“Thank goodness. Well, I’ll see you later.” She turned to Maxon. “And I’ll see you tonight.”
Kriss skipped down the hall, giddier than I’d ever seen her. I guess if I saw the guy I loved put me above his former favorite, I’d feel like skipping, too.
“I know you don’t like that, but I need her. If you let me down, she’s my best bet.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said with a shrug. “I won’t let you down.”
I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and headed upstairs without looking back. A few hours ago, I thought I’d lost Maxon for good; and now that I knew what he meant to me, I was going to fight for him. The other girls wouldn’t know what hit them.
As I made my way up the grand stairwell, I felt encouraged. I probably should have been more worried about the challenge that was ahead of me, but all I could think of was how I’d eventually overcome it.
Perhaps the king sensed my joy, or maybe he was just waiting; but as I stepped onto the second floor, he was there, halfway down the hall.
He approached me slowly, a clear display of control. When he stopped in front of me, I curtsied.
“Your Majesty,” I said.
“Lady America. It seems you’re still with us.”
“So it does.”
A pack of guards passed us, bowing as they did so. “Let’s talk business,” he said sternly. “What do you think of my wife?”
I pursed my forehead, surprised at the direction of the conversation. Still, I answered honestly. “I think the queen is amazing. I don’t know enough words to say how wonderful I think she is.”
He nodded. “She’s a rare woman. Beautiful, obviously, and also humble. Timid, but not to the point of being cowardly. Obedient, good-humored, an excellent conversationalist. It seems that even though she was born into poverty, she was meant to be a queen.”
He paused and looked at me, taking in the clear admiration on my face. “The same cannot be said of you.”
I tried to stay calm as he continued. “Your looks are average. Red hair, a bit pale, and I suppose a decent figure; but you’re nothing next to Celeste. As far as your temper …” He inhaled sharply. “You’re rude, jocular; and the one time you do something serious, it tears at the fabric of our nation. Completely thoughtless. And that’s not even counting your poor posture and gait. Kriss is far lovelier and more agreeable.”
I pushed my lips together, willing myself not to cry. I reminded myself that I already knew all this.
“And, of course, there is absolutely no political advantage to having you in the family. Your caste isn’t low enough to be inspiring, and your connections are nonexistent. Elise, however, was very helpful with our trip to New Asia.”
I wondered how true that could be if they never actually made contact with her family. Maybe there was something going on that I simply didn’t know about. Or maybe all of this was being exaggerated to make me feel worthless. If that was the goal, he’d done an excellent job.
His cold eyes focused on mine. “What are you doing here?”
I swallowed. “I suppose you would have to ask Maxon.”
“I’m asking you.”
“He wants me here,” I said firmly. “And I want to be here. As long as both of those things are true, I’m staying.”
The king grinned. “You’re what, sixteen? Seventeen?”
“I suspect you don’t know very much about men, which you shouldn’t if you’re here. Let me say, they can be very fickle. You might not want to hold on to your affection for him so tightly when a single moment could take his heart away for good.”
I squinted, unsure of what he meant.
“I have eyes all over this palace. I know there are girls offering him more than you’d dream. Do you think someone as plain as you could stand a chance next to them?”
Girls? As in plural? Was he saying that more than what I’d seen in the hall between Maxon and Celeste was happening? Were our hours of kisses last night tame compared to everything else he was experiencing?
Maxon had said he wanted to be honest with me. Was he keeping this a secret?
I had to decide in my heart that I trusted Maxon.
“If that’s true, then Maxon will let me go in his own time, and you have nothing to worry about.”
“But I do!” he bellowed, then dropped his voice. “If by some act of stupidity, Maxon actually chooses you, your little stunts would cost us everything. Decades, generations of work gone because you thought you were being a hero!”
He got in my face to the point that I actually took a step back, but he came closer, leaving very little space between us. His voice was low and harsh, and far more frightening than when he was yelling.
“You’re going to need to learn to hold your tongue. If not, you and I will be enemies. Trust me when I say that you do not want to be my enemy.”
His angry finger was pointing into my cheek. He could rip me to shreds right now. Even if there was someone nearby, what would they do? No one was going to protect me from the king.
I tried to sound calm. “I understand.”
“Excellent,” he said, suddenly turning cheerful. “Then I’ll leave you to settle back in. Good afternoon.”
I stood there, only realizing once he left that I was shaking. When he said to keep my mouth shut, I assumed that meant not even thinking of mentioning this to Maxon. So, for now I wouldn’t. I was betting this was a test to see how far he could push me. I willed myself to be unbreakable.
As I thought it, something in me changed. I was nervous, yes, but I was also angry.
Who was this man to order me around? Yes, he was king; but, really, he was just a tyrant. Somehow he’d convinced himself that by keeping everyone around him oppressed and quiet, he was doing us all a favor. How was it a blessing to be forced to live in a corner of society? How was it good that there were limits for everyone in Illéa but him?
I thought of Maxon sneaking Marlee into the depths of the kitchens. Even if I wasn’t here for very long, I knew he would do a better job than his father. Maxon at least had the capacity for compassion.
I continued to breathe slowly, and once I felt composed, I carried on.
I walked into my room and scurried over to press the button that sent for my maids. Faster than I could have imagined, Anne, Mary, and Lucy came running breathlessly into my room.
“My lady?” Anne said. “Is something wrong?”
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