The Prince Page 2

“Always a pretty one, that girl. Too bad she couldn’t be in the lottery.”

I shrugged. “She’s nice. I never had feelings for her, though.”

“Good. That would have been extraordinarily stupid of you.”

I dodged the slight. “Besides, I’m looking forward to meeting my true options.”

He jumped on the idea, driving me forward once again. “It’s about time you made some real choices in your life, Maxon. Some good ones. I’m sure you think my methods are far too harsh, but I need you to see the significance of your position.”

I held back a sigh. I’ve tried to make choices. You don’t really trust me to.

“Don’t worry, Father. I take the task of choosing a wife quite seriously,” I answered, hoping my tone gave him some assurance of how much I meant that.

“It’s a lot more than finding someone you get along with. For instance, you and Daphne. Very chummy, but she’d be a complete waste.” He took another swig, waving at someone behind me.

Again, I controlled my face. Uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, I put my hands in my pockets and scanned the space. “I should probably make my rounds.”

He waved me away, turning his attention back to his drink, and I left quickly. Try as I might, I wasn’t sure what that whole interaction meant. There was no reason for him to be so rude about Daphne when she wasn’t even an option.

The Great Room buzzed with excitement. People told me that all of Illéa had been waiting for this moment: the excitement of the new princess, the thrill of me as a soon-to-be king. For the first time, I felt all of that energy and worried it would crush me.

I shook hands and graciously accepted gifts that I didn’t need. I quietly asked one of the photographers about his lens, and kissed cheeks of family and friends and my fair share of complete strangers.

Finally I found myself alone for a moment. I surveyed the crowd, sure there was somewhere I ought to be. My eyes found Daphne, and I started walking toward her. I was looking forward to just a few minutes of genuine conversation, but it would have to wait.

“Are you having fun?” Mom asked, stepping into my path.

“Does it look like I am?”

She ran her hands over my already-crisp suit. “Yes.”

I smiled. “That’s all that really matters.”

She tilted her head, a gentle smile on her own face. “Come with me for a second.”

I held an arm out for her, which she happily took, and we walked out into the hallway to the sound of cameras clicking.

“Can we do something a bit smaller next year?” I asked.

“Not likely. You’ll almost certainly be married by then. Your wife might want to have a rather elaborate celebration your first year together.”

I frowned, something I could get away with in front of her. “Maybe she’ll like things quiet, too.”

She laughed softly. “Sorry, honey. Any girl who puts her name in for the Selection is looking for a way out of quiet.”

“Were you?” I wondered aloud. We never talked about her coming here. It was a strange divide between us, but one that I cherished: I was raised in the palace, but she chose to come.

She stopped and faced me, her expression warm. “I was smitten with the face I saw on TV. I daydreamed about your father the same way thousands of girls daydream about you.”

I pictured her as a young girl in Honduragua, her hair braided back as she gazed longingly at the television. I could see her sighing every time he had to speak.

“All girls dream of what it would be like to be a princess,” she added. “To be swept off their feet and wear a crown . . . it’s all I could think about the week before the names were drawn. I didn’t realize that it was so much more than that.” Her face grew a little sad. “I couldn’t guess at the pressure I’d be under or how little privacy I’d have. Still, to be married to your father, to have had you.” She swept her hand down my cheek. “This is all those dreams made real.”

She held my gaze, smiling, but I could see tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. I had to get her talking again.

“So you have no regrets, then?”

She shook her head. “Not a one. The Selection changed my life, and I mean that in the best way possible. Which is what I want to talk to you about.”

I squinted. “I’m not sure I understand.”

She sighed. “I was a Four. I worked in a factory.” She held out her hands. “My fingers were dry and cracked, and dirt was caked under my nails. I had no alliances, no status, nothing worthy of making me a princess . . . and yet, here I am.”

I stared, still unsure of her point.

“Maxon, this is my gift to you. I promise I will make every effort to see these girls through your eyes. Not the eyes of a queen, or the eyes of your mother, but yours. Even if the girl you choose is of a very low caste, even if others think she has no value, I will always listen to your reasons for wanting her. And I will do my best to support your choice.”

After a pause, I understood. “Did Father not have that? Did you not?”

She pulled herself up. “Every girl will come with pros and cons. Some people will choose to focus on the worst in some of your options and the best in others, and it will make no sense to you why they seem so narrow minded. But I’m here for you, whatever your choice.”

“You always have been.”

“True,” she said, taking my arm. “And I know I’m about to play second fiddle to another woman, as I should. But my love for you will never change, Maxon.”

“Nor mine for you.” I hoped she could hear the sincerity in my voice. I couldn’t imagine a circumstance that would dim my absolute adoration of her.

“I know.” With a little nudge, she pushed us back to the party.

As we entered the room to smiles and applause, I considered my mother’s words. She was, beyond anyone I knew, incredibly generous. It was a trait I endeavored to adopt myself. So if this was her gift, it must be more necessary than I could understand at the present. My mother never gave a gift thoughtlessly.


PEOPLE LINGERED MUCH LATER THAN I thought was appropriate. That was another sacrifice that came with the privilege, I guessed: no one wanted a palace party to end. Not even when the palace wanted it to.

I’d placed the very drunk dignitary from the German Federation into the care of a guard, thanked all the royal advisors for their gifts, and kissed the hand of nearly every lady who walked through the palace doors. In my eyes, my duty here was done, and I just wanted to spend a few hours in peace. But as I went to escape the lingering partygoers, I was happily stopped by a pair of dark blue eyes.

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