So much went through my head. How families are families, no matter their castes. How mothers all have their own worries to bear. How I really didn’t hate any of the girls here, no matter how wrong they might be. How everyone out there must be putting on a brave face for some reason or another. And finally, how Maxon had made me a promise.
“Excuse me. I have someone I need to talk to.”
She sipped her wine and happily waved me away. I ran out of the room, and back into the blinding sun of the gardens. I searched around for a moment and found that Maxon’s young cousin had begun chasing him around a shrub. I smiled and approached slowly.
Finally Maxon stopped, waving his hands in the air, admitting his defeat. As he laughed, he turned and saw me, his smile still wide on his face. When our eyes met, his smile faded. He searched my face, looking for a sign of my mood.
I bit my lip and looked down. It was clear that caring about what happened to me as a member of the Selection would mean processing a lot of other feelings that I hadn’t been prepared for. However I took them in, I had to try not to force them out on other people, especially Maxon.
I thought about the queen—hosting visiting leaders, family members, a gaggle of girls all at once. She managed events and backed causes. She assisted her husband, her son, and the country. And underneath it all, she was a Four who held her own heartbreaks and never let her former rank or current aches keep her from doing it all.
I looked beneath my eyelashes at Maxon and smiled. He slowly smiled back, and whispered something to the little boy, who immediately turned and ran away. He reached up and tugged his ear. And I did the same.
THE QUEEN’S FAMILY STAYED A few days, and the visitors from Swendway an entire week. They did a segment on the Report discussing international relations and movements toward more peace for both nations.
It was now a month into my stay at the palace, and I was completely at home. My body was comfortable in the new climate. The warmth of the palace was heavenly, like a holiday. September was almost over, and it got very cool in the evenings, but it was much warmer than home. The sights of this giant space were no longer a mystery. The sounds of heeled shoes on marble, crystal glasses clinking, guards marching—they were starting to become as normal as the refrigerator humming or Gerad kicking a soccer ball up against the house.
Meals with the royal family and times in the Women’s Room were staples in my routine, but the middle moments of my days were always new. I spent a lot of time working on music; the instruments at the palace were far superior to the ones I had at home. I had to admit, they were making me spoiled. The quality of the sound was unimaginably better. And the Women’s Room had gotten a little more exciting, as the queen had shown up at least twice now. She hadn’t really spoken to anyone yet, but she sat in a comfortable chair with her maids at her side, watching as we read or conversed.
In general, the animosity had settled as well. We were getting used to one another. We finally found out the magazine’s top picks for our photographs. I was shocked to see I was one of the front-runners. Marlee was in the top spot, with Kriss, Tallulah, and Bariel close behind. Celeste didn’t talk to Bariel for days upon hearing this, but eventually everyone let it pass.
What still seemed to bring the most tension were the bits of information tossed around. Whoever had been with Maxon recently couldn’t help but gush about their little interlude. The way everyone spoke, it seemed as if Maxon was going to be choosing six or seven wives. But not everyone was shining in this experience.
For instance, Marlee had more than a few dates with Maxon, which put everyone on edge. Still, she never came across as excited as she had after their very first one.
“America, if I tell you this, you have to swear not to tell a soul,” she said as we walked in the garden. I knew it was something serious. She’d waited until we got away from the listening ears in the Women’s Room and far beyond the eyes of the guards.
“Of course, Marlee. Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I just… I need your opinion on something.” Her face was heavy with worry.
She bit her lip. “It’s Maxon. I’m not sure it’s going to work out.” She looked down.
“What makes you think that?” I asked, concerned.
“Well, for starters, I don’t… I don’t feel anything, you know? No spark, no connection.”
“Maxon can be a little shy is all. You have to give him time.” This was true. I was surprised she didn’t know that about him.
“No, I mean, I don’t think I like him.”
“Oh.” That was something very different. “Have you tried?” What a stupid question.
“Yes! So hard! I keep waiting for a moment to come when he’ll say or do something to make me feel like we have something in common, but it never happens. I think he’s handsome, but that’s not enough to build a whole relationship on. I don’t even know if he’s attracted to me. Do you have any idea what kind of things he, you know, likes?”
I thought about it. “No, actually. We’ve never talked about what he’s looking for in the physical department.”
“And that’s another thing! We never talk. He talks on and on to you, but we never seem to have anything to say. We spend a lot of our time quietly watching something or playing cards.”
She looked more worried by the minute.
“Sometimes we’re quiet together, too. Sometimes we just sit and say nothing. Besides, feelings like that don’t always happen overnight. Maybe you’re both just taking it slow.” I tried to sound reassuring—Marlee looked like she was on the verge of tears.
“Honestly, America, I think the only reason I’m still here is because the people like me so much. I think their opinions matter to him.”
That thought hadn’t occurred to me, but it sounded plausible. Long ago, I’d dismissed their opinion, but Maxon loved his people. They’d have more of a hand in choosing the next princess than they would know.
“And besides,” she whispered, “everything between us feels so … empty.”
Then the tears came.
I sighed and hugged her. Truthfully, I wanted her to stay, to be here with me, but if she didn’t love Maxon…
“Marlee, if you don’t want to be with Maxon, I think you need to tell him.”
“Oh, no, I don’t think I can.”
“You have to. He doesn’t want to marry someone who doesn’t love him. If you don’t have any feelings for him, he needs to know.”