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The Crown

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Year:
2016
Publisher:
HarperCollins
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9780062561046
Series:
Selection 5
File:
EPUB, 2.56 MB
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2 comments
 
ImaginativelyBankrupt
Eadlyn is absolutely annoying as heck and needs to stop sticking her head up at other people because she's the heir.
21 April 2021 (15:30) 
ixxe
I entirely agree ImaginativelyBankrupt
06 May 2021 (17:24) 

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1

The Crown

Year:
2016
Language:
english
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EPUB, 1.67 MB
3.5 / 0
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Selection

Language:
english
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EPUB, 844 KB
5.0 / 0
DEDICATION


For Guyden and Zuzu,

the best little characters I ever made up.





CONTENTS


Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Back Ads

About the Author

Books by Kiera Cass

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher





CHAPTER 1


“I’M SORRY,” I SAID, BRACING myself for the inevitable backlash. When my Selection started, I’d pictured it ending this way—with dozens of my suitors leaving at a time, many of them unprepared for their moment in the spotlight to be over. But after the last few weeks, after learning how kind, how smart, how generous so many of them were, I found the mass elimination almost heartbreaking.

They’d been fair with me, and now I had to be very unfair to them. The live announcement would make the elimination official, and they all had to wait until then.

“I know it’s abrupt, but given my mother’s precarious condition, my father has asked me to take on more responsibilities, and I feel the only way to manage that is to scale down this competition.”

“How is the queen?” Hale asked, swallowing hard.

I sighed. “She looks . . . she looks pretty bad.”

Dad had been hesitant to let me visit her, but I had finally worn him down. I understood his reluctance the instant I saw her, asleep, the metronome of her heartbeat keeping time on the monitor. She’d just come out of surgery, where the doctors had to harvest a vein from her leg to replace the one in her chest that had been worked to death.

One ; of the doctors said they had lost her for a minute but managed to get her back. I sat beside her, holding her hand. Silly as it sounded, I had slouched in my chair, certain that would make her come to and correct my posture. It didn’t.

“She’s alive though. And my father . . . he’s . . .”

Raoul placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, Your Highness. We all understand.”

I let my eyes flit across the space, my gaze settling on each of my suitors for a breath as I committed their faces to memory.

“For the record, I was terrified of you,” I confessed. There were a few chuckles around the room. “Thank you so much for taking this chance, and for being so gracious with me.”

A guard entered, clearing his throat to announce his presence. “I’m sorry, my lady. It’s nearly time for the broadcast. The crew wanted to check, um”—he made a fumbling gesture with his hand—“hair and stuff.”

I nodded. “Thank you. I’ll be ready in a moment.”

After he left, I turned my attention back to the boys. “I hope you’ll forgive me for this group good-bye. I wish you all the best of luck in the future.”

There was a chorus of murmured good-byes as I left. Once I was outside the doors of the Men’s Parlor, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for what was coming. You are Eadlyn Schreave and no one—literally, no one—is as powerful as you.

The palace was eerily quiet without Mom and her ladies scuttling around and Ahren’s laughter filling the halls. Nothing makes you quite so aware of a person’s presence as the loss of it.

I held myself tall as I made my way down to the studio.

“Your Highness,” several people greeted me as I came through the doorway, curtsying and moving out of my way, all the while avoiding looking directly in my eyes. I couldn’t tell if it was out of sympathy or if they already knew.

“Oh,” I said, glancing in the mirror. “I am a bit shiny. Could you—?”

“Of course, Your Highness.” A girl expertly dabbed at my skin, covering me in powder.

I straightened the high lace collar of my gown. When I’d gotten dressed this morning, black seemed appropriate, considering the overall mood in the palace, but I was second-guessing myself.

“I look too serious,” I worried aloud. “Not respectable serious, but worried serious. This is all wrong.”

“You look beautiful, my lady.” The makeup girl swept a fresh splash of color across my lips. “Like your mother.”

“No, I don’t,” I lamented. “Not a stitch of her hair or skin or eyes.”

“That’s not what I mean.” The girl, warm and round, with wisps of curls falling across her forehead, stood beside me and gazed at my reflection. “See there,” she said, pointing to my eyes. “Not the same color, but the same determination. And your lips, they have the same hopeful smile. I know you have your grandmother’s coloring, but you’re your mother’s daughter, through and through.”

I stared at myself. I could almost see what she meant. At this most isolating moment, I felt a little less alone.

“Thank you. That means a great deal to me.”

“We’re all praying for her, my lady. She’s a tough one.”

I giggled in spite of my mood. “That she is.”

“Two minutes!” the floor director called. I walked onto the carpeted set, smoothing out my gown and touching my hair. The studio was colder than usual, even under the lights, and goose bumps prickled at my skin as I took my place behind the lone podium.

Gavril, slightly dressed down but still very polished, gave me a sympathetic smile as he approached. “Are you sure you want to do this? I’m happy to deliver the news for you.”

“Thank you, but I think I have to do it on my own.”

“All right then. How’s she holding up?”

“Okay as of an hour ago. The doctors are keeping her asleep so she can heal, but she looks so battered.” I closed my eyes for a moment, calming myself. “Sorry. This has me a bit on edge. But at least I’m managing better than Dad.”

He shook his head. “I can’t imagine anyone taking this worse than him. His whole world has hung on her since they met.”

I thought back to last night, to the wall of photos in their room, and I thumbed through all the details they’d only recently divulged about how they got together. I still couldn’t see any rhyme or reason to fighting through countless obstacles for love only to have it leave you so powerless in the end.

“You were there, Gavril. You saw their Selection.” I swallowed, still unsure. “Does it really work? How?”

He shrugged. “Yours is the third I’ve seen, and I can’t tell you how it works, how a lottery can bring in a soul mate. Let me say this: Your grandfather was not exactly a man I admired, but he treated his queen as if she was the most important person to walk the planet. Where he was harsh with others, he was generous with her. She got the best of him, which is more than I can say for . . . Well, he found the right woman.”

I squinted, curious about what he was omitting. I knew Grandpa had been a strict ruler, but come to think of it, that was the only way I knew him. Dad didn’t talk about him much as a husband or father, and I’d always been much more interested in hearing about Grandma.

“And your dad? I don’t think he had a clue what he was looking for. Honestly, I don’t think your mother did either. But she was his match in every way. Everyone around them could see it long before they did.”

“Really?” I asked. “They didn’t know?”

He made a face. “Truthfully, it was more that she didn’t know.” He gave me a pointed look. “A family trait, it seems.”

“Gavril, you’re one of the few people I can confess this to. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m looking for. It’s that I wasn’t ready to look.”

“Ah. I wondered.”

“But now I’m here.”

“And on your own, I’m afraid. If you choose to go through with this—and after yesterday, no one would blame you if you didn’t—only you can make such an important choice.”

I nodded. “I know. Which is why this is so scary.”

“Ten seconds,” the floor director called.

Gavril patted my shoulder. “I’m here in whatever way I can be, Your Highness.”

“Thank you.”

I squared my shoulders in front of the camera, trying to look calm as the light began glowing red.

“Good morning, people of Illéa. I, Princess Eadlyn Schreave, am here to address some recent events that have taken place in the royal family. I shall deliver the good news first.” I tried to smile, really I did, but all I could think of was how abandoned I felt.

“My beloved brother, Prince Ahren Schreave, has married Princess Camille de Sauveterre of France. Though the timing of their wedding was a bit of a surprise, it in no way lessens our joy for the happy couple. I hope you will join me in wishing them both the happiest of marriages.”

I paused. You can do this, Eadlyn.

“In sadder news, last night, my mother, America Schreave, queen of Illéa, suffered a very serious heart attack.”

I paused. The words felt like they had created a dam in my throat, making it harder and harder to speak.

“She is in critical condition and is under constant medical supervision. Please pr—”

I brought my hand to my mouth. I was going to cry. I was going to lose it on national television, and on top of everything Ahren had said about how people felt about me, appearing weak was the last thing I wanted.

I looked down. Mom needed me. Dad needed me. Maybe, in a small way, even the country needed me. I couldn’t disappoint them. Dabbing away the tears, I went on.

“Please pray for her speedy recovery, as we all adore her and still depend on her guidance.”

I breathed. It was the only way to get from any moment to the next. Breathe in, breathe out.

“My mother held such great respect for the Selection, which, as you all know, led to my parents’ long and happy marriage. As such, I’ve decided to honor what I know would be her deepest wish and continue with my own Selection.

