Certain tasks. As in not smart enough, healthy enough, or good enough to be a prince.

My stomach rolled.

“Are you sure?” I asked weakly.

Clarkson’s eyes watched the doctor for confirmation. I supposed this was vital information for him.

“That would be the best case. If you manage to conceive at all.”

“Excuse me.” I leaped from the bed and ran down to the bathroom near the entrance of the hospital wing, flung myself into a stall, and finally heaved up every last thing in my body.

CHAPTER 8

A WEEK WENT BY. CLARKSON didn’t so much as look at me. I was heartbroken. I had foolishly let myself believe it was possible. After we’d moved past the awkwardness of our first conversation, it seemed as if he’d gone out of his way to see me, to look after me.

Clearly that had passed.

I was sure that one day soon Clarkson would send me home. Sometime after that my heart would mend. If I was lucky, I’d meet someone new, and what would I say to him? Not being able to create a worthy heir to the throne was something theoretical, a far-off maybe. But not being able to create any sort of healthy child? It was too much to bear.

I ate only when I thought people were watching. I slept only when I was too exhausted not to. My body didn’t care for me, so what did I care for it?

The queen returned from her holiday, the Reports continued, the days of endlessly sitting like dolls rolled blindly into one another. It was nothing to me.

I was in the Women’s Room, sitting by the window. The sun reminded me of Honduragua, though it was drier here. I sat praying, begging God to have Clarkson send me home. I was too ashamed to write my family and tell them the bad news, but being around all these girls and their aspirations to climb castes made it worse. I had limits. I couldn’t hope for that. At least at home I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.

Madeline came up behind me and rubbed her hand on my back. “You all right?”

I mustered a weak smile. “Just tired. Nothing new.”

“You sure?” She smoothed her dress beneath her as she sat. “You seem . . . different.”

“What are your goals in life, Madeline?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean just that. What are your dreams? If you could get the most out of life, what would you ask for?”

She smiled wistfully. “I’d be the new princess, of course. With tons of admirers and parties every weekend and Clarkson on a string. Wouldn’t you?”

“That’s a lovely dream. Now, if you were to ask the least out of life, what would you ask for?”

“The least? Why would anyone go for the least they could have?” She grinned, joking even though she didn’t understand.

“But shouldn’t there be a least? Shouldn’t there be a bare minimum that life should give you? Is it too much to ask for a job you don’t hate, or for someone to truly have and hold? Is it too much to ask for one child? Even one some would call flawed? Couldn’t I at least have that?” My voice broke, and I put my fingers over my mouth, as if my tiny bones would be enough to stop the hurt.

“Amberly?” Madeline whispered. “What’s wrong?”

I shook my head. “Really, I just need rest.”

“You shouldn’t be here now. Let me walk you to your room.”

“The queen will get upset.”

She chuckled once. “When isn’t she upset?”

I sighed. “When she’s drunk.”

Madeline’s laughter this time was lighter and more real, and she covered her mouth, hoping to avoid drawing attention. Seeing her like that helped my mood, and when she stood, it was easier to follow.

She didn’t ask more questions, but I thought I might tell her before I left. It would be nice to have someone know.

When we got to my room, I turned and embraced her. I took my time letting go, and she didn’t rush me. For that moment I got the least I needed out of life.

I walked to my bed, but before I crawled in, I dropped to my knees and folded my hands in prayer.

“Am I asking for too much?”

Another week passed. Clarkson sent two girls home. I wished with all that was in myself that it had been me.

Why wasn’t it me?

I knew Clarkson had rough edges, but I didn’t believe him to be cruel. I didn’t think he would taunt me with a position I’d never have.

I felt as if I was sleepwalking, going through the motions of competition like a ghost rewalking her last steps over and over. The world felt like a shadow of itself, and I trudged across it, cold and tired.

It didn’t take long for the girls to stop asking questions. Every once in a while I felt the weight of their eyes on me. But I’d moved beyond their reach, and they seemed to understand it was best not to bother with the stretch. I fell below the queen’s notice. . . . I fell below most everyone’s notice, and I didn’t mind it too much down there, alone with my worries.

I might have gone on that way forever. But one day, a day as bland and weary as any of the others that had passed, I’d been so far gone that I didn’t notice as the dining room cleared. Nothing registered until a suit was standing across from me on the other side of the table.

“You’re sick.”

My eyes went up to Clarkson’s and flitted away almost as quickly.

“No, I’ve just been more tired than usual lately.”

“You’re thin.”

“I told you, I’ve been tired.”

He slammed a fist on the table and I jolted up, startled into looking at his face again. My sleepy heart didn’t know what to do with itself.

“You’re not tired. You’re sulking,” he said firmly. “I understand why, but you need to get over it.”

Get over it? Get over it?

My eyes welled up. “With everything you know, how could you be so mean to me?”

“Mean?” he retorted, practically spitting the word. “This is kindness, pulling you back from the brink. You’re going to kill yourself like this. What will that prove? What will that even accomplish, Amberly?”

For as harsh as his words were, his voice seemed to caress my name.

“Worried you might not have a child? So what? If you’re dead, there’s no chance at all.” He took the plate in front of me, still full of ham and eggs and fruit, and pushed it toward me. “Eat.”

I wiped away the tears from my eyes and stared at the food. My stomach rebelled just seeing it. “It’s too heavy. I can’t take it.”

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