“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 red 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 Marlee.
“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 Marlee sit down beside me.
“Marlee! 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.”
Marlee 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.