Toward the back of the room a stage was set up with stairs across the front of it, and three massive thrones were centered on the platform. To our right were four small stages with lone seats on them, looking beautiful but also very isolating. Those alone were enough to decorate the room, and I couldn’t imagine how it would look once everything was in place.
“Your Majesty,” Silvia said with a curtsy, and we all followed suit. The queen walked over to us, her face lit up with a smile.
“Hello, ladies,” she said. “Silvia, how far have you gotten?”
“Not far at all, Majesty.”
“Excellent. Ladies, let me enlighten you about your next task in the Selection process.” She motioned for us to follow her inside the Great Room. “The Convicting is meant to be a symbol of your submission to the law. One of you will become the new princess, and someday queen. The law is how we live, and it will be your duty not only to live by it but to uphold it. And so,” she said, stopping and facing us, “you will start with the Convicting.
“A man who has committed a crime, most likely a theft, will be brought in. These are cases that are worthy of a whipping, but these men will spend time in jail instead. And you will send them there.”
The queen smiled at our bewildered expressions. “I know it sounds harsh, but it’s not. These men have each committed a crime, and instead of facing the difficulties of a physical punishment, they’ll be paying their debts with time. You’ve seen firsthand how painful a caning can be. Being whipped isn’t much better. You’re doing them a favor,” she said encouragingly.
I still didn’t feel good about it.
Those who stole were penniless. Twos and Threes who broke laws paid their way out of punishment with money. The poor paid their way in flesh or time. I remembered Jemmy, Aspen’s younger brother, leaning over a block while men took a handful of food out of his back in lashes. While I hated that, it was better than locking him away. The Legers needed him to work, young as he was, and it seemed that once you got above a Five, people forgot that.
Silvia and Queen Amberly walked us through the ceremony over and over until our lines were perfect. I tried to deliver mine with the grace that Elise or Kriss had, but they came out sounding flat every time.
I did not want to put a man in jail.
When we were dismissed, the other girls headed to the door together, but I went to the queen. She was finishing a conversation with Silvia. I should have used that time to come up with something more eloquent. Instead, when Silvia walked away and the queen addressed me, I just blurted it out.
“Please don’t make me do this,” I pleaded.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I can submit to the law, I swear. It’s not that I’m trying to be difficult, but I can’t put a man in jail. He didn’t do anything to me.”
Her expression was kind as she reached to touch my face. “But he did, dear girl. If you became the princess, you’d be the embodiment of the law. When someone breaks the smallest rule, they stab you. The only way to keep from bleeding out is to take a stand against those who have already harmed you so that others will not be so brazen.”
“But I’m not the princess!” I implored. “No one’s hurting me.”
She smiled and lowered her head to mine, whispering, “You’re not the princess today, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was a temporary issue.”
Queen Amberly stepped back and winked.
I sighed, getting desperate. “Bring me someone else. Not some petty thief who probably only stole because they were hungry.” Her face stiffened. “I’m not suggesting it’s okay to steal. I know it’s not. But bring me someone who did something really bad. Bring me the person who killed the guard that got Maxon and me into a safe room the last time the rebels came. That person should be locked up forever. And I’ll say that happily. But I can’t do this to some hungry Seven. I can’t.”
I could see she wanted to be gentle with me, but I could also see she wouldn’t budge on this. “Allow me to be very blunt with you, Lady America. Of all the girls, you need to do this the most. People have seen you run to stop a caning, suggest undoing the castes on national television, and encourage people to fight when their lives are in serious danger.” Her kind face was serious. “I’m not saying those were bad things, but they have given most people the impression that you run wild.”
I fidgeted with my hands, knowing this was going to end with me doing the Convicting no matter what I said.
“If you want to stay, if you care about Maxon”—she paused, giving me a moment to consider—“then you need to do this. You need to show you have the ability to be obedient.”
“I do. I just don’t want to put someone in jail. That’s not a princess’s job. Magistrates do that.”
Queen Amberly patted my shoulder. “You can do it. And you will. If you want Maxon at all, you need to be perfect. I’m sure you understand that there’s opposition where you’re concerned.”
“Then do it.”
She walked away, leaving me alone in the Great Room. I went up to my seat, practically a throne itself, and mumbled the lines again. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal. People broke laws and went to jail all the time. It was one person out of thousands. And I needed to be perfect.
Perfect was my only option.
THE DAY OF THE CONVICTING I was a bundle of nerves. I was afraid I’d trip, or forget what to say. Even worse, I was afraid I’d fail. The one thing I didn’t have to worry about was my clothes. My maids had to confer with the head dresser to make something suitable for me, though I wouldn’t use a word as plain as suitable to describe it.
Following again on tradition, the dresses were all white and gold. Mine had a high waist and no strap on the left but did have a small, off-the-shoulder strap on the right, covering my scar and looking really lovely at the same time. The top was snug, but the skirt was billowing, kissing the floor with scallops of golden lace. It came together with pleats in the back that fell behind me in a short train. When I looked at myself in the mirror, it was the first time I actually thought I looked like a princess.
Anne grabbed the olive branch I was meant to carry and situated it in my arm. We were supposed to place the branches at the foot of the king as a sign of peace toward our leader and our willingness to yield to the law.
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