“Sorry, Dad,” I murmured as I picked up plates.
“Don’t be silly, kitten. I’m not mad.” He smiled easily and put an arm around me.
“You don’t have to explain it to me, honey. I know.” He kissed me on my forehead. “I’m going back to work.”
And with that I moved to the kitchen to start cleaning. I wrapped my mostly untouched plate under a napkin and hid it in the fridge. No one else left more than crumbs.
I sighed, heading to my room to get ready for bed. The whole thing was infuriating.
Why did Mom have to push me so much? Wasn’t she happy? Didn’t she love Dad? Why wasn’t this good enough for her?
I lay on my lumpy mattress, trying to wrap my head around the Selection. I guess it had its advantages. It would be nice to eat well for a while at least. But there was no reason to bother. I wasn’t going to fall in love with Prince Maxon. From what I’d seen on the Illéa Capital Report, I wouldn’t even like the guy.
It seemed like forever until midnight rolled around. There was a mirror by my door, and I stopped to make sure my hair looked as good as it had this morning and put on a little lip gloss so there’d be some color on my face. Mom was pretty strict about saving makeup for when we had to perform or go out in public, but I usually snuck some on nights like tonight.
As quietly as I could, I crept into the kitchen. I grabbed my leftovers, some bread that was expiring, and an apple and bundled it all up. It was painful to walk back to my room so slowly, now that it was late. But if I’d done it earlier, I would have just been antsy.
I opened my window and looked out into our little patch of backyard. There wasn’t much of a moon out, so I had to let my eyes adjust before I moved. Across the lawn, the tree house stood barely silhouetted in the night. When we were younger, Kota would tie up sheets to the branches so it looked like a ship. He was the captain, and I was always his first mate. My duties mainly consisted of sweeping the floor and making food, which was dirt and twigs stuffed into Mom’s baking pans. He’d take a spoonful of dirt and “eat” it by throwing it over his shoulder. This meant that I’d have to sweep again, but I didn’t mind. I was just happy to be on the ship with Kota.
I looked around. All the neighboring houses were dark. No one was watching. I crawled out of the window carefully. I used to get bruises across my stomach from doing it the wrong way, but now it was easy, a talent I’d mastered over the years. And I didn’t want to mess up any of the food.
I scurried across the lawn in my cutest pajamas. I could have left my day clothes on, but this felt better. I supposed it didn’t matter what I wore, but I felt pretty in my little brown shorts and fitted white shirt.
It wasn’t hard anymore to scale the slats nailed into the tree with only one hand. I’d developed that skill as well. Each step up was a relief. It wasn’t much of a distance, but from here it felt like all the commotion from my house was miles away. Here I didn’t have to be anyone’s princess.
As I climbed into the tiny box that was my escape, I knew I wasn’t alone. In the far corner, someone was hiding in the night. My breath sped; I couldn’t help it. I set my food down and squinted. The person shifted, lighting an all but unusable candle. It wasn’t much light—no one in the house would see it—but it was enough. Finally the intruder spoke, a sly grin spreading across his face.
“Hey there, gorgeous.”
I CRAWLED DEEPER INTO THE tree house. It wasn’t much more than a five-by-five-foot cube; even Gerad couldn’t stand up straight in here. But I loved it. There was the one opening to crawl into and then a tiny window on the opposite wall. I’d placed an old step stool in the corner to act as a desk for the candle, and a little rug that was so old it was barely better than sitting on the slats. It wasn’t much, but it was my haven. Our haven.
“Please don’t call me gorgeous. First my mom, then May, now you. It’s getting on my nerves.” By the way Aspen was looking at me, I could tell I wasn’t helping my “I’m not pretty” case. He smiled.
“I can’t help it. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You can’t hold it against me for saying it the only time I’m allowed to.” He reached up and cupped my face, and I looked deep into his eyes.
That was all it took. His lips were on mine, and I couldn’t think about anything anymore. There was no Selection, no miserable family, no Illéa itself. There were only Aspen’s hands on my back pulling me closer, Aspen’s breath on my cheeks. My fingers went to his black hair, still wet from his shower—he always took showers at night—and tangled themselves into a perfect little knot. He smelled like his mother’s homemade soap. I dreamed about that smell. We broke apart, and I couldn’t help but smile.
His legs were propped open wide, so I sat sideways between them, like a kid who needed cradling. “Sorry I’m not in a better mood. It’s just that … we got this stupid notice in the post today.”
“Ah, yes, the letter.” Aspen sighed. “We got two.”
Of course. The twins had just turned sixteen.
Aspen studied my face as he spoke. He did that when we were together, like he was recommitting my face to memory. It had been over a week, and we both got anxious when it was more than a few days.
And I looked him over, too. No caste excluded, Aspen was, by far, the most attractive guy in town. He had dark hair and green eyes, and this smile that made you think he had a secret. He was tall, but not too tall. Thin, but not too thin. I noticed in the dim light that there were tiny bags under his eyes; no doubt he’d been working late all week. His black T-shirt was worn to threads in several places, just like the shabby pair of jeans he wore almost every day.
If only I could sit and patch them up for him. That was my great ambition. Not to be Illéa’s princess. To be Aspen’s.
It hurt me to be away from him. Some days I went crazy wondering what he was doing. And when I couldn’t handle it, I practiced music. I really had Aspen to thank for me being the musician that I was. He drove me to distraction.
And that was bad.
Aspen was a Six. Sixes were servants and only a step up from Sevens in that they were better educated and trained for indoor work. Aspen was smarter than anyone knew and devastatingly handsome, but it was atypical for a woman to marry down. A man from a lower caste could ask for your hand, but it was rare to get a yes. And when anyone married into a different caste, they had to fill out paperwork and wait for something like ninety days before any of the other legal things you needed could be done. I’d heard more than one person say it was to give people a chance to change their minds. So us being this personal and out well past Illéa’s curfew … we could both get in serious trouble. Not to mention the hell I’d get from my mother.