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Chapter no 20

The Elite (The Selection, 2)

THE DAY AFTER THE ITALIAN reception we gathered in the Women’s Room after breakfast. The queen was absent, and none of us knew what that meant.

“I bet she’s helping Silvia write up the final report,” Elise guessed.

“I don’t think she’s supposed to have much of a say,” Kriss countered.

“Maybe she’s hung over,” Natalie offered as she pressed her fingers to her temples.

“Just because you are doesn’t mean she is,” Celeste spat.

“She might not be feeling well,” I said. “She tends to get sick a lot.” Kriss nodded. “I wonder why that is.”

“Didn’t she grow up in the South?” Elise asked. “I hear the air and water aren’t very clean down there. Maybe it’s because of how she was raised.”

“I hear everything is bad below Sumner,” Celeste added.

“She’s probably just resting,” I interjected. “There’s a Report tonight, and she simply wants to be ready. She’s smart. It’s barely ten, and I need a nap.”

“Yeah, we should all take naps,” Natalie said wearily.

A maid entered with a small platter and walked quietly across the room, almost too nimble to be noticed.

“Wait,” Kriss said. “You don’t think they’ll talk about the reception stuff on the Report, do you?”

Celeste groaned. “I hated that stupid thing. You and America lucked out.”

“You’re joking, right? Do you have any …”

Kriss’s words dropped off as the maid stopped just to my left, revealing a small, folded note on the platter.

I felt everyone’s eyes on me as I tentatively picked up the letter and read it.

“Is that from Maxon?” Kriss asked, trying not to seem as interested as she was.

“Yes.” I didn’t look up. “What’s it say?” she probed.

“That he needs to see me for a moment.”

Celeste laughed. “Sounds like you’re in trouble.”

I sighed and stood to follow the maid from the room. “Guess there’s only one way to find out.”

“Maybe he’s finally kicking her out,” Celeste whispered loudly enough for me to hear.

“You think?” Natalie asked a little too excitedly.

A chill went through me. Maybe he was kicking me out! If he wanted to talk to me or spend time with me, wouldn’t he have said it differently?

Maxon was waiting in the hallway, and I walked up timidly. He didn’t look upset, but he did seem tense.

I braced myself. “So?”

He took my arm. “We have fifteen minutes. What I’m about to show you, you can’t share with anyone. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“All right then.”

We darted up the stairs, all the way to the third floor. Gently but quickly, Maxon pulled me down the hallway to a set of white double doors. “Fifteen minutes,” he reminded.

“Fifteen minutes.”

He took a key out of his pocket and unlocked one of the doors, holding it open so I could go in before him. The room was wide and bright, with lots of windows and two doors opening onto a balcony along the wall. There was a bed, a massive armoire, and a table with chairs; but other than that the room was empty. No paintings on the walls, no pieces on the inlaid shelves. Even the paint was a little drab.

“This is the princess’s suite,” Maxon said quietly. My eyes widened.

“I know it’s not much to look at right now. The princess is supposed to choose the decor, so once my mother moved to the queen’s suite, the room was stripped.”

Queen Amberly had slept here. Something about the room felt magical.

Maxon came up behind me and started pointing. “Those doors go to the balcony. And over there”—he pointed to the other end of the room

—“those doors go to the princess’s personal study. Right here”—he noted a door to our right—“this goes to my room. Can’t have the princess too far off.”

I felt myself blush thinking of sleeping here with Maxon so close.

He stepped toward the armoire. “And this? Behind this piece of furniture is the escape to the safe room. You can get to other places in the

palace this way, too, but that’s its main purpose.” He sighed. “This is a slight misuse, but I thought it would be worth it.”

Maxon placed his hand on a hidden latch, and the armoire and the panel of wall behind it swung forward. I saw him smile at the space behind it. “Right on time.”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” another voice said.

I sucked in a breath. There was no way that voice belonged to who I thought it did. I stepped to see around the hulking piece of furniture and Maxon’s smiling face. There, dressed in very plain clothes and with her hair pulled into a bun, was Marlee.

