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Chapter no 27

The Elite (The Selection, 2)

WHEN SILVIA ASKED WHAT I would need for my presentation, I told her a small desk for some books and an easel for a poster I was designing. She was particularly excited about my poster. I was the only girl here with any true experience making art.

I spent hours writing my speech onto note cards so I wouldn’t miss anything, flagging sections in books to be my resources midpresentation, and rehearsing it in the mirror to get through the parts that particularly worried me. I tried not to think too hard about what I was doing; otherwise my whole body started trembling.

I asked Anne to make me a dress that looked innocent, which made her eyebrows pucker.

“You make it sound like we’ve been sending you out in lingerie,” she said mockingly.

I chuckled. “That’s not what I mean at all. You know I love all the dresses you’ve made me. I just want to seem … angelic.”

She smiled to herself. “I think we can come up with something.” They must have been working like crazy, because I didn’t see Anne,

Mary, or Lucy the day of the Report until the hour before it started, when they came bustling in with the dress. It was white, gauzy, and light, adorned with one long stream of green and blue tulle running along the right side. The bottom fell in such a way that it looked like a cloud, and its empire waist added a level of virtue and grace to the gown. I felt lovely in that dress. It was by far my favorite of everything they’d designed for me, and I was glad it worked out that way. It would probably be the last dress of theirs I’d ever wear.

It had been hard to keep my plan a secret, but I did. When the girls asked what I was doing, I simply said it was a surprise. I got a few skeptical looks for that, but I didn’t care. I asked my maids not to touch the things on my desk, not even to clean, and they obeyed, leaving my notes facedown.

No one knew.

The person I most wanted to tell was Aspen, but I refrained. Part of me feared he would talk me out of it, and I would cave. Another part feared he would be far too gung-ho.

As my maids worked to make me look beautiful, I stared into the mirror and knew I was walking into this alone. And that was for the best. I didn’t want anyone—not my maids, not the other girls, and especially not Aspen—to get in trouble for my actions.

All that was left to do was to put things in order. “Anne, Mary, would you please go get me some tea?”

They looked at each other. “Both of us?” Mary clarified. “Yes, please.”

They looked suspicious but curtsied and left all the same. Once they were gone, I turned to Lucy.

“Sit with me,” I invited, pulling her down to the padded bench on which I was sitting. She complied, and I asked her simply, “Are you happy?”

“Miss?”

“You’ve seemed kind of sad lately. I was wondering if you were all right.”

She dropped her head. “Is it that obvious?”

“A little,” I admitted, wrapping my arm around her and holding her close. She sighed and placed her head on my shoulder. I was so happy that she forgot the invisible boundaries between us for a moment.

“Have you ever wanted something you couldn’t have?”

I snorted. “Lucy, before I came here I was a Five. There were too many things I couldn’t have to bother counting.”

In a very un-Lucy-like manner, a single tear fell to her cheek. “I don’t know what to do. I’m stuck.”

I straightened up and made her face me. “Lucy, I want you to know I think you can do anything, be anything. I think you’re an amazing girl.”

She gave me a weak smile. “Thank you, miss.”

I knew we didn’t have much time. “Listen, I need you to do something for me. I wasn’t sure if I could count on the others, but I’m trusting you.”

Though she looked confused, I could tell she meant it when she said, “Anything.”

I reached over to one of the drawers and pulled out a letter. “Could you give this to Officer Leger?”

“Officer Leger?”

“I wanted to tell him thank-you for how kind he’s been, and I thought it might be inappropriate to give him a letter myself. You know.” It was a lame excuse, but it was the only way I could explain to Aspen why I did

what I was going to do and to tell him good-bye. I assumed I wouldn’t have much time in the palace after tonight.

“I can get this to him within the hour,” she said eagerly.

“Thank you.” Tears threatened to come, but I pushed them down. I was scared, but there were so many reasons this needed to be done.

We all deserved better. My family, Marlee and Carter, Aspen, even my maids were all stuck because of Gregory’s plans. I would think of them.

