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I was staggering quite a bit, but I didn’t care if I looked less than graceful. I just needed to be outside. I let myself feel the warm air on my skin, the grass beneath my toes. Somehow even things in nature seemed to be bred into something extravagant here. I meant to go all the way into the trees, but my legs only carried me so far. I collapsed in front of a small stone bench and sat there, my fine green nightgown in the dirt, and my head resting in my arms on the seat.

My body didn’t have the energy to sob, so the tears that came were quiet. Still, they took all my focus. How did I get here? How had I let this happen? What would become of me here? Would I ever get back any piece of the life I’d had before this? I just didn’t know. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about any of it.

I was so consumed with my thoughts that I didn’t realize I wasn’t alone until Prince Maxon spoke.

“Are you all right, my dear?” he asked me.

“I am not your dear.” I looked up to glare at him. There would be no mistaking the disgust in my tone or eyes.

“What have I done to offend you? Did I not just give you the very thing you asked for?” He was genuinely confused by my response. I suppose he expected us to adore him and thank our lucky stars for his existence.

I stared him down without fear, though the effect was probably weakened by my tearstained cheeks.

“Excuse me, dear, are you going to keep crying?” he asked, sounding very put out by the thought.

“Don’t call me that! I am no more dear to you than the thirty-four other strangers you have here in your cage.”

He walked closer, not seeming at all offended by my loose speech. He just looked … thoughtful. It was an interesting expression on his face.

His walk was graceful for a boy, and he looked incredibly comfortable as he paced around me. My bravery melted a little in the face of how awkward this was. He was fully dressed in his sharp suit, and I was cowering and half-naked. As if his rank didn’t threaten me enough, his demeanor did. He must have had plenty of experience dealing with unhappy people; he was exceptionally calm as he answered.

“That is an unfair statement. You are all dear to me. It is simply a matter of discovering who shall be the dearest.”

“Did you really just use the word ‘shall’?”

He chuckled. “I’m afraid I did. Forgive me, it’s a product of my education.”

“Education,” I muttered, rolling my eyes. “Ridiculous.”

“I’m sorry?” he asked.

“It’s ridiculous!” I yelled, regaining some of my courage.

“What is?”

“This contest! The whole thing! Haven’t you ever loved anyone at all? Is this how you want to pick a wife? Are you really so shallow?” I shifted on the ground a little. To make things easier for me, he sat on the bench so I wouldn’t have to twist. I was too upset to be thankful.

“I can see how I would appear that way, how this whole thing could seem like it’s nothing more than cheap entertainment. But in my world, I am very guarded. I don’t meet very many women. The ones I do are daughters of diplomats, and we usually have very little to discuss. And that’s when we manage to speak the same language.”

Maxon seemed to think that was a joke, and he laughed lightly. I wasn’t amused. He cleared his throat.

“Circumstances being what they are, I haven’t had the opportunity to fall in love. Have you?”

“Yes,” I said matter-of-factly. As soon as the word came out, I wished I could steal it back. That was a private thing, none of his business.

“Then you have been quite lucky.” He sounded jealous.

Imagine that. The one thing I could hold over the head of the Prince of Illéa, the very thing I was here to forget.

“My mother and father were married this way and are quite happy. I hope to find happiness, too. To find a woman that all of Illéa can love, someone to be my companion and to help entertain the leaders of other nations. Someone who will befriend my friends and be my confidante. I’m ready to find my wife.”

Something in his voice struck me. There wasn’t a trace of sarcasm. This thing that seemed like little more than a game show to me was his only chance for happiness. He couldn’t try with a second round of girls. Well, maybe he could, but how embarrassing. He was so desperate, so hopeful. I felt my distaste for him lessen. Marginally.

“Do you really feel like this is a cage?” His eyes were full of compassion.

“Yes, I do.” My voice came out quiet. I quickly added, “Your Majesty.”

“I’ve felt that way more than once myself. But you must admit, it is a very beautiful cage.”

“For you. Fill your beautiful cage with thirty-four other men all fighting over the same thing. See how nice it is then.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Have there really been arguments over me? Don’t you all realize I’m the one doing the choosing?”

“Actually, that was unfair. They’re fighting over two things. Some fight for you, others fight for the crown. And they all think they’ve already figured out what to say and do so your choice will be obvious.”

“Ah, yes. The man or the crown. I’m afraid some cannot tell the difference.” He shook his head.

“Good luck there,” I said dryly.

It was quiet for a moment in the wake of my sarcasm. I looked up at him out of the corner of my eye, waiting for him to speak. He gazed at an unfixed point in the grass, concern marking his face. It seemed this thought had been plaguing him. He took a breath and turned back to me.

“Which do you fight for?”

“Actually, I’m here by mistake.”

“Mistake?”

“Yes. Sort of. Well, it’s a long story. And now… I’m here. And I’m not fighting. My plan is to enjoy the food until you kick me out.”

He laughed out loud at that, actually doubling over and slapping his knee. It was a bizarre mix of rigidity and calm.

“What are you?” he asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“A Two? Three?”

Wasn’t he paying attention at all? “Five.”

“Ah, yes, then food would probably be good motivation to stay.” He laughed again. “I’m sorry, I can’t read your pin in the dark.”

“I’m America.”

“Well, that’s perfect.” Maxon looked off into the night and smiled at nothing in particular. Something in all this was amusing to him. “America, my dear, I do hope you find something in this cage worth fighting for. After all this, I can only imagine what it would be like to see you actually try.”

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