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I couldn't believe how shattered I felt. I caught myself looking at Olivia and wondering what was so special about her.
"Tell us everything!" Marlee insisted.
Most of the other girls were curious as well, but Marlee was the most enthusiastic. In the short time since she and Maxon had their last date, her interest in everyone else's progress seemed to be growing. I couldn't tell what was behind the s.h.i.+ft, and I wasn't quite brave enough to ask.
Olivia didn't need encouragement. She sat down on one of the couches and fanned out her dress. It looked like she was practicing to be the princess. I felt like telling her that one kiss didn't mean she was winning.
"I don't want to go into all the details, but it was quite romantic," she gushed, tucking her chin into her chest. "He took me to the roof. There's this place that's kind of like a balcony, but it looks like it's used for the guards. I couldn't tell. We could look out over the wall, and the whole city was just glittering as far as we could see. He didn't really say anything. He just pulled me in and kissed me." Her whole body contracted with joy.
Marlee sighed. Celeste looked like she was ready to break something. I sat there.
I kept telling myself that I shouldn't care so much, that this was all part of the Selection. And who's to say that I'd really want to end up with Maxon anyway? Honestly, I ought to consider myself lucky. It was clear Celeste's malice had a new target, and after that whole episode with my dress-which I realized I'd forgotten to mention to Maxon-I was glad to see her move on.
"Do you think she's the only one he's kissed?" Tuesday whispered in my ear. Kriss, who was standing beside me, heard her concerns and piped in.
"He wouldn't just kiss anyone. She must be doing something right," Kriss lamented.
"What if he's kissed half the room and people are keeping quiet about it? Maybe it's part of their strategy," Tuesday wondered.
"I don't think anyone who kept quiet would necessarily consider that a strategy," I countered. "Maybe they're just private."
Kriss sucked in a breath. "What if Olivia telling us all this is just some game? Now we're all worried, and it's not as if any of us would actually ask Maxon if he'd kissed her. There's no way to tell if she's lying or not."
"Do you think she would do that?" I asked.
"If she did, I wish I'd thought of it first," Tuesday said longingly.
Kriss sighed. "This is much more complicated than I thought it would be."
"Tell me about it," I mumbled.
"I like almost everyone in this room, but when I hear about Maxon doing something with someone else, I just want to figure out how I can do one better than her," she confessed. "I don't like feeling compet.i.tive toward you all."
"It's kind of like what I was telling Tiny the other day," Tuesday said. "I know she's a little on the timid side, but she's very ladylike and I think she'd make a great princess. I can't be mad at her if she has more dates than me, even if I want the crown myself."
Kriss and I met eyes for a second, and I could tell we were both thinking the same thing. She said crown, not him. But I let it drop, because the other part of her little speech struck on something familiar. "Marlee and I talk about that all the time. How we can see great qualities in each other."
We all exchanged looks, and something felt different. Suddenly I didn't feel so jealous of Olivia or even so at odds with Celeste. We were all going through this in a different way, and maybe even for different reasons, but we were at least going through it together.
"Maybe Queen Amberly was right," I said. "The only thing to do is be yourself. I'd rather have Maxon send me home for being myself than keep me for being like someone else."
"That's true," Kriss said. "And in the end, thirty-four people have to go. If I was the last one standing, I'd want to know I had everyone else's support, so we should try to be supportive, too."
I nodded, knowing she was right. I was confident that I could do that.
Just then Elise burst into the room, followed by Zoe and Emmica. She was usually very slow and calm, and never raised her voice. Today, however, she turned her head and squealed at us.
"Look at these combs!" she cried, pointing to two beautiful hair ornaments that were covered in what looked like thousands of dollars' worth of precious stones. "Maxon gave them to me. Aren't they beautiful?"
This set the room into a new flurry of excitement and disappointment, and my newborn confidence disappeared.
I tried not to be disappointed. After all, hadn't I received gifts? Hadn't I been kissed? But as the room filled with girls and the stories were retold, I found myself wanting to just go hide. Maybe today would be a good day to spend with my maids.
