My maids curtsied as he walked closer, and I was more than a little anxious when he stopped in front of me.
“Lady America, the king requires your presence at once,” he said coolly.
“Is anything wrong?” I asked, stalling.
“The king will answer your questions.”
I swallowed. Every awful thing ran through my head. My family was in danger. The king had found a way to punish me quietly for all the ways I’d wronged him. He’d discovered we’d sneaked out of the palace. Or, perhaps worst of all, someone had figured out my connection to Aspen, and we were both about to pay for it.
I tried to shake the fear out of my system. I didn’t want any of it to show in front of King Clarkson.
“I’ll follow you then.” I stood and started walking behind the guard, giving one last glance to the girls as I left. When I saw the worry on their faces, I wished I hadn’t.
We went down the hall and started up the stairs to the third floor. I didn’t quite know what to do with my hands, and I kept touching my hair or my dress or lacing my fingers together.
When we were about halfway down the hall, I saw Maxon, and that helped. He paused just outside a room, waiting for me. There was no concern in his eyes, but he was better at hiding his fear than I was.
“What’s this about?” I whispered.
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
The guard took his place outside the door as Maxon escorted me inside. In the wide room, there were shelves of books along one wall. On easels, several maps were set up. There were at least three separate ones of Illéa, with markers in different colors. At a wide desk, the king sat with a piece of paper in his hand.
As he noticed Maxon and me enter the room, the king straightened.
“What exactly have you done with the Italian princess?” King Clarkson demanded, staring at me.
I froze. The money. I’d forgotten all about that. Conspiring to sell weapons to people he viewed as enemies was worse than any of the other scenarios for which I’d been preparing.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I lied, looking to Maxon. Even though he knew everything, he remained calm.
“We have been trying to make an alliance with the Italians for decades, and all of a sudden the royal family is quite interested in having us visit. However”—the king picked up the letter, searching for a specific section—“ah, here. ‘While it would be more than an honor to have Your Majesty and your family grace us with your company, we hope that Lady America will also be able to visit with you. After meeting all the Elite, we can’t imagine anyone following in the queen’s footsteps quite like her.’”
The king raised his eyes back to me. “What have you done?”
Realizing I’d dodged something huge, I relaxed marginally. “All I’ve done was try to be polite toward the princess and her mother when they’ve visited. I didn’t know she liked me so much.”
King Clarkson rolled his eyes. “You’re subversive. I’ve been watching you, and you’re here for something; and it sure as hell isn’t him.”
Maxon turned to me at those words. I wished I hadn’t seen the flicker of doubt in his eyes. I shook my head. “That’s not true!”
“Then how did a girl of no means, no connections, and no power manage to get this country within the reach of something it’s been trying to achieve for years? How?”
In my heart, I knew that there were factors here that he was oblivious to. But it was Nicoletta who had offered assistance to me, who had asked if she could do anything for a cause she wanted to support. If he’d accused me of something that was actually my fault, his rising voice would have been frightening. As it was, he came across like a child.
In response, I spoke quietly. “You were the ones who assigned us to entertain your foreign guests. I never would have met any of those women otherwise. And she’s the one who wrote, inviting me to come. I didn’t beg for a trip to Italy. Maybe if you were simply more welcoming, you’d have had your alliance with Italy years ago.”
He stood forcefully. “Watch. Your. Mouth.”
Maxon put an arm around me. “Perhaps it’s best you left, America.”
I happily started moving, keen to be anywhere the king wasn’t. But that was not what King Clarkson had in mind.
“Stop. I have more,” he insisted. “This changes things. We can’t reset the Selection and risk upsetting the Italians. They have a lot of influence. If we can get them, they’ll open a lot of doors for us.”
Maxon nodded, not upset at all. He had already made the choice to keep us here, but we had to play along and let the king think he was in control.
“We’ll simply have to draw out the Selection,” he concluded. My heart plummeted. “We have to give the Italians time to accept the other options as viable without offending them. Perhaps we should schedule a trip over there soon, give everyone an opportunity to shine.”
He looked so pleased with himself, so proud of his solution. I wondered how far he would go. Prep Celeste, maybe. Or arrange for some private time with Kriss and Nicoletta. I wouldn’t put it past him to make me look bad deliberately, the way he had tried to in the Convicting. If he went to all the lengths he could without openly incriminating himself, I wasn’t sure I had much of a chance.
And forget the political side of it. More time meant more opportunities to embarrass myself.
“Father, I’m not sure that would help,” Maxon interjected. “The Italian ladies have already met all the candidates. If they’re showing a preference for America, it must have come from something they like in her that wasn’t visible in the others. You can’t simply make that exist.”
The king looked at Maxon, venom in his eyes. “Are you declaring your choice right now then? Is the Selection over?”
My pulse stopped altogether.
“No,” Maxon answered, as if the very thought was ridiculous. “I’m just not sure what you’re suggesting is the right course.”
King Clarkson propped his chin on his hand, looking back and forth between Maxon and me, staring at us like some equation he couldn’t solve.
“She has yet to prove herself trustworthy. Until that time, you cannot choose her.” The king’s face was unyielding.
“And how do you suggest she does that?” Maxon countered. “What exactly do you need in order to be satisfied?”
The king raised his eyebrows, seeming amused at his son’s questions. After a moment of consideration, he pulled a small file out of his drawer.
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