WHEN WE GOT THE LETTER in the post, my mother was ecstatic. She had already decided that all our problems were solved, gone forever. The big hitch in her brilliant plan was me. I didn’t think I was a particularly disobedient daughter, but this was where I drew the line.
I didn’t want to be royalty. And I didn’t want to be a One. I didn’t even want to try.
I hid in my room, the only place to avoid the chattering of our full house, trying to come up with an argument that would sway her. So far, I had a solid collection of my honest opinions. . . I didn’t think there was a single one she would listen to.
I couldn’t avoid her much longer. It was approaching dinnertime, and as the oldest child left in the house, cooking duties fell on me. I pulled myself out of bed and walked into the snake pit.
I got a glare from Mom but no words.
We did a silent dance through the kitchen and dining room as we prepared chicken, pasta, and apple slices, and set the table for five. If I glanced up from a task, she’d fix me with a fierce look as if she could shame me into wanting the same things she did. She tried that every so often. Like if I didn’t want to take on a particular job because I knew the family hosting us was unnecessarily rude. Or if she wanted me to do a massive cleaning when we couldn’t afford to have a Six come and help.
Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. And this was one area where I was unswayable.
She couldn’t stand it when I was stubborn. But I got that from her, so she shouldn’t have been surprised. This wasn’t just about me, though. Mom had been tense lately. The summer was ending, and soon we’d be faced with cold. And worry.
Mom set down the pitcher of tea in the center of the table with an angry thud. My mouth watered at the thought of tea with lemon. But I would have to wait; it would be such a waste to have my glass now and then have to drink water with my meal.
“Would it kill you to fill out the form?” she said, no longer able to contain herself. “The Selection could be a wonderful opportunity for you, for all of us.”
I sighed aloud, thinking that filling out that form might actually be something close to death.
It was no secret that the rebels—the underground colonies that hated Illéa, our large and comparatively young country—made their attacks on the palace both violent and frequent. We’d seen them in action in Carolina before. One of the magistrates’ houses was burned to the ground, and a handful of Twos had their cars vandalized. There was even a magnificent jailbreak once, but considering they only released a teenage girl who’d managed to get herself pregnant and a Seven who was a father to nine, I couldn’t help thinking they were in the right that time.
But beyond the potential danger, I felt like it would hurt my heart to even consider the Selection. I couldn’t help smiling as I thought about all the reasons I had to stay exactly where I was.
“These last few years have been very hard on your father,” she hissed. “If you have any compassion at all, you might think of him.”
Dad. Yeah. I really did want to help Dad. And May and Gerad. And, I supposed, even my mother. When she talked about it that way, there was nothing to smile about. Things had been strained around here for far too long. I wondered if Dad would see this as a way back to normal, if any amount of money could make things better.
It wasn’t that our situation was so precarious that we were living in fear of survival or anything. We weren’t destitute. But I guess we weren’t that far off either.
Our caste was just three away from the bottom. We were artists. And artists and classical musicians were only three steps up from dirt. Literally. Our money was stretched as tight as a high wire, and our income was highly dependent on the changing seasons.
I remembered reading in a timeworn history book that all the major holidays used to be cramped into the winter months. Something called Halloween followed by Thanksgiving, then Christmas and New Year’s. All back to back.
Christmas was still the same. It’s not like you could change the birth date of a deity. But when Illéa made the massive peace treaty with China, the New Year came in January or February, depending on the moon. All the individual celebrations of thankfulness and independence from our part of the world were now simply the Grateful Feast. That came in the summer. It was a time to celebrate the forming of Illéa, to rejoice in the fact that we were still here.
I didn’t know what Halloween was. It never resurfaced.
So at least three times a year, the whole family would be fully employed. Dad and May would make their art, and patrons would purchase them as gifts. Mom and I would perform at parties—me singing and her on piano—not turning down a single job if we could manage it. When I was younger, performing in front of an audience terrified me. But now I just tried to equate myself to background music. That’s what we were in the eyes of our employers: meant to be heard and not seen.
Gerad hadn’t found his talent yet. But he was only seven. He still had a little time.
