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These things were better off ignored.

What I couldn’t ignore was the throbbing pain in my face. Hours after the queen struck me, my cheek was still red and pulsing with pain.

“Time for new ice,” Emon said, giving me another wrap.

“Thank you.” I handed her the old one.

When I came back to my room begging for something to help with the ache, my maids asked which Selected girl had hit me, vowing they would go immediately to the prince. I’d told them several times it was none of the girls. A servant wouldn’t do it. And as far as they knew, I’d been in the Women’s Room all morning, so that only left one option.

They didn’t ask. They knew.

“I heard while I was fetching ice that the queen will be taking a brief vacation alone next week,” Martha said, sitting on the floor by my bed. I’d sat facing the window, my view equally split between palace wall and open sky.

“You did?”

She smiled. “It seems the number of visitors has taken a toll on her nerves, so the king has asked her to take some time for herself.”

I rolled my eyes. He yells about expensive dresses, then sends her on a holiday. I wouldn’t complain, though. A week without her felt like heaven right now.

“Does it still hurt?” she asked.

I averted my gaze and nodded.

“Don’t worry, miss. By the end of the day, it’ll all be gone.”

I wanted to tell her the pain wasn’t the real problem. My true worry was that this was one sign of many that life as a princess might be challenging at best. At worst it would be horrific.

I tallied through what I knew. The king and queen loved each other at one point, but now they worked to contain their hatred. The queen was a drunk and consumed with possessing the crown. The king, at the very least, was on the edge of a breakdown. And Clarkson . . .

Clarkson was doing his best to come across as resigned, calm, controlled. But underneath that, his laugh was childlike. And when he broke, it was a miracle he managed to find all the pieces of himself again.

It wasn’t as if I was a stranger to suffering. At home I worked to the point of exhaustion. I endured sweltering heat. Even though being a Four should offer some level of security, I lived close to poverty.

This would be a new hardship to endure. That was, of course, if Prince Clarkson chose me.

But him choosing me would mean he loved me, right? And wouldn’t that make it all worth it?

“What are you thinking about, miss?” Martha asked.

I smiled and reached for her hand. “The future. Which is pointless, I suppose. What comes will come.”

“You’re a sweet one, miss. He’d be lucky to have you.”

“And I’d be lucky to have him.”

It was true. He was everything I ever wanted. It was all the strings attached to him that frightened me.

Danica slipped into another pair of Bianca’s shoes. “They’re a perfect fit! Okay, I’ll take these, and you take my blue ones.”

“Done.” Bianca shook Danica’s hand and grinned from ear to ear.

No one told us to stay out of the Women’s Room for the rest of the week, but all the girls opted to do just that. Instead, we gathered in groups and hopped from bedroom to bedroom, trying on one another’s clothes and talking the way we always did.

Except it was different. Without the queen around, the girls turned into . . . well, girls. Everyone seemed a bit lighter now. Instead of worrying about protocol, or being perfectly ladylike, we let ourselves be the people we were before our names were drawn, the girls we were at home.

“Danica, I think we’re close to the same size. I bet I have dresses that would work with those shoes,” I offered.

“I’ll take you up on that. You got one of the good sets. Also, Cordaye. Have you seen the things her maids make?”

I sighed. I didn’t know what they did, but Cordaye’s maids made fabric hang in ways I didn’t see on anyone else. Nova’s dresses were also a notch above everyone else’s. I wondered if whoever won the Selection would have her pick of the maids. I depended on Martha, Cindly, and Emon so much, I couldn’t imagine being here without them.

“Do you know what’s strange to think about?” I said.

“What?” Madeline answered, rummaging through Bianca’s jewelry box.

“One day, it won’t be like this. Eventually, one of us will be here alone.”

Danica sat down with me at Bianca’s table. “I know. Do you think that’s part of why the queen is so angry? Maybe she’s been alone too much.”

Madeline shook her head. “I think that’s by choice. She could have anyone stay as her guest if she wanted. She could move an entire household into the palace if it pleased her.”

“Not if it bothered the king,” Danica replied.

“True.” Madeline went back to the box. “I can’t get a read on the king. He’s kind of detached from everything. You think Clarkson will be like that?”

“No,” I answered, smiling to myself. “Clarkson is his own person.”

No one added to the discussion, and I looked up to find Danica’s devilish grin.

“What?”

“You’ve got it bad,” she said, almost as if she felt sorry for me.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re in love with him. You could find out tomorrow that he kicks puppies for fun, and you’d still be moony-eyed over him.”

I sat up a little straighter. “He might marry me. Shouldn’t I love him?”

Madeline chuckled, and Danica pressed on. “Well, yes, but it’s the way you act, like you’ve been in love with him forever.”

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