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 Episode 6

“Yes.” Aspen’s mom spoke in a hushed voice. “I was cleaning at one of the magistrates’ houses yesterday. This lottery isn’t much of a lottery at all. That’s why they’re taking pictures and getting lots of information. Why would it matter how many languages you spoke if it were random?”

That had struck me as funny, but I thought that was all information for after the fact.

“It appears to have leaked a little; look around. Lots of girls are way overdone.”

I scanned the line. Aspen’s mother was right, and there was a clear line between those who knew and those who didn’t. Just behind us was a girl, obviously a Seven, still in her work clothes. Her muddy boots might not make the picture, but the dust on her overalls probably would. A few yards back another Seven was sporting a tool belt. The best I could say about her was that her face was clean.

On the other end of the spectrum, a girl in front of me had her hair up in a twist with little tendrils framing her face. The girl beside her, clearly a Two based on her clothes, looked like she was trying to drown the world in her cle**age. Several had on so much makeup, they looked kind of like clowns to me. But at least they were trying.

I looked decent, but I hadn’t gone to any such lengths. Like the Sevens, I hadn’t known to bother. I felt a sudden flutter of worry.
But why? I stopped myself and rearranged my thoughts.

I didn’t want this. If I wasn’t pretty enough, surely that was a good thing. I would at least be a notch below Aspen’s sisters. They were naturally beautiful, and looked even lovelier with the little hints of makeup. If Kamber or Celia won, Aspen’s whole family would be elevated. Surely my mother couldn’t disapprove of me marrying a One just because he wasn’t the prince himself. My lack of information was a blessing.

“I think you’re right,” Mom said. “That girl looks like she’s getting ready for a Christmas party.” She laughed, but I could tell she hated that I was at a disadvantage.

“I don’t know why some girls go so over the top. Look at America. She’s so pretty. I’m so glad you didn’t go that route,” Mrs. Leger said.

“I’m nothing special. Who could pick me next to Kamber or Celia?” I winked at them, and they smiled. Mom did, too, but it was forced. She must have been debating staying in the line or forcing me to run home and change.

“Don’t be silly! Every time Aspen comes home from helping your brother, he always says the Singers inherited more than their fair share of talent and beauty,” Aspen’s mother said.
“Does he really? What a nice boy!” my mother cooed.

“Yes. A mother couldn’t ask for a better son. He’s supportive, and he works so hard.”

“He’s going to make some girl very happy one day,” my mother said. She was only half into the conversation as she continued to size up the competition.

Mrs. Leger took a quick look around. “Between you and me, I think he might already have someone in mind.”

I froze. I didn’t know if I should comment or not, unsure if either response would give me away.

“What’s she like?” my mother asked. Even when she was planning my marriage to a complete stranger, she still had time for gossip.

“I’m not sure! I haven’t actually met her. And I’m only guessing that he’s seeing someone, but he seems happier lately,” she replied, beaming.

Lately? We’d been meeting for nearly two years. Why only lately?

“He hums,” Celia offered.

“Yeah, he sings, too,” Kamber agreed.

“He sings?” I exclaimed.

“Oh, yeah,” they chorused.

“Then he’s definitely seeing someone!” my mother chimed in. “I wonder who she is.”

“You’ve got me. But I’m guessing she must be a wonderful girl. These last few months he’s been working hard—harder than usual. And he’s been putting money away. I think he must be trying to save up to get married.”

I couldn’t help the little gasp that escaped. Lucky me, they all attributed it to the general excitement of the news.

“And I couldn’t be more pleased,” she continued. “Even if he’s not ready to tell us who she is, I love her already. He’s smiling, and he just seems satisfied. It’s been hard since we lost Herrick, and Aspen’s taken so much on himself. Any girl who makes him this happy is already a daughter to me.”
“She’d be a lucky girl! Your Aspen is a wonderful boy,” Mom replied.

I couldn’t believe it. Here his family was, trying to make ends meet, and he was putting away money for me! I didn’t know whether to scold him or kiss him. I just… I had no words.

He really was going to ask me to marry him!

It was all I could think about. Aspen, Aspen, Aspen. I went through the line, signed at the window to confirm that everything on my form was true, and took my picture. I sat in the chair, flipped my hair once or twice to give it some life, and turned to face the photographer.

I don’t think any girl in all of IllĂ©a could have been smiling more than me.

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