TWO WEEKS IN, AND THIS was my fourth headache. How would I explain something like that to the prince? As if it wasn’t bad enough that nearly every girl left was a Two. As if my maids weren’t already slaving away to fix my weathered hands. At some point I would have to tell him about the waves of sickness that crashed without warning. Well, if he ever noticed me.
Queen Abby sat at the opposite end of the Women’s Room, almost as if she was purposefully separating herself from the girls. By the slight chill that seemed to roll off her shoulders, I got the feeling that we weren’t exactly welcome as far as she was concerned.
She extended her hand to a maid, who in turn filed her nails to perfection. But even in the middle of being pampered, the queen seemed irritated. I didn’t understand, but I tried not to judge. Maybe a corner of my heart would be hardened, too, if I’d lost a husband so young. It was lucky that Porter Schreave, her late husband’s cousin, took her as his own, allowing her to keep the crown.
I surveyed the room, looking at the other girls. Gillian was a Four like me, but a proper one. Her parents were both chefs, and, based on her descriptions of our meals, I sensed she’d take the same path. Leigh and Madison were studying to be veterinarians and visited the stables as often as they were permitted.
I knew that Nova was an actress and had throngs of adoring fans willing her onto the throne. Uma was a gymnast, and her petite frame was graceful, even in stillness. Several of the Twos here hadn’t even chosen a profession yet. I guessed if someone paid my bills, fed me, and kept a roof over my head, I wouldn’t worry about it either.
I rubbed my aching temple and felt the cracked skin and calluses drag across my forehead. I stopped and stared down at my battered hands.
He would never want me.
Closing my eyes, I pictured the first time I’d met Prince Clarkson. I could remember the feeling of his strong hand as he shook mine. Thank goodness my maids had found lace gloves for me to wear, or I might have been sent home on the spot. He was composed, polite, and intelligent. All the things a prince should be.
I had realized over the past two weeks that he didn’t smile too much. It seemed as if he was afraid of being judged for finding humor in things. But, my goodness, how his eyes lit up when he did. The dirty-blond hair, the faded blue eyes, the way he carried himself with such strength . . . he was perfect.
Sadly, I was not. But there had to be a way to get Prince Clarkson to notice me.
I held the pen in the air for a minute, knowing this was pointless. Still.
I’m settling in very well at the palace. It’s pretty. It’s bigger and better than pretty, but I don’t know if I have the right words to describe it. It’s a different kind of warm in Angeles than it is at home, too, but I don’t know how to tell you about that either. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could come feel and see and smell everything for yourself? And, yes, there’s plenty to smell.
As far as the actual competition goes, I haven’t spent a single second alone with the prince.
My head throbbed. I closed my eyes, breathing slowly. I ordered myself to focus.
I’m sure you’ve seen on TV that Prince Clarkson has sent home eight girls, all of them Fours and Fives and that one Six. There are two other Fours left, and a handful of Threes. I wonder if he’s expected to choose a Two. I think that would make sense, but it’s heartbreaking for me.
Could you do me a favor? Will you ask Mama and Papa if there’s maybe a cousin or someone else in the family who’s in the upper castes? I should have asked before I left. I think information like that would be really helpful.
I was getting that nauseated feeling that sometimes came with the headaches.
I have to run. Lots going on. I’ll send another letter soon.
Love you forever,
I felt faint. I folded my letter and sealed it in the already-addressed envelope. I rubbed my temples again, hoping the slight pressure would give me some relief, though it never did.
“Everything all right, Amberly?” Danica asked.
“Oh, yes,” I lied. “Probably just tired or something. I might take a little walk. Try to get my blood moving and all.”
I smiled at Danica and Madeline and left the Women’s Room, making my way toward the bathroom. A bit of cold water on my face would ruin my makeup, but it might help me feel better. Before I could get there, the dizzy feeling swept over me again. Perching on one of those little couches that ran along the hallways, I put my head back against the wall, trying to clear it.
This made no sense. Everyone knew the air and water in the southern parts of Illéa were bad. Even the Twos there sometimes had health problems. But shouldn’t this—escaping into the clean air, good food, and impeccable care of the palace—be helping that?
I was going to miss every opportunity to make an impression on Prince Clarkson if this kept up. What if I didn’t make it to the croquet game this afternoon? I could feel my dreams slipping through my fingers. I might as well embrace defeat now. It would hurt less later.
“What are you doing?”
I jerked away from the wall to see Prince Clarkson looking down at me.
“Nothing, Your Highness.”
“Are you unwell?”
“No, of course not,” I insisted, pushing myself to my feet. But that was a mistake. My legs buckled, and I fell to the floor.
“Miss?” he asked, coming to my side.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “This is humiliating.”
He swept me up in his arms. “Close your eyes if you’re dizzy. We’re going to the hospital wing.”
What a funny story this would be for my children: the king once carried me across the palace as if I weighed nothing at all. I liked it here, in his arms. I’d always wondered what they’d feel like.
“Oh, my goodness,” someone cried. I opened my eyes to see a nurse.
“I think she’s faint or something,” Clarkson said. “She doesn’t seem injured.”
“Set her here, please, Your Highness.”
Prince Clarkson placed me on one of the beds dotting the wing, carefully sliding his arms away. I hoped he could see the gratefulness in my eyes.
I assumed he would leave immediately, but he stood by as the nurse checked my pulse. “Have you eaten today, dear? Had plenty to drink?”
“We just finished breakfast,” he answered for me.
“Do you feel sick at all?”
“No. Well, yes. What I mean is, this is really nothing.” I hoped if I made this seem inconsequential, I could still make it to the croquet game later.