. Luckily, Amy raised her hand and answered. "President Wallis."

We were in the Great Room again, starting the week with a history lesson. Well, more like a history test. This was one of those areas where it always seemed that what people knew was varied, both as far as what was fact and just how informed they were. Mom always taught us orally when it came to history. We had pages and worksheets to master for English and math, but when it came to the stories that made up our past, there was very little that I knew for sure was truth.

"Correct. President Wallis was the president before the Chinese a.s.sault and continued leading the United States throughout the war," Silvia confirmed. I thought the name to myself. Wallis, Wallis, Wallis. I really wanted to remember this to tell May and Gerad when I went home, but we were learning so much, it was hard to keep it all straight. "What was their motivation for invading? Celeste?"

She smiled. "Money. The Americans owed them a lot of money and couldn't pay them back."

"Excellent, Celeste." Silvia gave her a doting smile. How did Celeste wrap people around her finger like that? It was so irritating. "When the United States couldn't repay their ma.s.sive debt, the Chinese invaded. Unfortunately for them, this didn't get them any money, as the United States was beyond bankruptcy. However, it did gain them American labor. And when the Chinese took over, what did they rename the United States?"

I raised my hand, along with a few others. "Jenna?" Silvia called.

"The American State of China."

"Yes. The American State of China had the appearance of its original country, but was merely a facade. The Chinese were pulling strings behind the scenes, influencing any major political happenings, and steering legislation in their favor." Silvia walked through the desks slowly. I felt like a mouse in the sights of a hawk that was circling ever closer.

I looked around the room. A few people seemed confused. I thought that part was common knowledge.

"Does anyone have anything they'd like to add?" Silvia asked.

Bariel piped up. "The Chinese invasion prompted several countries, particularly those in Europe, to align themselves with one another and make alliances."

"Yes," Silvia replied. "However, the American State of China had no such friends at the time. It took them five years to regroup, and they could barely handle that, let alone trying to forge alliances." She tried to express the hardship through an exhausted look. "The ASC planned to fight back against China but was then faced with another invasion. What country attempted to occupy the ASC then?"

Lots of hands went up this time. "Russia," someone said without waiting to be called on. Silvia looked around for the offender, but couldn't pinpoint the source.

"Correct," she said, slightly unhappily. "Russia tried to expand in both directions and failed miserably, but this failure on their part provided the ASC with an opportunity to fight back. How?"

Kriss raised her hand and answered. "The entirety of what was North America banded together to fight Russia, since it seemed clear they had their eyes on more than just the ASC. And fighting Russia was easier because China was attacking them as well for attempting to steal their territory."

Silvia smiled proudly. "Yes. And who headed up the a.s.sault against Russia?"

The whole room shouted out the answer: "Gregory Illea!" Some girls even clapped.

Silvia nodded. "And that led to the founding of the country. The alliances the ASC acquired had formed a united front, and the United States's reputation was so damaged, no one wanted to readopt that name. So a new nation was formed under Gregory Illea's name and leadership. He saved this country."

Emmica raised her hand, and Silvia acknowledged her. "In some ways, we're kind of like him. I mean, we get to serve our country. He was just a private citizen who donated his money and knowledge. And he changed everything," she said with wonder.

"That is a beautiful point," Silvia said. "And exactly like him, one of you will be elevated to royalty. For Gregory Illea, he became a king as his family married into a royal family, and for you, it will be marrying into this one." Silvia had moved herself to awe, so when Tuesday raised her hand, it took her a moment to acknowledge it.

"Umm, why is it that we don't have any of this in a book? So we could study?" There was a hint of irritation in her voice.

Silvia shook her head. "Dear girls, history isn't something you study. It's something you should just know."

Marlee turned to me and whispered, "But clearly we don't." She smiled at her own joke, and then focused again on Silvia.

I thought about that, how we all knew different things or had to guess at the truth. Why weren't we given history books?

I remembered a few years ago when I went into Mom and Dad's room, since Mom said I could choose what I wanted to read for English. As I went through my options, I spotted a thick, ratty book in the back corner and pulled it out. It was a U.S. history book. Dad came in a few minutes later, saw what I was reading, and said it was okay, so long as I never told anyone about it.

When Dad asked me to keep a secret, I did so without question, and I loved looking through all those pages. Well, the ones that were still legible. Lots had been torn out, and the edge of the book looked like it might have been burned, but that's where I saw a picture of the old White House and learned about the way holidays used to be.

I never thought to question the lack of truth until it had been placed in front of me. Why did the king just let us guess?

The flashbulbs went off again, capturing Maxon and Natalie smiling brightly.

"Natalie, bring your chin down just a touch, please. That's it." The photographer snapped another picture, filling the room with light. "I think that will do. Who's next?" he called.

Celeste came in from the side, a general group of maids still swarming around her before the photographer started up again. Natalie, still beside Maxon, said something and kicked up her foot flirtatiously behind her. He responded quietly, and she giggled as she walked away.

We'd been told after yesterday's history lesson that this photo shoot was merely for the amus.e.m.e.nt of the public, but I couldn't help thinking that there was some actual weight to it. Someone had written an editorial in a magazine about the look of a princess. I didn't get to read the article myself, but Emmica and some of the others did. According to her, it was about Maxon needing to find someone who actually looked regal and photographed well with him, someone who would look nice on a stamp.

And now we were all lined up in identical cream-colored, cap-sleeved, drop-waist dresses with a heavy red sash across our shoulders, taking pictures with Maxon. The photos would be printed in the same magazine, and the magazine staff was going to make picks. I was kind of uncomfortable with it all. This was the thing I'd been bothered about since the beginning, that Maxon was looking for nothing more than a pretty face. Now that I'd met him, I was sure that wasn't true, but it got to me that people thought that Maxon was like that.

I sighed. Some of the girls were walking around, munching on no-drip foods and chatting, but the majority, including myself, were standing around the perimeter of the set erected in the Great Room. A huge golden tapestry that reminded me of the drop cloths Dad used at home was hung up against a wall and spilled across the floor. A small couch was off to one side and a pillar was on the other. In the middle the Illean emblem stood, giving the whole silly thing an air of being patriotic. We watched as each Selected paraded across the s.p.a.ce to be photographed, and many who watched were whispering things they liked and didn't or what they were planning for themselves.

Celeste walked up to Maxon with a sparkle in her eyes, and he smiled as she approached. The moment she reached him, she put her lips to his ear and whispered something. Whatever it was, Maxon leaned his head back with laughter and nodded, agreeing with her little secret. It was strange to see them like that. How could someone who got along so well with me do the same with someone like her?

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The Selection Part 17 summary

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