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"All right, miss, just face the camera and smile, please," the photographer called, and Celeste immediately complied.
She turned herself toward Maxon and placed a hand on his chest, tilted her head down, and gave an expert smile. She seemed to understand how to use the lighting and set to her best advantage and kept moving Maxon over a few inches or insisting on changing their pose. Where some of the girls took their time and made their turn with Maxon last-particularly those who still hadn't secured a date-Celeste appeared to want to show her efficiency instead.
In a bolt of speed, she was done, and the photographer called for the next girl. I was so busy watching Celeste run her fingers down Maxon's arm as she exited that a maid had to gently remind me it was my turn.
I gave my head a tiny shake and willed myself to focus. I gathered up my dress in my hands and walked toward Maxon. His eyes shifted from Celeste to me, and maybe I imagined it, but his face seemed to brighten a bit.
"h.e.l.lo, my dear," he sang.
"Don't even start," I warned, but he merely chuckled and reached his hands out.
"Hold on a moment. Your sash is crooked."
"Not surprised." The darn thing was so heavy, I could feel it shifting every time I stepped.
"I suppose that'll do," he said jokingly.
I fired back, "In the meantime, they ought to hang you up with the chandeliers." I poked at the glittering medals across his chest. His uniform, which looked almost like something the guards would wear, only far more elegant, also had golden things on his shoulders and a sword hanging off his hip. It was a bit much.
"Look at the camera, please," the photographer called. I looked up and saw not just his eyes but the faces of all the other girls watching, and my nerves shot up.
I wiped my moist hands on my dress and exhaled.
"Don't be nervous," Maxon whispered.
"I don't like everyone looking at me."
He pulled me very close and put his hand on my waist. I went to step back, but Maxon's arm held me securely to him. "Just look at me like you can't stand me." He squinted into a mock pout, which made me crack up.
The camera flashed at just that second, capturing us both laughing.
"See," Maxon said. "It's not so bad."
"I guess." I was still tense for a few minutes as the photographer shouted out instructions and Maxon shifted from a close embrace to a loose one, or turned me so my back was against his chest.
"Excellent," the photographer said. "Could we get a few on the lounge?"
I was feeling better now that it was half over, and I sat next to Maxon with the best posture I could muster. Every once in a while, he'd poke or tickle me, making my smile grow bigger until it burst into laughter. I hoped the photographer was catching the moments just before my face scrunched together, otherwise this whole thing was going to be a disaster.
From the corner of my eye, I noticed a waving hand, and a moment later Maxon turned as well. A man in a suit was standing there, and he clearly needed to speak to the prince. Maxon nodded, but the man hesitated, looking to him and then to me, evidently questioning my presence.
"She's fine," Maxon said, and the man came over and knelt before him.
"Rebel attack in Midston, Your Majesty," he said. Maxon sighed and dropped his head wearily. "They burned acres of crops and killed about a dozen people."
"Where in Midston?"
"The west, sir, near the border."
Maxon nodded slowly and looked as if he was adding this piece of information to others in his head. "What does my father say?"
"Actually, Your Majesty, he wanted your thoughts."
Maxon seemed taken aback for a split second, then spoke. "Localize troops in the southeast of Sota and all along Tammins. Don't go as far south as Midston, it'd be a waste. See if we can intercept them."
The man stood and bowed. "Excellent, sir." As swiftly as he'd come, he vanished.
I knew we were supposed to get back to the pictures, but Maxon didn't seem nearly so interested in it all now.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
He nodded somberly. "Just all those people."
"Maybe we should stop," I suggested.
He shook his head, straightened up, and smiled, placing my hand in his. "One thing you must master in this profession is the ability to appear calm when you feel anything but. Please smile, America."
I raised myself up and gave a shy smile to the camera as the photographer clicked away. In the middle of those last few frames, Maxon squeezed my hand tight, and I did the same to his. In that moment, it felt like we had a connection, something true and deep.
"Thank you very much. Next, please," the photographer sang.
As Maxon and I stood, he held on to my hand. "Please don't say anything. It's imperative you're discreet."
The click of a pair of heels coming toward us reminded me that we weren't alone, but I kind of wanted to stay. He gave my hand one last squeeze and released me, and as I walked away, I considered several things. How nice it felt that Maxon trusted me enough to let me know this secret, and how it had sort of felt like we were alone for a moment. Then I thought about the rebels, and how the king was usually quick to point out their sedition, but I was supposed to keep this news to myself. It didn't quite make sense.
"Janelle, my dear," Maxon said as the next girl approached. I smiled to myself at the tired endearment. He lowered his voice, but I still heard. "Before I forget, are you free this afternoon?"
Something kind of knotted in my stomach. I guessed it was a late batch of nerves.
"She must have done something terrible," Amy insisted.
"That's not what she made it sound like," Kriss countered.
Tuesday pulled on Kriss's arm. "What did she say again?"
Janelle had been sent home.
This particular elimination was crucial for us to understand, because it was the first one that was isolated and not caused by rule breaking. She had done something wrong, and we all wanted to know what it was.
Kriss, whose room was across from Janelle's, had seen her come in and was the only person she'd spoken to before she left. Kriss sighed and retold the story for the third time.
"She and Maxon had gone hunting, but you knew that," she said, waving her hand around like she was trying to clear her thoughts. Janelle's date really had been common knowledge. After the photo shoot yesterday, she gushed about their plans to anyone who would listen.
"That was her second date with Maxon. She's the only one who got two," Bariel said.
"No, she isn't," I mumbled. A few heads turned, acknowledging my statement. It was true, though. Janelle was the only girl to have two dates with Maxon besides me. Not that I was counting.
