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I looked beneath my eyelashes at Maxon and smiled. He slowly smiled back, and whispered something to the little boy, who immediately turned and ran away. He reached up and tugged his ear. And I did the same.
THE QUEEN'S FAMILY STAYED A few days, and the visitors from Swendway an entire week. They did a segment on the Report discussing international relations and movements toward more peace for both nations.
It was now a month into my stay at the palace, and I was completely at home. My body was comfortable in the new climate. The warmth of the palace was heavenly, like a holiday. September was almost over, and it got very cool in the evenings, but it was much warmer than home. The sights of this giant s.p.a.ce were no longer a mystery. The sounds of heeled shoes on marble, crystal gla.s.ses clinking, guards marching-they were starting to become as normal as the refrigerator humming or Gerad kicking a soccer ball up against the house.
Meals with the royal family and times in the Women's Room were staples in my routine, but the middle moments of my days were always new. I spent a lot of time working on music; the instruments at the palace were far superior to the ones I had at home. I had to admit, they were making me spoiled. The quality of the sound was unimaginably better. And the Women's Room had gotten a little more exciting, as the queen had shown up at least twice now. She hadn't really spoken to anyone yet, but she sat in a comfortable chair with her maids at her side, watching as we read or conversed.
In general, the animosity had settled as well. We were getting used to one another. We finally found out the magazine's top picks for our photographs. I was shocked to see I was one of the front-runners. Marlee was in the top spot, with Kriss, Tallulah, and Bariel close behind. Celeste didn't talk to Bariel for days upon hearing this, but eventually everyone let it pa.s.s.
What still seemed to bring the most tension were the bits of information tossed around. Whoever had been with Maxon recently couldn't help but gush about their little interlude. The way everyone spoke, it seemed as if Maxon was going to be choosing six or seven wives. But not everyone was shining in this experience.
For instance, Marlee had more than a few dates with Maxon, which put everyone on edge. Still, she never came across as excited as she had after their very first one.
"America, if I tell you this, you have to swear not to tell a soul," she said as we walked in the garden. I knew it was something serious. She'd waited until we got away from the listening ears in the Women's Room and far beyond the eyes of the guards.
"Of course, Marlee. Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine. I just... I need your opinion on something." Her face was heavy with worry.
She bit her lip. "It's Maxon. I'm not sure it's going to work out." She looked down.
"What makes you think that?" I asked, concerned.
"Well, for starters, I don't... I don't feel anything, you know? No spark, no connection."
"Maxon can be a little shy is all. You have to give him time." This was true. I was surprised she didn't know that about him.
"No, I mean, I don't think I like him."
"Oh." That was something very different. "Have you tried?" What a stupid question.
"Yes! So hard! I keep waiting for a moment to come when he'll say or do something to make me feel like we have something in common, but it never happens. I think he's handsome, but that's not enough to build a whole relationship on. I don't even know if he's attracted to me. Do you have any idea what kind of things he, you know, likes?"
I thought about it. "No, actually. We've never talked about what he's looking for in the physical department."
"And that's another thing! We never talk. He talks on and on to you, but we never seem to have anything to say. We spend a lot of our time quietly watching something or playing cards."
She looked more worried by the minute.
"Sometimes we're quiet together, too. Sometimes we just sit and say nothing. Besides, feelings like that don't always happen overnight. Maybe you're both just taking it slow." I tried to sound rea.s.suring-Marlee looked like she was on the verge of tears.
"Honestly, America, I think the only reason I'm still here is because the people like me so much. I think their opinions matter to him."
That thought hadn't occurred to me, but it sounded plausible. Long ago, I'd dismissed their opinion, but Maxon loved his people. They'd have more of a hand in choosing the next princess than they would know.
"And besides," she whispered, "everything between us feels so ... empty."
Then the tears came.
I sighed and hugged her. Truthfully, I wanted her to stay, to be here with me, but if she didn't love Maxon...
"Marlee, if you don't want to be with Maxon, I think you need to tell him."
"Oh, no, I don't think I can."
"You have to. He doesn't want to marry someone who doesn't love him. If you don't have any feelings for him, he needs to know."
She shook her head. "I can't just ask to leave! I need to stay. I couldn't go home ... not now."
"Why, Marlee? What's keeping you here?"
For a moment, I wondered if Marlee and I shared the same dark secret. Maybe there was someone she needed distance from, too. The only difference in our situations was that Maxon knew about mine. I wanted her to say it! I wanted to know I wasn't the only one who'd ended up here out of some ridiculous circ.u.mstances.
