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“Bravo, Clementine!” he yelled to a girl who’d successfully ruined another’s shot. “All the same. Dehydration can make headaches worse. Might be good for you.”

His eyes came down to meet mine, and there was something there. Not love, maybe not even affection, but something a degree or two beyond basic concern.

Knowing I was hopeless when it came to refusing him, I stood and walked over to the table. I started to pour myself some water, but a maid took the pitcher from my hand.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Still getting used to that.”

She smiled. “Not at all. Have some fruit. Very refreshing on a day like this.”

I stood by the table, eating grapes with a tiny fork. I’d need to tell Adele about that, too: utensils for fruit.

Clarkson looked my way a few times, seemingly double-checking that I was doing as he suggested. I couldn’t tell if it was the food or his attention that lifted my mood.

I never did take a chance playing the game.

It was three more days before Clarkson spoke to me again.

Dinner was dying down. The king had unceremoniously excused himself, and the queen had almost completely emptied a bottle of wine by herself. Some of the girls started to curtsy and leave, not wanting to watch the queen as she sloppily propped herself up on her arm. I was alone at my table, determined to finish every last bite of the chocolate cake.

“How are you today, Amberly?”

My head shot up. Clarkson had walked over without me noticing. I thanked God he caught me between bites. “Very well. And you?”

“Excellent, thank you.”

There was a brief silence as I waited for him to say more. Or was I supposed to talk? Were there rules about who spoke first?

“I was just noticing how long your hair is,” he commented.

“Oh.” I laughed a little as I looked down. My hair was nearly to my waist these days. Though it was a lot to groom, it gave me plenty of options for pulling it up. That was key for working on the farm or up in the factory. “Yes. Comes in handy for braiding, which is nice at home.”

“Do you think it’s maybe too long?”

“Umm. I don’t know, Your Highness.” I ran my fingers over it. My hair was clean and well taken care of. Did I somehow look messy without being aware of it? “What do you think?”

He tilted his head. “It’s a very pretty color. I think it might be nicer if it was shorter.” He shrugged and started to walk away. “Just a thought,” he called over his shoulder.

I sat there for a moment, considering. Then, abandoning my cake, I went to my room. My maids were there, waiting as always. “Martha, would you feel comfortable cutting my hair?”

“Of course, miss. An inch or so off the bottom will keep it healthy,” she replied, walking to the bathroom.

“No,” I countered. “I need it short.”

She paused. “How short?”

“Well . . . past my shoulders still, but maybe above the bottom of my shoulder blades?”

“That’s more than a foot, miss!”

“I know. But can you do it? And would you still be able to make it pretty?” I pulled at the thick strands, imagining them cut off.

“Of course, miss. But why would you do that?”

I crossed in front of her, heading into the bathroom. “I think it’s time for a change.”

My maids helped undo my dress and draped a towel over my shoulders. I closed my eyes as Martha began, not completely sure what I was doing. Clarkson thought I’d look nicer with shorter hair, and Martha would make sure it was long enough that I could still pull it back. I lost nothing in this.

I didn’t dare to take a glimpse until it was all done. I listened to the metallic bite of the scissors over and over. I could feel as her snips got more precise, as if she was making everything uniform. Not long after that she stopped.

“What do you think, miss?” she asked hesitantly.

I opened my eyes. At first I couldn’t even tell a difference. But I turned my head ever so slightly, and a piece of hair fell over my shoulder. I pulled a strand over the other side, and it was as if my face was encircled by a mahogany frame.

He was right.

“I love it, Martha!” I gasped, touching my hair all over.

“It makes you look much more mature,” Cindly added.

I nodded. “It does, doesn’t it?”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Emon cried, running to the jewelry box. She fished through several pieces, searching for something in particular. Finally, she came up with a necklace that had large glittering red stones. I hadn’t been brave enough to wear it yet.

I lifted my hair, expecting her to want me to try it on, but she had other ideas. Gently, she laid the necklace across my head. It was so ornate, it was very reminiscent of a crown.

My maids all sucked in a breath, but I stopped breathing completely.

I had spent so many years imagining Prince Clarkson as my husband, but never once had I considered him as the boy who could make me a princess. For the first time ever, I realized I wanted that, too. I wasn’t full of connections or dripping with wealth, but I sensed it was a role that I would not simply fill but excel at. I’d always believed I’d be a good match for Clarkson, but maybe I could be a good match for the monarchy, too.

I looked at myself in the mirror, and along with imagining Schreave tacked on the end of my name, I placed princess right before it. In that instant I wanted him, the crown—every last piece of this—like nothing before.

CHAPTER 3

I HAD MARTHA FIND ME a jeweled headband to wear in the morning and left my hair completely down. I’d never been so excited about breakfast. I thought I looked positively beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to see if Clarkson felt the same way.

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