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If I was smart I’d have gotten there a bit early; but as it was, I ambled in with several other girls, completely missing my chance to get the prince’s attention. I darted my eyes toward the head table every few seconds, but Clarkson was focused on his meal, dutifully cutting his waffles and ham, occasionally glancing over to some papers beside him. His father drank coffee mostly, only scooping up a bite when he took a break from the document he was reading. I assumed he and Clarkson were studying the same thing and that both of them starting so early meant they were going to have a very busy day. The queen was nowhere to be seen, and while the word hangover was never said aloud, I could practically hear it in everyone’s thoughts.

Once breakfast was over, Clarkson left with the king, off to do whatever it was they did that made our country work.

I sighed. Maybe tonight.

The Women’s Room was quiet today. We had exhausted all the getting-to-know-you conversations and had grown accustomed to spending our days together. I sat with Madeline and Bianca, as I almost always did. Bianca came from one of Honduragua’s neighboring provinces, and we had met on the plane. Madeline’s room was next to mine, and her maid had come knocking on my door the very first day to ask my maids for some thread. Maybe half an hour later, Madeline came by to thank us, and we’d been friendly ever since.

The Women’s Room was cliquish from the beginning. We were used to being separated into groups in everyday life—Threes over here, Fives over there—so maybe it was natural for that to happen in the palace. And while we didn’t divide ourselves exclusively by castes, I couldn’t help wishing we didn’t do it at all. Weren’t we made equals by coming here, at least while the competition lasted? Weren’t we going through the exact same thing?

Though, at the moment, it seemed as if we were going through a bunch of nothing. I wished something would happen if only so we’d have something to talk about.

“Any news from home?” I asked, trying to start a conversation.

Bianca looked up. “My mom wrote yesterday and said that Hendly got engaged. Can you believe that? She left, what, a week ago?”

Madeline perked up. “What’s his caste? Is she climbing?”

“Oh, yeah!” Bianca lit up with excitement. “A Two! I mean, it gives you hope. I was a Three before I left, but the idea of maybe marrying an actor instead of a boring old doctor sounds fun.”

Madeline giggled and nodded in agreement.

I wasn’t so sure. “Did she know him? Before she left for the Selection, I mean?”

Bianca tipped her head to one side, as if I’d asked something ridiculous. “It seems unlikely. She was a Five; he’s a Two.”

“Well, I think she said her family did music, so maybe she performed for him once,” Madeline offered.

“That’s a good point,” Bianca added. “So maybe they weren’t complete strangers.”

“Huh,” I muttered.

“Sour grapes?” Bianca asked.

I smiled. “No. If Hendly is happy, then so am I. It’s a little strange, though, marrying someone you don’t even know.”

There was a pause before Madeline spoke. “Aren’t we kind of doing the same thing?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “The prince is not a stranger.”

“Really?” Madeline challenged. “Then please, tell me everything you know about him, because I feel like I’ve got nothing.”

“Actually . . . me, too,” Bianca confessed.

I inhaled to begin a long list of facts about Clarkson . . . but there wasn’t much to tell.

“I’m not saying I know every last secret about him, but it’s not as if he’s any old boy walking down the street. We’ve grown up with him, heard him speak on the Report, seen his face hundreds of times. We may not know all the details, but I have a very clear impression of him. Don’t you?”

Madeline smiled. “I think you’re right. It’s not as if we walked through the door not knowing his name.”

“Exactly.”

The maid was so quiet, I didn’t realize she’d approached until she was at my ear, whispering. “You’re needed for a moment, miss.”

I looked at her, confused. I’d done nothing wrong. I turned to the girls and shrugged before standing to follow her out the door.

In the hallway, she merely gestured, and I turned to see Prince Clarkson. He was standing there with that almost smile on his lips and something in his hand.

“I was just dropping off a package at the mail room and the post master had this for you,” he said, holding up an envelope between two fingers. “I thought you might want it right away.”

I walked over as quickly as I could without seeming unladylike and reached for it. His grin became devilish as he abruptly stuck his arm straight up in the air.

I giggled, hopping and trying desperately to clutch it. “No fair!”

“Come on now.”

I could jump fairly well, though not in heels, and even with them on I was slightly shorter than he was. But I didn’t mind failing, because somewhere in my sad attempts, I felt an arm wrap around my waist.

Finally, he gave me my letter. As I suspected, it was from Adele. So many tiny happy things were piling into my day.

“You cut your hair.”

I pulled my gaze from the letter. “I did.” I grabbed a section and brought it over my shoulder. “Do you like it?”

There was something in his eyes—not quite mischief, not quite a secret. “I do. Very much.” With that he turned and walked down the hall, not even glancing back.

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