Chapter no 14

The One (The Selection, 3)

IT WAS ASPEN WHO LIFTED me from the back of the truck and hurriedly carried me to a tiny room. The space was smaller than my bathroom and held two slim beds and a dresser. There were little notes and photos on the wall, which gave it some personality; but it was otherwise barren, not to mention incredibly cramped with Aspen, me, Officer Avery, Maxon, and Paige filling every spare inch.

Aspen laid me on a bed as gently as possible, but my arm continued to throb.

“We ought to get the doctor,” he said. But I could tell he doubted his own words. Getting Dr. Ashlar would mean either telling the absolute truth or making up an outrageous lie, and neither of those options was something we wanted.

“Don’t,” I urged weakly. “I won’t die from this. It’ll just be a bad scar. We have to clean it up.” I grimaced.

“You’ll need something for the pain,” Maxon added.

“She might get infected. That alley was really dirty, and I touched her,” Paige said guiltily.

A sliver of fire burned across the wound, and I hissed. “Anne. Get Anne.”

“Who?” Maxon asked.

“Her head maid,” Aspen explained. “Avery, get Anne and a medical kit. We’ll have to make due. And we need to do something with her,” he added, nodding his head at Paige.

I watched Maxon’s worried eyes finally move from my bloody arm to Paige’s troubled face.

“Are you a criminal? A runaway?” he asked her.

“Not that kind of criminal. And I did run away, but there’s no one looking for me.”

Maxon considered her words. “Welcome aboard. Follow Avery down to the kitchens and tell a Mallory you’ll be working with her on the prince’s command. Instruct her to come to the officers’ wing immediately.”

“Mallory. Yes, Your Majesty.” Paige gave him a deep curtsy and followed Officer Avery from the room, leaving me alone with Maxon and Aspen. I’d been with both of them all night, but this was the first time it was just the three of us. I could feel the weight of our secrets filling up the already restricting room.

“How’d you make it out?” I asked.

“August, Georgia, and Micah heard the gunshots and came running,” Maxon said. “He wasn’t kidding when he said they’d never hurt us.” He paused, his eyes quickly distant and sad. “Micah didn’t make it.”

I turned my head away. I didn’t know a thing about him, but he died tonight for us. I felt as guilty as if I’d taken his life myself.

I went to wipe a tear away, forgetting to use my left arm, and cried out.

“Calm down, America,” Aspen said, forgetting to be formal. “Everything’s going to work out,” Maxon promised.

I nodded, pursing my lips together to avoid crying anymore. What a waste.

We were quiet for what felt like a long time, but maybe it was the pain stretching out the minutes.

“It’s wonderful to have such devotion,” Maxon said suddenly.

At first I thought he was talking about Micah again. But Aspen and I looked over and saw him gazing at a space on the wall behind me.

I turned my head, happy to focus on anything that wasn’t the searing pain in my arm. There, beside several pictures drawn by one of his younger siblings, was a note.

I’ll always love you. I’ll wait for you forever. I’m with you, no matter what.

My handwriting was a little sloppier a year ago when I’d left that note by my window for Aspen to find, and it was surrounded by silly little hearts that I would never put in a love letter now, but I could still feel the importance of those words. It was the first time I’d put them in writing, afraid of how much more I felt those things once they were on paper. I also remembered the fear of my mother finding that note surpassing any other worry about the enormity of knowing, without a doubt, that I loved Aspen.

Right now I feared Maxon recognizing my handwriting.

“It must be nice to have someone to write to. I’ve never had the luxury of love letters,” Maxon said, a sad smile on his face. “Has she kept her word?”

Aspen was moving pillows from the other bed to prop under my head, avoiding eye contact with either Maxon or myself.

“Writing is difficult,” he said. “But I do know she’s with me, no matter what. I don’t doubt it.”

I looked at Aspen’s short, dark hair—the only part of him I could really see—and I felt a new pain. In a way he was right. We would never truly leave each other. But . . . the words on that paper? That encompassing love that used to overwhelm me? It wasn’t here anymore.

Was Aspen still counting on it?

My eyes flickered to Maxon, and the sadness on his face read a bit like jealousy. I wasn’t surprised. I remembered telling Maxon that I’d been in love before; he’d looked as if he’d been cheated out of something, so unsure at that point if he would ever fall in love.

If he knew that the love I’d spoken about and the love Aspen just shared were the same one, I was sure it would crush him.

“Write her soon,” Maxon advised. “Don’t let her forget.”

“What’s taking them so long?” Aspen muttered, and left the room, not bothering to acknowledge Maxon’s words.

Maxon watched him go and turned back to face me. “I’m so useless. I have no idea how to help you, so I thought I’d at least try to help him. He saved both our lives tonight.” Maxon shook his head. “Seems I only upset him.”

“Everyone’s just worried. You’re doing fine,” I assured him.

He gave an exasperated laugh, coming to kneel by the bed. “You’re lying there with a seeping gash on your arm, and you’re trying to comfort me. You’re absurd.”

“If you ever decide to write me a love letter, I’d lead with that,” I joked.

He smiled. “Can’t I do anything for you?” “Hold my hand? Not too hard though.”

Maxon placed his fingers in the loose grip of my palm, and even though it didn’t change anything, it was nice to feel him there.

“I probably won’t. Write you a love letter, that is. I try to stave off embarrassment as often as possible.”

“You can’t plan wars, don’t know how to cook, and refuse to write love letters,” I teased.

“That’s correct. My list of faults is ever growing.” He wiggled his fingers in my hand, and I was so grateful for the distraction.

