THE ANGELES AIR WAS QUIET, and for a while I lay still, listening to the sound of Maxon’s breathing. It was getting harder and harder to catch him in a truly calm and happy moment, and I soaked up the time, grateful that he seemed to be at his best when he and I were alone.
Ever since the Selection had been narrowed down to six girls, he’d been more anxious than he was when the thirty-five of us arrived in the first place. I guessed he thought he’d have more time to make his choices. And though it made me feel guilty to admit it, I knew I was the reason why he wished he did.
Prince Maxon, heir to the Illéa throne, liked me. He’d told me a week ago that if I could simply say that I cared for him the way he did for me, without anything holding me back, this whole competition would be over. And sometimes I played with the idea, wondering how it would feel to be Maxon’s alone.
But the thing was, Maxon wasn’t really mine to begin with. There were five other girls here—girls he took on dates and whispered things to—and I didn’t know what to make of that. And then there was the fact that if I accepted Maxon, it meant I had to accept a crown, a thought I tended to ignore if only because I wasn’t sure what it would mean for me.
And, of course, there was Aspen.
He wasn’t technically my boyfriend anymore—he’d broken up with me before my name was even drawn for the Selection—but when he showed up at the palace as one of the guards, all the feelings I’d been trying to let go of flooded my heart. Aspen was my first love; when I looked at him … I was his.
Maxon didn’t know that Aspen was in the palace, but he did know that there was someone at home that I was trying to get over, and he was graciously giving me time to move on while attempting to find someone else he’d be happy with in the event I couldn’t ever love him.
As he moved his head, inhaling just above my hairline, I considered it. What would it be like to simply love Maxon?
“Do you know when the last time was that I really looked at the stars?” he asked.
I settled closer to him on our blanket, trying to keep warm in the cool Angeles night. “No idea.”
“A tutor had me studying astronomy a few years ago. If you look closely, you can tell that the stars are actually different colors.”
“Wait, the last time you looked at the stars was to study them? What about for fun?”
He chuckled. “Fun. I’ll have to pencil in some between the budget consultations and infrastructure committee meetings. Oh, and war strategizing, which, by the way, I am terrible at.”
“What else are you terrible at?” I asked, running my hand across his starched shirt. Encouraged by the touch, Maxon drew circles on my shoulder with the hand he had wrapped behind my back.
“Why would you want to know that?” he asked in mock irritation.
“Because I still know so little about you. And you seem perfect all the time. It’s nice to have proof you’re not.”
He propped himself up on an elbow, focusing on my face. “You know I’m not.”
“Pretty close,” I countered. Little flickers of touch ran between us. Knees, arms, fingers.
He shook his head, a small smile on his face. “Okay, then. I can’t plan wars. I’m rotten at it. And I’m guessing I’d be a terrible cook. I’ve never tried, so—”
“You might have noticed the teams of people keeping you up to your neck in pastries? They happen to feed me as well.”
I giggled. I helped cook practically every meal at home. “More,” I demanded. “What else are you bad at?”
He held me close, his brown eyes bright with a secret. “Recently I’ve discovered this one thing ….”
“It turns out I’m absolutely terrible at staying away from you. It’s a very serious problem.”
I smiled. “Have you really tried?”
He pretended to think about it. “Well, no. And don’t expect me to start.”
We laughed quietly, holding on to each other. In these moments, it was so easy to picture this being the rest of my life.
The rustle of leaves and grass announced that someone was coming. Even though our date was completely acceptable, I felt a little embarrassed and sat up quickly. Maxon followed suit as a guard made his way around the hedge to us.
“Your Majesty,” he said with a bow. “Sorry to intrude, sir, but it’s really unwise to stay out this late for so long. The rebels could—”
“Understood,” Maxon said with a sigh. “We’ll be right in.”
The guard left us alone, and Maxon turned back to me. “Another fault of mine: I’m losing patience with the rebels. I’m tired of dealing with them.”
