Finally the daunting task was nearly over. “Perhaps our country is flawed, but we cannot deny its strength. My fear is that, without change, that strength will become stagnate. And I love our country too much to let that happen. I hope too much to let that happen.”
I swallowed, grateful that at least it was over now. “Thank you for your time,” I said, and turned slightly toward the royal family.
It was bad. Maxon’s face was stony again, like the way he’d looked when Marlee was caned. The queen averted her eyes, looking disappointed. The king, however, stared me down.
Without so much as a blink, he focused in on me. “And how do you suggest we eliminate the castes?” he challenged. “Just suddenly take them all away?”
“Oh … I don’t know.”
“And you don’t think that would cause riots? Complete mayhem? Allow for rebels to take advantage of public confusion?”
I hadn’t thought this part through. All I could process was how unfair it all was.
“I think the creation caused a decent amount of confusion, and we managed that. In fact”—I reached to my pile of books—“I have a description here.”
I started looking for the right page in Gregory’s diary.
“Are we off?” he bellowed.
“Yes, Majesty,” someone called.
I looked up and saw that all the lights that usually indicated that the cameras were on had gone dim. In some gesture I’d missed, the king had shut down the Report.
The king stood. “Point them to the ground.” Each camera was aimed to the floor.
He stormed over to me and ripped the diary from my hands.
“Where did you get this?” he yelled.
“Father, stop!” Maxon jogged up nervously.
“Where did she get this? Answer me!”
Maxon confessed. “From me. We were looking up what Halloween was. He wrote about it in the diaries, and I thought she’d like to read more.”
“You idiot,” the king spat. “I knew I should have made you read these sooner. You’re completely lost. You have no clue of the duty you have!”
Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.
“She leaves tonight,” King Clarkson ordered. “I’ve had enough of her.”
I tried to shrink down, distance myself from the king as much as I could without being obvious. I tried not to even breathe too loudly. I turned my head toward the girls, for some reason focusing on Celeste. I’d expected her to be smiling, but she was nervous. The king had never been like this.
“You can’t send her home. That’s my choice, and I say she stays,” Maxon responded calmly.
“Maxon Calix Schreave, I am the king of Illéa, and I say—”
“Could you stop being the king for five minutes and just be my father?” Maxon yelled. “This is my choice. You got to make yours, and I want to make mine. No one else is leaving without my say so!”
I saw Natalie lean in to Elise. They both looked like they were shaking.
“Amberly, take this back to where it belongs,” he said, shoving the book in her hand. She stood there, nodding her head but not moving. “Maxon, I need to see you in my office.”
I watched Maxon; and maybe I only imagined it, but it looked like panic flickered briefly behind his eyes.
“Or,” the king offered, “I could simply talk to her.” He gestured over to me.
“No,” Maxon said quickly, holding up a hand in protest. “That won’t be necessary. Ladies,” he added, turning to us, “why don’t you all head upstairs? We’ll have dinner sent to you tonight.” He paused. “America, maybe you should go ahead and collect your things. Just in case.”
The king smiled, an eerie action after his recent explosion. “Excellent idea. After you, son.”
I looked at Maxon, who seemed defeated. I felt ashamed. Maxon opened his mouth to say something, but in the end he shook his head and walked away.
Kriss was wringing her hands, looking after Maxon. I couldn’t blame her. Something about all of this seemed menacing.
“Clarkson?” Queen Amberly said quietly. “What about the other matter?”
“What?” he asked in irritation.
“The news?” she reminded him.
“Oh, yes.” He walked back toward us. I was close enough that I decided to retreat into my chair, afraid of being out there alone again. King Clarkson’s voice was steady and calm. “Natalie, we didn’t want to tell you before the Report, but we’ve received some bad news.”
“Bad news?” she asked, fiddling with her necklace, already too anxious.
The king came closer. “Yes. I’m very sorry for your loss, but it appears the rebels took your sister this morning.”
“What?” she whispered.
“Her remains were found this afternoon. We’re sorry.” To his credit, there was something close to sympathy in his voice, though it sounded more like training than genuine emotion.
He quickly returned to Maxon, escorting him forcefully out the door as Natalie broke into an ear-shattering scream. The queen rushed over to her, smoothing her hair and trying to calm her down. Celeste, never too sisterly, quietly left the room, with an overwhelmed Elise close behind. Kriss stayed and tried to comfort Natalie, but once it was clear that she couldn’t do much, she left as well. The queen told Natalie there would be guards with her parents for good measure and that she would be able to leave for the funeral if she wanted to, holding on to her the whole time.
Everything had gotten so dark so quickly, I found myself frozen in my seat.
When the hand appeared in front of my face, I was so startled, I shied away.
“I won’t hurt you,” Gavril said. “Just want to help you up.” His lapel pin shimmered, reflecting the light.
I gave him my hand, surprised by how shaky my legs were.
“He must love you very much,” Gavril said once I had my footing.
I couldn’t look at him. “What makes you say that?”
Gavril sighed. “I’ve known Maxon since he was a child. He’s never stood up to his father like that.”
Gavril walked away then, talking to the crew about keeping all that they had heard tonight quiet.
I went to Natalie. It wasn’t like I knew everything about her, but I was sure she loved her sister the way I loved May; and I couldn’t imagine the ache she must be feeling.
“Natalie, I’m so sorry,” I whispered. She nodded. That was the most she could manage.
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