But Marlee's tears stopped almost as quickly as they started. She sniffed a few times and straightened up. She smoothed out her day dress, squared her shoulders, and turned to face me. She pulled a strong, warm smile to her face and spoke.
"You know what? I bet you're right." She started to back away. "I'm sure if I just give it some time, it'll all work out. I have to go. Tiny's expecting me."
Marlee half ran back to the palace. What in the world had come over her?
The next day, Marlee avoided me. The day after that, too. I made a point of sitting in the Women's Room at a safe distance and making sure to acknowledge her whenever we crossed paths. I wanted her to know that she could trust me; I wouldn't make her talk.
It took four days for her to give me a sad, knowing smile. I just nodded. It seemed that would be all there was to say about whatever was going on in Marlee's heart.
That same day, while I was sitting in the Women's Room, Maxon called for me. It would be a lie to say I wasn't absolutely giddy when I ran out the door and into his arms.
"Maxon!" I breathed, falling into him. When I stepped back, he sort of fumbled a moment, and I knew why. The day we'd left the Swendway reception and went inside to talk, I confessed what a hard time I was having dealing with the way I felt. And I asked him not to kiss me until I was more certain. I could tell he was hurt, but he nodded and hadn't broken his promise yet. It was just too hard to decipher those feelings when he acted like he was my boyfriend, but clearly wasn't.
There were still twenty-two girls here after Camille, Mikaela, and Laila had been sent home. Camille and Laila were simply incompatible and left with very little fanfare. Mikaela got so homesick she burst into heaving sobs during breakfast two days later. Maxon escorted her from the room, patting her shoulder the whole way. He seemed fine with letting them go, and was happy to focus on his other prospects, myself included. But he and I both knew it would be foolish of him to invest his heart completely in me when even I wasn't sure where mine was.
"How are you today?" he asked, stepping back.
"Perfect, of course. What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be working?"
"The president of the Infrastructure Committee is sick, so the meeting was postponed. I'm free as a bird all afternoon." His eyes were gleaming. "What do you want to do?" he asked, holding his arm out for me.
"Anything! There's so much of the palace I still haven't seen. There are horses here, right? And the movie theater. You still haven't taken me there."
"Let's do that. I could use something relaxing. What kinds of movies do you like best?" he asked as we started walking toward where I guessed the stairwell to the bas.e.m.e.nt was.
"Honestly, I don't know. I don't get to watch a lot of movies. But I like romantic books. And comedies, too!"
"Romance, you say?" He raised his eyebrows like he was up to no good. I had to laugh.
We turned a corner and continued to talk. As we approached, a ma.s.s of the palace guard pulled to the side of the hall and saluted. There had to be more than a dozen men standing in the hallway. I was used to them by now. Even the sight of a collection that big couldn't distract me from the fun time I was about to have with Maxon.
What did stop me was when I heard the gasp that escaped someone's mouth as we pa.s.sed. Maxon and I both turned.
And there was Aspen.
I gasped, too.
A few weeks ago, I'd heard some administrator in the palace talk about the draft in pa.s.sing. I had wondered about Aspen, but seeing as I was running late to one of Silvia's many lessons, I didn't really have a chance to speculate much.
So he'd been taken by the draft after all. Of all the places he could have gone...
Maxon caught on. "America, do you know this young man?"
It had been more than a month since I'd seen Aspen, but this was the person I'd spent years committing to memory, the person who still visited my dreams. I would know him anywhere. He looked a little bigger, like he'd been fed, really fed, and was working out a lot. His scraggly hair had been cut short, practically all gone. And I was used to seeing him in secondhand clothes that were barely being held together by threads, and here he was in one of the brilliant, fitted uniforms of the palace guard.
He was alien and familiar at once. So many of the things around him seemed wrong. But those eyes ... those were Aspen's eyes.
My eyes fell to the name tag on his uniform: OFFICER LEGER.
I doubted a second had pa.s.sed.
I kept myself composed enough that no one saw the storm raging inside-a miracle in and of itself. I wanted to touch him, kiss him, scream at him, demand he leave my sanctuary. I wanted to melt away and disappear, but I felt so very here.
None of it made sense.
I cleared my throat. "Yes. Officer Leger comes from Carolina. He's actually from my hometown." I smiled at Maxon.