Soon the leaves would change, and our tiny world would be unsteady again. Five mouths but only four workers. No guarantees of employment until Christmastime.
When I thought of it that way, the Selection seemed like a rope, something sure I could grab onto. That stupid letter could lift me out of the darkness, and I could pull my family along with me.
I looked over at my mother. For a Five, she was a little on the heavy side, which was odd. She wasn’t a glutton, and it’s not like we had anything to overeat anyway. Perhaps that’s just the way a body looks after five children. Her hair was red, like mine, but full of brilliant white streaks. Those had appeared suddenly and in abundance about two years ago. Lines creased the corners of her eyes, though she was still pretty young, and I could see as she moved around the kitchen that she was hunched over as if an invisible weight rested on her shoulders.
I knew she had a lot to carry. And I knew that was why she had taken to being particularly manipulative with me. We fought enough without the extra strain, but as the empty fall quietly approached, she became much more irritable. I knew she thought I was being unreasonable now, to not even want to fill out a silly little form.
But there were things—important things—in this world that I loved. And that piece of paper seemed like a brick wall keeping me away from what I wanted. Maybe what I wanted was stupid. Maybe it wasn’t even something I could have. But still, it was mine. I didn’t think I could sacrifice my dreams, no matter how much my family meant to me. Besides, I had given them so much already.
I was the oldest one left now that Kenna was married and Kota was gone, and I did my best to contribute. We scheduled my homeschooling around my rehearsals, which took up most of the day since I was trying to master several instruments as well as singing.
But with the letter here, none of my work mattered anymore. In my mom’s mind, I was already queen.
If I was smart, I would have hidden that stupid notice before Dad, May, and Gerad came in. But I didn’t know Mom had it tucked away in her clothes, and mid-meal she pulled it out.
“‘To the House of Singer,’” she sang out.
I tried to swipe it away, but she was too quick for me. They would find out sooner or later anyway, but if she did it like this, they’d all be on her side.
“Mom, please!” I pleaded.
“I want to hear!” May squealed. That was no surprise. My little sister looked just like me, only on a three-year delay. But where our looks were practically identical, our personalities were anything but. Unlike me, she was outgoing and hopeful. And currently very boy crazy. This whole thing would seem incredibly romantic to her.
I felt myself blush. Dad listened intently, and May was practically bouncing with joy. Gerad, sweet little thing, he just kept eating. Mother cleared her throat and went on.
“‘The recent census has confirmed that a single woman between the ages of sixteen and twenty currently resides in your home. We would like to make you aware of an upcoming opportunity to honor the great nation of Illéa.’”
May squealed again and grabbed my wrist. “That’s you!”
“I know, you little monkey. Stop before you break my arm.” But she just held my hand and bounced some more.
“‘Our beloved prince, Maxon Schreave,’” Mom continued, “‘is coming of age this month. As he ventures into this new part of his life, he hopes to move forward with a partner, to marry a true Daughter of Illéa. If your eligible daughter, sister, or charge is interested in possibly becoming the bride of Prince Maxon and the adored princess of Illéa, please fill out the enclosed form and return it to your local Province Services Office. One woman from each province will be drawn at random to meet the prince.
“‘Participants will be housed at the lovely Illéa Palace in Angeles for the duration of their stay. The families of each participant will be generously compensated’”—she drew out the words for effect—“‘for their service to the royal family.’”
I rolled my eyes as she went on. This was the way they did it with sons. Princesses born into the royal family were sold off into marriage in an attempt to solidify our young relations with other countries. I understood why it was done—we needed allies. But I didn’t like it. I hadn’t had to see such a thing, and I hoped I never would. The royal family hadn’t produced a princess in three generations. Princes, however, married women of the people to keep up the morale of our sometimes volatile nation. I think the Selection was meant to draw us together and remind everyone that Illéa itself was born out of next to nothing.
The idea of being entered into a contest for the whole country to watch as this stuck-up little wimp picked the most gorgeous and shallow one of the bunch to be the silent, pretty face that stood beside him on TV . . . it was enough to make me scream. Could anything be more humiliating?
