Hi….guy…..Natasha back again with an update……sry for the late update dearies……got caught up with work…….pls give ur valuble comments guys……..and Ty….shreya,B,Turaifa Shafenaz and Rachna 4 commenting……..Ty for reading my ff…….
This is the link of my new ff’s prologue:
I didnot disclose my identity in that prologue…….but i was astonished when Hope and Someone commented asking whether i’m Natasha…..i was flabbergasted…..if Hope and Someone is readingthis epi pls reply……..how did u get to know its me?????
Link for the previous epi’s:
Episode-7~Swasan First meet.
When we landed, the air was silent as we walked the distance from the plane to the terminal with guards at our side. But once the doors were opened, we were met with ear-shattering screams.
The terminal was full of people jumping and cheering. A path had been cleared for us with a golden carpet lined with coordinating rope barriers.. At regular intervals along this channel were guards, looking around anxiously and poised to strike at the first hint of danger. Surely there were more important things they should be doing?
Luckily, Celeste was in front, and she started waving. I knew immediately that that was the right response, not the cowering I had been considering. And since the cameras were there to catch our every move, I was doubly glad I hadn’t been leading the pack.
The crowd was wild with joy. These would be the people we lived the closest to, and they were all looking forward to catching the first glimpses of the girls coming to town. One of us would be their queen someday.
I turned my head a dozen times in a matter of seconds as people called my name from all over the packed terminal. There were signs with my name on them, too. I was amazed. Already there were people here—people not in my caste or from my province—who hoped it would be me. I felt a little roll of guilt in my stomach that I would let them all down.
I dropped my head for a moment and saw a little girl pressed up against the railing. She couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. In her hands was a sign that said Brown-HEADS RULE! with a little crown painted in the corner and tiny stars everywhere. I knew I was the only brown head in the competition, and I noticed that her hair and mine were very nearly the same shade.
The girl wanted an autograph. Beside her, someone wanted a photograph, and beside him someone wanted to shake my hand. So I went practically down the entire line, turning around once or twice to talk to people on the other side of the carpet, too.
I was the last one to leave, making the other girls wait at least twenty minutes for me. Quite honestly, I probably wouldn’t have left as soon as I did except the next plane of Selected girls was coming in, and it seemed rude to overlap their time.
Getting into the car, I saw Celeste roll her eyes, but I didn’t care. I was still sort of in awe of how I’d adjusted so quickly to something that had frightened me only moments before. I had made it through my good-byes, meeting the first girls, my flight, and interacting with our mob of fans. All without doing anything embarrassing.
I thought about the cameras following me in the terminal and pictured my family watching my entrance on TV. I hoped they’d be proud.
EVEN AFTER THE SUBSTANTIAL GREETING party at the airport, the roads leading up to the palace were lined with masses of people calling out their well-wishes. The sad thing was that we weren’t allowed to roll down the windows to acknowledge them. The guard in the front said to think of ourselves as extensions of the royal family. Many adored us, but there were people out there who wouldn’t be above hurting us to hurt the prince. Or the monarchy itself.
I was stuck next to Celeste in the car—a special one that had two rows of seats facing each other in the back and darkened windows—with Ashley and Ragini sitting together in front of us. Ragini beamed as she stared out the windows, and it was obvious why. Her name was on several of the signs. It would be impossible to count how many admirers she had.
Ashley’s name was sprinkled in there, too, almost as much as Celeste’s, and far more than mine. Ashley, ever the lady, took not being a runaway favorite in stride. Celeste, I could see, was irritated.
“What do you think she did?” Celeste whispered in my ear, as Ragini and Ashley spoke to each other of home.
“What do you mean?” I whispered back.
“To be so popular. You think she bribed someone?” Her cold eyes focused in on Ragini as if she was weighing her worth in her head.
“She’s a Four,” I said doubtfully. “She wouldn’t have the means to bribe someone.”
Celeste sucked her teeth. “Please. A girl has more than one way she can pay for what she wants,” she said, and pulled away to look out the window.
It took me a moment to understand what she was suggesting, and it didn’t sit well with me. Not because it was obvious that someone as innocent as Ragini would never think about sleeping with someone to get ahead—or even consider breaking a law—but because it was becoming clear that life at the palace might be more vicious than I had imagined.
I didn’t have a very good view coming up to the palace, but I noticed the walls. They were a pale yellow stucco and very, very high. Guards were placed on top at either side of the wide gate that swung open as we approached. Inside we were greeted with a long gravel drive that circled a fountain and led to the front doors, where officials waited to welcome us.
With barely more than a hello, two women took me by the arms and ushered me inside.
“So sorry to rush, miss, but your group is running late,” one said.
“Oh, I’m afraid that’s my fault. I got a little too chatty at the airport.”
“Talking to the crowds?” the other asked in surprise.
They exchanged a look I didn’t understand before they started calling out locations as we passed.
