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Chapter no 5

The One (The Selection, 3)

I WAS WRINGING MY HANDS as I paced the downstairs library, trying to put the words together in my head. I knew I needed to explain what had just happened to Maxon before he heard about it from the other girls, but that didn’t mean I was looking forward to the conversation.

“Knock, knock,” he said, coming in. He took in my worried expression. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t get mad,” I warned as he approached.

His pace slowed, and the concerned look on his face became guarded instead. “I’ll try.”

“The girls know I saw you without your shirt on.” I saw the question coming to his lips. “I didn’t say anything about your back,” I vowed. “I wanted to, because now they just think we were in the middle of some big make-out fest.”

He smiled. “It did end up that way.”

“Don’t joke, Maxon! They hate me right now.”

The light didn’t leave his eyes as he hugged me. “If it’s any consolation, I’m not mad. So long as you kept my secret, I don’t mind. Though I am a little shocked you told them. How did it even come up?”

I buried my head in his chest. “I don’t think I can tell you.”

“Hmm.” His thumb rubbed up and down my back. “I thought we were supposed to be working on our trust.”

“We are. I’m asking you to trust that this will only get worse if I tell you.” Maybe I was wrong, but I was pretty sure confessing to Maxon that we were checking out half-dressed, sweaty guards would get us all into some kind of trouble.

“Okay,” he finally said. “The girls know you’ve seen me partly undressed. Anything else?”

I hesitated. “They know I was your first kiss. And I know everything you have and haven’t done with them.”

He pulled back. “What?”

“After I let the whole shirtless thing slip, there was a lot of finger- pointing, and everyone came clean. I know you’ve spent plenty of time

kissing Celeste and that you would have kissed Kriss long before now if she would have let you. It all came out.”

He wiped his hand over his face, taking a few paces as he processed this. “So I have absolutely no privacy anymore? None? Because the four of you had to check scores with each other?” His frustration was clear.

“You know, for someone concerned with honesty, you ought to be grateful.”

He stopped and stared. “I beg your pardon?”

“Everything is out in the open now. We all have a pretty good idea of where we stand, and I, for one, am thankful.”

He rolled his eyes. “Thankful?”

“If you had told me that Celeste and I were at about the same point with you physically, I would never have tried to come on to you like I did last night. Do you know how humiliated I was?”

He scoffed and started pacing again. “Please, America, you’ve said and done so many foolish things, I’m surprised you can even be embarrassed anymore.”

Maybe it was because I had been raised with less of an articulate education, but it took a second for the full impact of his words to hit me. Maxon had always liked me, or so he’d said. I knew it was against the better judgment of other people. Was it also against his?

“I’ll go then,” I said quietly, unable to look him in the eye. “Sorry I let the whole shirt thing out.” I started walking away, feeling so small I wondered if he even noticed.

“Come on, America. I didn’t mean it like—”

“No, it’s fine,” I mumbled. “I’ll watch my words better.”

I made my way upstairs, unsure of whether I wanted Maxon to come after me or not. He didn’t.

When I got to my room, Anne, Mary, and Lucy were in there, changing my sheets and dusting the shelves.

“Hello, my lady,” Anne greeted. “Would you like some tea?”

“No, I’m just going to sit on the balcony for a moment. If any visitors come, tell them I’m resting.”

Anne frowned a bit but nodded. “Of course.”

I spent some time taking in the fresh air, then went over the assigned reading Silvia had prepared for us. I took a short nap and played my violin for a little while. So long as I could avoid the other girls and Maxon, I really didn’t care what I was doing.

With the king away, we were allowed to take our meals in our rooms, so I did. Halfway through my lemon-and-pepper chicken, a knock came at the door. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I was sure it was Maxon. There was no way I could see him right now. I grabbed Mary and Anne and headed to the bathroom.

“Lucy,” I whispered. “Tell him I’m taking a bath.” “Him? A bath?”

“Yes. Don’t let him in,” I instructed.

“What’s this all about?” Anne asked as I closed the door, pressing my ear up against it.

“Can you hear anything?” I asked.

They both put their ears to the door, too, waiting to see if something intelligible came through.

I heard Lucy’s muffled voice, but then I put my ear to the crack of the door and the following conversation was much clearer.

“She’s in the bath, Your Majesty,” Lucy answered calmly. It was

Maxon.

“Oh. I was hoping she’d be eating still. I thought maybe I could have my dinner with her.”

“She decided to take a bath before she ate.” There was a tiny waver in her voice, uncomfortable with being dishonest.

Come on, Lucy. Hold it together.

“I see. Well, maybe you could have her send for me when she’s done.

I’d like to speak with her.”

“Umm . . . it might be a very long bath, Your Majesty.”

Maxon paused. “Oh. Very well. Then could you please let her know I came by and tell her to send for me if she’d like to talk. Tell her not to worry about the hour; I’ll come.”

“Yes, sir.”

It was quiet for a long time, and I was starting to think he had left. “Um, thank you,” he said finally. “Good night.”

“Good night, Your Majesty.”

I hid for a few seconds longer to make sure he was gone. When I came out, Lucy was still standing by the door. I looked at all my maids, seeing the questions in their eyes.

