by Kiera Cass
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.”
He lowered his voice and came in closer. “Then what can you take?”
I shrugged. “Bread, maybe.”
Clarkson stood back up and snapped his fingers, summoning a butler.
“Your Highness,” he began with a low bow.
“Go down to the kitchen and bring back bread for Lady Amberly. Several types.”
“Immediately, sir.” He turned and nearly ran from the room.
“And, for God’s sake, bring some butter!” Clarkson shouted at his back.
I felt another wave of shame. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I was botching my chances with things I couldn’t control, it was even more humiliating to ruin it with things I could.
“Listen to me,” he pleaded softly. I managed to look at him again. “Don’t ever do that again. Don’t just check out on me.”
“Yes, sir,” I mumbled.
He shook his head. “I’m Clarkson with you.”
And it was worth every speck of energy it took for the smile to cross my face.
“You have to be spotless, do you understand? You need to be an exemplary candidate. Up until recently, I didn’t think there’d ever be a need to tell you that, but now it seems I do: don’t give anyone a reason to doubt your competence.”
I sat there, stunned. What did he mean? If I’d had any more clarity of mind, I’d have asked.
Not a moment later, the butler returned with a tray full of rolls and twists and loafs, and Clarkson stepped back.
“Until next time.” He bowed and left, arms tucked behind his back.
“Will this do, my lady?” the butler asked, and I dragged my tired eyes to the pile of food.
I nodded, picked up a roll, and bit.
It’s a strange thing to discover how much you matter to people you didn’t really know you mattered to. Or to find that the slow disintegration of yourself causes a smaller version to happen in other people.
When I asked Martha if she wouldn’t mind bringing me a bowl of strawberries, her eyes welled up. When I laughed at a joke Bianca told, I noticed that Madeline sort of gasped before she joined in herself. And Clarkson . . .
The only other time I’d seem him really upset was that night we’d caught his parents fighting, and I sensed that his becoming slightly unhinged then was his way of expressing how much they meant to him. That he got so bothered over me . . . it wasn’t my preferred way of him letting me know he cared. But if that’s what he knew, it made sense.
That night when I tucked myself into bed, I promised myself two things. First, if Clarkson cared that much, then I was going to stop treating myself like a victim. From now on, I was a contender. Second, I was never going to give Clarkson Schreave a reason to get upset like that again.
His world looked like a storm.
I was going to be its center.
“RED,” EMON INSISTED. “YOU ALWAYS look stunning in red.”
“But it shouldn’t be so primary. Maybe something deeper, like a wine.” Cindly pulled out another gown, much darker than the first.
I sighed with delight. “That’s the one.”
I didn’t have the fire some of the other girls had, and I wasn’t a Two—but I was starting to think there were other ways to shine. I’d decided that I was going to stop dressing like a princess and start dressing like a queen.
It didn’t take much work to notice that there was a line drawn between the two. The Selected girls were given floral prints or dresses made with gauzy material. The queen’s dresses were statements, bold and imposing. If my personality wasn’t that way, at least my clothes could be.
And I was working on carrying myself differently. If I’d been asked back in Honduragua which was harder, roasting beans in the heat all day or trying to have decent posture for a solid ten hours, I’d have said the first. I was starting to wonder now.
It was the subtleties I wanted to master, the unnameable things that hung around a One. Tonight, on the Report, I wanted to look like the obvious choice. Maybe if I looked that way, I could feel that way.
Any time I felt a sliver of doubt, I thought of Clarkson. There wasn’t a huge, defining moment between us, but when I worried I wasn’t enough, I held on to the little things. He’d said he liked me. He’d told me not to check out. He might have walked away, but he’d also returned. That was enough to give me hope. So I put on my red dress, took a pill to prevent a headache, and prepared to do my best.
We weren’t exactly prepped for when we would or wouldn’t be asked questions or have a discussion. I assumed it was part of the Selection process: finding someone who could think on her feet. So I was disappointed when the Report ended without us getting a chance to speak. I told myself not to be bothered. There would be other opportunities. But while everyone around me sighed with relief, I was down.
Clarkson walked over, and I perked right up. He was coming this way. He was going to take me on a date. I knew it! I knew it!
But he stopped in front of Madeline. He whispered in her ear, and she giggled as she gave him an enthusiastic nod. He held out a hand, allowing her to move forward, but before he followed her, he ducked back and murmured into my cheek.
“Wait up for me.”
He left, not looking back. But I didn’t need him to.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything else, miss?”
“No, Martha, thank you. I should be just fine.”
I’d dimmed the lights in my room, but I left my dress on. I nearly sent up for some dessert, but I felt certain he’d already have eaten.
I wasn’t sure why, but I felt warm all over, as if my skin was trying to tell me tonight mattered. I wanted it to be perfect.