The dining room was to the right, they told me, and the Great Room was to the left. I caught a glimpse of sprawling gardens out the glass doors and wished I could stop. Before I could even process where we were going, they pulled me into a huge room full of bustling people.
A swarm parted, and I saw rows of mirrors with people working on girls’ hair and painting their nails. Clothes hung on racks, and people were shouting things like “I found the dye!” and “That makes her look pudgy.”
Here they are!” I saw a woman coming up to us, clearly the person in charge. “I’m Silvia. We spoke on the phone,” she said as a means of introduction, then immediately went to work. “First things first. We need ‘before’ pictures. Come over here,” she commanded, pointing us to a chair in the corner in front of a backdrop. “Don’t mind the cameras, ladies. We’ll be doing a special on your makeovers, since every girl in Illéa’s going to want to look like you by the time we’re done today.”
Sure enough, teams of people with cameras were wandering around the room, zooming in on girls’ shoes, and interviewing them. Once the pictures were done, Silvia began shouting orders. “Take Lady Celeste to station four, Lady Ashley to five … and it looks like they just finished up at ten. Take Lady Ragini there, and Lady America to six.”
“So here’s the thing,” a short, dark-haired man said, pulling me over to a seat with a six on the back. “We need to talk about your image.” He was all business.
“My image?” Wasn’t I just me? Wasn’t that what got me here?
“How do we want to make you look? With that brown hair, we can make you quite the temptress, but if you want to play that kind of thing down, we can work that out, too,” he said matter-of-factly.
“I’m not changing everything about me to cater to some guy I don’t even know.” Or like, I added in my head.
“Oh, my. Do we have an individual here?” he sang, as if I were a child.
“Aren’t we all?”
The man smiled at me. “Fine, then. We won’t change your image, we’ll just enhance it. I need to polish you up a bit, but your aversion to all things fake might just be your greatest asset here. Hold on to that, honey.” He patted me on the back and walked away, sending a group of women swarming my way.
I didn’t realize that when he said “polish,” he meant it literally. I had women scrub my body because I apparently couldn’t be trusted to do a good enough job on my own. Then every exposed bit of skin was covered with lotions and oils that left me smelling like vanilla, which according to the girl who applied them was one of Maxon’s favorite smells.
After they were done making me smooth and supple, attention was turned to my nails. They were trimmed and buffed and the tough little pieces of skin around them were miraculously smoothed away. I told them I’d prefer not to have my nails painted, but they looked so disappointed that I told them they could do my toes. The one girl picked a nice neutral shade, so it wasn’t too bad.
The team of people who worked on my nails left me for another girl, and I sat quietly in my chair, waiting for the next round of beautification. A camera crew came past, zooming in on my hands.
“Don’t move,” a woman ordered. She squinted at my hand. “Do you even have anything on your nails?”
She sighed, got her shot, and moved on.
I heaved a heavy sigh myself. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a jerking motion just to my right. I looked and saw a girl staring into nowhere while her leg bounced up and down under a large cape they’d draped over her.
“You okay?” I asked.
My voice shocked her out of her trance. She sighed. “They want to dye my hair blond. They said it would look better with my skin tone. I’m just nervous, I guess.”
She gave me a tight smile, and I returned it. “You’re Sosie, right?”
“Yeah.” She smiled in earnest then. “And you’re America?” I nodded. “I heard you came in with that Celeste girl. She’s terrible!”
I rolled my eyes. Since we’d arrived, every few minutes the entire room could hear Celeste yelling at some poor maid to bring her something or to get out of her way.
“You have no idea,” I muttered, and we both giggled. “Listen, I think your hair’s very pretty.” It was, too. Not too dark, not too light, and very full.
“If you don’t want to change it, you shouldn’t have to.”
Sosie smiled, but I could tell she wasn’t completely sure if I was trying to be friendly or hold her back. Before she could say anything, teams of people came to work on us, directing one another so loudly there was no way for us to finish talking.
My hair was washed, conditioned, hydrated, and smoothed. It was long and all one length when I came in—my mom usually cut it, and that was the best she could do—but by the time they were done, it was several inches shorter and had layers. I liked those; they made my hair catch the light in interesting ways. Some girls got things called highlights, and others, like Sosie, had the color changed completely. But my attendants and I all agreed that mine should go untouched in that department.
A very pretty-looking girl did my makeup. I instructed her to go light, and it was nice. Lots of the other girls looked a little older or younger or just nicer after the makeup. I still looked like me when I was done. Of course, so did Celeste, since she insisted upon piling it on.
I’d gone through most of this process in a robe, and once they were done fixing me up, I was led over to the racks of clothes. My name was hanging above a bar holding a week’s worth of dresses. I guessed princesses-in-training didn’t wear pants.
