PART ONE THE PRICE OF FREEDOM one two months later "danica!" even with her hushed whisper, Molli's giggles give her away before her high pompadour can claim the honor. Rather a feat--thank goodness she's not sporting feathers in her hair tonight. After a quick glance down the hallway, I join her in a small nook behind a set of heavy damask curtains. Lord Aaron and Lady Mei are with her, leaning out a picture window, sharing a cigarette. Someone has hacked M.A.R.I.E.--Lord Aaron, no doubt. "Be careful," I say, the finicky words escaping my mouth before I can clamp down on them. "The smell seeps," I continue in an embarrassed mutter. Though it's been only two months, I feel as if I've aged ten years since my failed escape attempt, and it's starting to show. Seventeen going on thirty, I suppose. "Oh, lord have mercy on us if we damage His Royal Highness' precious frescoes," Lord Aaron mocks. His eyes aren't as playful as his tone, and he meets my gaze briefly before blinking away all trace of our shared secrets. "Lean way out," Lady Mei says, passing me the hand-rolled cigarette and shifting her skirts aside so I can bend as far through the window as my stiff bodice and wide skirts will allow. I take a long drag, and it does soothe me--but I wonder if the night air alone would have done just as well. It tastes of freedom, that rarest of delicacies. "Give it here," Molli says, nudging me over and carefully grasping the cigarette dangling from my fingertips. "There's only a pull or two left." "Give it here, Your Grace," Lady Mei corrects. "Mustn't forget whose presence we're in." I force a smile at her rousing, though in truth I wish I could forget. Not something I'd confide to Lady Mei; as much as I enjoy her company, she's a hopeless gossip. Lord Aaron and I were lucky to be able to replace her family's priceless jewels the day after we stole them, or the only people she wouldn't be talking to about it would be us. I back away from the window and right into Lord Aaron's chest. "Steady," he whispers in my ear, his hands encircling my upper arms protectively. "I don't suppose it'll catch anything on fire down there, will it?" Molli asks, peering at the grounds below the window. "If it does, M.A.R.I.E. will handle it," Lady Mei says, breathing out a long stream of smoke before pulling her head back inside. M.A.R.I.E.--the Mainframe for Autonomous Robotic Intelligence Enhancement--is the central nervous system of the Palace of Versailles. She handles the drudgework, monitors the entire complex, and controls every bot, from the ones that trim the grass to the ones that help me dress. Presumably, she would also put out little fires. "Hurry," Mei says. "The system's going to override His Lordship's hack any second." Sure enough, scant seconds later the window sash slides shut with a defiant click. A blue light at the lock blinks indignantly, as though scolding us, but soon the anachronism fades and our little cabal bursts into laughter. "I don't know why you can't simply smoke outside before you dress," I say, dabbing laugh-tears from the corners of my eyes as we emerge through the curtains, back into the hallway. "Because dressing takes an hour at least," Lady Mei says. She flips a jet-black curl off her shoulder and puts two hands under her barely-there cleavage, pushing it up ineffectually. "Some of us take a little more work than others," she adds with a sidelong glance at the more-than-ample shadow between my breasts. She's not wrong; the gowns of the Baroque era don't really suit her figure. But the fashions in Sonoman-Versailles must be pulled from actual history books and are, thus, as unyielding as the boned corsets we all sport. She makes the most of it, though. In her natural state Lady Mei might accurately be described as plain, but she's a genius with cosmetics and couturiery, and no one seeing her in full evening dress would know her with a washed face and plain nightgown. She gives her skills far too little credit; her deft cosmetics enhance her delicate Chinese features to the hilt. Plus, she's the daughter of a wealthy marquis--she'll never want for favor or adoration. Or suitors, when the time comes for such arrangements. The same cannot be said for Molli Percy, who has neither title nor inheritance coming her way. But she's delightful and incredibly fetching, with honey-blond hair and a soft, round figure, and everyone falls in love with her despite themselves. That might be enough to make her a good marriage one day. Nothing could make her a better friend now. "Will I