“Due to the stress placed on our household in the last twenty-four hours, I think it wise to cut my suitors down to the Elite. My father narrowed his field to six instead of ten because of extenuating circumstances, and I have done the same. The following six gentlemen have been invited to stay on in the Selection: Sir Gunner Croft, Sir Kile Woodwork, Sir Ean Cabel, Sir Hale Garner, Sir Fox Wesley, and Sir Henri Jaakoppi.”

These names were a strangely comforting thing, like I knew how proud they were of this moment and I could feel the glow of it, even from a distance.

It was almost done. They knew Ahren was gone, that my mother might die, and that the Selection would carry on. Now came the news I was terrified to deliver. Thanks to Ahren, I understood exactly what my people thought of me. What kind of response would I receive?

“With my mother in such a delicate state, my father, King Maxon Schreave, has chosen to remain by her side.” Here goes. “As such, he has named me regent until he feels fit to reclaim his title. I will make all decisions of state until further notice. It is with a heavy heart that I assume this role, but it gives me great joy to bring any peace to my parents.

“We will have more updates on all these matters as they become available. Thank you for your time, and good day.”

The cameras stopped rolling, and I moved just off the stage, sitting in one of the chairs that were usually reserved for my family. I felt queasy and would have sat there for hours trying to regain my composure if I thought I could get away with it, but there was too much to do. The first thing on the list was to check on Mom and Dad again, then off to work. At some point today I would have to meet with the Elite as well.

As I went to exit the studio, I stopped short because my path was blocked by a row of gentlemen. The first face I saw was Hale’s. His expression lit up as he held out a flower. “For you.”

I looked down the line and saw they all had flowers in their hands, some with roots still noticeably attached. All I could assume was that they had heard their names on the announcement, rushed from the Men’s Parlor to the garden, and come down here.

“You idiots,” I sighed. “Thank you.”

I took Hale’s flower and hugged him. “I know I said something every day,” he whispered, “but let me know if you need me to up it to two, okay?”

I held him a little tighter. “Thanks.”

Ean was next, and though we’d only ever touched during those staged photos of our date, I found myself unable to refrain from embracing him.

“I get the feeling you were coerced into this,” I murmured.

“I took mine from a vase in the hallway. Don’t tell the staff on me.”

I patted his back, and he did the same to me.

“She’ll be okay,” he promised. “You all will.”

Kile had pricked his finger on a thorn and held his bleeding hand awkwardly away from my clothes as we hugged, which made me laugh and was perfect.

“For smiles,” Henri said as I added his flower to my messy bouquet.

“Good, good,” I replied, and he laughed at me.

Even Erik had gotten me a flower. I smirked a bit as I took it.

“This is a dandelion,” I told him.

He shrugged. “I know. Some see a weed; some see a flower. Perspective.”

I wrapped my arms around him, and I could feel him looking at the others as I held him, seeming uncomfortable to be getting the same treatment as they had.

Gunner swallowed, not able to say much, but held me gently before I moved on.

Fox had three flowers in his hand. “I couldn’t pick.”

I smiled. “They’re all beautiful. Thanks.”

Fox’s embrace was tight, like he needed the support more than the others did. I held on to him as I looked back at my Elite.

No, this whole process made no sense, but I could see how it happened, how your heart could get swept up in the endeavor. And that was my hope now: that somehow duty and love would overlap, and I’d find myself happy in the middle of it all.





CHAPTER 2


MOM’S HANDS FELT SO SOFT, almost papery in a way. The feeling made me think of how water smoothed out the edges of a stone. I smiled, thinking she must have been a very rough stone once upon a time.

“Did you ever used to get it wrong?” I asked. “Say the wrong words, do the wrong things?”

I waited for an answer, receiving nothing but the hum of equipment and the beat of the monitor.

“Well, you and Dad used to fight, so you must have been wrong sometimes.”

I held her hand tighter, trying to warm it in mine.

“I made all the announcements. Now everyone knows about Ahren getting married and that you’re a little . . . indisposed at the moment. I cut the boys down to six. I know that’s a big cut, but Dad said it was okay and that he did that when it was his turn, so no one can get upset.” I sighed. “Regardless, I have a feeling people will still find a way to get upset with me.”

I blinked back tears, worried she’d sense how scared I was. The doctors believed that the shock of Ahren’s departure was the catalyst for her current condition, though I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d contributed to her stress daily, like drops of poison so small someone didn’t realize they’d ingested something dangerous until it had overtaken them.

“Anyway, I’m off to run my first advisory board meeting as soon as Dad gets back. He says it shouldn’t be too difficult. Honestly, I feel like General Leger had the toughest job of anyone today, trying to get Dad to go eat, because he fought so hard to stay here with you. The general was insistent, though, and Dad finally caved. I’m glad he’s here. General Leger, I mean. It’s kind of like having a backup parent.”

I held her hand a little tighter and leaned in, whispering. “Please don’t make me need a backup parent, though, okay? I still need you. The boys still need you. And Dad . . . he looks like he might fall apart if you leave. So when it’s time to wake up, you’ve gotta come back, all right?”

I waited for her mouth to twitch or her fingers to move, anything to show that she could hear me. Nothing.

Just then Dad tore through the door with General Leger on his heels. I wiped at my cheeks, hoping no one would notice.

“See,” General Leger said. “She’s stable. The doctors would come running if anything changed.”

“All the same, I prefer to be here,” Dad said firmly.

“Dad, you were hardly gone ten minutes. Did you even eat?”

“I ate. Tell her, Aspen.”

General Leger sighed. “We’ll call it eating.”

Dad shot him a look that would have been threatening to some but only made the general smile. “I’ll see if I can sneak some food in so you won’t have to leave.”

Dad nodded. “Look out for my girl.”

“Of course.” General Leger winked at me, and I stood up and followed him from the room, looking back at Mom just to check.

Still asleep.

In the hallway, he held out an arm for me. “You ready, my not-quite queen?”

I took it and smiled. “No. Let’s go.”

As we made our way to the boardroom, I nearly asked General Leger if he would take me for another lap around the floor. The day felt so overwhelming already that I wasn’t sure I could do this.

Nonsense, I told myself. You’ve sat in on these meetings dozens of times. You’ve almost always thought the same things Dad has said. Yes, this is your first time leading it, but this was always waiting for you. And no one is going to be hard on you today, for goodness’ sake; your mother just had a heart attack.

I pulled the door open with purpose, General Leger trailing behind me. I made sure to nod at the gentlemen as I passed. Sir Andrews, Sir Coddly, Mr. Rasmus, and a handful of other men I’d known for years sat arranging their pens and paper. Lady Brice looked proud as she watched me sweep around to my father’s spot, as did the general when he settled into the place beside her.

“Good morning.” I took my seat at the head of the table, gazing down at the thin folder in front of me. Thank goodness the agenda looked light today.

“How is your mother?” Lady Brice asked solemnly.

I should have written this answer on a sign so I could stop repeating it. “She’s asleep still. I’m not sure how serious her condition is at the moment, but Dad is staying by her side, and we’ll be sure to update everyone if there’s any change.”

Lady Brice smiled sadly. “I’m sure she’ll be fine. She always was a tough one.”

I tried to hide my surprise, but I didn’t realize Lady Brice knew my mother that well. In truth, I didn’t know that much about Lady Brice myself, but her tone was so sincere, I was happy to have her beside me at the moment.

I nodded. “Let’s get through this so I can tell her my first day on the job was at least slightly productive.”

There were gentle chuckles around the room at that, but my smile quickly faded as I read the first page presented to me.

“I hope this is a joke,” I said dryly.

“No, Your Highness.”

I turned my eyes to Sir Coddly.

“We feel this was a deliberate move to debilitate Illéa, and seeing as neither the king nor queen gave their consent, France has essentially stolen your brother. This marriage is treasonous, so we have no choice but to go to war.”

“Sir, I assure you, this was not treasonous. Camille is a sensible girl.” I rolled my eyes, hating to admit it. “It’s Ahren who’s the romantic one, and I feel certain he urged her into this, not the other way around.”

I balled up the declaration of war, unwilling to consider it for another moment.

“My lady, you cannot do that,” Sir Andrew insisted. “The relations between Illéa and France have been tense for years.”

“That is more on a personal level than a political one,” Lady Brice offered.

Sir Coddly waved his hand in the air. “Which makes this all much worse. Queen Daphne is brandishing more emotional suffering on the royal family under the assumption that we will not respond. This time we must. Tell her, general!”