The one I ended up in was a cream color. It fell off my shoulders, fit snugly at my waist, and hit just at my knees. The girl helping me into it called it a day dress. She told me that my evening dresses were already in my room, and the rest of these would go up there as well. Then she placed a silver pin near the top of my dress. My name glittered across it. Finally she put me into shoes she called kitten heels and sent me back to the corner so I could take my “after” shot. From there I was ordered to one of four little stations lined up against the wall. Each had a chair with a backdrop and a camera sitting in front of it.
I sat down as instructed and waited. A woman came up with a clipboard of information in her hand and asked me to be patient while she found my papers.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“The makeover special. We’ll be airing one about your arrivals tonight, the makeovers are on Wednesday, and then Friday you’ll do your first Report. People have seen your pictures and know a little bit about what was on your applications,” she said as she located her papers and placed them on the top of her clipboard. Then she laced her fingers together and continued. “But we want to make them really pull for you. And that won’t happen unless they can get to know you. So we’ll just do a little interview here, and you do your best on the Reports, and then don’t be shy when you see us around the palace. We aren’t here every day, but we’ll be around.”
Okay,” I said meekly. I really didn’t want to talk to camera crews. It all felt so intrusive.
“So, America Singer, yes?” she asked just seconds after a red light lit up on the top of the camera.
“Yes.” I tried to push the nerves out of my voice.
“I have to be honest, you don’t look like you changed too much to me. Can you tell us what happened in your makeover today?”
I thought. “They put layers in my hair. I like that.” I ran my fingers through the brown strands, feeling how soft my hair was after professional care. “And they covered me in vanilla lotion. I kind of smell like dessert,” I said, sniffing my arm.
She laughed. “It is lovely. And that dress really suits you.”
“Thanks,” I said, looking down at my new clothes. “I don’t typically wear a lot of dresses, so this is going to take a little getting used to.”
“That’s right,” my interviewer said. “You’re one of only three Fives in the Selection. How has this experience been so far?”
I searched my head for something that would describe how everything had felt today. From my disappointment in the square to the sensation of flying to the comfort of Ragini.
“Surprising,” I said.
“I imagine there will be more surprising days to come,” she commented.
“I hope they’re at least a little calmer than today,” I said with a sigh.
“How do you feel about your competition so far?”
I swallowed. “The girls are all really nice.” With one glaring exception.
“Mm-hmm,” she said, seeing through my answer. “So how do you feel about the way your makeover turned out? Worried about anyone else’s look?”
I considered that. To say no sounded snotty, to say yes sounded needy. “I think the staff has done a great job bringing out each girl’s individual beauty.”
She smiled and said, “All right, I think that’ll be enough.”
“We have to fit thirty-five of you into an hour and a half, so that will be plenty.”
“Okay.” That wasn’t so bad.
“Thank you for your time. You can head over to that couch over there, and you’ll be taken care of.”
I stood and went to sit on the large circular couch in the corner. Two girls I had yet to meet were sitting there, talking quietly. I looked around the room and saw someone announcing that the last batch was heading in. A new flurry began around the stations. I was focused on it and almost didn’t notice Ragini sit down beside me.
“Rag’s! Look at your hair!”
“I know. They put extensions in it. Do you think Maxon will like it?” She looked genuinely worried.
“Of course! What guy doesn’t like a gorgeous blonde?” I said with a playful smile.
“America, you’re so nice. All those people at the airport loved you.”
“Oh, I was just being friendly. You met people, too,” I countered.
“Yeah, but not half as many as you.”
I lowered my head, a little embarrassed for being complimented over something that seemed so obvious. When I looked up, I turned to the other two girls sitting with us. Emmica Brass and Samantha Lowell and I hadn’t been introduced, but I knew who they were. I did a double take. They were looking at me funny. Before I had time to guess why, Silvia, the woman from earlier, approached us.
“All right, girls, are we all ready?” She checked her watch and looked at us expectantly. “I’m going to give you a quick tour and take you to your assigned rooms.”
Ragini clapped her hands, and the four of us rose to leave. Silvia told us the space we were currently using to get pampered was the Women’s Room. Usually the queen, her maids, and the handful of other female family members entertained themselves there.
“Get used to that room—you’ll be spending a lot of time there. Now, on your way in you passed the Great Room, which is generally used for parties and banquets. If there were too many more of you ladies here, that’s where you’d be taking your meals. But the regular dining room is large enough to meet your needs. Let’s take a quick step in there.”
We were shown where the royal family ate, at a table alone. We would be seated at long tables to either side, so the setup looked like a very stiff U. Our places were currently assigned, set with elegant place markers. I would be sitting next to Ashley and Tiny Lee, who I’d seen go through the Women’s Room earlier, and across from Kriss Ambers.
We left the dining hall and continued on down a set of stairs and saw the room used to broadcast the Illéa Capital Report. Back upstairs our guide pointed down a hall where the king and Maxon spent most of their time working. That area was off-limits to us.
