“Let’s maybe keep this to ourselves,” Anne suggested.
“Yes, I think so.” I sighed. “What do you think happened to her?”
Anne tensed up. “I can’t begin to even guess what they were doing, but I can tell you for sure, that was a gunshot wound.”
“Gunshot?” I exclaimed.
Anne nodded. “A few inches to the left and she could have died.”
I looked down at America, who was now poking her cheeks with her fingers, seemingly just so she could see how it felt.
“Thank goodness she’s all right.”
“Even if she wasn’t my lady, I think I’d still want her to be princess. I don’t know what I’d have done if we lost her.” Anne spoke not simply as a servant but as a subject. I knew exactly what she meant.
I nodded. “I’m glad she had you tonight. I’ll go get the boys to take her back to her room.” I crouched beside America. “Hey, I’m going now. But you try not to break yourself again, all right?”
She nodded sluggishly. “Yes, ma’am.”
She definitely wouldn’t remember this.
The guard who had come for me was standing at the end of the hall, keeping watch. The other guard was sitting on the floor just outside the room, fidgeting with his hands while Maxon paced.
“Well?” the prince asked.
“She’s doing better. Anne took care of everything, and America is . . . Well, she had a lot of the brandy, so she’s a little out of it.” The lyrics of her Christmas song trilled through my head and I giggled. “You can go in now.”
The guard on the floor was up in a flash, Maxon right behind him. I wanted to stop them, ask questions, but now probably wasn’t the time.
I wearily walked back to our room, crashing now that the adrenaline had faded. As I approached, I saw Carter sitting in the hall outside our door.
“Oh! You didn’t have to wait up for me,” I said quietly, hoping not to disturb anyone else.
“I put her on our bed,” he said, “so I decided I’d wait out here.”
“Put who on our bed?”
“The girl from the kitchen. The one who was with the guard.”
“Oh, right.” I sat next to him. “What did she want with me?”
“It sounds like you’re training her. Her name is Paige, and based on the story she just told me, tonight was a really interesting night.”
“What do you mean?”
He lowered his voice even further. “She was a prostitute. She said America found her and brought her here. So the prince and America were outside of the palace tonight. Do you have any idea why?”
I shook my head. “All I know is, I was just helping Anne stitch up America’s gunshot wound.”
Carter’s shocked expression mirrored my own. “What could they have done to put themselves in such danger?”
I yawned. “I don’t know. But I have a feeling it was an effort to do good.”
While running into prostitutes and shoot-outs didn’t sound entirely wholesome, if there was one thing I knew about Maxon, it was that he always strove to do what was right.
“Come on,” Carter said. “You can sleep next to Paige. And I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“Nope. Where you go, I go,” I replied. I needed to be beside him tonight. So much was going through my head, and I knew he was my only safe place.
I remembered thinking America was foolish for being upset with Maxon over my caning, but it made sense now. Even though he had my utmost respect, I couldn’t help feeling a little angry with him for letting her get hurt. For the first time I was able to see my caning through her eyes. I knew then just how much I loved her, and how much she must love me. If she felt half the worry I felt tonight, it was more than enough.
It’d been a week and a half, and nothing felt quite normal yet. Everywhere I went, all the conversations still revolved around the attack. I was one of the lucky few. While others were ruthlessly murdered throughout the palace, Carter and I were safely tucked away in our room. He had been outside tending to the grounds when he heard gunshots, and the instant he realized what was happening, he raced into the kitchen and grabbed me, and we ran to our room. I helped him push our bed against the door, and we lay on it, adding to the weight.
I trembled in his arms as the hours passed, terrified the rebels would find us and wondering if there was any way they would show us mercy. I kept asking Carter if we should have tried to escape from the palace grounds, but he was insistent that we were safer staying put.
“You didn’t see what I saw, Marlee. I don’t think we would have made it.”
So we’d waited, straining to hear the sounds of enemies and relieved when friends finally came down the hall, knocking on doors. It was a strange thing to think about, but when we’d gone into that room, Clarkson was the king, and when we came out, it was Maxon.
I hadn’t been alive the last time the crown was handed over to a new king. This seemed like such a natural change for the country. Maybe because I’d always been happy to follow Maxon anyway. And, of course, the work Carter and I needed to do around the palace didn’t slow, so there wasn’t much time to stop and think about a new ruler.
I was preparing lunch when a guard came into the kitchen and called my new name. The last time an escort came for me, America had been bleeding, so I was instantly on edge. And I wasn’t sure what it meant that Carter was already standing next to the guard, covered in sweat from being outside.
“Do you know what this is about?” I whispered to Carter as the guard took us upstairs.
“No. I can’t imagine we’re in trouble for anything, but the formality of being escorted by a guard is . . . off-putting.”
I laced my hand in his, my wedding band twisting a bit in the process and lodging the knot between our fingers.
The guard led us to the Throne Room, which was typically reserved for greeting guests or special ceremonies related to the crown. Maxon was sitting at the far end of the room, his crown affixed on his head. He looked so wise. My heart swelled to see America sitting on a smaller throne to his right, her hands folded in her lap. There was no crown for her yet—that would come on her wedding day—but she wore a comb in her hair that looked like a sunburst, and she was already so queenly.
Off to one side, a group of advisers sat at a table, reviewing stacks of papers and furiously scribbling notes.
We followed the guard down a blue carpet. He stopped right before King Maxon and bowed, then stepped aside, leaving Carter and me facing the thrones.
Carter quickly dipped his head. “Your Majesty.”
I followed with a curtsy.
“Carter and Marlee Woodwork,” he began with a smile. My heart wanted to burst from hearing my full, true married name. “In light of your service to the crown, I, your king, am taking the liberty of undoing past punishments inflicted upon you.”
Carter and I peeked at each other, unsure of what this meant.
“Of course, your physical punishment cannot be changed, but other stipulations may. Am I correct that you were both sentenced to be Eights?”
It was bizarre to hear him speak like this, but I supposed there were rules to follow. Carter spoke for both of us.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“And is it also correct that you have been living in the palace, doing the work of Sixes for the past two months?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Is it also true that you, Mrs. Woodwork, served the future queen when she was physically unwell?”
I smiled at America. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Is it also true that you, Mr. Woodwork, have loved and cherished Mrs. Woodwork, a former Elite, and therefore precious Daughter of Illéa, giving her the best she can possibly have under your circumstances?”
Carter looked down. It was as if I could see him questioning whether he’d given me enough.
I piped up again. “Yes, Your Majesty!”
I watched my husband as he blinked back tears. He was the one who
told me that the life we had now wasn’t forever, the one who encouraged me when the days were too long. How could he ever think he wasn’t enough?
“In accordance with your service, I, King Maxon Schreave, am relieving you of your caste assignments. You are no longer Eights. Carter and Marlee Woodwork, you are the first citizens in Illéa to be casteless.”
I squinted at him. “Casteless, Your Majesty?” I chanced a look at America and saw her beaming at me, tears glistening in her eyes.
“Correct. You are now at liberty to make two choices. First, you must decide whether you would like to continue to call the palace your home. Second, you can tell me what profession you would like to have. Whatever you decide, my fiancée and I will happily provide you with lodging and assistance. But, even after that, you will still have no caste. You will simply be yourselves.”
I turned to Carter, completely gobsmacked.