do, Lord Aaron?" Molli asks, turning a circle in front of him when she finishes straightening her skirts. "Almost." Lord Aaron adjusts a fold of her shoulder cape, straightens a strand of faux pearls in her coiffure, and takes a step back. "There, you look superb." "Thank you," Molli says, flicking her fan open and fluttering it just under her nose. "And me?" Lord Aaron asks, spinning a similar circle before them and making the velvet tails fly on his silver-and-crème jacket that sets off his gorgeous carob skin and long black curls. "As if you need my help," Molli quips. Lord Aaron is always impeccably turned out. "Shall we?" "Must we?" Lord Aaron and I say in tandem, and then turn to each other in surprise. Molli and Lady Mei burst into another round of giggles as Lord Aaron and I paint smiles across our faces. We were jesting--of course we were jesting. "Go ahead," I urge them. "You know His Highness prefers that I enter alone. Besides," I say, patting Lord Aaron on the shoulder, "you've only two arms. I would be sadly neglected." "Alas," Lord Aaron says with a twinkle in his eyes, "though I've petitioned both the Good Lord and the medical research division for more, it's true that I'm still possessed of but these two arms. And two hands," he adds, swatting Lady Mei across the backside. Lady Mei shrieks but takes his proffered arm. "You'll be in soon?" Molli asks over her shoulder. "In a few minutes." I watch my friends cross the Hercules Drawing Room, making their way into the soirée ahead of me. I consider returning to my quarters--not attending the party at all, instead spending the evening in my room with a book. But my mother would think nothing of finding me and dragging me back, my ear clenched hard between her fingers like a misbehaving child's. Which is precisely how she sees me. After nearly a quarter of an hour, I can stall no longer. So I check my satin gown and posture in the many mirrors lining the hall, then present myself at the doorway of the Drawing Room of Plenty. Plenty indeed. There are three couples in front of me. One at a time, they hand the crier a card bearing their name and title; he glances down, then bawls the names out. My turn. I need no card. I simply stand there, framed by red velvet drapes, waiting for the man to draw aside the curtain and present me to the crowd. "Her Grace, Betrothed of the King, Danica Grayson." The herald declares my cringe-worthy title at the top of his lungs, which always feels ridiculous; anyone who might have been dwelling so far under a rock that they don't know who I am can simply make eye contact, access the local web feed via their network Lens, and view my public profile. One never has to worry about remembering names at court when one is hooked into the network--one of M.A.R.I.E.'s more useful tricks. More useful than her propensity for locking windows or extinguishing tiny recreational fires, anyway. On the other hand, the herald's verbal warning does allow for the fashionables of the court to pivot away and avoid eye contact with people they don't care to acknowledge. Also useful. Sadly, I'm rarely in that shunned category. An underage, unknown young lady, all too quickly betrothed to the King, and jumped up well beyond her rank in court with no explanation whatsoever: scandal, perversion, and mystery all in one satin-wrapped package. Murmurs of "Your Grace" can be heard as curtsies and bows make a well-coiffed ripple across the room, as though it were the surface of a placid pond and I an offending pebble. I am not, however, a duchess. Upon my betrothal to the King, the citizens of Sonoman-Versailles eventually afforded me that address--Your Grace--to hide the fact that I am, by birth, nobody. At least in the eyes of the fashionables at court, where wealth and title mean everything. To have neither and yet be betrothed to the King? The false address seems to make them feel better about that. It makes me feel worse. The soirée is in full swing, with bots--dressed in the traditional red-and-gold livery of the seventeenth century--whirring about with trays of champagne and canapés among gowns of silk and satin, and the frenzied click of hundreds of jeweled heels. Delectable scents of both food and perfume waft like clouds, filling even the spaces where bodies don't fit. Orchestral tunes are piped softly through hidden speakers, and the sparkle of candlelight can't help but dazzle. For the two years since my official début, this crowded, frenetic atmosphere was heaven on earth to me, and even now, the elegance tempts