Chapter no 21

The One (The Selection, 3)

CELESTE HAD BECOME THE CHAMPION of our newfound sisterhood. It was her idea to drag all our maids and a bunch of big mirrors down to the Women’s Room and essentially spend the day making one another over. There wasn’t much point, seeing as there was no way any of us could do a better job than the palace staff, but it was fun all the same.

Kriss held the ends of my hair across my forehead. “Have you ever considered getting bangs?”

“A couple of times,” I admitted, fluffing the fringe hanging just above my eyes. “But my sister usually ends up annoyed with hers, so I change my mind.”

“I think you’d look cute,” Kriss said enthusiastically. “I cut some for my cousin once. I could do yours if you want.”

“Yeah,” Celeste chimed in. “Let her near your face with scissors, America. Great idea.”

We all burst into laughter. I even noticed a tiny giggle from the other end of the room. I glanced over to see the queen pursing her lips together tightly as she attempted to read the file in front of her. I was worried she’d find all this a bit improper, but, honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen her so happy.

“We should take pictures!” Elise said.

“Anyone got a camera?” Celeste asked. “I’m a pro at this.”

“Maxon does!” Kriss shouted. “Come here for a minute,” she said to a maid, waving her over encouragingly.

“Hold on,” I said, grabbing some paper. “Okay, okay. ‘Your Highest of Highnesses, the ladies of the Elite require, immediately, the least fancy of your cameras for . . .’”

Kriss giggled, and Celeste shook her head.

“Oh! A study in feminine diplomacy,” Elise added. “Is that a real thing?” Kriss asked.

Celeste tossed her hair. “Who cares?”

Maybe twenty minutes later, Maxon knocked on the door and pushed it open an inch. “Can I come in?”

Kriss ran over. “No. We just want the camera.” And she snatched it from his hand and closed the door in his face.

Celeste fell on the floor, laughing.

“What are you doing in there?” he called. But we were all too busy doubling over to answer.

There were lots of poses behind the shrubs and a thousand kisses blown, and Celeste showed us all how to “find the light.”

As Kriss and Elise lay down on the couch and Celeste climbed above them to snap more photos, I looked over and saw the satisfied smile on the queen’s face. It felt wrong that she wasn’t a part of this. I snatched up one of the brushes and walked over to her.

“Hello, Lady America,” she greeted. “Could I brush your hair?”

Several emotions played across her face, but she only nodded and spoke quietly. “Of course.”

I walked behind her and picked up a handful of her absolutely gorgeous hair. I raked the brush down again and again, watching the other girls as I did so.

“It does my heart good to see you all getting along,” she commented. “Me, too. I like them.” I was quiet for a while. “I’m sorry about the

Convicting. I know I shouldn’t have done that. I just . . .”

“I know, dear. You explained it all beforehand. It’s a difficult task.

And you did seem to have a sickly bunch.”

I realized then how out of the loop she was. Or maybe she simply chose to believe the best about her husband at all costs.

As if she could read my thoughts, she spoke. “I know you think Clarkson’s harsh, but he’s a good man. You have no idea how stressful it is to be in his shoes. We all deal with it in our own ways. He has a temper sometimes; I need lots of rest; Maxon jokes it off.”

“He does, doesn’t he?” I said, laughing.

“The question is, how would you handle it?” She turned her head. “I think your passion is one of your best features. If you could learn to control it, you could be a wonderful princess.”

I nodded. “I’m sorry I let you down.”

“No, no, dear,” she said, turning forward. “I see potential in you. I worked in a factory when I was your age. I was dirty and hungry, and

sometimes I was angry. But I had an undying crush on the prince of Illéa, and when I got the chance to make him my own, I learned to check those feelings. There’s a lot to be done from here, but it might not happen the way you want it to. You need to learn to accept that, okay?”

“Yes, Mom,” I joked.

She looked back at me, her face like stone. “I mean, ma’am. Ma’am.”

Her eyes started glistening, and she blinked a few times, turning forward again. “If it ends as I suspect it will, Mom will be just fine.”

