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IT WAS FRIDAY, SO THE Illea Capital Report would be on at eight. We weren't exactly obligated to watch, but it was unwise to miss it. Even Eights-the homeless, the wandering-would find a store or a church where they could see the Report. And with the Selection coming up, the Report was more than a semi-requirement. Everyone wanted to know what was happening in that department.
"Do you think they'll announce the winners tonight?" May asked, stuffing mashed potatoes into her mouth.
"No, dear. Everyone who's eligible still has nine days to submit their applications. It'll probably be two more weeks until we know." Mom's voice was the calmest it had been in years. She was completely at ease, pleased to have gotten something she really wanted.
"Aw! I can't stand the wait," May complained.
She couldn't stand the wait? It was my name in the pot!
"Your mother tells me you had quite a long wait in line." I was surprised Dad wanted in on this conversation.
"Yeah," I said. "I wasn't expecting that many girls. I don't know why they're giving people nine more days; I swear everyone in the province has already gone in."
Dad chuckled. "Did you have fun gauging the compet.i.tion?"
"Didn't bother," I said honestly. "I left that to Mom."
She nodded in agreement. "I did, I did. I couldn't help it. But I think America looked good. Polished but natural. You are so beautiful, honey. If they really are looking through instead of picking at random, you have an even better chance than I thought."
"I don't know," I hedged. "There was that girl who had on so much red lipstick she looked like she was bleeding. Maybe the prince likes that kind of thing."
Everyone laughed, and Mom and I continued to regale them with commentary on the outfits we'd noticed. May drank it all in, and Gerad just sat smiling between bites of dinner. Sometimes it was easy to forget that as long as Gerad had been able to really understand the world around him, things had been stressful in our house.
At eight we all piled into the living room-Dad in his chair, May next to Mom on the couch with Gerad on her lap, and me on the floor all stretched out-and turned the TV to the public access channel. It was the one channel you didn't have to pay to have, so even the Eights could get it if they had a TV.
The anthem played. Maybe it's silly, but I always loved our national anthem. It was one of my favorite songs to sing.
The picture of the royal family came into view. Standing at a podium was King Clarkson. His advisers, who had updates on infrastructure and some environmental concerns, were seated to one side, and the camera cut to show them. It looked like there would be several announcements tonight. On the left of the screen, the queen and Prince Maxon sat in their typical cl.u.s.ter of thronelike seats and elegant clothes, looking regal and important.
"There's your boyfriend, Ames," May announced, and everyone laughed.
I looked closely at Maxon. I guess he was handsome in his own way. Not at all like Aspen, though. His hair was a honey color, and his eyes were brown. He kind of looked like summertime, which I guess was attractive to some people. His hair was cropped short and neatly done, and his gray suit was perfectly fitted to him.
But he sat way too rigidly in his chair. He looked so uptight. His clean hair was too perfect, his tailored suit too crisp. He seemed more like a painting than a person. I almost felt bad for the girl who ended up with him. That would probably be the most boring life imaginable.
I focused on his mother. She looked serene. She sat up in her chair, too, but not in an icy way. I realized that, unlike the king and Prince Maxon, she hadn't grown up in the palace. She was a celebrated Daughter of Illea. She might have been someone like me.
The king was already talking, but I had to know.
"Mom?" I whispered, trying not to distract Dad.
"The queen ... what was she? Her caste, I mean."
Mom smiled at my interest. "A Four."
A Four. She'd spent her formative years working in a factory or a shop, or maybe on a farm. I wondered about her life. Did she have a large family? She probably hadn't had to worry about food growing up. Were her friends jealous of her when she was chosen? If I had any really close friends, would they be jealous of me?
That was stupid. I wasn't going to be picked.
Instead I focused on the king's words.
"Just this morning, another attack in New Asia rocked our bases. It has left our troops slightly outnumbered, but we are confident that with the fresh draft next month will come lifted morale, not to mention a swelling of fresh forces."
I hated war. Unfortunately, we were a young country that had to protect itself against everyone. It wasn't likely this land would survive another invasion.
