Finally Anne placed my name pin on my chest, the silver shining beautifully against the black of my dress. There was nothing left for me to do but face this unimaginable fate.
I opened my door but found myself frozen. Turning back to my maids, I breathed out my fear. “I’m scared.”
Anne put her hands on my shoulders and spoke. “You are a lady now, miss. You must handle this like a lady.”
I gave a small nod as she released me, unclenched my hands from the door, and walked away. I wish I could have said my head was high; but honestly, lady or not, I was terrified.
To my immense surprise, when I reached the foyer, the rest of the girls were waiting, all wearing dresses and expressions similar to my own. A wave of relief hit me. I wasn’t in trouble. If anything, we all were, so at least I wouldn’t be going through whatever this was alone.
“There’s the fifth,” a guard said to his counterpart. “Follow us, ladies.”
Fifth? No, that wasn’t right. It was six. As we walked down the stairs, I quickly scanned the girls. The guard was right. Only five. Marlee wasn’t here.
My first thought was that Maxon had sent Marlee home, but wouldn’t she have come by my room to say good-bye? I tried to think of a relationship between all this secrecy and Marlee’s absence, and nothing I came up with made sense.
At the bottom of the stairs, an assembly of guards waited, along with our families. Mom, Dad, and May seemed anxious. Everyone did. I looked at them, hoping for some sort of clarity, but Mom shook her head while Dad gave me a shrug. I scanned the uniformed men for Aspen. He wasn’t there.
I saw a pair of guards escorting Marlee’s parents to the back of our line. Her mother was hunched with worry, and she leaned into her husband, his face heavy, as if he had aged years in a single night.
Wait. If Marlee was gone, why were they here?
I turned as a burst of light flooded the foyer. For the first time since I’d been at the palace, the front doors were both opened wide, and we were paraded outside. We crossed the short circular driveway and headed past the massive walls that fenced us into the grounds. As the gates creaked open, the deafening sound of a massive crowd greeted us.
A large platform had been set up in the street. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people were crowded together, children sitting on the shoulders of their parents. Cameras were positioned around the platform, and production people were running in front of the crowds, capturing the scene. We were led to a small section of stadium seats, and the crowd cheered for us as we walked out. I could see the shoulders of every girl in front of me relax as the people in the streets called out our names and threw flowers at our feet.
I lifted my hand in a wave as people called my name. I felt so silly for worrying. If the people were this happy, then nothing bad could be happening. The staff at the palace really needed to rethink the way they handled the Elite. All that anxiety for nothing.
May giggled, happy to be a part of the excitement, and I was relieved to see her back to herself. I tried to keep up with all the well-wishers, but I was distracted by the two odd structures waiting on the platform. The first was a ladder-like contraption in the shape of an A; the second was a large wooden block with loops on either end. With a guard at my side, I climbed into my seat in the middle of the front row and tried to figure out what was going on.
The crowd erupted again as the king, queen, and Maxon emerged. They too were dressed in dark clothes and wore sober expressions. I was close to Maxon, so I turned his way. Whatever was happening, if he looked at me and smiled, I knew it would be fine. I kept willing him to glance at me, to give me some sort of acknowledgment. But Maxon’s face was hard.
A moment later the crowd’s cheers turned into cries of disdain, and I turned to see what made them so unhappy.
My stomach twisted as I watched my world shatter.
Officer Woodwork was being dragged out in chains. His lip was bleeding, and his clothes were so dirty he looked like he’d spent the night rolling in mud. Behind him, Marlee—her beautiful angel costume lacking its wings and covered in grime—was also in chains. A suit coat covered her hunched shoulders, and she squinted into the light. She took in the massive crowd, finding my eyes for a split second before she was pulled forward again. She searched once more, and I knew who she was seeking out. To my left, I saw Marlee’s parents watching, gripping each other tightly. They were visibly crushed, gone from this place, as if their very hearts had abandoned them.
I looked back to Marlee and Officer Woodwork. The anxiety in their faces was obvious, yet they walked with a certain pride. Only once, when Marlee tripped over the hem of her dress, did that veneer crack. Beneath it, terror awaited.
No. No, no, no, no, no.
As they were led up onto the platform, a man in a mask began speaking. The crowd hushed for him. Apparently, this—whatever it was—had happened before, and the people here knew how to respond. But I didn’t; my body lurched forward, and my stomach heaved. Thank goodness I hadn’t eaten.
“Marlee Tames,” the man called, “one of the Selected, a Daughter of Illéa, was found last night in an intimate moment with this man, Carter Woodwork, a trusted member of the Royal Guard.”
The crier’s voice was full of an inappropriate amount of self-importance, as if he was reciting the cure for some deadly disease. The crowd booed again at his accusations.
“Miss Tames has broken her vow of loyalty to our prince Maxon! And Mr. Woodwork has essentially stolen property of the royal family through his relations with Miss Tames! These offenses are treason to the royal family!” He was shrieking out his statements, willing the crowd to agree. And they did.
But how could they? Didn’t they know this was Marlee? Sweet, beautiful, trusting, giving Marlee? She made a mistake, maybe, but nothing deserving of this much hatred.
Carter was being strapped up to the A-shaped frame by another masked man, his legs spread wide and his arms pulled into a position that mimicked the structure. Padded belts were wrapped around his waist and legs, tightened to a point that looked uncomfortable even from here. Marlee was forced to kneel in front of the large wooden block as a man ripped the coat from her back. Her wrists were bound down to the loops on either side, palms up.
She was crying.
“This is a crime punishable by death! But, in his mercy, Prince Maxon is going to spare these two traitors their lives. Long live Prince Maxon!”
The crowd chanted after the man. If I had been in my right mind, I would have known I was supposed to call out, too, or at least applaud. The girls around me did, and so did our parents, even if they were in shock. But I wasn’t paying attention. All I saw were Marlee’s and Carter’s faces.
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