The Queen
Page 9

 Kiera Cass

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Clarkson was doing his best to come across as resigned, calm, controlled. But underneath that, his laugh was childlike. And when he broke, it was a miracle he managed to find all the pieces of himself again.
It wasn’t as if I was a stranger to suffering. At home I worked to the point of exhaustion. I endured sweltering heat. Even though being a Four should offer some level of security, I lived close to poverty.
This would be a new hardship to endure. That was, of course, if Prince Clarkson chose me.
But him choosing me would mean he loved me, right? And wouldn’t that make it all worth it?
“What are you thinking about, miss?” Martha asked.
I smiled and reached for her hand. “The future. Which is pointless, I suppose. What comes will come.”
“You’re a sweet one, miss. He’d be lucky to have you.”
“And I’d be lucky to have him.”
It was true. He was everything I ever wanted. It was all the strings attached to him that frightened me.
Danica slipped into another pair of Bianca’s shoes. “They’re a perfect fit! Okay, I’ll take these, and you take my blue ones.”
“Done.” Bianca shook Danica’s hand and grinned from ear to ear.
No one told us to stay out of the Women’s Room for the rest of the week, but all the girls opted to do just that. Instead, we gathered in groups and hopped from bedroom to bedroom, trying on one another’s clothes and talking the way we always did.
Except it was different. Without the queen around, the girls turned into . . . well, girls. Everyone seemed a bit lighter now. Instead of worrying about protocol, or being perfectly ladylike, we let ourselves be the people we were before our names were drawn, the girls we were at home.
“Danica, I think we’re close to the same size. I bet I have dresses that would work with those shoes,” I offered.
“I’ll take you up on that. You got one of the good sets. Also, Cordaye. Have you seen the things her maids make?”
I sighed. I didn’t know what they did, but Cordaye’s maids made fabric hang in ways I didn’t see on anyone else. Nova’s dresses were also a notch above everyone else’s. I wondered if whoever won the Selection would have her pick of the maids. I depended on Martha, Cindly, and Emon so much, I couldn’t imagine being here without them.
“Do you know what’s strange to think about?” I said.
“What?” Madeline answered, rummaging through Bianca’s jewelry box.
“One day, it won’t be like this. Eventually, one of us will be here alone.”
Danica sat down with me at Bianca’s table. “I know. Do you think that’s part of why the queen is so angry? Maybe she’s been alone too much.”
Madeline shook her head. “I think that’s by choice. She could have anyone stay as her guest if she wanted. She could move an entire household into the palace if it pleased her.”
“Not if it bothered the king,” Danica replied.
“True.” Madeline went back to the box. “I can’t get a read on the king. He’s kind of detached from everything. You think Clarkson will be like that?”
“No,” I answered, smiling to myself. “Clarkson is his own person.”
No one added to the discussion, and I looked up to find Danica’s devilish grin.
“You’ve got it bad,” she said, almost as if she felt sorry for me.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re in love with him. You could find out tomorrow that he kicks puppies for fun, and you’d still be moony-eyed over him.”
I sat up a little straighter. “He might marry me. Shouldn’t I love him?”
Madeline chuckled, and Danica pressed on. “Well, yes, but it’s the way you act, like you’ve been in love with him forever.”
I blushed and tried not to think of the time I stole change from Mama’s purse to buy a stamp with his face on it. I still had it on a piece of rough paper and used it as a bookmark.
“I respect him,” I defended. “He’s the prince.”
“It’s more than that. You’d take a bullet for him if you had to.”
I didn’t answer.
“You would! Oh, my goodness!”
I stood. “I’m going to grab some of those dresses. I’ll be right back.”
I tried not to be afraid of the thoughts in my head. Because if it was a choice between him or me, I didn’t think I’d be able not to put him first. He was the prince, and his life was invaluable to the country. But more than that, it was invaluable to me.
I shrugged the thought away.
Besides, it wasn’t as if it would ever happen.
THE BLINDING LIGHTS IN THE studio always took some adjusting to. Adding the weight of the jeweled dresses my maids insisted I wear for the Report made the hour almost unbearable.
The new reporter was interviewing the girls. There were still enough of us left that it was easy to be skipped over, and, for the moment, that was my goal. But, if I had to be asked a question, it wouldn’t be so bad to have it come from Gavril Fadaye.
The previous royal announcer, Barton Allory, retired the night the new Selection candidates were revealed, sharing the moment with his hand-chosen replacement. Twenty-two years old, from a respectable line of Twos and sparkling with personality, Gavril was easy to like. I was sad to see Barton go . . . but not that sad.
“Lady Piper, what do you think the primary role of the princess should be?” Gavril asked, the bright flash of his teeth making Madeline nudge me in the arm.
Piper gave him a winning smile and took a breath. Then another. Then the silence got uncomfortable.
It was then that I realized that we should all be slightly terrified of this question. I darted my eyes toward the queen, who would leave on a flight immediately after the cameras turned off. She was watching Piper, daring her to speak after she’d warned us to be silent.
I checked the monitor, and the fear in her face was painful to watch.
“Piper?” Pesha whispered beside her.
Piper finally shook her head.
Gavril’s eyes said he was searching for a way to save this, to save her. Barton would have known what to do, for sure. Gavril was just too new.
I raised my hand, and Gavril looked up at me, grateful.
“We had such a long conversation about this the other day, I’m guessing Piper just doesn’t know where to start.” I laughed, and some of the other girls followed. “We all agree our first duty is to the prince. Serving him is serving Illéa—and that might seem like a strange job description, but us doing our part allows the prince to do his.”