After the king gave us an update on a recent raid on a rebel camp, the Financial Team updated us on the status of the debt, and the head of the Infrastructure Committee announced that in two years they were planning to start work on rebuilding several highways, some of which hadn't been touched since the Fourth World War. Finally the last person, the Master of Events, came to the podium.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of Illea. As you all know, notices to partic.i.p.ate in the Selection were recently distributed in the mail. We have received the first count of submitted applications, and I am pleased to say that thousands of the beautiful women in Illea have already placed their names in the lottery for the Selection!"
In the back corner Maxon shifted a little in his seat. Was he sweating?
"On behalf of the royal family, I would like to thank you for your enthusiasm and patriotism. With any luck, by the New Year we will be celebrating the engagement of our beloved Prince Maxon to an enchanting, talented, and intelligent Daughter of Illea!"
The few advisers sitting there applauded. Maxon smiled but looked uncomfortable. When the applause died down, the Master of Events started up again.
"Of course, we will be having lots of programming dedicated to meeting the young women of the Selection, not to mention specials on their lives at the palace. We could not think of anyone more qualified to guide us through this exciting time than our very own Mr. Gavril Fadaye!"
There was another smattering of applause, but it came from my mom and May this time. Gavril Fadaye was a legend. For something like twenty years he'd done running commentary on Grateful Feast parades and Christmas shows and anything they celebrated at the palace. I'd never seen an interview with members of the royal family or their closest friends and family done by anyone but him.
"Oh, America, you could meet Gavril!" Mom crooned.
"He's coming!" May said, flailing her little arms.
Sure enough, there was Gavril, sauntering onto the set in his crisp blue suit. He was maybe in his late forties, and he always looked sharp. As he walked across the stage, the light caught on the pin on his lapel, a flash of gold that was similar to the forte signs in my piano music.
"Goooood evening, Illea!" he sang. "I have to say that I am so honored to be a part of the Selection. Lucky me, I get to meet thirty-five beautiful women! What idiot wouldn't want my job?" He winked at us through the camera. "But before I get to meet these lovely ladies, one of which will be our new princess, I have the pleasure of speaking with the man of the hour, our Prince Maxon."
With that Maxon walked across the carpeted stage to a pair of chairs set up for him and Gavril. He straightened his tie and adjusted his suit, as if he needed to look more polished. He shook Gavril's hand and sat across from him, picking up a microphone. The chair was high enough that Maxon propped his feet on a bar in the middle of the legs. He looked much more casual that way.
"Nice to see you again, Your Highness."
"Thank you, Gavril. The pleasure is all mine." Maxon's voice was as poised as the rest of him. He radiated waves of formality. I wrinkled my nose at the idea of just being in the same room with him.
"In less than a month, thirty-five women will be moving into your house. How do you feel about that?"
Maxon laughed. "Honestly, it is a bit nerve-racking. I'm imagining there will be much more noise with so many guests. I'm looking forward to it all the same."
"Have you asked dear old dad for any advice on how he managed to get ahold of such a beautiful wife when it was his turn?"
Both Maxon and Gavril looked over to the king and queen, and the camera panned over to show them looking at each other, smiling and holding hands. It seemed genuine, but how would we know any better?
"I haven't actually. As you know, the situation in New Asia has been escalating, and I've been working with him more on the military side of things. Not much time to discuss girls in there."
Mom and May laughed. I suppose it was kind of funny.
"We don't have much time left, so I'd like to have one more question. What do you imagine your perfect girl would be like?"
Maxon looked taken aback. It was hard to tell, but he may have been blushing.
"Honestly, I don't know. I think that's the beauty of the Selection. No two women who enter will be exactly the same-not in looks or preferences or disposition. And through the process of meeting them and talking to them, I'm hoping to discover what I want, to find it along the way." Maxon smiled.
"Thank you, Your Highness. That was very well said. And I think I speak for all of Illea when I wish you the best of luck." Gavril held out his hand for another shake.
"Thank you, sir," Maxon said. The camera didn't cut away quick enough, and you could see him looking over to his parents, wondering if he'd said the right thing. The next shot zoomed in on Gavril's face, so there was no way to see what their response was.
"I'm afraid that's all the time we have for this evening. Thank you for watching the Illea Capital Report, and we'll see you next week."
With that, the music played and credits rolled.
"America and Maxon sitting in a tree," sang May. I grabbed a pillow and chucked it at her, but I couldn't help laughing at the thought. Maxon was so stiff and quiet. It was hard to imagine anyone being happy with such a wimp.
