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I nodded before picking up my tea. She made it sound all right. Maybe the king had to compartmentalize himself. When it came to dealing with threats to the country, he had to be decisive, cold. He had to act quickly and deliberately. This was just tea with a bunch of girls. There was no need for him to be that way with us.

The queen had moved away from Celeste and was now speaking softly to Natalie. The look on Natalie’s face was adoring. For a while I’d been irritated by her dreamy disposition; but she was simple, and it was refreshing.

I sipped my tea again. King Clarkson drifted over to Celeste, and she gave him a seductive smile. It was a little disturbing. Where were her boundaries?

Kriss leaned over to touch my dress. “That fabric is amazing. With your hair, you look like a sunset.”

“Thank you,” I said, blinking my eyes. The light had caught on her necklace, an explosion of silver on her throat, and it blinded me for a moment. “My maids are very talented.”

“Absolutely. I like mine, but if I become princess, I’m stealing yours!”

She laughed, maybe meaning her words as a joke, maybe not. Either way, something about my maids hemming her clothes bothered me. I forced a smile though.

“What’s so funny?” Maxon asked, walking over.

“Just girl talk,” Kriss said flirtatiously. She was really on tonight. “I was trying to calm America. She’s nervous about speaking to your father.”

Thank you for that, Kriss.

“You don’t have a thing to worry about. Be natural. You already look fantastic.” Maxon gave me an easy smile. He was clearly trying to open up our lines of communication again.

“That’s what I said!” Kriss exclaimed. They shared a quick look, and there was this feeling of them being on a team. It was strange.

“Well, I’ll leave you to your girl talk. Good-bye for now.” Maxon gave us both a short bow and went over to join his mother.

Kriss sighed and watched Maxon go. “He’s really something.” She gave me a quick smile and went to talk to Gavril.

I watched the elaborate dance of the room, couples coming together to speak, separating to find new partners. I was even happy to have Elise join me in my corner, though she didn’t say much.

“Oh, ladies, the time has gotten away from us,” the king called. “We need to make our way downstairs.”

I looked up at the clock, and he was right. We had about ten minutes to get down to the set and prepare ourselves.

It didn’t seem to matter how I felt about being a princess, or how I felt about Maxon, or how I felt about anything. The king clearly thought I was so unlikely a candidate that he didn’t even want to bother speaking with me. I was excluded, perhaps on purpose, and no one even noticed.

I held it together through the Report. I even made it through dismissing my maids. But once I was alone, I broke down.

I wasn’t sure how I’d explain myself when Maxon came knocking, but that ended up not mattering. He never showed. And I couldn’t help but wonder whose company he was enjoying instead.

CHAPTER 15

MY MAIDS WERE GIFTS. THEY didn’t ask about the puffy eyes or the tear-stained pillows. They merely helped me pull myself together. I allowed myself to be pampered, grateful for the attention. They were wonderful to me. Would they be this nice to Kriss if she managed to win and took them away?

I watched them as I debated, and I was surprised to notice a tension among them. Mary seemed mostly fine, maybe a little worried. But Anne and Lucy looked like they were deliberately avoiding eye contact with each other and not speaking unless they absolutely had to.

I couldn’t begin to guess at what was happening, and I didn’t know if it was my place to ask. They never intruded on my sadness or anger. I supposed it was only right that I do the same for them.

I tried not to let the silence bother me as they did my hair and dressed me for a long day in the Women’s Room. I ached to put on one of the luxurious pants that Maxon had given me for Saturday use, but this seemed like a bad time for that. If I was heading down, I wanted to be a lady about it. Points to me for effort.

As I settled in for another day of tea and books, the others chatted about the night before. Well, all of them except for Celeste, who had more gossip magazines waiting to be read. I wondered if the one in her hands said anything about me.

I was debating trying to take it when Silvia came in with a thick pile of paper in her arms. Great. More work.

“Good morning, ladies!” Silvia crooned. “I know you usually wait for guests on Saturdays, but today the queen and I have a special assignment for you.”

“Yes,” the queen said, walking over to us. “I know this is short notice, but we have visitors coming next week. They will be touring the country and stopping by the palace to meet all of you.”

“As you know, the queen is usually in charge of receiving such important guests. You all saw how she graciously hosted our friends from Swendway.” Silvia gestured over to Queen Amberly, who smiled demurely.

“However, the visitors we have coming from the German Federation and Italy are even more important than the Swendish royal family. And we thought this visit would be an excellent exercise for you all, especially since we’ve been so focused on diplomacy lately. You will work in teams to prepare a reception for your respective guests, including a meal, entertainment, and gifts,” Silvia explained.

I gulped as she continued.

“It is very important for us to maintain the relationships we have as well as to forge new ones with other countries. We have outlines of proper etiquette for interacting with these guests, as well as guides for what’s typically frowned on when hosting events for them. However, the actual execution is in your hands.”

“We wanted to make it as fair as possible,” the queen said. “I think we’ve done a good job of putting you all on the same field. Celeste, Natalie, and Elise, you will be organizing one reception. Kriss and America, you will take care of the other. And since you have one less person, you will have one more day. Our visitors from the German Federation will be coming on Wednesday, and we’ll be receiving guests from Italy on Thursday.”

There was a short moment of silence as we took that in.

“You mean we have four days?” Celeste screeched.

“Yes,” Silvia said. “But a queen has to do this work alone and sometimes on far less notice.”

The panic was palpable.

“Can we have our papers, please?” Kriss asked, holding out her hand. Instinctively, I put mine out as well. Within seconds we were devouring the pages.

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