“Another thing that is off-limits: the third floor. The royal family has their private rooms up there, and any sort of intrusion will not be tolerated. Your rooms are all located on the second floor. You will inhabit a large portion of the guest rooms. Not to worry, though; we still have room for any visitors coming through.
“These doors here go out to the back garden. Hello, Hector, Markson.” The two guards at the doors gave her a quick nod. It took me a moment to recognize that the large archway to our right was the side door to the Great Room, meaning the Women’s Room was just around the corner. I was proud of myself for figuring that out. The palace was kind of like an opulent maze.
“You are not to go outside under any circumstances,” Silvia continued. “During the day, there will be times when you can go into the garden, but not without permission. This is merely a safety restriction. Try as we may, rebels have gotten within the grounds before.”
A chill went down my body.
We rounded a corner and walked up the massive stairs to the second floor. The carpets felt so lush under my shoes, like I was sinking an inch every time I took a step. High windows let in light, and it smelled like flowers and sunshine. Large paintings hung on the walls, depicting the kings of the past and a few renderings of old American and Canadian leaders. At least, that’s what I guessed they were. They didn’t wear any crowns.
“Your things are already in your rooms. If the decor is unsuitable, just tell your maids. You each have three, and they are already in your rooms, too. They will help with any unpacking you might have and will help you get dressed for dinner.
“Before dinner tonight, you will meet in the Women’s Room for a special screening of the Illéa Capital Report. Next week, you’ll all be on the show yourselves! Tonight you’ll get to see some of the footage they’ve taken of you leaving your homes and arriving here. It promises to be very special. You should know that Prince Maxon hasn’t seen anything yet today. He’ll see what all of Illéa will see tonight, and then you will officially meet him tomorrow.
You girls will all be having dinner as a group, so you will be able to meet one another, and then, tomorrow, the games begin!”
I gulped. Too many rules, too much structure, too many people. I just wanted to be alone with a violin.
We moved across the second floor, dropping off Selected girls at their rooms. Mine was tucked around a corner in a little hallway with Bariel, Tiny, and Jenna. I was glad it wasn’t quite in the middle of things, like Ragini’s room was. Maybe I’d have a little privacy like this.
Once Silvia left, I opened my door to the excited gasps of three women. One was sewing in a corner, and the others were cleaning an already perfect room. They scurried over and introduced themselves as Lucy, Anne, and Mary, but I forgot which was which almost immediately. It took quite a bit of convincing to get them to leave. I didn’t want to be rude since they were so eager to serve, but I needed time alone.
“I just need a little nap. I’m sure you’ve had a long day, too, getting ready and all. The best thing you could do is let me rest, get some rest yourselves, and please come wake me up when it’s time to go downstairs.”
There was a flurry of thanks and bows, which I tried to discourage, and then I was alone. It didn’t help. I tried to stretch out on my bed, but every part of my body pulled tight, refusing to let me get comfortable in a place that was so obviously not meant for me.
There was a violin in the corner, as well as a guitar and a gorgeous piano, but I couldn’t bring myself to bother with them. My backpack was securely fastened, waiting at the foot of my bed, but that felt like too much work, too. I knew they’d set special things for me in my closet and drawers and bathroom, but I didn’t feel like exploring.
I just lay there, still. It felt like only a few moments before my maids quietly tapped on my door. I let them in and, as strange as it was, let them dress me. They were just so excited to be helpful, I couldn’t ask them to leave again.
They pulled parts of my hair back with delicate pins and freshened my makeup. The dress—which, along with the rest of my wardrobe, had been created by their hands—was deep green and floor length. Without those tiny heels again I’d stumble all over it. Silvia knocked on my door promptly at six to take me and my three neighbors down the hall. We waited in the foyer by the stairway for everyone to come and then marched down to the Women’s Room. Ragini spotted me, and we walked together.
The sound of thirty-five pairs of heels on the marble stairs was the music of some elegant stampede. There were a few murmurs, but most girls were silent. I noticed as we passed the dining room that the doors were closed. Was the royal family in there now? Perhaps taking in one last meal as the three of them?
It seemed strange that we were their guests but hadn’t met a single one of them yet.
The Women’s Room had changed since we left. The mirrors and racks were all gone, and tables and chairs dotted the floor along with some very comfortable-looking couches. Ragini looked at me and inclined her head toward one of the couches, and we sat there together.
Once we were all settled the TV was turned on, and we watched the Report. There were the same announcements as ever—budget updates for projects, progress of the war, and another rebel attack in the East—and then the last half hour was Gavril making commentary over footage of our day.
“Here Miss Celeste Newsome says good-bye to her many admirers in Clermont. It took this lovely young lady more than an hour to break away from her fans.”
I saw Celeste smile smugly as she watched herself onscreen. She was sitting next to Bariel Pratt, who had hair straight as a bone and so pale blond it looked white as it fell to her waist. There was no mild way to put it: Her br**sts were huge. They crept out of her strapless dress, tempting anyone to try and ignore them.
