“Do you think it’s maybe too long?”

“Umm. I don’t know, Your Highness.” I ran my fingers over it. My hair was clean and well taken care of. Did I somehow look messy without being aware of it? “What do you think?”

He tilted his head. “It’s a very pretty color. I think it might be nicer if it was shorter.” He shrugged and started to walk away. “Just a thought,” he called over his shoulder.

I sat there for a moment, considering. Then, abandoning my cake, I went to my room. My maids were there, waiting as always. “Martha, would you feel comfortable cutting my hair?”

“Of course, miss. An inch or so off the bottom will keep it healthy,” she replied, walking to the bathroom.

“No,” I countered. “I need it short.”

She paused. “How short?”

“Well . . . past my shoulders still, but maybe above the bottom of my shoulder blades?”

“That’s more than a foot, miss!”

“I know. But can you do it? And would you still be able to make it pretty?” I pulled at the thick strands, imagining them cut off.

“Of course, miss. But why would you do that?”

I crossed in front of her, heading into the bathroom. “I think it’s time for a change.”

My maids helped undo my dress and draped a towel over my shoulders. I closed my eyes as Martha began, not completely sure what I was doing. Clarkson thought I’d look nicer with shorter hair, and Martha would make sure it was long enough that I could still pull it back. I lost nothing in this.

I didn’t dare to take a glimpse until it was all done. I listened to the metallic bite of the scissors over and over. I could feel as her snips got more precise, as if she was making everything uniform. Not long after that she stopped.

“What do you think, miss?” she asked hesitantly.

I opened my eyes. At first I couldn’t even tell a difference. But I turned my head ever so slightly, and a piece of hair fell over my shoulder. I pulled a strand over the other side, and it was as if my face was encircled by a mahogany frame.

He was right.

“I love it, Martha!” I gasped, touching my hair all over.

“It makes you look much more mature,” Cindly added.

I nodded. “It does, doesn’t it?”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Emon cried, running to the jewelry box. She fished through several pieces, searching for something in particular. Finally, she came up with a necklace that had large glittering red stones. I hadn’t been brave enough to wear it yet.

I lifted my hair, expecting her to want me to try it on, but she had other ideas. Gently, she laid the necklace across my head. It was so ornate, it was very reminiscent of a crown.

My maids all sucked in a breath, but I stopped breathing completely.

I had spent so many years imagining Prince Clarkson as my husband, but never once had I considered him as the boy who could make me a princess. For the first time ever, I realized I wanted that, too. I wasn’t full of connections or dripping with wealth, but I sensed it was a role that I would not simply fill but excel at. I’d always believed I’d be a good match for Clarkson, but maybe I could be a good match for the monarchy, too.

I looked at myself in the mirror, and along with imagining Schreave tacked on the end of my name, I placed princess right before it. In that instant I wanted him, the crown—every last piece of this—like nothing before.

CHAPTER 3

I HAD MARTHA FIND ME a jeweled headband to wear in the morning and left my hair completely down. I’d never been so excited about breakfast. I thought I looked positively beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to see if Clarkson felt the same way.

If I was smart I’d have gotten there a bit early; but as it was, I ambled in with several other girls, completely missing my chance to get the prince’s attention. I darted my eyes toward the head table every few seconds, but Clarkson was focused on his meal, dutifully cutting his waffles and ham, occasionally glancing over to some papers beside him. His father drank coffee mostly, only scooping up a bite when he took a break from the document he was reading. I assumed he and Clarkson were studying the same thing and that both of them starting so early meant they were going to have a very busy day. The queen was nowhere to be seen, and while the word hangover was never said aloud, I could practically hear it in everyone’s thoughts.

Once breakfast was over, Clarkson left with the king, off to do whatever it was they did that made our country work.

I sighed. Maybe tonight.

The Women’s Room was quiet today. We had exhausted all the getting-to-know-you conversations and had grown accustomed to spending our days together. I sat with Madeline and Bianca, as I almost always did. Bianca came from one of Honduragua’s neighboring provinces, and we had met on the plane. Madeline’s room was next to mine, and her maid had come knocking on my door the very first day to ask my maids for some thread. Maybe half an hour later, Madeline came by to thank us, and we’d been friendly ever since.

The Women’s Room was cliquish from the beginning. We were used to being separated into groups in everyday life—Threes over here, Fives over there—so maybe it was natural for that to happen in the palace. And while we didn’t divide ourselves exclusively by castes, I couldn’t help wishing we didn’t do it at all. Weren’t we made equals by coming here, at least while the competition lasted? Weren’t we going through the exact same thing?

Though, at the moment, it seemed as if we were going through a bunch of nothing. I wished something would happen if only so we’d have something to talk about.

“Any news from home?” I asked, trying to start a conversation.

Bianca looked up. “My mom wrote yesterday and said that Hendly got engaged. Can you believe that? She left, what, a week ago?”

Madeline perked up. “What’s his caste? Is she climbing?”

“Oh, yeah!” Bianca lit up with excitement. “A Two! I mean, it gives you hope. I was a Three before I left, but the idea of maybe marrying an actor instead of a boring old doctor sounds fun.”

Madeline giggled and nodded in agreement.

I wasn’t so sure. “Did she know him? Before she left for the Selection, I mean?”

Bianca tipped her head to one side, as if I’d asked something ridiculous. “It seems unlikely. She was a Five; he’s a Two.”

“Well, I think she said her family did music, so maybe she performed for him once,” Madeline offered.

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