“Marlee?” I whispered, sure I had to be dreaming. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve missed you so much!” she cried, and ran to me with her arms open. With her hands out, I could see clearly the red, healing welts on her palms. It really was Marlee.

She wrapped me in a hug, and we crumpled to the ground, I was so overcome. I couldn’t stop from crying and asking over and over what in the world she was doing here.

When I quieted down long enough, Maxon got my attention. “Ten minutes. I’ll be waiting outside. Marlee, you can leave the way you came.”

She gave him her word, and Maxon left us alone.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “You were supposed to go south. You were supposed to be an Eight. Where’s Carter?”

She smiled through my misunderstanding. “We’ve been here the whole time. I just started working in the kitchens; and Carter’s still on the mend, but I think he’ll be in the stables soon.”

“On the mend?” So many questions were racing through my mind, I wasn’t sure why that one popped out.

“Yes, he walks and can sit and stand, but it’s hard for him to do anything too strenuous. He’s helping in the kitchens until he’s fully healed. He’s going to be fine though. And look at me,” she said, holding out both hands. “We’ve been very well taken care of. They aren’t pretty, but at least they don’t hurt anymore.”

I carefully touched the swollen lines on her palms, sure they couldn’t actually be painless. But she didn’t flinch, and after a moment I slid my hand into hers. It felt funny, but at the same time completely natural. Marlee was here. And I was holding her hand.

“So Maxon’s had you in the palace the whole time?”

She nodded. “After the caning, he was afraid we would be hurt if we were left on our own, so he kept us here. Two other servants, a brother and sister who had family in Panama, were sent instead. We’re going by new names, and Carter is growing out his beard, so after a while we’ll blend in. Not a lot of people know we’re in the palace in the first place, just a few of the cooks I work with, one of the nurses, and Maxon. I don’t even think the guards know because they have to answer to the king, and he wouldn’t be pleased to find out.”

She shook her head before quickly moving on. “Our little apartment is small, basically just enough room for our bed and some shelves; but at least it’s clean. I’m trying to sew us a new bedspread, but I’m not—”

“Hold on. Our bed? As in, you share one?”

She smiled. “We got married two days ago. I told Maxon the morning we were caned that I loved Carter and that he was the one I wanted to marry, and I apologized for hurting him. He didn’t care, of course. He came to me two days ago saying there was some big event happening and that if we wanted to get married, this was the time.”

I counted back. Two days ago was when the German Federation had come. The entire palace staff was either helping serve them or preparing for the ladies from Italy.

“Maxon gave me away. I’m not sure I’ll ever see my parents again.

The more distance they have from me, the better.”

I could tell she was pained to say so, but I understood why. If it had been me and I was suddenly an Eight, the kindest thing I could do for my family was disappear. It would take time, but people would forget. Eventually, my parents would recover.

To push away her sad thoughts, she fanned out her left hand, and I noticed the little band across her finger for the first time. It was twine tied in a simple knot, but it was a clear statement: I’m taken.

“I think I’m going to have to get him to give me a new one soon; I’m already fraying this one. I guess if he works in the stables, I’ll have to make him a new ring every day.” She playfully shrugged. “Not that I mind.”

My mind had jumped to another question that I worried might be rude to ask, but I knew I would never be able to have this kind of conversation with my mom or Kenna. “So, have you … you know?”

It took her a moment to understand, but then she laughed. “Oh! Yes, we have.”

We both giggled. “How is it?”

“Honestly? A little uncomfortable at first. The second time was better.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say. “Yeah.”

There was a bit of a pause.

“I’ve been really lonely without you. I miss you.” I played with the little piece of twine on her finger.

“I miss you, too. Maybe once you’re the princess, I can sneak up here all the time.”

I snorted. “I’m not so sure that’ll happen.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, her face turning serious. “You’re still his favorite, right?”

I shrugged.

“What happened?” The question was laced with concern, and I didn’t want to admit that it had started with losing her. It wasn’t her fault.

“Just things.”

“America, what’s going on?”

