“You girls will all be having dinner as a group, so you will be able to meet one another, and then, tomorrow, the games begin!”
I gulped. Too many rules, too much structure, too many people. I just wanted to be alone with a violin.
We moved across the second floor, dropping off Selected girls at their rooms. Mine was tucked around a corner in a little hallway with Bariel, Tiny, and Jenna. I was glad it wasn’t quite in the middle of things, like Marlee’s room was. Maybe I’d have a little privacy like this.
Once Silvia left, I opened my door to the excited gasps of three women. One was sewing in a corner, and the others were cleaning an already perfect room. They scurried over and introduced themselves as Lucy, Anne, and Mary, but I forgot which was which almost immediately. It took quite a bit of convincing to get them to leave. I didn’t want to be rude since they were so eager to serve, but I needed time alone.
“I just need a little nap. I’m sure you’ve had a long day, too, getting ready and all. The best thing you could do is let me rest, get some rest yourselves, and please come wake me up when it’s time to go downstairs.”
There was a flurry of thanks and bows, which I tried to discourage, and then I was alone. It didn’t help. I tried to stretch out on my bed, but every part of my body pulled tight, refusing to let me get comfortable in a place that was so obviously not meant for me.
There was a violin in the corner, as well as a guitar and a gorgeous piano, but I couldn’t bring myself to bother with them. My backpack was securely fastened, waiting at the foot of my bed, but that felt like too much work, too. I knew they’d set special things for me in my closet and drawers and bathroom, but I didn’t feel like exploring.
I just lay there, still. It felt like only a few moments before my maids quietly tapped on my door. I let them in and, as strange as it was, let them dress me. They were just so excited to be helpful, I couldn’t ask them to leave again.
They pulled parts of my hair back with delicate pins and freshened my makeup. The dress—which, along with the rest of my wardrobe, had been created by their hands—was deep green and floor length. Without those tiny heels again I’d stumble all over it. Silvia knocked on my door promptly at six to take me and my three neighbors down the hall. We waited in the foyer by the stairway for everyone to come and then marched down to the Women’s Room. Marlee spotted me, and we walked together.
The sound of thirty-five pairs of heels on the marble stairs was the music of some elegant stampede. There were a few murmurs, but most girls were silent. I noticed as we passed the dining room that the doors were closed. Was the royal family in there now? Perhaps taking in one last meal as the three of them?
It seemed strange that we were their guests but hadn’t met a single one of them yet.
The Women’s Room had changed since we left. The mirrors and racks were all gone, and tables and chairs dotted the floor along with some very comfortable-looking couches. Marlee looked at me and inclined her head toward one of the couches, and we sat there together.
Once we were all settled the TV was turned on, and we watched the Report. There were the same announcements as ever—budget updates for projects, progress of the war, and another rebel attack in the East—and then the last half hour was Gavril making commentary over footage of our day.
“Here Miss Celeste Newsome says good-bye to her many admirers in Clermont. It took this lovely young lady more than an hour to break away from her fans.”
I saw Celeste smile smugly as she watched herself onscreen. She was sitting next to Bariel Pratt, who had hair straight as a bone and so pale blond it looked white as it fell to her waist. There was no mild way to put it: Her br**sts were huge. They crept out of her strapless dress, tempting anyone to try and ignore them.
Bariel was beautiful, but in a typical way. It was similar to Celeste’s style. I wasn’t sure exactly how, but the image of them side by side prompted the thought, Keep your enemies closer. I think they’d singled each other out right away as the other’s strongest competition.
“The others from the Mideast were just as popular. Ashley Brouillette’s quiet, refined demeanor sets her apart immediately as a lady. As she carries herself through the crowd, she wears a humble, beautiful expression not too different from the face of the queen herself.”
“And Marlee Tames of Kent was all bubbles as she departed today, singing the national anthem with her send-off band.” Pictures of Marlee smiling and embracing people from her home province flashed across the screen. “She’s an immediate favorite of several people we interviewed today.”
Marlee reached over and squeezed my hand. That settled it; I was pulling for Marlee.
“Also traveling with Miss Tames was America Singer, one of only three Fives who made it into the Selection.” They made me look better than I felt in the moment. All I remembered was searching the crowds, sad. But the footage they chose of me searching made me appear mature and caring. The image of me hugging my father was touching, beautiful.
Still, it was nothing compared to the images of me in the airport. “But we know castes mean nothing in the Selection, and it seems Lady America is not to be overlooked. Upon landing in Angeles, Lady Singer was the crowd darling at the airport, stopping to take pictures, sign autographs, and simply speak to anyone there. Miss America Singer is not afraid to get her hands dirty, a quality that many believe our next princess needs.”
Nearly everyone turned to look at me. I could see it in their eyes, the same look I’d gotten from Emmica and Samantha. Suddenly those stares made sense. My intentions didn’t matter. They didn’t know I didn’t want this. In their eyes, I was a threat. And I could see they wanted me gone.
I KEPT MY HEAD DOWN at dinner. In the Women’s Room I could be brave because Marlee was beside me, and she just thought I was nice. But here, sandwiched between people whose hate I could feel radiating off in waves, I was a coward. I looked up from my plate once to see Kriss Ambers twirling her fork menacingly. And Ashley, who was so ladylike, had her lips pouted and didn’t speak to me. I just wanted to escape to my room.
I didn’t understand why it was all so important. So the people seemed to like me, so what? They were outranked in here; their little signs and cheers didn’t matter.
After everything was said and done, I didn’t know whether to feel honored or annoyed.
I focused my energies on the food. The last time I’d had steak was for Christmas a few years ago. I knew Mom did her best, but it was nothing like this. So juicy, so tender, so flavorful. I wanted to ask someone else if this wasn’t the best steak they’d ever had. If Marlee had been nearby, I would have. I took a tentative peek around the room. Marlee was chattering quietly with the people around her.