I was too angry to cry.
Besides, I had admirers here who wanted my attention. So, without Aspen even knowing that I’d seen him, I went back to those adoring faces. I put my smile back on, bigger than ever, and started waving. Aspen would not have the satisfaction of breaking my heart anymore. He’d put me here, and I would just have to take advantage of it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in sending off America Singer, our favorite Daughter of Illéa!” the mayor called. Behind me, a small band played the national anthem.
More cheers, more flowers. Suddenly the mayor was at my ear.
“Would you like to say something, dear?”
I didn’t know how to say no without being rude. “Thank you, but I’m so overwhelmed, I don’t think I could.”
He cupped my hands in his. “Of course, dear girl. Don’t you worry, I’ll take care of everything. They’ll train you for this kind of thing at the palace. You’ll need it.”
The mayor then told the gathered crowd of my attributes, slyly mentioning that I was very intelligent and attractive for a Five. He didn’t seem too bad a guy, but sometimes even the nicer members of the upper castes were condescending.
I caught Aspen’s face once more as my eyes swept the crowd. He looked pained. It was the polar opposite of the face he’d worn with Brenna a few minutes ago. Another game? I broke my gaze.
The mayor finished speaking, and I smiled and everyone cheered, as if he’d just given the most inspiring speech known to man.
And suddenly it was time to say good-bye. Mitsy, my aide, told me to say my farewells quietly and briefly, and then she’d escort me back to the car that would take me to the airport.
Kota hugged me, telling me he was proud of me. Then, not so subtly, he told me to mention his art to Prince Maxon. I wiggled out of that embrace as gracefully as I could.
Kenna was crying.
“I barely see you as it is. What will I do when you’re gone?” she cried.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be home soon enough.”
“Yeah, right! You’re the most beautiful girl in Illéa. He’ll love you!”
Why did everyone think it all came down to beauty? Maybe it did. Maybe Prince Maxon didn’t need a wife to speak to, just someone to look pretty. I actually shivered, considering that as my future. But there were many girls much more attractive than me going.
Kenna was hard to hug over her pregnant belly, but we managed. James, who I really didn’t know that well, hugged me, too. Then it was Gerad.
“Be a good boy, okay? Try the piano. I’ll bet you’re amazing. I expect to hear it all when I come home.”
Gerad just nodded, abruptly sad. He threw his tiny arms around me.
“I love you, America.”
“I love you, too. Don’t be sad. I’ll be home soon.”
He nodded again, but crossed his arms to pout. I’d had no idea he’d take my leaving this way. It was the exact opposite of May. She was bouncing on her toes, absolutely giddy.
“Oh, America, you’re going to be the princess! I know it!”
“Oh, hush! I’d rather be an Eight and stay with you any day. Just be good for me, and work hard.”
She nodded and bounced some more, and then it was time for Dad, who was close to tears.
“Daddy! Don’t cry.” I fell into his arms.
“Listen to me, kitten. Win or lose, you’ll always be a princess to me.”
“Oh, Daddy.” I finally started to cry. That was all it took to unleash the fear, the sadness, the worry, the nerves—the one sentence that meant none of it mattered.
If I came back used and unwanted, he’d still be proud of me.
It was too much to bear, to be loved that much. I’d be surrounded by scores of guards at the palace, but I couldn’t imagine a place safer than my father’s arms. I pulled away and turned to hug Mom.
“Do whatever they tell you. Try to stop sulking and be happy. Behave. Smile. Keep us posted. Oh! I just knew you’d turn out to be special.”
It was meant to be sweet, but it wasn’t what I needed to hear. I wished she could have said that I was already something special to her, like I was to my father. But I guessed she would never stop wanting more for me, more from me. Maybe that’s what mothers did.
“Lady America, are you ready?” Mitsy asked. My face was away from the crowd, and I quickly wiped away my tears.
“Yes. All ready.”
My bag was waiting in the shiny white car. This was it. I started to walk to the edge of the stage to the stairs.
I turned. I’d know that voice anywhere.
I searched and found Aspen’s flailing arms. He was pushing the crowd aside, people protesting at his not-so-gentle shoves.
Our eyes met.
He stopped and stared. I couldn’t read his face. Worry? Regret? Whatever it was, it was too late. I shook my head. I was done with Aspen’s games.
“This way, Lady America,” Mitsy instructed from the bottom of the stairs. I gave myself a quick second to absorb my new name.
“Good-bye, sweetheart,” my mother called.
And I was led away.
I WAS THE FIRST ONE to the airport, and I was beyond terrified. The giddy excitement of the crowd had faded, and now I was faced with the horrific experience of flying. I would be traveling with three other Selected girls, and I tried to get control of my nerves. I really didn’t want to have a panic attack in front of them.
I’d already memorized the names, faces, and castes of all the Selected. It started as a therapeutic exercise, something to calm me down. I did the same thing with memorizing scales and bits of trivia. Originally, I had been looking for friendly faces, girls I might want to spend time with while I was there. I’d never really had a friend. I’d spent most of my childhood playing with Kenna and Kota. Mom did all my schooling, and she was the only person I worked with. When the older siblings moved on, I dedicated myself to May and Gerad. And Aspen…
But Aspen and I were never just friends. From the moment I became truly aware of him, I was in love with him.
Now he was holding some other girl’s hand.
Thank goodness I was alone. I couldn’t have handled the tears in front of the other girls. It ached. I ached. And there was nothing I could do.
How in the hell did I get here? A month ago, I was sure of everything in my life, and now any little piece of familiarity was gone. New home, new caste, new life. All because of a stupid piece of paper and a picture. I wanted to sit and cry, to mourn for everything I’d lost.