Celeste moved sinuously from her seat in the top row and down the steps. She actually kissed Gavril on both cheeks before she sat down. Her interview was predictable, and so was Bariel’s. They tried to be sexy, bending forward a lot to get clear shots down their dresses. It looked fake. I watched their faces in the monitors as they kept glancing at Maxon and winking. Every once in a while, like when Bariel tried to smoothly lick her lips, Marlee and I made brief eye contact and then had to look away so we wouldn’t laugh.
Others were more composed. Tiny’s voice matched her name, and she seemed to fold in on herself as the interview progressed. But I knew she was sweet and hoped that Maxon wouldn’t count her out just because she wasn’t a great public speaker. Emmica was poised, as was Marlee, the main difference being that Marlee’s voice was so full of excitement and enthusiasm it flew higher and higher as she talked.
Gavril asked a variety of questions, but there were two that seemed to pop up with everyone: “What do you think of Prince Maxon?” and “Are you the girl who yelled at him?” I wasn’t looking forward to telling the country that I had chided the future king. Thank goodness that, as far as anyone knew, I’d behaved that way only once.
Everyone was proud to say they weren’t the girl who’d yelled at him. Then every single girl thought that Maxon was nice. That was almost always the word: nice. Celeste said that he was handsome. Bariel said he was quietly powerful, which I thought sounded creepy. A few girls were asked if Maxon had kissed them yet. They all blushed and said no. After the third or fourth no, Gavril turned on Maxon.
“Haven’t you kissed any of them yet?” he asked, shocked.
“They’ve only been here two weeks! What kind of man do you think I am?” Maxon replied. He said it lightheartedly but seemed to squirm in his seat a little. I wondered if he’d ever kissed anyone.
Samantha had just finished saying she was having a wonderful time, and then Gavril called me. The other girls applauded as I stood, like we had for everyone. I gave Marlee a nervous smile. I focused on my feet as I walked over, but once I got into the chair, I found it was easy to look right past Gavril’s shoulder at Maxon. He gave me a little wink as I picked up the microphone. I felt instantly calmer. I didn’t have to win anyone over.
I shook Gavril’s hand and sat down across from him. Up close, I could finally see the pin on his lapel. It obviously lost its detail through the camera, but now I saw that it wasn’t just the lines and curls of a forte sign, but a small X was engraved in the middle, making the whole thing look almost like a star. It was beautiful.
“America Singer. That’s an interesting name you have there. Is there a story behind it?” Gavril asked.
I sighed in relief. This was an easy one.
“Yes, actually. While my mom was pregnant with me, I kicked a lot. She said she had a fighter on her hands, so she named me after the country that fought so hard to keep this land together. It’s odd, but to her credit, she was right—we’ve been fighting ever since.”
Gavril laughed. “She sounds like a feisty woman herself.”
“She is. I get a lot of my stubbornness from her.”
“So you’re stubborn, then? Have a bit of a temper?”
I saw Maxon covering his mouth with his hands, laughing.
“If you have a temper, would you happen to be the one who yelled at our prince?”
I sighed. “Yes, it was me. And right now, my mother is having a heart attack.”
Maxon called out to Gavril, “Get her to tell the whole story!”
Gavril whipped his head back and forth quickly. “Oh! What’s the whole story?”
I tried to glare at Maxon, but the whole situation was so silly, it didn’t quite work.
“I got a little … claustrophobic the first night, and I was desperate to get outside. The guards wouldn’t let me through the doors. I was actually about to faint in this one guard’s arms, but Prince Maxon was walking by and made them open the doors for me.”
“Aw,” Gavril said, tilting his head to one side.
“Yes, and then he followed to make sure I was all right.... But I was stressed out, so when he spoke to me, I basically ended up accusing him of being stuck-up and shallow.”
Gavril chuckled deeply at this. I looked past him to Maxon, who was shaking with laughter. But the more embarrassing thing was that the king and queen were laughing along with him. I didn’t turn to look at the girls, but I heard some of them giggling, too. Well, good. Maybe now they would finally stop seeing me as any sort of threat. I was just someone Maxon found entertaining.
“And he forgave you?” Gavril asked in a slightly more sober tone.
“Oddly enough.” I shrugged.
“Well, since the two of you are on good terms again, what sort of activities have you been doing together?” Gavril was back to business.
“We usually just go for walks around the garden. He knows I like it outside. And we talk.” It sounded pathetic after what some of the other girls had said. Trips to the theater, going hunting, horseback riding—those were impressive next to my story.
But I suddenly understood why he had been speed dating over the last week. The girls needed something to tell Gavril, so he had to provide it. It still seemed weird that he hadn’t mentioned any of it to me, but at least I knew why he had been away.
“That sounds very relaxing. Would you say the garden is your favorite thing about the palace?”
I smiled. “Maybe. But the food is exquisite, so…”
Gavril laughed again.
“You are the last Five left in the competition, yes? Do you think that hurts your chances of becoming the princess?”
The word sprang from my lips without thought. “No!”
“Oh, my! You do have a spirit there!” Gavril seemed pleased to have gotten such an enthusiastic response. “So you think you’ll beat out all the others, then? Make it to the end?”
I thought better of myself. “No, no. It’s not like that. I don’t think I’m better than any of the other girls; they’re all amazing. It’s just… I don’t think Maxon would do that, just discount someone because of their caste.”
I heard a collective gasp. I ran over the sentence in my head. It took me a minute to catch my mistake: I’d called him Maxon. Saying that to another girl behind closed doors was one thing, but to say his name without the word “Prince” in front of it was incredibly informal in public. And I’d said it on live television.