As soon as we’d stopped, we started moving slowly in reverse. After a few seconds, the truck halted again and the engine cut off. Maxon switched positions, and it felt as if he was ducking low in a crouch, facing the door. I got into a similar position as one of Maxon’s hands come back to protect me, just in case.
The light of the streetlamp coming into the cabin was shocking, and I squinted against it as someone climbed into the back of the truck.
“We’re here,” said Officer Avery. “Follow me closely.”
Maxon stood and extended a hand to me. He let go to hop out of the truck, then reached up to help me down and immediately slid his hand back into mine. The thing I noticed right away was the large brick wall cornering us in the alley, followed by the stinging smell of something rotting. Aspen was standing in front of us, looking around intently, a gun held low in his hand.
He and Avery started moving toward the back entrance of the building, and we kept close to them. The walls surrounding us were high and reminded me of the apartment buildings back home with their fire escapes snaking down the sides, though this didn’t seem like an area where people lived. Aspen knocked on the grime-covered door and waited. It cracked open, a small chain there to protect whoever was inside. But I saw August’s eyes before the door was quickly shut again. The next time, it opened wide, and August ushered in all of us.
“Hurry,” he said quietly.
In the shadowy room was a younger boy and Georgia. I could see she was just as anxious as we were, and I couldn’t stop myself from bolting across the room to embrace her. She held me back, and I was happy to find I’d acquired an unexpected friend.
“Were you followed?” she asked.
Aspen shook his head. “No. But you should be quick.”
Georgia pulled me over to a small table, and Maxon sat next to me, with August and the younger boy beside him.
“How bad is it?” Maxon asked. “I have a feeling my father is keeping the truth from me.”
August gave a surprised shrug. “As best we can tell, the numbers are low. The Southerners are doing their typical destruction, but as far as the attacks on Twos specifically, it looks like it’s less than three hundred people.”
I gasped. Three hundred people? How could that be deemed low?
“America, it’s not that bad, all things considered,” Maxon comforted me, taking my hand again.
“He’s right,” Georgia said, her face warm. “It could have been so much worse.”
“It’s what I would expect from them: starting at the top and working their way down. We’re guessing they’ll pick it up before too long,” August interjected. “It looks like the attacks are still isolated on the Twos, but we’re watching and will alert you if or when that changes. We’ve got allies in every province, and they’re all trying to keep watch. But there’s only so much they can do without exposing themselves, and we all know what would happen if they did.”
Maxon nodded soberly. They’d die, of course.
“Should we cave?” Maxon suggested. I looked over at him, surprised.
“Trust us,” Georgia said. “They’re not going to get any better if you give in.”
“But there must be something more we can do,” Maxon insisted.
“You’ve already done something pretty empowering. Well, she did,” August said, dipping his head in my direction. “From what we’re able to tell, farmers are keeping their axes with them if they leave their fields, seamstresses walk the street with scissors clutched in their hands, and you’ll see Twos parading around with disarming spray. No matter the caste, everyone seems to have found some way to arm themselves, just in case. Your people don’t want to live in fear, and they’re not. They’re fighting back.”
I wanted to cry. For maybe the first time in all of the Selection, I’d done something right.
Maxon squeezed my hand, proud. “That’s a comfort,” he said. “Still, it doesn’t feel like enough.”
I nodded. I was so happy the public wasn’t rolling over, but there had to be a way to stop this once and for all.
August sighed. “We’ve wondered if there was a way for us to attack them. They’re not fighting with any sort of training—they just go after people. Our supporters are nervous about being identified, but they’re everywhere. And they might be the best source for a surprise assault.
“In many ways, we’re already an army of sorts, but we’re essentially unarmed. We can’t possibly beat the Southerners when the majority of our forces fight with bricks or rakes.”
“You want weapons?”
Maxon considered this. “There are things you can do that we simply can’t from the palace. But I don’t like the idea of sending any of my people on a mission to take out these savages. Certainly they would die.”
“That’s possible,” August confessed.
“There’s also the small issue of me not being able to guarantee you won’t use any weapons I give you against me eventually.”
August snorted. “I don’t know how to make you believe that we’re on your side, but it’s true. All we’ve ever wanted was to see an end to the castes, and we’re prepared to support you to that end. I have no intentions of ever harming you, Maxon, and I think you know that.” He and Maxon shared a very long look. “If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here now.”
“Your Majesty,” Aspen said. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but there are some of us who would like to see the Southern rebels gone as much as you would. I would personally volunteer to train anyone in something more along the lines of hand-to-hand combat.”
My chest swelled with pride. That was my Aspen, always trying to fix things.
Maxon nodded at him before turning back to August. “That’s something I’ll need time to think about. I might be able to provide training, but I couldn’t arm you. Even if I was sure of your intentions, if there’s any link between us, I can’t imagine what my father would do.”
Without thinking, Maxon flexed the muscles across his back. It seemed to me that maybe he’d done that a lot in the time I’d known him, only I hadn’t understood its meaning. Even now he was hyperaware of his secret.
“True. In fact, you should probably already be leaving. I’ll get word to you as soon as we have more information, but for now it looks good. Well, as good as we could hope for.” August passed Maxon a note. “We have one landline. You can call if there’s something urgent. Micah here, he’s on top of those things.”
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