Besides, I’d been in the homes of enough Twos and Threes to be sure I never wanted to live among them, let alone be a One. Except for the times when we were hungry, I was quite content to be a Five. Mom was the caste climber, not me.
“And of course he would love America! She’s so beautiful,” Mom swooned.
“Please, Mom. If anything, I’m average.”
“You are not!” May said. “Because I look just like you, and I’m pretty!” Her smile was so wide, I couldn’t contain my laughter. And it was a good point. Because May really was beautiful.
It was more than her face, though, more than her winning smile and bright eyes. May radiated an energy, an enthusiasm that made you want to be wherever she was. May was magnetic, and I, honestly, wasn’t.
“Gerad, what do you think? Do you think I’m pretty?” I asked.
All eyes fell on the youngest member of our family.
“No! Girls are gross!”
“Gerad, please.” Mom gave an exasperated sigh, but her heart wasn’t in it. He was hard to get upset with. “America, you must know you’re a very lovely girl.”
“If I’m so lovely, how come no one ever comes by to ask me out?”
“Oh, they come by, but I shoo them away. My girls are too pretty to marry Fives. Kenna got a Four, and I’m sure you can do even better.” Mom took a sip of her tea.
“His name is James. Stop calling him a number. And since when do boys come by?” I heard my voice getting higher and higher.
“A while,” Dad said, making his first comment on all of this. His voice had a hint of sorrow to it, and he was staring decidedly at his cup. I was trying to figure out what upset him so much. Boys coming by? Mom and me arguing again? The idea of me not entering the contest? How far away I’d be if I did?
His eyes came up for the briefest of moments, and I suddenly understood. He didn’t want to ask this of me. He wouldn’t want me to go. But he couldn’t deny the benefits if I managed to make it in, even for a day.
“America, be reasonable,” Mom said. “We have to be the only parents in the country trying to talk our daughter into this. Think of the opportunity! You could be queen one day!”
“Mom. Even if I wanted to be queen, which I thoroughly don’t, there are thousands of other girls in the province entering this thing. Thousands. And if I somehow was drawn, there would still be thirty-four other girls there, no doubt much better at seduction than I could ever pretend to be.”
Gerad’s ears perked up. “What’s seduction?”
“Nothing,” we all chorused back.
“It’s ridiculous to think that, with all of that, I’d somehow manage to win,” I finished.
My mother pushed her chair out as she stood and leaned across the table toward me. “Someone is going to, America. You have as good a chance as anyone else.” She threw her napkin down and went to leave. “Gerad, when you finish, it’s time for your bath.”
May ate in silence. Gerad asked for seconds, but there weren’t any. When they got up, I started clearing the table while Dad sat there sipping his tea. He had paint in his hair again, a smattering of yellow that made me smile. He stood, brushing crumbs off his shirt.
“Sorry, Dad,” I murmured as I picked up plates.
“Don’t be silly, kitten. I’m not mad.” He smiled easily and put an arm around me.
“I just. . .”
“You don’t have to explain it to me, honey. I know.” He kissed me on my forehead. “I’m going back to work.”
And with that I moved to the kitchen to start cleaning. I wrapped my mostly untouched plate under a napkin and hid it in the fridge. No one else left more than crumbs.
I sighed, heading to my room to get ready for bed. The whole thing was infuriating.
Why did Mom have to push me so much? Wasn’t she happy? Didn’t she love Dad? Why wasn’t this good enough for her?
I lay on my lumpy mattress, trying to wrap my head around the Selection. I guess it had its advantages. It would be nice to eat well for a while at least. But there was no reason to bother. I wasn’t going to fall in love with Prince Maxon. From what I’d seen on the Illéa Capital Report, I wouldn’t even like the guy.
WHEN I WOKE THE NEXT MORNING, my eyelids felt heavy. As I rubbed the tiny ache out of them, I felt glad that I’d told Maxon everything. It seemed so funny that the palace—the beautiful cage—was the one place I could actually let myself be open about everything I’d been feeling.
Maxon’s promise settled in during the night, and I felt sure that I’d be safe here. This whole process of Maxon whittling down thirty-five women to one was going to take weeks, maybe months. Time and space were just what I needed. I couldn’t be sure I’d ever get over Aspen. I’d heard my mom talk about your first love being the one that sticks with you. But maybe I’d be able to just feel normal sooner rather than later with this time in between us.