He stood and offered me his hand. I took it, watching the sad frustration in his eyes. We’d been attacked twice by the rebels since the start of the Selection—once by the simply disruptive Northerners and once by the deadly Southerners—and even with my brief experience, I could understand his exhaustion.
Maxon was picking up the blanket and shaking it out, clearly not happy that our night had been cut short.
“Hey,” I said, urging him to face me. “I had fun.”
“No, really,” I said, walking over to him. He moved the blanket to one hand to wrap his free arm around me. “We should do it again sometime. You can tell me which stars are which colors, because I seriously can’t tell.”
Maxon gave me a sad smile. “I wish things were easier sometimes, normal.”
I moved so I could wrap my arms around him, and as I did so, Maxon dropped the blanket to return the gesture. “I hate to break it to you, Your Majesty, but even without the guards, you’re far from normal.”
His expression lightened a bit but was still serious. “You’d like me more if I was.”
“I know you find it hard to believe, but I really do like you the way you are. I just need more—”
“Time. I know. And I’m prepared to give you that. I only wish I knew that you’d actually want to be with me when that time was over.”
I looked away. That wasn’t something I could promise. I weighed Maxon and Aspen in my heart over and over, and neither of them ever had a true edge. Except, maybe, when I was alone with one of them. Because, at that moment, I was tempted to promise Maxon that I would be there for him in the end.
But I couldn’t.
“Maxon,” I whispered, seeing how dejected he looked at my lack of an answer. “I can’t tell you that. But what I can tell you is that I want to be here. I want to know if there’s a possibility for … for …” I stammered, not sure how to put it.
“Us?” Maxon guessed.
I smiled, happy at how easily he understood me. “Yes. I want to know if there’s a possibility for us to be an us.”
He moved a lock of hair behind my shoulder. “I think the odds are very high,” he said matter-of-factly.
“I think so, too. Just … time, okay?”
He nodded, looking happier. This was how I wanted to end our night, with hope. Well, and maybe one more thing. I bit my lip and leaned into Maxon, asking with my eyes.
Without a second of hesitation, he bent to kiss me. It was warm and gentle, and it left me feeling adored and somehow aching for more. I could have stayed there for hours, just to see if I could get enough of that feeling; but too soon, Maxon backed away.
“Let’s go,” he said in a playful tone, pulling me toward the palace. “Better get inside before the guards come for us on horseback with spears drawn.”
As Maxon left me at the stairs, the tiredness hit me like a wall. I was practically dragging myself up to the second floor and around the corner to my room when, suddenly, I was quite awake again.
“Oh!” Aspen said, surprised to see me, too. “I think it makes me the worst guard ever that I assumed you were in your room this whole time.”
I giggled. The Elite were supposed to sleep with at least one of their maids on watch in the night. I really didn’t like that, so Maxon insisted on stationing a guard by my room in case there was an emergency. The thing was, most of the time that guard was Aspen. It was a strange mix of exhilaration and terror knowing that nearly every night he was right outside my door.
The lightness of the moment faded quickly as Aspen grasped what it meant that I hadn’t been safely tucked in my bed. He cleared his throat uncomfortably.
“Did you have a good time?”
“Aspen,” I whispered, looking to make sure no one was around. “Don’t be upset. I’m part of the Selection, and this is just how it is.”
“How am I supposed to stand a chance, Mer? How can I compete when you only ever talk to one of us?” He made a good point, but what could I do?
“Please don’t be mad at me, Aspen. I’m trying to figure all this out.”
“No, Mer,” he said, gentleness returning to his voice. “I’m not mad at you. I miss you.” He didn’t dare say the words aloud, but he mouthed them. I love you.
“I know,” I said, placing a hand on his chest, letting myself forget for a moment all that we were risking. “But that doesn’t change where we are or that I’m an Elite now. I need time, Aspen.”
He reached up to hold my hand in his and nodded. “I can give you that. Just … try to find some time for me, too.”
I didn’t want to bring up how complicated that would be, so I gave him a tiny smile before gently pulling my hand away. “I need to go.”
He watched me as I walked into my room and shut the door behind me.
