Chapter no 7

The One (The Selection, 3)

FOR AS FAST AS I was at getting to my room, Aspen was faster. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Aspen knew the palace so well, this was probably nothing to him now.

“Hey,” I started, a little unsure of what to say.

Quickly, he wrapped his arms around me, then pulled away. “That’s my girl.”

I smiled. “Yeah?”

“You put ’em in their place, Mer.” Risking his life, Aspen ran a thumb down my cheek. “You do deserve to be happy. We all do.”

“Thank you.”

Smiling, he dropped his hand to move the bracelet Maxon had brought me from New Asia and reached underneath to touch the one I’d made of a button he’d given me. His eyes looked sad as he stared at our little memento.

“We’ll talk soon. Really talk. There’s a lot we need to work out.”

With that, Aspen moved down the hall. I sighed and put my head in my hands. Did he assume my rejection meant that I was pushing Maxon away for good? Did he think I wanted to rekindle things with him?

Then again, hadn’t I just pushed Maxon away?

Hadn’t I thought yesterday that Aspen needed to stay in my life? So then why did everything feel awful?

The mood in the Women’s Room was dark. Queen Amberly sat writing her letters, and from time to time, I’d notice her peek up to take in the four of us. After yesterday, we were avoiding doing anything that might require us to interact with one another. Celeste had a pile of magazines and was stretched out on the couch. In a very wise move, Kriss had taken her journal and settled in to write, once again positioning herself near the queen. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Elise had gotten out a collection of drawing pencils and was working on something by the window. I was in a wide chair near the door, reading a book.

As it was, we didn’t even have to make eye contact.

I tried to concentrate on the words in front of me, but mostly I wondered who the Northern rebels wanted as princess if they couldn’t have me. Celeste was very popular, and it would be easy to get people to follow her. I wondered if they were aware of how manipulative she could be. If they knew things about me, maybe they did. Was there more to Celeste than I’d guessed?

Kriss was sweet, and according to that poll a while back, she was one of the people’s favorites. Her family didn’t have much sway, but she was more of a princess than the rest of us. She had that air about her. Maybe that was her big draw; she wasn’t perfect, but she was so lovable. There were days when even I wanted to follow Kriss.

The one I suspected the least was Elise. She’d admitted she didn’t love Maxon and that she was here because of duty. I genuinely thought that when she spoke of duty she meant to her family or to her New Asian roots, not to the Northern rebels. Besides that, she was so stoic and calm. There was nothing close to rebellious about her.

And that was why I was suddenly positive she was their favorite. She seemed to be trying the least to compete and had openly admitted her coolness toward Maxon. Maybe she didn’t have to try because, at the end of the day, she had a quiet army of supporters to put her under the crown anyway.

“That’s it,” the queen said suddenly. “All of you, come here.” She pushed her little table away and stood as we all walked over nervously.

“Something’s wrong. What is it?” she demanded.

We looked at one another, none of us wanting to explain. Finally too- perfect Kriss piped up.

“Your Majesty, we’ve just suddenly realized how intense this competition is. We’re a bit more aware of where we each stand with the prince, and it’s difficult to let it sink in and still want to chat right now.”

The queen nodded in understanding. “How often do you all think of Natalie?” she asked. Natalie had been gone barely a week. I thought of her nearly every day. I also thought of Marlee all the time, and some of the other girls would pop into my head at random as well.

“Always,” Elise said quietly. “She was so lighthearted.”

A smile came to her lips as she said this. I had always assumed that Natalie got on Elise’s nerves since she was so reserved and Natalie was so spacey. But maybe it was one of those opposites-attract kinds of friendships.

“Sometimes she would laugh over the littlest thing,” Kriss added. “It was contagious.”

“Exactly,” the queen said. “I’ve been where you are, and I know how difficult it is. You second guess the things you do; you second guess everything he does. You wonder over every conversation, trying to read into the breaths between sentences. It’s exhausting.”

It was as though I could see a weight lifting from everyone. Someone got us.

“But know this: as much tension as you feel with one another now, you will ache every time one of you leaves. No one will ever understand this experience like the other girls who have been through it, the Elite especially. You may fight, but that’s what sisters do. These girls,” she said, pointing to each of us, “will be the ones you call nearly every day for the first year, terrified of making a mistake and needing their support. When you have parties, these are the names you’ll put at the top of your guest lists, just under the names of your family members. Because that’s what you are now. You’ll never lose these relationships.”

We looked at one another. If I was the princess and something was happening where I needed a rational perspective, I’d call Elise first. If I was fighting with Maxon, Kriss would remind me of every good thing about him. And Celeste . . . well, I wasn’t so sure, but if anyone was ever going to tell me to toughen up about something, it would be her.

