Chapter no 12

The Elite (The Selection, 2)

BOTH CELESTE’S AND MY INJURIES were minimal, so we were sent back to our rooms within an hour. They staggered our release times so we didn’t have to leave together, and thank goodness for that.

As I turned the corner at the top of the stairs, I saw a guard coming toward me. Aspen. Even though he was bigger after being bulked up from training, I knew his walk and his shadow and a thousand other things that were ingrained in my heart.

As he approached, he stopped to give me an unnecessary bow. “Jar,” he whispered, and rose again, continuing on his path.

I stood there for a split second, confused, and then realized what he meant. Fighting the urge to run, I moved down the hall eagerly.

I opened the door and was both surprised and relieved to find that all three of my maids were out.

I went over to the jar on my bedside table and found that the one little penny in there had company. I opened the lid and pulled out the folded sheet of paper. How clever of him. My maids probably wouldn’t have noticed it; and if they had, they never would have intruded on my privacy.

I unfolded the note and read a very clear list of instructions. It seemed Aspen and I had a date tonight.

The directions Aspen gave me were complicated. I took a roundabout way to get to the first floor, where I was to look for the door next to the five-foot-high vase. I remembered that vase from walking around the palace before. What flower in the world needed a container that big?

I found the door and looked around to double-check that no one saw me. I’d never managed to find myself so free from the eyes of the guards. Not a one in sight. I opened the door slowly and crept inside. The moon shone through the window, giving the room sparse light and making me feel a little nervous.

“Aspen?” I whispered into the darkness, feeling silly and scared all at once.

“Just like old times, eh?” his voice called, though I couldn’t see him.

“Where are you?” I squinted, trying to find his form. Then the shadow of the heavy drape by the window shifted in the moonlight, and Aspen appeared from behind it.

“You startled me,” I complained jokingly.

“Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last.” I heard the smile in his voice.

I walked over to him, knocking into every obstacle along the way it seemed.

“Shhh!” he complained. “The entire palace is going to know we’re in here if you keep pushing things over.” But I could tell he was playing.

“Sorry,” I said, laughing quietly. “Can’t we turn on a light?”

“No. If someone sees it shining under the door, we might get caught.

This corridor isn’t checked a lot, but I want to be smart.”

“How did you even know about this room?” I reached out, making contact with Aspen’s arms at last. He pulled me in for a hug and then started walking me toward the back corner.

“I’m a guard,” he said simply. “And I’m very good at what I do. I know the entire grounds of the palace, inside and out. Every last pathway, all the hiding spots, and even most of the secret rooms. I also happen to know the rotations of the guards, which areas are usually the least checked, and the points in the day when the guards are at their fewest. If you ever want to sneak around the palace, I’m the guy to do it with.”

“Unbelievable,” I mumbled. We sat behind the broad back of a couch, the floor blanketed in a patch of moonlight. Finally I could make out Aspen’s face.

I questioned him seriously. “Are you sure this is safe?” If he hesitated at all, I was planning to bolt that very second. For both our sakes.

“Trust me, Mer. An extraordinary number of things would have to happen for someone to find us here. We’re safe.”

I was still worried, but I needed to be comforted so badly, I went along.

He wrapped an arm around me and pulled me in close. “How are you doing?”

I sighed. “Okay, I guess. I’ve been sad a lot, and angry. Mostly I wish I could undo the last two days and get Marlee back. Carter, too, and I didn’t even know him.”

“I did.” He sighed. “He’s a great guy. I heard he was telling Marlee he loved her the whole time and trying to help her get through it.”

“He was,” I confirmed. “At least in the beginning anyway. I got hauled off before it was over.”

Aspen kissed my head. “Yeah, I heard about that, too. I’m proud you went out with a fight. That’s my girl.”

“My dad was proud, too. The queen said I shouldn’t act that way, but she was glad I did. It’s been confusing. Like it was almost a good idea but not really, and then it didn’t fix anything anyway.”

Aspen held me closer. “It was good. It meant a lot to me.” “To you?”

“Yeah,” he whispered, seeming reluctant to share. “Every once in a while I wonder if the Selection has changed you. You’ve been so taken care of, and everything is so fancy. I keep wondering if you’re the same America. That let me know that you are, that they haven’t gotten to you.” “Oh, they’re getting to me all right, but not like that. Mostly this

place reminds me that I wasn’t born to do this.”

I ducked my head into Aspen’s chest, the safe place where I’d always hidden when things were bad.

“Listen, Mer, the thing about Maxon is that he’s an actor. He’s always putting on this perfect face, like he’s so above everything. But he’s just a person, and he’s as messed up as anyone is. I know you care about him or you wouldn’t have stayed here. But you have to know now that it’s not real.”

I nodded. Maxon with his talk about putting on a calm face. Was that what he was always doing? Was he acting when he was with me? How was I supposed to be able to tell?

Aspen continued. “It’s better you know now. What if you got married and then found out it was like this?”

“I know. I’ve been thinking about that myself.” Maxon’s words on the dance floor played themselves on repeat in my head. He seemed so sure of our future, prepared to give me so much. I sincerely thought the only thing he wanted was for me to be happy. Couldn’t he see how unhappy I was now?

“You’ve got a big heart, Mer. I know you can’t just get over things, but it’s okay to want to. That’s all.”

“I feel so stupid,” I whispered, wanting to cry. “You’re not stupid.”

“I am, too.”

“Mer, do you think I’m smart?” “Of course.”

“That’s because I am. And I’m way too smart to be in love with a stupid girl. So you can drop that right now.”

I gave a tiny laugh and let Aspen hold on to me.

“I feel like I’ve hurt you so much. I don’t understand how you can still possibly be in love with me,” I confessed.

