I PULLED THE TOP LAYERS of my dress a little tighter over my shoulders. Carter was quiet now, and his silence sent deeper chills through my body than the lack of heat in the palace cells did. It had been horrific to hear his grunts of pain as the guards beat the hope out of him, but at least then I knew he was breathing.
I shivered as I drew my knees closer to my chest. Another tear slid down my cheek, and I was grateful for it if only because it was warm on my skin. We knew. We knew it could end this way. And still we met. How could we have stopped?
I wondered how we would die. A noose? A bullet? Something much more elaborate and painful?
I couldn’t help wishing that Carter’s silence meant he was already gone. Or if not, that he would go first. I’d rather have my last memory be of his death than suffer knowing that his last memory was of mine. Even now, alone in this cell, all I wanted was for his pain to stop.
Something stirred in the hallway, and my heart started racing. Was this it? Was this the end? I shut my eyes quickly, trying to hold back my tears. How had this happened? How had I gone from being one of the beloved members of the Selection to being labeled a traitor, awaiting my punishment? Oh, Carter . . . Carter, what have we done?
I didn’t think I was a vain person. Still, nearly every day after breakfast, I felt like I had to go back to my room and touch up my makeup before heading to the Women’s Room. I knew it was silly—Maxon wouldn’t even see me again until the evening. And at that point, of course, I’d reapply all my makeup and change my outfit anyway.
Not that anything I was doing seemed to be having much of an effect. Maxon was polite and friendly, but I didn’t think I had a connection with him the way some of the other girls did. Was there something wrong with me?
While I was certainly having a wonderful time in the palace, I kept feeling like there was something the other girls—well, some of them at least—understood that I didn’t. Before being Selected, I had thought that I was funny and pretty and smart. But now that I was in the middle of a bunch of other girls whose daily mission was to impress one particular boy, I felt dim and dull and less. I realized I should have paid much more attention to my friends back home who had always seemed to be in a rush when it came to finding a husband and settling down. They had spent their time talking about clothes, and makeup, and boys—while I had paid more mind to my tutors’ lectures. I felt like I had missed some important lesson, and now I was woefully behind.
No. I merely needed to keep trying, that was all. I’d memorized everything from Silvia’s history lesson earlier this week. I’d even written some of it down to keep handy if I forgot something. I wanted Maxon to think that I was smart and well-rounded. I also wanted him to think I was beautiful, so it felt like these trips to my room were necessary.
Did Queen Amberly do this? She seemed effortlessly stunning all the time.
I paused on the stairs to look at my shoe. One of the heels seemed to be snagging on the carpet. I didn’t see anything, so I moved on, eager to get to the Women’s Room.
I flicked my hair over my shoulder as I approached the first floor and went back to focusing on whether there was more that I was supposed to be doing. I really wanted to win. I hadn’t spent much time with Maxon, but he seemed kind and funny and—
“Ahh!” My heel snagged on the edge of the stair, and I fell with a smack onto the marble floor. “Ow,” I muttered.
“Miss!” I looked up to see a guard running toward me. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Nothing injured but my pride,” I said, blushing.
“I don’t know how ladies walk in those shoes. It’s a miracle the whole lot of you don’t have broken ankles all the time.”
I giggled as he offered me his hand.
“Thank you.” I started brushing my hair back and smoothing out my dress.
“Any time. You’re sure you aren’t hurt?” He looked me over anxiously, searching for scrapes or cuts.
“My hip hurts a little where I fell, but otherwise I feel perfect.” Which was true.
“Maybe we should take you to the hospital wing, just to be safe.”
“No, really,” I insisted. “I’m fine.”
He sighed. “Would you do me a favor and go anyway? If you were hurt and I didn’t do something to help, I’d feel awful about it.” His blue eyes were terribly convincing. “And I’d be willing to bet the prince would want you to go.”
He made a fair point. “All right,” I ceded. “I’ll go.”
He grinned, his smile ever so slightly crooked. “Okay then.” He scooped me up, and I gasped in shock.
“I don’t think I need this,” I protested.
“All the same.” He started walking, so I couldn’t get down. “Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re Miss Marlee, right?”
“Yes, I am.”
He kept grinning, and I couldn’t help but smile back at him. “I’ve been working hard to keep all of you straight. Honestly, I don’t think I was the best in training, and I have no idea how I ended up in the palace. But I want to make sure they don’t regret their decision, so I’m trying to at least learn names. That way if someone needs something, I’ll know who they’re talking about.”
I liked the way he spoke. It was as if he was telling a story, even though he was simply stating a fact about himself. His face was animated and his voice alight.
“Well, you’re already going above and beyond,” I encouraged. “And don’t be so down on yourself. I’m sure you were an excellent trainee if you were placed here. Your commanders must have seen great potential in you.”
“You’re too kind. Will you remind me where you’re from?”
“Oh, I’m from Allens.”
“Really?” Allens was just east of Kent, above Carolina. We were neighbors in a way.