Lady Brice shook her head in frustration as General Leger spoke. “All I will say, Your Highness, is that we can have troops in the sky and on the ground within twenty-four hours if you command it. Though I certainly wouldn’t advise you to make that command.”

Andrews huffed. “Leger, tell her the dangers she’s facing.”

He shrugged. “I see no danger here. Her brother got married.”

“If anything,” I questioned, “shouldn’t a wedding bring our two countries closer? Isn’t that why princesses were married off for years?”

“But those were planned,” Coddly stated in a tone that implied I was a little too naive for the conversation at hand.

“As was this,” I countered. “We all knew Ahren and Camille would wed one day. It simply happened sooner than expected.”

“She doesn’t get it,” he muttered to Andrews.

Sir Andrews shook his head at me. “Your Highness, this is treason.”

“Sir, this is love.”

Coddly slammed a fist on the table. “No one will take you seriously if you do not act decisively.”

There was a beat of silence after his voice stopped echoing around the room, and the entire table sat motionless.

“Fine,” I responded calmly. “You’re fired.”

Coddly laughed, looking at the other gentlemen at the table. “You can’t fire me, Your Highness.”

I tilted my head, staring at him. “I assure you, I can. There’s no one here who outranks me at the moment, and you are easily replaceable.”

Though she tried to be discreet, I saw Lady Brice purse her lips together, clearly determined not to laugh. Yes, I definitely had an ally in her.

“You need to fight!” he insisted.

“No,” I answered firmly. “A war would add unnecessary strain to an already stressful moment and would cause an upheaval between us and the country we are now bound to by marriage. We will not fight.”

Coddly lowered his chin and squinted. “Don’t you think you’re being too emotional about this?”

I stood, my chair screeching behind me as I moved. “I’m going to assume that you aren’t implying by that statement that I’m actually being too female about this. Because, yes, I am emotional.”

I strode around the opposite side of the table, my eyes trained on Coddly. “My mother is in a bed with tubes down her throat, my twin is now on a different continent, and my father is holding himself together by a thread.”

Stopping across from him, I continued. “I have two younger brothers to keep calm in the wake of all this, a country to run, and six boys downstairs waiting for me to offer one of them my hand.” Coddly swallowed, and I felt only the tiniest bit of guilt for the satisfaction it brought me. “So, yes, I am emotional right now. Anyone in my position with a soul would be. And you, sir, are an idiot. How dare you try to force my hand on something so monumental on the grounds of something so small? For all intents and purposes, I am queen, and you will not coerce me into anything.”

I walked back to the head of the table. “Officer Leger?”

“Yes, Your Highness?”

“Is there anything on this agenda that can’t wait until tomorrow?”

“No, Your Highness.”

“Good. You’re all dismissed. And I suggest you all remember who’s in charge here before we meet again.”

As soon as I finished speaking, everyone other than Lady Brice and General Leger rose and bowed—rather deeply, I noted.

“You were wonderful, Your Highness,” Lady Brice insisted once the three of us were alone.

“I was? Look at my hand.” I held it up.

“You’re trembling.”

I pulled my fingers into a fist, determined to stop shaking. “Everything I said was true, right? They can’t force me to sign a declaration of war, can they?”

“No,” General Leger assured me. “As you know, there have always been a few members of the board who have thought we should colonize in Europe. I think they saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of your limited experience, but you did everything right.”

“Dad wouldn’t want to go to war. The banner of his reign has been peace.”

“Exactly.” General Leger smiled. “He’d be proud of how you stood your ground. In fact, I think I might just go tell him.”

“Should I go, too?” I asked, suddenly desperate to hear the little monitor announcing that Mom’s heart was still there, still trying.

“You have a country to run. I’ll bring you an update as soon as I can.”

“Thank you,” I called as he exited the room.

Lady Brice crossed her arms on the table. “Feeling better?”

I shook my head. “I knew this role would be a lot of work. I’ve done my share of it and watched my dad do ten times what I did. But I was supposed to have more time to get ready. To start the job now, because my mom might die, is too much. And within five minutes of being responsible, I have to make a decision about war? I’m not prepared for this.”

“Okay, first things first. You don’t have to be perfect yet. This is temporary. Your mom will get better, your dad will come back to work, and you will go back to learning with this great experience under your belt. Think of this time as an opportunity.”

I let out a long breath. Temporary. Opportunity. Okay.

“Besides, it’s not all completely up to you. This is what your advisers are for. Granted, they weren’t much help today, but we’re here so you aren’t navigating without a map.”

I bit my lip, thinking. “Okay. So, what do I do now?”

“First, follow through and fire Coddly. It will show the others you mean what you say. I do feel somewhat bad for him, but I think your father only kept him around to play devil’s advocate and help him see all sides of an issue. Trust me, he won’t be sorely missed,” she confessed dryly. “Second, consider this time a period of hands-on training for your reign. Start surrounding yourself with people you know you can trust.”

I sighed. “I feel like they’ve all just left me.”

She shook her head. “Look closer. You probably have friends in places you never expected.”

Again, I found myself seeing her in a new light. She’d stayed in her role longer than anyone; she knew what Dad would decide in most situations; and she was, at the very least, another woman in the room.

Lady Brice stared into my eyes, forcing me to focus. “Who do you know will always be honest with you? Who will be by your side, not because you’re royal, but because you’re you?”

I smiled, absolutely positive of where I was going once I left this room.





CHAPTER 3


“ME?”

“You.”

“Are you sure?”

I grabbed Neena by the shoulders. “You always tell me the truth, even if I’m not excited to hear it. You’ve put up with the worst of me, and you’re too clever to spend your days folding my laundry.”

She beamed, blinking to quell her tears. “A lady-in-waiting . . . what does that even mean?”

“Well, it’s a mix of being a companion, which you already are, and then helping with the less glamorous side of my job, like scheduling appointments and making sure I remember to eat.”

“I think I can handle that,” she said, smiling.

“Oh, oh, oh, and”—I held up my hands, preparing her for probably the most exciting part of the job—“it means you don’t have to wear that uniform anymore. So go change.”

Neena chuckled. “I don’t know that I have anything appropriate. But I’ll make sure to get something together for tomorrow.”

“Nonsense. Just go through my closet.”

She gaped at me. “I can’t.”

“Umm, you can and you must.” I pointed to the wide doors. “Get dressed, meet me in the office, and we’ll make it through whatever comes one day at a time.”

She nodded, and, as if we’d done it a thousand times, she threw her arms around me.

“Thank you.”

“Thank you,” I insisted.

“I won’t let you down.”

I pulled back, watching her. “I know. By the way, your first job is to pick a new maid for me.”

“Not a problem.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you soon.”

I swept from the room, feeling better knowing I had people on my side. General Leger would be my line to Mom and Dad, Lady Brice would be my chief adviser, and Neena would help me shoulder the workload.

It had been less than a day, and I already understood why Mom thought I’d need a partner. And I still intended to find one. I just needed a little time to figure out how.

That afternoon I paced worriedly as I waited for Kile outside the Men’s Parlor. Of all my relationships with the Selected, ours felt the most complicated and yet the easiest place to start.

“Hey,” he said, coming to embrace me. I couldn’t help smiling thinking about how if he’d tried that a month ago, I’d have called the guards on him. “How are you doing?”

I paused. “It’s funny—you’re the only one who’s asked.” We stepped apart. “I’m okay, I think. At least I am as long as I’m busy. The second things slow down, I’m a ball of nerves. Dad’s a wreck. And it’s killing me that Ahren hasn’t come back. I thought he would for Mom, but he hasn’t even called. Shouldn’t he at least have done that?”

I swallowed, knowing I was getting too worked up.

Kile took my hand. “Okay, let’s think about this. He flew to France and got married in one day. There has to be a ton of official paperwork and other stuff to sort through. And there’s a chance he hasn’t even heard what happened.”

I nodded. “You’re right. And I know he cares. He left me a letter, and it was too honest for me to question that.”

“See, there you go. And last night your dad looked like he was two seconds away from needing to be checked into the hospital wing himself. Being with your mom and monitoring her probably gives him a feeling of control when there’s absolutely none. She’s made it through the worst, and she’s always been a fighter. Remember when that one ambassador came?”

I smirked. “You mean the one from the Paraguay-Argentina Union?”

“Yes!” he exclaimed. “I can still picture it perfectly. He was so rude to everyone, falling down drunk by noon two days in a row, and your mom finally grabbed him by the ear and dragged him out the front door.”

