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"No! They're with me. They're staying," I said with authority.
"Miss, they have their own places to be," he countered.
"Fine. They don't go in, I don't go in. I'm sure Prince Maxon will appreciate knowing that my absence is your doing. Let's go, ladies." I pulled on Mary and Lucy's hands. Anne was shocked into stillness.
"Wait! Wait! Fine, go inside. But if anyone has an issue with it, it's on your hands."
"Not a problem," I said. I turned the girls and walked into the safe room with my head held high.
There was a clamor of activity inside. Some girls were huddled together crying, others were in prayer. I saw the king and queen sitting alone, surrounded by more guards. Beside them, Maxon was holding Elayna's hand. She looked a little shaken but obviously felt calmer with him touching her. I looked at the royal family's position ... so close to the door. I wondered if it was like a captain going down with his ship. They'd do everything to keep this place afloat, but if it went down, they'd be the first ones to drown.
Their little group saw my entrance and noted the company I was keeping. I took in the confused expressions on their faces, nodded once, and continued to walk with my head high. I figured so long as I looked sure of myself, no one would question me.
I was wrong.
I took three more steps and Silvia walked up. She looked incredibly calm. This was all obviously old news for her.
"Good. Some help. Girls, you will immediately get to the water stores in the back and begin serving refreshments to the royal family and the ladies. Get going, now," she commanded.
"No." I turned to Anne and gave her my first real order. "Anne, please take some refreshments to the king, queen, and prince and then come join me." I faced Silvia. "The rest can fend for themselves. They chose to leave their maids alone, they can get their own d.a.m.n water. Mine will be sitting with me. Come, ladies."
I knew we were close enough to the royals that they would have heard me. In my quest to have a level of authority, I'd spoken a little too loudly. But I didn't care if they thought I was rude. Lucy was more frightened than most of the people in this room. She was trembling head to foot, and there was no way I'd have her serving people half her equal in goodness in her state.
Perhaps it was all my years as a big sister, but I just had to keep these girls safe.
We found a little s.p.a.ce in the back of the room. Whoever usually kept this place ready must not have been prepared for the influx the Selection would cause, because there weren't nearly enough chairs in here. But I saw the stores of food and water and could tell they would get us through months down here, if the need arose.
It was a funny little array of people. Obviously, several officials had been up working through the night, and they were in suits. Maxon himself was still dressed. But nearly all the girls were in their thin nightgowns that helped you sleep in the warmth of the rooms upstairs. Not all of them had been able to get a robe on in their haste to leave. I was even a little chilly under mine.
Many of the girls had piled themselves toward the front of the room. Obviously, they'd be the first to die if someone got through the door. But if they didn't, think of all the time spent right in front of Maxon! A few were closer to where we were, and most of them were in a similar state as Lucy-shaking, tearful, and petrified with worry.
I pulled Lucy under an arm and Mary cuddled her from the other side. There wasn't anything to say about the situation that was pleasant, so we stayed quiet, listening to the clamor of the room. The jangle of voices reminded me of the first day here, when they were giving us makeovers. I closed my eyes and pictured that action with the sound in an attempt to make myself as calm as I appeared.
"Are you okay?"
I looked up and there was Aspen, glorious in his uniform. His tone was very official, and he didn't seem shaken by the situation at all. I sighed.
"Yes, thank you."
We were quiet for a moment, watching people get settled in the room. Mary had obviously been exhausted-she was already asleep and leaning heavily on Lucy's side. Lucy was fairly calm, all things considered. She'd stopped crying and just sat there looking at Aspen with a kind of wonder in her eyes.
"It was good of you to bring your maids. Not everyone would be so kind to people considered beneath them," he said.
"Castes never meant that much to me," I said quietly. He gave me the smallest smile.
Lucy took in a breath like she was going to ask Aspen a question, but a loud yelling coursed through the chamber. A guard on the far end of the room was barking instructions for us to all silence ourselves.
Aspen walked away, which was good. I feared someone would be able to see something.