As I was considering leaving the room, Silvia came in, looking slightly frazzled and excited at the same time.
"Ladies!" she called out, attempting to quiet us. "Ladies, are you all here?"
We sang our yeses back to her.
"Thank goodness for that," she said, settling down. "I know this is very late notice, but we've just learned the king and queen of Swendway are coming to visit in three days, and as you all know, we have relations in their royal family. Also, the queen's extended family will be coming in to meet you at the same time, so we're going to have quite a full house. We have very little time to get ready, so clear your afternoons. Lessons in the Great Room immediately after lunch," she said, and turned to leave.
You would have thought the palace staff had months to plan. Giant tented pavilions were set up in the gardens, with food and wine stations scattered about the lawn. The number of guards out was higher than usual, and they were joined by several Swendish soldiers the king and queen had brought with them. I guess even they knew how at risk the palace was.
There was a tent with thrones set up for the king, queen, and Maxon as well as the king and queen of Swendway. The Swendish queen-whose name I couldn't p.r.o.nounce to save my life-was almost as beautiful as Queen Amberly and seemed to be a dear friend to her. They were all settled comfortably under that tent except for Maxon, who was busy making rounds with all the girls and the extended members of his family.
Maxon looked thrilled to see his cousins, even the little ones who kept tugging on his suit coat and running away. He had one of his many cameras out and was chasing the children with it, snapping away. Nearly all the Selected girls were watching him in adoration.
"America," someone called. I turned to my right to see Elayna and Leah talking to a woman who looked almost identical to the queen. "Come and meet the queen's sister." There was something in Elayna's tone that I couldn't quite name but made me nervous about joining them.
I walked over and curtsied to the lady, who cackled and said, "Stop that, honey. I'm not the queen here. I'm Adele, Amberly's older sister." She extended a hand, which I took, and she hiccuped as we shook. The woman had a slight accent, and something about her was comforting in the way that coming home feels. She was curvaceous and held a near-empty gla.s.s of wine that, based on the heavy look in her eyes, was not her first.
"Where are you from? I love your accent," I said. Some of the other girls from the South sounded similar, and their voices seemed incredibly romantic to me.
"Honduragua. Right by the coast. We grew up in the tiniest house," she said, making a s.p.a.ce the size of an inch between her finger and thumb. "And look at her now. Look at me," she said, motioning down to her dress. "Such a change."
"I live in Carolina, and my parents took me to the coast once. I loved it," I replied.
"Oh, no, no, no, child," she said, waving her hand about. Elayna and Leah looked like they were holding in laughter. Clearly they didn't think the queen's sister should be quite so familiar. "The beaches in middle Illea are trash compared to the ones down south. You have to go see one day."
I smiled and nodded, thinking that I'd love to see more of the country, but it was doubtful I ever would. Shortly after, one of Adele's many children came up to her and pulled her away, and Elayna and Leah burst into laughter.
"Isn't she hilarious?" Leah said.
"I don't know. She seems friendly," I replied with a shrug.
"She's vulgar," Elayna replied. "You should have heard all the things she said before you came up."
"What was so bad about her?"
"You'd think she'd have picked up a few lessons in decorum over the years. How did Silvia not get ahold of her?" Leah said with a sneer.
"Need I remind you, she was raised as a Four. Same as you," I shot back.
Her smug expression faltered, and she seemed to remember that she and Adele weren't so different. Elayna, however, was a natural Three and kept on talking.
"You can bet, if I win, my family will either be trained or deported. I wouldn't let any of them embarra.s.s me like that."
"What was so embarra.s.sing?" I asked.
Elayna sucked her teeth. "She's drunk. The queen and king of Swendway are here. She ought to be caged."
I decided that was enough and walked away to get some wine of my own. Once I had a gla.s.s, I looked around and honestly couldn't find a single place I wanted to settle. The whole reception was beautiful and interesting and completely aggravating.
I thought about what Elayna had said. If I ended up living in the palace, would I expect my family to change? I looked at the children running around, the people huddled together catching up. Wouldn't I want Kenna to be exactly who she was, want her children enjoying all this no matter how they behaved?