I shook my head. “I do. I also remember the endless phone calls afterward trying to smooth things over with their president.”

Kile brushed that detail away. “Forget that. Just remember, your mother doesn’t let things happen to her. When something tries to ruin her life, she drags it into the street.”

I smiled. “True.”

We stood there, quiet for a moment, and it was pleasant and still. I’d never been so grateful. “I’m busy the rest of today, but maybe we could spend some time together tomorrow night?”

He nodded. “Of course.”

“There’s a lot to talk about.”

His eyebrows knit together. “Like what?”

We both turned at the same time, noting the figure in our periphery.

“Excuse me, Your Highness,” the guard said with a bow, “but you have a visitor.”

“A visitor?”

He nodded, giving me no information as to who it might be.

I sighed. “Fine. I’ll get in touch later, okay?”

Kile gave my hand a quick squeeze. “Sure. Let me know if you need anything.”

I smiled as I left him, knowing that he meant that. In the back of my mind, I felt certain all the young men in that room would rush to my side if I needed them to, and that was a small silver lining on an otherwise dreary day.

I rounded the stairs, trying to guess at who was here. If it had been family, they’d have been brought to a room; and if it was a governor or some other official visitor, they’d have sent up a card. Who was so important that they couldn’t even be announced?

As I descended to the first floor, the answer to my question stood there, his bright smile making my breath catch.

Marid Illéa hadn’t set foot in the palace in years. The last time I’d laid eyes on him, he was a gangly preteen who hadn’t quite mastered conventional conversation. But his round cheeks had turned into a jaw line sharp enough to cut, and his stringy limbs had filled out, hitting the seams of his suit with perfect precision. He held my gaze as I approached, and even though his hands were full with an overflowing basket, he bowed and smiled as if he was completely unencumbered.

“Your Highness,” he said. “I’m sorry to come unannounced, but as soon as we heard about your mother, we felt we had to do something. So . . .”

He held out the basket toward me. It was full of gifts. Flowers, thin books, jars of soup with ribbons around the lids, and even a few bakery items that looked so good it was hard not to take one for myself.

“Marid,” I said, a greeting, a question, and an admonition all at once. “This is above and beyond, all things considered.”

He shrugged. “Disagreements don’t mean a loss of compassion. Our queen is sick, and this was the least we could do.”

I smiled, moved by his sudden appearance. I motioned to a guard.

“Take this to the hospital wing, please.”

He took the gift basket, and I turned my focus back to Marid.

“Your parents didn’t want to come?”

He shoved his hands into his pockets and grimaced. “They were afraid the visit would seem more political than personal.”

I nodded. “Understandable. But please tell them not to worry about that in the future. They’re still welcome here.”

Marid sighed. “They didn’t think so, not after their . . . exit.”

I pressed my lips together, remembering it all so clearly.

August Illéa and my father had worked together closely after my grandparents died, trying to dissolve the castes as quickly as they could. When August complained that change wasn’t happening fast enough, Dad pulled rank and told him to respect his plan. When Dad couldn’t quite erase the stigma of being in the lower castes, August said he needed to get his “spoiled ass” out of the palace and into the streets. Dad had always been a patient man, and, from what I remembered of August, he was always on edge. In the end there was a big fight, and August and Georgia packed their things, including their bashful son, and left in a hurricane of hurt and anger.

I’d heard Marid’s voice once or twice on the radio since then, giving political commentary or business advice, but it was strange now, having that voice sync up to the movements of his lips and seeing him smile so easily when I mostly remembered him slouched over himself when he was younger.

“Honestly, I don’t understand why our fathers haven’t spoken recently. You’ve certainly seen the issues with the post-caste discrimination we’ve been trying to quell. I thought one of them might break and seek out the other. It’s past being a point of pride anymore.”

Marid extended an arm. “Perhaps we could walk and talk?”

I linked my arm through his, and we began moving down the hall.

“How is it going so far?”

I shrugged. “As best it can under the circumstances.”

“I’d like to tell you to look on the bright side, but it might be hard to find one.”

“So far, all I can think of is that I’m helping my parents.”

“True. And who knows? You might be able to make some serious changes while you’re in office. Like all the post-caste issues. Our parents couldn’t get it right, but maybe you could.”

That thought comforted me less than he intended. I didn’t hope to be in control long enough to make any changes at all.

“I’m not quite sure I’m capable of that.”

“Well, Your Highness—”

“Please, Marid. It’s Eadlyn. You’ve known me since before I was born.”

He smirked. “Very true. Still, you are regent right now, and it feels wrong not to address you properly.”

“And what should I call you?”

“Nothing but a loyal subject. I’d like to offer any help I can in this tense time. And I know the dissolution of the castes wasn’t as clean as you all hoped, not even in the beginning. I’ve spent years lending my ear to the public. I think I’ve heard them very clearly, and if my commentary would be useful, please let me know.”

I raised my eyebrows as I considered his words. I knew a lot more about the lives of commoners these days thanks to the Selected, but an expert on public opinion might be a perfect tool to have in my arsenal. And even if I didn’t have great ambitions for my short time on the throne, something like this might show my people I cared, and that was critical. Especially considering what Ahren had said in his letter.

It hit me like a punch every time I remembered his words, but I knew he wouldn’t have told me that the people despised me if he hadn’t thought it would serve some good. Even though he left, I trusted that.

“Thank you, Marid. If I could do anything to ease the stress that this situation has brought to my father, it would be a huge blessing. When he’s ready to come back to work, I’d like the country to be the calmest he’s seen it in years. I’ll be in touch.”

He pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to me. “That’s my personal number. Call anytime.”

I smiled. “Will your parents be upset that you’re helping me? Isn’t this fraternizing with the enemy?”

“No, no,” he said, his tone light. “Our parents had the same goal. They simply had different methods of reaching it. And now, with your mother unwell, you shouldn’t have to worry so much about things that are fixable, and the country’s morale certainly is. Now more than ever, I think our parents will approve of us working together.”

“Let’s hope,” I said. “Far too many things have been breaking lately. Some mending would do me good.”





CHAPTER 4


I SLIPPED INTO THE BATH, noting there was no lavender, no bubbles, no anything to sweeten the water. Eloise was quiet and fast, but she was no Neena. I sighed. It didn’t matter, I supposed, since this was little more than a small space where at last I could stop pretending I knew what I was doing. I curled my knees to my chest, finally free to weep.

What was I going to do? Ahren wasn’t here to guide me anymore, and I worried I’d make mistake after mistake without him. And why hadn’t he called yet? Why wasn’t he on the first flight home?

What would I do if they took the tubes out of Mom’s throat and she couldn’t breathe on her own? I suddenly realized that even though I’d never thought of marriage and children in a specific and personal way, I’d always envisioned her dancing at my wedding and cooing over my firstborn. What if she wasn’t there to do that?

How was I supposed to step into Dad’s shoes? Today had worn me down to the bone. I couldn’t imagine doing this all day every day for the next few weeks, let alone the years I’d have to do it when I truly inherited the throne.

And how was I going to choose a husband? Who was the best choice? Who would the public approve of the most? Was that even a fair question to ask? Or the right one?

I wiped my eyes with the heel of my hand like a child and wished I could go back to being blissfully unaware of how much bad could pile up in a single day.

I had power and no idea how to use it. I was a ruler who didn’t know how to lead. I was a twin who was on her own. I was a daughter with missing parents. I had a half dozen suitors and wasn’t sure how to be in love.

The tension constricting around my heart would be enough to overwhelm anyone. I rubbed at the ache in my chest, wondering if that was how it all started for Mom. I sat up, sloshing the water, pushing the thought from my head.

You’re fine. She’s fine. You just have to keep going.

I got dressed and was almost ready to turn in for the night when I heard a timid knock at the door.

“Eady?” someone called.

“Osten?” He poked his head in, with Kaden right behind him, and I rushed over to them. “Are you two all right?”

“We’re okay,” Kaden assured me. “And we’re not scared or anything.”

“Not at all,” Osten added.

“But we haven’t heard any news about Mom, and we thought maybe you would know something.”

I smacked myself in the head. “I’m sorry. I should have told you what was going on.” I cursed myself, thinking of how I’d just spent twenty minutes in a bath instead of taking the time to find my brothers.

“She’s recovering.” I tried to choose my words carefully. “She’s being kept asleep so she can heal. You know Mom. If she was awake, she’d want to chase after us to make sure we were doing everything we were supposed to. This way she’ll get enough rest so that she’ll be healthy when she wakes up.”

