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Chapter no 9

The Elite (The Selection, 2)

BARELY SLEPT. BETWEEN GETTING in so late and the excitement over what was coming, it was impossible. I curled closer to May, comforted by her warmth. I’d miss her so much once she left, but at least I had the prospect of her living here with me to look forward to.

I wondered who would be leaving today. It didn’t seem polite to ask, so I didn’t; but if pressed, I would guess it was Natalie. Marlee and Kriss were popular with the public—more popular than I was—and Celeste and Elise had connections. I had Maxon’s heart, and that left Natalie without much to hold on to.

I felt bad because I really didn’t have anything against Natalie. If anything, I wished Celeste would go. Maybe Maxon would send her home since he knew how much I disliked her, and he did say he wanted me to be comfortable here.

I sighed, thinking of everything he’d said last night. I’d never imagined this was possible. How did I, America Singer—a Five, a nobody—fall for Maxon Schreave—a One, the One? How did this happen when I’d spent the last two years bracing myself for life as a Six? A tiny part of my heart throbbed. How would I explain this to Aspen? How would I tell him that Maxon had chosen me and that I wanted to be with him? Would he hate me? The thought made me want to cry. No matter what, I didn’t want to lose Aspen’s friendship. I

couldn’t.

My maids didn’t knock when they came in, which was typical. They always tried to let me rest as long as I could, and after the party, I certainly needed it. But instead of going to prep things, Mary went around to May and gently rubbed her shoulder to wake her.

I rolled over to see Anne and Lucy with a garment bag. A new dress? “Miss May,” Mary whispered, “it’s time to get up.”

May slowly roused. “Can’t I sleep?”

“No,” Mary said sadly. “There’s some important business this morning. You need to go to your parents right away.”

“Important business?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

Mary looked to Anne, and I followed her eyes. Anne shook her head, and that seemed to be the end of it.

Confused but hopeful, I got out of bed, encouraging May to do the same. I gave her a big hug before she went to Mom and Dad’s room.

Once she left, I turned back to my maids. “Can you explain now that she’s gone?” I asked Anne. She shook her head. Frustrated, I huffed. “Would it help if I commanded you to tell?”

She looked at me, a clear solemnity in her eyes. “Our orders come from much higher. You’ll have to wait.”

I stood at the door to my bathroom and watched them move. Lucy’s hands were shaking as she pulled out fistfuls of rose petals for my bath, and Mary’s eyebrows were knit together as she lined up my makeup and the pins for my hair. Lucy sometimes trembled for no reason at all, and Mary tended to do that with her face when she was concentrating. It was Anne’s look that made me scared.

She was always put together, even in the most frightening and taxing of situations, but today she looked as if her body was full of sand, her whole frame low with worry. She kept stopping and rubbing her forehead as if she could smooth away the anxiety in her face.

I looked on as she pulled my dress out of the garment bag. It was understated, simple … and jet-black. I looked at that dress and knew it could only mean one thing. I started crying before I even knew who I was mourning.

“Miss?” Mary came to help me. “Who died?” I asked. “Who died?”

Anne, steady as ever, pulled me upright and wiped the tears from under my eyes.

“No one has died,” she said. But her voice wasn’t comforting; it was commanding. “Be grateful for that when this is all over. No one died today.”

She gave me no further explanation and sent me straight to my bath. Lucy tried to keep herself under control; but when she finally broke into tears, Anne asked her to go get me something light to eat, and she jumped on the command obediently. She didn’t even curtsy as she left.

Lucy eventually returned with some croissants and apple slices. I wanted to sit and eat slowly, stretching out my time, but one bite was all it took for me to know that food was not my friend today.

Finally Anne placed my name pin on my chest, the silver shining beautifully against the black of my dress. There was nothing left for me to do but face this unimaginable fate.

I opened my door but found myself frozen. Turning back to my maids, I breathed out my fear. “I’m scared.”

Anne put her hands on my shoulders and spoke. “You are a lady now, miss. You must handle this like a lady.”

I gave a small nod as she released me, unclenched my hands from the door, and walked away. I wish I could have said my head was high; but honestly, lady or not, I was terrified.

To my immense surprise, when I reached the foyer, the rest of the girls were waiting, all wearing dresses and expressions similar to my own. A wave of relief hit me. I wasn’t in trouble. If anything, we all were, so at least I wouldn’t be going through whatever this was alone.

“There’s the fifth,” a guard said to his counterpart. “Follow us, ladies.”

Fifth? No, that wasn’t right. It was six. As we walked down the stairs, I quickly scanned the girls. The guard was right. Only five. Marlee wasn’t here.

My first thought was that Maxon had sent Marlee home, but wouldn’t she have come by my room to say good-bye? I tried to think of a relationship between all this secrecy and Marlee’s absence, and nothing I came up with made sense.