me to rejoin my peers and drink and dance away what has become of my life. The salons swarm and buzz like a hive, though unlike insects, the drones here congregate around their king rather than a queen. The constant churn of people around my fiancé, the King, is actually terribly helpful; it takes only a glance to know which end of the salons to avoid. But even as I spot the hub of the milling crowd, His Majesty catches my eye and makes it very clear he wishes to speak to me. I grab a flute of champagne from a serving-bot's gyro-balanced tray, then hurry in the opposite direction. Not that I make much headway. The crush of the throng is downright suffocating, and I make my way through it at a speed of approximately one meter per minute. Perhaps less. He was waiting for me. If he were a sensible, reasonable person, he'd simply have had M.A.R.I.E. schedule a meeting for the two of us in his private offices. But no, of course he'd rather ambush me in public. Cursed man. I'm not certain why I continue to expect some level of normal human decency from him. I squelch panic when I sense a presence at my left side. Don't look. "I was beginning to think you weren't coming," says Molli, and twines one arm with mine. Thank all deities in the known universe--and the unknown, for good measure. I grip Molli close to my side, already feeling better, but continue my dogged trek forward. "His Majesty certainly has eyes only for you this evening." "I'd rather he had eyes for anyone else, and you know it," I say without dropping the affected half-smile I use to deflect unwanted attention. "I do, yes, but try explaining that to Lady Cynthea," Molli says, inclining her head subtly toward a tall, elegant young lady in a gold brocade gown that sparkles with dots of what are no doubt very real jewels. I stifle a smile at the mention of His Majesty's mistress--perhaps mistress is the wrong word. Even girlfriend sounds wrong when half the twosome is engaged. I suppose technically she's simply my fiancé's bit of skirt. "You'd think she was Queen, the way she holds court," Molli says, her voice dripping with distain. The court is essentially split into two camps: those who support the Queen the King has chosen--me--and those who still think Lady Cyn, with her pristine bloodlines, is more worthy of the throne. And, indeed, with a dozen members of the high nobility arranged in a semicircle before her, Lady Cyn does look like the true Queen holding court. As though hearing our whispered conversation, Lady Cyn turns her long, elegant nose toward us. Then she whispers behind her fan to a girl standing next to her and turns halfway, giving us her back. Not quite the cut direct--she doesn't dare give me such a social dismissal--but a clear insult nonetheless. I simply don't care. I used to. At my coming out, when my mother made it all too obvious that she intended to parade me in front of the King like a tasty slab of meat, Lady Cyn was quick to inform me that I was unwelcome in her territory. Only weeks apart in age, and owing to a friendship between their mothers, Lady Cyn and the King were considered by the court to be--informally and unofficially, of course--intended. I can still feel the sting of her satin glove smacking my face when she cornered me over a year ago, flanked by a half-circle of well-born bullies in silken gowns. It should have been merely an insult--an ancient and almost meaningless gesture. Except that Lady Cyn had taken it upon herself to put several heavy rings inside the glove. "You're a devious climber, and you'll stop if you know what's best for you," she hissed close to my ear as I cradled my throbbing cheek. I wished I could tell her I wasn't after her precious boyfriend. Of course, every starry-eyed débutante within a decade of the King's age probably entertained some shallow hope of a royal wedding. And I can't say I was any different--but I hardly nurtured a tendresse for the always-arrogant young monarch. What drew Lady Cyn's anger wasn't my determination but my mother's. Through her scheming and bribes, I more often than not found myself seated beside the King at dinner, sharing his box in the palace's theater, his name programmed into my dance card. Consequently, I also found myself avoiding empty corridors whenever humanly possible. When my betrothal was very publicly announced two months ago, the hatred Lady Cyn already felt toward me, combined with the grievous insult, practically took on a life of its own. I turn from my future husband's not-so-secret girlfriend and continue