“No, I swear; that’s not what I was going to do!”
“Ladies!” We all turned toward Silvia’s correcting tone. “I understand that you’re nervous, but that’s no reason to shout.”
Her gaze hit each of us, and we all exchanged looks as they decided whether to go in on this with me.
“All right,” Silvia began. “Elise, you’ll be first, just as we practiced. Celeste and Kriss, you will follow; and America, you’ll be last. One at a time, carry your branch up the red carpet and place it at the feet of the king. Then come back and take your seat. The king will say a few words, and the ceremony will start.”
She stepped over to what looked like a small box on a stand and turned it around to show a television monitor with a view of everything happening inside the Great Room. It was magnificent. Red carpeting divided the room into the seats for the press and guests, and the four seats delegated for us. In the back of the space, the thrones sat, waiting for the royal family.
As we watched, the side door to the Great Room opened, and the king, the queen, and Maxon came in to applause and trumpeting fanfare. Once they were seated, a slower, more dignified melody started playing.
“There it is. Now, head high,” Silvia instructed. Elise gave me a pointed look and strode around the corner.
The music was dotted by the sound of hundreds of cameras taking her picture. It made for a strange rhythm section. She did great, though, as we could all see on the monitor Silvia was watching. Celeste followed, straightening her hair before she left. Kriss’s smile looked absolutely genuine and natural as she paraded down the aisle.
“America,” Silvia whispered. “Your turn.”
I tried to wipe the worry off my face and focus on positive things, but I realized there weren’t any. I was about to kill a part of myself by punishing someone beyond what I thought was deserved and give the king something he wanted in a neat, short stroke.
The cameras clicked, the bulbs flashed, and people whispered their praises to one another as I walked quietly toward the royal family. I made eye contact with Maxon, who was the picture of calm. Was that his years of discipline or true happiness coming through? His face was reassuring, but I was certain he could see the anxiety in my gaze. I saw my open spot for the olive branch and curtsied before placing my offering at the king’s feet, deliberately looking at anything in the room other than him.
As soon as I was in my place, the music came to a perfectly calculated stop. King Clarkson walked forward, standing on the edge of his stage, the circle of branches at his feet.
“Ladies and gentlemen of Illéa, today the final four beautiful young women of the Selection come before us all to present themselves to the law. Our great laws are what hold our nation together, the foundation for the peace we’ve so long enjoyed.”
Peace? I thought. Are you kidding?
“One of these young ladies will stand before you soon, no longer a commoner, but a princess. And as a member of the royal family, it will be her job to hold on to what is right, not for her own benefit, but for yours.”
. . . and how am I doing that now?
“Please join me in applauding their humility in their submission to the law and their bravery in upholding it.”
The king started clapping, and the room joined him. The applause continued as he stepped away, and I glanced down the row of girls. The only face I could really see was Kriss’s. She shrugged and gave me a half smile before facing forward again and raising herself to her full height.
A guard by the door trumpeted into the room. “We call into the presence of His Majesty King Clarkson, Her Majesty Queen Amberly, and His Royal Highness Prince Maxon the criminal Jacob Digger.”
Slowly, no doubt embarrassed by the spectacle, Jacob walked into the Great Room. His wrists were in handcuffs, and he flinched at the cameras’ lights and went skittishly to bow in front of Elise. I couldn’t see her very well without leaning too far forward, so I turned slightly and listened as she spoke the lines we all would in turn.
“Jacob, what is your crime?” she asked. She projected her voice really well, much better than usual.
“Theft, my lady,” he answered meekly.
“And how long is your sentence?”
“Twelve years, my lady.”
Slowly, not drawing attention to herself, Kriss looked my way. With hardly a change in her expression, she questioned what was happening. I nodded.
Small crimes of theft, we’d been told. If that was true, then this man would have been beaten in his town square, or, if he had been put in prison, it would have been for two or three years at the most. In two words, Jacob confirmed all my fears.
Subtly, I turned my eyes toward the king. There was no mistaking his pleasure. Whoever this man was, he wasn’t just some thief. The king was delighting in his downfall.
Elise stood and walked down to Jacob, placing her hand on his shoulder. He hadn’t truly looked her in the eye until that moment.
“Go, faithful subject, and pay your debt to the king.” Her voice rang out in the quiet of the room.
Jacob nodded his head. He looked at the king, and I could see he wanted to do something. He wanted to fight or make an accusation, but he didn’t. No doubt someone else would pay for any mistakes he made today. Jacob stood and exited the room as the audience applauded.
The next man had difficulty moving. As he turned to make his way down the carpet toward Celeste, he doubled over and fell. A collective gasp came from the room, but before he could garner too much sympathy, two guards came and walked him to Celeste. To her credit, her voice wasn’t as sure as it usually was as she ordered the man to pay his debt.
Kriss looked as steady as ever until her criminal got closer. He was younger, probably around our age, and his steps were steady, almost determined. When he turned up the carpet to Kriss, I saw a tattoo on his neck. It looked like a cross, though it seemed as if whoever had done it messed up a bit.
Kriss delivered her lines well. Anyone who didn’t know her wouldn’t be able to read the hint of regret in her voice. The room applauded, and she sat back down, her smile only slightly less bright than it usually was.
The guard yelled out the name Adam Carver, and I realized it was my turn. Adam, Adam, Adam. I needed to remember his name. Because I had to do this now, right? The other girls had. Maxon might forgive me if I failed, and the king would never like me either way; but I would certainly lose the queen, and that backed me into a corner. If I wanted a chance at all, I needed to deliver.
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