My maids didn’t ask about my puffy eyes, they just made them less swollen. They didn’t question my mess of hair, they just smoothed it. And I appreciated that. It wasn’t like home, where everyone saw that I was sad and didn’t do anything about it. Here I could feel that they were all worried about me and whatever it was I was going through. In response they handled me with extreme care.
By midmorning I was ready to start my day. It was Saturday, so there was no routine or schedule, but it was the one day a week we were all required to stay in the Women’s Room. The palace saw guests on Saturdays, and we had been warned that people might want to meet us. I wasn’t too excited about it, but at least I got to wear my new jeans for the first time. Of course, they were the best-fitting pair of pants I’d ever owned. I hoped that since Maxon and I were on such good terms, he’d let me keep them after I left.
I went downstairs slowly, a little tired from a late night. Before I even got to the Women’s Room, I heard the buzz of talking girls, and when I walked in, Marlee grabbed me and pulled me toward two chairs in the back of the room.
“There you are! I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.
“Sorry, Marlee. I had a long night and slept in.”
She turned to look at me, probably noting the leftover sadness in my voice, but sweetly decided to focus on my jeans. “Those look fantastic.”
“I know. I’ve never felt anything like them.” My voice lifted a bit. I decided to go back to my old rule: Aspen wasn’t allowed here. I pushed him away and focused on my second-favorite person in the palace. “Sorry to keep you waiting. What did you want to talk about?”
Marlee hesitated. She bit her lip as we sat down. There was no one else around. She must have a secret.
“Actually, now that I think of it, maybe I shouldn’t tell you. Sometimes I forget that we’re competing against each other.”
Oh. She had secrets of the Maxon variety. This I had to hear.
“I know just how you feel, Marlee. I think we could become really close friends. I can’t bring myself to think of you as an enemy, you know?”
“Yeah. I think you’re so sweet. And the people love you. I mean, you’re probably going to win….” She seemed a little defeated at the idea.
I had to will myself not to wince or laugh at those words.
“Marlee, can I tell you a secret?” My voice was full of gentle truth. I hoped she would believe my words.
“Of course, America. Anything.”
“I don’t know who will win this whole thing. Really, it could be anyone in this room. I guess everyone thinks that it’ll be them, but I already know that if it can’t be me, I’d want it to be you. You seem generous and fair. I think you’d be a great princess. Honestly.” It was almost all the truth.
“I think you’re smart and personable,” she whispered. “You’d be great, too.”
I bowed my head. It was sweet of her to think so highly of me. I felt a bit uncomfortable when people talked about me that way, though. . . May, Kenna, my maids . . . it was hard to believe how many people thought I’d be a good princess. Was I the only one who saw how flawed I was? I was unrefined. I didn’t have it in me to be bossy or overly organized. I was selfish and had a horrible temper, and I didn’t like being in front of people. And I wasn’t brave. You had to be brave to take this job. And that’s what this was. Not just a marriage, but a position.
“I feel that way about a lot of the girls,” she confessed. “Like everyone has some quality that I don’t that would make them better than me.”
“That’s the thing, Marlee. You could probably find something special about everyone in this room. But who knows exactly what Maxon is looking for?”
She shook her head.
“So let’s not worry about that. You can tell me anything you want to. I’ll keep your secrets if you keep mine. I’ll pull for you, and if you want to, you can pull for me. It’s nice to have friends here.”
She smiled, then looked around the room, checking to make sure no one could hear us.
“Maxon and I had our date,” she whispered.
“Yeah?” I asked. I knew I seemed overly eager, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to know if he’d managed to be any less stiff around her. And I wanted to know if he liked her.
“He sent a letter to my maids and asked if he could see me on Thursday.” I smiled as Marlee spoke and thought of how the day before he’d done that, Maxon and I had decided to eliminate those formalities. “I sent one back saying yes, of course, like I’d ever turn him down! He came to get me, and we walked around the palace. We got to talking about movies, and it turns out we like a bunch of the same ones. So we went downstairs to the basement. Have you seen the movie theater down there?”
