“We?” Maxon asked, his tone calculated, like he was hoping for numbers.
August only nodded. The click of heels announced that the maid was coming. Maxon put a finger to his lips, like August would dare to say more with her in hearing distance. The maid set down the tray and poured coffee for all of us. Georgia’s hands were on her cup immediately, waiting for it to be filled. I didn’t really care for coffee—it was too bitter for my tastes—but I knew it would help me wake up, so I braced myself to take a drink.
Before I could even sip, Maxon slid the bowl of sugar in front of me. Like he knew.
“You were saying?” Maxon prompted, taking his coffee black.
“Spencer didn’t die,” August said flatly. “He knew what his father had done to take over the country, he knew his older sister had basically been sold into marriage, and he knew the same was expected of him. He couldn’t do it, so he ran.”
“Where did he go?” I asked, speaking for the first time.
“He hid with relatives and friends, eventually making a camp with some like-minded people in the north. It’s colder up there, wetter, and so hard to navigate that no one tries. We live there quietly most of the time.”
Georgia nudged him, her face a little shocked.
August came to his senses. “I suppose I’ve now given you directions to invade us yourself. I want to remind you that we’ve never killed any of your officers or staff, and we avoid injuring them at all costs. All we ever wanted was to put an end to the castes. To do that we needed proof that Gregory was the man we’d always been told he was. We have that now, and America hinted at it enough that we feel we could exploit that if we wanted to. We really don’t though. Not if we don’t have to.”
Maxon took a deep swig and set down his cup. “I’m honestly not sure what I’m supposed to do with this information. You’re a direct descendant of Gregory Illéa, but you don’t want the crown. You’ve come looking for things only the king could provide, but you asked for an audience with me and one of the Elite. My father isn’t even here.”
“We know,” August said. “This was deliberate timing.”
Maxon huffed. “If you don’t want the crown and only want things I can’t give you, why are you here?”
August and Georgia looked at each other, perhaps preparing themselves for their biggest request yet.
“We came to ask you for these things because we know you’re a reasonable man. We’ve watched you all your life, and we can see it in your eyes. I can see it now.”
I tried to be inconspicuous as I studied Maxon’s reaction to these words.
“You don’t like the castes either. You don’t like the way your father holds the country under his thumb. You don’t want to fight wars you know are nothing more than a distraction. More than anything, you want peace during your lifetime.
“We’re guessing that once you’re king, things could really change. And we’ve been waiting a long time for that. We’re prepared to wait longer. The Northern rebels are willing to give you our word never to attack the palace again and to do our best to stop or slow the Southern rebels. We see so much that you can’t from behind these walls. We would swear our allegiance to you, without question, if you would be willing to give us a sign of your readiness to work with us toward a future that would finally give the people of Illéa a chance to live their own lives.”
Maxon didn’t seem to know what to say, so I spoke up.
“What do the Southern rebels want anyway? Just to kill us all?”
August moved his head in a motion that was neither a shake nor a nod. “That’s part of it, sure, but only so they’ll have no one to combat them. Too much of the population is oppressed, and this growing cell has bought in to the idea that they could rule the country themselves. America, you’re a Five; I know you’ve seen your share of people who hate the monarchy.”
Maxon discreetly moved his eyes my way. I gave a brief nod.
“Of course you have. Because when you’re on the bottom, your only choice is to blame the top. In this case, they’ve got good reason—after all, it was a One who sentenced them to their lives with no real hope for bettering them. Those in charge of the Southern rebels have convinced their disciples that the way to get back what they think is theirs is to take it from the monarchy. But I’ve had people defect from the Southerner rebel leadership and end up with me. I know for a fact that once the Southerners get control, they have no intention of sharing the wealth. When in history has that ever happened?
“Their plan is to obliterate what Illéa has, take over, make a bunch of promises, and leave everyone in the same place they are now. For most people, I’m sure it’ll get worse. The Sixes and Sevens won’t move up, except for a select few the rebels will manipulate for the sake of the show. Twos and Threes will have everything stripped from them. It’ll make a bunch of people feel vindicated, but it won’t fix anything.
“If there are no pop stars churning out those mind-numbing songs, then there are no musicians in the booths backing them up, no clerks running back and forth with tapes, no shop owners selling the music. Taking out one person at the top destroys thousands at the bottom.”
August paused for a moment, looking consumed with worry. “It’ll be Gregory all over again, only worse. The Southerners are prepared to be far more cutthroat than you could ever be, and the chances of the country bouncing back are slim. It’ll be the same old oppression under a brand-new name . . . and your people will suffer like never before.” He looked into Maxon’s eyes. They seemed to have some understanding between them, something that maybe came from being born to lead.
“All we need is a sign, and we’ll do everything we can to help you change things, peacefully and fairly. Your people deserve a chance.”
Maxon looked at the table. I couldn’t imagine the debate in his head. “What kind of sign?” he asked hesitantly. “Money?”
“No,” August said, nearly laughing. “We have more funds than you might guess.”
“How is that possible?”
“Donations,” he replied simply.
Maxon nodded, but I was surprised. Donations meant there were people—who knew how many—supporting them. How big was the Northern rebel force when those supporters were taken into account? How much of the country was asking for exactly what these two had come here requesting?
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