“Oh.” Osten’s shoulders lifted, and I could see that, as much as all this was getting to me, it was even harder on them.

“What about Ahren?” Kaden picked at a hangnail, a thing I’d never seen him do.

“No word yet, but I’m sure it’s just because he’s getting settled in. After all, he’s a married man.”

Kaden’s expression showed he wasn’t satisfied with that answer. “Do you think he’ll come back?”

I took a deep breath. “Let’s not worry about that tonight. I’m sure he’ll call soon, and he’ll be able to tell us everything. For now, all you two need to know is, your brother is happy, your mom is going to be okay, and I have everything under control. All right?”

They smiled. “All right.”

Osten’s expression went from perfectly fine to completely distraught in seconds, and his lip began to tremble. “It’s my fault, isn’t it?”

“What’s your fault?” I got on one knee in front of him.

“Mom. It’s my fault. She always told me to calm down a little more, and then she’d run her hand through her hair like she was worn out. It’s my fault. I made her too tired.”

“At least you didn’t bother her over school so much,” Kaden said quietly. “I was always bugging her for books and better tutors, and making her answer questions when she had other stuff to do. I took up all her time.”

So we were all blaming ourselves. Perfect.

“Osten, don’t think that. Ever,” I insisted, pulling him in for a hug. “Mom is a queen. If anything, you were the least stressful part of her life. Yes, it’s hard to be a mother, but she always had us to run to if she needed a laugh. And who’s easily the funniest of the four of us?”

“Me.” His voice was weak, but he did smile a little as he wiped his nose.

“Exactly. And Kaden, do you think Mom would rather you ask her a dozen questions or have you wander through life with the wrong answers?”

He fidgeted with his fingers some more as he thought it over. “She’d want me to come to her.”

“So there you go. Let’s be honest—we’re a pretty intense bunch, yeah?” Osten laughed, and Kaden’s expression brightened. “But whatever we put her through, it was welcome. She’d rather have forced me to learn my penmanship than never have had a daughter. She’d rather have been your living encyclopedia than not connect with us. She’d rather have begged you to sit still than have had only three children. None of this is because of us,” I promised.

I waited for them to turn and run, to get past showing this tiny chink in their armor. But they didn’t budge. I sighed to myself, knowing what they were hoping for and realizing I was prepared to lose some much-needed sleep on their behalf.

“Do you want to stay here tonight?”

Osten bolted over to my bed. “Yeah!”

I shook my head. What was I going to do with these boys? I crawled into bed, and Kaden pressed himself against my back as Osten rested his head on the pillow across from me. I realized that the bathroom light was still on, but I let it go. We needed a little light at the moment.

“It’s not the same without Ahren,” Kaden said quietly.

Osten pulled his arms in close, bundling himself up. “Yeah. It doesn’t feel right.”

“I know. But don’t worry. We’ll find a new normal. You’ll see.” Somehow, for them, I would make that happen.





CHAPTER 5


“GOOD MORNING, YOUR HIGHNESS.”

“Good morning,” I replied to the butler. “Strong coffee, please, and whatever the chef has prepared for the Elite is fine.”

“Of course.”

He returned with blueberry pancakes and sausage links, and a hard-boiled egg sliced in half. I picked at my meal while I skimmed the papers. There was news of bad weather in one area and some speculation over who I might marry somewhere else, but in general, it looked like the entire nation had lost the will to do much more than worry about Mom. I was grateful. I had been positive the country would revolt when I was named regent. Part of me was still worried that if I gave the slightest indication that I might fail, their hatred would slam into me without mercy.

“Good day today!” someone called. Not someone. I would have recognized Henri’s greeting even in the grave.

I lifted my head to smile and wave at him and Erik. I kind of loved that Henri was impervious to the sadness hanging over the palace. And Erik seemed to be the hand that guided his charge back down to Earth, calm and kind, regardless of what happened around him.

Osten and Kaden walked in with Kile, their heads together as they moved. Kile was trying to make them smile—I could read it in his body language—and, for their part, they gave him small, tight-lipped grins. Ean entered with Hale and Fox, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him finally interacting with some of the others. Gunner trailed behind them as if forgotten. I’d kept him in the Elite because I couldn’t shake how his poem had made me laugh. But beyond that, I hardly knew him. I was going to have to try harder with him, with all of them.

My brothers sat down together at their normal places, more subdued than usual. Seeing our family table so empty sent a pang of sadness through my whole body. That type of sorrow, the quiet, lonely kind, can take over so quickly that a person could miss it. I could see it trying to creep into my brothers now, in the way they held their heads a little lower, probably not even aware they were doing it.

“Osten?” He peeked over at me, and I could feel the Elite’s eyes on us. “Do you remember the time Mom made us pancakes?”

Kaden started laughing, turning to the others to tell the story. “Mom used to cook a lot growing up, and every once in a while she’d make food for us, just for fun. The last time she tried was maybe four years ago.”

I smirked. “She knew she was out of practice, but she wanted to make us blueberry pancakes. The thing was, she wanted to arrange the berries in them so they made stars and flowers and faces. But she left the batter on the griddle so long to put the berries in that when she flipped the pancakes, they were all burned.”

Osten laughed. “I do remember! I remember the crunchy pancakes!”

I heard chuckles from the Elite.

“You were so bad, though, you didn’t even try one!” Kaden accused.

I nodded shamefully. “It was self-preservation.”

“They were pretty good, actually. Crispy, but good.” Osten took a bite of one of the pancakes in front of him. “They make these ones seem weak.”

I heard one loud chuckle and saw that Fox was shaking his head. “My dad’s an awful cook, too,” he said, projecting his voice. “We grill a lot, and he’s always saying it’s ‘charred.’” Fox lifted his fingers to quote the word.

“What he actually means is burned, yeah?” Gunner asked.

“Yep.”

“My father,” Erik said timidly. I was surprised he wanted to join in the conversation, and I found myself leaning my head on my elbow, drawn in. “He and my mother have this one dish they make for each other, and it requires frying. The last time he made it, he left the room while it was cooking, and the smoke was so bad, they had to move in with me for two days while they aired the house out.”

“Do you have a spare room?” Kile asked.

Erik shook his head. “No. So my living room became my bedroom, which was a treat when my mom woke up at six and decided to start cleaning.”

Gunner laughed in agreement. “Why do parents always do that? And always on the one day you can sleep in?”

I squinted. “Can’t you just ask them not to?”

Fox laughed wildly. “Maybe you can, Your Highness.”

I was very aware that I was being teased, but I knew it was all in good fun.

Hale spoke up. “Speaking of which, is anyone else worried about being incredibly spoiled if you lose and have to go home after living like this?” He gestured to the table and room.

“Not me,” Kile answered flatly, and the boys erupted.

The room dissolved into stories and comments, the tail end of every sentence sparking a new memory from someone else. The conversation grew so loud, the laughter so boisterous, that no one noticed the lone maid walking down the center of the floor. She curtsied and bent her face close to mine.

“Your mother is awake.”

A flurry of emotions washed over me, a dozen feelings all practically unidentifiable except for the common sensation of joy.

“Thank you!” I rushed from the room, too afraid to wait for Kaden and Osten.

My feet flew down the halls, and I burst into the hospital wing, only pausing to brace myself once I reached her door. As I slowly opened it, I was aware of the heart monitor, still recording every beat, and how the pace ticked up a notch when our eyes met.

“Mom?” I whispered.

Dad looked over his shoulder, smiling though his eyes were red and brimming with tears.

“Eadlyn,” Mom whispered, holding out her hand.

I went to her, the tears in my eyes blurring my vision so much I could hardly make her out.

“Hey, Mom. How are you?” I wrapped my fingers around hers, trying not to grip too tightly.

“It hurts a little.” Which meant it must hurt a lot.

“Well, you just take your time feeling better, okay? No rush.”

“How are you?”

I stood up taller, hoping to convince her. “I’ve got everything under control, and Kaden and Osten are doing great—I’m sure they’re right behind me. And I have a date tonight.”

“Good job, Eady.” Dad grinned and turned his head back to Mom. “See, darling? I’m not even needed out there. I can stay here with you.”

“Ahren?” Mom asked, taking a deep breath afterward.

I was crestfallen. As I opened my mouth to tell her we hadn’t heard from him, Dad spoke up. “He called this morning.”

I stood there, stunned. “Oh?”

