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“I know that’s true,” I admitted. “It’s already pretty difficult for me to make friends, seeing as I don’t get out much. So I kind of need to keep the ones I have.”

Hale chuckled, and I missed what he did on the board. “Well, I just want to go on record and say that even if you don’t choose me, you have my friendship for life, and I’ll be on a plane to Angeles in a heartbeat if you ever need me.”

I smiled. “Something every day.”

He nodded. “Every day.”

“I really needed to hear that. Thank you.” I sat up taller and began to plan my next move. “What about you? Who’s your best friend?”

“Actually, I was interrogated over this a few weeks ago, just after Burke left. My best friend is a girl, and they thought I was writing to ‘my girlfriend back home.’ Let me tell you, it was humiliating to ask her to get on the phone with a guard and explain that we’d never, ever been romantically involved.”

I bit my lip, glad he could see the humor in it. “I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine. Carrie got a kick out of it, actually.”

“Well, I’m happy she took it in stride.” I cleared my throat. “But now I have to ask, have you really never had a crush on her?”

“No!” He almost shuddered. “Carrie’s like a sister to me. The thought of kissing her just feels wrong.”

I put my hands up in front of me, startled by how offended he was. “Okay. I don’t have to worry about Carrie. Got it.”

“Sorry.” The disgust in his face shifted to a shy smile. “It’s just that I’ve been asked that a million times. Other friends, our parents … it’s like everyone has always wanted us to be together, and I don’t feel anything like that for her.”

“I get that. Sometimes it seems like everyone wants me to pick Kile just because we grew up together. Like that alone is enough to guarantee you’ll fall in love.”

“Well, the difference there is that you actually have feelings for Kile. Anyone watching could tell.” He fiddled with a discarded pawn.

I looked at my lap. “I shouldn’t have brought that up. I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. I think the only way to stay sane through all this is to remember that you’re the one leading this, and you’re the one who decides where we stand. The only thing any of us can do is be ourselves.”

“Where do you think you stand exactly?”

He gave me a small smile. “I don’t know. Somewhere in the middle?”

I shook my head. “You’re doing better than that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

His smile faded a little. “That’s kind of amazing, but also scary. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with winning this.”

I nodded. “Tons.”

“I guess I never really stopped to think about that. But with you really being in charge these days, it’s a little … overwhelming.”

I stared at him, feeling certain I had to be misunderstanding something. “You’re not trying to back out, are you?”

“No,” he said, continuing to roll the pawn in his hand. “I’m just coming face-to-face with how big this is. I’m sure your mom had moments like this, too.”

He was uncharacteristically sharp, and this seemed to run deeper than his frustration about Carrie. As I continued, trying to keep my tone even, he avoided my eyes.

“Did I miss something? You’ve always been so enthusiastic, to the point that I’ve wondered about your sanity. What’s with the sudden cold feet?”

“I didn’t say I was having cold feet,” he countered. “I was simply voicing a concern. You’re constantly voicing your concerns. How is this any different?”

There was plenty of truth to that, but I had clearly hit a nerve. And after how hard I’d worked to be open with Hale, I didn’t understand why he would clam up on me. While I didn’t think he was the type to test me simply for the sake of it, I wondered if maybe he was trying to gauge my patience.

I clenched and unclenched my hands underneath the table, reminding myself that I trusted Hale.

“Perhaps it’s better if we change the subject,” I suggested.

“Agreed.”

But the only thing that followed was silence.

THE PARLOR WAS PREPARED FOR our coming guests. Two rows of chairs were set up stadium style, reminding me of how the Selected used to sit for the Report. We had food and drinks around the room, a security checkpoint by the door, and cameras circulating.

Behind the production staff, the Elite sat against the wall, and they all seemed to be excited to find a part of my job they could observe. I was happy to see that Kile and Erik (though surely his actions were more for Henri’s benefit) had both brought notepads. They’d come to work.

“You look lovely,” Marid assured me, probably noting that I was pulling at my collar.

“I was trying to look businesslike without making things too formal.”

“And you succeeded. You just need to calm down. They’re not here to attack you; they’re here to talk to you. The only thing you have to do is listen.”

I nodded. “Listen. I can do that.” I took a deep breath. We’d never done anything like this before, and I was equal parts giddy and horrified. “How did you find these people? Friends of yours?”

“Not exactly. A few have called in to radio shows I’ve done before, and others were suggested by acquaintances. It’s a good mix of social and economic statuses, which should create some well-rounded discussion.”

I took this in. That’s all this was: a discussion. I would see the faces of people who actually lived in our country, hear their voices. It wasn’t a massive crowd; it was a handful.

“We’re going to make it through this, all right?” he said reassuringly.

“All right.” And I reminded myself that this was a good thing as our guests began trickling into the room.

I walked over to shake hands with a woman who looked like she’d taken more time on her hair than I had and her husband who, while handsome, could have knocked someone out with the amount of cologne he’d put on.

“Your Highness,” the woman greeted, dropping into a curtsy. “My name is Sharron Spinner, and this is my husband, Don.” He bowed. “We’re so pleased to be here. It’s so nice the palace is taking time to hear from its people.”

I nodded. “It’s long overdue. Please, help yourself to some refreshments and make yourself comfortable. The producers might stop to interview you as people settle in, but you’re under no obligation to speak to them if you don’t want to.”

Sharron touched the corners of her lips, making sure her makeup was as pristine as possible. “No, we don’t mind at all. Come on, honey.”

I could barely contain my eye roll. The Spinners seemed a little too eager to be on camera.

Behind the Spinners were the Barnses and the Palters. There was a girl on her own, Bree Marksman, and two younger men, Joel and Blake, who had met in the foyer and were already talking like friends. Finally a younger couple who introduced themselves as the Shells walked in. They looked like they had done their best to scrape together some nice clothes for the occasion and had come up short.

“Brenton and Ally, you said?” I waved a hand, inviting them to walk beside me.

“Yes, Your Highness. Thank you so much for having us.” Brenton smiled, looking grateful and bashful at once. “Does this mean that we’re going to be able to move now?”

I stopped, turning to face them. Ally swallowed, clearly trying not to get her hopes up.

“Move?”

“Yeah. Down in Zuni we’ve been trying to move out of our neighborhood for a while.”

“It’s not very safe,” Ally added quietly.

“We’ve been thinking about starting a family. But they keep changing the prices of the apartments.”

“We had friends who moved, and they didn’t have any problems,” Ally insisted.

“But when we tried to get into the same area, the rent was double what it was for Nic and Ellen.”

“The owners said our friends must have misquoted the rate, but … well, I don’t want to accuse anyone of anything, but Nic was born a Three, and we both would be Fives.

“We just want to live somewhere safer,” Brenton added with a shrug. “Even if you can’t fix it, we thought meeting with the princess might help things.”

“Your Highness,” the producer said. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but we’re starting.” She showed the Shells to their seats, and I sat across from everyone, unsure of how to begin.

I laughed, trying to break the tension. “Since we’ve never done this before, we don’t really have an outline to follow. Does anyone have any questions?”

One of the young men—Blake, I remembered—raised his hand, and I watched as cameras changed angles to focus on his face.

“Yes, Blake?”

“When will the king be back?”

And, just like that, I became insignificant. “I’m not sure. It depends on when my mother is fully recovered.”

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