my trek forward. "Where are Lady Mei and Lord Aaron?" I ask. Molli is seldom by herself at these gatherings. Not enough social status to gain notice alone. We used to band together-- a pair of nobodies. Now I'm happy to bring her along on my unwanted rise in prestige. Molli flips open her fan and flutters it in front of her face. M.A.R.I.E. keeps the palace's climate at a perfect, comfortable temperature, but the motion both is decorative and conceals Molli's words from eavesdroppers with a lip-reading program on their Lens. Which, because such apps are strictly banned, is everyone. "Lady Mei and her sister have been compelled to join their parents for a family moment." "I imagine she's thrilled," I say, half amused. The marquis and Lady Zhào are rather fond of parading their two daughters about for the marriageable nobility to see. It'll be another five years at least before either is ready for marriage, but luck favors the prepared, and betrothals can be quite lengthy. "Lord Aaron slipped out a few minutes ago," Molli continues. "He's remarkably out of spirits this evening. He tries to hide it, but I've known the boy since he was still wetting his britches." I'd sensed his gloomy mood myself but find it difficult to gauge. I haven't known Lord Aaron as long as Molli has, having only moved into the palace four years ago, and he does tend toward melancholy anyway. I have trouble distinguishing between his passing fits of existential angst and true distress. I'm always grateful for Molli's insight in these moments. A feathered fan--lime-green and loud as the grating laugh of its owner--catches my eye. "I suppose that has something to do with it." I nod subtly in its direction, though I'm referring not to the woman in the frothy confection of a gown but to the lean, handsome young man beside her. "It's such a shame," Molli says, peering after them over her fan. "He and Sir Spencer are so well suited they might have been created for each other." "Can you picture it?" I whisper. "Sir Spencer's golden hair--Lord Aaron's dark skin. They'd be gloriously striking." "I wish they wouldn't stand on such ceremony. It's hardly a love match, even on her side. Besides, everyone in the court cheats." I don't have to voice my agreement, as it's such a naked truth. "Her father is so old-fashioned," Molli laments. Lady Julianna--the young woman with the unfortunately hued fan--is the heir to the Tremain dukedom; the much more elegant man at her side is the Honorable Sir Spencer Harrisford. An American by birth, Sir Spencer inherited his title and shares when his parents--both top Sonoma executives in America, a brilliant match--were killed in a high-speed rail accident. Their son was brought to Sonoman Versailles by Duke Tremain and wed to Lady Julianna a few weeks later, on the very night of his eighteenth birthday. Not in a whirlwind romance, but simply because Sir Spencer was overly biddable in his fragile emotional state and the duke had an agenda. Still does, if dark rumors are to be believed. It's exceptionally bad luck on both their parts that Sir Spencer and Lord Aaron fell quite instantly and madly in love at the wedding fête. Unfortunately, with Lady Tremain's father holding tightly to the purse strings, that means no affairs. For now. "They should consider having a tryst as a public service," Molli says. I pause and turn to her, baffled. "How so?" She widens her already-luminous eyes. "Their searing glances are in danger of setting the drapes afire." Her wry humor strikes my tight nerves just right and I laugh aloud. "She's so very vulgar, though," Molli says, the humor draining quickly from her eyes. Molli has no status save her delightful self to recommend her, but she tries harder than anyone else I know. Certainly harder than I ever did. To see someone like Lady Julianna--so gauche and tasteless, utterly lacking in poise or subtlety, despite her wealth and breeding--who possesses every advantage and has earned none, feels like quite a personal insult. I'm finding the recent run of very young marriages--including my own impending one--more problematic than any individual plight. Being engaged isn't what I wanted or expected in my seventeenth year . . . and eighteen is truly not much older. Too late I realize that in my distraction I've allowed my progress to slow. When I next feel a presence at my shoulder, I'm certain I won't be so lucky as to turn and find a friendly face a second time. Excerpted from Glitter by Aprilynne Pike All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.