The competition was deeper than I had guessed.


WE WERE SPARED THE HUMILIATION of dealing with the aftermath of our receptions on the Report. The visits from our foreign friends were mentioned in passing, but the actual events were kept from the public. It wasn’t until the next morning that Silvia and the queen came to speak to us about our performances.

“It was a very daunting task we gave you, and it absolutely could have gone horribly wrong. I’m pleased to say, however, that both teams did very well.” Silvia looked at each of us appraisingly.

We all sighed, and I reached for Kriss’s hand as she did the same. As confused as I was about her and Maxon, I knew there was no way I could have made it through that without her.

“If I’m honest, one event was slightly better than the other, but you should all be proud of your accomplishments. We received thank-you letters from our longtime friends in the German Federation for your gracious hosting,” Silvia said, looking at Celeste, Natalie, and Elise. “There were a few minor hiccups, and I don’t think any of us truly enjoy such serious affairs, but they certainly did.

“And as for you two,” Silvia turned toward Kriss and me. “The ladies from Italy enjoyed themselves immensely. They were quite impressed with your style, and the food; and they made a special point to ask for the wine you served, so, bravo! I wouldn’t be surprised if Illéa gained a wonderful new ally based on that welcome. You’re to be commended.”

Kriss squeaked, and I let out a nervous laugh, happy enough that it was over, let alone that we’d beat the others.

Silvia went on to talk about how she would be writing up an official report to hand over to the king and Maxon but said that none of us had a thing to worry about. As she spoke, a maid scurried into the room and ran over to the queen, whispering in her ear.

“Absolutely, they may,” the queen said, suddenly standing and walking forward.

The maid rushed back and opened the door for the king and Maxon. I knew men weren’t supposed to come into this room without the queen’s permission, but it was comical to see it in action.

As they entered, we stood to curtsy, but they didn’t seem to care about formalities.

“Dear ladies, we are sorry to intrude, but we have urgent news,” the king informed us.

“I’m afraid we’ve had a development with the war in New Asia,” Maxon said firmly. “The situation is so dire that Father and I are leaving this very moment to see if we can do any good.”

“What’s wrong?” the queen asked, clutching her chest.

“It’s nothing to worry about, my love,” the king said confidently. But that couldn’t be a completely honest statement if they had to rush out of here so suddenly.

Maxon walked over to his mother. They had a brief, whispered conversation before she kissed his forehead. He hugged her and stepped away. The king then began rattling off a list of instructions to the queen while Maxon came to say good-bye to each of us.

His good-bye to Natalie was so short it almost didn’t happen. Natalie didn’t seem too bothered, and I didn’t know what to make of that. Was she actually not worried by Maxon’s lack of affection, or was she so bothered that she was forcing herself to be calm?

Celeste draped herself across Maxon and exploded into the worst display of fake crying that I’d ever seen. It reminded me of May when she was younger, thinking tears would magically bring money for us to have what we wanted. When he went to untangle himself, she planted a kiss on his lips that he promptly—and in as polite a manner as possible—wiped away after his back was turned.

Elise and Kriss were so close that I heard his good-byes to them.

“Call ahead and tell them to go easy on us,” he said to Elise. I’d almost forgotten that the main reason she was still here was that she had family ties to leaders in New Asia. I wondered if this war going downhill would cost her her spot.

Then I suddenly realized that I had no clue what Illéa stood to lose if we lost this war.

“If you get me a phone, I will talk to my parents,” she promised.

Maxon nodded and kissed Elise’s hand, then walked over to Kriss.

She immediately laced her fingers in his.

“Will you be in danger?” she asked quietly, her voice beginning to shake.

“I don’t know. During our last trip to New Asia, the situation wasn’t nearly so tense. I can’t be sure this time.” His voice was so tender, I felt they should have been having this conversation in private. Kriss lifted her gaze to the ceiling and sighed, and in that quick second Maxon looked over to me. I averted my eyes.

“Please be careful,” she whispered. A tear fell onto her cheek.

“Of course, my dear.” Maxon gave her a silly little salute, which made her laugh a bit. He then kissed her cheek and put his lips to her ear. “Please try to keep my mother entertained. She worries.”

He pulled back to look into her eyes, and Kriss nodded once and let his hands go. The second they were no longer touching, a tremor went through her body. Maxon’s hands twitched for a second, like he was going to embrace her, but then he stepped away and started to walk toward me.

As if Maxon’s words of last week weren’t enough, here was physical proof of their relationship. By the look of it, they had something very sweet and real. One glimpse of Kriss with her face in her hands was proof of how much she cared for him. Either that, or she was an incredible actress.

I tried to gauge his expression when he looked at me versus the way he had looked at Kriss. Was it the same? Was there less warmth there?

“Try not to get into any trouble while I’m gone, all right?” he said teasingly.

He didn’t joke with Kriss. Did that mean something?

I raised my right hand. “I promise to be on my best behavior.”

He chuckled. “Excellent. One less thing to worry about.”

“What about us? Should we worry?”

Maxon shook his head. “We should be able to smooth over whatever’s going on. Father can be very diplomatic and—”

“You are such an idiot sometimes,” I said as Maxon’s brow furrowed. “I mean about you. Should we worry about you?”

His face was very serious then and did nothing to help my fears.

“Flying in and flying out. If we can make it to the ground …” Maxon swallowed once, and I saw how frightened he was.

I wanted to ask something else, but I didn’t know what to say.