Time. I was asking for a lot of it these days. I hoped that if I had enough, everything would somehow fall into place.
“NO, NO,” QUEEN AMBERLY ANSWERED with a laugh. “I only had three bridesmaids, though Clarkson’s mother suggested I have more. I just wanted my sisters and my best friend, who, coincidentally, I’d met during my Selection.”
I peeked over at Marlee and was happy to find she was looking at me, too. Before I arrived at the palace, I had assumed that with this being such a high-stakes competition, there’d be no way any of the girls would be friendly. Marlee had embraced me the first time we met, and we’d been there for each other from that moment on. With a single almost-exception, we’d never even had an argument.
A few weeks ago, Marlee had mentioned that she didn’t think she wanted to be with Maxon. When I’d pushed her to explain, she clammed up. She wasn’t mad at me, I knew that, but those days of silence before we’d let it go were lonely.
“I want seven bridesmaids,” Kriss said. “I mean, if Maxon chooses me and I get to have a big wedding.”
“Well, I won’t have bridesmaids,” Celeste said, countering Kriss. “They’re just distracting. And since it would be televised, I want all eyes on me.”
I fumed. It was rare that we all got to sit and talk with Queen Amberly, and here Celeste was, being a brat and ruining it.
“I’d want to incorporate some of my culture’s traditions into my wedding,” Elise added quietly. “Girls back in New Asia use a lot of red in their ceremonies, and the groom has to bring gifts to the bride’s friends to reward them for letting her marry him.”
Kriss piped up. “Remind me to be in your wedding party. I love presents!”
“Me, too!” Marlee exclaimed.
“Lady America, you’ve been awfully quiet,” Queen Amberly said. “What do you want at your wedding?”
I blushed because I was completely unprepared to comment.
There was only one wedding I’d ever imagined, and it was going to take place at the Province of Carolina Services Office after an exhausting amount of paperwork.
“Well, the one thing I’ve thought about is having my dad give me away. You know when he takes your hand and puts it in the hand of the person you marry? That’s the only part I’ve ever really wanted.” Embarrassingly enough, it was true.
“But everyone does that,” Celeste complained. “That’s not even original.”
I should have been mad that she called me out, but I merely shrugged. “I want to know that my dad completely approves of my choice on the day it really matters.”
“That’s nice,” Natalie said, sipping her tea and looking out the window.
Queen Amberly laughed lightly. “I certainly hope he approves. No matter who it is.” She added the last words quickly, catching herself in the middle of implying that Maxon would be my choice.
I wondered if she thought that, if Maxon had told her about us.
Shortly after, the wedding talk died down, and the queen left to go work in her room. Celeste parked herself in front of the large television embedded in the wall, and the others started a card game.
“That was fun,” Marlee said as we settled in at a table together. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the queen talk so much.”
“She’s getting excited, I think.” I hadn’t mentioned to anyone what Maxon’s aunt had told me about how Queen Amberly tried many times for another child and failed. Adele had predicted that her sister would warm up to us once the group was smaller, and she was right.
“Okay, you have to tell me: Do you honestly not have any other plans for your wedding or did you just not want to share?”
“I really don’t,” I promised. “I have a hard time picturing a big wedding, you know? I’m a Five.”
Marlee shook her head. “You were a Five. You’re a Three now.”
“Right,” I said, remembering my new label.
I was born into a family of Fives—artists and musicians who were generally poorly paid—and though I hated the caste system in general, I liked what I did for a living. It was strange to think of myself as a Three, to consider embracing teaching or writing as a profession.
“Stop stressing,” Marlee said, reading my face. “You don’t have anything to worry about yet.”
I was about to protest but was interrupted by a cry from Celeste.
“Come on!” she yelled, slamming the remote against the couch before pointing it at the television again. “Ugh!”
“Is it just me or is she getting worse?” I whispered to Marlee. We watched as Celeste hit the remote over and over before giving up and going to change the channel manually. I guessed if I had grown up as a Two, that would be something worth getting worked up over.