And then it was my turn to blink back the tears. It wasn’t like I was ever going to replace my mother; but it felt special to be accepted, with all my flaws, by the mother of the person I might marry.

Celeste turned and saw us, and she ran over. “You’re so cute! Smile.” I leaned down, wrapping my arms around Queen Amberly, and she reached up to touch my hands. After that, we all took turns crowding around her, getting her to finally make one silly face for the camera. The maids helped take pictures so we could all be in some together; and, by the end of it, I could easily say that was my best day in the palace. I didn’t know if that would hold though. Christmas was right around the


My maids were fixing my hair after Elise’s last terrible attempt at an up- do when there was a knock on the door.

Mary rushed to answer it, and a guard whose name I didn’t know came into the room. I’d seen him around a lot, almost exclusively at the king’s side.

My maids curtsied as he walked closer, and I was more than a little anxious when he stopped in front of me.

“Lady America, the king requires your presence at once,” he said coolly.

“Is anything wrong?” I asked, stalling. “The king will answer your questions.”

I swallowed. Every awful thing ran through my head. My family was in danger. The king had found a way to punish me quietly for all the ways I’d wronged him. He’d discovered we’d sneaked out of the palace. Or, perhaps worst of all, someone had figured out my connection to Aspen, and we were both about to pay for it.

I tried to shake the fear out of my system. I didn’t want any of it to show in front of King Clarkson.

“I’ll follow you then.” I stood and started walking behind the guard, giving one last glance to the girls as I left. When I saw the worry on their faces, I wished I hadn’t.

We went down the hall and started up the stairs to the third floor. I didn’t quite know what to do with my hands, and I kept touching my hair or my dress or lacing my fingers together.

When we were about halfway down the hall, I saw Maxon, and that helped. He paused just outside a room, waiting for me. There was no concern in his eyes, but he was better at hiding his fear than I was.

“What’s this about?” I whispered. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

The guard took his place outside the door as Maxon escorted me inside. In the wide room, there were shelves of books along one wall. On easels, several maps were set up. There were at least three separate ones of Illéa, with markers in different colors. At a wide desk, the king sat with a piece of paper in his hand.

As he noticed Maxon and me enter the room, the king straightened. “What exactly have you done with the Italian princess?” King

Clarkson demanded, staring at me.

I froze. The money. I’d forgotten all about that. Conspiring to sell weapons to people he viewed as enemies was worse than any of the other scenarios for which I’d been preparing.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I lied, looking to Maxon. Even though he knew everything, he remained calm.

“We have been trying to make an alliance with the Italians for decades, and all of a sudden the royal family is quite interested in having us visit. However”—the king picked up the letter, searching for a specific section—“ah, here. ‘While it would be more than an honor to have Your Majesty and your family grace us with your company, we hope that Lady America will also be able to visit with you. After meeting all the Elite, we can’t imagine anyone following in the queen’s footsteps quite like her.’”

The king raised his eyes back to me. “What have you done?”

Realizing I’d dodged something huge, I relaxed marginally. “All I’ve done was try to be polite toward the princess and her mother when they’ve visited. I didn’t know she liked me so much.”

King Clarkson rolled his eyes. “You’re subversive. I’ve been watching you, and you’re here for something; and it sure as hell isn’t him.”

Maxon turned to me at those words. I wished I hadn’t seen the flicker of doubt in his eyes. I shook my head. “That’s not true!”

“Then how did a girl of no means, no connections, and no power manage to get this country within the reach of something it’s been trying to achieve for years? How?”

In my heart, I knew that there were factors here that he was oblivious to. But it was Nicoletta who had offered assistance to me, who had asked if she could do anything for a cause she wanted to support. If he’d accused me of something that was actually my fault, his rising voice would have been frightening. As it was, he came across like a child.

In response, I spoke quietly. “You were the ones who assigned us to entertain your foreign guests. I never would have met any of those women otherwise. And she’s the one who wrote, inviting me to come. I didn’t beg for a trip to Italy. Maybe if you were simply more welcoming, you’d have had your alliance with Italy years ago.”

He stood forcefully. “Watch. Your. Mouth.”

