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 cluster 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 Illéa. 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 Illéa. As you all know, notices to participate 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 Illéa 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 Illéa!”
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, Illéa!” 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.