“Mer, you tried to keep me from this, and I was too stubborn to listen. It’s my fault.”
“No, it’s not.”
He took a deep breath. “Listen . . . I need to tell you something. I know it’s going to be difficult, but you need to know. When I told you I’d always love you, I meant it. And I—”
“Stop,” I pleaded. I knew I had to tell him the truth, but I could only deal with one confession at a time. “I can’t handle this right now. I just had my world turned upside down, and I’m about to do something I’m terrified to do. I need you to give me some room right now.”
Aspen didn’t look happy with this decision, but he let me make it all the same.
“As you wish, my lady.” He walked away, and I felt even worse than I had before.
WALKING BACK INTO THE PALACE felt impossibly right. A maid I’d never seen before was there to take my coat, and Aspen was next to a guard, explaining quietly that he’d give a full report on the trip in the morning. I started up the stairs, but another maid stopped me.
“Don’t you want to go to the reception, miss?”
“Excuse me?” Was I supposed to have some fantastic homecoming or something?
“In the Women’s Room, my lady. I’m sure they’re waiting for you.”
That was less of an explanation than I was hoping for, but I climbed back down the stairs and headed around the corner to the Women’s Room. Strolling down the familiar halls was more comforting than I could have imagined. Of course I still missed my dad, but it was nice not to see things that made me think of him everywhere I turned. The only thing that would have made this homecoming better was Maxon walking here with me.
I was toying with the possibility of sending for him when I heard the wild noise coming from the Women’s Room. I was confused by the sound. By the volume, half of Illéa was waiting in there.
Tentatively, I opened the door. The second Tiny—what was she doing here?—caught a glimpse of my hair, she called out to the room.
“She’s here! America’s back!”
The room exploded with cheers, and I was so confused. Emmica, Ashley, Bariel . . . everyone was here. I hunted, but I knew it was pointless. Marlee wouldn’t be invited to this.
I was rushed by Celeste, who embraced me tightly. “Ahh, you bitch, I knew you’d make it!”
“What?” I asked.
She didn’t get her words out fast enough. A split second later, Kriss was hugging me and half screaming in my ear. The smell on her breath said she’d been drinking quite a bit, and the glass in her hand confirmed she wasn’t planning on stopping.
“It’s us!” she yelled. “Maxon’s announcing his engagement tomorrow! It’s one of us!”
“Are you sure?”
“Elise and I got the boot last night, but he sent for all the girls to come back and celebrate, so we stayed,” Celeste confirmed. “Elise isn’t taking it well; you know how it is with her family. She thinks she failed.”
“What about you?” I asked nervously.
She shrugged and smiled. “Eh.”
I laughed at that, and a moment later a drink was shoved in my hand.
“To Kriss and America, the last girls standing!” someone yelled.
I was dizzy with the news. He’d decided to end it, to send everyone home. And he did it while I was away. Did that mean he missed me? Did that mean he realized he was fine without me?
“Drink!” Celeste insisted, tipping the glass back for me. I downed the champagne and came up coughing. Between the jet lag, the emotional stress of the last few days, and the sudden intake of alcohol, I was immediately giddy.
I watched as girls danced on the couches, celebrating even though they had lost. Celeste was in a corner with Anna; it looked as if she was apologizing repeatedly for her actions. Elise crept in quietly and came to offer me a hug before retreating again. It was a blur of excitement, and I found myself happy even though I wasn’t totally certain of the outcome in front of me.
I turned around, and Kriss was suddenly there, embracing me.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s promise that tomorrow, no matter what, we’ll be happy for each other.”
“I think that’s a good plan,” I shouted over the din. I laughed and lowered my eyes. In that quick second, a serious realization flooded me. That flash of silver on her neck suddenly meant so much more than it had a few days ago.
I sucked in a breath, and she looked at me with an expression that asked what was wrong. Even though it was rude and abrupt, I pulled her out of the room and down the hall.
“Where are we going?” she asked. “America, what’s wrong?”
I dragged her around the corner and into the ladies’ bathroom, double-checking to make sure we were alone before speaking.
“You’re a rebel,” I accused.
“What?” she said, a little too rehearsed. “You’re crazy.” But her hand fluttered to her neck, giving her away.
“I know what that star means, Kriss, so don’t lie to me,” I said calmly.
After a calculated pause she sighed. “I haven’t done anything illegal. I’m not mounting protests anywhere; I just support the cause.”
“Fine,” I spat. “But how much of your part in the Selection is you wanting Maxon and how much is your group wanting one of their own on the throne?”
She was quiet for a moment, choosing her words. Clenching her jaw, she walked over to the door and locked it. “If you must know, yes, I was . . . presented to the king as an option. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that the lottery was a joke.”
“The king was—and still is—unaware of how many Northerners were promoted while the choice was being made. I was the only one of all the hopefuls to make it through, and, at first, I was completely dedicated to my cause. I didn’t understand Maxon, and it didn’t seem like he wanted me at all. But then I got to know him, and I was really sad about him not taking an interest in me. After Marlee left and you lost your hold on him, I saw him in a totally new light.
“You might think that my motives for coming here were wrong, and maybe you’re right. But my reasons for being here now are completely different. I love Maxon, and I’m still fighting for him. And we can do great things together. So if you’re thinking about trying to blackmail me or sell me out, forget it. I’m not backing down. Do you understand me?”
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