Maxon put an arm around me. “Perhaps it’s best you left, America.”

I happily started moving, keen to be anywhere the king wasn’t. But that was not what King Clarkson had in mind.

“Stop. I have more,” he insisted. “This changes things. We can’t reset the Selection and risk upsetting the Italians. They have a lot of influence. If we can get them, they’ll open a lot of doors for us.”

Maxon nodded, not upset at all. He had already made the choice to keep us here, but we had to play along and let the king think he was in control.

“We’ll simply have to draw out the Selection,” he concluded. My heart plummeted. “We have to give the Italians time to accept the other options as viable without offending them. Perhaps we should schedule a trip over there soon, give everyone an opportunity to shine.”

He looked so pleased with himself, so proud of his solution. I wondered how far he would go. Prep Celeste, maybe. Or arrange for some private time with Kriss and Nicoletta. I wouldn’t put it past him to make me look bad deliberately, the way he had tried to in the Convicting. If he went to all the lengths he could without openly incriminating himself, I wasn’t sure I had much of a chance.

And forget the political side of it. More time meant more opportunities to embarrass myself.

“Father, I’m not sure that would help,” Maxon interjected. “The Italian ladies have already met all the candidates. If they’re showing a preference for America, it must have come from something they like in her that wasn’t visible in the others. You can’t simply make that exist.”

The king looked at Maxon, venom in his eyes. “Are you declaring your choice right now then? Is the Selection over?”

My pulse stopped altogether.

“No,” Maxon answered, as if the very thought was ridiculous. “I’m just not sure what you’re suggesting is the right course.”

King Clarkson propped his chin on his hand, looking back and forth between Maxon and me, staring at us like some equation he couldn’t solve.

“She has yet to prove herself trustworthy. Until that time, you cannot choose her.” The king’s face was unyielding.

“And how do you suggest she does that?” Maxon countered. “What exactly do you need in order to be satisfied?”

The king raised his eyebrows, seeming amused at his son’s questions. After a moment of consideration, he pulled a small file out of his drawer. “Even excluding your recent stunt on the Report, there seems to be a

bit of unrest these days between the castes. I’ve been wanting to find a way to . . . aid in soothing the opinions of the moment; but it occurred to me that someone as fresh and young and, dare I say, popular as you are might do better at this than I would.”

Pushing the file across the desk, he continued. “It seems the people follow your tunes. Perhaps you would sing one of mine for them.”

I opened the folder and read the papers. “What is this?”

“Just some service announcements we’ll be making soon. We know, of course, the caste makeup of each province and all the communities within them, so we’ll be sending specific ones to certain areas. Encouraging them.”

“What is it, America?” Maxon asked, confused by his father’s words. “They’re like . . . commercials,” I answered. “Advertisements to be happy with your own caste, not to associate closely with those outside


“Father, what’s this about?”

The king leaned back in his chair, relaxing. “It’s nothing serious. I’m merely trying to quell the unrest. If I don’t do it, you’ll have an uprising on your hands by the time I pass down the crown.”

“How so?”

“The lower castes tend to get unruly from time to time—it’s natural. But we have to subdue the anger and squash the ideas of usurping power quickly, before they unite and undo our great nation.”

Maxon stared at his father, still not fully comprehending his words. If Aspen hadn’t clued me in to sympathizers, I might have been the same way. The king was planning to divide and conquer: make the castes absurdly grateful for what they had—even if they were being treated like they didn’t matter—and tell them not to associate with those outside of their castes, for they certainly wouldn’t understand the plight of anyone outside their own.

“This is propaganda,” I spat, remembering the word from Dad’s tattered history book.

The king tried to soothe me. “No, no. It’s a suggestion. It’s reinforcement. It’s a way of looking at the world that will keep our country happy.”

“Happy? So you want me to tell some Seven that . . .”—I hunted for the words on the sheet—“‘your task is possibly the greatest of our nation. You toil with your body and build the very roads and buildings that make our land.’” I searched for more. “‘No Two or Three could equal your talent, so turn your eyes away from them on the street. No need to speak with those who may rank higher than you by caste but are beneath you in your contribution.’”