He shrugged. “It’s just the way it is. The sky is blue, the sun is bright, and Aspen endlessly loves America. It’s how the world was designed to be. Seriously, Mer, you’re the only girl I ever wanted. I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. I’ve been trying to prepare myself for that, just in case, and … I can’t.”

We sat there, holding each other for a moment. Every little tickle of Aspen’s fingers, the warmth of his breath in my hair felt like medicine for my heart.

“We shouldn’t stay much longer,” he said. “I’m pretty confident in my abilities, but I don’t want to push it.”

I sighed. It felt like we’d only just gotten here, but he was probably right. I moved to stand, and Aspen jumped up to help me. He pulled me in for one last hug.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m really sorry Maxon turned out to be such a bad guy. I wanted you back, but I didn’t want you to get hurt. Especially not like that.”

“Thanks.” “I mean it.”

“I know you do.” Aspen had his faults, but he didn’t have it in him to be a liar. “It’s not over though. Not if I’m still here.”

“Yeah, but I know you. You’ll ride it out so your family gets money and you can see me, but he’d have to reverse time to fix this.”

I let out a long breath. It felt like he might be right. Maxon’s hold on me was slipping away, shrugging off my skin like a coat.

“Don’t worry, Mer. I’ll take care of you.”

Aspen didn’t have any way to prove that at the moment, but I believed him. He’d do anything for the people he loved, and I knew without question that I was the person he loved the most.

The next morning I let my mind wander to Aspen all through getting ready, breakfast, and my hours in the Women’s Room. I was blissfully detached until the slap of a pile of papers on the table in front of me jarred me back to the real world.

I looked up to see Celeste, still sporting a puffy lip. She pointed to one of her gossip magazines opened to a two-page spread. It didn’t even

take a full second for me to recognize Marlee’s face, even though it was twisted with pain from the caning.

“Thought you should see this,” Celeste said before she walked away.

I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but I was so eager to know anything about Marlee, I dived in.

0f all our country’s great traditions, perhaps none is looked upon with such excitement as the Selection. Created specifically to bring joy to a saddened nation, it seems everyone still gets a little giddy watching the great love story of a prince and his future princess unfold. When Gregory Illéa took the throne more than eighty years ago and his elder son, Spencer, died suddenly, the entire country mourned the loss of such an enigmatic and promising young man. When his younger son, Damon, was set to inherit the throne, many wondered if he was ready even to train for the task at nineteen. But Damon knew he was prepared to step into adulthood and set out to prove it via the greatest commitment in life: marriage. Within months the Selection was born, and the spirits of the country were lifted by the possibility of an average girl becoming the first princess of Illéa.

However, since then we have been forced to wonder at the effectiveness of the competition. While a romantic idea at heart, some say it’s unfair to force princes to marry women beneath them, though no one can deny the absolute poise and beauty of our current queen, Amberly Station Schreave. Some of us still remember the rumors of Abby Tamblin Illéa, who allegedly poisoned her husband, Prince Justin Illéa, only a few years into their marriage before agreeing to marry his cousin, Porter Schreave, thus keeping the royal line intact.

While that rumor has never been confirmed, what we can say for sure is that the behavior of the women in the palace this time around is nothing short of scandalous. Marlee Tames, now an Eight, was caught with a guard undressing her in a closet Monday night after the Halloween Ball that was billed to be the highlight of the Selection programming. Its splendor was completely overshadowed by Miss Tames’s reckless behavior, sending the palace into a frenzy the very next morning.

But beyond Miss Tames’s inexcusable actions, the girls remaining at the palace might not be crown-worthy either. An

unnamed source tells us that some of the Elite are constantly bickering, rarely making the effort to perform the duties they’re required to. Everyone remembers Anna Farmer’s dismissal in early September after deliberately attacking the lovely Celeste Newsome, a model from Clermont. And our source confirms that that isn’t the only physical interaction to take place at the palace between the Elite, forcing this reporter to question the pool of girls chosen for Prince Maxon.

When asked for a comment on these rumors, King Clarkson only said, “Some of the girls come from less-refined castes and aren’t used to the proper behavior expected at the palace. Clearly Miss Tames wasn’t prepared for life as a One. My wife has a particular indefinable quality about her and is one of the rare exceptions to the rule of lower castes. She has always sought to raise herself to a level befitting a queen, and it would be quite a challenge to find someone more suited for the throne than she. But for some of the lower castes remaining in the current Selection, it would be difficult to say we weren’t expecting this from them.”

While Natalie Luca and Elise Whisks are both Fours, they have always been the height of refinement when presented to the public, particularly Lady Elise, who is quite sophisticated. We are forced to assume our king is referring to America Singer, the only Five who made it past day one of the Selection. Miss Singer has had an average run at the Selection. She’s pretty enough, but not quite what Illéa was expecting for its new princess. From time to time her interviews on the Capital Report are entertaining, but we need a new leader, not a comedienne.

In further disturbing news, we have heard reports that Miss Singer attempted to release Miss Tames during her caning, which in this reporter’s eyes makes her an accessory to the treacherous activities in which Miss Tames was partaking by being unfaithful to our prince.

With all of these reports (and with Miss Tames no longer in the top spot) one question remains: Who should be the new princess?

A quick poll of readers has confirmed what we’ve suspected all along.

We congratulate Miss Celeste Newsome and Miss Kriss Ambers for their neck-and-neck places on the top of our public

poll. Elise Whisks takes the third spot, with Natalie Luca not too far behind. In a wide gap between fourth and fifth places, America Singer comes (unsurprisingly) in last.

I think I speak for all of Illéa when I encourage Prince Maxon to take his time finding us a good princess. We narrowly avoided disaster by Miss Tames exposing her true nature before a crown was placed on her head. Whoever you love, Prince Maxon, make sure she’s worthy. We want to love her, too!

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