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Chapter no 28

The Elite (The Selection, 2)

THE LAST THING WAS expecting when I walked in my doorway was the smattering of applause from my maids.

I stood there for a moment, genuinely moved by their support and comforted by the shining pride in their faces. Once they were done making me blush, Anne took me by the hands.

“Well said, miss.” She gave a gentle squeeze, and I saw in her eyes so much joy over my words, for a second I didn’t feel so awful.

“I can’t believe you did that! No one ever stands up for us!” Mary added.

“Maxon has to pick you,” Lucy cried. “You’re the only one who gives me hope.”

Hope.

I needed to think, and the one place I could really do that was the gardens. Though my maids were insistent that I stay, I left, taking the long way, down a back stairwell on the other end of the hall. Besides the occasional guard, the first floor was empty and quiet. It felt like the palace should be bustling with activity, given how much had happened in the last half hour or so.

As I passed the hospital wing, the door flew open and I ran right into Maxon, who dropped a sealed metal box. He groaned after we collided, even though it really wasn’t that hard.

“What are you doing out of your room?” he asked, slowly bending to pick up the box. I noticed it had his name on the side. I wondered what he was storing in the hospital wing.

“I was going to the gardens. I’m trying to figure out if I did something stupid or not.”

Maxon appeared to be having a difficult time standing. “Oh, I can assure you it was stupid.”

“Do you need help?”

“No,” he answered quickly, avoiding my eyes. “Just heading to my room. And I suggest you do the same.”

“Maxon.” The quiet plea in my voice made him look at me. “I’m so sorry. I was mad, and I wanted to … I don’t even know anymore. And

you were the one who said there were perks to being a One, that you could change things.”

He rolled his eyes. “You’re not a One.” There was a silence between us. “Even if you were, did you not pay attention at all to the way I’m doing things? It’s quiet and small. That’s how it has to be for now. You can’t go on television complaining about the way things are run and expect to have my father’s, or anyone’s, support.”

“I’m sorry!” I cried. “I’m so, so sorry.”

He paused for a moment. “I’m not sure that—”

We heard the shouting at the same time. Maxon turned and started walking, and I followed, trying to make sense of the sound. Was someone fighting? As we got closer to the intersection of the main hallway and the doors to the gardens, we saw guards come flooding toward the area.

“Sound the alarm!” someone called. “They’re through the gates!” “Guns at the ready!” another guard yelled over the shouts.

“Alert the king!”

And then, like bees intent on landing, small, quick things buzzed into the hall. A guard was struck and fell back, his head hitting the marble with a disturbing crack. The blood pouring from his chest made me scream.

Maxon instinctively pulled me away, but not very quickly. Perhaps he was in shock as well.

“Your Majesty!” a guard called, racing over to us. “You have to get downstairs now!”

He gruffly turned Maxon around and shoved him away. Maxon cried out and dropped the metal box again. I looked over at the guard’s hand on Maxon, expecting to see that he’d driven a knife into his back based on the sound Maxon had made. All I saw was a thick, pewter ring around his thumb. I picked up the box by the handle on the side, hoping that didn’t mess up anything inside, and ran in the direction the guard was trying to move us.

“I won’t make it,” Maxon said.

I turned back to him and saw that he was sweating. Something was really wrong with him.

“Yes, sir,” the guard said grimly. “This way.”

He pulled Maxon around a corner to what appeared to be a dead end. I wondered if he was going to leave us there when he hit some invisible trigger on the wall and another one of the palace’s mysterious doors

opened. It was so dark inside, I couldn’t see where it went; but Maxon walked in, hunched over, without a second thought.

“Tell my mother that America and I are safe. Do that before anything else,” he said.

“Absolutely, sir. I’ll come back for you myself when this is over.” The siren sounded. I hoped that was fast enough to save everyone. Maxon nodded and the door closed, leaving us in complete darkness.

The seal was so secure, I couldn’t even make out the sound of the alarm. I heard Maxon’s hand rubbing against the wall, and he eventually came upon a switch that dimly lit the room. I looked around and surveyed the space.