Bariel was beautiful, but in a typical way. It was similar to Celeste’s style. I wasn’t sure exactly how, but the image of them side by side prompted the thought, Keep your enemies closer. I think they’d singled each other out right away as the other’s strongest competition.
“The others from the Mideast were just as popular. Ashley Brouillette’s quiet, refined demeanor sets her apart immediately as a lady. As she carries herself through the crowd, she wears a humble, beautiful expression not too different from the face of the queen herself.”
“And Ragini Mathur of Kent was all bubbles as she departed today, singing the national anthem with her send-off band.” Pictures of Marlee smiling and embracing people from her home province flashed across the screen. “She’s an immediate favorite of several people we interviewed today.”
Ragini reached over and squeezed my hand. That settled it; I was pulling for Ragini.
“Also traveling with Miss Mathur was America Singer, one of only three Fives who made it into the Selection.” They made me look better than I felt in the moment. All I remembered was searching the crowds, sad. But the footage they chose of me searching made me appear mature and caring. The image of me hugging my father was touching, beautiful.
Still, it was nothing compared to the images of me in the airport. “But we know castes mean nothing in the Selection, and it seems Lady America is not to be overlooked. Upon landing in Angeles, Lady Singer was the crowd darling at the airport, stopping to take pictures, sign autographs, and simply speak to anyone there. Miss America Singer is not afraid to get her hands dirty, a quality that many believe our next princess needs.”
Nearly everyone turned to look at me. I could see it in their eyes, the same look I’d gotten from Emmica and Samantha. Suddenly those stares made sense. My intentions didn’t matter. They didn’t know I didn’t want this. In their eyes, I was a threat. And I could see they wanted me gone.
I KEPT MY HEAD DOWN at dinner. In the Women’s Room I could be brave because Ragini was beside me, and she just thought I was nice. But here, sandwiched between people whose hate I could feel radiating off in waves, I was a coward. I looked up from my plate once to see Kriss Ambers twirling her fork menacingly. And Ashley, who was so ladylike, had her lips pouted and didn’t speak to me. I just wanted to escape to my room.
I didn’t understand why it was all so important. So the people seemed to like me, so what? They were outranked in here; their little signs and cheers didn’t matter.
After everything was said and done, I didn’t know whether to feel honored or annoyed.
I focused my energies on the food. The last time I’d had steak was for Christmas a few years ago. I knew Mom did her best, but it was nothing like this. So juicy, so tender, so flavorful. I wanted to ask someone else if this wasn’t the best steak they’d ever had. If Ragini had been nearby, I would have. I took a tentative peek around the room.Ragini was chattering quietly with the people around her.
How did she manage to do that? Hadn’t that same clip declared her one of the immediate favorites? How did she get people to talk to her?
Dessert was an assortment of fruits in vanilla ice cream. It was like I’d never eaten before. If this was food, what had I been putting in my mouth up to this point? I thought of Ladoo and her equal love for all things sweet. She would have loved this. I bet she would have excelled here.
We weren’t allowed to leave dinner until everyone had finished, and after that we were under strict orders to go straight to bed.
“You’ll be meeting Prince Maxon in the morning, and you’ll want to look your best,” Silvia instructed. “He is someone in this room’s future husband, after all.”
A few girls sighed at the thought.
The click and clack of shoes up the stairs was quieter this time around. I couldn’t wait to get out of mine. Out of the dress, too. I had one set of clothes from home in my backpack and was debating putting them on just to feel like myself for a moment.
We dispersed at the top of the stairs, each girl heading off to her own room. Ragini pulled me aside.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes. It’s just that some of the girls were looking at me funny during dinner.” I tried not to come across as whiny.
“They’re just a little nervous because everyone liked you so much,” she said, waving off their behavior.
“But the people liked you, too. I saw the signs. Why weren’t the girls being mean to you?”
“You haven’t spent a whole lot of time with groups of girls, have you?” She was smiling slyly, like I should know what was happening.
“No. Just my sisters mostly,” I confessed.
“Well, I get tutored with a bunch of other Fours back home, all girls, and they each have their ways of getting under other people’s skin. See, it’s all about knowing the person, figuring out what will bug them the most. Lots of girls give me backhanded compliments, or little remarks, things like that. I know I come across as bubbly, but I’m shy underneath that, and they think they can wear me down with words.”
I scrunched my forehead. They did that on purpose?
“For you, someone kind of quiet and mysterious—”
“I’m not mysterious,” I interrupted.
“You are a little. And sometimes people don’t know whether to interpret silence as confidence or fear. They’re looking at you like you’re a bug so maybe you’ll feel like you are one.”
“Huh.” That kind of made sense. I wondered what I was doing, if I was picking away at others’ insecurities somehow. “What do you do? When you want to get the best of them, I mean?”
