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The diary opened to the page with the Halloween picture, the stiff photo acting as a natural bookmark, and I reread the entry.

THE CHILDREN CELEBRATED HALLOWEEN THIS YEAR WITH A PARTY. I SUPPOSE IT’S ONE WAY TO FORGET WHAT’S GOING ON AROUND THEM, BUT TO ME IT ALL FEELS FRIVOLOUS. WE’RE ONE OF THE FEW FAMILIES REMAINING WHO HAS ENOUGH MONEY TO DO SOMETHING FESTIVE, BUT THIS CHILD’S PLAY SEEMS WASTEFUL.

I looked at the picture again, wondering about the girl in particular. How old was she? What was her job? Did she like being Gregory Illéa’s daughter? Did it make her very popular?

I turned the page and realized that it wasn’t a new entry but a continuation of the Halloween post.

I GUESS I THOUGHT THAT AFTER CHINA INVADED WE’D SEE THE ERROR OF OUR WAYS. IT’S BEEN OBVIOUS TO ME, PARTICULARLY RECENTLY, JUST HOW LAZY WE’VE BECOME. REALLY, IT’S NO WONDER CHINA CAME IN SO EASILY, AND IT’S NO WONDER IT TOOK SO LONG FOR US TO GET IN A POSITION TO FIGHT BACK. WE’VE LOST THAT SPIRIT THAT DROVE PEOPLE ACROSS OCEANS AND THROUGH DEVASTATING WINTERS AND CIVIL WAR. WE GOT LAZY. AND WHILE WE WERE SITTING BACK, CHINA TOOK THE REINS.

IN THE LAST FEW MONTHS IN PARTICULAR, I’VE FELT DRIVEN TO GIVE MORE THAN MONEY TO THE WAR EFFORTS. I WANT TO LEAD. I HAVE IDEAS, AND PERHAPS SINCE I’VE DONATED SO GENEROUSLY, NOW IS THE TIME TO OFFER THEM UP. WHAT WE NEED IS CHANGE. I CAN’T HELP BUT WONDER IF I MIGHT BE THE ONLY PERSON WHO CAN PROVIDE IT.

I got chills. I couldn’t help but compare Maxon to his predecessor. Gregory seemed inspired. He was trying to take something broken and make it whole. I wondered what he’d say about the monarchy if he was here today.

When Aspen slid my door open that night, I was nearly bursting at the seams to tell him what I’d read. But I remembered that I’d already mentioned to my dad that the diary existed, and even that was going past what I’d sworn to do.

“How have you been?” he asked, kneeling by my bed.

“All right, I suppose. Celeste showed me this article today.” I shook my head. “I’m not sure I want to get into it. I’m so tired of her.”

“I guess with Marlee gone, he won’t be sending anyone home for a while, huh?”

I shrugged. I knew the public had been looking forward to an elimination, and what happened with Marlee was more dramatic than anything anyone expected.

“Hey,” he said, risking a touch in the light of the wide-open door. “It’s going to be all right.”

“I know. I just miss her. And I’m confused.”

“Confused about what?”

“Everything. What I’m doing here, who I am. I thought I knew …. I don’t even know how to explain it right.” That seemed to be the problem lately. Every thought that passed through my head was sloppy. I couldn’t line up anything.

“You know who you are, Mer. Don’t let them try to change you.” His voice was so sincere, and for a minute I did feel sure. Not because I had any answers, but because I had Aspen. If I ever lost sight of who I really was, I knew he’d be there to guide me back.

“Aspen, can I ask you something?” He nodded. “This is kind of strange, but if being the princess didn’t mean I had to marry someone, if it was just a job someone could pick me for, do you think I could do it?”

Aspen’s green eyes grew wide for a second, taking in the enormity of that question. To his credit, I could see him considering the possibility.

“Sorry, Mer. I don’t. You don’t have it in you to be as calculating as they are.” There was an apology in his expression, but I wasn’t offended that he thought I couldn’t do it. I was a bit surprised at his reasoning though.

“Calculating? How so?”

He sighed. “I’m everywhere, Mer. I hear things. There’s a lot of turmoil down South, in the areas with a heavy concentration of lower castes. From what the older guards say, those people never particularly agreed with Gregory Illéa’s methods, and there’s been unrest down there for a long time. Rumor has it, that was part of why the queen was so attractive to the king. She came from the South, and it appeased them for a while. Not so much anymore it seems.”

I thought again about bringing up the diary, but I didn’t. “That doesn’t explain what you meant by calculating.”

He hesitated. “I was in one of the offices the other day, before all the Halloween stuff. They were mentioning rebel sympathizers in the South. I was told to see these letters to the postal wing safely. It was over three hundred letters, America. Three hundred families who were getting knocked down a caste for not reporting things or for helping someone the palace saw as a threat.”

I sucked in a breath.

“I know. Can you imagine? What if it was you, and all you knew how to do was play the piano? Suddenly you’re supposed to know how to do clerical work, how to find those jobs even? It’s a pretty clear message.”

I nodded. “Do you … Does Maxon know?”

“I think he has to. He’s not that far off from running the country himself.”

In my heart, I didn’t want to believe that he’d agreed with this, but it seemed likely he was aware of what was going on. He was expected to fall in line.

Could I do that?

“Don’t tell anyone, okay? A slip like that could cost me my job,” Aspen warned.

“Of course. It’s already forgotten.”

Aspen smiled at me. “I miss being with you, away from all this. I miss our old problems.”

I laughed. “I know what you mean. Sneaking out of my window was so much better than sneaking around a palace.”

“And scrounging to find a penny for you was better than having nothing to give you at all.” He tapped on the glass jar by my bed, the one that used to hold hundreds of pennies that he’d given me for singing to him in the tree house back home, payment that he thought I deserved. “I had no idea you’d saved them all until the day before you left.”

“Of course I did! When you were away, they were all I had to hold on to. Sometimes I used to pour them over my hand on the bed, just to scoop them up again. It was nice to have something you touched.” Our eyes met, and everything else felt distant for the moment. It was comforting finding myself in that bubble again, the place that Aspen and I had created for ourselves years ago. “What did you do with all of them?”

I had been so mad at him when I left, I’d given them back. All except for the one that stuck to the bottom of the jar.

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