“He let you have the pants anyway?” she asked. I had started talking about Maxon as soon as I could, eager to know how their conversation had gone.
“Yeah. He was very generous about it all.”
“I think it’s charming that he’s a good winner.”
“He is a good winner. He’s even gracious when he’s gotten the raw end of things.” Like a knee to the royal jewels, for example.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing.” I didn’t want to explain that one. “What did you two talk about today?”
“Well, he asked me if I’d like to see him this week.” She blushed.
“Marlee! That’s great!”
“Hush!” she said, looking around, though the rest of the girls had already ascended the stairs. “I’m trying not to get my hopes up.”
We were quiet for a minute before she burst.
“Who am I kidding? I’m so excited I can barely stand it! I hope he won’t take too long to call on me.”
“If he’s already asked, I’m sure he’ll follow through soon. I mean, after he finishes running the country for the day, that is.”
She laughed. “I can’t believe this! I mean, I knew he was handsome, but I wasn’t sure how he’d behave. I was worried he’d be… I don’t know, stuffy or something.”
“Me, too. But he’s actually…” What was Maxon actually? He was sort of stuffy, but not in a way that was as off-putting as I’d imagined. Undeniably a prince, but still so … so… “Normal.”
Marlee wasn’t looking at me anymore. She’d lost herself in a daydream as we walked. I hoped that this image of Maxon that she was building was one he could deliver. And that she would be the kind of girl he wanted. I left her at her door with a small wave and went on to my room.
My thoughts of Marlee and Maxon flew out of my head as soon as I opened the door. Anne and Mary were crouched around a very distressed Lucy. Her face was red with tears falling down her cheeks; her usual tiny trembles were full-on shakes, racking her entire body.
“Calm down now, Lucy, everything’s fine,” Anne was whispering as she stroked Lucy’s messy hair.
“Everything is over now. No one was hurt. You’re safe, dear,” Mary cooed, holding a twitching hand.
I was too shocked to speak. This moment was Lucy’s private struggle, not meant for my eyes. I went to back out of my room, but Lucy caught me before I could back away.
“S-s-sorry, Lady, Lady, Lady…,” she stammered. The others looked up with anxious expressions.
“Don’t trouble yourself. Are you all right?” I asked, closing the door so no one else would see.
Lucy tried to start again, but couldn’t form the words. Her tears and the shaking were overwhelming her little body.
“She’ll be fine, miss,” Anne interceded. “It takes a few hours, but she calms down once everything’s quiet. If it stays bad, we can take her to the hospital wing.” Anne dropped her voice. “Only Lucy doesn’t want that. If they think you’re unfit, they hide you down in the laundry rooms or the kitchen. Lucy likes being a maid.”
I didn’t know who Anne thought she was hiding her voice from. We were all surrounding Lucy, and she could hear those words clearly, even in her state.
“P-p-please, miss. I don’t—I don’t—I…,” she tried.
“Hush. No one’s turning you in,” I told her. I looked to Anne and Mary. “Help me get her on the bed.”
With the three of us it should have been easy, but Lucy was writhing so that her arms and legs would slip from our hands. It took quite a bit of effort to get her settled. Once we tucked her under the covers, the comfort of the bed seemed to do more than our words could. Lucy’s shudders became slower, and she stared vacantly at the canopy above the bed.
Mary sat on the edge of the bed and started humming a tune, reminding me all too much of the way I would baby May when she was sick. I pulled Anne into a corner, far away from Lucy’s ears.
“What happened? Did someone get through?” I asked. I would expect to be told if that were the case.
“No, no,” Anne assured me. “Lucy always gets like this when the rebels come. Just talking about them will send her into a crying fit. She…”
Anne looked down to her polished black shoes, trying to decide if she should tell me something. I didn’t want to pry into Lucy’s life, but I did want to understand. She took a deep breath and started.
“Some of us were born here. Mary was born in the castle, and her parents are still here. I was an orphan, taken in because the palace needed staff.” She straightened her dress, as if she could rub off this piece of her history that seemed to bother her. “Lucy was sold to the palace.”
“Sold? How can that be? There aren’t slaves here.”
“Not technically, no, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Lucy’s family needed money for an operation for her mother. They gave their services over to a family of Threes in exchange for the money. Her mother never got better, they never made their way out of the debt, so Lucy and her father had been living with this family for ages. From what I understand, it wasn’t much better than living in a barn with the way they were kept.
“The son had taken a liking to Lucy, and I know sometimes it doesn’t matter what caste you’re in, but Six to Three is quite a jump. When his mother discovered his intentions for Lucy, she sold her and her father to the palace. I remember when she came. Cried for days. They must have been terribly in love.”
I looked over at Lucy. At least in my case, one of us got to make the decision. She had no choice when it came to losing the man she loved.
“Lucy’s dad works in the stables. He’s not very fast or strong, but he’s incredibly dedicated. And Lucy is a maid. I know it might seem silly to you, but it’s an honor to be a maid in the palace. We are the front line. We are the ones deemed fit enough and smart enough and attractive enough to be seen by anyone who comes to call. We take our positions seriously, and with reason. If you screw up, you’re put in the kitchen, where your fingers are working all day, and the clothes are baggy. Or you chop firewood or rake the grounds. It’s no small thing to be a maid.”
I felt stupid. In my mind, they were all Sixes. But there were rankings even within that, statuses that I didn’t understand.