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Madeline came up behind me and rubbed her hand on my back. “You all right?”

I mustered a weak smile. “Just tired. Nothing new.”

“You sure?” She smoothed her dress beneath her as she sat. “You seem . . . different.”

“What are your goals in life, Madeline?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean just that. What are your dreams? If you could get the most out of life, what would you ask for?”

She smiled wistfully. “I’d be the new princess, of course. With tons of admirers and parties every weekend and Clarkson on a string. Wouldn’t you?”

“That’s a lovely dream. Now, if you were to ask the least out of life, what would you ask for?”

“The least? Why would anyone go for the least they could have?” She grinned, joking even though she didn’t understand.

“But shouldn’t there be a least? Shouldn’t there be a bare minimum that life should give you? Is it too much to ask for a job you don’t hate, or for someone to truly have and hold? Is it too much to ask for one child? Even one some would call flawed? Couldn’t I at least have that?” My voice broke, and I put my fingers over my mouth, as if my tiny bones would be enough to stop the hurt.

“Amberly?” Madeline whispered. “What’s wrong?”

I shook my head. “Really, I just need rest.”

“You shouldn’t be here now. Let me walk you to your room.”

“The queen will get upset.”

She chuckled once. “When isn’t she upset?”

I sighed. “When she’s drunk.”

Madeline’s laughter this time was lighter and more real, and she covered her mouth, hoping to avoid drawing attention. Seeing her like that helped my mood, and when she stood, it was easier to follow.

She didn’t ask more questions, but I thought I might tell her before I left. It would be nice to have someone know.

When we got to my room, I turned and embraced her. I took my time letting go, and she didn’t rush me. For that moment I got the least I needed out of life.

I walked to my bed, but before I crawled in, I dropped to my knees and folded my hands in prayer.

“Am I asking for too much?”

Another week passed. Clarkson sent two girls home. I wished with all that was in myself that it had been me.

Why wasn’t it me?

I knew Clarkson had rough edges, but I didn’t believe him to be cruel. I didn’t think he would taunt me with a position I’d never have.

I felt as if I was sleepwalking, going through the motions of competition like a ghost rewalking her last steps over and over. The world felt like a shadow of itself, and I trudged across it, cold and tired.

It didn’t take long for the girls to stop asking questions. Every once in a while I felt the weight of their eyes on me. But I’d moved beyond their reach, and they seemed to understand it was best not to bother with the stretch. I fell below the queen’s notice. . . . I fell below most everyone’s notice, and I didn’t mind it too much down there, alone with my worries.

I might have gone on that way forever. But one day, a day as bland and weary as any of the others that had passed, I’d been so far gone that I didn’t notice as the dining room cleared. Nothing registered until a suit was standing across from me on the other side of the table.

“You’re sick.”

My eyes went up to Clarkson’s and flitted away almost as quickly.

“No, I’ve just been more tired than usual lately.”

“You’re thin.”

“I told you, I’ve been tired.”

He slammed a fist on the table and I jolted up, startled into looking at his face again. My sleepy heart didn’t know what to do with itself.

“You’re not tired. You’re sulking,” he said firmly. “I understand why, but you need to get over it.”

Get over it? Get over it?

My eyes welled up. “With everything you know, how could you be so mean to me?”

“Mean?” he retorted, practically spitting the word. “This is kindness, pulling you back from the brink. You’re going to kill yourself like this. What will that prove? What will that even accomplish, Amberly?”

For as harsh as his words were, his voice seemed to caress my name.

“Worried you might not have a child? So what? If you’re dead, there’s no chance at all.” He took the plate in front of me, still full of ham and eggs and fruit, and pushed it toward me. “Eat.”

I wiped away the tears from my eyes and stared at the food. My stomach rebelled just seeing it. “It’s too heavy. I can’t take it.”

He lowered his voice and came in closer. “Then what can you take?”

I shrugged. “Bread, maybe.”

Clarkson stood back up and snapped his fingers, summoning a butler.

“Your Highness,” he began with a low bow.

“Go down to the kitchen and bring back bread for Lady Amberly. Several types.”

“Immediately, sir.” He turned and nearly ran from the room.

“And, for God’s sake, bring some butter!” Clarkson shouted at his back.

I felt another wave of shame. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I was botching my chances with things I couldn’t control, it was even more humiliating to ruin it with things I could.

“Listen to me,” he pleaded softly. I managed to look at him again. “Don’t ever do that again. Don’t just check out on me.”

“Yes, sir,” I mumbled.

He shook his head. “I’m Clarkson with you.”

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