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Adam was older, maybe my dad’s age, and there was something wrong with his leg. He didn’t fall, but it took him so long to reach me that it made the whole thing that much worse. I just wanted it to be done.

As Adam knelt in front of me, I focused on the few lines I needed to deliver.

“Adam, what is your crime?” I asked.

“Theft, my lady.”

“And how long is your sentence?”

Adam cleared his throat. “Life,” he squeaked out.

Around the room, murmurs began as people were sure they hadn’t heard that right.

Though I hated to deviate from my lines, I too needed confirmation. “How long did you say?”

“Life, my lady.” It was apparent in Adam’s voice that he was on the verge of tears.

I peeked over at Maxon. He looked uncomfortable. Wordlessly, I pleaded for help. His eyes conveyed how sorry he was that he couldn’t guide me.

As I was about to focus again on Adam, my eyes flickered to the king, who had quickly shifted his weight. I watched him run his hand across his mouth in an effort to hide his smile.

He’d set me up.

Perhaps he suspected I would hate this part of the Selection and planned to do what he could to make me look disobedient. But even if I went through with it, what kind of person was I to put a man in prison forever? No one would love me now.

“Adam,” I said softly. He looked up at me, tears threatening to fall at any moment. I noticed quickly that every whisper in the room ceased. “How much did you steal?”

People were trying to hear, but it was impossible.

He swallowed and darted his eyes toward the king. “Some clothes for my girls.”

I spoke quickly. “But this isn’t about that, is it?”

In a gesture so minute I almost missed it, Adam shook his head once.

So I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. But I had to do something.

The idea hit me so quickly, and I was positive it was our only way out. I wasn’t sure if it would gain Adam his freedom, and I tried not to think of how sad it would make me. It was simply right, and I had to do it.

I stood and made my way to Adam, touching him on his shoulder. He winced, waiting for me to tell him he was going to prison.

“Stand up,” I said.

Adam looked at me, confusion in his eyes.

“Please,” I said, and took one of his cuffed hands to pull him along.

Adam walked with me up the aisle, to the raised area where the royal family sat. When we got to the stairs, I turned to him and sighed.

I took off one of the beautiful earrings that Maxon had given me, then the other. I placed both in Adam’s hands; and he stood there, dumbstruck, as my beautiful bracelet followed. And then—because, if I was truly going to do this, I wanted to give everything—I reached behind my neck and unclasped my songbird necklace, the one my dad had given me. I hoped he was watching and not hating me for giving his gift away. Once I dropped it into Adam’s hand, I curled his fingers around the treasures, then stepped to the side so that he was standing directly in front of King Clarkson.

I pointed toward the thrones. “Go, faithful subject, and pay your debt to the king.”

There were gasps and murmurs around the room, but I ignored them. All I could see was the sour expression on the king’s face. If he wanted to play a game with my character, then I was prepared to answer in turn.

Adam slowly climbed the steps, and I could see both the joy and fear in his eyes. As he approached the king, he fell to his knees and held out his hands, full of jewels.

King Clarkson shot me a glance, letting me know this wouldn’t be the end of it, but then reached out and took the jewelry out of Adam’s hands.

The crowd erupted, but when I looked back, the other girls had mixed reactions on their faces. Adam backed away from the king quickly, perhaps afraid he’d change his mind. My hope was that, with so many cameras going and so many people writing articles about this, someone would follow up and make sure he made it home. When Adam got back to my level, he tried to hug me, even with the handcuffs on. He cried and blessed me, and went from the room looking like the happiest soul on earth.

CHAPTER 20

THE ROYAL FAMILY EXITED OUT the side door, and the other Elite and I left the way we’d come as the cameras and guests filmed and applauded.

Silvia’s eyes when we came out the doorway were positively deadly. It looked like it was taking every last bit of strength she had to keep from throttling me. She led us around the corner to a small parlor.

“In,” she ordered, as if anything more would push her past the brink. She shut the doors, not bothering to join us.

“Do you always have to be the center of attention?” Elise snapped.

“I didn’t do anything except what I tried to ask you to do. You were the one who didn’t believe me!”

“You act like such a saint. They were criminals. We weren’t doing anything a magistrate wouldn’t do; we just did it in pretty dresses.”

“Elise, did you see those men? Some of them were sick. And the sentences for their crimes were way too long,” I implored.

“She’s right,” Kriss said. “Life for theft? Unless he carted the palace away, what could he have possibly taken to deserve that?”

“Nothing,” I vowed. “He took clothes for his family. Look, you guys are lucky. You were born into better castes. If you’re in the lower ones, and you lose your main provider . . . things don’t go well. I couldn’t send him to jail for life and at the same time sentence his family to becoming Eights. I couldn’t.”

“Where is your pride, America?” Elise begged. “Where is your sense of duty or honor? You’re just a girl; you aren’t even the princess. And if you were, you wouldn’t be allowed to make decisions like that. You are here to follow the king’s rules, and you have never done that! Not even from the first night!”

“Maybe the rules are wrong!” I screamed, at perhaps the worst time possible.

The doors were flung open, and King Clarkson stormed in while Queen Amberly and Maxon stood in the hall. He grabbed my arm, hard—thankfully not my injured one—and dragged me out of the room.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked, fear making my breath come out in short bursts.

He didn’t answer.

I looked over my shoulder at the girls as the king pulled me down the hall. Celeste wrapped her arms around herself, and Elise reached for Kriss’s hand. For as upset as she was, Elise didn’t seem happy to see me go.

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