“So take your time,” she advised. “Adjust to where you are. And let it go. You don’t choose him; he chooses you. There’s no point in hating the others for that.”

“Do you know who he wants the most?” Celeste asked. And for the first time, I heard worry in her voice.

“I don’t,” Queen Amberly confessed. “Sometimes I think I could guess, but I don’t pretend to understand everything Maxon feels. I know who the king would choose, but that’s about it.”

“Who would you choose?” I asked, then cursed myself for being so blunt.

She smiled kindly. “I honestly haven’t let myself think about it. It would break my heart to start loving one of you like a daughter and then lose you. I couldn’t bear it.”

I lowered my eyes, not sure if those words were meant to be a comfort or not.

“I will say I’d be happy to have any of you in my family.” I looked up and watched as she took the time to meet each set of eyes. “For now, there’s work to do.”

We stood there silently, soaking in her wisdom. I’d never taken the time to look at the competitors in the last Selection, to find their pictures or anything. I knew a handful of names, mostly because older women would drop them into conversations when I sang at parties. It was never that important to me; we already had a queen, and even as a girl, the possibility of becoming a princess never crossed my mind. But now I wondered how many of the women who showed up to visit the queen or came for Halloween were her former competition, now her closest friends.

Celeste walked away first, heading back to the comfort of the couch. It didn’t seem as if Queen Amberly’s words meant much to her. For some reason that was the tipping point for me. Everything from the last few days crashed back onto my heart, and I could feel it was seconds away from cracking.

I curtsied. “Excuse me, please,” I mumbled, before moving swiftly to the door. I didn’t have a plan. Maybe I could go sit in the bathroom for a minute or tuck myself away in one of the numerous parlors downstairs. Maybe I would just go to my room and cry my eyes out.

Unfortunately, it looked like the universe was plotting against me. Just outside the Women’s Room, Maxon was pacing back and forth, looking as if he was trying to solve a riddle. Before I could hide somewhere, he saw me.

Of everything I wanted to do right now, this was the last thing on my


“I was debating asking you to come out,” he said. “What do you need?” I answered shortly.

Maxon stood there, still working up the nerve to say something that

was obviously driving him crazy. “So there’s one girl who loves me beyond reason?”

I crossed my arms. After the last few days, I should have seen his change of heart coming. “Yes.”

“Not two?”

I looked up at him, almost irritated that he needed me to explain. Don’t you already know how I feel? I wanted to scream. Don’t you remember the safe room?

But, honestly, I needed some confirmation right now, too. What had happened to make me so unsure so quickly?

The king. His insinuations about what the other girls had done, his praise of their merits made me feel small. And it was compounded by all my missteps with Maxon this week. The only way we would have ever been brought together was because of the Selection; but it seemed that as long as it went on, there was no way for anything to feel certain.

“You told me you didn’t trust me,” I accused. “The other day you made a point of humiliating me, and yesterday you basically said I was an embarrassment. And not a few hours ago, the suggestion of marrying me sent you into a rage. Forgive me for not feeling so secure in our relationship right now.”

“You forget that I’ve never done this, America,” he said passionately, but without any anger. “You have someone to compare me to. I don’t even know how to have a typical relationship, and I only get one chance. You’ve had at least two. I’m going to make mistakes.”

“I don’t mind mistakes,” I shot back. “I mind the uncertainty. Most of the time I can’t tell what’s going on.”

He was quiet for a moment, and I realized that we’d come to a very serious crossroad. We’d implied so many things, but we couldn’t go on like this for much longer. Even if we ended up together, these moments of insecurity would haunt us.

“We keep doing this,” I breathed, exhausted with this game. “We get close and then something happens and it falls apart, and you never seem to be able to make a decision. If you want me as much as you’ve always claimed to, why isn’t this over?”

Even though I’d accused him of not caring about me at all, his frustration melted into sadness. “Because half the time I’ve been sure you loved someone else and the other half I’ve doubted you could love me at all,” he answered, making me feel positively awful.

“Like I haven’t had my own reasons to doubt? You treat Kriss like she’s heaven on earth, and then I catch you with Celeste—”

“I explained that.”

“Yes, but it still hurt to see.”

“Well, it hurts me to see how quickly you shut down. Where does that even come from?”

“I don’t know, but maybe you should stop thinking about me for a while.”

The silence was abrupt. “What does that mean?”

I shrugged. “There are three other girls here. If you’re so worried about your one shot, you might want to make sure you’re not wasting it on me.”

I walked away, angry with Maxon for making me feel this way . . . and angry with myself for making things so much worse.

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