“Is it really like that?” he asked.
“Out there … does that happen? Are people hungry like that a lot?”
“Tell me the truth.” His mouth settled into a firm line.
“Yes. That happens. I know of families where people give up their share for their children or siblings. I know of a boy who was whipped in the town square for stealing food. Sometimes you do crazy things when you’re desperate.”
“A boy? How old?”
“Nine,” I breathed with a shiver. I could still remember the scars on Jemmy’s tiny back, and Maxon stretched his own back as if he felt it all himself.
“Have you”—he cleared his throat—“have you ever been like that? Starving?”
I ducked my head, which was a giveaway. I really didn’t want to tell him about that.
“Maxon, it will only upset you more.”
“Probably,” he said with a grave nod. “But I’m only starting to realize how much I don’t know about my own country. Please.”
“We’ve been pretty bad. Most times if it gets to where we have to choose, we keep the food and lose electricity. The worst was when it happened near Christmas one year. It was very cold, so we were all wearing tons of clothes and watching our breath inside the house. May didn’t understand why we couldn’t exchange gifts. As a general rule, there are never any leftovers at my house. Someone always wants more.”
I watched his face grow pale and realized I didn’t want to see him upset. I needed to turn this around, make it positive.
“I know the checks we’ve gotten over the last few weeks have really helped, and my family is very smart about money. I’m sure they’ve already tucked it away so it’ll stretch out for a long time. You’ve done so much for us, Maxon.” I tried to smile at him again, but his expression remained unchanged.
“Good God. When you said you were only here for the food, you weren’t kidding, were you?” he asked, shaking his head.
“Really, Maxon, we’ve been doing pretty well lately. I—” But I couldn’t finish my sentence.
Maxon came over and kissed my forehead.
“I’ll see you at dinner.”
As he walked away, he straightened his tie.
MAXON HAD SAID HE WOULD see me at dinner, but he wasn’t there. The queen entered alone. We made our delicate bows as she took her seat, and then settled in ourselves.
I looked around the room to find the empty chair, assuming he was on a date, but everyone was here.
I had spent the afternoon replaying what I’d said to Maxon. No wonder I’d never had any friends. I was shockingly bad at it.
Just then Maxon and the king walked in. Maxon had his suit coat back on, but his hair was still a handsome mess. He and the king had their heads together as they walked. We hurried to stand. Their conversation was animated. Maxon was using his hands to express things and the king was nodding, acknowledging his son’s words but looking a little put out. When they reached the head table, King Clarkson gave Maxon a heavy pat on the back, his expression stern.
As the king turned to face us all, his face suddenly flooded with enthusiasm. “Oh, goodness, dear ladies, please sit.” He kissed the queen on her head and sat himself.
But Maxon remained standing.
“Ladies, I have an announcement.” Every eye focused in. What could he possibly have for us?
“I know you were all promised compensation for your participation in the Selection.” His voice was full of a ringing authority that I had only really heard once—the night he let me into the garden. He was much more attractive when he was using his status for a purpose. “However, there have been some new monetary allocations. If you are a natural Two or a Three, you will no longer be receiving financing. Fours and Fives will continue to receive compensation, but it will be slightly less than what it has been so far.”
I could see some of the girls had their mouths open in shock. Money was part of the deal. Celeste, for example, was fuming. I guessed if you had a lot of money, you got used to the idea of collecting it. And the thought that someone like me would be getting anything she wasn’t probably got under her skin.
“I do apologize for any inconvenience, but I will explain this all tomorrow night on the Capital Report. And this is a nonnegotiable situation. If anyone has a problem with this new arrangement and no longer wants to participate, you may leave after dinner.”
He sat down and started talking again to the king, who seemed more interested in his dinner than Maxon’s words. I was a little disheartened that my family would be receiving less money, but at least we were still getting some. I tried to focus on my dinner, but mostly I was wondering what this meant, and I wasn’t alone. Murmurs went up around the room.
“What do you think that’s about?” Tiny asked quietly.
“Maybe it’s a test,” Kriss offered. “I bet there are some people here who are only in it for the money.”
As I listened to her, I saw Fiona nudge Olivia and nod her head toward me. I turned away so she wouldn’t know I saw.
The girls offered up theories, and I kept watching Maxon. I tried to catch his attention so I could tug my ear, but he didn’t look my way.
Mary and I were alone in my room. Tonight I’d face Gavril—and the rest of the nation—on the Illéa Capital Report. Not to mention the other girls would be right there the whole time, watching one another and mentally critiquing. Saying I was nervous was a gross understatement. I fidgeted while Mary listed some possible questions, things she thought the public would want to know.
How was I enjoying the palace? What was the most romantic thing Maxon had done for me? Did I miss my family? Had I kissed Maxon yet?
I eyed Mary when she asked me that one. I’d been throwing out answers to the questions, trying not to think too hard. But I could tell she’d asked that one out of genuine curiosity. The smile on her face proved it.
“No! For goodness’ sake.” I tried to sound mad, but it was too funny to be upset about. I ended up smirking. And that made Mary giggle. “Oh, just … why don’t you clean something!”
She laughed outright, and before I could tell her to stop, Anne and Lucy burst through the doors with a garment bag.
Lucy was looking more excited than I’d seen her since the moment I’d walked in the first day, and Anne seemed quietly devious.