I tried to seem happy as I looked around the room. It was packed. Gavril, of course, was in a corner, speaking into a camera, narrating the events as they happened.
Ashley smiled and waved, and beside her Anna winked at me. I gave them a nod, still too nervous to speak. Toward the back of the room, in deceptively clean clothes, August, Georgia, and some of the other Northern rebels sat at a table by themselves. Of course Maxon would want them here to meet his new wife. Little did he know she was one of their own.
They surveyed the room tensely, as if they feared any second a guard would recognize them and attack. The guards didn’t seem to be paying attention though. In fact, this was the first time I’d ever seen them look so poorly focused, eyes meandering around the room, several of them on edge. I’d even noticed that one or two hadn’t shaved and looked a little rough. It was a big event though. Maybe they were just rushed.
My eyes flitted over to Queen Amberly, speaking with her sister Adele and her gaggle of children. She looked radiant. She’d been waiting for this day for so long. She would love Kriss like her own. For a moment, I was so jealous of that fact.
I turned and scanned the faces of the Selected again, and this time my eyes landed on Celeste. I could see the clear question in her eyes: What are you so worried about? I gave her a minuscule shake of my head, letting her know that I’d lost. She sent me a thin smile and mouthed the words It’ll be okay. I nodded, and I tried to believe her. She turned away, laughing at something someone said; and I finally looked to my right, taking in the face of the guard stationed closest to our table.
Aspen was distracted though. He was looking around the room like so many of the other men in uniform, but he seemed to be trying to think of something. It was as if he was doing a puzzle in his head. I wished he would look my way, maybe try to explain wordlessly what he was worried about, but he didn’t.
“Trying to arrange a time to meet later?” Maxon asked, and I whipped my head back.
“No, of course not.”
“It’s not like it matters. Kriss’s family will be here this afternoon for a small celebration, and yours will be here to take you home. They don’t like for the last loser to be alone. She tends to get dramatic.”
He was so cold, so distant. It was as if it wasn’t even Maxon at all.
“You can keep that house if you want. It’s been paid for. I’d like my letters back though.”
“I read them,” I whispered. “I loved them.”
He huffed as if it was a joke. “Don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Please don’t do this. Please. I love you.” My face was crumpling.
“Don’t. You. Dare,” Maxon ordered through gritted teeth. “You put on a smile, and you wear it to the last second.”
I blinked away the tears and gave a weak smile.
“That’ll do. Don’t let that slip until you leave the room, do you understand?” I nodded. He looked into my eyes. “I’ll be glad when you’re gone.”
After he spat out those last words, his smile returned and he faced Kriss again. I stared into my lap a minute, slowing my breathing and putting on a brave face.
When I brought my eyes up again, I didn’t dare to look directly at anyone. I didn’t think I could honor Maxon’s last wish if I did. Instead, I focused on the walls of the room. It was because of that I noticed when most of the guards stepped away from them at some signal I didn’t see. Pieces of red fabric were pulled out of their pockets and tied across their foreheads.
I watched in confusion as a red-marked guard walked up behind Celeste and put a bullet squarely through the back of her head.
The screaming and gunfire exploded at once. Guttural shouts of pain filled the room, adding to the cacophony of chairs screeching, bodies hitting walls, and the stampede of people trying to escape as fast as they could in their heels and suits. The men shouted as they fired, making the whole thing far more terrifying. I watched, stunned, seeing death more times in a handful of seconds than ought to be possible. I looked for the king and queen, but they were gone. I was gripped with fear, unsure if they’d escaped or been captured. I looked for Adele, for her children. I couldn’t see them anywhere, and that was even worse than losing sight of the king and queen.
Beside me, Maxon was trying to calm Kriss. “Get on the floor,” he told her. “We’re going to be fine.”
I looked to my right for Aspen and was in awe for a moment. He was on one knee, taking aim, firing deliberately into the crowd. He must have been very sure of his target to do that.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flicker of red. Suddenly a rebel guard was standing in front of us. As I thought the words rebel guard, it all clicked into place. Anne had told me this had happened once before, when the rebels had gotten the guards’ uniforms and had sneaked into the palace. But how?
As Kriss let out another cry, I realized that the guards who were sent to our houses hadn’t abandoned their posts at all. They were dead and buried, their clothes stolen and standing in front of us.
Not that this information did me any good now.
I knew that I should run, that Maxon and Kriss should run if they were going to make it. But I was frozen as the menacing figure raised his gun and directed it at Maxon. I looked up at Maxon, and he looked to me. I wished I had time to speak. I turned away, back to the man.
A look of amusement crossed his face. As if he suspected this would be much more entertaining for himself and much more painful for Maxon, he slid his gun ever so slightly to his left and aimed it at me.
I didn’t even think to scream. I couldn’t move at all, but I saw the blur of Maxon’s suit coat as he leaped toward me.
I fell to the ground, but not in the direction I thought I would. Maxon missed me, flying across in front of me. When I hit the floor, I looked up to see Aspen. He’d sprinted to the table and pushed over my chair, crashing on top of me.
“I got him!” someone shouted. “Find the king!”
I heard several shouts of delight, pleased with the declaration. And screaming. So much screaming. As I came out of my stupor, the sounds crashed into my ears again. Other chairs and bodies clamored to the floor. Guards yelled out orders. Shots were fired, and the sickening pops pierced my ears. It was pure pandemonium.
“Are you hurt?” Aspen demanded over the commotion.
I think I shook my head.
I watched as he stood, widened his stance, and aimed. He fired several times, eyes focused and body at ease. By the angle of his shots, it looked like more rebels were trying to get close to us. Thanks to Aspen, they failed.
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