I CRAWLED DEEPER INTO THE tree house. It wasn’t much more than a five-by-five-foot cube; even Gerad couldn’t stand up straight in here. But I loved it. There was the one opening to crawl into and then a tiny window on the opposite wall. I’d placed an old step stool in the corner to act as a desk for the candle, and a little rug that was so old it was barely better than sitting on the slats. It wasn’t much, but it was my haven. Our haven.
“Please don’t call me gorgeous. First my mom, then May, now you. It’s getting on my nerves.” By the way Aspen was looking at me, I could tell I wasn’t helping my “I’m not pretty” case. He smiled.
“I can’t help it. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You can’t hold it against me for saying it the only time I’m allowed to.” He reached up and cupped my face, and I looked deep into his eyes.
That was all it took. His lips were on mine, and I couldn’t think about anything anymore. There was no Selection, no miserable family, no Illéa itself. There were only Aspen’s hands on my back pulling me closer, Aspen’s breath on my cheeks. My fingers went to his black hair, still wet from his shower—he always took showers at night—and tangled themselves into a perfect little knot. He smelled like his mother’s homemade soap. I dreamed about that smell. We broke apart, and I couldn’t help but smile.
His legs were propped open wide, so I sat sideways between them, like a kid who needed cradling. “Sorry I’m not in a better mood. It’s just that … we got this stupid notice in the post today.”
“Ah, yes, the letter.” Aspen sighed. “We got two.”
Of course. The twins had just turned sixteen.
Aspen studied my face as he spoke. He did that when we were together, like he was recommitting my face to memory. It had been over a week, and we both got anxious when it was more than a few days.
And I looked him over, too. No caste excluded, Aspen was, by far, the most attractive guy in town. He had dark hair and green eyes, and this smile that made you think he had a secret. He was tall, but not too tall. Thin, but not too thin. I noticed in the dim light that there were tiny bags under his eyes; no doubt he’d been working late all week. His black T-shirt was worn to threads in several places, just like the shabby pair of jeans he wore almost every day.
If only I could sit and patch them up for him. That was my great ambition. Not to be Illéa’s princess. To be Aspen’s.
It hurt me to be away from him. Some days I went crazy wondering what he was doing. And when I couldn’t handle it, I practiced music. I really had Aspen to thank for me being the musician that I was. He drove me to distraction.
And that was bad.
Aspen was a Six. Sixes were servants and only a step up from Sevens in that they were better educated and trained for indoor work. Aspen was smarter than anyone knew and devastatingly handsome, but it was atypical for a woman to marry down. A man from a lower caste could ask for your hand, but it was rare to get a yes. And when anyone married into a different caste, they had to fill out paperwork and wait for something like ninety days before any of the other legal things you needed could be done. I’d heard more than one person say it was to give people a chance to change their minds. So us being this personal and out well past Illéa’s curfew … we could both get in serious trouble. Not to mention the hell I’d get from my mother.
But I loved Aspen. I’d loved Aspen for nearly two years. And he loved me. As he sat there stroking my hair, I couldn’t imagine entering the Selection.
“How do you feel about it? The Selection, I mean?” I asked.
“Okay, I guess. He’s got to find a girl somehow, poor guy.” I could hear the sarcasm. But I really wanted to know his opinion.
“Okay, okay. Well, part of me thinks it’s kind of sad. Doesn’t the prince date? I mean, can he seriously not get anyone? If they try to wed the princesses to other princes, why don’t they do the same for him? There’s got to be some royal out there good enough for him. I don’t get it. So there’s that.
“But then…” He sighed. “Part of me thinks it’s a good idea. It’s exciting. He’s going to fall in love in front of everyone. And I like that someone gets a happily ever after and all that. Anybody could be our next queen. It’s kind of hopeful. Makes me think that I could have a happily ever after, too.”
His fingers were tracing my lips. Those green eyes searched deep into my soul, and I felt that spark of connection that I’d only ever had with him. I wanted our happily ever after, too.
“So you’re encouraging the twins to enter, then?” I asked.
