I couldn’t blame him. If you were wealthy enough, you could regulate having a family. If you were a Four or worse, they left you to fend for yourselves. This had been the subject of many an argument for us over the last six months, when we seriously started trying to find a way to be together. Children were the wild card. The more you had, the more there were to work. But then again, so many hungry mouths…
We fell quiet again, both unsure of what to say. Aspen was a passionate person; he tended to get a little carried away in an argument. He had gotten better about catching himself before he got too angry, and I knew that’s what he was doing now.
I didn’t want him to worry or be upset; I really thought we could handle it. If we just planned for everything we could, we’d make it through everything we couldn’t. Maybe I was too optimistic, maybe I was just too far in love, but I really believed that anything Aspen and I wanted badly enough, we could make happen.
“I think you should do it,” he said suddenly.
“Enter the Selection. I think you should do it.”
I glared at him. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Mer, listen to me.” His mouth was right to my ear. It wasn’t fair; he knew this distracted me. When his voice came, it was breathy and slow, like he was saying something romantic, though what he was suggesting was anything but. “If you had a chance for something better than this, and you didn’t take it because of me, I’d never forgive myself. I couldn’t stand it.”
I let out my breath in a quick huff. “It’s so ridiculous. Think of the thousands of girls entering. I won’t even get picked.”
“If you won’t get picked, then why does it matter?” His hands were rubbing up and down my arms now. I couldn’t argue when he did that. “All I want is for you to enter. I just want you to try. And if you go, then you go. And if you don’t, then at least I won’t have to beat myself up for holding you back.”
“But I don’t love him, Aspen. I don’t even like him. I don’t even know him.”
“No one knows him. That’s the thing, though, maybe you would like him.”
“Aspen, stop. I love you.”
“And I love you.” He kissed me slowly to make his point. “And if you love me, you’ll do this so I won’t go crazy wondering what if.”
When he made it about him, I didn’t stand a chance. Because I couldn’t hurt him. I was doing everything I could to make his life easier. And I was right. There was absolutely no way I’d get chosen. So I should just go through the motions, appease everyone, and when I didn’t get picked, everyone would drop it.
“Please?” he breathed into my ear. The feeling sent chills down my body.
“Fine,” I whispered. “I’ll do it. But know now that I don’t want to be some princess. All I want is to be your wife.”
He stroked my hair.
“You will be.”
It must have been the light. Or the lack thereof. Because I swore his eyes welled up when he said that. Aspen had been through a lot, but I had seen him cry only once, when they whipped his brother in the square. Little Jemmy had stolen some fruit off a cart in the market. An adult would have had a brief trial and then, depending on the value of what was stolen, either been thrown in jail or sentenced to death. Jemmy was only nine, so he was beaten. Aspen’s mom didn’t have the money to take him to a proper doctor, so Jemmy had scars all up and down his back from the incident.
That night I waited by my window to see if Aspen would climb up into the tree house. When he did, I snuck out to him. He cried in my arms for an hour about how if he’d only worked harder, if he’d only done better, Jemmy wouldn’t have had to steal. How it was so unfair that Jemmy had to hurt because Aspen had failed.
It was agonizing, because it wasn’t true. But I couldn’t tell him that; he wouldn’t hear me. Aspen carried the needs of everyone he loved on his back. Somehow, miraculously, I became one of those people. So I made my load as light as I could.
“Would you sing for me? Give me something good to fall asleep to?”
I smiled. I loved giving him songs. So I settled in close and sang a quiet lullaby.
He let me sing for a few minutes before his fingers started moving absently below my ear. He pulled the neck of my shirt open wide and kissed along my neck and ears. Then he pulled up my short sleeve and kissed as far down my arm as he could reach. It made my breath hitch. Almost every time I sang, he did this. I think he enjoyed the sound of my raspy breathing more than the singing itself.
Before long we were tangled together on the dirty, thin rug. Aspen pulled me on top of him, and I brushed his scraggly hair with my fingers, hypnotized by the feel. He kissed me feverishly and hard. I felt his fingers dig into my waist, my back, my hips, my thighs. I was always surprised that he didn’t leave little finger-shaped bruises all over me.
We were cautious, always stopping shy of the things we really wanted. As if breaking curfew wasn’t bad enough. Still, whatever our limitations were, I couldn’t imagine anyone in Illéa had more passion than we did.
“I love you, America Singer. As long as I live, I’ll love you.” There was some deep emotion in his voice, and it caught me off guard.
“I love you, Aspen. You’ll always be my prince.”
And he kissed me until the candle burned itself out.
It had to have been hours, and my eyes were heavy. Aspen never worried about his sleep, but he was always concerned about mine. So I wearily climbed down the ladder, taking my plate and my penny.
When I sang, Aspen ate it up, loved it. From time to time, when he had anything at all, he’d give me a penny to pay for my song. If he managed to scrounge up a penny, I wanted him to give it to his family. There was no doubt they needed every last one. But then, having these pennies—since I couldn’t bear to spend them—was like having a reminder of everything Aspen was willing to do for me, of everything I meant to him.
Back in my room, I pulled my tiny jar of pennies out from its hiding spot and listened to the happy sound of the newest one hitting its neighbors. I waited for ten minutes, watching out the window, until I saw Aspen’s shadow climb down and run down the back road.
I stayed awake a little while longer, thinking of Aspen and how much I loved him, and how it felt to be loved by him. I felt special, priceless, irreplaceable. No queen on any throne could possibly feel more important than I did.