Chapter no 14

The Elite (The Selection, 2)

SURREPTITIOUSLY WATCHED MAXON THE next morning at breakfast. I wondered how much he knew about the people losing their castes in the South. Only once did he glance my way, but he didn’t seem to be looking at me so much as at something near me.

Anytime I felt uncomfortable, I’d reach down and touch Aspen’s button, which I’d laced on a tiny ribbon and made into a bracelet. He would get me through my time here.

Toward the end of the meal, the king stood and we all turned to him. “As there are so few of you now, I thought it would be nice for us to have tea tomorrow night before the Report. Since one of you will be our new daughter-in-law, the queen and I would like to make more opportunities to speak with you, learn your interests and such.”

I felt a little nervous. Relating to the queen was one thing, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about the king. While the other girls watched him eagerly, I sipped my juice.

“Please come an hour before the Report to the lounge on the first floor. If you’re not familiar, don’t worry. The doors will be open, and there will be some music playing. You’ll hear us before you see us,” he said with a chuckle. The others giggled lightly in return.

Soon after, girls started making their way to the Women’s Room. I sighed. Sometimes that room, huge as it was, made me feel claustrophobic. I usually tried to interact with people or use the time to read. This would be a Celeste day. I was going to park myself in front of the television and zone out.

It was easier said than done. The girls seemed particularly chatty today.

“I wonder what the king wants to know about us,” Kriss gabbed. “We just have to remember everything Silvia taught us about poise,”

Elise commented.

“I hope my maids have a good dress for tomorrow night. I don’t want to have to go through what I did for Halloween. They’re so scatterbrained sometimes.” Celeste sounded put out.

“I wish the king would grow a beard,” Natalie said wistfully. I peeked over my shoulder to see her stroking an imaginary beard on her

own chin. “I think he’d look good.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Kriss said graciously before moving on.

I shook my head and tried to focus on the ridiculous show in front of me, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t tune out the words of the other girls.

By lunch I was a ball of nerves. What would he want to say to me— the girl from the lowest caste left in the competition? What would he want to discuss with the girl he expected so little from?

King Clarkson was right. I heard the floating melody from the piano long before I found the lounge. The musician was good. Better than me, that was for sure.

I hesitated before walking in. I decided to pause before I spoke, really think about my words. I realized I wanted to prove him wrong. I wanted to prove that reporter wrong, too. Even if I lost, I didn’t want to go home a loser. I was surprised by how much this suddenly meant to me.

I stepped through the doorway, and the first thing I saw was Maxon standing along the back wall of the room talking to Gavril Fadaye. Gavril was sipping wine as opposed to tea, and he’d suddenly lost Maxon’s attention. I saw Maxon’s eyes rake over me, and I could have sworn his lips made the shape of a Wow.

I turned my head and blushed, walking away. I took the risk of glancing at him again and saw that he was watching me move. It was hard to think rationally when he looked at me that way.

King Clarkson was talking to Natalie in one corner, and Queen Amberly was with Celeste in another. Elise was sipping her tea, and Kriss was walking around the room. I watched as she passed Maxon and Gavril, giving Gavril a warm smile. She said something, which they both chuckled at, and kept walking, peeking over her shoulder at Maxon once as she did so.

After that she made her way to me. “You’re late,” she jokingly scolded.

“I was feeling a little nervous.”

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. It was actually kind of fun.” “You’re already done?” If the king was finished speaking with at

least two girls, I’d have less time to compose myself than I thought. “Yes. Sit with me. We can have some tea while you wait.”

Kriss pulled me over to a table, and a maid approached us immediately, setting tea, milk, and sugar in front of us.

“What did he ask you?” I pressed.

“Actually, it was very conversational. I don’t think he’s trying to get any information exactly, more like he’s trying to get a feeling for our personalities. I made him laugh once!” she gushed. “It went really well. And you’re naturally funny, so if you just talk like you would to anyone else, you’ll be fine.”

I nodded before picking up my tea. She made it sound all right. Maybe the king had to compartmentalize himself. When it came to dealing with threats to the country, he had to be decisive, cold. He had to act quickly and deliberately. This was just tea with a bunch of girls. There was no need for him to be that way with us.

The queen had moved away from Celeste and was now speaking softly to Natalie. The look on Natalie’s face was adoring. For a while I’d been irritated by her dreamy disposition; but she was simple, and it was refreshing.

I sipped my tea again. King Clarkson drifted over to Celeste, and she gave him a seductive smile. It was a little disturbing. Where were her boundaries?

Kriss leaned over to touch my dress. “That fabric is amazing. With your hair, you look like a sunset.”

“Thank you,” I said, blinking my eyes. The light had caught on her necklace, an explosion of silver on her throat, and it blinded me for a moment. “My maids are very talented.”

“Absolutely. I like mine, but if I become princess, I’m stealing yours!”

She laughed, maybe meaning her words as a joke, maybe not. Either way, something about my maids hemming her clothes bothered me. I forced a smile though.

“What’s so funny?” Maxon asked, walking over.

“Just girl talk,” Kriss said flirtatiously. She was really on tonight. “I was trying to calm America. She’s nervous about speaking to your father.”

Thank you for that, Kriss.

“You don’t have a thing to worry about. Be natural. You already look fantastic.” Maxon gave me an easy smile. He was clearly trying to open up our lines of communication again.

“That’s what I said!” Kriss exclaimed. They shared a quick look, and there was this feeling of them being on a team. It was strange.

“Well, I’ll leave you to your girl talk. Good-bye for now.” Maxon gave us both a short bow and went over to join his mother.

Kriss sighed and watched Maxon go. “He’s really something.” She gave me a quick smile and went to talk to Gavril.

I watched the elaborate dance of the room, couples coming together to speak, separating to find new partners. I was even happy to have Elise join me in my corner, though she didn’t say much.

“Oh, ladies, the time has gotten away from us,” the king called. “We need to make our way downstairs.”

I looked up at the clock, and he was right. We had about ten minutes to get down to the set and prepare ourselves.

It didn’t seem to matter how I felt about being a princess, or how I felt about Maxon, or how I felt about anything. The king clearly thought I was so unlikely a candidate that he didn’t even want to bother speaking with me. I was excluded, perhaps on purpose, and no one even noticed.

I held it together through the Report. I even made it through dismissing my maids. But once I was alone, I broke down.

I wasn’t sure how I’d explain myself when Maxon came knocking, but that ended up not mattering. He never showed. And I couldn’t help but wonder whose company he was enjoying instead.

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