When I walked into the studio for the Report, I was clutching an armful of marked books and a portfolio for my poster. The setup was the same as always—the king’s, queen’s, and Maxon’s seats to the right near the door, the Selected in seats on the left—but in the middle, where there was usually a podium for the king to speak at or a set of chairs for interviews, there was a space for our presentations instead. I saw a desk and my easel, but also a screen that I assumed someone was showing slides on. That was impressive. I wondered who had found the resources to go that far.

I went over to the last open chair—next to Celeste, unfortunately— and placed my portfolio beside me, keeping my books on my lap. Natalie had a few books, too; and Elise was reading through her notes over and over. Kriss was looking toward the sky and appeared to be reciting her presentation mentally. Celeste was checking her makeup.

Silvia was there, which sometimes happened when we had to discuss something she’d briefed us on, and today she was beside herself. This was probably the hardest we’d worked to date, and it would all reflect back on her.

I inhaled sharply. I’d forgotten about Silvia. Too late now.

“You look beautiful, ladies, fantastic!” she said as she approached. “Now that you’re all here, I want to explain a few things. First, the king will get up and give a few announcements, and then Gavril will introduce the topic of the evening: your philanthropy presentations.”

Silvia, usually a level-headed, palace-hardened machine, was giddy. She was actually bouncing as she spoke. “Now, I know you’ve been practicing. You have eight minutes; and if anyone has a question for you afterward, Gavril will facilitate that. Remember to stay alert and poised. The country is watching you! If you get lost, take a breath and move on. You’re going to be wonderful. Oh, and you’ll be going in the order in which you’re seated, so Lady Natalie, you’re first; and Lady America will be last. Good luck, girls!”

Silvia skipped off to check and double-check things, and I tried to calm myself. Last. I guessed that was a good thing. I supposed Natalie had it worse by being first up. Looking over, I saw her breaking into a sweat. It must be torture for her to try and focus like this. I couldn’t help but stare at Celeste. She didn’t know I’d seen her and Maxon, and I kept wondering why she never told anyone about it. The fact that she kept it to herself led me to believe it wasn’t the first time.

That made it so much worse.

“Nervous?” I asked, watching her pick at something on her nail.

“No. This is a stupid idea, and no one really cares. I’ll be glad when it’s over. And I’m a model,” she said, finally looking at me. “I’m naturally good at being in front of an audience.”

“You do seem to have mastered how to pose,” I mumbled.

I could see the wheels turning as she tried to weed out the insult in there. She ended up rolling her eyes and looking away.

Just then the king walked in with the queen by his side. They were speaking in whispers, and it looked very important. A moment later, Maxon entered, adjusting his cuff links as he made his way to his seat. He came across so innocent, so clean in his suit; I had to remind myself that I knew better.

He looked over at me. I wasn’t going to be intimidated and turn away first, so I stared back. Then, tentatively, Maxon reached up and tugged at his ear. I slowly shook my head with an expression that conveyed we would never speak again if I had anything to do with it.

A cold sweat broke out on my entire body as the presentations started. Natalie’s proposal was short. And slightly misinformed.

She claimed that everything the rebels were doing was hateful and wrong, and their presence should be outlawed to keep Illéa’s provinces safer. We all stared at her quietly once she was done. How did she not know that everything they did was already considered illegal?

The queen’s face in particular seemed incredibly sad as Natalie sat back down.

Elise proposed a program that would involve members of the upper castes getting involved in a pen pal–type of relationship with people in New Asia. She suggested that it would help strengthen the bonds between our countries and aid in ending the war. I wasn’t sure that it would do any good, but it was a fresh reminder to Maxon and the public of the reason she was still here. The queen asked if she happened to know anyone in New Asia who would be open to being in the program, and Elise assured her that she did.

Kriss’s presentation was spectacular. She wanted to revamp the public school systems, which I already knew was an idea near and dear to both the queen’s and Maxon’s hearts. As the daughter of a professor, I was sure she’d been thinking about this her whole life. She used the screen to show pictures from her home province’s school that her parents had sent to her. It was plain to see the exhaustion on the teachers’ faces, and in one picture it showed a room where four children were sitting on the floor since there weren’t enough chairs. The queen piped up with dozens of questions, and Kriss was quick to answer. Using copies of old reports about financial issues we’d read, she’d even found a place where we could borrow the money to start the work and had ideas on how to continue the funding.