I spent the rest of the night trying to ignore May's teasing, and finally went to my room to be alone. Even the thought of being near Maxon Schreave made me uncomfortable. May's little jabs stayed in my head all night and made it difficult for me to sleep.
It was hard to pinpoint the sound that woke me, but once I was aware of it, I tried to survey my room in absolute stillness, just in case someone was there.
Tap, tap, tap.
I turned over slowly to face my window, and there was Aspen, grinning at me. I got out of bed and tiptoed to the door, shutting it all the way and locking it. I went back to the bed, unlocking and slowly opening my window.
A rush of heat that had nothing to do with summer swept over me as Aspen climbed through the window and onto my bed.
"What are you doing here?" I whispered, smiling in the dark.
"I had to see you," he breathed into my cheek as he wrapped his arms around me, pulling me down until we were lying side by side on the bed.
"I have so much to tell you, Aspen."
"Shhh, don't say a word. If anyone hears, there'll be h.e.l.l to pay. Just let me look at you."
And so I obeyed. I stayed there, quiet and still, while Aspen stared into my eyes. When he had his fill of that, he went to nuzzling his nose into my neck and hair. And then his hands were moving up and down the curve of my waist to my hip over and over and over. I heard his breathing get heavy, and something about that drew me in.
His lips, hidden in my neck, started kissing me. I drew in sharp breaths. I couldn't help it. Aspen's lips traveled up my chin and covered my mouth, effectively silencing my gasps. I wrapped myself around him, our rushed grabbing and the humidity of the night covering us both in sweat.
It was a stolen moment.
Aspen's lips finally slowed, though I was nowhere near ready to stop. But we had to be smart. If we went any further, and there was ever evidence of it, we'd both be thrown in jail.
Another reason everyone married young: Waiting is torture.
"I should go," he whispered.
"But I want you to stay." My lips were by his ears. I could smell his soap again.
"America Singer, one day you will fall asleep in my arms every night. And you'll wake up to my kisses every morning. And then some." I bit my lip at the thought. "But now I have to go. We're pushing our luck."
I sighed and loosened my grip. He was right.
"I love you, America."
"I love you, Aspen."
These secret moments would be enough to get me through everything coming: Mom's disappointment when I wasn't chosen, the work I'd have to do to help Aspen save, the eruption that was coming when he asked Dad for my hand, and whatever struggles we'd go through once we were married. None of it mattered. Not if I had Aspen.
A WEEK LATER, I BEAT Aspen to the tree house.
It took a bit of work to get the things I wanted up there in silence, but I managed. I rearranged the plates one last time as I heard someone climbing the tree.
Aspen started and laughed. I lit the new candle I'd purchased just for us. He crossed the tree house to kiss me, and after a moment, I started talking about all that had happened during the week.
"I never got to tell you about the sign-ups," I said, excited about the news.
"How'd it go? Mom said it was packed."
"It was crazy, Aspen. You should have seen what people were wearing! And I'm sure you know that it's less of a lottery than they're claiming. So I was right all along. There are far more interesting people to choose in Carolina than me, so this was all a big nothing."
"All the same, thank you for doing it. It means a lot to me." His eyes were still focused on me. He hadn't even bothered looking around the tree house. Drinking me in, like always.
"Well, the best part is that since my mother had no idea I'd already promised you, she bribed me to sign up." I couldn't contain my smile. This week families had already started throwing parties for their daughters, sure that they would be the one chosen for the Selection. I'd sung at no less than seven celebrations, packing two into a night for the sake of getting my own paychecks. And Mom was true to her word. It felt liberating to have money that was mine.
"Bribed you? With what?" His face was lit with excitement.
"Money, of course. Look, I made you a feast!" I pulled away from him and started grabbing plates. I'd made too much dinner on purpose to save him some, and I'd been baking pastries for days. May and I both had a terrible addiction to sweets anyway, and she was jubilant that this was how I was choosing to spend my money.
"What's all this?"
"Food. I made it myself." I was beaming with pride at my efforts. Finally, tonight, Aspen could be full. But his smile faded as he took in plate after plate.
"Aspen, is something wrong?"
"This isn't right." He shook his head and looked away from the treats.