Kriss continued. "When she came back, she was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she said she was leaving, that Maxon had told her to go. I gave her a hug because she was so upset and asked her what happened. She said she couldn't tell me about it. I don't understand that. Maybe we're not allowed to talk about why we're eliminated?"
"That wasn't in the rules, was it?" Tuesday asked.
"No one said anything to me about it," Amy replied, and several others shook their heads in confirmation.
"But what did she say then?" Celeste urged.
Kriss sighed again. "She said that I'd better be careful of what I say. Then she pulled away and slammed the door."
The room went quiet a moment, considering. "She must have insulted him," Elayna said.
"Well, if that's why she left, then it isn't fair, since Maxon said that someone in this room insulted him the first time they met," Celeste complained.
People started looking around the room, trying to discover the guilty party, perhaps in an effort to get them-me-kicked out as well. I gave a nervous glance to Marlee, and she sprang into action.
"Maybe she said something about the country? Like the policies or something?"
Bariel sucked her teeth. "Please. How boring must that date have been for them to start talking policy? Has anyone in here actually talked to Maxon about anything related to running the country?"
No one answered.
"Of course you haven't," Bariel said. "Maxon's not looking for a coworker, he's looking for a wife."
"Don't you think you're underestimating him?" Kriss objected. "Don't you think Maxon wants someone with ideas and opinions?"
Celeste threw her head back and laughed. "Maxon can run the country just fine. He's trained for it. Besides, he has teams of people to help him make decisions, so why would he want someone else trying to tell him what to do? If I were you, I'd start learning how to be quiet. At least until he marries you."
Bariel sidled up beside Celeste. "Which he won't."
"Exactly," Celeste said with a smile. "Why would Maxon bother with some brainiac Three when he could have a Two?"
"Hey!" Tuesday cried. "Maxon doesn't care about numbers."
"Of course he does," Celeste replied in a tone someone would use with a child. "Why do you think everyone below a Four is gone?"
"Still here," I said, raising my hand. "So if you think you've got him figured out, you're wrong."
"Oh, it's the girl who doesn't know when to shut up," Celeste said in mock amus.e.m.e.nt.
I balled my fist, trying to decide if it would be worth hitting her. Was that part of her plan? But before I could move at all, Silvia burst through the door.
"Mail, ladies!" she called out, and the tension in the room flew away.
We all stopped, eager to get our hands on what Silvia was carrying. We'd been at the palace nearly two weeks now, and with the exception of hearing from our families on the second day, this was our first real contact from home.
"Let's see," Silvia said, looking through stacks of letters, completely oblivious to the almost-argument that had taken place not seconds ago. "Lady Tiny?" she called as she looked around the room.
Tiny raised her hand and walked forward. "Lady Elizabeth? Lady America?"
I practically ran forward and s.n.a.t.c.hed the letter out of her hand. I was so hungry for words from my family. As soon as it was in my clutches, I retreated to a corner for a few moments to myself.
Dear America, I can't wait for Friday to come. I can't believe you're going to get to talk to Gavril Fadaye! You have all the luck.
I certainly didn't feel lucky. Tomorrow night we were all getting grilled by Gavril, and I had no idea what he would ask us. I felt sure I'd make an idiot out of myself.
It'll be nice to hear your voice again. I miss you singing around the house. Mom doesn't do it, and it's been so quiet since you left. Will you wave to me on the show?
How's the compet.i.tion going? Do you have lots of friends there? Have you talked to any of the girls who left? Mom is saying all the time now that it's not a big deal if you lose anymore. Half those girls who went home are already engaged to the sons of mayors or celebrities. She says someone will take you if Maxon doesn't. Gerad is hoping you marry a basketball player instead of a boring old prince. But I don't care what anybody says. Maxon is so gorgeous!
Have you kissed him yet?
Kissed him? We'd only just met. And there'd be no reason for Maxon to kiss me anyway.
I bet he's the best kisser in the universe. I think if you're a prince, you have to be!
I have so much more to tell you, but Mom wants me to go paint. Write me a real letter soon. A long one! With lots and lots of details!
I love you! We all do.
May So the eliminated girls were already getting s.n.a.t.c.hed up by wealthy men. I didn't realize being the castoff of a future king made you a commodity. I walked around the perimeter of the room, thinking over May's words.
I wanted to know what was going on. I wondered what had really happened with Janelle and was curious if Maxon had another date tonight. I really wanted to see him.
My mind was racing, searching for a way to simply speak to him. As I thought, I stared at the paper in my hands.
The second page of May's letter was almost completely blank. I tore off a piece of it as I wandered. Some girls were still buried in pages of letters from their families, and others were sharing news. After a lap I stopped by the Women's Room guest book and picked up the pen.
I scribbled quickly on my sc.r.a.p of paper.
Your Majesty- Tugging my ear. Whenever.
I walked outside the room as if I were simply going to the bathroom and looked up and down the hall. It was empty. I stood there, waiting, until a maid rounded the corner with a tray of tea in her hands.
"Excuse me?" I called to her quietly. Voices carried in these great halls.
The girl curtsied in front of me. "Yes, miss?"
"Would you happen to be going to the prince with that?"
She smiled. "Yes, miss."
"Could you please take this to him for me?" I held out my little folded-up note.
"Of course, miss!"
She took it eagerly and walked away with a newfound energy. No doubt she would unfold it as soon as she was out of sight, but I felt secure in its odd phrasing.
These hallways were captivating, each one more ornate than my entire house. The wallpaper, the gilt mirrors, the giant vases of fresh flowers all so beautiful. The carpets were lavish and immaculate, the windows were sparkling, and the paintings on the walls were lovely.