Authors: Kiera Cass
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Literature & Fiction, #Girls & Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages)
WO WEEKS IN, AND THIS
was my fourth headache. How would I explain something like that to the prince? As if it wasn’t bad enough that nearly every girl left was a Two. As if my maids weren’t already slaving away to fix my weathered hands. At some point I would have to tell him about the waves of sickness that crashed without warning. Well, if he ever noticed me.
Queen Abby sat at the opposite end of the Women’s Room, almost as if she was purposefully separating herself from the girls. By the slight chill that seemed to roll off her shoulders, I got the feeling that we weren’t exactly welcome as far as she was concerned.
She extended her hand to a maid, who in turn filed her nails to perfection. But even in the middle of being pampered, the queen seemed irritated. I didn’t understand, but
I tried not to judge. Maybe a corner of my heart would be hardened, too, if I’d lost a husband so young. It was lucky that Porter Schreave, her late husband’s cousin, took her as his own, allowing her to keep the crown.
I surveyed the room, looking at the other girls. Gillian was a Four like me, but a proper one. Her parents were both chefs, and, based on her descriptions of our meals, I sensed she’d take the same path. Leigh and Madison were studying to be veterinarians and visited the stables as often as they were permitted.
I knew that Nova was an actress and had throngs of adoring fans willing her onto the throne. Uma was a gymnast, and her petite frame was graceful, even in stillness. Several of the Twos here hadn’t even chosen a profession yet. I guessed if someone paid my bills, fed me, and kept a roof over my head, I wouldn’t worry about it either.
I rubbed my aching temple and felt the cracked skin and calluses drag across my forehead. I stopped and stared down at my battered hands.
He would never want me.
Closing my eyes, I pictured the first time I’d met Prince Clarkson. I could remember the feeling of his strong hand as he shook mine. Thank goodness my maids had found lace gloves for me to wear, or I might have been sent home on the spot. He was composed, polite, and intelligent. All the things a prince should be.
I had realized over the past two weeks that he didn’t smile too much. It seemed as if he was afraid of being judged for
finding humor in things. But, my goodness, how his eyes lit up when he did. The dirty-blond hair, the faded blue eyes, the way he carried himself with such strength . . . he was perfect.
Sadly, I was not. But there had to be a way to get Prince Clarkson to notice me.
I held the pen in the air for a minute, knowing this was pointless. Still.
I’m settling in very well at the palace. It’s pretty. It’s bigger and better than pretty, but I don’t know if I have the right words to describe it. It’s a different kind of warm in Angeles than it is at home, too, but I don’t know how to tell you about that either. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could come feel and see and smell everything for yourself? And, yes, there’s plenty to smell.
As far as the actual competition goes, I haven’t spent a single second alone with the prince.
My head throbbed. I closed my eyes, breathing slowly. I ordered myself to focus.
I’m sure you’ve seen on TV that Prince Clarkson has sent home eight girls, all of them Fours and Fives and that one Six. There are two other Fours left, and
a handful of Threes. I wonder if he’s expected to choose a Two. I think that would make sense, but it’s heartbreaking for me.
Could you do me a favor? Will you ask Mama and Papa if there’s maybe a cousin or someone else in the family who’s in the upper castes? I should have asked before I left. I think information like that would be really helpful.
I was getting that nauseated feeling that sometimes came with the headaches.
I have to run. Lots going on. I’ll send another letter soon.
Love you forever,
I felt faint. I folded my letter and sealed it in the already-addressed envelope. I rubbed my temples again, hoping the slight pressure would give me some relief, though it never did.
“Everything all right, Amberly?” Danica asked.
“Oh, yes,” I lied. “Probably just tired or something. I might take a little walk. Try to get my blood moving and all.”
I smiled at Danica and Madeline and left the Women’s Room, making my way toward the bathroom. A bit of cold water on my face would ruin my makeup, but it might help
me feel better. Before I could get there, the dizzy feeling swept over me again. Perching on one of those little couches that ran along the hallways, I put my head back against the wall, trying to clear it.
This made no sense. Everyone knew the air and water in the southern parts of Illéa were bad. Even the Twos there sometimes had health problems. But shouldn’t this—escaping into the clean air, good food, and impeccable care of the palace—be helping that?
