The whole thing just felt tired; it was the same problem I’d been facing since Aspen walked through the doorway of the palace. And I ached from it, from feeling so torn, so confused.
I’d taken to walking around the palace during the afternoons. With the gardens off-limits, the Women’s Room day after day was too confining.
It was while I was walking that I felt the shift. As if some unseen trigger had set off everyone in the palace. The guards stood a bit stiller, and the maids walked a bit faster. Even I felt strange, like I wasn’t quite so welcome here as I was only moments ago. Before I knew what it was I was feeling, the king rounded the corner, a small entourage behind him.
Then it all made perfect sense. His absence made the palace warmer, and now that he was home, we were all subject to his whims again. No wonder the Northern rebels were excited about Maxon.
I curtsied as the king approached. While he walked, he put up a hand, and the men behind him paused as he came close, leaving us with a small bubble of space in which to speak.
“Lady America. I see you’re still here,” he said, his smile and his words at odds with each other.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“And how have you been in my absence?”
I smiled. “Silent.”
“That’s a good girl.” He started to walk away but then remembered something and came back. “It was brought to my attention that of the girls left, you’re the only one still receiving money for your participation. Elise gave hers up voluntarily almost immediately after the payments were stopped for the Twos and Threes.”
That didn’t surprise me. Elise was a Four, but her family owned high-end hotels. They weren’t hurting for money the way the shopkeepers back in Carolina were.
“I think that should end,” he announced, snapping me back into the moment.
My face fell.
“Unless, of course, you’re here for a payout and not because you love my son.” His eyes burned into me, daring me to challenge his decision.
“You’re right,” I said, hating the way the words felt in my mouth. “It’s only fair.”
I could see he was disappointed not to get more of a fight. “I’ll see to it immediately.”
He walked away, and I stood there, trying not to feel sorry for myself. Really, it was fair. How did it look that I was the only one getting checks? It would all end eventually anyway. Sighing, I headed toward my room. The least I could do was write home and warn them that the money wouldn’t be coming anymore.
I opened my door, and, for the first time, I was completely ignored by my maids. Anne, Mary, and Lucy were in the back corner, hovering over a dress that they appeared to be working on, bickering about their progress.
“Lucy, you said you were going to finish this hem last night,” Anne said. “You left early to do it.”
“I know, I know. I got sidetracked. I can do it now.” Her eyes were pleading. Lucy was already a bit sensitive, and I knew Anne’s rigid manner sometimes got to her.
“You’ve been getting sidetracked an awful lot these last few days,” Anne commented.
Mary held out her hands. “Calm down. Give me the dress before you mess it up.”
“I’m sorry,” Lucy said. “Just let me take it now, and I’ll get it done.”
“What’s going on with you?” Anne demanded. “You’ve been acting so funny.”
Lucy looked up at her, eyes frozen. Whatever her secret was, she looked terrified to share it.
I cleared my throat.
They whipped their heads in my direction, all curtsying in turn.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” I said as I walked toward them, “but I highly doubt the queen’s maids argue like that. Besides, we’re wasting time if there’s work to be done.”
Anne, still angry, pointed her finger at Lucy. “But she—”
I silenced her with a small gesture of my hand, a bit surprised that it worked so easily.
“No arguing. Lucy, why don’t you take that down to the workroom to finish, and we can all get some room to think.”
Lucy happily scooped up the fabric, so grateful for the means to escape that she practically ran from the room. Anne watched her go, a full pout on her face. Mary looked worried but dutifully went to work without another word.
It took all of two minutes for me to realize that the mood in my room was too dreary for me to focus. I grabbed some paper and a pen and headed back downstairs. I wondered if I’d done the right thing, sparing Lucy. Maybe they’d all be fine if I’d let them air out whatever was happening. Perhaps my meddling would shake their resolve in helping me. I’d never really bossed them around like that before.
I paused outside the Women’s Room. That didn’t feel like the right place either. I moved down the main hallway, finding a little nook with a bench. That seemed nice. I ran into the library and picked up a book to lean on and went back to the nook, finding myself practically hidden by the large plant beside the bench. The wide window looked into the garden, and, for a minute, the palace didn’t seem so small. I watched birds fly outside the window and tried to form the kindest way to tell my parents there wouldn’t be any more checks.
“Maxon, can’t we go on a real date? Somewhere outside the palace?” I recognized Kriss’s voice immediately. Hmm. The Women’s Room might not have been so full after all.
I could hear the smile in his voice as he answered. “I wish we could, sweetheart, but even if things were calm, that would be difficult.”
“I want to see you somewhere where you’re not the prince,” she whined lovingly.
“Ah, but I’m the prince everywhere.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do. I’m sorry I can’t give that to you, really. I think it would be nice to see you somewhere where you weren’t an Elite. But this is the life I live.”
His voice grew a little sad.
“Would you regret it?” he asked. “For the rest of your life, it would be like this. Beautiful walls, but walls all the same. My mother scarcely leaves the palace more than once or twice a year.” Through the thick leaves of the planted shrub, I watched as they passed me, completely unaware. “And if you think the public is intrusive now, it would be much worse when you’re the only girl they’re watching. I know your feelings for me run deep. I feel it every day. But what about the life that comes along with me? Do you want that?”
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