I rushed to the small gated window of my cell. I watched as the door to the cell across the hallway—Carter’s cell—was opened, and Maxon was escorted in. I strained to hear what was said, but though I could make out Maxon’s voice, I couldn’t decipher any words. I also heard weak mutters in reply and knew they were from Carter. He was awake. And alive.
I simultaneously sighed and shivered, then lifted the tulle back over my shoulders.
After a few minutes Carter’s cell door opened again, and I watched as Maxon approached my cell. The guards let him in and shut the door behind him. He took one look at me and gasped.
“Good Lord, what have they done to you?” Maxon walked over, unbuttoning his suit coat as he did.
“Maxon, I’m so sorry,” I cried.
He slid off his coat and wrapped it around me. “Did the guards tear your costume? Did they harm you?”
“I never meant to be unfaithful to you. I never wanted to hurt you.”
He lifted his hands to my cheeks. “Marlee, listen to me. Did the guards hit you?”
I shook my head. “One ripped my wings off when he was pushing me in the door, but they haven’t done anything else.”
He sighed, clearly relieved. What a good man he was, still caring about my well-being even after he’d found out about me and Carter.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered again.
Maxon’s hands dropped to my shoulders. “I’m only just starting to understand how pointless it is to fight being in love. I certainly don’t blame you for it.”
I stared into his kind eyes. “We tried to stop ourselves. I promise we did. But I love him. I’d marry him tomorrow . . . if we wouldn’t be dead by then.” I dropped my head, sobbing uncontrollably. I wanted to be more of a lady about this, to accept my punishment with grace. But it felt so unfair, like everything was being taken away from me before it had even truly been mine in the first place.
Maxon began rubbing my back gently. “You’re not going to die.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “What?”
“You haven’t been sentenced to death.”
I let out a rush of air and embraced him. “Thank you! Thank you so much! It’s more than we deserve!”
“Stop! Stop!” he insisted, tugging at my arms.
I stepped back, embarrassed for breaking protocol after everything else I’d done.
“You haven’t been sentenced to death,” he repeated, “but you still have to be punished.” He looked at the ground and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Marlee, but you’re both going to be publicly caned in the morning.”
He seemed to be having trouble maintaining eye contact with me; if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he understood the pain we were in for. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I tried to prevent this, but my father is insistent that the palace needs to save face; and since the footage of you two together has already been circulated, there’s nothing I can do to change his mind.”
I cleared my throat. “How many times?”
“Fifteen. I think the plan is to make it much worse for Carter than you, but either way, it’s going to be incredibly painful. I know it sometimes causes people to black out. I’m so, so sorry, Marlee.” He looked disappointed in himself. And all I could think of was how good he was.
“They’re going to make you Eights,” he said. “Everyone is going to watch it.”
“But Carter and I will be together, right?”
“Then what else can I ask for? I’ll take a caning for that. I’d take his as well if that was possible.”
Maxon smiled sadly. “Carter literally just pleaded to take yours for you.”
I smiled, too, as more tears—happier tears—filled my eyes. “I’m not surprised.”
Maxon shook his head again. “I keep thinking that I have a grasp on what it means to be in love, and then I see you two, each asking to spare the other, and I wonder if I understand anything at all.”
I gripped his coat tighter around me. “You do. I know you do.” I stared at him. “Her, on the other hand . . . she might need time.”
He chuckled quietly. “She’s going to miss you. She used to encourage me to pursue you.”
“Only a true friend would try to get someone she cared about to become princess over herself. But I was never meant for you, or for the crown. I found my person.”
“She said something to me once,” he said slowly, “that I’ll never forget. She said, ‘True love is usually the most inconvenient kind.’”
I looked around my cell. “She was right.”
We were silent for a few moments before I spoke again. “I’m scared.”
He embraced me. “It will be over rather quickly. The buildup to the caning will be the worst part, but take your mind somewhere else while they’re talking. And I will try to get you the best medicines, the ones they save for me, so that you heal faster.” I started crying, frightened and thankful and a thousand other things. “For now, you need to get what sleep you can. I told Carter to rest as well. It will help.” I nodded into his shoulder, and he pulled me tight.
“What did he say? Is he all right?”
“He’s been beaten, but he’s doing okay for now. He told me to tell you he loved you and to do whatever I asked.”
I sighed, comforted by the words. “I’m in your debt forever.”
Maxon didn’t reply. He simply held me until I relaxed. Finally, he kissed my forehead and turned to leave.
“Good-bye,” I whispered.
He smiled at me and knocked twice on the door, and a guard escorted him away.
I went back to my place by the wall and curled my legs up under my dress while I turned Maxon’s coat into a makeshift blanket. I let myself drift back into my memories. . . .