“I just want to be alone tonight,” I said vaguely. “In fact, I think I’m ready to wind down. If you could take my dinner tray, I’m going to get ready for bed.”

“Do you want one of us to stay?” Mary asked. “In case you decide to send for the prince?”

I could see the hope in their eyes, but I had to let them down. “No, I just need some rest. I’ll see Maxon in the morning.”

It was strange tucking myself into bed, knowing something was hanging between Maxon and me, but I didn’t know how to talk to him right now. It didn’t make sense. We’d already been through so many ups and downs together, so many attempts to make this relationship real; but it was clear that if that was going to happen, we still had a very long way to go.

I was gruffly awoken before dawn. The light from the hallway flooded my room, and I rubbed my eyes as a guard entered.

“Lady America, wake up, please,” he said. “What’s wrong?” I asked, yawning.

“There’s an emergency. We need you downstairs.”

At once my blood turned cold. My family was dead; I knew it. We’d sent guards; we’d warned those at home this was possible, but the rebels were too much. The same thing had happened to Natalie. She left the Selection an only child after the rebels killed her little sister. None of our families was safe anymore.

I threw off the covers and grabbed my robe and slippers. I ran down the hall and stairs as quickly as I could, nearly slipping twice on the steps.

When I got to the first floor, Maxon was there, talking intently to a guard. I ran up to him, forgetting about everything from the last two days.

“Are they all right?” I asked, trying not to cry. “How bad is it?” “What?” he asked, taking me in for an unexpected hug.

“My parents, my brothers and sisters. Are they okay?”

Quickly Maxon held me at arm’s length and looked me in the eye. “They’re fine, America. I’m sorry; I should have realized that’s what you would have thought of first.”

I nearly started weeping I was so relieved.

Maxon seemed a bit confused as he continued. “There are rebels in the palace.”

“What?” I shrieked. “Why aren’t we hiding?” “They’re not here to attack.”

“Then why are they here?”

He sighed. “It’s only two rebels from the Northern camp. They’re unarmed, and they’re specifically asking to speak to me . . . and to you.”

“Why me?”

“I’m not sure; but I’m going to talk to them, so I thought I would give you the chance to speak to them as well.”

I looked down at myself and ran my hand over my hair. “I’m in my nightgown.”

He smiled. “I know, but this is very informal. It’s fine.” “Do you want me to talk to them?”

“That is truly up to you, but I’m curious as to why they want to speak with you in particular. I’m not sure they’ll tell me if you’re not there.”

I nodded, weighing this in my head. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to rebels. Unarmed or not, they were probably far deadlier than I could ever be. But if Maxon thought I could do it, maybe I should. . . .

“Okay,” I said, pulling myself up. “Okay.”

“You won’t get hurt, America. I promise.” His hand was still on mine, and he gave my fingers a tiny squeeze. He turned to the guard. “Lead the way. Keep your holster unlocked, just in case.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he answered, and escorted us around the corner into the Great Room, where two people were standing, surrounded by more guards.

It took me seconds to find Aspen in the crowd.

“Could you call off your dogs?” one of the rebels asked. He was tall and slim and blond. His boots were covered in mud, and his outfit looked like something a Seven might wear: a pair of heavy pants taken in to fit him closely and a patched-up shirt beneath a beaten leather jacket. A rusting compass on a long chain swung around his neck, moving as he shifted. He looked rugged without being terrifying, which wasn’t what I’d expected.

Even more unexpected was that his companion was a girl. She, too, wore boots; but as if she was trying to be resourceful and fashionable at the same time, she had on leggings and a skirt constructed from the same material as the male’s pants. Her hip jutted out confidently to the side despite her being surrounded by guards. Even if I hadn’t recognized her face, I would have remembered her jacket. Denim and cropped, covered with what looked like dozens of embroidered flowers.

Making sure I remembered who she was, she gave me a little curtsy.

I made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a gasp. “What’s wrong?” Maxon asked.

“Later,” I whispered.

Confused but calm, he gave me a comforting squeeze and focused again on our guests.

“We’ve come to speak to you in peace,” the man said. “We are unarmed, and your guards have searched us. I know asking for privacy would be inappropriate, but we have things to discuss with you that no one else should hear.”

“What about America?” Maxon asked. “We want to speak with her as well.” “To what end?”

“Again,” the young man said, almost cockily, “we need to be out of earshot of these guys.” He playfully gestured around the room.

“If you think you can harm her—”

“I know you’re skeptical of us, and for good reason, but we have no cause to hurt either of you. We want to talk.”

Maxon deliberated for a minute. “You,” he said, looking toward one of the guards, “pull down one of the tables and four chairs. Then all of you, please stay back to give our guests some room.”

The guards obeyed, and we were all silent for a few uncomfortable minutes. When the table was finally down from the stack and in the corner with two chairs on either side, Maxon gestured that the pair should join us over there.

As we walked, the guards stepped back, wordlessly forming a perimeter around the room and focusing their eyes on the two rebels as if they were prepared to fire at a second’s notice.

As we reached the table, the male stuck out his hand. “Don’t you think introductions are in order?”

Maxon eyed him warily but then relented. “Maxon Schreave, your sovereign.”

The young man chuckled. “Honored, sir.” “And you are?”

“Mr. August Illéa, at your service.”

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