She smiled. “I ignore it. I know one girl at home who gets so irritated when she can’t bother you, she just ends up sulking. So don’t worry,” she said. “All you have to do is not let them know they’re getting to you.”
“I almost believe you … but not quite.” She laughed a little, a warm sound that evaporated in the quiet hallway. “Can you believe we meet him in the morning?” she asked, moving on to more important things in her eyes.
“No, actually, I can’t.” Maxon seemed like a ghost haunting the palace—implied but never really there.
“Well, good luck tomorrow.” And I could tell she meant it.
“Better luck to you,Ragini. I’m sure Prince Maxon will be more than pleased to meet you.” I squeezed her hand one time.
She smiled in a way that was both excited and timid and walked off to her room.
When I got to mine, Bariel’s door was still open, and I heard her muttering something to a maid. She caught sight of me and slammed the door in my face.
Thanks for that.
My maids were there, of course, waiting to help me wash and undress. My nightgown, a flimsy little green thing, had been laid out for me on the bed. Kindly, none of them had touched my bag.
They were efficient but purposeful. They obviously had this end-of-the-day routine down, but they didn’t rush through it. I suppose the effect was meant to be soothing, but I was ready to have them gone. I couldn’t speed them up as they washed my hands and unlaced my dress and pinned my silver name tag to my silken nightgown. And as they did all these things that made me incredibly self-conscious, they asked questions. I tried to answer them without being rude.
Yes, I’d finally seen all the other girls. No, they weren’t very talkative. Yes, dinner was fantastic. No, I wouldn’t meet the prince until tomorrow. Yes, I was very tired.
“And it would really help me wind down if I could have some time alone,” I added to the end of that last answer, hoping they would take the hint.
They looked disappointed. I tried to recover.
“You’re all very helpful. I’m just used to spending time alone. And I’ve been swarmed with people today.”
“But Lady Singer, we’re supposed to help you. It’s our job,” the head girl said. I’d figured out that she was Anne. Anne seemed to be on top of things, Mary was easygoing, and Lucy I guessed was just shy.
“I really do appreciate you all, and I’ll definitely want your help getting started tomorrow. But tonight, I just need to unwind. If you want to be helpful, some time to myself would be good for me. And if you’re all rested, I’m sure it will make things better in the morning, right?”
They looked at one another. “Well, I suppose so,” Anne acquiesced.
“One of us is supposed to stay here while you sleep. In case you need something.” Lucy looked nervous, like she was afraid of whatever decision I would make. She seemed to have little tremors now and then, which I guessed was her shyness coming to the surface.
“If I need anything, I’ll ring the bell. It’ll be fine. Besides, I won’t be able to rest knowing someone’s watching me.”
They looked at one another again, still a little skeptical. I knew one way to stop this, but I hated using it.
“You’re supposed to obey my every command, right?”
They nodded hopefully.
“Then I command you all to go to bed. And come help me in the morning. Please.”
Anne smiled. I could tell she was starting to get me.
“Yes, Lady Singer. We’ll see you in the morning.” They curtsied and quietly left the room. Anne gave me one last look. I supposed I wasn’t quite what she had been expecting. She didn’t seem too upset about it, though.
Once they were gone, I stepped out of my fancy slippers and stretched my toes on the floor. It felt good, natural, to be barefoot. I went to unpack my things, which was quick. I kept my change of clothes tucked in the bag and stored it in my massive closet. I surveyed the dresses as I did so. There were only a few. Enough to get me through a week or so. I assumed this was the same for everyone. Why make a dozen dresses for a girl who might leave the next day?
I took the few photos I had of my family and stuck them in the edge of my mirror. It stretched so high and wide, I could look at the pictures without having anything interrupt my view of myself. I had a small box of personal trinkets—earrings and ribbons and headbands I loved. They’d probably look incredibly plain here, but they were all so personal that I’d had to have them with me. The few books I’d brought found their way to the helpful shelf near the doors that opened to my balcony.
I peeked out the entry to the balcony and saw the garden. There was a maze of paths with fountains and benches. Flowers blossomed everywhere, and each hedge was perfectly trimmed. Past this obviously manicured piece of land was a short, open field and then a massive forest. It stretched back so far that I couldn’t tell if it was entirely closed in by palace walls. I wondered for a moment why it existed and then debated the last article from home that I held in my hand.
My tiny jar with its rattling penny. I rolled it in my hands a few times, listening to the penny skate around the edges of the glass. Why had I even brought this? To remind myself of something I couldn’t have?
That tiny thought—that this love I had been building in a quiet, secret place for years was really beyond my reach now—made my eyes well up. On top of all the tension and excitement of the day, it was just too much. I didn’t know where the jar’s permanent place here would be, but for the moment I set it on the table by my bed.