“That’s fine. I’ll continue to guess at your feelings since you refuse to write me a note. With a purple pen. All the i’s dotted with hearts.”

“Which is exactly how I would do it,” he said in mock seriousness. I giggled but stopped quickly when the movement reignited the burning. “I don’t think you have to guess at my feelings though.”

“Well,” I started, finding it harder and harder to breathe, “it’s not like you’ve ever said it out loud.”

Maxon opened his mouth to object and silenced himself. His eyes gazed toward the ceiling as he thought through our history, trying to pinpoint the moment when he’d told me he loved me.

In the safe room, it was suggested in every way. He’d let the feeling slip into a dozen romantic gestures or indicated it was there by dancing around the words . . . but the actual statement had never come. Not between us. I would have remembered, and I would have made them my reason never to question him, my reason to confess what I was feeling, too.

“My lady?” Anne said, her voice making its way through the door a moment before her worried face.

Maxon stepped back, letting go of my hand as he made space for her.

Anne’s focused eyes took in the wound, and she touched it gingerly as she inspected how bad it was.

“You’ll need stitches. I’m not sure we have anything that will completely numb you,” she assessed.

“It’s okay. Just do your best,” I said. I felt calmer with her there.

She nodded. “Someone get some boiling water. We should have antiseptic in the kit, but I want water, too.”

“I’ll get it.” By the door, Marlee was standing, her face lined with worry.

“Marlee,” I whimpered, losing control. I put the Mallory thing together. Of course she and Carter couldn’t go by their real names while they were hiding right under the king’s nose.

“I’ll be right back, America. Hold tight.” She scurried away, but I felt a great relief knowing she would be with me.

Anne absorbed the shock of Marlee’s presence in stride, and I watched as she pulled out a needle and thread from the medical kit. I took comfort in the fact that she sewed almost all my clothes. My arm shouldn’t be a problem.

With incredible speed, Marlee was back with a pitcher of steaming water, an armful of towels, and a bottle of amber liquid. She set the pitcher and towels on top of the dresser, unscrewing the bottle as she came over.

“For the pain.” She lifted my head so I could drink, and I obeyed.

The stuff in the bottle was a new kind of burning, and I coughed my way through swallowing it. She urged me to take another sip, and I did, hating it the whole time.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” I whispered.

“I’m always here for you, America. You know that.” She smiled; and for the first time in our friendship, she seemed older than me, so calm and sure. “What in the world were you doing?”

I made a face. “It seemed like a good idea.”

Her eyes became sympathetic. “America, you are full of nothing but bad ideas. Great intentions but awful ideas.”

She was right, of course, and I should have known better by now. But having her here, even to tell me how dumb I’d been, made the whole thing less awful.

“How soundproof are these walls?” Anne asked.

“Pretty good,” Aspen said. “Don’t hear too much this deep in the palace.”

“Good,” she said. “Okay, I need everyone in the hall. Miss Marlee, I’m going to need some space, but you can stay.”

Marlee nodded. “I’ll keep out of your way, Anne.”

Avery left first, with Aspen trailing close behind him, and Maxon was last. The look in his eyes reminded me of the day I’d told him I’d gone hungry before: sad to know about it and devastated that he couldn’t undo it.

The door clicked shut, and Anne started working quickly. She’d already set up everything she needed and held out her hand to Marlee for the bottle.

“Gulp it,” she ordered, lifting my head.

I braced myself. I had to come off the lip of the bottle and go back to it several times because of the coughing, but I managed to get a good

amount of it down. Or at least it was good enough for Anne.

“Hold this,” she said, passing me a small towel. “Bite down on it when things hurt.”

I nodded.

“The stitches won’t hurt like the cleaning will. I can see dirt from here, so I’m going to have to be thorough.” She sighed, looking again at the wound. “You’ll have a scar, but I’m going to make it as small as I can. We’ll put loose sleeves on your dresses for a few weeks to cover it while you heal. No one will know. And seeing as you were with the prince, I won’t ask questions. Whatever you did, I’ll trust it was something important.”

“I think so,” I said, not really sure anymore.

She got a towel wet and held it inches away from the gash. “Ready?” I nodded.

I bit into the towel, hoping it would muffle the screams. I was sure that everyone in the hall could hear, but no one else probably would. It felt as if Anne was poking every nerve in my arm, and Marlee crawled on top of me to keep me from writhing.

“It’ll be over soon, America,” she promised. “Think of something happy. Think about your family.”

I tried. I fought to put May’s laugh or my dad’s knowing smile in the front of my thoughts, but they wouldn’t stay. I could only catch them long enough to feel them slip away under a new wave of pain.

How in the world did Marlee make it through her caning alive?

Once my wound was clean, Anne started sewing me up. She was right: the stitches didn’t hurt as much. I couldn’t tell if it was because it was actually less painful or if the liquor they’d given me was finally kicking in. It did seem like the edges of the room weren’t quite as sharp anymore.

Then people were back, talking about things, about me. Who should stay, who should go, what we would say in the morning . . . so many details that I couldn’t contribute to.

In the end, it was Maxon who scooped me up to return me to my room. It took some effort to hold my head upright, but it made it easier to hear him.

“How are you feeling?”

“Your eyes look like chocolate,” I mumbled.

He smiled. “And yours look like the morning sky.”

“Can I have water?”

“Yes. Lots,” he promised. “Let’s get her upstairs,” he said to someone else. And I fell asleep to the rocking of his steps.

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