A maid rushed past as I went in. Maxon was on his bed, the left side of his chest padded with gauze under his plain cotton shirt. His left arm was in a sling, and he used his right to hold up the paper some adviser was explaining to him.
He looked so normal there, dressed down, hair a mess. But at the same time, he looked like so much more than he had been before. Was he sitting a little taller? Had his face somehow become more serious?
He was so clearly the king.
“Your Majesty,” I breathed, falling into a low curtsy. Standing, I saw the quiet smile in his eyes.
“Set the papers here, Stavros. Would everyone please leave the room? I need to speak with the lady.”
Everyone circling around him bowed and headed toward the hall. Stavros quietly placed the papers on Maxon’s bedside table, and as he passed, he winked at me. I waited until the door closed before I moved.
I wanted to run to him, to fall into his embrace and stay there forever. But I moved slowly, worried that maybe he regretted his last words to me.
“I’m so sorry about your parents.”
“It doesn’t seem real yet,” he said, motioning that I should sit on the bed. “I keep thinking that Father is in his study, and Mom’s downstairs, and any minute one of them will come in here with something for me to do.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
He gave me a sympathetic smile. “I know you do.” He reached out and put his hand on mine. I took that as a good sign and held his hand back. “She tried to save him. A guard told me a rebel had my father in his sights, but she ran behind him. She went down first, but they got Father immediately after.”
He shook his head. “She was always selfless. To her very last breath.”
“You shouldn’t be so surprised. You’re a lot like her.”
He made a face. “I’ll never be quite as good as her. I’m going to miss her so much.”
I rubbed his hand. She wasn’t my mother, but I would miss her as well.
“At least you’re safe,” he said, not looking into my eyes. “At least there’s that.”
There was a long stretch of silence, and I didn’t know what to say. Should I bring up what he said? Should I ask about Kriss? Would he even want to think about any of this now?
“There’s something I want to show you,” he suddenly announced. “Mind you, it’s a bit rough, but I think you’ll still like it. Open the drawer here,” he instructed. “It should be on the top.”
I pulled out the drawer in his bedside table, noticing a pile of typed papers right away. I gave Maxon a questioning look, but he just nodded toward the writing.
I started reading the document, trying to process what it said. I got to the end of the first paragraph and then reread it, sure I was mistaken.
“Are you . . . you’re going to dissolve the castes?” I asked, looking up to Maxon.
“That’s the plan,” he answered, smiling. “I don’t want you to get too excited. This will take a long time to do, but I think it will work. You see,” he said, turning the pages of the vast file and pointing to a paragraph. “I want to start from the bottom. I’m planning on eliminating the Eight label first. There’s a lot of construction we need to do; and I feel like, with a little bit of work, the Eights could be absorbed into the Sevens. After that, it gets tricky. There’s got to be a way to get rid of the stigmas that come along with the numbers, but that’s my goal.”
I was awestruck. I’d only ever known a world in which I wore my caste like a piece of clothing. And here I was, holding something saying that those invisible lines we’d drawn between people could finally be erased.
Maxon’s hand touched mine. “I want you to know that this is all your doing. Since the day you called me into the hallway and told me about being hungry, I’ve been working on this. It was one of the reasons I got so upset after you did your presentation; I had a quieter way of reaching the exact same goal. But of all the things I wanted to do for my country, this would have never crossed my mind if I hadn’t known you.”
I took in a breath and gazed at the pages again. I thought over the years of my life, so short and fast. I’d never expected to do more than sing in the background of people’s house parties and maybe get married one day. I thought about what this would mean for the people of Illéa, and I was beside myself. I felt both humbled and proud.
“There’s something else,” Maxon said hesitantly as I continued to take in the words in front of me. Then suddenly, on top of the papers, Maxon slid over an open box with a ring resting in it, shining in the light cascading through his windows.
“I’ve been sleeping with that darn thing under my pillow,” he said, sounding playfully irritated. I looked up to him, not saying anything, as I was still too stunned to speak. I was sure he could read the questions in my eyes, but he had his own to address. “Do you like it?”
A web of thin gold vines crawled up, forming the circle of the ring, holding at the top two gems—one green, one purple—that kissed at the crown of it. I knew the purple one was my birthstone, so the green one must be his. There we were, two little spots of light growing together, inseparable.
I meant to speak and opened my mouth several times to try. All I could manage to do was smile, blink back my tears, and nod.
Maxon cleared his throat. “Twice now I’ve tried to do this on a grand scale and failed spectacularly. As it is, I can’t even get on one knee. I hope you won’t mind if I just speak to you plainly.”
I nodded. I still couldn’t find a word in my entire body.
He swallowed and shrugged his uninjured shoulder. “I love you,” he said simply. “I should have told you a long time ago. Maybe we could have avoided so many stupid mistakes if I had. Then again,” he added, beginning to smile, “sometimes I think it was all those obstacles that made me love you so deeply.”
Tears pooled in the corners of my eyes, balancing on my lashes.
“What I said was true. My heart is yours to break. As you already know, I’d rather die than see you in pain. In the moment I was hit, when I fell to the floor sure my life was ending, all I could think about was you.”
Maxon had to stop. He swallowed, and I could see he was as close to tears as I was. After a moment, he continued.
“In those seconds, I was mourning everything I’d lost. How I’d never get to see you walk down an aisle toward me, how I’d never get to see your face in our children, how I’d never get to see streaks of silver in your hair. But, at the same time, I couldn’t be bothered. If me dying meant you living”—he did his one-shoulder shrug again—“how could that be anything but good?”
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