“He’s hoping to come home soon, but he said there were some complications, though he was a little too flustered to explain what they were. He told me to tell you he loves you.” I’d hoped those words were for me, but Dad was looking directly at Mom when he spoke.

“I want my son,” Mom said, her voice cracking.

“I know, darling. Soon.” Dad rubbed Mom’s hand.

“Mama?” Osten came into the room, his face showing that he was barely containing his excitement. Kaden was sniffling, holding himself upright as if he thought himself above crying.

“Hi there.” Mom managed to pull up a big smile for them, and when Osten bent down and hugged her, she made a pained face but didn’t let out a sound.

“We’ve been very good,” he promised.

Mom smiled. “Well, stop that immediately.”

We laughed.

“Hi, Mom.” Kaden kissed her cheek, looking afraid to touch her just yet.

She raised her hand to cup his face. She seemed to grow stronger each second simply from seeing us. I wondered what she’d have done if Ahren was here. Jump out of the bed?

“I wanted you to know that I’m okay.” Her chest rose and fell aggressively, but her smile didn’t falter. “I think I can go back upstairs tomorrow.”

Dad nodded quickly. “Yes, if we get through today without incident, your mother can recuperate in her room.”

“That’s really good.” Kaden’s voice lifted at this news. “So you’re halfway back to normal.”

I didn’t want to kill the hope in his eyes, or Osten’s. Kaden was typically so clever, seeing around every pretense, but there was no mistaking how hard he was willing this to be true.

“Exactly,” Mom said.

“Okay, everyone,” Dad said. “Now that you’ve seen Mom, I want you to get back to your studies. We still have a country to run.”

“Eadlyn gave us the day off,” Osten protested.

I smiled guiltily. When we’d gotten out of bed this morning, that was my only order. I needed them to play.

Mom laughed, a weak but beautiful sound. “Such a generous queen.”

“Not queen yet,” I protested, thankful that the true queen still lived and spoke and smiled.

“All the same,” Dad said, “your mother needs rest. I’ll make sure you see her again before bedtime.”

That mollified the boys, and they left, waving to Mom.

I kissed her head. “I love you.”

“My girl.” Her weak fingers touched my hair. “I love you.”

Those words were the first bookend of my day, and I could get through the rest of it knowing Kile Woodwork would be the other.

As I left the hospital wing, I came across another Woodwork.

“Miss Marlee?” I asked.

She looked up from the bench she was sitting on, wringing a handkerchief in her hands, her face blotchy from crying.

“Are you okay?”

She smiled. “More than okay. I was so afraid she might not come back, and . . . I honestly don’t know what I’d do without her. Being here, with your mom, has been my whole life.”

I sat down, hugging my mother’s dearest friend, and she held on to me as if I was her own daughter. Part of me felt sad, because I knew she wasn’t being dramatic when she said that. One look at her scarred palms told the long story of how she’d gone from worthy competitor to wicked traitor to faithful lady. When they talked about the past, some details were glossed over, and I never pushed it because it wasn’t my place. But I worried that sometimes Miss Marlee felt like my parents’ pardon was still contingent on her and her husband paying it back in devotion.

“They said that you and your brothers were visiting, and I want to see her, but I didn’t want to cut off your time.”

“Did you see the boys leave? We’re all done now. You should hurry in before she falls back asleep. I know she’d want to see you.”

She wiped her cheeks again. “How do I look?”

I laughed. “Positively wretched.” I squeezed her. “Go on in there. And can you try to check on them for me from time to time? I know I won’t be able to come down here as often as I’d like.”

“Don’t you worry. I’ll send updates as often as I can.”

“Thank you, Miss Marlee.”

After one last hug, she made her way into the hospital wing. I sighed, trying to let myself enjoy this brief moment of calm. At least for now, everything was on its way to being better.





CHAPTER 6


KILE HELD HIS HAND AGAINST the small of my back, walking me through the garden. The moon was low and full, casting shadows even in the night.

“You were spectacular this morning,” he said, shaking his head. “We’ve all been worried about your mom, and it’s so strange not having Ahren around. And Kaden? I’ve never seen him look so . . . bewildered.”

“It’s awful. He’s the stable one.”

“Don’t worry too much. It makes sense that he’d be a little shaken right now.”

I inched even closer to Kile. “I know. It’s just hard to see it happen to someone who never gets shaken.”

“Which is why breakfast was so great. I thought we were going to suffer through a painful meal together, unable to talk about what was happening, or even talk at all. Then you just opened it up. It was remarkable. Don’t forget you have that skill.” He shook his finger at me.

“What skill? Distraction?” I laughed.

“No.” He wrestled with the words. “More like the means to alleviate. I mean, you’ve done it before. At parties or on Reports. You change momentum. Not everyone can do that.”

We walked to the edge of the garden, where the land opened up to a wide, flat space before the forest started.

“Thanks. That means a lot. I’ve been worried.”

“Nothing wrong with that.”

“It’s bigger than Mom though.” I stopped and put my hands on my hips, wondering how much I should tell him. “Ahren left me a letter. Did you know that the people are displeased with the monarchy? Specifically, me? And now I’m basically in charge, and honestly, I’m not sure if they’ll stand for it. I already had food thrown at me once. I’ve read so many awful articles about myself. . . . What if they come after me?”

“What if they do?” he joked. “It’s not like there aren’t other options. We could become a dictatorship—that’d put people in line. There’s a federal republic, a constitutional monarchy . . . oh, maybe a theocracy! We could give everything over to the church.”

“Kile, I’m serious! What if they depose me?”

He cradled my face in his hands. “Eadlyn, that’s not going to happen.”

“But it has before! That’s how my grandparents died. People came into their home and killed them. And everyone worshipped my grandmother!” I could feel the tears rising. Ugh, I’d been such a weepy mess the last couple of days! I wiped them away, fumbling over his fingers in the process.

“Listen to me. That was a pocket of radicals. They’re gone now, and the people out there are too busy trying to live their lives to spend time messing with yours.”

“I can’t bank on that,” I whispered. “There were things I was always sure of, and almost all of that has fallen apart in the last few weeks.”

“Do you . . .” He paused as he gazed into my eyes. “Do you need to not think right now?”

I swallowed, processing the offer. Here with just the two of us in the dark, quiet evening, it felt so similar to the night of our first kiss. Only this time there’d be no one watching, no one to print it in a newspaper. Our parents were nowhere in sight, and the guards weren’t trailing our steps. For me it meant that, for just one moment, there was nothing to keep me from having what I wanted.

“I’d do anything you asked me to, Eadlyn,” he whispered.

I shook my head. “But I can’t ask.”

He squinted. “Why not? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, you idiot,” I said, pulling away. “Apparently . . .” I huffed. “It seems you did something right. I can’t just kiss you like it’s nothing, because it turns out that you’re not nothing.”

I stared at the ground, growing increasingly irritated.

“This is all your fault, by the way!” I accused, glaring at him as I paced. “I was fine not liking you. I was fine not liking anyone.” I covered my face. “And now I’m in the middle of this thing and so lost I can hardly think straight. But I know that you matter, and I don’t know what to do about it.” When I gathered enough courage to look up at him again, he was smirking. “For goodness’ sake, don’t look so smug.”

“Sorry,” he said, still smiling.

“Do you know how scary it is for me to say all that?”

He bridged the gap between us. “Probably as scary as it is for me to hear it.”

“I’m serious, Kile.”

“So am I! First of all, it’s strange to think about what it all means. Because you come with a title and a throne and a whole life planned out for you. That’s insane for me to try and take in. And second of all, more than anyone here, I know that you hold your cards close to your chest. A confession like that must be practically painful for you.”

I nodded. “Not that I’m mad that I like you . . . except that I kind of am.”

He laughed. “It is rather infuriating.”

“But I need to know, now, before we go any further, do you feel anything like that for me? Even the smallest glimmer of something? Because if not, I have to make plans.”

“And if I do?”

I lifted my arms and let them flop down to my sides again. “Then I still have to make plans, but they’ll be different.”

He sighed heavily. “Turns out you matter to me, too. And I wouldn’t have thought about it except for my designs lately.”

“Uh . . . how romantic?”

He laughed. “No, really, it kind of is. Usually I get excited about designing skyscrapers and homeless shelters, things that someone might remember, or might help people. But the other day I found myself designing you a summerhouse, a miniature palace, maybe something with a vineyard. This morning I got an idea for a beach house.”

I gasped. “I’ve always wanted a beach house!”

“Not that we’d ever get to use it with you running the world and all.”

“It’s a sweet thought all the same.”

