He came down from the bench to crouch beside me. He was too close. I couldn’t think right. Maybe I was a little star-struck or still feeling shaky from my crying episode. Either way I was too shocked to protest when he took my hand.
“If it would make you happy, I could let the staff know you prefer the garden. Then you can come out here at night without being manhandled by the guard. I would prefer if you had one nearby, though.”
I wanted that. Freedom of any kind sounded heavenly, but he needed to be absolutely sure of my feelings.
“I don’t… I don’t think I want anything from you.” I pulled my fingers from his loose grip.
He was a little taken aback, hurt. “As you wish.” I felt more regret. Just because I didn’t like the guy didn’t mean I wanted to hurt him. “Will you be heading inside soon?”
“Yes,” I breathed, looking at the ground.
“Then I’ll leave you with your thoughts. There will be a guard near the door waiting for you.”
“Thank you, um, Your Majesty.” I shook my head. How many times had I addressed him wrongly in this conversation?
“Dear America, will you do me a favor?” He took my hand again. He was persistent.
I squinted at him, not sure of what to say. “Maybe.”
His smile returned. “Don’t mention this to the others. Technically, I’m not supposed to meet you until tomorrow, and I don’t want anyone getting upset. Though I wouldn’t call you yelling at me anything close to a romantic tryst, would you?”
It was my turn to smile. “Not at all!” I took a deep breath. “I won’t tell.”
“Thank you.” He took the hand he was holding and lowered his lips to it. When he pulled away, he gently placed my hand in my lap. “Good night.”
I looked at the warm spot on my hand, stunned for a moment. Then I turned to watch Maxon as he walked away, giving me the privacy I’d wanted all day.
IN THE MORNING I WOKE not to the sound of the maids coming in—though they had—or my bath being drawn—though it was. I woke to the light coming through my window as Anne gently pulled back the rich, heavy curtains. She hummed a quiet song to herself, absolutely happy with her task.
I wasn’t ready to move. It had taken me a long time to come down from getting so worked up, and even more time to relax after I’d realized exactly what that conversation in the garden would mean for me. If I got a chance, I would apologize to Maxon. It would be a miracle if he let me get that far.
“Miss? Are you awake?”
“Noooo,” I moaned into the pillow. I hadn’t had nearly enough sleep, and the bed was far too comfortable. But Anne, Mary, and Lucy laughed at my groan, which was enough to make me smile and decide to start moving.
These girls would probably be the easiest for me to get along with in the palace. I wondered if they could become confidantes of some kind, or if training and protocol would render them completely unable to even share a cup of tea with me. Though I was a born Five, I was covered with Three-ness now. And if they were maids, that made them all Sixes. But that was fine with me. I did enjoy the company of Sixes.
I moved slowly into the monstrous bathroom, every step echoing against the vastness of tile and glass. In the long mirrors I saw Lucy eyeing the dirt stains on my nightgown. Then Anne’s careful eyes caught them. Then Mary’s. Thankfully, none of them asked any questions. Yesterday I thought they had been prying with all their inquiries, but I was wrong. They were obviously overly concerned with my comfort. Questions about what I was doing outside my room—let alone the palace—would only be awkward.
All they did was remove the gown with care and usher me toward the bath.
I wasn’t used to being naked around other people—not even Mom or May—but there seemed to be no way around it. These three would be dressing me for as long as I was here, so I would have to bear it until I left. I wondered what would happen to them when I was gone. Would they get assigned to other girls who would need more attention as the competition drew on? Did they already have other jobs in the palace they were temporarily excused from? It seemed rude to ask what they used to do or imply that I was leaving soon, so I didn’t.
After my bath, Anne dried my hair, pulling half up with ribbons I’d brought from home. They were blue and just so happened to accent the flowers in one of the day dresses my maids had created for me, so that was what I wore. Mary did my makeup, which was just as light as the day before, and Lucy rubbed lotion into my arms and legs.
There was an array of jewelry to choose from, but I asked for my box instead. There was a tiny necklace with a songbird on it that my dad had given me, and it was silver so it matched my name pin. I did take a pair of earrings from the royal store, but they were probably the smallest ones in the collection.
Anne, Mary, and Lucy looked me over and smiled at the results. I took that as a sign I was decent enough to leave for breakfast. With bows and smiles, they wished me well as I went to leave. Lucy’s hands were trembling again.
I went into the upstairs foyer where we had all met yesterday. I was the first one there, so I took to a small sofa to wait for the rest. Slowly, others started to trickle in. I quickly noticed a theme. Every one of the girls looked phenomenal. They had their hair pulled up in intricate braids or curls, away from their faces. The makeup was meticulously done, dresses pressed to perfection.
I had probably chosen my plainest dress for the first day, and everyone else’s had something sparkly on it. I saw two girls walk into the foyer and realize they were wearing almost the exact same dress. They both turned back around to change. Everyone wanted to stand out, and they all did in their own ways. Even me.
Everyone here looked like a One. I looked like a Five in a nice dress.
I thought it had taken me a long time to get ready, but it took the other girls much, much longer. Even when Silvia came to escort us downstairs, we still had to wait for Celeste and Tiny, who, true to her name, had to have her dress taken in.
Once we were all assembled, everyone started to move toward the stairs. There was a gilded mirror on the wall, and we all turned to take one last peek as we descended. I caught a glimpse of myself next to Marlee and Tiny. I looked positively plain.
But at least I looked like me, and that was a minor consolation.
We went downstairs expecting to be taken into the dining room, where we had been told we would be eating. But instead we were taken into the Great Room, where individual tables and chairs had been set up in rows, all with plates, glasses, and silverware. There wasn’t any food, though. Not even a hopeful smell. In the front corner, tucked away in a small nook, I noticed a small set of couches. A few cameramen, stationed around the room, filmed our arrival.
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