I turned at the sound of my name. Maxon was jogging down the hall toward me.
I felt like I was seeing him for the first time.
He had his suit coat off, and the sleeves were rolled up on his white shirt. His blue tie was loosened at the neck, and his hair that was always slicked back was bouncing around a bit as he moved. In stark contrast to the person in uniform yesterday, he looked more boyish, more real.
I froze. Maxon came up to me and grabbed my wrists.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?” he pressed.
“Nothing. I’m fine,” I replied. Maxon let out a breath I didn’t realize he was holding.
“Thank goodness. When I got your note, I thought you were sick or something happened to your family.”
“Oh! Oh, no. Maxon, I’m so sorry. I knew that was a stupid idea. I just didn’t know if you’d be at dinner, and I wanted to see you.”
“Well, what for?” he asked. He was still looking me over with a furrowed brow, as if he was making sure nothing was broken.
“Just to see you.”
Maxon stopped moving. He looked into my eyes with a kind of wonder.
“You just wanted to see me?” He looked happily surprised.
“Don’t be so shocked. Friends usually spend time together.” My tone added the of course.
“Ah, you’re cross with me because I’ve been engaged all week, aren’t you? I didn’t mean to neglect our friendship, America.” Now he was back to the businesslike Maxon.
“No, I’m not mad. I was just explaining myself. You look busy. Go back to work, and I’ll see you when you’re free.” I noticed he was still holding on to my wrists.
“Actually, do you mind if I stay a few minutes? They’re having a budget meeting upstairs, and I detest those things.” Without waiting for an answer, Maxon pulled me over to a short, plush sofa halfway down the hall that rested underneath a window, and I giggled a little as we sat. “What’s so funny?”
“Just you,” I said, smiling. “It’s cute to see that your job bugs you. What’s so bad about the meetings, anyway?”
“Oh, America!” he said, facing me again. “They go round and round in circles. Father does a good job at calming the advisers, but it’s so hard to push the committees in any given direction. Mom is always on Father to give more to the school systems—she thinks the more educated you are, the less likely you are to be a criminal, and I agree—but Father is never forceful enough to get them to take away from other areas that could manage perfectly with lower funds. It’s infuriating! And it’s not like I’m in command, so my opinion is easily overlooked.” Maxon propped his elbows on his knees and rested his head in his hands. He looked tired.
So now I could see a bit of Maxon’s world, but it was just as unimaginable as ever. How could you deny the voice of your future sovereign?
“I’m sorry. On the plus side, you’ll have more of a say in the future.” I rubbed his back, trying to encourage him.
“I know. I tell myself that. But it’s so frustrating when we could change things now if they’d only listen.” His voice was a little hard to hear when it was directed at the carpet.
“Well, don’t be too discouraged. Your mom is on the right path, but education alone won’t fix anything.”
Maxon raised his head. “What do you mean?” It almost sounded like an accusation. And rightly so. Here was an idea that he’d been championing, and I’d just squashed it. I tried to backpedal.
“Well, compared to the fancy-pants tutors someone like you has, the education system for Sixes and Sevens is terrible. I think getting better teachers or better facilities would do them a world of good. But then what about the Eights? Isn’t that caste responsible for most of the crimes? They don’t get any education. I think if they felt they had something, anything at all, it might encourage them.
“Besides…” I paused. I didn’t know if this was something a boy who’d grown up with everything handed to him could grasp. “Have you ever been hungry, Maxon? Not just ready for dinner, but starving? If there was absolutely no food here, nothing for your mother or father, and you knew that if you just took something from people who had more in a day than you’d have in your whole life, you could eat … what would you do? If they were counting on you, what wouldn’t you do for someone you loved?”
He was quiet for a moment. Once before—when we’d talked about my maids during the attack—we’d kind of acknowledged the wide gap between us. This was a far more controversial topic of discussion, and I could see him wanting to avoid it.
“America, I’m not saying that some people don’t have it hard, but stealing is—”
“Close your eyes, Maxon.”
“Close your eyes.”
He frowned at me but obeyed. I waited until his eyes were shut and his face looked relaxed before I started.
“Somewhere in this palace, there is a woman who will be your wife.”
I saw his mouth twitch, the beginnings of a hopeful smile.
“Maybe you don’t know which face it is yet, but think of the girls in that room. Imagine the one who loves you the most. Imagine your ‘dear.’”
His hand was resting next to mine on the seat, and his fingers grazed mine for a second. I shied away from the touch.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, looking my way.
“Keep ’em closed!”
He chuckled and went back to his original position.
“This girl? Imagine that she depends on you. She needs you to cherish her and make her feel like the Selection didn’t even happen. Like if you were dropped on your own out in the middle of the country to wander around door to door, she’s still the one you would have found. She was always the one you would have picked.”
The hopeful smile began to settle. More than settle, it started to sag.
“She needs you to provide for her and protect her. And if it came to a point where there was absolutely nothing to eat, and you couldn’t even fall asleep at night because the sound of her stomach growling kept you awake—”
“Stop it!” Maxon stood quickly. He walked across the hall and stayed there for a while, facing away from me.
I felt a little awkward. I hadn’t realized this would make him so upset.
“Sorry,” I whispered.
He nodded his head but continued to look at the wall. After a moment he turned around. His eyes were searching mine, sad and questioning.
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