I sighed. “After you got caned, I was upset with Maxon. It took me a while to realize that he wouldn’t have done something like that if he could have stopped it.”

Marlee nodded. “He tried so hard, America. And when he couldn’t, he did everything he could to make the situation better. So don’t be mad at him.”

“I’m not anymore, but I’m also not sure I want to be the princess. I don’t know if I could do what he did. And then there was this poll in a magazine Celeste showed me. The people don’t like me, Marlee. I’m at the bottom.

“I’m not sure I have what it takes. I was never a good choice, and it seems like I’m plummeting. And now … now … I think Maxon wants Kriss.”

“Kriss? When did that happen?”

“I have no idea, and I don’t know what to do. Part of me thinks it’s a good thing. She’d make a better princess; and if he really likes her, I want him to be happy. And he’s supposed to do another elimination really soon. When he called me out today, I thought I might be going home.”

Marlee laughed. “You’re so ridiculous. If Maxon didn’t have feelings for you, he’d have sent you home a long time ago. The reason you’re still here is because he refuses to lose hope.”

Something between a choke and a laugh came out of my mouth.

“I wish we could talk more, but I should go,” she said. “We’re taking advantage of guards changing to do this.”

“I don’t care that it’s short. I’m just glad to know you’re okay.” She pulled me in for a hug. “Don’t give up yet, all right?”

“I won’t. Maybe you could send me a letter or something sometime?”

“That might work. We’ll see.” She let me go, and we stood together. “If they polled me, I would have voted for you. I’ve always thought it should be you.”

I blushed. “Go on, now. Say hello to your husband for me.”

She smiled. “I will.” Nimbly, she went over to the armoire and found the latch. For some reason, I thought the caning would break her, but she was stronger now. She even carried herself differently. Marlee turned to blow me a kiss and disappeared.

I quickly exited the room and found that Maxon was waiting in the hallway. At the sound of the door, he looked up from his book, smiling, and I went over to sit by him.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“I had to make sure they were safe first. My father doesn’t know I did this; and until I knew it wouldn’t endanger them, I had to keep it to myself. I’m hoping to arrange for you to see her more, but that will take time.”

I felt my shoulders lighten, as if the bricks of worry I’d been carrying around were falling off all at once. The happiness at seeing Marlee, the assurance that Maxon was as kind as I thought he was, and the general relief that this meeting wasn’t about him sending me home were overwhelming.

“Thank you,” I whispered. “Of course.”

I wasn’t sure what else to say. After a moment Maxon cleared his throat.

“I know that you are averse to doing the difficult parts of this job, but there are a lot of opportunities here. I think you could do great things. I can tell you see the prince in me now, but that had to come eventually if you were ever going to truly be mine.”

My eyes held his. “I know.”

“I can’t read you anymore. I used to be able to see it in the beginning when you didn’t really care for me; and when things changed between us, you looked at me differently. Now there are moments when I think it’s there and others when it seems like you’re already gone.”

I nodded.

“I’m not asking you to say you love me. I’m not asking for you to suddenly decide you want to be a princess. I just need to know if you want to be here at all.”

That was the question, wasn’t it? I still didn’t know if I could do the job, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up on it. And seeing this kindness in Maxon shifted my heart. There was still so much to consider, but I couldn’t give up. Not now.

Maxon’s hand was resting on his leg, and I slid mine under his. He gave me a welcoming squeeze. “If you’ll still have me, I want to stay.”

Maxon let out a relieved sigh. “I’d like that very much.”

I returned to the Women’s Room after a quick stop in the bathroom. No one said anything until I sat down, and it was Kriss who was bold enough to ask.

“What was that all about?”

I looked not just to her, but to all the watching eyes. “I’d rather not say.”

With my puffy face, a response like that was enough to make it seem like nothing good could have come from the meeting; but if that was what I had to say to protect Marlee, then I was fine with it.

What really stung was Celeste pressing her lips together to hide her smile, Natalie’s raised eyebrows as she pretended to read her borrowed magazine, and the hopeful glance between Kriss and Elise.

The competition was deeper than I had guessed.

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