“Ouch!” I cried, grabbing my arm. It looked like there would be marks but hopefully no blood.
“Shut up. Take off the dress. Now.”
I stood there, my face set, refusing to budge. Celeste was just going to have to get over not being the center of Illéa.
“I could take it off for you,” she offered coldly.
“I’m not afraid of you, Celeste,” I said as I crossed my arms. “This dress was made for me, and I’m going to wear it. Next time you pick out your clothes, maybe you should try being yourself instead of me. Oh, wait, but maybe then Maxon would see what a brat you are and send you home, huh?”
Without a second of hesitation, she reached up and ripped one of my sleeves off and walked away. I gasped in outrage but was too stunned to do anything more. I looked down and saw a tattered scrap of fabric dangling pathetically in front of me. I heard Silvia calling for everyone to come to their seats, so I walked around the side of the curtain as bravely as I could manage.
Marlee had saved me a seat beside her, and I saw the shocked look on her face as I came into view.
“What happened to your dress?” she whispered.
“Celeste,” I explained in disgust.
Emmica and Samantha, who were sitting in front of us, turned around.
“She tore your dress?” Emmica asked.
“Go to Maxon and turn her in,” she pleaded. “That girl’s a nightmare.”
“I know,” I said with a sigh. “I’ll tell him next time I see him.”
Samantha looked sad. “Who knows when that will be? I thought we’d get to spend more time with him.”
“America, lift your arm,” Marlee instructed. She expertly tucked my tattered sleeve into the side of my dress as Emmica plucked away a few stray threads. You couldn’t even tell anything had happened to it. As for the nail marks, well, at least they were on my left arm and away from the camera.
It was almost time to start. Gavril was flipping through notes as the royal family came in at last. Maxon had on a dark blue suit with a pin of the national emblem on his lapel. He looked sharp and calm.
“Good evening, ladies,” he sang with a smile.
A chorus of “Majesty” and “Highness” fell over him.
“Just so you know, I’ll be giving one brief announcement and then introducing Gavril. It’ll be a nice change; he’s always introducing me!” He chuckled, and we all followed. “I know some of you are probably a little nervous, but you have no need to be. Please, just be yourselves. The people want to know you.” Our eyes met a few times while he was talking, but nothing long enough for me to read him. He didn’t seem to notice the dress. My maids would be disappointed.
He walked over to the podium, calling out “Good luck” over his shoulder.
I could tell something was going on. I assumed this announcement of his would be related to what he’d told us yesterday, but I still couldn’t guess at what it all meant. Maxon’s little mystery distracted me, and I wasn’t so nervous anymore. I felt all right as the anthem played and the camera settled squarely on Maxon’s face. I’d been watching the Report since I was a child. Maxon had never addressed the country before, not like this. I wished I could have told him good luck, too.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of Illéa. I know that tonight is an exciting night for us all as the country gets to finally hear from the twenty-five remaining women in the Selection. I can’t begin to express how excited I am for you to meet them. I’m sure you will all agree that any one of these amazing young ladies would be a wonderful leader and future princess.
“But before we get to that, I’d like to announce a new project I am working on that is of great importance to me. Having met these ladies, I’ve been exposed to the wide world outside our palace, a world that I rarely get to see. I’ve been told of its remarkable goodness and made aware of its unimaginable darkness. Through speaking to these women, I’ve embraced the importance of the masses outside these walls. I have been woken to the suffering of some of our lower castes, and I intend to do something about it.”
“It will be at least three months before we can set this up properly, but around the new year, there will be public assistance for food in every Province Services Office. Any Five, Six, Seven, or Eight may go there any evening for a free, nutritious meal. Please know that these women before you have all sacrificed some or all of their compensation to help fund this important program. And while this assistance may not be able to last forever, we will keep it running as long as we can.”
I kept trying to swallow up the gratitude, the awe, but a few tears leaked out. I was still aware enough of what was coming next to worry about my makeup but so appreciative that it was no longer the top priority.
“I feel that no good leader can let the masses go unfed. Most of Illéa is comprised of these lower castes, and we have overlooked these people far too long. That is why I am moving forward and why I am asking others to join me. Twos, Threes, Fours … the roads you drive on don’t pave themselves. Your houses aren’t cleaned by magic. Here is your opportunity to acknowledge that truth by donating at your local Province Services Office.”
He paused. “By birth you have been blessed, and it is time to acknowledge that blessing. I will have further updates as this project progresses, and I thank you all for your attention. But now, let’s get to the real reason you all tuned in tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Gavril Fadaye!”
There was a smattering of applause from everyone in the room, though it was obvious not everyone was enthusiastic about Maxon’s announcement. The king, for instance, was clapping but without excitement, though the queen was radiant with pride. The advisers also seemed torn about whether or not this was a good idea.
“Thank you so much for that introduction, Your Majesty!” Gavril announced as he ran onto the set. “Very well done! If this whole prince thing doesn’t work out, you should consider a job in entertainment.”
Maxon laughed out loud as he walked to his seat. The cameras were focused on Gavril now, but I watched Maxon and his parents. I didn’t understand why their reactions were mixed.
“People of Illéa, do we have a treat for you! This evening we’ll be getting the inside scoop from each of these young women. We know you’ve been dying to meet them and hear how things are coming along with our Prince Maxon, so tonight … we’re just going to ask! Let’s get started with”—Gavril looked at his note cards—“Miss Celeste Newsome of Clermont!”