“You’ll be taking dinner in your room tonight. I’ll deal with this in the morning.”
I waited in the garden until I knew all the others would be in the dining hall, and then I paced up and down the hallway before I went into my room. Anne, Mary, and Lucy were beside themselves when I came in. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I hadn’t spent the whole time with the prince.
My meal had been delivered and was waiting on the table by the balcony. I was hungry now that I wasn’t distracted by my own humiliation. But my long absence wasn’t the reason my maids were in a tizzy. There was a very large box on the bed, begging to be opened.
“Can we see?” Lucy asked.
“Lucy, that’s rude!” Anne chided.
“They dropped it off the moment you left! We’ve been wondering ever since!” Mary exclaimed.
“Mary! Manners!” Anne scolded.
“No, don’t worry, girls. I don’t have any secrets.” When they came to kick me out tomorrow, I’d tell my maids why.
I gave them a weak smile as I pulled at the big red bow on the box. Inside were three pairs of pants. A linen set, another that was more businesslike but soft to the touch, and a glorious pair made from denim. There was a card resting on top with the Illéa emblem on it.
You ask for such simple things, I can’t deny you. But for my sake, only on Saturdays, please. Thank you for your company.
I DIDN’T REALLY HAVE THAT much time to feel ashamed or worried, all things considered. When my maids dressed me the next morning without a hint of worry, I assumed my presence downstairs would be welcome. Even allowing me to come down to breakfast showed a hint of kindness in Maxon I hadn’t been expecting: I got a last meal, a last moment as one of the beautiful Selected.
We were halfway through breakfast before Kriss worked up the courage to ask me about our date.
“How was it?” she asked quietly, the way we were meant to speak at mealtimes. But those three small words made ears all up and down the table perk up, and everyone within hearing distance was paying attention.
I took a breath. “Indescribable.”
The girls looked at one another, clearly hoping for more.
“How did he act?” Tiny asked.
“Umm.” I tried to choose my words carefully. “Not at all how I expected he would.”
This time, little murmurs went down the table.
“Are you being like that on purpose?” Zoe interjected. “If you are, it’s awfully mean.”
I shook my head. How could I explain this? “No, it’s just that—”
But I was spared trying to form an answer by the confusing noises coming down the hallway.
The shouts were strange. In my very short time at the palace, not a single sound had registered as anything close to loud. Beyond that, there was a kind of music to the click of the guards’ shoes on the floor, the massive doors opening and closing, the forks touching the plates. This was complete and absolute mayhem.
The royal family seemed to understand it before the rest of us.
“To the back of the room, ladies!” King Clarkson yelled, and ran over to a window.
Girls, confused but not wanting to disobey, slowly moved toward the head table. The king was pulling down a shade, but it wasn’t the typical light-filtering kind. It was metal and squealed into place. Beside him Maxon came and drew down another. And beside Maxon the lovely and delicate queen was racing to pull down the next.
That was when the wave of guards made it into the dining hall. I saw a number of them lining up outside the room just before the monstrous doors were closed, bolted, and secured with bars.
“They’re inside the walls, Majesty, but we’re holding them back. The ladies should leave, but we’re so close to the door—”
“Understood, Markson,” the king replied, cutting off the sentence.
It didn’t take more than that for me to comprehend. There were rebels inside the grounds.
I’d figured it would come. This many guests in the palace, so many preparations going on. Surely someone would miss something somewhere and let our safety slip. And even if there were no easy way in, this would be an excellent time to mount a protest. At its barest of bones, the Selection was kind of disturbing. I was sure the rebels hated it along with everything else about Illéa.
But whatever their opinion, I wasn’t going down quietly.
I pushed my chair back so quickly it fell over, and I ran to the closest window to pull down the metal shade. A few other girls who understood how threatened we were did the same.
It took me only a moment to get the thing down, but locking it into place was a little more difficult. I had just managed to get the latch right when something crashed into the metal plate from outside the palace, sending me screaming backward until I tripped over my fallen chair and tumbled to the ground.
Maxon appeared immediately.
“Are you hurt?”
I did a quick evaluation. I’d probably have a bruise on my hip, and I was scared, but that was the worst of it.
“No, I’m fine.”
“To the back of the room. Now!” he ordered as he helped me off the ground. He raced down the hall, snatching up girls who had begun to freeze up in fear and ushering them to the back corner.
I obeyed, running to the back of the room, toward the clusters of girls huddled together. Some of them were weeping; others were staring into space in shock. Tiny had fainted. The most reassuring sight was King Clarkson talking intently to a guard along the back wall, just far away enough that the girls wouldn’t hear. He had one arm wrapped protectively around the queen, who stood quietly and proudly beside him.
How many times had she survived attacks now? We got reports that these happened several times a year. That had to be unnerving. The odds were getting slimmer and slimmer for her … and her husband … and her only child. Surely, eventually, the rebels would figure out the right alignment of circumstances to get what they wanted. Yet she stood there, her chin set, her still face wearing a quiet calm.
I surveyed the girls. Did any of them have the strength it would take to be the queen? Tiny was still unconscious in someone’s arms. Celeste and Bariel were making conversation. I knew what Celeste looked like at ease, and this wasn’t it. Still, compared to the others, she hid her emotions well. Others were near hysterics, whimpering on their knees. Some had mentally shut down, blocking out the entire ordeal. Their faces were blank, and they absently wrung their hands, waiting for it to end.