He shrugged. “It just seems like everything I want to make lately is something for you.”

“That means a lot. I know how important your work is to you.”

“It’s not really my work. Something that I care about is all.”

“Okay, then. How about for now we just add this to that pile? This is something we care about, and we both know it, and we’ll watch it and see what happens.”

“That’s fair. I don’t want to discourage you at all, but it feels too soon to call this love.”

“Absolutely!” I agreed. “It’s too soon, and that’s too big.”

“Too busy.”

“Too scary.”

He laughed. “On par with being dethroned?”

“At least!”

“Wow. Okay.” He continued to smile, probably considering the unlikelihood of us falling for each other himself. “So, what now?”

“I continue the Selection, I think. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I have to keep going. I have to be certain.”

He nodded. “I wouldn’t want you if you weren’t.”

“Thank you, sir.”

We stood there, the sound of the wind in the grass the only noise.

He cleared his throat. “I think we need food.”

“As long as I don’t have to cook it.”

He threw his arm around my shoulder as we turned back to the palace. It felt like a very boyfriendish thing to do. “But we did so great last time.”

“All I learned about was butter.”

“Then you know everything.”

In the morning I headed straight down to the hospital wing, desperate to see Mom’s face. Even if she was asleep, I just needed to be reminded she was alive and healing. But when I cracked open the door this time, she was sitting up, wide awake . . . and Dad was asleep. Smiling, she held up a finger to her lips. With her other hand she traced gentle lines through his hair as he lay spilled out of his chair and onto her bed, one arm beneath his head and the other across her lap.

I quietly walked to the other side of the bed to kiss her cheek.

“I keep waking up in the night,” she whispered, giving me a little squeeze. “All these tubes and things are bothering me. And every time, he’s awake, watching me. It does me good to see him sleep.”

“Me, too. He’s been looking a little rough.”

She smiled. “Eh. I’ve seen him worse. He’ll make it through this, too.”

“Have the doctors checked on you yet?”

She shook her head. “I asked them to come again once he’s rested a little. I’ll get back to my room soon enough.”

Of course. Of course the woman who just had a heart attack could spare getting herself to a more comfortable place so her husband could take a nap. Seriously, even if I did find someone, could it ever compare to them?

“How are you doing? Is everyone being helpful?” Mom continued to run her hand through Dad’s hair.

“I fired Coddly. I don’t think I told you yesterday.”

She stilled, staring intently. “What? Why?”

“Oh, no big deal. He just wanted to go to war.”

She covered her mouth, trying not to laugh at how cavalierly I discussed invasion. A second later she stopped smiling at all and moved both of her hands to her chest.

“Mom?” I asked too loudly. Dad’s head instantly shot up.

“Darling? What’s wrong?”

Mom shook her head. “It’s just the stitches. I’m fine.”

Dad settled back into his seat but sat up, done with sleep for the moment. Mom tried to start up the conversation again, doing anything to take the focus off herself.

“How about the Selection? How are things going there?”

I paused. “Umm, okay, I think. I haven’t had a lot of time to spend with the boys, but I’m going to work on that. Especially since there’s a Report coming up.”

“You know, honey, no one would fault you for calling it off. You’ve been through a lot this last week, and you’re acting as regent. I’m not sure you should be trying to balance all this.”

“They are very nice boys,” Dad offered, “but if it’s taking too much of your focus . . .”

I sighed. “I think we need to stop dancing around the fact that I am not the most beloved member of this family. At least not to the general public. You say no one would fault me, but I feel very confident they would.” Mom and Dad shared a look, seeming to want to refute this but not wanting to lie at the same time. “If I’m going to be queen one day, I need to win the people over.”

“And you think finding a husband is the way to accomplish that?” Mom asked suspiciously.

“Yes. It’s all about their perception of me. They think I’m too cold. The most absolute way to refute that would be to get married. They think I’m too masculine. The most absolute way to refute that is to be a bride.”

“I don’t know. I’m still very hesitant about you continuing.”

“Need I remind you that this Selection was your idea?”

She sighed.

“Listen to your daughter,” Dad said. “Very smart girl. Gets it from me.”

“Don’t you want some more sleep?” she asked flatly.

“No, I’m feeling very refreshed,” he said. I wasn’t sure if it was because he wanted to continue the conversation or if he felt he needed to keep his attention on Mom. Either way, he was clearly lying.

“Dad, you look like death punched you in the face.”

“You must get that from me, too.”

“Dad!”

He laughed, and Mom did, too, her hand going back to put pressure on her chest.

“Look! Your terrible jokes are now life threatening. You have to stop them.”

He shared a smile with Mom. “Go do what you need to do, Eadlyn. We will support you in whatever way we can.”

“Thank you. Both of you, please get some rest.”

“Ugh, she’s so bossy,” Mom lamented.

Dad nodded. “I know. Who does she think she is?”

I looked back at them one last time. Dad gave me a wink. No matter who was against me today, at least I had them.

I left them and strode upstairs to the office, shocked to find a beautiful bouquet of flowers on my desk.

“Someone thinks you’re doing a good job, huh?” Neena remarked.

“Or they think I’ll die from the stress and wanted to beat everyone to the punch,” I joked, not sure I wanted to admit how happily surprised I was.

“Lighten up. You’ve been doing great.” But Neena’s eyes weren’t even on me. They had zoomed in on the card.

I tucked it close to my chest as she whined, and lifted the note just enough so I could read it.

You looked a little down when we parted the other day. Wanted today to start on a happier note. I’m here for you.—Marid

I smiled and passed it to Neena, who sighed before turning back to look at the huge bouquet.

“Who are those from?” General Leger asked, coming in the door.

“Marid Illéa,” I replied.

“I heard he stopped by. Was he just bringing gifts or did he need something?” the general asked, skepticism painting his tone.

“Oddly enough, he was making sure I didn’t need something. He offered to give me a helping hand with the public. He knows a lot more about people living their lives in the wake of the castes than I do.”

General Leger joined me beside the table and stared at the extravagant arrangement. “I don’t know. Things didn’t exactly end well between your family and his.”

“I remember. Vividly. But it might be a good thing to learn a little now for when my time comes.”

The general smiled at me, his face softening. “It’s already here, Your Highness. Be careful who you trust, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

Neena was still acting swoony. “Someone needs to tell Mark to step up. I just got a huge promotion. Where are my flowers?”

“Maybe he’s planning to deliver them in person. Much more romantic,” I said.

“Pssh! The way that boy works?” she said skeptically. “If everyone in the palace died and I somehow became queen, he probably still couldn’t get time off. He’s always so busy.”

Though she was trying to joke, I could sense her sadness. “But he loves it, right?”

“Oh, yes, he likes his research. It’s just hard that he’s so busy, and that he’s far away.”

I didn’t know what else to say on the subject, so I turned the conversation back to my gift. “They’re a bit much, though, don’t you think?”

“I think they’re perfect.”

I shook my head. “Either way, these should probably be moved somewhere else.”

“Don’t you want to look at them?” Neena questioned even as she went to grab the vase.

“No. I need the desk space.”

She shrugged and carefully lifted the arrangement to take it into the parlor. I sat down at the desk, trying to concentrate. I had to focus if I was going to win my people over. And that was what I had to do—Ahren had said so.

“Wait!” My voice was a little louder than I intended, and Neena started. “Put them back where they were.”

She made a face at me but brought them back all the same. “What made you change your mind?”

I looked up at the bouquet and ran my fingers across a few of the low-hanging petals. “I just remembered I could lead and still like flowers.”





CHAPTER 7


BY THE TIME DINNER ROLLED around, I was very concerned that I might fall asleep on my plate. There was a chance no one would mind if I skipped it. Meals had generally been quiet unless I worked to make them otherwise. But when I came downstairs and saw Grandma Singer flinging her bag at a butler, I knew tonight was going to be anything but dull.

“Don’t you tell me I can’t come at such an hour!” She shook her wrinkled fist, and I bit my lips to hold in the laughter.

“I wasn’t, ma’am,” the guard replied, his voice anxious. “I just said it was getting late in the day.”

“The queen will want to see me!”

Grandma Singer was a fearsome creature. If we ever did have a war under my rule, my plan was to send her to the front lines. She’d come home holding the enemy by his ear within a week.

I walked into the foyer. “Grandma.”

She instantly turned from the guard, her face melting into the sweetest expression. “Oh, there’s my precious girl. The TV doesn’t do you justice—you’re so lovely!”

