I pulled my hand to my stomach, willing the butterflies inside to still. They weren’t having it.
Wordlessly, he raised a hand to my cheek, brushing my hair back, then left it under my chin. There was a hint of a smile on his face, just before he leaned in.
Growing up, I’d imagined a hundred first kisses with Clarkson. Apparently, I didn’t dream big enough.
He guided me, holding me to him. I thought maybe I’d misstep or stumble, but somehow my hands were in his hair, clutching him as tightly as he was me. He bent and I curved into him, happily surprised at how well we fit.
This was joy. This was love. So many words you hear about or read about, and now . . . now I knew them.
When he finally pulled away, there were no more butterflies or flickers of nerves. An entirely new feeling was pulsing through my skin.
Our breathing was fast, but it didn’t stop him from speaking.
“You looked stunning tonight. I thought you should know.” His fingers traveled down my arms, across my collarbone, and up into my hair. “Absolutely stunning.”
He kissed me once more and left, stopping to give me a final look at the door.
I wandered over to the bed and fell into it. I meant to call Martha and get her to help me out of my dress, but I felt so beautiful, I just let it be.
THE NEXT MORNING MY SKIN would tingle without warning. Every move, every brush or breeze resurrected that warm feeling all over me, and my mind wandered to Clarkson each time it happened.
I caught his eye at breakfast twice, and he was wearing a similarly contented expression on both instances. It felt as if a delicious secret was hovering above us.
Though none of us were sure if the rumors about Tia had been true, I decided to take her expulsion as a cautionary tale and keep last night to myself. The fact that no one knew made it even better, more sacred somehow, and I stored it like a treasure.
The only downside of kissing Clarkson was that it made each moment away from him unbearable. I needed to see him again, touch him again. If anyone had asked me what I did that day, I’d never be able to tell them. Every breath was Clarkson’s, and nothing mattered until I was in my room, dressing for dinner, the promise of seeing him the only thing keeping me together.
My maids were completely in tune with my thoughts on my new look, and tonight’s dress was even better. A honey color, with a high waist and a bottom that belled out behind me. It was maybe a little too extravagant for dinner, but I loved it regardless.
I took my seat in the dining hall, blushing when Clarkson winked at me. I wished there was better lighting in here so I could really see his face. I was jealous of the girls on the other side of the room, with all the fading daylight falling in over their shoulders through the windows.
“She’s glowering again,” Kelsa muttered in my direction.
“The queen. Look at her.”
I peeked up at the head table. Kelsa was right. The queen looked as if the air itself was irritating her. She picked up a wedge of potato with her fork, eyed it, and slammed it back down on the plate.
I saw a few of the girls start at the sound.
“I wonder what happened,” I whispered back.
“I don’t think anything happened. She’s one of those people who can’t be happy. If the king sent her on a break every other week, it wouldn’t be enough. She won’t be satisfied until we’re all gone.” Kelsa was full of contempt for the queen and her vexing disposition. I understood why, of course. Still, for Clarkson’s sake, I couldn’t bring myself to hate her.
“I wonder what she’ll do once Clarkson chooses,” I questioned aloud.
“I don’t even want to think about it.” Kelsa sipped from her glass of sparkling cider. “She is the only thing that makes me not want him.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” I joked. “The palace is big enough that you can avoid her most days if you want to.”
“Excellent point!” She looked around to see if anyone was watching. “You think they’ve got a dungeon we could put her in?”
In spite of myself I laughed. If there were no dragons to keep in a cage, she was close enough.
It happened so quickly, which I suppose was how it was meant to happen. I watched all the windows shatter almost simultaneously as objects flew through them. There were several shrill cries from the other Selected girls as the glass rained down, and it looked as if Nova got hit in the head by whatever had broken the window above her. She leaned onto the table, cradling herself, while some tried to look out and see where this had come from.
I eyed the funny things in the middle of the dining hall. They looked like very large soup cans. As I squinted, trying to make out some scrawl on the side of one closer to me, the can right by the door burst, spilling smoke into the room.
“Run!” Clarkson yelled as another can exploded. “Get out!”
Whatever their problems, the king clutched the queen’s arm and pulled her out of the room. I saw two girls rush to the middle of the dining hall, and Clarkson ushered them away.
In seconds the room was filling with black smoke, and between that and the screams, I was having a hard time concentrating. I turned, looking for the girls who had been sitting beside me. They were gone.
They had run, of course. I spun again, but I was instantly lost in the smoke. Where was the door? I took a deep breath, trying to calm down, and instead found myself choking on the fumes. I sensed this was something worse than plain old smoke. I’d been a little too close to a bonfire before, and this . . . this was different. My body felt compelled to rest. I knew that was wrong. I should want to fight.
I panicked. I just needed to get my bearings. The table. If I could find the table again, all I had to do was turn right. I flung my arms around, coughing from breathing too fast and inhaling the gas. I stumbled and ran into the table, which was not where I thought it should be. But I didn’t care—that was enough. I placed my palms on a plate, still covered in food, and ran my hands down the length of the table, knocking over glasses and tripping over chairs.
I wasn’t going to make it.
I couldn’t breathe, and I was so tired.
I pulled my head up, but I couldn’t see a thing.
I banged my hand on the table, coughing from the effort. I didn’t hear him again, and all I could see was smoke.
I started banging the table again. Nothing.
I tried once more, and in the middle of striking the table, my hand came down on another hand.