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I blushed and tried not to think of the time I stole change from Mama’s purse to buy a stamp with his face on it. I still had it on a piece of rough paper and used it as a bookmark.

“I respect him,” I defended. “He’s the prince.”

“It’s more than that. You’d take a bullet for him if you had to.”

I didn’t answer.

“You would! Oh, my goodness!”

I stood. “I’m going to grab some of those dresses. I’ll be right back.”

I tried not to be afraid of the thoughts in my head. Because if it was a choice between him or me, I didn’t think I’d be able not to put him first. He was the prince, and his life was invaluable to the country. But more than that, it was invaluable to me.

I shrugged the thought away.

Besides, it wasn’t as if it would ever happen.

CHAPTER 7

THE BLINDING LIGHTS IN THE studio always took some adjusting to. Adding the weight of the jeweled dresses my maids insisted I wear for the Report made the hour almost unbearable.

The new reporter was interviewing the girls. There were still enough of us left that it was easy to be skipped over, and, for the moment, that was my goal. But, if I had to be asked a question, it wouldn’t be so bad to have it come from Gavril Fadaye.

The previous royal announcer, Barton Allory, retired the night the new Selection candidates were revealed, sharing the moment with his hand-chosen replacement. Twenty-two years old, from a respectable line of Twos and sparkling with personality, Gavril was easy to like. I was sad to see Barton go . . . but not that sad.

“Lady Piper, what do you think the primary role of the princess should be?” Gavril asked, the bright flash of his teeth making Madeline nudge me in the arm.

Piper gave him a winning smile and took a breath. Then another. Then the silence got uncomfortable.

It was then that I realized that we should all be slightly terrified of this question. I darted my eyes toward the queen, who would leave on a flight immediately after the cameras turned off. She was watching Piper, daring her to speak after she’d warned us to be silent.

I checked the monitor, and the fear in her face was painful to watch.

“Piper?” Pesha whispered beside her.

Piper finally shook her head.

Gavril’s eyes said he was searching for a way to save this, to save her. Barton would have known what to do, for sure. Gavril was just too new.

I raised my hand, and Gavril looked up at me, grateful.

“We had such a long conversation about this the other day, I’m guessing Piper just doesn’t know where to start.” I laughed, and some of the other girls followed. “We all agree our first duty is to the prince. Serving him is serving Illéa—and that might seem like a strange job description, but us doing our part allows the prince to do his.”

“Well said, Lady Amberly.” Gavril smiled and moved on to another question.

I didn’t look at the queen. Instead, I focused on sitting upright as the stab of another headache started in. Maybe they were caused by stress? But if that was the case, then why did I get them for no reason at all sometimes?

I noted on the monitors that the cameras were not focused on me or even my row, so I allowed myself a tentative brush of my forehead. Of all the things, I could tell my hands were getting softer. I wanted to prop my head up on my arm completely, but that wasn’t possible. Even if the rudeness would have been forgiven, the dress wouldn’t allow me to bend that way.

I pulled myself up, focusing my breathing. The steady ache was growing, but I willed myself to stay upright. I’d worked through feeling sick before, and under much worse conditions. This is nothing, I told myself. All I have to do is sit.

The questions seemed to last forever, though I didn’t think Gavril had spoken to all the girls. Eventually, the cameras stopped rolling. I remembered then that I wasn’t quite finished. There was still dinner before I could go back to my room, and that usually lasted about an hour.

“Are you all right?” Madeline asked.

I nodded. “Tired probably.”

We turned our heads to the sound of laughter. Prince Clarkson was talking to some of the girls in the front row.

“I like his hair tonight,” Madeline commented.

He held up a finger to the ladies he had been speaking to and circled around the crowd, his eyes on me. I made a small curtsy when he approached, and as I stood, I felt his hand go around my back, binding us together and keeping our faces from the others.

“Are you sick?”

I sighed. “I tried to hide it. My head is throbbing. I just need to lie down.”

“Take my arm.” He held out his elbow for me, and I wrapped my hand around it. “Smile.”

I lifted my lips. Despite the discomfort, it was easier with him there.

“Very generous of you to grace me with your presence,” he said, just loud enough so the girls we were standing by could hear. “I’m trying to remember what dessert it is you like best.”

I didn’t answer but continued to look happy as we exited the studio. I let my smile drop once we were out the doorway, and when we reached the end of the hallway, Clarkson scooped me up.

“Let’s get you to the doctor.”

I clenched my eyes together. I was getting nauseated again, and my whole body was starting to feel clammy. But I felt more comfortable in his arms than I would have on a chair or bed. Even with all the swaying, being curled up with my head on his shoulder felt like the best thing in the world.

A new nurse was in the hospital wing, but she was just as kind as she helped Clarkson get me into a bed, with my legs propped up on a pillow.

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