The Prince

Page 6


“What if I don’t like any of them?”
“Then pick the one you hate the least. Preferably one that’s useful. Don’t worry on that count, though; I’ll help.”
If he intended that to be a calming thought, he failed.
“Ten seconds,” someone called, and my mother came to her seat, giving me a comforting wink.
“Remember to smile,” Father prompted, and turned to face the cameras confidently.
Suddenly the anthem was playing and people were speaking. I realized I ought to be paying attention, but all of my focus was driven toward keeping a calm and happy expression on my face.
I didn’t register much until I heard Gavril’s familiar voice.
“Good evening, Your Majesty,” he said, and I swallowed in fear before realizing he was addressing my father.
“Gavril, always good to see you.”
“Looking forward to the announcement?”
“Ah, yes. I was in the room yesterday as a few were drawn; all very lovely girls.” He was so smooth, so natural.
“So you know who they are already?” Gavril asked excitedly.
“Just a few, just a few.” A complete fabrication, pulled off with incredible ease.
“Did he happen to share any of this information with you, sir?” Now Gavril was talking to me, the glint from his lapel pin sparkling in the bright lights as he moved.
Father turned to me, his eyes reminding me to smile. I did so and answered.
“Not at all. I’ll see them when everyone else does.” Ugh, I should have said the ladies, not them. They were guests, not pets. I discreetly wiped the sweat from my palms on my pants.
“Your Majesty,” Gavril said, moving to my mother. “Any advice for the Selected?”
I watched her. How long did it take for her to become so poised, so flawless? Or was she always that way? A bashful tilt of her head and even Gavril melted.
“Enjoy your last night as an average girl. Tomorrow, no matter what, your life will be different forever.” Yes, ladies, yours and mine both. “And it’s old advice, but it’s good: be yourself.”
“Wise words, my queen, wise words.” He turned with a wide sweep of his arm to the cameras. “And with that, let us reveal the thirty-five young ladies chosen for the Selection. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating the following Daughters of Illéa.”
I watched the monitors as the national emblem popped up, leaving a small box in the corner showing my face. What? They were going to watch me the whole time?
Mom put her hand on mine, just out of the sight of the camera. I breathed in. Then out. Then in again.
Just a bunch of names. Not a big deal. Not like they were announcing one, and she was it.
“Miss Elayna Stoles of Hansport, Three,” Gavril read off a card. I worked hard to smile a little brighter. “Miss Tuesday Keeper of Waverly, Four,” he continued.
Still looking excited, I bent toward Father. “I feel sick,” I whispered.
“Just breathe,” he answered back through his teeth. “You should have looked yesterday; I knew it.”
“Miss Fiona Castley of Paloma, Three.”
I looked over to Mom. She smiled. “Very pretty.”
“Miss America Singer of Carolina, Five.”
I heard the word Five and realized that must have been one of Father’s throwaway picks. I didn’t even catch the picture, as my new plan was to stare just above the monitors and smile.
“Miss Mia Blue of Ottaro, Three.”
It was too much to absorb. I’d learn their names and faces later, when the nation wasn’t watching.
“Miss Celeste Newsome of Clermont, Two.” I raised my eyebrows, not that I even saw her face. If she was a Two, she must be an important one, so I’d better look impressed.
“Clarissa Kelley of Belcourt, Two.”
As the list rolled on, I smiled to the point that my cheeks ached. All I could think of was how much this meant to me—how a huge part of my life was falling into place right now—and I couldn’t even rejoice in it. If I’d picked the names myself out of a bowl in a private room, saw their faces on my own, before anyone else, how that would have changed everything in this moment.
These girls were mine, the only thing in the world that might ever truly feel that way.
And then they weren’t.
“And there you have it!” Gavril announced. “Those are our beautiful Selection candidates. Over the next week they will be prepared for their trip to the palace, and we will eagerly await their arrival. Tune in next Friday for a special edition of the Report devoted exclusively to getting to know these spectacular women. Prince Maxon,” he said, turning my way, “I congratulate you, sir. Such a stunning group of young women.”
“I’m quite speechless,” I replied, not lying in the slightest.
“Don’t worry, sir, I’m sure the girls will do most of the talking once they arrive next Friday. And to you”—he spoke to the camera—“don’t forget to stay tuned for all the latest Selection updates right here on the Public Access Channel. Good night, Illéa!”
The anthem played, the lights went down, and I finally let my posture relax.
Father stood and gave me a firm and startling pat on the back. “Well done. That was a vast deal better than I thought you’d fare.”
“I have no clue what just happened.”
He laughed along with a handful of advisors who were lingering on set. “I told you, son, you’re the prize. There’s no need to be stressed. Don’t you agree, Amberly?”
“I assure you, Maxon, the ladies have much more to worry about than you do,” she confirmed, rubbing my arm.
“Exactly,” Father said. “Now, I’m starving. Let’s enjoy our last few peaceful meals together.”
I stood, walking slowly, and Mom kept my pace.
“That was a blur,” I whispered.
“We’ll get the photos and applications to you so you can study them at your leisure. It’s just like getting to know anyone. Treat it like spending time with any of your other friends.”
“I don’t have very many friends, Mom.”
She gave me a knowing smile. “Yes, it’s confining in here,” she agreed. “Well, think about Daphne.”
“What about her?” I asked, a bit on edge.
Mom didn’t notice. “She’s a girl, and you two have always been friendly. Pretend it’s just like that.”