“He’s not happy with my outburst. If it was the king choosing, I’d be long gone by now.”
Celeste touched my arm. “But he’s not. Maxon’s fond of you, and so are the people.”
“I don’t know if that’s enough.” For any of us, I added in my head.
“Sorry I yelled at you,” Elise said quietly. “It’s frustrating. I try so hard to keep cool and confident, but I feel like nothing I do matters. You all outshine me.”
“That’s not true,” Kriss argued. “At this point, we all mean something to Maxon. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“He’s afraid to get to the final three,” Elise countered. “He’s supposed to choose within, what, four days when it’s down to three? He’s holding on to me to keep from making that decision.”
“Who’s to say he’s not holding on to me?” Celeste suggested.
“Listen,” I said, “after today I’ll probably be going home next. It was bound to happen sooner or later. I’m just not cut out for this.”
Kriss giggled. “None of us is an Amberly, are we?”
“I like shocking people too much,” Celeste said with a smile.
“And I’d rather hide than do half the things she has to.” Elise ducked her head.
“I’m too wild.” I shrugged my shoulders, embracing my faults.
“I’ll never have her confidence,” Kriss mourned.
“So there. We’re all messed up. But Maxon has to pick one of us, so there’s no point worrying anymore.” Celeste toyed with the blanket. “But I think we can all agree that any of you would be a better choice than me.”
After a heavy silence, Kriss spoke up. “What do you mean?”
Celeste looked across at her. “You know. Everyone does.” She took a deep breath and continued. “I’ve kind of already had this discussion with America, and I broke down to my maids the other day, but I’ve never actually apologized to you two.”
Kriss and Elise looked at each other briefly before focusing again on Celeste.
“Kriss, I ruined your birthday party,” she blurted. “You were the only one who’s been able to celebrate in the palace, and I took that moment from you. I’m so sorry.”
Kriss shrugged. “It turned out okay in the end. Maxon and I had a great talk because of you. I forgave you a long time ago.”
Celeste actually looked like she might cry, but she pushed her lips together into a tight smile. “That’s generous considering I’m having a hard time forgiving myself.” Celeste dabbed at her lashes. “I just didn’t know how to hold his attention, so I stole it from you.”
Kriss took a deep breath. “It felt awful at the time, but it really is all right. I’m fine. At least it wasn’t like with Anna.”
Celeste rolled her eyes shamefully. “Don’t even get me started. Sometimes I wonder how far she would have made it if I hadn’t . . .” She shook her head before moving her gaze to Elise. “I don’t know how you could ever excuse all the things I’ve done to you. Even the ones you don’t know were me.”
Elise, ever poised, didn’t explode like I might have in her place. “You mean the glass in my shoes, the ruined gowns hanging in my closet, the bleach in my shampoo?”
“Bleach!” I gasped, finding confirmation in Celeste’s tired face.
Elise nodded. “I missed a morning in the Women’s Room so my maids could dye it back.” She turned from me to Celeste. “I knew it was you,” she confessed calmly.
Celeste hung her head, absolutely mortified. “You didn’t speak, you barely did anything. In my eyes, you were the easiest target, and I was shocked you never broke.”
“I would never dishonor my family by quitting,” Elise said. I loved her conviction, even if I didn’t completely understand it.
“They should be proud of everything you’ve endured. If my parents had any idea how low I’ve sunk . . . I don’t know what they’d say. If Maxon’s parents knew, I’m sure they’d have kicked me out by now. I’m not fit for this.” She breathed out, struggling to confess.
I leaned forward, putting my hands on hers. “I think this change of heart would prove otherwise, Celeste.”
She tilted her head and gave me a sad smile. “All the same, I don’t think he wants me. Even if he did,” she added, pulling her hands from mine to tidy up her eye makeup, “someone recently reminded me that I don’t need a man to get what I want out of life.”
We shared a grin before she turned back to Elise.
“I can never begin to apologize for everything I’ve done to you, but I need you to know how sincerely I regret it. I’m sorry, Elise.”
Elise didn’t waver, staring Celeste down. I braced myself for her vicious words now that Celeste was finally at her mercy.
“I could tell him. America and Kriss would be my witnesses, and Maxon would have to send you home.”
Celeste swallowed. How humiliating it would be to leave like that!
“I won’t though,” Elise said, finally. “I would never force Maxon’s hand, and win or lose, I want to do it with integrity. So let’s move forward.”
It wasn’t an actual statement of forgiveness, but it was above and beyond what Celeste was expecting. It was all she could do to keep herself together as she nodded and whispered her thanks to Elise.
“Wow,” Kriss said, attempting to change the subject, “I mean, I didn’t want to tell on you either, Celeste, but . . . I didn’t think about honor being behind that choice.” Kriss turned to Elise, thinking over the words.
“It’s always on my mind,” Elise confessed. “I have to hold on to it however I can, especially since I’ll be an embarrassment to my family if I don’t win.”
“How is it your fault if he’s the one doing the choosing?” Kriss asked, shifting her weight and settling back in. “How would that make you an embarrassment?”
Elise turned in more, moving from one worry to another. “Because of the arranged-marriage thing. The best girls get the best men and vice versa. Maxon is the height of perfection. If I lose, it means that I wasn’t good enough. My family won’t think about the feelings behind his choice, which is what I’m sure he’ll judge by. They’ll look at it logically. My breeding, my talents—I was raised to be worthy of the best, so if I’m not, then who will have me when I leave?”
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