Chapter no 14

The Selection (The Selection, #1)

APREDICTED, THE GIRLS who had asked to go home changed their minds once everything had settled down. None of us knew exactly who had wanted out, but there were some— Celeste in particular—who were determined to find out. For the time being we remained at twenty-seven girls.

The attack was so inconsequential, according to the king, that it barely warranted notice. However, since camera crews had been making their way in that morning, some of it was aired live. Apparently the king wasn’t pleased about that. It made me wonder just how many attacks the palace suffered through that we never heard about. Was it far less safe here than I’d thought?

Silvia explained that if the attack had been much worse, we would have all been able to call our families and tell them we were safe. As it was, we were instructed to write letters home instead.

I wrote that I was well and that the attack probably seemed worse than it was and that the king had us all kept safely tucked away. I urged them not to worry about me and told them that I missed them and handed the letter off to a helpful maid.

The day after the attack passed without incident. I had planned on going down to the Women’s Room to talk up Maxon to the others, but after seeing Lucy so shaken, I chose to keep to my room.

I didn’t know what my three maids busied themselves with while I was away, but when I was in the room, they played card games with me and let pieces of gossip slip into the conversation.

I learned that for every dozen people I saw in the palace, there were a hundred or more behind them. The cooks and laundresses I knew about, but there were also people whose sole job was to keep the windows clean. It took a solid week for the team to get them all done, by the end of which the dust would find its way past the palace walls and cling to the clean glass, and they’d have to be washed all over again. There were also jewelers hidden away, making pieces for the family and gifts for visitors, and teams of seamstresses and buyers keeping the royal family—and now us—immaculately clothed.

I learned other things, too. The guards they thought were the cutest and the horrid new design of a dress the head maid was making the staff wear for the holiday parties. How some in the palace were taking bets on which Selected girl might win and that I was in the top ten picks. A baby of one of the cooks was sick beyond hope, which made Anne tear up a bit. This girl happened to be a close friend of hers, and the couple had been waiting so long for a child.

Listening to them and joining in when I had something worth saying, I couldn’t imagine anything more entertaining happening downstairs and was glad to have such company. The mood in my room was a quiet and happy one.

The day had been so nice, I stayed up there the day after as well. This time, we kept the doors open to both the hallway and the balcony, and the warm air filtered in and wrapped itself around us. It seemed to do particularly wonderful things for Lucy, and I wondered how often she actually got to step outside.

Anne made a comment about how this was all inappropriate—me sitting with them, playing games with the doors open—but let it drop almost immediately. She was quickly getting over trying to make me the lady it seemed I ought to be.

We were in the middle of a game of cards when I noticed a figure out of the corner of my eye. It was Maxon, standing at the open door, looking amused. As our eyes met, I could see that his expression was clearly asking what in the world I was doing. I stood, smiling, and walked over to him.

“Oh, sweet Lord,” Anne muttered as she realized the prince was at the door. She immediately swept the cards into a sewing basket and stood, Mary and Lucy following suit.

“Ladies,” Maxon said.

“Your Majesty,” she said with a curtsy. “Such an honor, sir.” “For me as well,” he answered with a smile.

The maids looked back and forth to one another, flattered. We were all silent for a moment, not quite sure what to do.

Mary suddenly piped up. “We were just leaving.”

“Yes! That’s right,” Lucy added. “We were—uh—just…” She looked to Anne for help. “Going to finish Lady America’s dress for Friday,” Anne concluded.

“That’s right,” Mary said. “Only two days left.”

They slowly circled us to get out of the room, huge smiles plastered on their faces. “Wouldn’t want to keep you from your work,” Maxon said, following them with his

eyes, completely fascinated with their behavior.

Once in the hall, they gave awkwardly mistimed curtsies and walked away at a feverish pace. Immediately after they rounded the corner, Lucy’s giggles echoed down the corridor, followed by Anne’s intense hushing.

“Quite a group you have,” Maxon said, walking into my room, surveying the space. “They keep me on my toes,” I answered with a smile.

“It’s clear they have affection for you. That’s hard to find.” He stopped looking at my room and faced me. “This isn’t what I imagined your room would look like.”

I raised an arm and let it fall. “It’s not really my room, is it? It belongs to you, and I just happen to be borrowing it.”

He made a face. “Surely they told you that changes could be made? A new bed, different paint.”

I shrugged. “A coat of paint wouldn’t make this mine. Girls like me don’t live in houses with marble floors,” I joked.

Maxon smiled. “What does your room at home look like?” “Um, what did you come for exactly?” I hedged.

“Oh! I had an idea.” “About?”

“Well,” he started, continuing to walk around the room, “I thought that since you and I don’t have the typical relationship that I have with the other girls, maybe we should have

… alternative means of communication.” He stopped in front of my mirror and looked at the pictures of my family. “Your little sister looks just like you,” he said, amused by this observation.

I walked deeper into my room. “We get that a lot. What was that about alternative communication?”

Maxon finished up with the pictures and moved toward the piano in the back. “Since you are supposed to be helping me, being my friend and all,” he continued with a pointed look at me, “perhaps we shouldn’t be relying on the traditional notes sent through maids and formal invitations for dates. I was thinking something a little less ceremonial.”