“Yes. I mean, we’ve all seen the prince from time to time; he looks like a nice enough guy. A snot, no doubt, but friendly. And the girls are so eager; it’s funny to watch. They were dancing in the house when I came home today. And no one can deny that it’d be good for the family. Mom’s hopeful because we have two entries from the house instead of one.”
That was the first good news about this horrible competition. I couldn’t believe I’d been so self-absorbed that I hadn’t thought about Aspen’s sisters. If one of them went, if one of them won…
“Aspen, do you realize what that would mean? If Kamber or Celia won?”
He closed his hold tighter around me, his lips brushing my forehead. One hand moved up and down my back.
“It’s all I’ve thought about today,” he said. The gritty sound of his voice pushed out every other thought. All I wanted was for Aspen to touch me, kiss me. And that’s exactly where the night would have gone, but his stomach growled and snapped me out of it.
“Oh, hey, I brought us a snack,” I said lightly.
“Oh, yeah?” I could tell he was trying not to sound excited, but some of his eagerness came through.
“You’ll love this chicken; I made it.”
I found my little bundle and brought it to Aspen, who, to his merit, nibbled it all slowly. I took one bite of the apple so he would feel like it was for us, but then I set it down and let him have the rest.
Where meals were a worry at my house, they were a disaster at Aspen’s. He had much steadier work than we did but got paid significantly less. There was never enough food for his family. He was the oldest of seven, and in the same way I’d stepped up to help as soon as I could, Aspen had stepped aside. He passed his share of the little food they had down to his siblings and to his mom, who was always tired from working. His dad had died three years ago, and Aspen’s family depended on him for almost everything.
I watched with satisfaction as he licked the spices from the chicken off his fingers and tore into the bread. I couldn’t imagine when he’d eaten last.
“You’re such a good cook. You’re going to make someone very fat and happy one day,” he said, his mouth half full with a bite of apple.
“I’m going to make you fat and happy. You know that.”
“Ah, to be fat!”
We laughed, and he told me about life since the last time I’d seen him. He’d done some clerical work for one of the factories, and it was going to carry him through next week, too. His mom had finally gotten into a routine of house-cleaning for a few of the Twos in our area. The twins were both sad because their mom had made them drop their after-school drama club so they could work more.
“I’m going to see if I can pick up some work on Sundays, make a little more money. I hate for them to give up something they love so much.” He said this with hope, like he really could do it.
“Aspen Leger, don’t you dare! You work too hard as it is.”
“Aw, Mer,” he whispered into my ear. It gave me chill bumps. “You know how Kamber and Celia are. They need to be around people. They can’t be cooped up cleaning and writing all the time. It’s just not in their nature.”
“But it’s not fair for them to expect you to do it all, Aspen. I know exactly how you feel about your sisters, but you need to watch out for yourself. If you really love them, you’ll take better care of their caregiver.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing, Mer. I think there are some good things on the horizon. I wouldn’t be doing it forever.”
But he would. Because his family would always need money. “Aspen, I know you could do it. But you’re not a superhero. You can’t expect to be able to provide everything for everyone you love. You just … you can’t do everything.”
We were quiet for a moment. I hoped he was taking my words to heart, realizing that if he didn’t slow down, he’d wear himself out. It wasn’t anything new for a Six, Seven, or Eight to just die of exhaustion. I couldn’t bear that. I pressed myself even closer to his chest, trying to get the image of it out of my head.
“Yes?” I whispered.
“Are you going to enter the Selection?”
“No! Of course not! I don’t want anyone to think I’d even consider marrying some stranger. I love you,” I said earnestly.
“You want to be a Six? Always hungry? Always worried?” he asked. I could hear the pain in his voice, but also the genuine question: If I had to choose between sleeping in a palace with people waiting on me or the three-room apartment with Aspen’s family, which one did I really want?
“Aspen, we’ll make it. We’re smart. We’ll be fine.” I willed it to be true.
“You know that’s not how it’ll be, Mer. I’d still have to support my family; I’m not the abandoning type.” I squirmed a little in his arms. “And if we had kids—”
“When we have kids. And we’ll just be careful about it. Who says we have to have more than two?”
“You know that’s not something we can control!” I could hear the anger building in his voice.
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