At the bottom of the stairs, an assembly of guards waited, along with our families. Mom, Dad, and May seemed anxious. Everyone did. I looked at them, hoping for some sort of clarity, but Mom shook her head while Dad gave me a shrug. I scanned the uniformed men for Aspen. He wasn’t there.

I saw a pair of guards escorting Marlee’s parents to the back of our line. Her mother was hunched with worry, and she leaned into her husband, his face heavy, as if he had aged years in a single night.

Wait. If Marlee was gone, why were they here?

I turned as a burst of light flooded the foyer. For the first time since I’d been at the palace, the front doors were both opened wide, and we were paraded outside. We crossed the short circular driveway and headed past the massive walls that fenced us into the grounds. As the gates creaked open, the deafening sound of a massive crowd greeted us.

A large platform had been set up in the street. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people were crowded together, children sitting on the shoulders of their parents. Cameras were positioned around the platform, and production people were running in front of the crowds, capturing the scene. We were led to a small section of stadium seats, and the crowd cheered for us as we walked out. I could see the shoulders of every girl in front of me relax as the people in the streets called out our names and threw flowers at our feet.

I lifted my hand in a wave as people called my name. I felt so silly for worrying. If the people were this happy, then nothing bad could be happening. The staff at the palace really needed to rethink the way they handled the Elite. All that anxiety for nothing.

May giggled, happy to be a part of the excitement, and I was relieved to see her back to herself. I tried to keep up with all the well-wishers, but I was distracted by the two odd structures waiting on the platform. The first was a ladder-like contraption in the shape of an A; the second was a large wooden block with loops on either end. With a guard at my side, I climbed into my seat in the middle of the front row and tried to figure out what was going on.

The crowd erupted again as the king, queen, and Maxon emerged. They too were dressed in dark clothes and wore sober expressions. I was close to Maxon, so I turned his way. Whatever was happening, if he looked at me and smiled, I knew it would be fine. I kept willing him to glance at me, to give me some sort of acknowledgment. But Maxon’s face was hard.

A moment later the crowd’s cheers turned into cries of disdain, and I turned to see what made them so unhappy.

My stomach twisted as I watched my world shatter.

Officer Woodwork was being dragged out in chains. His lip was bleeding, and his clothes were so dirty he looked like he’d spent the night rolling in mud. Behind him, Marlee—her beautiful angel costume lacking its wings and covered in grime—was also in chains. A suit coat covered her hunched shoulders, and she squinted into the light. She took in the massive crowd, finding my eyes for a split second before she was pulled forward again. She searched once more, and I knew who she was seeking out. To my left, I saw Marlee’s parents watching, gripping each other tightly. They were visibly crushed, gone from this place, as if their very hearts had abandoned them.

I looked back to Marlee and Officer Woodwork. The anxiety in their faces was obvious, yet they walked with a certain pride. Only once, when Marlee tripped over the hem of her dress, did that veneer crack. Beneath it, terror awaited.

No. No, no, no, no, no.

As they were led up onto the platform, a man in a mask began speaking. The crowd hushed for him. Apparently, this—whatever it was

—had happened before, and the people here knew how to respond. But I didn’t; my body lurched forward, and my stomach heaved. Thank goodness I hadn’t eaten.

“Marlee Tames,” the man called, “one of the Selected, a Daughter of Illéa, was found last night in an intimate moment with this man, Carter Woodwork, a trusted member of the Royal Guard.”

The crier’s voice was full of an inappropriate amount of self- importance, as if he was reciting the cure for some deadly disease. The crowd booed again at his accusations.

“Miss Tames has broken her vow of loyalty to our prince Maxon! And Mr. Woodwork has essentially stolen property of the royal family through his relations with Miss Tames! These offenses are treason to the royal family!” He was shrieking out his statements, willing the crowd to agree. And they did.

But how could they? Didn’t they know this was Marlee? Sweet, beautiful, trusting, giving Marlee? She made a mistake, maybe, but nothing deserving of this much hatred.

Carter was being strapped up to the A-shaped frame by another masked man, his legs spread wide and his arms pulled into a position that mimicked the structure. Padded belts were wrapped around his waist and legs, tightened to a point that looked uncomfortable even from here. Marlee was forced to kneel in front of the large wooden block as a man ripped the coat from her back. Her wrists were bound down to the loops on either side, palms up.

She was crying.

“This is a crime punishable by death! But, in his mercy, Prince Maxon is going to spare these two traitors their lives. Long live Prince Maxon!”

The crowd chanted after the man. If I had been in my right mind, I would have known I was supposed to call out, too, or at least applaud. The girls around me did, and so did our parents, even if they were in shock. But I wasn’t paying attention. All I saw were Marlee’s and Carter’s faces.

We had been given front-row seats for a reason—to show us what would happen if we made such a stupid mistake—but from here, not more than twenty feet from the platform, I could see and hear everything that really mattered.

