The Guard Page 1



“Day off,” I mumbled, pulling the blanket over my head.

“No one’s off today. Get up, and I’ll explain.”

I sighed. I was normally excited to get to work. The routine, the discipline, the sense of accomplishment at the end of the day: I loved it all. Today was a different story.

Last night’s Halloween party had been my last chance. When America and I had our one dance, and she explained Maxon’s distance, I got a minute to remind her of who we were . . . and I felt it. Those threads that bound us together were still there. Perhaps they had frayed from the strain of the Selection, but they were holding.

“Tell me you’ll wait for me,” I’d pleaded.

She said nothing, but I didn’t lose hope.

Not until he was there, marching up to her, dripping charm and wealth and power. That was it. I’d lost.

Whatever Maxon had whispered to her out on the dance floor seemed to sweep every worry from her head. She clung to him, song after song, staring into his eyes the way she used to stare into mine.

So maybe I’d downed a little too much alcohol while I watched it happen. And maybe that vase in the foyer was broken because I threw it. And maybe I’d stifled my cries by biting my pillow so Avery wouldn’t hear me.

If Avery’s words this morning were any indication, chances were Maxon proposed late last night, and we would all be on call for the official announcement.

How was I supposed to face that moment? How was I supposed to stand there and protect it? He was going to give her a ring I could never afford, a life I could never provide . . . and I would hate him to my very last breath for it.

I sat up, keeping my eyes down. “What’s happening?” I asked, my head throbbing with every syllable.

“It’s bad. Really bad.”

I scrunched my forehead and looked up. Avery was sitting on his bed, buttoning his shirt. Our eyes met, and I could see the worry in his.

“What do you mean? What’s bad?” If this was some stupid drama over not finding the right colored tablecloths or something, I was going back to bed.

Avery exhaled. “You know Woodwork? Friendly guy, smiles a lot?”

“Yeah. We do rounds together sometimes. He’s nice.” Woodwork had been a Seven, and we’d bonded almost instantly over our large families and deceased fathers. He was a hard worker, and it was clear that he was someone who truly deserved his new caste. “Why? What’s going on?”

Avery seemed stunned. “He got caught last night with one of the Elite girls.”

I froze. “What? How?”

“The cameras. Reporters were getting candid shots of people wandering around the palace and one of them heard something in a closet. Opened it up and found Woodwork with Lady Marlee.”

“But that’s”—I almost said America’s closest friend, but caught myself just in time—“crazy,” I finished.

“You’re telling me.” Avery picked up his socks and continued to dress. “He seemed so smart. Must have just had too much to drink.”

He probably had, but I doubted that was why this had happened. Woodwork was smart. He wanted to take care of his family as much as I did mine. The only explanation for why he would have risked getting caught would be the same reason I had risked it: he must love Marlee desperately.

I massaged my temples, willing the headache to clear. I couldn’t feel like this right now, not with something so big happening. My eyes popped open as I understood what this might mean.

“Are they . . . are they going to kill them?” I asked quietly, like maybe if I said it too loud everyone would remember that was what the palace did to traitors.

Avery shook his head, and I felt my heart start beating again. “They’re going to cane them. And the other Elite and their families are going to be front and center for it. The blocks are already set up outside the palace walls, so we’re all on standby. Get your uniform on.”

He stood and walked to the door. “And get some coffee before you report in,” he said over his shoulder. “You look like you’re the one getting caned.”

The third and fourth floors were high enough to see over the thick walls that protected the palace from the rest of the world, and I quickly made my way to a broad window on the fourth floor. I looked down at the seats for the royal family and the Elite, as well as the stage for Marlee and Woodwork. It seemed most of the guards and staff had the same idea I did, and I nodded at the two other guards who were standing at the window, and the one butler, his uniform looking freshly pressed but his face wrinkled with worry. Just as the palace doors opened, and the girls and their families went marching out to the thunderous cheering of the crowd, two maids came rushing up behind us. Recognizing Lucy and Mary, I made a space for them beside me.

“Is Anne coming?” I asked.

“No,” Mary said. “She didn’t think it was right when there was so much work to do.”

I nodded. That sounded like her.

I ran into America’s maids all the time since I guarded her door at night, and while I always tried to be professional in the palace, I tended to let some of the formality slip with them. I wanted to know the people who took care of my girl; in my eyes, I would forever be beholden to them for all the things they did for her.

I looked down at Lucy and could see she was wringing her hands. Even in my short time at the palace, I had noticed that when she got stressed, her anxieties manifested themselves in a dozen physical tics. Training camp taught me to look for nervous behavior when people entered the palace, to watch those people in particular. I knew Lucy was no threat, and when I saw her in distress, I felt a need to protect her.

“Are you sure you want to watch this?” I whispered to her. “It won’t be pretty.”

“I know. But I really liked Lady Marlee,” she replied, just as quietly. “I feel like I should be here.”

“She’s not a lady anymore,” I commented, sure that she would be torn down to the lowest rank possible.

Lucy thought for a moment. “Any girl who would risk her life for someone she loves certainly deserves to be called a lady.”

I grinned. “Excellent point.” I watched as her hands stilled and a tiny smile came to her face for a flicker of a second.

The crowd’s cheers turned to cries of disdain as Marlee and Woodwork hobbled across the gravel and into the space cleared in front of the palace gates. The guards pulled them rather harshly, and based on his gait, I guessed Woodwork had already taken a beating.

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