He picked up the sheet music on top of the piano. “Did you bring these?” “No, those were here. Anything I really want to play, I can do from memory.”

His eyebrows rose. “Impressive.” He moved back in my direction without finishing his explanation.

“Could you please stop poking around and complete an entire thought?”

Maxon sighed. “Fine. What I was thinking was that you and I could have a sign or something, some way of communicating that we need to speak to each other that no one else would catch onto. Perhaps rubbing our noses?” Maxon ran a finger back and forth just above his lips.

“That looks like your nose is stopped up. Not attractive.”

He gave me a slightly perplexed look and nodded. “Very well. Perhaps we could simply run our fingers through our hair?”

I shook my head almost immediately. “My hair is almost always pulled up with pins. It’s nearly impossible to get my fingers through it. Besides, what if you happen to be wearing your crown? You’d knock it off your head.”

He shook a thoughtful finger at me. “Excellent point. Hmmm.” He passed me, continuing to think, and stopped near the table by my bed. “What about tugging your ear?”

I considered. “I like it. Simple enough to hide, but not so common we could mistake it for something else. Ear tugging it is.”

Maxon’s attention was fixated on something, but he turned to smile at me. “I’m glad you approve. The next time you want to see me, simply tug your ear, and I’ll come as soon as I’m able. Probably after dinner,” he concluded with a shrug.

Before I could ask about me coming to him, Maxon strolled across the room with my jar in his hand. “What in the world is this about?”

I sighed. “That, I’m afraid, is beyond explanation.”

Friday arrived, and with that came our debut on the Illéa Capital Report. It was something that was required of us, but at least this week all we had to do was sit there. With the time difference, we’d go on at five, sit through the hour, and then go off to dinner.

Anne, Mary, and Lucy took extra care in dressing me. The gown was a deep blue, hovering near purple. It was fitted through my hips, and fanned out in satiny smooth waves behind me. I couldn’t believe I was touching something so beautiful. Button after button was fastened up my back, and my maids put pins bedecked with pearls in my hair. They added tiny pearl earrings and a necklace made of wire so thin and pearls so far apart they looked like they floated on my skin, and I was done.

I looked in the mirror. I still looked like me. It was the prettiest version of myself I’d seen so far, but I knew that face. Ever since my name had been drawn, I’d feared I would become something unrecognizable—covered in layers of makeup and so hung down with jewelry that I’d have to dig out of it for weeks to find myself again. So far, I was still America.

And, exactly like myself, I found that I was covered in a sheen of sweat as I walked down to the room where they recorded messages at the palace. They’d told us to be there ten minutes early. Ten minutes meant fifteen to me. It meant more like three to someone like Celeste. So the arrival of the girls was staggered.

Hordes of people were swarming around, putting the last touches on the set—which now held rows of tiered seating for the Selected. The council members who I recognized from years of watching the Report were there, reading over their scripts and adjusting their ties. The Selected crowd were checking themselves in mirrors and tugging at their extravagant dresses. It was a flurry of activity.

I turned and caught the briefest of moments in Maxon’s life. His mother, the beautiful Queen Amberly, pushed some stray hairs back into place. He straightened his jacket and said something to her. She gave a reassuring nod, and Maxon smiled. I would have watched a little longer, but Silvia, in all her glory, came to escort me into place.

“Just head over to the risers, Lady America,” she said. “You may sit anywhere you like. So you know, most of the girls have already claimed the front row.” She looked sorry for me, as if she were delivering bad news.

“Oh, thank you,” I said, and went happily to take a seat in the back.

I didn’t like climbing the little steps with a snug dress and such strappy shoes. (Were the shoes really necessary? No one was even going to see my feet.) But I managed. When I saw Marlee come in, she smiled and waved and came to sit right next to me. It meant a great deal to me that she chose a place beside me as opposed to a spot in the second row. She was faithful. She’d make a great queen.

Her dress was a brilliant yellow. With her blond hair and sun-kissed skin, she looked like she was radiating light into the room.

“Marlee, I love that dress. You look fantastic!”

“Oh, thank you.” She blushed. “I thought it might be a bit too much.” “Not at all! Trust me, it’s perfect on you.”

“I’ve wanted to speak to you, but you’ve been missing. Do you think we could talk tomorrow?” she asked in a whisper.

“Of course. In the Women’s Room, right? It’s Saturday,” I said in a matched tone. “Okay,” she answered excitedly.

Just in front of us, Amy turned around. “I feel like my pins are falling out. Can you guys check them?”

Without a word, Marlee put her slim fingers in the curls of Amy’s hair and checked for loose pins. “That feel better?”

Amy sighed. “Yes, thank you.”

“America, is there lipstick on my teeth?” Zoe asked. I turned to my left and found her smiling maniacally, exposing all her pearly whites.

“No, you’re good,” I answered, seeing out of the corner of my eye that Marlee was nodding in confirmation.

“Thanks. How is he so calm?” Zoe asked, pointing over at Maxon, who was talking to a member of the crew. She then bent down and put her head between her legs and started doing controlled breathing.