As she sat down, I saw Maxon give her a smile and a nod. She responded by blushing and studying the lace on her dress. It was really cruel of him to play with her like that, considering how intimate he was with Celeste. But I was done interfering. Let him do what he wanted.

Celeste’s presentation was interesting, if slightly manipulative. She suggested that there be a minimum-payment wage for some of the lower castes. It would be a sliding scale, based on certifications. However, to get these certifications, the Fives, Sixes, and Sevens would have to go to school … which they would have to pay for … which would mostly benefit the Threes, as they were the authorized teachers. Since Celeste was a Two, she had no idea how we had to work around the clock to make ends meets. No one would have the time to get these certifications, meaning their pay would never change. On the surface it sounded nice, but there was no way it would work.

Celeste returned to her seat, and I trembled when I stood. For a brief second I considered pretending to pass out. But I wanted this to happen. I just didn’t want to face what would come after.

I placed my poster—a diagram of the castes—on the easel, and set my books in order on the desk. I took a deep breath and gripped my cards, surprised to find that when I started, I didn’t even need them.

“Good evening, Illéa. Tonight I come to you not as one of the Elite, not as a Three or a Five, but as a citizen, an equal. Based on your caste, your experience of our country is shaded a very specific way. I can say that for certain myself. But it wasn’t until recently that I understood how deep my love for Illéa went.

“Despite growing up sometimes without food or electricity, despite watching people I love forced into the stations we are assigned at birth with little hope for change, despite seeing the gaps between myself and

others because of this number even though we aren’t very different”—I looked over to the girls—“I find myself in love with our country.”

I switched the card automatically, knowing the break. “What I propose wouldn’t be simple. It might even be painful, but I genuinely believe it would benefit our entire kingdom.” I inhaled. “I think we should eliminate the castes.”

I heard more than one gasp. I chose to ignore them.

“I know there was a time, when our country was new, when the assignment of these numbers helped organize something that was on the brink of not existing. But we are no longer that country. We are so much more now. To allow the talentless to have exalted privileges and suppress what could be the greatest minds in the world for the sake of an archaic organization system is cruel, and it only stops us from becoming the best we can be.”

I noted a poll from one of Celeste’s discarded magazines after we talked about having a volunteer army, and sixty-five percent of the people thought it was a good idea. Why eliminate that career path completely for people? I also cited an old report we had studied about the standardized testing in the public schools. The article was slanted, stating that only three percent of Sixes and Sevens tested to elevated levels of intelligence; and since it was so low, it was clear they were intended to stay where they were. My argument was that we ought to be ashamed that those people are stuck digging ditches when they could be performing heart surgeries.

Finally the daunting task was nearly over. “Perhaps our country is flawed, but we cannot deny its strength. My fear is that, without change, that strength will become stagnate. And I love our country too much to let that happen. I hope too much to let that happen.”

I swallowed, grateful that at least it was over now. “Thank you for your time,” I said, and turned slightly toward the royal family.

It was bad. Maxon’s face was stony again, like the way he’d looked when Marlee was caned. The queen averted her eyes, looking disappointed. The king, however, stared me down.

Without so much as a blink, he focused in on me. “And how do you suggest we eliminate the castes?” he challenged. “Just suddenly take them all away?”

“Oh … I don’t know.”

“And you don’t think that would cause riots? Complete mayhem?

Allow for rebels to take advantage of public confusion?”

I hadn’t thought this part through. All I could process was how unfair it all was.

“I think the creation caused a decent amount of confusion, and we managed that. In fact”—I reached to my pile of books—“I have a description here.”

I started looking for the right page in Gregory’s diary. “Are we off?” he bellowed.

“Yes, Majesty,” someone called.

I looked up and saw that all the lights that usually indicated that the cameras were on had gone dim. In some gesture I’d missed, the king had shut down the Report.

The king stood. “Point them to the ground.” Each camera was aimed to the floor.

He stormed over to me and ripped the diary from my hands. “Where did you get this?” he yelled.

“Father, stop!” Maxon jogged up nervously. “Where did she get this? Answer me!”

Maxon confessed. “From me. We were looking up what Halloween was. He wrote about it in the diaries, and I thought she’d like to read more.”