He nodded as he walked. “Yes, ma’am. This is the first time I’ve ever been out of my province. Well, second if you count training.”
“Same here. It’s kind of hard getting used to the weather.”
“It is! I’m waiting for fall to kick in, but I’m not sure they even have fall here.”
“I know what you mean. Summer’s nice, but not every day.”
“Exactly,” he said firmly. “Can you imagine how silly Christmas must look?”
I sighed. “It can’t possibly be as good without snow.” I meant that. I dreamed about winter all year. It was my favorite season.
“Nowhere close,” he agreed.
I didn’t know why I was smiling so much. Maybe it was because this conversation felt so easy. I’d never had an easy time speaking to a boy. Admittedly, I hadn’t had a lot of practice, but it was nice to think that maybe I didn’t need as much work as I had thought.
As we approached the entrance of the hospital wing he slowed.
“Would you mind putting me down?” I asked. “I don’t want them thinking I’ve broken a leg or something.”
He chuckled. “Not at all.”
He set me down and opened the door for me. Inside, a nurse was sitting at a desk.
The officer spoke for me. “Lady Marlee took a little tumble in the hall. Probably nothing, but we just wanted to be safe.”
The nurse stood right up, looking happy to have something to do. “Oh, Lady Marlee, I hope you’re not too hurt.”
“No, just a little sore here,” I said, touching my hip.
“I’ll check you out right away. Thank you so
much, officer. You can go back to your post.”
The guard tipped his head to her and started to leave. Just before the doors closed, he gave me a wink and a crooked smile, and I was left there, grinning like an idiot.
I was pulled back to the present as the voices in the hallway grew louder. I heard the guards’ greetings overlapping one another as they all said one word: Highness.
Maxon was here.
I rushed to the small gated window of my cell. I watched as the door to the cell across the hallway—Carter’s cell—was opened, and Maxon was escorted in. I strained to hear what was said, but though I could make out Maxon’s voice, I couldn’t decipher any words. I also heard weak mutters in reply and knew they were from Carter. He was awake. And alive.
I simultaneously sighed and shivered, then lifted the tulle back over my shoulders.
After a few minutes Carter’s cell door opened again, and I watched as Maxon approached my cell. The guards let him in and shut the door behind him. He took one look at me and gasped.
“Good Lord, what have they done to you?” Maxon walked over, unbuttoning his suit coat as he did.
“Maxon, I’m so sorry,” I cried.
He slid off his coat and wrapped it around me. “Did the guards tear your costume? Did they harm you?”
“I never meant to be unfaithful to you. I never wanted to hurt you.”
He lifted his hands to my cheeks. “Marlee, listen to me. Did the guards hit you?”
I shook my head. “One ripped my wings off when he was pushing me in the door, but they haven’t done anything else.”
He sighed, clearly relieved. What a good man he was, still caring about my well-being even after he’d found out about me and Carter.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered again.
Maxon’s hands dropped to my shoulders. “I’m only just starting to understand how pointless it is to fight being in love. I certainly don’t blame you for it.”
I stared into his kind eyes. “We tried to stop ourselves. I promise we did. But I love him. I’d marry him tomorrow . . . if we wouldn’t be dead by then.” I dropped my head, sobbing uncontrollably. I wanted to be more of a lady about this, to accept my punishment with grace. But it felt so unfair, like everything was being taken away from me before it had even truly been mine in the first place.
Maxon began rubbing my back gently. “You’re not going to die.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “What?”
“You haven’t been sentenced to death.”
I let out a rush of air and embraced him. “Thank you! Thank you so much! It’s more than we deserve!”
“Stop! Stop!” he insisted, tugging at my arms.
I stepped back, embarrassed for breaking protocol after everything else I’d done.
“You haven’t been sentenced to death,” he repeated, “but you still have to be punished.” He looked at the ground and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Marlee, but you’re both going to be publicly caned in the morning.”
He seemed to be having trouble maintaining eye contact with me; if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he understood the pain we were in for. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I tried to prevent this, but my father is insistent that the palace needs to save face; and since the footage of you two together has already been circulated, there’s nothing I can do to change his mind.”
I cleared my throat. “How many times?”
“Fifteen. I think the plan is to make it much worse for Carter than you, but either way, it’s going to be incredibly painful. I know it sometimes causes people to black out. I’m so, so sorry, Marlee.” He looked disappointed in himself. And all I could think of was how good he was.
I stood up straighter, trying to show him that I could handle this. “You come here offering me my life and the life of the man I love, and you apologize? Maxon, I’ve never been so grateful.”
“They’re going to make you Eights,” he said. “Everyone is going to watch it.”
“But Carter and I will be together, right?”
“Then what else can I ask for? I’ll take a caning for that. I’d take his as well if that was possible.”
Maxon smiled sadly. “Carter literally just pleaded to take yours for you.”
I smiled, too, as more tears—happier tears—filled my eyes. “I’m not surprised.”
