“You look beautiful, miss,” Lucy said. I couldn’t help but notice how calm and confident she seemed lately. I smiled.
“Thank you. I wish you were all going to be there,” I said.
“Me, too.” Mary sighed.
Ever proper, Anne turned the focus back in my direction. “Don’t you worry, miss; you’ll do perfectly. And we’ll be watching with the other maids.”
“You will?” That was encouraging, even though they wouldn’t be downstairs.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Lucy assured me.
A sharp knocking snapped us from our conversation. Mary opened the door, and I was happy to see it was Aspen.
“I’m here to escort you to the Convicting, Lady America,” he said.
Lucy piped up. “What do you think of our handiwork, Officer Leger?”
He smiled slyly. “You’ve outdone yourselves.”
Lucy giggled, and Anne quietly shushed her as she made final adjustments to my hair. Now that I knew about Anne’s feelings for Aspen, it was obvious how perfect she tried to be in front of him.
I took a deep breath, remembering the masses waiting for me downstairs.
“Ready?” he asked.
I nodded, readjusted my branch, and went to the door, peeking back just once to see my maids’ happy faces. I looped my arm through Aspen’s and headed with him down the hall.
“How have you been?” I asked casually.
“I can’t believe you’re going through with this,” he shot back.
I swallowed, immediately nervous again. “I don’t have a choice.”
“You always have a choice, Mer.”
“Aspen, you know I don’t like this. But in the end, it’s only one person. And he’s guilty.”
“Just like the rebel sympathizers that the king demoted a caste. Just like Marlee and Carter.” I didn’t have to look up to see how disgusted he was.
“That was different,” I mumbled, not sounding convincing at all.
Aspen stopped dead in his tracks and forced me to look at him. “It’s never different with him.”
His tone was so serious. Aspen knew more than most people did, because he’d stood guard during meetings or delivered orders himself. He was holding a secret right now.
“Are they thieves at all?” I asked quietly as we continued to move.
“Yes, but nothing deserving the years of jail they’ll receive today. And it’s going to be a pretty loud message to their friends.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re people who’ve gotten in his way, Mer. Rebel sympathizers, men a bit too outspoken about what a tyrant he is. This is being broadcast everywhere. The people they’ve tried to sway will see this, will warn others about what happens to those who attempt to go against the king. This is deliberate.”
I whipped my arm from his, hissing my words at him. “You’ve been here almost as long as I have. In all that time, did you ever not deliver one of the sentences you were ordered to?”
He considered. “No, but—”
“Then don’t judge me. If he’s not above putting his enemies in prison without real cause, what do you think he’ll do to me? He hates me!”
Aspen’s eyes were pleading. “Mer, I know it’s scary, but you’ve—”
I put up my hand. “Do your job. Take me downstairs.”
He swallowed once, turned forward, and put his arm out for me. I gripped it, and we walked on in silence.
Halfway down the stairs, as the buzz of conversation started to reach us, he spoke up again.
“I always wondered if they’d change you.”
I didn’t respond. What could I say anyway?
In the grand foyer, the other girls were staring into the distance, quietly moving their lips as they recited their lines. I detached myself from Aspen and moved to join them.
Elise had talked about her dress so much, I felt as if I’d already seen it. Gold and cream were woven together in a slim, sleeveless design, and her golden gloves looked dramatic. Her gifts from Maxon were deep, dark gems, and they made her slick hair and dark eyes pop.
Kriss once again managed to be the embodiment of all things royal, and it was like she wasn’t even trying. Her dress was fitted through the waist and burst out like a flower blossoming toward the ground. And Maxon’s necklace and earrings for her were iridescent, gently rounded, and perfect. It did, for a moment, make me sad that mine were so simple.
Celeste’s dress . . . well, it would certainly be unforgettable. Her neckline was plunging, and it seemed a little inappropriate for the occasion. She caught me staring, and pushed her lips together and shook her shoulders at me.
I laughed once and put my hand to my forehead, feeling a little sick. I inhaled deeply, trying to calm myself.
Celeste met me halfway, swinging her branch with each step. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just not feeling well, I guess.”
“Do. Not. Puke,” she ordered. “Especially not on me.”
“I won’t throw up,” I assured her.
“Who threw up?” Kriss asked, joining the conversation; and Elise followed behind her.
“No one,” I said. “I’m just tired or something.”
“It won’t last too long,” Kriss reassured me.
It’ll last forever, I thought. I looked at each of their faces. They’d come to my side just now. Wouldn’t I have done the same for them? Maybe . . .
“Do any of you actually feel good about doing this?” I asked.
They all looked at one another or the floor, but no one answered.
“Then let’s not do it,” I urged.
“Not do it?” Kriss questioned. “America, it’s tradition. We have to.”
“No we don’t. Not if we all decide not to.”
“What would we do? Refuse to walk in there?” Celeste asked.
“That’s one option,” I offered.
“You want us to sit in there and do nothing?” Elise sounded appalled.
“I hadn’t thought it through. I just know I don’t think this is a good idea.”
I could see that Kriss was genuinely considering it.
“It’s a trick!” Elise accused.
“What?” How could she come to that conclusion?
“She’s going last. If we all do nothing and then she follows through, she looks obedient while the rest of us look like idiots.” Elise shook her branch at me as she spoke.
“America?” Kriss looked at me, disappointment filling her eyes.
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