There were some shelves that held a bunch of dark, plastic packages and a different shelf that held a few thin blankets. In the middle of the tiny space was one wooden bench big enough to seat maybe four people, and in the opposite corner was a small sink and what looked like a very crude toilet. Hooks lined one wall, but there was nothing on them; and the whole room smelled like the metal that appeared to make up the walls.

“At least this is one of the good ones,” Maxon said, and hobbled over to the bench to sit.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said quietly, and propped up his head on his arms.

I sat beside him, placing the metal box on the bench and looking around the room again.

“I’m guessing those were Southern rebels?”

Maxon nodded. I tried to slow my breathing and erase what I’d just seen from my mind. Would that guard survive? Could anyone survive something like that?

I wondered how far the rebels had gotten in the time it took us to hide. Was the alarm fast enough?

“Are we safe here?”

“Yes. This is one of the places for servants. If they happen to be down in the kitchen and storage area, they’re pretty safe as it is. But the ones running about doing chores might not be able to get there quickly enough. It’s not quite as safe as the big room for the royal family, and we have supplies to survive down there for quite some time; but these work in a pinch.”

“Do the rebels know?”

“They might,” he said, wincing as he sat up a bit straighter. “But they can’t get in once the rooms are in use. There are only three ways out.

Someone with a key has to activate it from the outside, someone with a key can activate it from the inside”—Maxon patted his pocket, implying that he could get us out if he had to—“or you have to wait for two days. After forty-eight hours, the doors automatically open. The guards check every safe room once the danger has passed, but there’s always a chance they could miss one; and without the delayed-unlocking mechanism, someone could be stuck in here forever.”

It took him awhile to get all this out. He was clearly in pain, but it seemed that he was trying to distract himself with the words. He leaned forward and then hissed when the action added to whatever was hurting him.

“Maxon?”

“I can’t … I can’t take it anymore. America, help with my coat?”

He held out his arm, and I jumped up to help him slide his coat down his back. He let it drop behind him and moved to his buttons. I started helping him, but he stopped me, holding my hands in his.

“Your record for keeping secrets isn’t that impressive right now. But this is one that goes to your grave. And mine. Do you understand?”

I nodded, though I wasn’t sure what he meant. Maxon released my hands, and I slowly unbuttoned his shirt. I wondered if he’d ever imagined me doing this. I could admit that I had. Halloween night, I had lain in bed and dreamed of this very second in our future. I thought it would be much different. Still, a thrill went through me.

I had been raised a musician, but I was surrounded by artists. I’d once seen a sculpture that was hundreds of years old of an athlete throwing a disk. I’d thought to myself at the time that only an artist could do that, make someone’s body look so beautiful. Maxon’s chest was as sculpted as any piece of art I’d ever seen.

But everything changed as I went to slide the shirt down his back. It stuck to him, making a slippery, sticky sound as I tried to get it to move.

“Slowly,” he said. I nodded and went behind him to try from there. The back of Maxon’s shirt was soaked with blood.

I gasped, immobile for a moment. But then, sensing that my staring made things worse, I kept working. Once I got the shirt off, I threw it on one of the hooks, giving myself a moment to gain my composure.

I turned around and got a good look at Maxon’s back. A bleeding gash on his shoulder tore down to his waist and crossed over another one that was also dripping blood, which crossed over another one that had been healed for a while, which crossed over yet another one that was

puckered from age. It looked like there were maybe six fresh slashes across Maxon’s back piled on top of too many more to count.

How could this have happened? Maxon was the prince. He was royal, sovereign, set apart from everyone. He was above everything, sometimes including the law, so how had he come to be covered with scars?

Then I remembered the look in the king’s eyes tonight. And Maxon’s effort to hide his fear. How could any man do this to his son?

I turned away again, hunting until I found a small washcloth. I went to the sink, glad to find that it worked even though the water was ice- cold.

I steadied myself and walked over, trying to be calm for his sake. “This might sting a little,” I warned.

“It’s okay,” he whispered. “I’m used to it.”

I took the wet washcloth and dabbed at the long gouge in his shoulder, deciding that I’d work from the top down. He pulled away a bit but took it all silently. When I moved on to the second gash, Maxon started talking.

