“Yes. I sort of—well, it’s a long story,” she said. I would have to learn what that was all about eventually. “And now . . . I’m here. And I’m not fighting. My plan is to enjoy the food until you kick me out.”
I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing. This girl was the antithesis of everything I’d been expecting. Waiting to be kicked out? Here for the food? I was, surprisingly, enjoying this. Maybe it would all be as simple as Mom said it would be, and I could get to know the candidates over time, like I did with Daphne.
“What are you?” I asked. She couldn’t be more than a Four if she was so excited about the food.
“I’m sorry?” she asked, not catching my meaning.
I didn’t want to be insulting, so I started high. “A Two? Three?”
So this was one of the Fives. I knew Father wouldn’t be thrilled about me being friendly with her, but after all, he was the one who let her in. “Ah, yes, then food would probably be good motivation to stay.” I chuckled again, and tried to find out the name of this entertaining young woman. “I’m sorry, I can’t read your pin in the dark.”
She gave a slight shake of her head. If she asked why I didn’t know her name yet I wondered which would sound better: a lie—that I had far too much work to do to put them to memory at the moment—or the truth—that I was so nervous about all this, I’d been putting it off until the last second.
Which I suddenly realized I’d just passed.
“Well, that’s perfect,” I said with a laugh. Based on her name alone, I couldn’t believe she’d made the cut. That was the name of the old country, a stubborn and flawed land we rebuilt into something strong. Then again, maybe that was why Father let her in: to show he had no fear or worries about our past, even if the rebels clung to it foolishly.
For me, there was something musical about the word. “America, my dear, I do hope you find something in this cage worth fighting for. After all this, I can only imagine what it would be like to see you actually try.”
I left the bench and knelt beside her, taking her hand. She was looking at our fingers and not into my eyes, and thank goodness for that. If she were, she’d have seen how absolutely floored I was the first time I finally, truly saw her. The clouds moved at just the right moment, fully lighting her face by the moon. As if it weren’t enough that she was willing to stand up to me and clearly unafraid to be herself, she was dazzlingly beautiful.
Underneath thick lashes were eyes blue as ice, something cool to balance out the flames in her hair. Her cheeks were smooth and slightly blushed from crying. And her lips, soft and pink, slightly parted as she studied our hands.
I felt a strange flutter in my chest, like the glow of a fireplace or the warmth of the afternoon. It stayed there for a moment, playing with my pulse.
I mentally chastised myself. How typical to become so infatuated with the first girl I was ever allowed to actually have any sort of feelings for. It was foolish, too quick to be real, and I pushed the warmth away. All the same, I didn’t want to dismiss her. Time might prove that she was someone worth having in the running. America was clearly someone I’d need to win over, and that might take time. But I would start right now.
“If it would make you happy, I could let the staff know you prefer the garden. Then you can come out here at night without being manhandled by the guard. I would prefer if you had one nearby, though.” No need to worry her with just how often we were attacked. So long as a guard was close, she should be fine.
“I don’t . . . I don’t think I want anything from you.” She gently pulled her hand away and looked at the grass.
“As you wish.” I was a little disappointed. What horrible thing had I done to make her push me away? Maybe this girl was unwinnable. “Will you be heading inside soon?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Then I’ll leave you with your thoughts. There will be a guard near the door waiting for you.” I wanted her to take her time, but I dreaded some unexpected assault hurting any of the girls, even this girl who seemed to have developed a serious distaste for me.
“Thank you, um, Your Majesty.” I heard a sort of vulnerability in her voice, and realized that maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe she was just overwhelmed by everything that was happening to her. How could I blame her for that? I decided to risk rejection again.
“Dear America, will you do me a favor?” I took her hand once more, and she looked up to me with a skeptical face. There was something about those eyes on me, like she was searching for truth in mine and would have it at all costs.
Her tone gave me hope, and I grinned. “Don’t mention this to the others. Technically, I’m not supposed to meet you until tomorrow, and I don’t want anyone getting upset.” I gave a light snort, and I immediately wished I could take it back. Sometimes I had the worst laugh. “Though I wouldn’t call you yelling at me anything close to a romantic tryst, would you?”
Finally America gave me a playful smirk. “Not at all!” She paused and let out a breath. “I won’t tell.”
“Thank you.” I should have been happy enough with her smile, should have walked away at that. But something in me—perhaps being raised to always push forward, to succeed—urged me to take one step more. I pulled her hand to my lips and kissed it. “Good night.” I left before she had a chance to chastise me or I had an opportunity to do anything else stupid.
I wanted to look back and see her expression, but if it was something in the area of disgust, I didn’t think I could bear it. If Father could read my thoughts right now, he’d be less than pleased. By now, after everything, I ought to be tougher than this.
When I got to the doors, I turned to the guards. “She needs a moment. If she’s not in within half an hour, kindly urge her to come inside.” I met both of their eyes, making sure they grasped the concept. “It would also behoove you to refrain from mentioning this to anyone. Understood?”
They nodded, and I made my way to the main stairwell. As I walked I heard one guard whisper, “What’s behoove?”
I rolled my eyes and continued up the stairs. Once I made it to the third floor, I practically ran to my room. I had a huge balcony that overlooked the gardens. I wasn’t going to step outside and let her know I was watching, but I did go to the window and pull back the curtain.
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