“You’ll send for me, of course? You shouldn’t be alone at night.”
I reached for her hands, and she didn’t hesitate to let me hold them. “As soon as the prince leaves, I’ll ring for you.”
Martha nodded and squeezed my hands before leaving me alone.
I ran to the bathroom, checked my hair, brushed my teeth, and straightened my dress. I needed to calm down. Every inch of my skin was awake, waiting for him.
I sat at my table, concentrating on my fingertips, palms, wrists. Elbows, shoulders, neck. I went piece by piece, trying to soothe myself. Of course, it was all rendered perfectly useless when Clarkson knocked on the door.
He didn’t wait for me to answer. He walked right in. I stood to greet him, and I meant to curtsy, but there was something in his eyes that left me bewildered. I watched him saunter across the floor, his stare intent.
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
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.
We reached for each other, and he hurriedly dragged me away.
“Come,” he managed, pulling me along. It felt as if the room would never end, but then my shoulder crashed into the doorframe. Clarkson held my hand, urging me to move forward, but all I wanted to do was rest. “No. Come.”
We moved farther down the hall, and I saw a few other girls there, lying on the floor. Some were gasping for air, and at least two had vomited from the gas.
Clarkson pulled me past the last of the other girls and then we fell to the ground together, gasping in the clean air. There was no way that attack—and I was certain that’s what this was—had lasted more than two or three minutes, but I felt as if I’d run a marathon.
I was lying on my arm in a very painful way, but it took too much effort to change positions. Clarkson wasn’t moving, but I could see his chest rise and fall. A moment later he turned to me.
“Are you all right?”
It took all my strength to answer. “You saved my life.” I paused, gasping. “I love you.”
I’d imagined saying those words plenty of times, but never like that. Still, I couldn’t be bothered to regret it as I drifted off, the sounds of the charging guards echoing in my ears.
There was something stuck to my face when I woke up. I reached and found an oxygen mask, kind of like the one I’d seen after Samantha Rail got caught in that fire.
I turned my head to the right and saw that the desk where the nurse usually sat and the door were practically beside me. In the other direction, nearly every bed in the hospital wing was occupied. I couldn’t tell how many of the girls were here, which made me wonder how many of them were absolutely fine . . . or if any of them didn’t make it.
I tried to sit up, hoping I could see more. And once I was almost upright, Clarkson saw me and walked my way. I didn’t feel too dizzy or short of breath, so I pulled off the mask. He was slow himself, still getting over the effects of the gas. When he finally reached me, he sat on the edge of my bed and spoke quietly.
“How are you feeling?” His voice was like gravel.
“How can . . .” I tried to clear my throat. I sounded strange, too. “How can that matter? I can’t believe you went back in. There are twenty-some-odd versions of me here. There’s only one you.”
Clarkson placed his hand out, asking for me. “You’re not exactly replaceable, Amberly.”
I pressed my lips together, not wanting to cry. The heir to the throne had run into danger for my sake. The feeling that accompanied that knowledge was almost too beautiful to bear.
“Lady Amberly,” Dr. Mission said, sweeping over. “Glad to see you’re finally awake.”
“Are the others well
?” I asked, my voice so foreign.
He exchanged a quick glance with Clarkson. “On the mend.” They were omitting something, but I’d worry about that later. “You were quite lucky, though. His Highness pulled out five girls, including yourself.”
“Prince Clarkson is brave. I agree. I’m very fortunate.” My hand was still in his, and I gave him a quick squeeze.
“Yes,” Dr. Mission answered, “but forgive me if I ask whether the bravery was warranted.”
We both turned his way, but it was Clarkson who spoke.
“Your Highness,” he replied quietly, “certainly you know your father would disapprove of you devoting so much time to a girl not worthy of you.”
It would have hurt less if he’d hit me.
“The chances of her producing an heir are marginal at best. And you nearly lost your life rescuing her! I’ve yet to report her condition to the king, as I was sure you’d mercifully send her home once you knew. But if this continues, I will have to make him aware.”
There was a long pause before Clarkson answered.
“I believe I heard several of the girls say your hands lingered a little too long as you examined them today,” he said coldly.
The doctor’s eyes squinted. “What do you—”
“And which one was it who said you whispered something very inappropriate in her ear? It doesn’t matter, I suppose.”
“But I never—”
“Hardly the point. I’m the prince. My word is above questioning. And if I even hint that you dared to touch my women in any way that wasn’t professional, you might find yourself in front of a firing squad.”
My heart was racing. I wanted to stop him, to tell him no one’s life needed to be threatened over this. Surely, there were other ways to get around the issue. But I knew that now was not the time to speak.
Dr. Mission swallowed as Clarkson continued to speak. “If you value your life at all, then I suggest that you don’t interfere with mine. Are we clear?”