“You idiot,” the king spat. “I knew I should have made you read these sooner. You’re completely lost. You have no clue of the duty you have!”

Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.

“She leaves tonight,” King Clarkson ordered. “I’ve had enough of her.”

I tried to shrink down, distance myself from the king as much as I could without being obvious. I tried not to even breathe too loudly. I turned my head toward the girls, for some reason focusing on Celeste. I’d expected her to be smiling, but she was nervous. The king had never been like this.

“You can’t send her home. That’s my choice, and I say she stays,” Maxon responded calmly.

“Maxon Calix Schreave, I am the king of Illéa, and I say—”

“Could you stop being the king for five minutes and just be my father?” Maxon yelled. “This is my choice. You got to make yours, and I want to make mine. No one else is leaving without my say so!”

I saw Natalie lean in to Elise. They both looked like they were shaking.

“Amberly, take this back to where it belongs,” he said, shoving the book in her hand. She stood there, nodding her head but not moving. “Maxon, I need to see you in my office.”

I watched Maxon; and maybe I only imagined it, but it looked like panic flickered briefly behind his eyes.

“Or,” the king offered, “I could simply talk to her.” He gestured over to me.

“No,” Maxon said quickly, holding up a hand in protest. “That won’t be necessary. Ladies,” he added, turning to us, “why don’t you all head upstairs? We’ll have dinner sent to you tonight.” He paused. “America, maybe you should go ahead and collect your things. Just in case.”

The king smiled, an eerie action after his recent explosion. “Excellent idea. After you, son.”

I looked at Maxon, who seemed defeated. I felt ashamed. Maxon opened his mouth to say something, but in the end he shook his head and walked away.

Kriss was wringing her hands, looking after Maxon. I couldn’t blame her. Something about all of this seemed menacing.

“Clarkson?” Queen Amberly said quietly. “What about the other matter?”

“What?” he asked in irritation. “The news?” she reminded him.

“Oh, yes.” He walked back toward us. I was close enough that I decided to retreat into my chair, afraid of being out there alone again. King Clarkson’s voice was steady and calm. “Natalie, we didn’t want to tell you before the Report, but we’ve received some bad news.”

“Bad news?” she asked, fiddling with her necklace, already too anxious.

The king came closer. “Yes. I’m very sorry for your loss, but it appears the rebels took your sister this morning.”

“What?” she whispered.

“Her remains were found this afternoon. We’re sorry.” To his credit, there was something close to sympathy in his voice, though it sounded more like training than genuine emotion.

He quickly returned to Maxon, escorting him forcefully out the door as Natalie broke into an ear-shattering scream. The queen rushed over to her, smoothing her hair and trying to calm her down. Celeste, never too sisterly, quietly left the room, with an overwhelmed Elise close behind. Kriss stayed and tried to comfort Natalie, but once it was clear that she couldn’t do much, she left as well. The queen told Natalie there would be

guards with her parents for good measure and that she would be able to leave for the funeral if she wanted to, holding on to her the whole time.

Everything had gotten so dark so quickly, I found myself frozen in my seat.

When the hand appeared in front of my face, I was so startled, I shied away.

“I won’t hurt you,” Gavril said. “Just want to help you up.” His lapel pin shimmered, reflecting the light.

I gave him my hand, surprised by how shaky my legs were.

“He must love you very much,” Gavril said once I had my footing. I couldn’t look at him. “What makes you say that?”

Gavril sighed. “I’ve known Maxon since he was a child. He’s never stood up to his father like that.”

Gavril walked away then, talking to the crew about keeping all that they had heard tonight quiet.

I went to Natalie. It wasn’t like I knew everything about her, but I was sure she loved her sister the way I loved May; and I couldn’t imagine the ache she must be feeling.

“Natalie, I’m so sorry,” I whispered. She nodded. That was the most she could manage.

The queen looked up at me sympathetically, not sure how to convey all her sadness. “And … I’m sorry to you, too. I wasn’t trying to … I just

…”

“I know, dear.”

With how Natalie was doing, asking for more of a good-bye was too selfish, so I gave the queen a final, deep curtsy and slowly left the room, wallowing in the disaster I’d created.

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