“No.” I’d never actually been in a movie theater, and I couldn’t wait for her to describe it.
“Oh, it’s perfect! The seats are wide and they recline and you can even pop some popcorn—they have a popper. Maxon stood there and made a batch just for us! It was so cute, America. He measured the oil wrong and the first batch burned. He had to call someone to come and clean it up and try again.”
I rolled my eyes. Smooth, Maxon, real smooth. At least Marlee seemed to think it was endearing.
“So we watched the movie, and when we got to the romantic part at the end, he held my hand! I thought I’d faint. I mean, I’d taken his arm when we walked, but that’s just what you’re supposed to do. Here he was taking my hand….” She sighed and fell back into her chair.
I giggled out loud. She looked completely smitten. Yes, yes, yes!
“I can’t wait for him to visit me again. He’s just so handsome, don’t you think?” she asked.
I paused. “Yeah, he’s cute.”
“Come on, America! You have to have noticed those eyes and his voice….”
“Except when he laughs!” Just remembering Maxon’s laugh had me grinning. It was cute but awkward. He pushed his breaths out, and then made a jagged noise when he inhaled, almost like another laugh in itself.
“Yes, okay, he does have a funny laugh, but it’s cute.”
“Sure, if you like the lovable sound of an asthma attack in your ear every time you tell a joke.”
Marlee lost it and doubled over in laughter.
“All right, all right,” she said, coming up for air. “You have to think there’s something attractive about him.”
I opened my mouth and shut it two or three times. I was tempted to take another jab at Maxon, but I didn’t want Marlee to see him in a negative light. So I thought about it.
What was attractive about Maxon?
“Well, when he lets his guard down, he’s okay. Like when he just talks without checking his words or you catch him just looking at something like . . . like he’s really looking for the beauty in it.”
Marlee smiled, and I knew she’d seen that in him, too.
“And I like that he seems genuinely involved when he’s there, you know? Like even though he’s got a country to run and a thousand things to do, it’s like he forgets it all when he’s with you. He just dedicates himself to what’s right in front of him. I like that.
“And . . . well, don’t tell anyone this, but his arms. I like his arms.”
I blushed at the end. Stupid . . . why hadn’t I just stuck to the general good things about his personality? Luckily, Marlee was happy to pick up the conversation.
“Yes! You can really feel them under those thick suits, can’t you? He must be incredibly strong,” Marlee gushed.
“I wonder why. I mean, what’s the point of him being that strong? He does deskwork. It’s weird.”
“Maybe he likes to flex in front of the mirror,” Marlee said, making a face and flexing her own tiny arms.
“Ha, ha! I bet that’s it. I dare you to ask him!”
It sounded like Marlee had had a great time. I wondered why Maxon seemed so reluctant to mention that last night. Based on his reaction, it seemed like they hadn’t been together at all. Maybe he was shy?
I looked around the room and saw that more than half the girls seemed tense or unhappy. Janelle, Emmica, and Zoe were listening intently to something Kriss was saying. Kriss was smiling and animated, but Janelle’s face was tight with worry, and Zoe was biting her nails. Emmica was absently kneading a spot just below her ear, as if she was in pain. Beside them the mismatched pair of Celeste and Anna sat having another intense discussion. True to her usual form, Celeste looked incredibly smug as she spoke. Marlee noted my staring and clarified what was happening.
“The grumpy ones are the girls he hasn’t been out with yet. He told me I was his second date on Thursday alone. He’s trying to spend time with everyone.”
“Really? You think that’s it?”
“Yeah. I mean, look at you and me. We’re fine, and it’s because he’s seen us both one-on-one. We know he liked us enough to see us and not kick us out right afterward. It’s getting around who he’s spent time with and who he hasn’t. They’re worried he’s waiting on them because he isn’t interested, and that once he does see them, he’ll just let them go.”
Why hadn’t he told me any of this? Weren’t we friends? A friend would talk about this. He’d seen at least a dozen girls based on their smiles. We’d spent the better part of the evening together last night, and all he did was make me cry. What kind of friend held those kinds of secrets while making me spill all my own?
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