“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.
“It’s the stress, I think,” Marlee commented. “Have you noticed that Natalie’s getting, I don’t know … more aloof?”
I nodded, and we both looked over to the trio of girls playing their card game. Kriss was smiling as she shuffled, but Natalie was examining the ends of her hair, occasionally pulling out a strand she didn’t seem to like. Her expression was distracted.
“I think we’re all starting to feel it,” I confessed. “It’s harder to sit back and enjoy the palace now that the group is so small.”
Celeste grunted, and we peeked over at her but quickly averted our eyes when she caught us looking.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Marlee said, shifting in her seat. “I think I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
“I was just thinking the same thing. Do you want to go together?” I offered.
Smiling, she shook her head. “You go ahead. I’ll finish my tea first.”
“Okay. I’ll be back.”
I left the Women’s Room, taking my time walking down the gorgeous hallway. I wasn’t sure I would ever get over how spectacular it was here. I was so distracted that I ran smack into a guard as I turned the corner.
“Oh!” I said.
“Pardon me, miss. Hope I didn’t startle you.” He held me by my elbows, helping me regain my footing.
“No,” I said, giggling. “It’s fine. I should have been watching where I was going. Thanks for catching me. Officer …”
“Woodwork,” he answered, giving me a quick bow.
I smiled and rolled my eyes. Of course he knew.
“Well, I hope the next time I run into you, it won’t be quite so literal,” I joked.
He chuckled. “Agreed. Have a nice day, miss.”
I told Marlee about my embarrassing run-in with Officer Woodwork when I got back and warned her to watch her step. She laughed at me and shook her head.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting by the windows, chatting about home and the other girls as we drank in the sunshine.
It was sad to think about the future just then. Eventually the Selection would be over, and while I knew Marlee and I would still be close, I would miss talking to her every day. She was the first real friend I’d ever made, and I wished I could keep her beside me all the time.
As I tried to stay in the moment, Marlee gazed dreamily out the window. I wondered what she was thinking about; but everything was so peaceful, I didn’t ask.
THE WIDE DOORS OF MY balcony were open, as well as the one to the hallway, and my room was filled with the warm, sweet air blowing in from the gardens. I had hoped the soft breezes would be a consolation for the fact that I had so much work to do. Instead they distracted me, making me ache to be anywhere but stuck at my desk.
I sighed and reclined in my seat, letting my head drape over the back of the chair. “Anne,” I called.
“Yes, miss?” my head maid answered from the corner where she was sewing. Without looking, I knew that Mary and Lucy, my other two maids, had perked up, waiting to see if they could serve me as well.
“I command you to figure out what this report means,” I said, pointing a lazy arm at the detailed account on military statistics that sat in front of me. It was a task that all the Elite would be tested on, but I couldn’t bring myself to focus on it.
My three maids laughed, probably from both the ridiculousness of my demand and the fact that I’d issued one at all. I wouldn’t have called leadership one of my strong suits.
“I’m sorry, my lady, but I think that might be overstepping my boundaries,” Anne answered. Even though my request was a joke and her answer was, too, I could hear the genuine apology in her voice for not being able to help me.
“Fine.” I moaned, heaving myself into an upright position. “I’ll simply have to do it myself. The whole lot of you are worthless. I’m getting new maids tomorrow. This time I mean it.”
They all chuckled again, and I focused on the numbers one more time. I was getting the impression that this was a bad report, but I couldn’t be sure. I reread paragraphs and charts, furrowing my brow and biting the back of my pen as I tried to concentrate.
I heard Lucy laugh quietly, and I looked up to see what she was so amused by, following her eyes to the door. There, leaning against the frame, was Maxon.
“You gave me away!” he complained to Lucy, who continued to snicker.
I pushed back my chair in a rush and ran into his arms. “You read my mind!”
“Please tell me we can go outside. Just for a little while?”
He smiled. “I have twenty minutes before I have to be back.”
I pulled him down the hall, the excited chatter of my maids fading behind us.
There was no denying the gardens had become our place. Almost every chance we got to be alone, we came out here. It was such a stark contrast to how I used to spend my time with Aspen: holed up in the tiny tree house in my backyard, the only place we could be together safely.
Suddenly I wondered if Aspen was around somewhere, indistinguishable from the numerous guards in the palace, watching as Maxon held my hand.