“Even excluding your recent stunt on the Report, there seems to be a bit of unrest these days between the castes. I’ve been wanting to find a way to . . . aid in soothing the opinions of the moment; but it occurred to me that someone as fresh and young and, dare I say, popular as you are might do better at this than I would.”
Pushing the file across the desk, he continued. “It seems the people follow your tunes. Perhaps you would sing one of mine for them.”
I opened the folder and read the papers. “What is this?”
“Just some service announcements we’ll be making soon. We know, of course, the caste makeup of each province and all the communities within them, so we’ll be sending specific ones to certain areas. Encouraging them.”
“What is it, America?” Maxon asked, confused by his father’s words.
“They’re like . . . commercials,” I answered. “Advertisements to be happy with your own caste, not to associate closely with those outside it.”
“Father, what’s this about?”
The king leaned back in his chair, relaxing. “It’s nothing serious. I’m merely trying to quell the unrest. If I don’t do it, you’ll have an uprising on your hands by the time I pass down the crown.”
“The lower castes tend to get unruly from time to time—it’s natural. But we have to subdue the anger and squash the ideas of usurping power quickly, before they unite and undo our great nation.”
Maxon stared at his father, still not fully comprehending his words. If Aspen hadn’t clued me in to sympathizers, I might have been the same way. The king was planning to divide and conquer: make the castes absurdly grateful for what they had—even if they were being treated like they didn’t matter—and tell them not to associate with those outside of their castes, for they certainly wouldn’t understand the plight of anyone outside their own.
“This is propaganda,” I spat, remembering the word from Dad’s tattered history book.
The king tried to soothe me. “No, no. It’s a suggestion. It’s reinforcement. It’s a way of looking at the world that will keep our country happy.”
“Happy? So you want me to tell some Seven that . . .”—I hunted for the words on the sheet—“‘your task is possibly the greatest of our nation. You toil with your body and build the very roads and buildings that make our land.’” I searched for more. “‘No Two or Three could equal your talent, so turn your eyes away from them on the street. No need to speak with those who may rank higher than you by caste but are beneath you in your contribution.’”
Maxon turned from me to his father. “Surely, that will alienate our people.”
“On the contrary. It will help settle them into their places and make them feel that the palace has their best interests at heart.”
“Do you?” I shot.
“Of course I do!” the king yelled.
His outburst made me take a few steps back.
“People need to be led by the bit, with blinders on like horses. If you do not guide their steps, they run astray, straight into what’s worst for them. You may not like these little speeches, but they’ll do more, save more, than you know.”
My heart was still slowing as he finished speaking, and I stood silently with the papers in my hands.
I knew he was worried. Every time he got a report of something happening beyond his control, he crushed it. He lumped all change together, calling it treason before inspecting it. His answer this time was to have me do what Gregory did and isolate his people.
“I can’t say it,” I whispered.
He responded calmly. “Then you cannot marry my son.”
King Clarkson held up a hand. “We’re at that point, Maxon. I’ve let you have your way, and now we must negotiate. If you want this girl to stay, then she must be obedient. If she cannot follow through with the simplest of tasks, my only conclusion is that she doesn’t love you. If that’s the case, I can’t see why you would want her in the first place.”
I locked eyes with the king, hating him for putting the thought in Maxon’s head.
“Do you? Do you love him at all?”
This wasn’t how I was going to say it. Not at the end of an ultimatum, not for business.
The king tilted his head. “How sad, Maxon. She needs to think about it.”
Do not cry. Do not cry.
“I’ll give you some time to find out where you stand. If you won’t do this, then rules be damned, I’ll be kicking you out by Christmas Day. What a special gift that will be for your parents.”
He smiled. I set the folder on his desk and left, trying not to break into a run. All I needed was another excuse for him to say I was flawed.
“America!” Maxon yelled. “Stop!”
I kept walking until he grabbed me by the wrist, forcing me to pause.
“What the hell was that?” he demanded.
“He’s insane!” I was on the verge of tears, but I held them in. If the king came out and saw me that way, I’d never live it down.
Maxon shook his head. “Not him. You. Why didn’t you agree to do it?”
I looked at him, gob-smacked. “It’s a trick, Maxon. Everything he’s doing is a trick.”
“If you had said yes, I would have ended this now.”
Incredulous, I fired back. “Two seconds before, you had the chance to end it and didn’t. How is this my fault?”
“Because,” he answered, his whole demeanor urgent, “you are denying me your love. It’s the only thing I’ve wanted in this entire competition, and you still hold back. I keep waiting for you to say it, and you won’t. If you couldn’t say it out loud in front of him, fine. But if you had simply agreed, that would have been good enough for me.”
“And why would I when, for as far as we’ve come, he could still push me out? While I’m humiliated over and over again, and you stand by? That’s not love, Maxon. You don’t even know what love is.”
“The hell I don’t! Do you have any idea what I’ve been through—”
“Maxon, you were the one who said you wanted to stop arguing. So stop giving me reasons to argue with you!”
I stormed away. What was I still doing here? I kept torturing myself for someone who had no idea what it meant to be faithful to one person. And he never would, because his whole concept of romance revolved around the Selection. He wouldn’t ever understand.
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