I dimmed the lights, crawled up on top of the luxurious blankets, and stared at my jar. I let myself be sad. I let myself think of him.
How had I lost so much in such a short period of time? It would seem like leaving your family, living in some foreign place, and being separated from the person you love should be events that take years to roll into place, not just a day.
I wondered what exactly he had wanted to tell me before I left. The only thing I could deduce was that he didn’t feel comfortable saying it out loud. Was it about her?
I stared at the jar.
Maybe he was trying to say he was sorry? I had given him a sound scolding last night. So perhaps that was it.
That he’d moved on? Well, I could see that pretty clearly myself, thank you very much.
That he hadn’t moved on? That he still loved me?
I shut the thought down. I couldn’t let that hope build in me. I needed to hate him right now. That anger would keep me going. Staying as far away from him as I could for as long as possible was half my reason for being here.
But the hope ached. And with the hope came homesickness, wishing Ladoo was sneaking into my bed like she sometimes did. And then fear that the other girls wanted me gone, that they might keep trying to make me feel small. And then nervousness at being presented to the nation on television for as long as I was here. And terror that people might try to kill me just to make a political statement. It all came at me too fast for my dizzy head to compute after such a long day.
My vision got blurry. I didn’t even register that I’d started crying. I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking. I jumped up and ran to the balcony. I was so panicked, it took me a moment to open the latch, but I did. I thought the fresh air would be enough, but it wasn’t. My breaths were still shallow and cold.
There was no freedom in this. The bars of my balcony caged me in. And I could still see the walls around the palace, high with guards atop the points. I needed to be outside the palace, and no one was going to let that happen. Desperation made me feel even weaker. I looked at the forest. I’d bet I couldn’t see anything but greenery from there.
I turned and bolted. I was a little unsteady with the tears in my eyes, but I managed to get out the door. I ran down the one hallway I knew, not seeing the art or the drapery or golden trim. I barely noticed the guards. I didn’t know my way around the palace, but I knew if I got down the stairs and turned the right way, I’d see the massive glass doors that led to the garden. I just needed the doors.
I ran down the grand stairwell, my bare feet making slapping sounds on the marble. There were a few more guards along the way, but no one stopped me. That is, until I actually found the place I was looking for.
Just like earlier, two men were stationed at either side of the doors, and when I tried to run for them, one of them stepped in my way, the spearlike staff in his hand barring me from the exit.
“Excuse me, miss, you need to go back to your room,” he said with authority. Even though he wasn’t speaking loudly, his voice seemed thunderous in the still of the elegant hallway.
“No … no. I need … outside.” The words were tangled; I couldn’t breathe right.
“Miss, you need to get back to your room now.” The second guard was taking steps toward me.
“Please.” I started gasping. I thought I might faint.
“I’m sorry… Lady America, is it?” He found my pin. “You need to go back to your room.”
“I … I can’t breathe,” I stammered, falling into the guard’s arms as he moved close enough to push me away. His staff fell to the ground. I feebly clawed at him, feeling woozy with the effort.
“Let her go!” This was a new voice, young but full of authority. My head half turned, half fell in its direction. There was Prince Maxon. He looked a little odd, thanks to the angle my head was hanging at, but I recognized the hair and the stiff way he stood.
“She collapsed, Your Majesty. She wanted to go outside.” The first guard looked nervous as he explained. He would be in terrible danger if he damaged me. I was the property of Illéa now.
“Open the doors.”
“Open the doors and let her go. Now!”
“Right away, Your Highness.” The first guard went to work, pulling out a key. My head stayed in its strange position as I heard the sound of keys clanking against one another and then one sliding into the lock. The prince looked at me warily as I tried to stand. And then the sweet smell of fresh air pulsed through me, giving me all the motivation I needed. I pulled myself out of the guard’s arms and ran like a drunk into the garden.
was staggering quite a bit, but I didn’t care if I looked less than graceful. I just needed to be outside. I let myself feel the warm air on my skin, the grass beneath my toes. Somehow even things in nature seemed to be bred into something extravagant here. I meant to go all the way into the trees, but my legs only carried me so far. I collapsed in front of a small stone bench and sat there, my fine green nightgown in the dirt, and my head resting in my arms on the seat.
My body didn’t have the energy to sob, so the tears that came were quiet. Still, they took all my focus. How did I get here? How had I let this happen? What would become of me here? Would I ever get back any piece of the life I’d had before this? I just didn’t know. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about any of it.
I was so consumed with my thoughts that I didn’t realize I wasn’t alone until Prince Maxon spoke.
“Are you all right, my dear?” he asked me.
“I am not your dear.” I looked up to glare at him. There would be no mistaking the disgust in my tone or eyes.
“What have I done to offend you? Did I not just give you the very thing you asked for?” He was genuinely confused by my response. I suppose he expected us to adore him and thank our lucky stars for his existence.
I stared him down without fear, though the effect was probably weakened by my tearstained cheeks.
