“That’s a good point,” Bianca added. “So maybe they weren’t complete strangers.”

“Huh,” I muttered.

“Sour grapes?” Bianca asked.

I smiled. “No. If Hendly is happy, then so am I. It’s a little strange, though, marrying someone you don’t even know.”

There was a pause before Madeline spoke. “Aren’t we kind of doing the same thing?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “The prince is not a stranger.”

“Really?” Madeline challenged. “Then please, tell me everything you know about him, because I feel like I’ve got nothing.”

“Actually . . . me, too,” Bianca confessed.

I inhaled to begin a long list of facts about Clarkson . . . but there wasn’t much to tell.

“I’m not saying I know every last secret about him, but it’s not as if he’s any old boy walking down the street. We’ve grown up with him, heard him speak on the Report, seen his face hundreds of times. We may not know all the details, but I have a very clear impression of him. Don’t you?”

Madeline smiled. “I think you’re right. It’s not as if we walked through the door not knowing his name.”

“Exactly.”

The maid was so quiet, I didn’t realize she’d approached until she was at my ear, whispering. “You’re needed for a moment, miss.”

I looked at her, confused. I’d done nothing wrong. I turned to the girls and shrugged before standing to follow her out the door.

In the hallway, she merely gestured, and I turned to see Prince Clarkson. He was standing there with that almost smile on his lips and something in his hand.

“I was just dropping off a package at the mail room and the post master had this for you,” he said, holding up an envelope between two fingers. “I thought you might want it right away.”

I walked over as quickly as I could without seeming unladylike and reached for it. His grin became devilish as he abruptly stuck his arm straight up in the air.

I giggled, hopping and trying desperately to clutch it. “No fair!”

“Come on now.”

I could jump fairly well, though not in heels, and even with them on I was slightly shorter than he was. But I didn’t mind failing, because somewhere in my sad attempts, I felt an arm wrap around my waist.

Finally, he gave me my letter. As I suspected, it was from Adele. So many tiny happy things were piling into my day.

“You cut your hair.”

I pulled my gaze from the letter. “I did.” I grabbed a section and brought it over my shoulder. “Do you like it?”

There was something in his eyes—not quite mischief, not quite a secret. “I do. Very much.” With that he turned and walked down the hall, not even glancing back.

It was true I had an idea of who he was. Still, as I saw him in day-to-day life, I realized there was much more to him than what I’d seen on the Report. That knowledge didn’t seem daunting, though.

On the contrary, he was a mystery I was excited to solve.

I smiled and tore open the letter right there in the hallway, moving under a window for the sake of the light.

Sweet, sweet Amberly,

I miss you so much it hurts. It hurts almost as much as it does when I think about all the beautiful clothes you’re wearing and the food you must be tasting. I can’t even imagine what you’re smelling! I wish I could.

Mama nearly cries every time she sees you on TV. You look like a One! If I didn’t already know the castes of all the girls, I’d never guess that any of you weren’t in the royal family. Isn’t that funny? If someone wanted to, they could just pretend those numbers don’t exist. Then again, they don’t for you in a way, Little Miss Three.

Speaking of which, I wish there was some long-lost Two in the family for your sake, but you already know there isn’t. I asked, and we’ve been Fours from the start, and that’s all there is to it. The only notable additions to the family aren’t good ones. I don’t even want to tell you this, and I’m hoping no one comes across this letter before you, but cousin Romina is pregnant. Apparently she fell for that Six who drives the delivery truck for the Rakes. They’re getting married over the weekend, which has left everyone sighing in relief. The father (why can’t I remember his name? Ah!) refuses to have any child of his made an Eight, and that’s more than some men years older than him would do. So, sorry you’ll miss the wedding, but we’re happy for Romina.

Anyway, that’s the family you have right now. A bunch of farmers and a few lawbreakers. Just be the beautiful, loving girl we all know you are, and the prince will undoubtedly fall for you despite your caste.

We love you. Write again. I miss hearing your voice. You make things feel more peaceful around here, and I don’t think I noticed it until you weren’t here to do it.

Farewell for now, Princess Amberly. Please remember us little people when you get your crown!

CHAPTER 4

MARTHA BRUSHED THE KNOTS OUT of my hair. Even with it shorter, it was still a serious task considering how thick it was. I secretly hoped she would take her time. This was one of the few things that reminded me of home. If I closed my eyes and held my breath, it could have been Adele pulling the comb.

As I was picturing the slight gray tinge of home, hearing Mama hum over the constant sounds of delivery vans, someone knocked and I was pulled back to the present.

Cindly ran to the door, and the second after she opened it, she dropped into a curtsy. “Your Highness.”

I stood and immediately crossed my arms over my chest, feeling incredibly vulnerable. The nightgowns were so thin.

“Martha,” I whispered urgently. She peeked up from her curtsy. “My robe. Please.”

She rushed to get it as I turned to face Prince Clarkson. “Your Highness. How kind of you to visit.” I curtsied quickly, then moved my arms back to my chest.

“I was wondering if you might join me for a late dessert.”

A date? He was here for a date?

And I was in my nightgown, makeup stripped, hair half brushed. “Umm, should I . . . change?”

Martha handed me my robe, and I swooped it on.

“No, you’re fine as you are,” he insisted, walking into my room as if he owned it. Which, I guessed, he did. Behind his back, Emon and Cindly scurried out of the room. Martha looked at me for instruction, and after I gave her a quick nod, she left.

“Are you happy with your room?” Clarkson asked. “It’s rather small.”

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