As I reached the corner to turn toward the Women’s Room, a familiar face reminded me that I had even bigger plans to think about right now. I’d told Maxon that I’d find us a way to get to August, and I felt certain our only shot was coming my way.
Aspen walked down the hall, seeming even bigger and taller than the last time I’d seen him.
I looked around, seeing if we were alone. There were a few guards down the hall just past him, but they were out of earshot.
“Hey,” I said, beckoning him over. I bit my lip, hoping that Aspen would be as able as I thought he was. “I need your help.”
Without batting an eye, he responded. “Anything.”
I WAS RIGHT. ASPEN HAD every corner of the palace memorized, and he knew exactly how to get us out of it.
“Are you quite sure about this?” Maxon asked as we got dressed in my room the following evening.
“We need to know what’s going on. I have no doubt we’ll be safe,” I assured him.
We spoke through the cracked-open bathroom door as he dropped the pieces of his suit to the floor and climbed into the denim and cotton a Six would wear. Aspen’s clothes were going to be a bit big on Maxon, but they would do. Thankfully, Aspen had found a smaller guard to borrow clothes from for me, but even then I had to roll up the hem of the pants several times to find my feet.
“You seem to trust this guard a lot,” Maxon commented, and I couldn’t figure out the tone he was using. Perhaps he was anxious.
“My maids say he’s one of the best you have. And he got me to the safe room that time the Southerners came, when everyone was running late. He always looks ready to go, even when things are quiet. I have a good feeling about him. Trust me.”
I heard the rustling of clothes as he continued. “How did you know he could get us out of the palace?”
“I didn’t. I just asked.”
“And he simply told you?” Maxon replied, astonished.
“Well, I told him it was for you, of course.”
He made a sound, something like a sigh. “I still don’t think you should come.”
“I’m going, Maxon. Are you done yet?”
“Yes. I need to get my shoes on.”
I opened the door, and after a quick once-over, Maxon started laughing. “I’m sorry. I’m used to seeing you in gowns.”
“You look a bit different when you’re not in a suit yourself.” And he did, but not in any way that was close to comical. Even though Aspen’s clothes were too big, Maxon looked good in plain old denim. The shirt had short sleeves, and I got a peek at those strong arms I’d only ever seen the one time in the safe room.
“These pants are far too heavy. Why are you so partial to jeans?” he asked, remembering my request from my very first day in the palace.
I shrugged. “I just like them.”
He smiled at me, shaking his head a bit. He walked over to my closet, not asking if it was all right to open it. “We need something to hold your pants up or it’s going to be a very scandalous evening. Well, more so than it already is.”
Maxon pulled out a dark-red sash and returned to me with it, lacing it through my belt loops.
I couldn’t say why, but this felt meaningful. My heart pounded, and for a minute I wondered if he could hear it shouting how much I loved him. If so, he ignored it in favor of the business at hand.
“Listen,” he said, making a little knot in the sash, “what we’re doing is very dangerous. If something happens, I want you to run. Don’t even try to get back to the palace. Find a family who will hide you through the night.”
Maxon stepped back and looked into my worried eyes. I tilted my head. “Right now, asking a family to hide me is almost as dangerous as facing the rebels. People might be upset that we girls aren’t leaving the competition.”
“If the article Celeste showed you is right, then people might be proud of you.”
I wanted to tell Maxon I disagreed, but a knock at the door interrupted us. He went over to answer it, and quickly Aspen and a second guard walked into my dimly lit room.
“Your Majesty,” Aspen said with a small bow. “Lady America has informed me that you need to get outside the palace walls.”
Maxon sighed deeply. “Yes. And I hear you’re the man to help me. Officer . . .” He looked for Aspen’s badge. “Leger.”
Aspen nodded. “It’s not very difficult, actually. The secrecy might be more of an issue than getting out in the first place.”
“Well, I have to assume there’s a reason for you to be doing this at night, without the king’s knowledge. If we’re specifically asked,” Aspen said, glancing over to the other guard, “I don’t think we could lie to him.”
“And I wouldn’t ask you to. I’m hoping to be able to reveal this to my father soon enough, but, for tonight, discretion is imperative.”
“It shouldn’t be a problem.” Aspen hesitated. “I don’t think the lady should go.”
As if he’d won the argument, Maxon looked at me with a face that said See!
I stood as tall as I could manage. “I’m not just going to sit here. I’ve been chased by rebels once already, and I’m fine.”
“But those weren’t Southerners,” Maxon countered.
“I’m going,” I said. “And we’re wasting time.”
“To be clear, no one agrees with you.”
“To be clear, I don’t care.”
Sighing, Maxon pulled the knit hat over his hair. “So what do we need to do?”
“The plan is pretty simple,” Aspen said decisively. “Twice a week, a truck is sent out for groceries. Sometimes the kitchen staff simply falls short of the needs for the week, so the truck goes out again to pick up whatever’s lacking. Usually people from the kitchen go, along with a few guards.”
“And no one will suspect?” I asked.
Aspen shook his head. “These runs are often done at night. If the cook says we need more eggs for breakfast, well, we’d better go before sunup.”
Maxon ran over to his suit pants, rummaging through his pocket. “I did manage to get a note out to August. He said we should meet him at this address.” Maxon handed the paper to Aspen, who shared the note with the other guard.
“You know where this is?” Aspen asked.
The guard—a dark-skinned young man whose name tag I finally noticed said AVERY—nodded. “Not the best part of town, but close enough to the food storage area that we shouldn’t raise any alarm.”
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