"That was the same guard from earlier, wasn't it?" Lucy asked.
"Yes, it was."
"I've seen him guarding your door lately. He's awfully friendly," she commented.
I was sure Aspen would speak to my maids as kindly as he spoke to me when they crossed his path. They were Sixes, after all.
"He's very handsome," she added.
I smiled and contemplated saying something, but that same guard instructed us to be quiet. After a few jagged edges of conversation dulled away, an eerie hush fell over the room.
The silence was worse than any sound. Without a single sense to guide me, my imagination took over, producing horrific scenes in my head: rooms demolished, a string of bodies, a merciless army only feet from the door. I found myself clutching the girls nearer to me, as if we could protect one another from whatever would come.
The only stirring was Maxon walking around to check on each of the girls. When he got to our corner, only Lucy was awake with me, and every once in a while, we'd have a quick conversation in breathed words, reading each other's lips. As Maxon approached, he smiled at the pile of people leaning on me. In that moment, I could see no anger left from our argument, though I really wanted to resolve it. Instead, I saw his grateful smile, simply happy that I was okay. A wave of guilt went through me.... What had I gotten myself into?
"Are you well?" he asked.
I nodded. He looked at Lucy and leaned across me to speak to her. I inhaled. Maxon didn't smell like anything that could be bottled. Not like cinnamon or vanilla or even, I remembered quickly, like homemade soap. He had his own smell, a mix of chemicals that burned out from him.
"And you?" he asked Lucy.
She nodded, too.
"Are you surprised to find yourself down here?" He smiled at Lucy, making light of what was an unimaginable situation.
"No, Your Majesty. Not with her." Lucy nodded in my direction.
Maxon turned to look at me, and his face was incredibly close. I felt uncomfortable. Too many people could see us; Aspen included. But the moment pa.s.sed quickly, and he turned back to Lucy.
"I know what you mean." Maxon smiled again. He looked like he might say more, but then changed his mind and moved to stand.
I quickly grabbed his arm and whispered, "North or South?"
"Do you remember the photo shoot?" he breathed.
Shocked, I nodded. These rebels were making their way northwest, burning crops and slaughtering people along the way. Intercept them, he'd said. These rebels, these murderers, had been slowly coming for us all this time, and we couldn't stop them. They were killers. They were Southerners.
"Tell no one." He left, moving on to Fiona, who was holding herself and crying quietly.
I practiced breathing slowly, trying to imagine ways I could escape if they got to us, but I was fooling myself. If the rebels managed to get down here, it was all over. There was nothing to do but wait.
The hours crept on. I had no idea what time it was, but people who had dozed off had woken up, and those of us who had powered through the time were starting to wilt.
Finally, the door opened as some guards left to investigate. More time pa.s.sed as the palace was swept, and eventually they returned.
"Ladies and gentlemen," one of the guards called, "the rebels have been subdued. We are asking that everyone please return to their rooms via the back stairs. There's quite a mess and scores of injured guards. It's better if you all bypa.s.s the main rooms and halls until they can be cleared. If you are a member of the Selection, please proceed to your room and stay there until further notice. I've spoken with the cooks, and food will be brought to you within the hour. I'm going to need all medical personnel to report with me to the hospital wing."
With that, people stood and started moving like nothing had happened. Some people even looked bored. Except for the faces of people like Lucy, it seemed everyone took the attack in stride, as if it were to be expected.
My room had been ransacked. Mattress on the floor, dresses pulled out of the closet, the pictures of my family torn up on the ground. I looked around for my jar, and it was still intact with its penny inside, just hidden under the bed. I tried not to cry, but my eyes kept welling up. It wasn't that I was afraid, though I was. I just didn't like that an enemy had put their hands all over my things, had ruined them.
It took quite a while to set things right, since we were all so tired. We managed, though. Anne even found some tape so I could put my pictures back together. I sent my maids to bed the moment I got my tape. Anne protested, but I wouldn't have any of it. Now that I'd found my ability to command, I wasn't afraid to use it.