Maxon shook his head again. “I keep thinking that I have a grasp on what it means to be in love, and then I see you two, each asking to spare the other, and I wonder if I understand anything at all.”
I gripped his coat tighter around me. “You do. I know you do.” I stared at him. “Her, on the other hand . . . she might need time.”
He chuckled quietly. “She’s going to miss you. She used to encourage me to pursue you.”
“Only a true friend would try to get someone she cared about to become princess over herself. But I was never meant for you, or for the crown. I found my person.”
“She said something to me once,” he said slowly, “that I’ll never forget. She said, ‘True love is usually the most inconvenient kind.’”
I looked around my cell. “She was right.”
We were silent for a few moments before I spoke again. “I’m scared.”
He embraced me. “It will be over rather quickly. The buildup to the caning will be the worst part, but take your mind somewhere else while they’re talking. And I will try to get you the best medicines, the ones they save for me, so that you heal faster.” I started crying, frightened and thankful and a thousand other things. “For now, you need to get what sleep you can. I told Carter to rest as well. It will help.” I nodded into his shoulder, and he pulled me tight.
“What did he say? Is he all right?”
“He’s been beaten, but he’s doing okay for now. He told me to tell you he loved you and to do whatever I asked.”
I sighed, comforted by the words. “I’m in your debt forever.”
Maxon didn’t reply. He simply held me until I relaxed. Finally, he kissed my forehead and turned to leave.
“Good-bye,” I whispered.
He smiled at me and knocked twice on the door, and a guard escorted him away.
I went back to my place by the wall and curled my legs up under my dress while I turned Maxon’s coat into a makeshift blanket. I let myself drift back into my memories. . . .
Jada rubbed lotion into my skin, a ritual that I’d grown to love. Even though it was only just after dinner and I was nowhere close to being sleepy, her skilled hands running down my arms meant the workday was over and I could relax.
Today had been especially taxing. Besides having a bruise on my hip that I was supposed to be icing, the Report had been stressful. Tonight had been our true introduction to the public, and Gavril asked us all questions about what we thought of the prince and what we missed about home and how we were getting along with one another. I sounded like a bird. Even though I tried to calm myself down, every answer made me notch my voice up another octave, I was so excited. I was sure Silvia would have something to say about that.
Of course, I couldn’t help comparing myself to everyone else. Tiny didn’t do very well, so at least I wasn’t at the absolute bottom. But it was hard to say who had done the best. Bariel was so comfortable in front of the camera, and so was Kriss. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it to the Elite.
America was wonderful, too. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I realized now that I had never had friends below my caste. I felt like such a snob because of it. Ever since coming to the palace, America had been my closest confidante—and if I couldn’t rank among the top contenders, I was thrilled that she was up there.
Of course, I knew anyone would be better for Maxon than Celeste. I still couldn’t believe she ripped America’s dress. And to know that she had gotten away with it, too, was so disheartening. I couldn’t picture anyone telling Maxon what Celeste had done, which left Celeste free to go on torturing the rest of us.
I understood she wanted to win—for goodness’ sake, we all did—but she took things way too far. I couldn’t stand her.
Thankfully, Jada’s nimble fingers were working all the tension out of my neck, and Celeste began to fade away, along with my piercing voice and the aching posture and the list of worries that accompanied trying to become a princess.
When there was a knock on the door, I hoped it would be Maxon, though I knew that was a pointless hope. Maybe it would be America, and we could drink some tea on my balcony or take a walk in the gardens.
But when Nina answered the door, the officer from earlier was standing in the hallway. He peeked over Nina, not bothering with protocol.
“Miss Marlee! I came to check on you!” He seemed so excited to stop by, I had to laugh.
“Please come in.” I stood from my vanity and walked over to the door. “Take a seat. I can have my maids bring us up some tea.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to keep you too long. Just wanted to make sure you weren’t crippled from that fall.”
I thought he was keeping his hands behind his back to maintain a small level of formality, but it turned out he was simply hiding a bouquet of flowers, which he presented to me with a flourish.
“Aww!” I pulled the bouquet to my face. “Thank you!”
“It was nothing. I’m friendly with one of the gardeners, and he got these for me.”
Nina came over quietly. “Shall I get a vase, miss?”
“Please,” I replied, handing her the flowers. “So you know,” I said, turning back to the officer, “I’m very well. A small bruise, but nothing serious. And I’ve learned a valuable lesson about high heels.”
“That boots are far superior?”
I laughed again. “Of course. I’m planning on incorporating them into my wardrobe much more.”
“You will be solely responsible for the new direction of palace fashion! And I can say I knew you when.” He chuckled at his own joke, and we stood there smiling at each other. I got the feeling he didn’t want to leave . . . and I realized I didn’t want him to either. His smile was so warm, and I felt more at ease with him than I had with anyone in a long time.
Unfortunately, he realized it would be odd for him to stay in my room, and he gave me a quick bow. “I guess I should go. I’ve got a long shift tomorrow.”