How much would living at the palace change me?
Would Maxon want me to change? Was that why he was off kissing other girls? Because there was something not quite right about me?
Was the rest of the Selection going to feel this irritating?
I turned, and Maxon snapped a picture of me. I bounced back in surprise. That unexpected picture wore out the last of my patience, and I turned away.
"Something wrong?" Maxon asked, lowering the camera.
"What's going on?"
"I just don't feel like being a part of the Selection today," I answered curtly.
Unfazed, Maxon stepped closer and lowered his voice. "Need someone to talk to? I could tug my ear right now," he offered.
I sighed and tried to put a polite smile on my face. "No, I just need to think." I went to leave.
"America," he said quietly. I stopped and turned. "Have I done something?"
I hesitated. Should I ask about him kissing Olivia? Should I tell him how tense I was feeling around the girls now that things had changed between us? Should I tell him how I didn't want to change myself or my family to be a part of this? I was about to let everything spill out when a shrill voice called from behind us.
We turned, and Celeste was standing there, talking to the queen of Swendway. It was clear she wanted to have this conversation with Maxon on her arm. She waved, inviting him over.
"Why don't you run along?" I said, my annoyance leaking into my voice again.
Maxon looked at me. The expression on his face reminded me that this was part of the deal. I was expected to share.
"Careful with that one." I gave Maxon a quick curtsy and walked away.
I made my way toward the palace, and along the way noticed Marlee sitting alone. I didn't even want to be with her right now, but I noticed she was parked on a bench near the back wall of the palace in the brutally hot sun, her closest companion a young, silent guard stationed just a few yards away.
"Marlee, what are you doing? Get under a tent before you burn your skin."
She gave me a polite smile. "I'm happy here."
"No, really," I said, putting a hand around her arm. "You'll look like my hair. You should-"
Marlee jerked her hand out of my grip, but spoke gently. "I want to stay here, America. I prefer it."
There was a tension in her face she was trying to mask. I was sure she wasn't upset with me, but something was going on.
"Fine. Try to get some shade soon, though. Sunburns hurt," I said, attempting to cover my frustration, and walked toward the palace.
Once inside, I decided to go to the Women's Room. I couldn't be gone for too long, and at least that room would be empty. But when I went in, I found Adele sitting near the window and watching the scene unfold outside. She turned when I entered and gave me a small smile.
I walked over and sat next to her. "Hiding?"
She smiled. "Kind of. I wanted to meet you all and see my sister again, but I hate it when these things turn into state functions. They make me tense."
"I'm not such a fan myself. I couldn't imagine doing things like this all the time."
"I bet," she said lazily. "You're the Five, right?"
The way she said it, it wasn't an insult. More like she was asking if I was in the club. "Yeah, that's me."
"I remembered your face. You were sweet at the airport. It's the kind of thing she would have done," she said, nodding out the window toward the queen. She sighed. "I don't know how she does it. She's stronger than most people know." I watched her pick up a winegla.s.s and sip away.
"She does seem strong, but ladylike, too."
Adele beamed. "Yes, but it's more than that. Look at her now."
I watched the queen. I noticed her eyes were trained across the lawn. I followed her gaze, and she was watching Maxon. He was speaking to the queen of Swendway next to Celeste while one of his cousins clung to his leg.
"He would have been a great brother," she said. "Amberly had three miscarriages. Two before him, one after. She still thinks about it, she tells me so. And then I have six kids. I feel guilty every time I show up."
"I'm sure she doesn't think of it that way. I'll bet she's excited every time you visit," I a.s.sured her.
She turned. "You know what makes her happy? You do. Do you know what she sees out there? A daughter. She knows that when this is all over, she'll have two children."
I turned from Adele to look at the queen again. "You think so? She seems a little distant. I haven't even spoken to her yet."
Adele nodded. "Just you wait. She's terrified of becoming attached to all of you just to watch you leave. Once it's a smaller group, you'll see."
I looked at the queen again. And then at Maxon. Back to the king. And then to Adele.
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 a.s.sisted 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.