Once I was alone, I let myself cry. The fear, even though it had mostly pa.s.sed, still had a hold on me.
I pulled out the jeans that Maxon had given me and my one shirt from home and put them on. I felt a little more normal this way. My hair was messy from the events of the night and most of the morning, so I pulled it up into a casual little bun on the top of my head, pieces falling down around my face.
I set the fragments of pictures on the bed, trying to figure out which ones went together. It was like having four puzzles' worth of pieces all in the same box. I had managed to put only one together when there was a knock at the door.
Maxon, I thought. Please be Maxon. I threw the door open hopefully.
"h.e.l.lo, dearie." It was Silvia. She had a little pout on her face that I supposed was meant to be a consolation. She scuttled right past me into my room, then turned and took in what I was wearing.
"Oh, don't tell me you're leaving, too," she whined. "Honestly, it was nothing." She wiped the whole incident away with her hand.
I wouldn't call it nothing. Couldn't she tell I'd been crying?
"I'm not leaving," I said, tucking a hair behind my ear. "Are others going home?"
She sighed. "Yes, three so far. And Maxon, dear boy, told me to let anyone who wants to leave go home. Arrangements are being made as we speak. It's so funny. It was as if he knew girls would be leaving. If I were in your position, I'd think twice before leaving over all this nonsense."
Silvia started walking around my room, taking in the decor. Nonsense? What was wrong with this woman?
"Did they take anything?" she asked casually.
"No, ma'am. They made a mess, but nothing's missing as far as I can tell."
"Very good." She walked over to me and handed me a tiny portable phone. "This is the safest line in the palace. You need to call your family and tell them you're fine. Don't take too long, now. I still have a few girls to see."
I marveled at the tiny object. I'd never actually held a portable phone. I'd seen them before in the hands of Twos and Threes, but I never thought I'd get to use one. My hands trembled with excitement. I was going to hear their voices!
I dialed the number eagerly. After everything that had happened, it actually brought a smile to my face. Mom picked up after two rings.
"America! Is that you? Are you okay? Some guard called to tell us we might not be able to get ahold of you for a few days, and we knew those d.a.m.n rebels had gotten through. We've been so scared." She started crying.
"Oh, don't cry, Mom. I'm safe." I looked over at Silvia. She looked bored.
"Hold on." There was a bit of movement.
"America?" May's voice was thick with tears. She must have had the worst day.
"May! Oh, May, I miss you so much!" I felt the tears rising again.
"I thought you were dead! America, I love you. Promise me you won't die," she wailed.
"I promise." I had to smile at such a vow.
"Will you come home? Can't you? I don't want you there anymore." May was practically begging.
"Come home?" I asked.
I felt so many things. I missed my family, and I was tired of hiding from rebels. I was getting more and more confused over my feelings for Aspen and Maxon, and I didn't know how to handle them. The easiest thing to do would be to leave. But still.
"No, May, I can't come home. I have to stay here."
"Why?" May moaned.
"Because," I said simply.
"Just ... because."
May was quiet for a moment, thinking. "Are you in love with Maxon?" For a minute I heard the boy-crazy May that I was used to. She'd be fine.
"Umm, I don't know about that, but-"
"America! You're in love with Maxon! Oh my gosh!" I heard Dad yelling, "What?" in the background and then Mom's "Yes, yes, yes!"
"May, I never said-"
"I knew it!" May just laughed and laughed. Just like that, all her fears of losing me vanished.
"May, I have to go. The others need the phone. But I just wanted you all to know that I'm okay. I'll write you soon, I promise."
"Okay, okay. Tell me about Maxon! And send more treats! I love you!" she yelled.
"I love you, too. Bye."
I hung up the phone before she could ask for anything else. The moment her voice was gone, though, I missed her more than I had before.
Silvia was swift. She had the phone out of my hand in a matter of seconds and was walking to the door.
"There's a good girl," she said, and disappeared down the hall.
I certainly didn't feel good. But I knew that once I figured out how to set things right with Aspen and Maxon, I would.