Maxon turned from me to his father. “Surely, that will alienate our people.”

“On the contrary. It will help settle them into their places and make them feel that the palace has their best interests at heart.”

“Do you?” I shot.

“Of course I do!” the king yelled.

His outburst made me take a few steps back.

“People need to be led by the bit, with blinders on like horses. If you do not guide their steps, they run astray, straight into what’s worst for them. You may not like these little speeches, but they’ll do more, save more, than you know.”

My heart was still slowing as he finished speaking, and I stood silently with the papers in my hands.

I knew he was worried. Every time he got a report of something happening beyond his control, he crushed it. He lumped all change together, calling it treason before inspecting it. His answer this time was to have me do what Gregory did and isolate his people.

“I can’t say it,” I whispered.

He responded calmly. “Then you cannot marry my son.” “Father!”

King Clarkson held up a hand. “We’re at that point, Maxon. I’ve let you have your way, and now we must negotiate. If you want this girl to stay, then she must be obedient. If she cannot follow through with the simplest of tasks, my only conclusion is that she doesn’t love you. If that’s the case, I can’t see why you would want her in the first place.”

I locked eyes with the king, hating him for putting the thought in Maxon’s head.

“Do you? Do you love him at all?”

This wasn’t how I was going to say it. Not at the end of an ultimatum, not for business.

The king tilted his head. “How sad, Maxon. She needs to think about


Do not cry. Do not cry.

“I’ll give you some time to find out where you stand. If you won’t do

this, then rules be damned, I’ll be kicking you out by Christmas Day. What a special gift that will be for your parents.”

Three days.

He smiled. I set the folder on his desk and left, trying not to break into a run. All I needed was another excuse for him to say I was flawed.

“America!” Maxon yelled. “Stop!”

I kept walking until he grabbed me by the wrist, forcing me to pause. “What the hell was that?” he demanded.

“He’s insane!” I was on the verge of tears, but I held them in. If the king came out and saw me that way, I’d never live it down.

Maxon shook his head. “Not him. You. Why didn’t you agree to do


I looked at him, gob-smacked. “It’s a trick, Maxon. Everything he’s

doing is a trick.”

“If you had said yes, I would have ended this now.”

Incredulous, I fired back. “Two seconds before, you had the chance to end it and didn’t. How is this my fault?”

“Because,” he answered, his whole demeanor urgent, “you are denying me your love. It’s the only thing I’ve wanted in this entire competition, and you still hold back. I keep waiting for you to say it, and you won’t. If you couldn’t say it out loud in front of him, fine. But if you had simply agreed, that would have been good enough for me.”

“And why would I when, for as far as we’ve come, he could still push me out? While I’m humiliated over and over again, and you stand by? That’s not love, Maxon. You don’t even know what love is.”

“The hell I don’t! Do you have any idea what I’ve been through—” “Maxon, you were the one who said you wanted to stop arguing. So

stop giving me reasons to argue with you!”

I stormed away. What was I still doing here? I kept torturing myself for someone who had no idea what it meant to be faithful to one person. And he never would, because his whole concept of romance revolved around the Selection. He wouldn’t ever understand.

As I was about to hit the stairwell, I was whipped back again. Maxon held me tightly, both of his hands gripping my arms. Surely he could see how furious I still was, but in the seconds that had passed, his demeanor had shifted completely.

“I’m not him,” he said.

“What?” I demanded, trying to free myself.

“America, stop.” I huffed and quit struggling. Without any other options, I looked into Maxon’s eyes. “I’m not him, all right?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

He sighed. “I know that you spent years pouring yourself into another person who you thought was going to love you forever; and when he was faced with the realities of the world, he abandoned you.” I froze, taking in his words. “I’m not him, America. I have no intentions of giving up on you.”

I shook my head. “You can’t see it, Maxon. He might have let me down, but at least I knew him. After all this time, I still feel like there’s a gap between us. The Selection has forced you to hand over your affection in slices. I’ll never really have all of you. None of us will.”

When I shrugged myself free this time, he didn’t fight me.

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