“Are you okay, America?” Maxon asked.
“Yes.” My ability to look him in the eye had disappeared again.
“You should go get ready for the day,” he commented. “The guards have been sworn to secrecy, and I’d appreciate the same from you.”
He seemed displeased with my coolness, but how else was I supposed to act right now?
“Mr. Illéa, it was a pleasure. We’ll talk again soon.” Maxon held out his hand. August took it easily.
“If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask. We truly are on your side, Your Majesty.”
“Georgia, let’s go. Some of these guards look a little too trigger-happy.”
She chuckled. “See you around, America.”
I nodded, sure I’d never see her again and sad because of it. She walked past Maxon and slid her hand into August’s. With a guard in tow, they walked out the gaping doors of the palace, leaving Maxon and me alone in the foyer.
His eyes rose to mine. I mumbled something and pointed upstairs, moving as I did so. His quick objection to choosing me only drove home the pain of his words yesterday in the library. I thought after the safe room there was some kind of understanding between us. But it seemed as if everything had gotten even more muddled than it had been when I was still trying to decide how much I liked Maxon in the first place.
I didn’t know what this meant for us. Or if there was still an us worth worrying about.
FOR AS FAST AS I was at getting to my room, Aspen was faster. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Aspen knew the palace so well, this was probably nothing to him now.
“Hey,” I started, a little unsure of what to say.
Quickly, he wrapped his arms around me, then pulled away. “That’s my girl.”
I smiled. “Yeah?”
“You put ’em in their place, Mer.” Risking his life, Aspen ran a thumb down my cheek. “You do deserve to be happy. We all do.”
Smiling, he dropped his hand to move the bracelet Maxon had brought me from New Asia and reached underneath to touch the one I’d made of a button he’d given me. His eyes looked sad as he stared at our little memento.
“We’ll talk soon. Really talk. There’s a lot we need to work out.”
With that, Aspen moved down the hall. I sighed and put my head in my hands. Did he assume my rejection meant that I was pushing Maxon away for good? Did he think I wanted to rekindle things with him?
Then again, hadn’t I just pushed Maxon away?
Hadn’t I thought yesterday that Aspen needed to stay in my life?
So then why did everything feel awful?
The mood in the Women’s Room was dark. Queen Amberly sat writing her letters, and from time to time, I’d notice her peek up to take in the four of us. After yesterday, we were avoiding doing anything that might require us to interact with one another. Celeste had a pile of magazines and was stretched out on the couch. In a very wise move, Kriss had taken her journal and settled in to write, once again positioning herself near the queen. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Elise had gotten out a collection of drawing pencils and was working on something by the window. I was in a wide chair near the door, reading a book.
As it was, we didn’t even have to make eye contact.
I tried to concentrate on the words in front of me, but mostly I wondered who the Northern rebels wanted as princess if they couldn’t have me. Celeste was very popular, and it would be easy to get people to follow her. I wondered if they were aware of how manipulative she could be. If they knew things about me, maybe they did. Was there more to Celeste than I’d guessed?
Kriss was sweet, and according to that poll a while back, she was one of the people’s favorites. Her family didn’t have much sway, but she was more of a princess than the rest of us. She had that air about her. Maybe that was her big draw; she wasn’t perfect, but she was so lovable. There were days when even I wanted to follow Kriss.
The one I suspected the least was Elise. She’d admitted she didn’t love Maxon and that she was here because of duty. I genuinely thought that when she spoke of duty she meant to her family or to her New Asian roots, not to the Northern rebels. Besides that, she was so stoic and calm. There was nothing close to rebellious about her.
And that was why I was suddenly positive she was their favorite. She seemed to be trying the least to compete and had openly admitted her coolness toward Maxon. Maybe she didn’t have to try because, at the end of the day, she had a quiet army of supporters to put her under the crown anyway.
“That’s it,” the queen said suddenly. “All of you, come here.” She pushed her little table away and stood as we all walked over nervously.
“Something’s wrong. What is it?” she demanded.
We looked at one another, none of us wanting to explain. Finally too-perfect Kriss piped up.
“Your Majesty, we’ve just suddenly realized how intense this competition is. We’re a bit more aware of where we each stand with the prince, and it’s difficult to let it sink in and still want to chat right now.”
The queen nodded in understanding. “How often do you all think of Natalie?” she asked. Natalie had been gone barely a week. I thought of her nearly every day. I also thought of Marlee all the time, and some of the other girls would pop into my head at random as well.
“Always,” Elise said quietly. “She was so lighthearted.”
A smile came to her lips as she said this. I had always assumed that Natalie got on Elise’s nerves since she was so reserved and Natalie was so spacey. But maybe it was one of those opposites-attract kinds of friendships.
“Sometimes she would laugh over the littlest thing,” Kriss added. “It was contagious.”
“Exactly,” the queen said. “I’ve been where you are, and I know how difficult it is. You second guess the things you do; you second guess everything he does. You wonder over every conversation, trying to read into the breaths between sentences. It’s exhausting.”
It was as though I could see a weight lifting from everyone. Someone got us.
“But know this: as much tension as you feel with one another now, you will ache every time one of you leaves. No one will ever understand this experience like the other girls who have been through it, the Elite especially. You may fight, but that’s what sisters do. These girls,” she said, pointing to each of us, “will be the ones you call nearly every day for the first year, terrified of making a mistake and needing their support. When you have parties, these are the names you’ll put at the top of your guest lists, just under the names of your family members. Because that’s what you are now. You’ll never lose these relationships.”
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