“I’ve been preparing for tonight for years, you know? I’ve been waiting for the day when I was strong enough to take him on.”

Maxon was silent for a moment, and some things made sense: why a person who sat at a desk had such serious muscles, why he always seemed half dressed and ready to go, why a girl calling him a child and pushing him would make him angry.

I cleared my throat. “Why didn’t you?”

He paused. “I was afraid that if he didn’t have me, he’d want you.”

I had to stop for a moment, too overcome even to speak. Tears threatened to spill over, but I tried to hold it together. I was sure it would only make things worse.

“Does anyone know?” I asked. “No.”

“Not the doctor? Or your mother?”

“The doctor must, but he’s quiet. And I would never tell my mother or even give her a reason to suspect. She knows Father is stern with me, but I don’t want her to worry. And I can take it.”

I kept dabbing.

“He’s not like this with her,” he promised quickly. “She gets mistreated in her own ways, I suppose, but not like this.”

“Hmm,” I said, not sure of what else to say.

I wiped again, and Maxon hissed. “Damn, that stings.”

I pulled away for a minute while he slowed down his breathing. After a moment, he made a small nod, so I started again.

“I have more sympathy for Carter and Marlee than you know,” he said, trying to sound light. “These things take awhile to stop hurting, especially if you’re determined to take care of them on your own.”

I paused for a moment, shocked. Marlee got caned fifteen times at once. I think if I had to, I’d pick that over them coming at times you weren’t prepared.

“What are the others for?” I asked, then shook my head. “Never mind. That’s rude.”

He shrugged his uninjured shoulder. “Things I said or did. Things I know.”

“Things know,” I added. “Maxon, I’m so …” My breathing hitched, threatening to send me over the edge. I might as well have caned him myself.

He didn’t turn around, but his hand searched and found my knee. “How are you going to finish fixing me up if you’re crying?”

I laughed weakly through the tears and wiped my face. I got everything cleaned, trying to stay gentle.

“Do you think there are any bandages in here?” I asked, looking around the room.

“The box,” he said.

As he sat there, steadying his breathing, I opened the clasps on the box, looking at the abundance of supplies.

“Why don’t you have bandages in your room?”

“Sheer pride. I was determined never to need them again.”

I sighed quietly. I read the labels, finding a disinfectant solution, something that looked like it would help soothe the pain, and bandages.

I moved behind him, preparing to apply the medication. “This might hurt.”

He nodded. When it made contact with his skin, he grunted once and then reverted to silence. I tried to be quick and thorough, ready to make him as comfortable as possible.

I started putting ointment on his wounds, and it was clear that whatever I was using helped. The tension in his shoulders eased as I worked, and I was glad; it felt in a way like I was making up for some of the trouble I’d caused.

He snorted out a light laugh. “I knew my secret would come out eventually. I’ve been trying to come up with a good story for years. I was

hoping to find something believable before the wedding since I knew my wife would see them, but I’m still stumped. Any ideas?”

I thought a moment. “The truth works.”

He nodded. “Not my favorite option. Not for this anyway.” “I think I’m done.”

Maxon twisted and bent a little bit, moving gingerly. He turned to look at me, his expression thankful. “That’s great, America. Better than any job I ever did.”

“Anytime.”

He looked at me a moment, and the silence grew. What was there to say now?

My eyes kept darting to his chest, and I needed to stop that.

“I’m going to wash your shirt.” I buried myself in the corner, rubbing his shirt against itself, watching the water turn rust colored before it escaped down the drain. I knew all the blood wouldn’t come out, but at least it gave me something to do.

When I finished, I wrung it out and placed it back on a hook. I turned around, and Maxon was staring at me.

“Why don’t you ever ask questions I actually want to answer?”

I didn’t think I could sit next to him on the bench without being tempted to touch him. Instead I settled on the floor across from him.

“I didn’t know I did that.” “You do.”

“Well, what am I not asking that you want me to?”

He let out a long breath and gently leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

“Don’t you want me to explain Kriss and Celeste? Don’t you think you deserve that?”

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