I was going to miss every opportunity to make an impression on Prince Clarkson if this kept up. What if I didn’t make it to the croquet game this afternoon? I could feel my dreams slipping through my fingers. I might as well embrace defeat now. It would hurt less later.
“What are you doing?”
I jerked away from the wall to see Prince Clarkson looking down at me.
“Nothing, Your Highness.”
“Are you unwell?”
“No, of course not,” I insisted, pushing myself to my feet. But that was a mistake. My legs buckled, and I fell to the floor.
“Miss?” he asked, coming to my side.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “This is humiliating.”
He swept me up in his arms. “Close your eyes if you’re dizzy. We’re going to the hospital wing.”
What a funny story this would be for my children: the king once carried me across the palace as if I weighed nothing at
all. I liked it here, in his arms. I’d always wondered what they’d feel like.
“Oh, my goodness,” someone cried. I opened my eyes to see a nurse.
“I think she’s faint or something,” Clarkson said. “She doesn’t seem injured.”
“Set her here, please, Your Highness.”
Prince Clarkson placed me on one of the beds dotting the wing, carefully sliding his arms away. I hoped he could see the gratefulness in my eyes.
I assumed he would leave immediately, but he stood by as the nurse checked my pulse. “Have you eaten today, dear? Had plenty to drink?”
“We just finished breakfast,” he answered for me.
“Do you feel sick at all?”
“No. Well, yes. What I mean is, this is really nothing.” I hoped if I made this seem inconsequential, I could still make it to the croquet game later.
She made a face both stern and sweet. “I beg to differ; you had to be carried in here.”
“This happens all the time,” I blurted in frustration.
“How do you mean?” the nurse pressed.
I hadn’t meant to confess that. I sighed, trying to think of how to explain. Now the prince would see how my life in Honduragua had damaged me.
“I get headaches a lot. And sometimes they make me dizzy.” I swallowed, worried what the prince would think. “At home I go to bed hours before my siblings, and that helps
me get through the workday. It’s been harder to rest here.”
“Mmm hmm. Anything besides the headaches and tiredness?”
Clarkson shifted next to me. I hoped he couldn’t hear my heart pounding.
“How long have you had this problem?”
I shrugged. “A few years, maybe more. It’s kind of normal now.”
The nurse looked concerned. “Is there any history of this in your family?”
I paused before answering. “Not exactly. But my sister gets nosebleeds sometimes.”
“Do you just have a sickly family?” Clarkson asked, a hint of disgust in his voice.
“No,” I replied, both wanting to defend myself and embarrassed to explain. “I live in Honduragua.”
He raised his eyebrows in understanding. “Ah.”
It was no secret how polluted the south was. The air was bad. The water was bad. There were so many deformed children, barren women, and young deaths. When the rebels came through, they would leave a trail of graffiti behind, demanding to know why the palace hadn’t fixed this. It was a miracle my entire family wasn’t as sick as I was. Or that I wasn’t worse.
I drew in a deep breath. What in the world was I doing here? I’d spent the weeks leading up to the Selection building this fairy tale in my head. But no amount of wishing or
dreaming was going to make me worthy of a man such as Clarkson.
I turned away, not wanting him to see me cry. “Could you leave, please?”
There were a few seconds of silence, then I listened to his footsteps as he walked away. The instant they faded, I broke down.
“Hush, now, dearie, it’s okay,” the nurse said, comforting me. I was so heartbroken, I hugged her as tightly as I did my mother or siblings. “It’s a lot of stress to go through a competition like this, and Prince Clarkson understands that. I’ll have the doctor prescribe you something for your headaches, and that will help.”
“I’ve been in love with him since I was seven years old. I whispered a happy birthday song to him every year into my pillow so my sister wouldn’t laugh at me for remembering. When I started learning cursive, I practiced by writing our names together . . . and the first time he really speaks to me, he asks if I’m sickly.” I paused, letting out a cry. “I’m not good enough.”
The nurse didn’t try to argue with me. She just let me cry.
I was so embarrassed. Clarkson would never see me as anything but the broken girl who sent him away. I was sure my chance at winning his heart had passed. What use could he have for me now?