(The next week was full of officials swarming into our house to prepare me for the Selection. )
There was an obnoxious woman who seemed to think I’d lied about half my application, followed by an actual palace guard who came to go over security measures with the local soldiers and give our home a once-over. Apparently I didn’t have to wait until getting to the palace to worry about potential rebel attacks. Wonderful.
We got two phone calls from a woman named Silvia—who sounded very perky and businesslike at the same time—wanting to know if we needed anything. My favorite visitor was a lean, goateed man who came to measure me for my new wardrobe. I wasn’t sure how I felt about wearing dresses that were as formal as the queen’s all the time, but I was looking forward to a change.
The last of these visitors came on Wednesday afternoon, two days before I was to leave. He was in charge of going over all the official rules with me. He was incredibly skinny with greasy black hair that was smoothed back, and he kept sweating. Upon entering the house, he asked if there was someplace private we could talk. That was my first clue that something was going on.
“Well, we can sit in the kitchen, if that’s all right,” Mom suggested.
He dabbed his head with a handkerchief and looked over at May. “Actually, anyplace is fine. I just think you might want to ask your younger daughter to leave the room.”
What could he possibly say that May couldn’t hear?
“Mama?” she asked, sad to be missing out.
“May, darling, go and work on your painting. You’ve been neglecting your work a bit this last week.”
“Let me walk you out, May,” I offered, looking at the tears welling up in her eyes.
When we were down the hall and no one could hear, I pulled her in for a hug.
“Don’t worry,” I whispered. “I’ll tell you everything tonight. Promise.”
To her credit, she didn’t blow our cover by jumping up and down as usual. She merely nodded somberly and went away to her little corner in Dad’s studio.
Mom made tea for Skinny, and we sat at the kitchen table to talk. He had a stack of papers and a pen laid out next to another folder with my name on it. He arranged his information neatly and spoke.
“I’m sorry to be so secretive, but there are certain things I need to address that are unfit for young ears.”
Mom and I exchanged a quick glance.
“Miss Singer, this is going to sound harsh, but as of last Friday, you are now considered property of Illéa. You must take care of your body from here on out. I have several forms for you to sign as we go through this information. Any failure to comply on your part will result in your immediate removal from the Selection. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said warily.
“Very good. Let’s start with the easy stuff. These are vitamins. Since you are a Five, I’ll assume that you may not always have access to necessary nutrition. You must take one of these every day. You’re on your own now, but at the palace, you’ll have someone to help you.” He passed a large bottle across the table to me, along with a form I had to sign to say that I had received it.
I had to stop myself from laughing. Who needs help taking a pill?
“I have with me the physical from your doctor. Not much of a worry there. You seem to be in excellent health, although he said you haven’t been sleeping well?”
“Umm, I mean … just with the excitement, it’s been a little hard to sleep.” It was almost the truth. The days were whirlwinds of palace preparation, but at night, when I was still, I thought of Aspen. It was the one time I couldn’t avoid him coming into my mind, and it appeared he wasn’t eager to leave.
“I see. Well, I can have some sleep aids here tonight if you need them. We want you well rested.”
“No, I don’t—”
“Yes,” Mom interrupted. “Sorry, honey, but you look exhausted. Please, get her the sleep aids.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Skinny made another note in my file. “Moving on. Now, I know this is personal, but I’ve had to discuss it with every contestant, so please don’t be shy.” He paused. “I need confirmation that you are, in fact, a virgin.”
Mom’s eyes nearly popped out. So this was why May had to leave.
“Are you serious?” I couldn’t believe they’d send someone out to do this. At least send a woman…
“I’m afraid so. If you’re not, we need to know that immediately.”
Eww. And with my mother in the room. “I know the law, sir. I’m not stupid. Of course I am.”
“Consider, please. If you are found to be lying…”
“For goodness’ sake, America’s never even had a boyfriend!” Mom said.
“That’s right.” I grabbed that rope, hoping it would end this discussion.
“Very good. I’ll just need you to sign this form to confirm your statement.”
I rolled my eyes but obeyed. I was glad Illéa existed, considering that this very land had nearly been turned to rubble, but these regulations were starting to make me feel like I was suffocating, like there were invisible chains keeping me down. Laws about who you could love, forms about your virginity being intact; it was infuriating.
“I need to go over the rules with you. They are very straightforward, and you shouldn’t have a hard time complying. If you have any questions, just speak up.”
He looked up from his stack of forms and made eye contact with me.
“I will,” I mumbled.
“You cannot leave the palace of your own accord. You have to be dismissed by the prince himself. Even the king and queen cannot force you out. They can tell the prince they do not approve of you, but he makes every decision on who stays and who leaves.
“There is no set timeline for the Selection. It can be over in a matter of days or stretch into years.”
“Years?” I asked in horror. The thought of being gone that long set me on edge.
“Not to worry. The prince is unlikely to let it go for very long. This is a moment for him to show his decisiveness, and allowing the Selection to drag on doesn’t look good. But should he choose to take it that way, you will be required to stay for as long as the prince needs to make his choice.”
My fear must have shown on my face because Mom reached over and patted my hand. Skinny, however, was unfazed.
“You do not arrange your times with the prince. He will seek you out for one-on-one company if he wants it. If you are in a larger social setting and he is present, that is different. But you do not go to him without invitation.
“While no one expects you to get along with the other thirty-four contestants, you are not to fight with them or sabotage them. If you are found laying hands on another contestant, causing her stress, stealing from her, or doing anything that might diminish her personal relationship with the prince, it is in his hands whether or not to dismiss you on the spot.
“Your only romantic relationship will be with Prince Maxon. If you are found writing love notes to someone here or are caught in a relationship with another person in the palace, that is considered treason and is punishable by death.”
Mom rolled her eyes at that one, though that might be the only rule that worried me.
“If you are found breaking any of Illéa’s written laws, you will receive the punishment tied to that offense. Your status as one of the Selected does not put you above the law.
“You must not wear any clothes or eat any food that is not specifically provided for you by the palace. This is a security issue and will be strictly enforced.
“On Fridays you will be present for all Capital Report broadcasts. On occasion, but always with warning, there will be cameras or photographers in the palace, and you will be courteous and allow them to see your lifestyle with the prince.
“For each week you stay at the palace, your family will be compensated. I will give you your first check before I leave. Also, should you not stay at the palace, an aide will help you adjust to your life after the Selection. Your aide will assist you with final preparations before you leave for the palace, as well as help you seek new housing and employment afterward.
“Should you make it to the top ten, you will be considered an Elite. Once you reach that status, you will be required to learn about the particular inner workings of the life and obligations you would have as a princess. You are not permitted to seek out such details before that time.
“From this moment on, your status is a Three.”
“A Three?” Mom and I both exclaimed.
“Yes. After the Selection, it’s hard for girls to go back to their old lives. Twos and Threes do fine, but Fours and below tend to struggle. You are a Three now, but the rest of your family remain Fives. Should you win, you and your entire family become Ones as members of the royal family.”
“Ones.” The word was faint on Mom’s lips.
“And should you go to the end, you will marry Prince Maxon and become the crowned princess of Illéa and take on all the rights and responsibilities of that title. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” That part, as big as it sounded, was the easiest to bear.
“Very good. If you could just sign this form saying you’ve heard all the official rules, and Mrs. Singer, if you could just sign this form saying you received your check, please.”