I sighed. “In a sense, so do I.”
He smiled. “Hope you get to feeling better, and I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
“I’m sure. And thanks for being so helpful today, Officer . . .” I looked to his badge. “Woodwork.”
“Any time, Miss Marlee.” He bowed again, then retreated into the hallway.
Shea closed the door gently behind him. “What a gentleman, to come and check on you,” she commented.
“I know,” Jada seconded. “Sometimes it’s hit or miss with those guards, but this batch seems nice.”
“He’s certainly a good one,” I said. “I should tell Prince Maxon about him. Maybe Officer Woodwork could be rewarded for his kindness.”
Though I wasn’t tired, I crawled into my bed. Turning in for the night meant the maid count went from three to one, and it was as alone as I could get. Nina walked over with a blue vase that looked beautiful with the yellow flowers.
“Set them here, please,” I asked, and she put them right next to my bed.
I stared at the flowers as a smile played on my lips. Even though I had just suggested it, I knew I’d never tell the prince about Officer Woodwork. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew I’d keep him to myself.
The creak of the door opening jerked me awake, and I stood up instantly, pulling Maxon’s coat over my shoulders.
A guard walked in and didn’t bother looking me in the eye. “Hands out.”
I’d gotten so used to everyone adding “miss” to their sentences when they spoke to me that it took me a second to respond. Luckily, this guard didn’t seem to be in the mood to punish me for my slowness. I placed my arms in front of me, and he shackled them in heavy chains. When he let the chains fall, my body lurched down a bit with them.
“Walk,” he ordered, and I followed him into the hallway.
Carter was already out there, and he looked awful. His clothes were even dirtier than mine, and he seemed to be having a hard time standing upright. But the instant he saw me, his face lit up with a smile like fireworks, causing a gash on his lip to reopen and bleed. I gave him a tiny smile before the guards started leading us toward the stairs at the end of the hall.
Based on our trips to the safe rooms, I knew there were more passages in the palace than anyone might suspect. Last night we were taken to our cells via a door I’d always assumed was a linen closet, and we took that same path now to the first floor.
When we reached the landing, the guard leading us turned around and barked a single word. “Stay.”
Carter and I stood behind the half-opened door, waiting to be escorted to our humiliating and painful punishment.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. I looked up at him, and even with his bleeding lip and messy hair, all I saw was the boy who insisted on taking me to the hospital wing, the boy who brought me flowers.
“I’m not,” I replied as forcefully as I could.
In an instant, every stolen moment we’d shared flashed through my mind. I saw all the times our eyes had met and quickly turned away; all the times I’d made a point to stand or sit somewhere in a room if I knew he was nearby; every wink he’d given me when I’d walked in for dinner; every quiet giggle I’d let out as I passed him in a hall.
We’d pieced together a relationship around all our obligations to the palace, and if I had been walking to my death today, I’d have done my best to take the past month for what it was and be satisfied. I had found my soul mate. I knew it. And there was too much love in my heart to leave room for regret.
“We’ll be okay, Marlee,” Carter promised. “Whatever happens after today, I’ll take care of you.”
“And I’ll take care of you.”
Carter leaned down to kiss me, but the guards stopped him. “Enough!” one snapped at us.
Finally the door was opened all the way, and Carter was pulled forward ahead of me. Morning sun flooded in through the palace doors, and I had to turn my eyes to the ground to bear it. But as disorienting as the brightness was, the deafening shouts from the throngs of people waiting to see the spectacle were worse. As we emerged outside, I squinted up and noticed an area of special seating set aside. I was heartbroken to spot America and May in the very front row. After a pull from the guard nearly made me fall, I looked up again, searching for my parents, praying they were already gone.
My prayers went unanswered.
I knew Maxon was too kind to do this. If he had tried to get me out of this punishment altogether, then it couldn’t have been his idea to make my mom and dad watch it firsthand. I didn’t want anger to take up any room in my heart, but I knew who was responsible for this, and an ember of hatred burned inside me for the king.
Suddenly Maxon’s coat was ripped from my shoulders, and I was pushed to my knees in front of a wooden block. The metal shackles were removed, and my wrists were bound with leather straps.