“Excuse me, dear, are you going to keep crying?” he asked, sounding very put out by the thought.
“Don’t call me that! I am no more dear to you than the thirty-four other strangers you have here in your cage.”
He walked closer, not seeming at all offended by my loose speech. He just looked … thoughtful. It was an interesting expression on his face.
His walk was graceful for a boy, and he looked incredibly comfortable as he paced around me. My bravery melted a little in the face of how awkward this was. He was fully dressed in his sharp suit, and I was cowering and half-naked. As if his rank didn’t threaten me enough, his demeanor did. He must have had plenty of experience dealing with unhappy people; he was exceptionally calm as he answered.
“That is an unfair statement. You are all dear to me. It is simply a matter of discovering who shall be the dearest.”
“Did you really just use the word ‘shall’?”
He chuckled. “I’m afraid I did. Forgive me, it’s a product of my education.”
“Education,” I muttered, rolling my eyes. “Ridiculous.”
“I’m sorry?” he asked.
“It’s ridiculous!” I yelled, regaining some of my courage.
“This contest! The whole thing! Haven’t you ever loved anyone at all? Is this how you want to pick a wife? Are you really so shallow?” I shifted on the ground a little. To make things easier for me, he sat on the bench so I wouldn’t have to twist. I was too upset to be thankful.
“I can see how I would appear that way, how this whole thing could seem like it’s nothing more than cheap entertainment. But in my world, I am very guarded. I don’t meet very many women. The ones I do are daughters of diplomats, and we usually have very little to discuss. And that’s when we manage to speak the same language.”
Maxon seemed to think that was a joke, and he laughed lightly. I wasn’t amused. He cleared his throat.
“Circumstances being what they are, I haven’t had the opportunity to fall in love. Have you?”
“Yes,” I said matter-of-factly. As soon as the word came out, I wished I could steal it back. That was a private thing, none of his business.
“Then you have been quite lucky.” He sounded jealous.
Imagine that. The one thing I could hold over the head of the Prince of Illéa, the very thing I was here to forget.
“My mother and father were married this way and are quite happy. I hope to find happiness, too. To find a woman that all of Illéa can love, someone to be my companion and to help entertain the leaders of other nations. Someone who will befriend my friends and be my confidante. I’m ready to find my wife.”
Something in his voice struck me. There wasn’t a trace of sarcasm. This thing that seemed like little more than a game show to me was his only chance for happiness. He couldn’t try with a second round of girls. Well, maybe he could, but how embarrassing. He was so desperate, so hopeful. I felt my distaste for him lessen. Marginally.
“Do you really feel like this is a cage?” His eyes were full of compassion.
“Yes, I do.” My voice came out quiet. I quickly added, “Your Majesty.”
“I’ve felt that way more than once myself. But you must admit, it is a very beautiful cage.”
“For you. Fill your beautiful cage with thirty-four other men all fighting over the same thing. See how nice it is then.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Have there really been arguments over me? Don’t you all realize I’m the one doing the choosing?”
“Actually, that was unfair. They’re fighting over two things. Some fight for you, others fight for the crown. And they all think they’ve already figured out what to say and do so your choice will be obvious.”
“Ah, yes. The man or the crown. I’m afraid some cannot tell the difference.” He shook his head.
“Good luck there,” I said dryly.
It was quiet for a moment in the wake of my sarcasm. I looked up at him out of the corner of my eye, waiting for him to speak. He gazed at an unfixed point in the grass, concern marking his face. It seemed this thought had been plaguing him. He took a breath and turned back to me.
“Which do you fight for?”
“Actually, I’m here by mistake.”
“Yes. Sort of. Well, it’s a long story. And now… I’m here. And I’m not fighting. My plan is to enjoy the food until you kick me out.”
He laughed out loud at that, actually doubling over and slapping his knee. It was a bizarre mix of rigidity and calm.
“What are you?” he asked.
“A Two? Three?”
Wasn’t he paying attention at all? “Five.”
“Ah, yes, then food would probably be good motivation to stay.” He laughed again. “I’m sorry, I can’t read your pin in the dark.”
“Well, that’s perfect.” Maxon looked off into the night and smiled at nothing in particular. Something in all this was amusing to him. “America, my dear, I do hope you find something in this cage worth fighting for. After all this, I can only imagine what it would be like to see you actually try.”
Precap: Sanky’s P.O.V on Swasan first meet…….and then swasan Official first meet….
How was it guys?????..i really hope u all liked it…ik…this was a very unconventional first meet……but pls comment and let me know how u all felt about this epi?????……..
Luv ya guys?????❤❤❤❤
Hi….guy…..Natasha back again with an update……sry for the late update dearies……got caught up with work…….pls give ur valuble comments guys……..and Ty….shreya,B,Turaifa Shafenaz and Rachna 4 commenting……..Ty for reading my ff…….