No doubt Aspen would have heard us laughing as we rounded the corner, would have noted that my arm was still draped on the prince's. Let him make of that what he would.
Maxon seemed excited for me. "Well, how about that! Welcome, Officer Leger. You must be happy to see your Champion Girl again." Maxon held his hand out, and Aspen shook it.
Aspen's face was like a stone. "Yes, Your Majesty. Very much so."
What did that mean?
"I'm sure you're pulling for her, too," Maxon encouraged as he winked at me.
"Of course, Your Majesty." Aspen bowed his head a bit.
And what did that mean?
"Excellent. Since America is from your home province, I can't think of a better man in the palace to leave her with. I'll make sure you're put on her guard rotation. This girl of yours refuses to keep a maid in her room at night. I've tried to tell her...." Maxon shook his head at me.
Aspen finally seemed to relax a bit. "I'm not surprised by that, Your Majesty."
Maxon smiled. "Well, I'm sure you all have a busy day ahead of you. We'll just be off. Good day, officers." Maxon gave a quick nod and pulled me away.
It took all the strength in my body not to look back.
In the dark of the theater, I tried to figure out what to do. Maxon had made it clear from the night I'd told him about Aspen that he hated anyone who would treat me with so little care. If I told Maxon that the man he'd just a.s.signed to watch over me was that very person, would he punish him somehow? I wouldn't put it past him. He'd invented an entire support system for the country based on my stories of being hungry.
So I couldn't tell him. I wouldn't tell him. Because as mad as I was, I loved Aspen. And I couldn't bear him being hurt.
Then should I leave? The ambivalence pulled at my heart. I could escape Aspen, get away from his face-a face that would torture me every day when I saw it and knew it was no longer mine. But if I left, I'd have to leave Maxon, too. And Maxon was my closest friend, maybe even more. I couldn't just go. Besides, how would I explain it without telling him Aspen was here?
And my family. Maybe the checks they got were smaller, but at least they were getting them. May had written saying that Dad was promising our best Christmas ever this year, but I was sure that came with the stipulation that another Christmas might never be as good. If I left, who could say how much money my past fame would bring for my family? We had to save up as much as we could now.
"You didn't like that one, did you?" Maxon asked nearly two hours later.
"The movie. You didn't laugh or anything."
"Oh." I tried to remember one little piece of information, a single scene that I could say I'd enjoyed. Nothing registered. "I think I'm just a little out of it today. Sorry you wasted your afternoon."
"Nonsense." Maxon waved away my lackl.u.s.ter att.i.tude. "I just enjoy your company. Though perhaps you should take a nap before dinner. You're looking a little pale."
I nodded. I was considering going to my room and never coming back out.
IN THE END, I DECIDED against hiding in my room. Instead I chose the Women's Room. Usually I darted in and out all day, visiting libraries, taking walks with Marlee, or even heading back upstairs to visit my maids. But now I was using the Women's Room like a cave. No men, not even guards, were allowed inside without the queen's express permission. It was perfect.
Well, it was perfect for three days. With this many girls, it was only a matter of time until someone had a birthday. Kriss's was on Thursday. I guessed she'd mentioned it to Maxon-who seemed to never pa.s.s up an opportunity to give someone something-and the outcome was a mandatory party for all the Selected. As a result, Thursday was a mad rush of girls in and out of one another's rooms, asking what they were wearing or guessing at how grand it would be.
It didn't appear that gifts were required, but I figured I'd do something nice for her all the same.
On the day of the party, I donned one of my favorite day dresses and grabbed my violin. I crept down to the Great Room, looking around corners before I committed to walking on. Once I made it to the room, I did another sweep, surveying the guards who lined the walls. Mercifully, Aspen was nowhere to be seen, and I had to chuckle at the presence of so many men in uniform. Were they expecting a riot or something?
The Great Room was decorated beautifully. Special vases hung on the wall, displaying huge arrangements of yellow and white flowers, and similar bouquets sat in bowls around the room. Windows, stretches of wall, and pretty much anything that didn't move was draped in garlands. A few small tables had been set out, and they were covered with bright linens. Little bits of glittering confetti sparkled on the table-tops. Ornate bows adorned the backs of chairs.
In one corner, a ma.s.sive cake that matched the colors of the room waited to be cut. Next to it, a small table held a few gifts for the birthday girl.
A string quartet was set up against the wall, effectively making my attempt at a gift meaningless, and a photographer wandered the room, capturing moments for the public eye.