“This is a crime punishable by death!” someone called. “But in his mercy, Prince Maxon is going to spare these two traitors their lives. Long live Prince Maxon!”
The straps on my wrists made everything very real. Fear surged through me, and I started crying. I looked at my smooth hands, wanting to remember them as they were now, wishing I could use them to wipe away my tears. Then I turned to Carter.
Even though the thing he was strapped to was in the way, he craned his neck so he could see me. I focused on him. I wasn’t alone. We had each other. The pain would last temporarily, but on the other side of it I had Carter forever. My love, forever.
Even though I could feel myself shaking with fear, I was also strangely proud. It wasn’t as if I would ever brag about being caned for falling in love, but I realized there were some people who would never know how special it was to have someone. I did. I had a soul mate. And I would do anything for him.
“I love you, Marlee. We’re going to be okay,” Carter vowed over the din of the crowd. “It’ll be okay, I promise.”
My throat was dry. I couldn’t answer him. I nodded, so he would know I had heard, but I was disappointed in myself for not being able to tell him that I loved him, too.
“Marlee Tames and Carter Woodwork!” I turned at the sound of our names. “You are both hereby stripped of your castes. You are the lowest of the low. You are Eights!”
The people cheered, enjoying our humiliation.
“And to inflict upon you the shame and pain you have brought upon His Majesty, you will be publicly caned fifteen strikes. May your scars remind you of your many sins!”
He stepped aside, raising his arms to the audience for one last cheer. I watched as the masked men who had bound Carter and me reached into a tall bucket and pulled out long, soaking rods. The time for speeches had ended, and the show was about to start.
Of all the things I could have thought of, at that very moment I remembered an English lesson on idioms from years ago. We had discussed the phrase “rule of thumb,” and I remembered our tutor mentioning that the term might have originated with a husband being allowed to beat his wife, but only with a stick no bigger around than his thumb.
The rod we were faced with wouldn’t pass that test.
As they whipped the canes around, warming up, I averted my eyes. Carter took a few deep breaths, then swallowed once and brought his focus back to me. Again my heart swelled with love. The caning would be much worse for him—he might not even be able to walk after it was over—but he was worried about me.
I wasn’t at all braced for the hit, and I cried out from the sting. It actually ebbed for a moment, and I thought this might not be so awful. Then, without warning, my skin began burning. The burning grew and grew until—
They timed the strikes perfectly. Just as the pain hit its peak, a new wave added to it. I called out pathetically, watching my hands shake from the agony.
“We’ll be okay!” Carter insisted, bearing his own torture while trying to ease mine.
at hit I made the mistake of balling up my hands, thinking it would somehow ease the pain. Instead, the pressure made it a dozen times worse, and I let out some strange, guttural sound.
Was that blood?
It was definitely blood.
“It’ll be over soon,” Carter promised. He sounded so weak. I wished he’d save his strength.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make it anymore. There was no way to tolerate more pain than this. Any more pain would certainly mean death.
“Love . . . you.”
I waited for the next strike to come, but there seemed to be a hiccup in the proceedings.
I heard someone screaming my name—it almost sounded as if they were coming to my rescue. I tried to look around, and that was a mistake.
I outright screamed. While waiting for the strikes was nearly unbearable, being completely blindsided by them was much worse. My hands were torn into pulpy, swollen messes; and as the cane came down again, my body gave up, and thankfully the world turned black and I could return to my dreams of the past. . . .
The halls felt so empty. With only six of us left, the palace was starting to feel too big. But small at the same time. How did Queen Amberly live like this? This life must get so isolating. Sometimes I had the urge to scream just to hear something.
A light trill of laughter caught me, and I turned to see America and Maxon in the garden. He had his arms tucked behind him, and she was walking backward, hands moving in the air as if she was telling him a story. She made a point, exaggerating it with her gestures, and Maxon bent forward, laughing and squinting his eyes. It seemed as if he was holding his hands behind him because, if he didn’t hold himself back, he’d scoop her up right then and there. He seemed to know a move like that would be too much too fast, and she might panic. I admired his patience and was happy to see he was on the path to making the best possible choice for himself.