Marlee and I looked at each other, eyes wide with amusement, and tried not to laugh. It was hard if we looked at Zoe, so we surveyed the room and chatted about what others were wearing. There were several girls in seductive reds and lively greens, but no one else in blue. Olivia had gone so far as to wear orange. I’d admit that I didn’t know that much about fashion, but Marlee and I both agreed that someone should have intervened on her behalf. The color made her skin look kind of green.

Two minutes before the cameras turned on, we realized it wasn’t the dress making her look green. Olivia vomited into the closest trash can very loudly and collapsed on the floor. Silvia swooped in, and a fuss was made to wipe the sweat off her and get her into a seat. She was placed in the back row with a small receptacle at her feet, just in case.

Bariel was in the seat in front of her. I couldn’t hear what she muttered to the poor girl from where I was, but it looked like Bariel was prepared to injure Olivia should she have another episode near her.

I guessed that Maxon had seen or heard some of the commotion, and I looked over to see if he was having any sort of reaction to it all. But he wasn’t looking toward the disturbance; he was looking at me. Quickly—so quickly it would look like nothing but scratching an itch to anyone else—Maxon reached up and tugged on his ear. I repeated the action back, and we both turned away.

I was excited to know that tonight, after dinner, Maxon would be stopping by my room. Suddenly the anthem music was playing, and I could see the national emblem on tiny screens around the room. I shifted to sit up straighter. All I could think was that my family

was going to see me tonight, and I wanted them to be proud.

King Clarkson was at the podium speaking about the brief and unsuccessful attack on the palace. I wouldn’t have called it unsuccessful. It managed to scare the daylights out of most of us. Announcement after announcement came, and I tried to be aware of everything they said, but it was hard. I was used to watching this on a comfy couch with bowls of popcorn and family commentary.

Many of the announcements tied into the rebels, placing blame for certain things on their shoulders. The roads being built in Sumner were behind schedule because of the rebels, and the number of local officers in Atlin was down because they’d been sent to help with a rebel-caused disturbance in St. George. I had no idea either of those things had happened. Between everything I’d heard and seen growing up and what I’d learned since coming to the palace, I began to wonder just how much we knew about the rebels. Maybe I just didn’t understand, but I didn’t think they could be blamed for everything that was wrong with Illéa.

And then, as if he had appeared out of thin air, Gavril was walking on set after being introduced by the Master of Events.

“Good evening, everyone. Tonight I have a special announcement. The Selection has been going for a week now and eight ladies have already gone home, leaving twenty-seven beautiful women for Prince Maxon to choose from. Next week, by hook or by crook, the majority of the Illéa Capital Report will be dedicated to getting to know these amazing young women.”

I felt the little beads of sweat pooling on my temple. Sit here and look nice… I could do that. But answer questions? I knew I wasn’t going to win this little game; that wasn’t the issue. I just really, really didn’t want to look like a moron in front of the entire country.

“Before we get to the ladies, tonight let’s take a moment with the man of the hour. How are you tonight, Prince Maxon?” Gavril said, walking across the stage. Maxon had been ambushed. He didn’t have a microphone or prepared answers.

Just before Gavril’s microphone reached Maxon’s face, I caught his eye and gave him a wink. That tiny action was enough to make him smile.

“I’m very well, Gavril, thank you.”

“Are you enjoying your company so far?”

“Yes! It’s been a pleasure getting to know these ladies.”

“Are they all the sweet, gentle ladies they appear to be?” Gavril asked. Before Maxon replied, the answer brought a smile to my face. Because I knew that it was yes … sort of.

“Umm…” Maxon looked past Gavril at me. “Almost.”

“Almost?” Gavril asked, surprised. He turned to us. “Is someone over there being naughty?”

Mercifully, all the girls let out light giggles, so I blended in. The little traitor! “What exactly did these girls do that isn’t so sweet?” Gavril asked Maxon.

“Oh, well, let me tell you.” Maxon crossed his legs and got very comfortable in his chair. It was probably the most relaxed I’d ever seen him, sitting there poking fun at me. I liked this side of him. I wished it would come out more often. “One of them had the nerve to yell at me rather forcefully the first time we met. I was given a very severe scolding.”

Above Maxon’s head, the king and queen exchanged a glance. It seemed they were hearing this story for the first time, too. Beside me the girls were looking at one another, confused. I didn’t get it until Marlee said something.

“I don’t remember anyone yelling at him in the Great Room. Do you?”

Maxon seemed to have forgotten that our first meeting was meant to be a secret. “I think he’s talking it up to make it funnier. I did say some serious things to him. I think he might mean me.”

“A scolding, you say? Whatever for?” Gavril continued.

“Honestly, I wasn’t really sure. I think it was a bout of homesickness. Which is why I forgave her, of course.” Maxon was loose and easy now, talking to Gavril as if he were the only person in the room. I’d have to tell him later how wonderful he did.

“So she’s still with us, then?” Gavril looked over at the collection of girls, grinning widely, and then returned to face his prince.

“Oh, yes. She’s still here,” Maxon said, not letting his eyes wander from Gavril’s face. “And I plan on keeping her here for quite a while.”

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