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We filed in, sitting wherever we wanted as there were no place cards here. Marlee was in the row in front of me, and Ashley sat to my right. I didn’t bother to take in anyone else. It seemed like several people had made at least one ally, just as I had in Marlee. Ashley had chosen her seat beside me, so I assumed she wanted my company. Still, she didn’t speak. Maybe she was upset over the news reports last night. Then again, she was quiet when we met. Maybe it was just her nature. I figured the worst she could do was not answer back, so I decided to at least acknowledge her.

“Ashley, you look lovely.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said quietly. We both checked to make sure the camera crews were far away. Not that this was private, but who wanted them around for everything? “Isn’t it fun to wear all this jewelry? Where’s yours?”

“Umm, it was too heavy for me. I decided to go light instead.”

“It is heavy! I feel like I have twenty pounds on my head. Still, I couldn’t pass it up. Who knows how long any of us will stay?”

That was funny. Ashley had seemed quietly confident from the very beginning. With the way she looked and carried herself, she was prime princess material. It seemed strange that she would doubt herself.

“But don’t you think you’ll win?” I asked.

“Of course,” she whispered. “But it’s rude to say so!” She winked at me, which made me giggle.

Yet another mistake on my part. That giggle caught the attention of Silvia, who was walking in the door.

“Tsk-tsk. A lady never raises her voice above a gentle whisper.”

Every murmur hushed. I wondered if the cameras had caught my mistake, and my cheeks filled with warmth.

“Hello again, ladies. I hope you all had a restful first night in the palace, because now our work begins. Today I will begin to instruct you on conduct and protocol, a process that will continue for the duration of your stay. Please know that I will be reporting any missteps on your part to the royal family.

“I know it sounds harsh, but this isn’t a game to be taken lightly. Someone in this room will be the next princess of Illéa. It is no small task. You must endeavor to elevate yourselves, no matter your previous station. You will become ladies from the ground up. And this very morning, you will receive your first lesson.

“Table manners are very important, and before you can eat in front of the royal family, you must be aware of certain etiquette. The faster we get through this little lesson, the sooner you get to have your breakfasts, so faces forward, please.”

She began explaining how we would be served from the right, which glass was for what beverage, and to never, ever reach for a pastry with our hands. Always use the tongs. Hands were to rest in our lap when not in use, napkin draped underneath. We weren’t to speak unless spoken to. Of course, we could talk quietly to our neighbors, but always at a level befitting the palace. She eyed me seriously as she gave that last note.

Silvia went on and on in her elegant tone, taunting my stomach. Even if they were small, I was used to getting my three meals at home. I needed food. I was getting a bit grumpy when we heard a knock at the door. Two guards stepped away, and in came Prince Maxon.

“Good morning, ladies,” he called.

The lift in the room was tangible. Backs straightened, locks of hair were tossed over shoulders, and hems were rearranged. I looked not at Maxon, but Ashley, whose chest was moving fast. She stared in such a way that I felt embarrassed for noticing.

“Your Majesty,” Silvia said with a low curtsy.

“Hello, Silvia. If you don’t mind, I would like to introduce myself to these young women.”

“Of course.” She bowed again.

Prince Maxon surveyed the room and found me. Our eyes met for a moment, and he smiled. I wasn’t expecting that. I was thinking that he’d probably changed his opinion of how to act toward me in the night, and I’d be called out in front of everyone for my behavior. But maybe he wasn’t mad at all. Maybe he found me entertaining. He had to get incredibly bored around here. Whatever the reason, that brief smile led me to believe that maybe this wasn’t going to be such a terrible experience after all. I settled into the decision I couldn’t make last night and hoped Prince Maxon would hear out my apology.

“Ladies, if you don’t mind, one at a time I’ll be calling you over to meet with me. I’m sure you’re all eager to eat, as am I. So I won’t take up too much of your time. Do forgive me if I’m slow with names; there are quite a few of you.”

There was a low rumble of giggles. Quickly, he went over to the girl in the front row on the far right and escorted her over to the couches. They spoke for a few minutes, then both rose. He bowed to her, she curtsied back. She went back to her table, spoke to the girl beside her, and it happened all over again. These conversations lasted only a few minutes and were spoken in hushed voices. He was trying to get a feel for each girl in less than five minutes.

“I wonder what he wants to know,” Marlee turned and asked.

“Maybe he wants to know which actors you think are the most handsome. Keep your mental list ready,” I whispered back. Marlee and Ashley both chuckled at that.

We weren’t the only ones talking. Around the room voices lifted like gentle hums, as we tried to distract ourselves until it was our turn. Not to mention the cameramen were hopping around, asking girls about their first day in the palace, how they liked their maids, and things like that. When they stopped by Ashley and me, I let her do all the talking.

I kept looking over to the couches as each of the Selected were interviewed. Some were calm and ladylike, others fidgeted in excitement. Marlee blushed wildly as she walked over to Prince Maxon, and beamed when she walked back. Ashley straightened her dress several times, like a nervous little tic of her hands.

I was near sweating when she came back, meaning it was my turn to go. I took a deep breath and steadied myself. I was about to ask for a monumental favor.

He stood and went to read my pin as I approached. “America, is it?” he said, a smile playing on his lips.

“Yes, it is. And I know I’ve heard your name before, but could you remind me?” I wondered if opening with a joke was a bad idea, but Maxon laughed and motioned for me to sit.

He leaned in and whispered, “Did you sleep well, my dear?”

I didn’t know what my face looked like in response to that name, but Maxon’s eyes glittered with amusement.

“I am still not your dear,” I replied, but with a smile. “But yes. Once I calmed down, I slept very well. My maids had to pull me out of bed, I was so cozy.”

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