It was true I had an idea of who he was. Still, as I saw him in day-to-day life, I realized there was much more to him than what I’d seen on the Report. That knowledge didn’t seem daunting, though.
On the contrary, he was a mystery I was excited to solve.
I smiled and tore open the letter right there in the hallway, moving under a window for the sake of the light.
Sweet, sweet Amberly,
I miss you so much it hurts. It hurts almost as much as it does when I think about all the beautiful clothes you’re wearing and the food you must be tasting. I can’t even imagine what you’re smelling! I wish I could.
Mama nearly cries every time she sees you on TV. You look like a One! If I didn’t already know the castes of all the girls, I’d never guess that any of you weren’t in the royal family. Isn’t that funny? If someone wanted to, they could just pretend those numbers don’t exist. Then again, they don’t for you in a way, Little Miss Three.
Speaking of which, I wish there was some long-lost Two in the family for your sake, but you already know there isn’t. I asked, and we’ve been Fours from the start, and that’s all there is to it. The only notable additions to the family aren’t good ones. I don’t even want to tell you this, and I’m hoping no one comes across this letter before you, but cousin Romina is pregnant. Apparently she fell for that Six who drives the delivery truck for the Rakes. They’re getting married over the weekend, which has left everyone sighing in relief. The father (why can’t I remember his name? Ah!) refuses to have any child of his made an Eight, and that’s more than some men years older than him would do. So, sorry you’ll miss the wedding, but we’re happy for Romina.
Anyway, that’s the family you have right now. A bunch of farmers and a few lawbreakers. Just be the beautiful, loving girl we all know you are, and the prince will undoubtedly fall for you despite your caste.
We love you. Write again. I miss hearing your voice. You make things feel more peaceful around here, and I don’t think I noticed it until you weren’t here to do it.
Farewell for now, Princess Amberly. Please remember us little people when you get your crown!
MARTHA BRUSHED THE KNOTS OUT of my hair. Even with it shorter, it was still a serious task considering how thick it was. I secretly hoped she would take her time. This was one of the few things that reminded me of home. If I closed my eyes and held my breath, it could have been Adele pulling the comb.
As I was picturing the slight gray tinge of home, hearing Mama hum over the constant sounds of delivery vans, someone knocked and I was pulled back to the present.
Cindly ran to the door, and the second after she opened it, she dropped into a curtsy. “Your Highness.”
I stood and immediately crossed my arms over my chest, feeling incredibly vulnerable. The nightgowns were so thin.
“Martha,” I whispered urgently. She peeked up from her curtsy. “My robe. Please.”
She rushed to get it as I turned to face Prince Clarkson. “Your Highness. How kind of you to visit.” I curtsied quickly, then moved my arms back to my chest.
“I was wondering if you might join me for a late dessert.”
A date? He was here for a date?
And I was in my nightgown, makeup stripped, hair half brushed. “Umm, should I . . . change?”
Martha handed me my robe, and I swooped it on.
“No, you’re fine as you are,” he insisted, walking into my room as if he owned it. Which, I guessed, he did. Behind his back, Emon and Cindly scurried out of the room. Martha looked at me for instruction, and after I gave her a quick nod, she left.
“Are you happy with your room?” Clarkson asked. “It’s rather small.”
I laughed. “I suppose if you’ve grown up in a palace it would seem that way. I like it, though.”
He walked over to the window. “Not much of a view.”
“But I like the sound of the fountain. And when anyone drives up, I hear the crunch of the gravel. I’m used to a lot of noise.”
He made a face. “What kind of noise?”
“Music being played on loudspeakers. I didn’t realize that didn’t happen in every town until I got here. And engines from trucks or motorbikes. Oh, and dogs. I’m used to barking.”
“Quite the lullaby,” he remarked, walking back to me. “Are you ready?”
I discreetly searched for my slippers, spotted them by my bed, and went to put them on. “Yes.”
He strode over to the door, then looked at me and extended his arm. I bit at my smile as I went to join him.
He didn’t seem to particularly like being touched. I noticed that he almost always walked with his hands behind his back and kept a brisk pace. Even now, as we made our way through the halls, he wasn’t exactly taking his time.
Considering that, I felt a thrill all over again at how he teased me with my letter the other day, and that he allowed me to be near him at all right now.
“Where are we going?”
“There’s an exceptionally nice lounge on the third floor. Excellent view of the gardens.”
“Do you like the gardens?”
“I like to look at them.”
I laughed, but he was completely serious.
We came to a set of open doors, and even from the hallway I could feel the fresh air. The room was lit by nothing but candles, and I thought my heart might explode from pure happiness. I actually had to touch my chest to make sure everything was still intact.
Three huge windows were open, leaving their billowy curtains tiptoeing in the breeze. In front of the middle window sat a small table with a lovely floral centerpiece and two chairs. Beside it was a cart holding at least eight different types of desserts.
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