It was huge. The paneling was dark, some wood I wasn’t familiar with lining the whole space. On the far wall, a wide fireplace stood, waiting to be used. The whole thing must have been for show since it never seemed to get cold enough here to justify a fire.
His bathroom door was cracked open, and I could see a porcelain tub on the elaborately tiled floor. He had his own collection of books and a table near the fireplace that looked like it was intended for dining rather than work. I wondered how many lonely meals he’d had here. Near the doors that opened to his private balcony, a glass case full of guns sat, perfectly lined up. I’d forgotten his love of hunting.
His bed, also made from a dark wood, was massive. I wanted to go and touch it, to see if it felt as good as it looked.
“Maxon, you could fit a football team in there,” I teased.
“Tried it once. Not as comfortable as you’d think.”
I turned to swat at him, glad to see him in a playful mood. It was then, looking past his smiling face, that I saw the pictures. I inhaled sharply, taking in the beautiful display behind him.
On the wall by Maxon’s door was a vast collage, wide enough to be wallpaper for my room back home. There didn’t appear to be any sort of order to it, just image upon image piled up for him to enjoy.
I could see photos that surely had to have been taken by him, because they were of the palace, which was where he was almost all the time. Close-ups of tapestries, shots of the ceiling he must have lain flat on the carpet to get, and so many pictures of the gardens. There were others, maybe of places he hoped to see or had at least visited. I saw an ocean so blue it didn’t seem possible. There were a few bridges, and one of a wall-like structure that looked like it went on for miles.
But above all this, I saw my face a dozen times over. There was the picture of me that was taken for my Selection application, and the one of Maxon and me taken for the magazine when I wore that sash. We seemed happy there, as if it was all a game. I’d never seen that photo, or the one from the article on Halloween. I remembered Maxon standing behind me while we looked at designs for my costume. While I’m staring at the sketch, Maxon’s eyes are slightly turned toward me.
Then there were the photos he took. One of me shocked when the king and queen of Swendway visited and he’d quickly yelled out “Smile.” One of me sitting on the set for the Report, laughing at Marlee. He must have been hiding behind the blinding lights, stealing little images of us when we were all just being ourselves. And there was another one of me in the night, standing on my balcony and looking at the moon.
The other girls were in them, too, the remaining ones more than the others; but every once in a while I’d see Anna’s eyes peek out from under a landscape or Marlee’s smile hiding in a corner. And though they were just taken, pictures of Kriss and Celeste posing in the Women’s Room were up there, too, next to Elise pretending to faint on a couch and me with my arms wrapped around his mother.
“Maxon,” I breathed. “It’s beautiful.”
“You like it?”
“I’m in awe of it. How many of these did you take?”
“Nearly all of them, but ones like this,” he said, pointing to one of the pictures used in the magazines, “I asked for.” He pointed again. “I took this one in the very southern part of Honduragua. I used to think it was interesting, but now it makes me sad.”
The image was of some pipes spilling smoke into the sky. “I used to look at the air, but now I remember how much I hated the smell of it. And people live in that all the time. I was so self-absorbed.”
“Where is this?” I asked, pointing to the long brick wall.
“New Asia. It used to be to the north of what was the Chinese border. They called it the Great Wall. I hear it was once quite spectacular, but now it’s mostly gone. It runs less than halfway through the middle of New Asia. That’s how much they’ve expanded.”
Maxon put his hands behind his back. “I was really hoping you would like it.”
“I do. So much. I want you to make me one.”
“Yes. Or teach me to. I can’t even tell you how often I wished I could catch snippets of my life and hold on to them like this. I have a few torn pictures of my family and the new one with my sister’s baby, but that’s all. I’ve never even thought of keeping a journal or writing things down. . . . I feel like you make so much more sense now.”
This was the center of who he was. I could feel the things that were permanent, such as his constant confinement in the palace and the brief bits of traveling. But there were also elements that shifted. The girls and I were on the wall so much because we’d taken over his world. Even as we left, we weren’t really gone.
I stepped over and laced an arm behind his back. He did the same to me, and we stood there quietly for a minute, taking it all in. And then something that should have been obvious the whole time suddenly came to me.
“If things were different and you weren’t the prince, and you could pick what you did for a living, would this be it?” I pointed to the collage.
“Taking pictures, you mean?”
He barely needed a second to think. “Absolutely. For art or even just family portraits. I’d do advertising, pretty much whatever I could. I’m very passionate about it. I think you can see that though.”
“I can.” I smiled, happy with this knowledge.
“Why do you ask?”
“It’s just . . .” I moved to look at him. “You’d be a Five.”
Maxon slowly took in my words, and he smiled quietly. “That makes me happy.”
Suddenly, decisively, Maxon faced me, taking my hands in his.
“Say it, America. Please. Tell me you love me, that you want to be mine alone.”
“I can’t be yours alone with all the other girls here.”
“And I can’t send them home until I’m sure of your feelings.”
“And I can’t give you what you want while I know that tomorrow you could be doing this with Kriss.”
“Doing what with Kriss? She’s already seen my room, I told you.”
“Not that. Just pulling her away, making her feel like . . .”
He waited. “How?” he whispered.
“Like she’s the only one who matters. She’s crazy about you. She’s told me so. And I don’t think it’s one-sided.”
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