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I faced forward. Without realizing it, she soothed a huge fear in my heart while stoking another.

Since our fight, whenever I thought about Daphne, it wasn’t about how she might be getting along with Frederick right now, or how much I missed her company. All I thought about were her accusations.

If I was in love with her, certainly it would be all of her attributes that filled my head. Or tonight, as the Selected girls were listed, I would have wished her name were in there somewhere.

Maybe Daphne was right, and I didn’t know how to properly show love. But even if that were the case, I knew with a growing certainty that I didn’t love her.

A corner of my soul rejoiced in knowing that I wasn’t missing out on something. I could enter the Selection with no restraints on my affection. But in another space, I mourned. At least if I had misunderstood my emotions, I could boast at the fact that once upon a time, I’d been in love, that I knew what it felt like. But I still had no clue. I supposed it was always meant to be that way.

CHAPTER 5

IN THE END, I DIDN’T look at the applications. I had a lot of reasons to not bother, but ultimately, I convinced myself it was best if it was a clean slate for all of us once we were introduced. Besides, if Father had pored over all the candidates in detail, maybe I didn’t want to.

I held a comfortable distance between the Selection and myself . . . until the event crossed my threshold.

Friday morning, I was walking along the third floor, and I heard the musical laugh of two girls on the open stairwell of the second floor. A perky voice gushed, “Can you believe we’re here?” and they burst into giggles again.

I cursed aloud and ran into the closest room, because it had been stressed to me over and over again that I was to meet the girls all at once on Saturday. No one told me why it was so important, but I believed it had something to do with their makeovers. If a Five stepped into the palace without any sort of help, well, I couldn’t say she’d have much of a chance. Maybe it was to make everything fair. I discreetly left the room I’d ducked into and went back to my own, trying to forget the incident altogether.

But then a second time as I was walking to drop something off in Father’s office, I heard the floating voice of a girl I did not know, and it sent a jolt of anxiety through my entire being. I went back to my room and cleaned all of my camera lenses meticulously and reorganized all my equipment. I busied myself until nightfall, when I knew the girls would be in their rooms, and I could walk.

It was one of those traits that tended to get on Father’s nerves. He said it made him nervous that I moved around so much. What could I say? I thought better on my feet.

The palace was quiet. If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t have guessed that we had so much company. Maybe things wouldn’t be so different if I didn’t focus on the change.

As I made my way to the end of the hall, I was faced with all the what ifs that were plaguing me. What if none of the girls was someone I could love? What if none of them loved me? What if my soul mate was bypassed because someone more valuable was chosen from her province?

I sat down at the top of the stairs and put my head in my hands. How was I supposed to do this? How was I meant to find someone who I loved, who loved me, who my parents approved of, and the people adored? Not to mention someone who was smart, attractive, and accomplished, someone I could present to all the presidents and ambassadors who came our way.

I told myself to pull it together, to think about the positive what ifs. What if I had a spectacular time getting to know these ladies? What if they were all charming and funny and beautiful? What if the very girl I cared for the most would appease my father beyond any expectations either of us had? What if my perfect match was lying in her bed right now, hoping the best for me?

Maybe . . . maybe this could be everything I’d dreamed it would be, back before it became all too real. This was my chance to find a partner. For so long, Daphne was the only person I could confide in; no one else quite understood our lives. But now, I could welcome someone else into my world, and it would be better than anything I’d ever had before because . . . because she would be mine.

And I would be hers. We would be there for each other. She would be what my mother was to my father: a source of comfort, the calm that grounded him. And I could be her guide, her protector.

I stood and moved downstairs, feeling confident. I just had to hold on to this feeling. I told myself that this was what the Selection would really be for me. It was hope.

By the time I hit the first floor, I was actually smiling. I wasn’t relaxed, exactly, but I was determined.

“ . . . outside,” someone gasped, the fragile voice echoing down the hallway. What was happening?

“Miss, you need to get back to your room now.” I squinted down the hall and saw in a patch of moonlight that a guard was blocking a girl—a girl!—from the doorway. It was dark, so I couldn’t make out much of her face, but she had brilliant red hair, like honey and roses and the sun all together.

“Please.” She was looking more and more distressed as she stood there shaking. I walked closer, trying to decide what to do.

The guard said something I couldn’t make out. I kept walking, trying to make sense of the scene.

“I . . . I can’t breathe,” she said, falling into the guard’s arms as he dropped his staff to catch her. He seemed kind of irritated about it.

“Let her go!” I ordered, finally getting to them. Rules be damned, I couldn’t let this girl be hurt.

“She collapsed, Your Majesty,” the guard explained. “She wanted to go outside.”

I knew the guards were just trying to keep us all safe, but what could I do? “Open the doors,” I commanded.

“But . . . Your Majesty . . .”

I fixed him with a serious gaze. “Open the doors and let her go. Now!”

“Right away, Your Highness.”

The guard by the door went to work opening the lock, and I watched the girl sway slightly in the other’s arms as she tried to stand. The moment the double doors opened, a rush of warm, sweet Angeles wind enveloped us. As soon as she felt it on her bare arms, she was moving.

I went to the door and watched as she staggered through the garden, her bare feet making dull sounds on the smoothed gravel. I’d never seen a girl in a nightgown before, and while this particular young lady wasn’t exactly graceful at the moment, it was still strangely inviting.

I realized the guards were watching her, too, and that bothered me.

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