Marlee was staring at Carter, and he was looking right back at her, craning his neck to do so. The fear was unmistakable, but there was also this look on her face, as if she was trying to reassure him that he was worth all this.

“I love you, Marlee,” he called to her. It was barely audible over the crowd, but it was there. “We’re going to be okay. It’ll be okay, I

promise.”

Marlee couldn’t speak in her fear, but she nodded back at him. In that moment, all I could think of was how beautiful she looked. Her golden hair was messy and her dress a disaster, and she’d lost her shoes at some point; but, my God, she looked radiant.

“Marlee Tames and Carter Woodwork, you are both hereby stripped of your castes. You are the lowest of the low. You are Eights!”

The crowd cheered, which seemed wrong. Weren’t there any Eights standing here who hated being referred to that way?

“And to inflict upon you the shame and pain you have brought on His Majesty, you will be publicly caned with fifteen strikes. May your scars remind you of your many sins!”

Caned? What did that even mean?

My answer came a second later. The two masked men who had bound Carter and Marlee pulled long rods out of a bucket of water. They swiped them in the air a few times, testing them out, and I could hear the sticks whistling as they cut at the air. The crowd applauded this warm-up with the same frenzy and adoration they had just given the Selected.

In a few seconds, Carter’s backside would be humiliatingly struck, and Marlee’s precious hands …

“No!” I cried. “No!”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Natalie whispered as Elise made a weak moan into her guard’s shoulder. But nothing stopped.

I stood up and lunged toward Maxon’s seat, falling over my father’s

lap.

“Maxon! Maxon, stop this!”

“You have to sit down, miss,” my guard said, trying to wrangle me

back into my chair.

“Maxon, I beg you, please!” “It’s not safe, miss!”

“Get off me!” I yelled at my guard, kicking him as hard as I could.

Try as I may, he held on tight.

“America, please sit down!” my mother urged.

“One!” cried the man on the stage, and I saw the cane fall on Marlee’s hands.

She let out the most pathetic whimper, like a dog that had been kicked. Carter made no sound.

“Maxon! Maxon!” I yelled. “Stop it! Stop it, please!”

He heard me; I knew he did. I saw him slowly close his eyes and swallow one time, as if he could push the sound out of his head.

“Two!”

Marlee’s cry was pure anguish. I couldn’t imagine her pain—and there were still thirteen more strikes to go.

“America, sit!” Mom insisted. May was between her and Dad, her face averted, her cries almost as pained as Marlee’s.

“Three!”

I looked at Marlee’s parents. Her mother buried her head in her hands, her father’s arms wrapped around her, as if he could protect her from everything they were losing in that moment.

“Let me go!” I yelled at my guard to no avail. “MAXON!” I screamed. My tears were blurring my vision, but I could see him enough to know he’d heard me.

I looked at the other girls. Shouldn’t we do something? Some appeared to be crying, too. Elise was bent over, a palm pressed to her forehead, looking as if she might pass out. No one seemed angry though. Shouldn’t they be?

“Five!”

The sound of Marlee’s shrieks would haunt me for the rest of my life. I’d never heard anything like it. Or the sickening echo of the crowd cheering it on, as if this was merely entertainment. Or Maxon’s silence, allowing this to happen. Or the crying of the girls around me, accepting it.

The only thing that gave me any sort of hope was Carter. Even though he was sweating from the trauma and shaking with pain, he managed to pant out comforting words to Marlee.

“It’ll be … over soon,” he managed. “Six!”

“Love … you,” he stammered.

I couldn’t handle this. I tried to claw at my guard, but his thick sleeves protected him. I shrieked as he gripped me tighter.

“Get your hands off my daughter!” Dad yelled, pulling the guard’s arms. With that space, I wiggled myself until I was facing him and thrust my knee up as hard as I could.

He let out a muffled cry and fell back, my dad catching him on the way down.

I hopped over the railing, clumsy in my dress and heeled shoes. “Marlee! Marlee!” I screamed, running as quickly as I could. I almost got to the steps; but two guards caught up with me, and that was a fight I couldn’t win.

From the angle behind the stage, I saw that they’d exposed Carter’s backside, and his skin was already torn, pieces hanging sickeningly. Blood was trickling down, ruining what used to be his dress pants. I couldn’t imagine the state of Marlee’s hands.

The thought sent me into an even deeper hysteria. I screamed and kicked at the guards, but all that accomplished was the loss of one of my shoes.

I was dragged inside as the man cried out for the next strike, and I didn’t know whether to be grateful or ashamed. On the one hand, I didn’t have to see it all; on the other, I felt like I’d abandoned Marlee in the worst possible moment of her life.

If I had been a true friend, wouldn’t I have done better than that? “Marlee!” I screamed. “Marlee, I’m sorry!” But the crowd was so

frenzied, and she was crying so much, I didn’t think she heard me.

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