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“Clarkson, don’t act in haste,” the queen urged quietly.

We rounded a corner, and I was forced into a room. The queen and Maxon filed in behind us as the king shoved me toward a small couch.

“Sit,” he commanded unnecessarily. He paced the floor, a lion in a cage. When he stopped, he faced Maxon.

“You swore!” he bellowed. “You said she was under control. First the outburst on the Report, then you nearly get yourself killed on the roof, and now this? It ends today, Maxon.”

“Father, did you hear the cheers? People appreciate her sympathy. She’s your greatest asset right now.”

“I beg your pardon?” His voice was an iceberg, slow and deadly.

Maxon paused a moment at the chill but continued. “When she suggested that people defend themselves, the public responded positively. I daresay the reason more people aren’t dead is because of her. And this? Father, I couldn’t put a man in jail for life over what was supposed to be a petty crime. How can you expect that from someone who’s probably seen more than her fair share of friends beaten for less? She’s refreshing. The majority of the population is in the lower castes, and they relate to her.”

The king shook his head and started walking again. “I let her stay because she kept you alive. You are my most valuable asset, not her. If we lose you, we lose everything. And I don’t just mean through death. If you aren’t committed to this life, if you lose your focus, this will all fall apart.” He waved his arms at the wide room, letting the silence hang.

“You’re being brainwashed,” the king accused. “You change a little every day. These girls, this one more than the others, are all useless.”

“Clarkson, perhaps—” He silenced the queen with a look, and whatever her opinion was fell away.

The king turned back to Maxon. “I have a proposition for you.”

“I’m not interested,” he shot back.

King Clarkson raised his arms in front of him, gesturing that he meant no harm. “Hear me out.”

Maxon sighed.

“These girls have been disastrous. Even the Asian’s connections have done nothing for me. The Two is too concerned with fame; and the other, well, she’s not entirely hopeless but not good enough, if you ask me. This one,” he said, pointing at me, “whatever value she’s had has been completely overshadowed by her inability to contain herself.

“This has all gone terribly wrong. And I know you. I know you’re afraid of missing something, so this is my thought.”

I watched the king walk around Maxon. “Let’s call this off. Let’s get rid of all the girls.”

Maxon opened his mouth to protest, but the king held up a hand. “I’m not suggesting you stay single. I’m simply saying that we still have the entries of all the eligible girls in the country sitting around somewhere. Wouldn’t it be nice if you got to handpick a few girls to come to the palace? Maybe find one who looks like the French king’s daughter; remember how fond you were of her?”

I lowered my eyes. Maxon had never mentioned a French girl.

It genuinely felt as if someone took a chisel and chipped a crack in my heart.

“Father, I couldn’t.”

“Oh, but you could. You’re the prince. And I think we’ve had enough outbursts that we could deem this lot unfit. You could have a real choice this time.”

I looked up again. Maxon’s eyes were focused on the floor. I could see he was struggling.

“This might even appease the rebels temporarily. Think of that!” the king added. “If we send these girls home, wait a few months like we’re calling off the Selection, and then bring in a new group of lovely, educated, pleasant women . . . that could change a lot of things.”

Maxon tried to say something but only closed his mouth again.

“Either way, you should ask yourself if that,” he said, pointing to me again, “is someone you could really spend your life with. Dramatic, selfish, money hungry, and, to be quite honest, very plain. Look at her, son.”

Maxon’s eyes darted down to mine, holding them for a second before I had to turn away from humiliation.

“I’ll give you a few days. For now there’s the press to deal with. Amberly.”

The queen scurried over, placing her arm through the king’s, leaving us alone and speechless.

After a short pause, Maxon came to help me stand up.

“Thanks.”

Maxon only nodded. “I should probably go with them. No doubt they’ll have questions for me as well.”

“That’s a pretty nice offer,” I commented.

“Maybe the most generous one he’s ever made.”

I didn’t want to know if he was seriously considering this. There was nothing else to say, so I made my way past him, taking the back route to my room, hoping to outrun everything I was feeling.

My maids informed me that dinner would be on our own tonight, and when I couldn’t be bothered to communicate with them, they graciously excused themselves. I lay on my bed, lost in my thoughts.

I’d done the right thing today, hadn’t I? I believed in justice, but the Convicting wasn’t justice. Still, I kept wondering if I’d actually accomplished anything. If that man was an enemy to the king somehow, which I had to believe he was, then surely he would be punished in some other way. Was it all for nothing?

And as frivolous as it was when I considered everything else going on, I couldn’t stop thinking about this French girl. Why hadn’t Maxon mentioned her? Was she here a lot? Why would he keep her a secret?

I heard the knock and assumed it was my food, even though it seemed a little early.

“Come in,” I called, not wanting to get out of bed.

The door opened, and Celeste’s dark hair swished into view.

“In the mood for some company?” she asked. Kriss peeked in behind her, and I saw the edge of Elise’s arm hiding in the back.

I sat up. “Sure.”

They ambled in, leaving the door open. Celeste, still shocking me every time she smiled so genuinely, climbed into my bed without even asking. Not that I minded. Kriss followed, sitting closer to my feet, and Elise balanced on the edge, ever the lady.

Kriss quietly asked what I was sure they were all wondering. “Did he hurt you?”

“No.” Then I realized that wasn’t entirely true. “He didn’t hit me or anything; he just pulled me away a little too roughly.”

“What did he say?” Elise fiddled with a piece of her dress as she spoke.

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