“If not money,” Maxon said finally, “what do you want?”
August flicked his head toward me. “Pick her.”
I buried my face in my hands, knowing how Maxon would take this.
There was a long moment of silence before he lost his temper. “I will not have anyone else telling me who I can and cannot marry! This is my life you’re playing games with!”
I looked up in time to see August stand across the table. “And the palace has been playing with other people’s lives for years. Grow up, Maxon. You’re the prince. You want your damn crown, then keep it. But responsibilities come with that privilege.”
Guards were cautiously walking our way, alerted by Maxon’s tone and August’s aggressive stance. Certainly they could hear everything by now.
Maxon stood to counter him. “You don’t get to choose my wife. End of story.”
August, completely undeterred, stepped back and crossed his arms. “Fine! We have another option if this one doesn’t work.”
August rolled his eyes. “As if I would tell you, given how calmly you reacted the first time.”
“Come off it.”
“This one or that one doesn’t really matter. We just need to know you’ll have a partner who’ll be on the same page for this plan.”
“My name is America,” I said fiercely, standing and looking him straight in the eye, “not This One. I’m not some toy in your little revolution. You keep talking about everyone in Illéa having a chance at the life they want. What about me? What about my future? Do I not count in that plan?”
I searched their faces, waiting for an answer. They were silent. I noticed the guards, surrounding us, on edge.
I lowered my voice. “I’m all for killing off the castes, but I’m not something to be played with. If you’re looking for a pawn, there’s one girl upstairs so in love with him, she’d do anything you asked if it meant a proposal at the end of the day. And the other two . . . between duty and prestige, they’d be game, too. Go get one of them.”
Without waiting to be excused, I turned to leave, storming away as best I could in a robe and slippers.
“America! Wait!” Georgia called. I got out the door before she caught up with me. “Stop for a minute.”
“We’re sorry. We thought you two were in love. We didn’t realize we were asking for something he’d be opposed to. We were sure he’d be on board.”
“You don’t understand. He’s so tired of being bullied and bossed around. You have no idea what he’s been through.” I felt the tears rising, and I blinked them away, focusing on the designs on Georgia’s jacket.
“I know more than you think,” she said. “Maybe not everything, but a lot. We’ve been watching the Selection very closely, and it looks like you two get along so well. He seems so happy around you. And then . . . we know about how you rescued your maids.”
It took me a second to realize what that meant. Who was watching us on their behalf?
“And we saw what you did for Marlee. We saw you fight. And then your presentation a few days ago.” She stopped to laugh. “That took some guts. We could use a girl with guts.”
I shook my head. “I wasn’t trying to be a hero. Most of the time, I don’t feel anything close to brave.”
“So? It doesn’t really matter how you feel about your character; it just matters what you do with it. You, more than the others, act on what’s right before thinking about what it will mean for yourself. Maxon has some great candidates up there, but they won’t get their hands dirty to make things better. Not like you.”
“A lot of that was selfish. Marlee was important to me, and so are my maids.”
She stepped closer. “But didn’t those actions come with consequences?”
“And you probably knew they would. But you acted for those who couldn’t speak up for themselves. That’s special, America.”
This was different praise from what I was used to. I could handle my dad telling me I was a beautiful singer or Aspen saying I was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen . . . but this? It was almost overwhelming.
“Honestly, with some of the stuff you’ve done, I can’t believe the king let you stay. The whole thing on the Report . . .” She let out a whistle.
I laughed. “He was so angry.”
“I was shocked you made it out alive!”
“It was by the skin of my teeth, let me tell you. And most days I feel like I’m only seconds away from being kicked out.”
“But Maxon likes you, right? The way he guards you . . .”
I shrugged. “There are days when I feel so sure and then others where I have no idea. Today isn’t a good day. Neither was yesterday. Or the day before, if I’m honest.”
She nodded. “Well, we’re pulling for you, all the same.”
“Me and someone else,” I corrected.
Again she gave no clue as to her other favorite.
“What was the deal with that curtsy in the woods? Just messing with me?” I asked.
She smiled. “I know it might not seem like it by the way we act sometimes, but we really do care about the royal family. If we lose them, the Southern rebels will win. If they get true control . . . well, you heard August.” She shook her head. “Anyway, I’d felt certain I was looking at my future queen, so I figured the least you deserved was a curtsy.”
Her reasoning was so silly, it made me laugh again. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to talk to a girl I’m not competing with.”
“Getting a bit old?” she asked with a sympathetic expression.
“As it’s gotten smaller, it’s gotten worse. I mean, I knew it would, but . . . it feels like it’s moving away from trying to be the girl that Maxon would pick to making sure the other girls won’t be the one he picks. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
She nodded. “It does. But, hey, this is what you signed up for.”
I chuckled. “Actually, I didn’t. I was sort of . . . encouraged to put my name in. I didn’t want to be a princess.”
She smiled. “Not wanting the crown means you’re probably the best person to have it.”
I stared at her, convinced by her wide eyes that she believed that without a doubt. I hoped to ask more, but Maxon and August came out of the Great Room, looking surprisingly calm. A single guard followed at a distance. August was looking at Georgia like it had hurt him to be away from her even for a few minutes. Maybe that was the only reason she was here today.
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