I bent so she could kiss me on both cheeks. “Thanks . . . I think.”

“Where is your mother? I’ve been wanting to come over, but May insisted I stay out of the way.”

“She’s doing much better now. I can take you to her, but wouldn’t you like to eat first and recover from your trip?” I gestured toward the dining hall.

Grandma had lived in the palace when I was younger, but after years of Mom trying to take care of her, she finally up and left. Her “long journey” was really only an hour across town, but it might as well be from the other side of Illéa for how she behaved about it.

“Now, that would be wonderful,” she said, coming beside me. “See, that’s how you treat your elders. There’s some respect.” Her eyes darted back to the poor guard, who stood there stupefied, with her bag in his hands.

“Thank you, Officer Farrow. Please take that to the guest suite on the third floor overlooking the gardens.”

He bowed and left as we made our way into the room. A few of the boys were already waiting, and their eyebrows raised at the sight of the queen mother. Fox strode up immediately to introduce himself.

“Ms. Singer, such a pleasure to meet you,” he said, extending his hand.

“Now, he’s a cute one, Eady. Look at this face.” Grandma grabbed his chin, and he laughed through her grip.

“Yes, Grandma, I know. Part of why he’s still here.” I mouthed an apology, but Fox shook his head, positively beaming over her approval.

Gunner, Hale, and Henri all came over to meet her, and I took the chance to speak quietly to Erik.

“Are you busy tomorrow?”

He squinted. “I don’t think so. Why?”

“Just planning a little something with Henri.”

“Oh,” he said, shaking his head as if that should have been obvious. “No, we’ll both be free.”

“Okay. Don’t tell,” I insisted.

“Of course not.”

“What?” Grandma shouted. “Say that again?”

Erik hopped over, bowing.

“So sorry, ma’am. Sir Henri was born in Swendway and only speaks Finnish. I’m his translator. He says he’s very pleased to meet you.”

“Oh, that’s right, that’s right.” Grandma took Henri’s hand. “IT’S NICE TO MEET YOU, TOO!”

I moved her toward the head table. “He’s not deaf, Grandma.”

“Well,” she said, as if that was enough of an explanation.

“Have you talked to Uncle Gerad?”

“Gerad wants to be here, but he’s working on a time-sensitive project. You know I never understand a word he says.” Grandma waved her arm in the air as if she was slapping away the elaborate words he used. “I heard from Kota, too. He’s not sure if he should stop by or not. Your mother and him, they’ve tried over the years, but they just can’t seem to be civil. He’s gotten better, though. I think it’s that wife of his.”

I ushered her around the table, and she took my seat. Even though it wasn’t permanent, taking Dad’s empty place next to her felt strange. So much had been entrusted to me, yet I felt like I’d stolen something of his.

“Aunt Leah does sound like a rather calming person,” I agreed. “I guess those things matter, balancing each other out.”

The butlers rushed some soup in front of Grandma, knowing how short her patience was. I smiled as she dug in.

“Worked for your grandpa and me. Your parents, too.”

Ignoring my own bowl, I rested my chin on my hand. “What was Grandpa like?”

“Good. Very good. He always wanted to do what was right. He was slower to get upset than I was and didn’t let things get him down. I wish you could have known him.”

“Me, too.”

I let her eat and found my eyes wandering around the room. Kile was my opposite in that he was humble where I was proud. Henri was my opposite in that he saw everything as a joy where I focused on the challenge. Ean, Fox, Gunner . . . there was an element in each of them that would fall on the other side of my spectrum.

“Is the French girl like that for Ahren?” Grandma asked with no attempt to hide her disdain.

I considered this. “No, actually. It’s like they’re two halves of the same heart in different bodies.” My eyes welled. I was so tired, and I missed him so much. “I can’t begin to tell you how much he loves her.”

She grumbled. “Enough to leave.”

I exhaled slowly. “Exactly, Grandma. It hurt him so much to be apart from her that he would endure the pain of leaving his family, his home, and his country, not even knowing how that would all be received, just to be with her.”

She recognized the sadness in my voice and reached out her hand to mine.

“You all right, honey?”

I pulled myself together. “Of course. A little tired is all. I should go rest.” Just then Kaden and Osten came running in, giving me a perfect escape. “The boys will take you to Mom.”

She shrieked in delight. “My boys!”

I backed away while she was distracted, walking quietly down the side of the room until I got to Henri.

I tapped him on his shoulder, and he looked up from his meal, that ever-present smile on his face. “Hello today!”

I chuckled. “Would you like to join me for lunch tomorrow?”

I waited for Erik to jump in, but Henri held up a hand, concentrating. “Tomorrow, lunch?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Good, good! Yes!”

I smiled. “See you then.”

I left the room, peeking back to see Henri clutching Erik by the shoulder, elated by the invitation. He seemed so pleased to have made it through the interaction without needing a translation, too. Erik nodded at Henri, pleased for his friend . . . but I’d seen him smile brighter than that before.

I looked at the clock. Ten after midnight. If I fell asleep right now, I could get about five hours of sleep.

Ten minutes later it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. I used to be so good at shutting off my mind for the day, but now it seemed like every task I was halfway through stayed with me until it was done, not caring if I was well rested enough to tackle it.

I slipped on my robe, combed my fingers through my hair, and stepped barefoot into the hallway. Perhaps if I went to the office I could do some work and appease my brain, and then I could get back to bed. But if I was going to do that, I needed coffee.

It was too late for any maids to be on duty, so I headed to the kitchen. It seemed it was never empty down there, and I was sure someone would help me. Rounding the landing on the second floor, I leaped back, startled by the figure coming right at me.

“Oh!” Erik said, suddenly realizing someone was in his path.

I pulled my robe a little tighter, though I was fully covered, and swept back my hair, hoping to seem less surprised than I had been.

He backed up, fidgeted with his hands a second, and then bowed abruptly. It was such a rushed, sloppy gesture that I couldn’t help but laugh.

He smiled a little himself, shaking his head at the silliness of the moment. He, too, was in his pajamas—striped-blue pants and a plain cotton shirt—and wandering the palace in bare feet.

“What in the world are you doing up at this hour?” I asked.

“Henri has been working especially hard on his English since you announced the Elite. And with a date tomorrow, he wanted to be extra prepared. We only quit for the day a few minutes ago, and I was heading to the kitchen for some tea and honey. Honey is supposed to make you sleep well.” He said all this in a low, hurried voice, as if he was worried he might bore me.

“Is it? I might have to try that tomorrow. I was actually just going to the kitchen for coffee.”

“Your Highness, I feel you’re a very bright woman, so it pains me to tell you that coffee will not help you sleep. Not at all.”

I giggled. “No, I know. I was going to get some work done. I haven’t been sleeping, so I thought I might as well be useful.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re always useful. Even when you sleep.”

I ducked my head, moving around the banister, and he followed me down the steps. All I could think of was how drab he had seemed that first day, a grayed-out shadow of a person. I knew now his plainness was his shield, hiding how smart, thoughtful, and funny he was. Though I still didn’t understand the choice, I knew there was more to him than he let most people see.

“How is Henri doing? With the English lessons?”

He shrugged and tucked his hands behind his back. “Good. Not great. What I told you before is still very true; it would be a long time before you could communicate on your own. But he cares so much, he’s been trying harder than ever.” He nodded to himself as if assessing their work in his head. “Forgive me—I should have asked. How are your parents? I heard your mother is awake and recovering.”

“She is, thank you. She was supposed to move back to her room today, but there was something funny about her oxygen levels so they kept her in the hospital wing one more night for good measure. And Dad is still sleeping in a cot by her bed.”

Erik grinned. “It makes the idea of ‘in sickness and in health’ much more real to see it play out in front of you.”

I nodded. “Honestly, sometimes it’s intimidating to watch them. Finding anything close to what they have seems impossible.”

He smirked. “There’s no way to know everything about someone else’s relationship, even your parents’. Sometimes especially your parents’,” he added, as if he’d thought about this before, perhaps about his own family. “I guarantee you—he’s given a terrible Christmas present at least once and has earned himself a day of silence for it.”

“Highly unlikely.”

Erik was unfazed. “You have to embrace the idea of imperfection, even in the thing that is most perfect for you. Your brother whisked away a girl and got married in a whirlwind and could be discovering right now that she snores so loudly, he can’t even sleep.”

I covered my mouth, but not fast enough to smother the laugh that escaped. Something about the image of poor Ahren with pillows slammed over his ears really got me.

“It’s very possible,” he added, looking quite pleased to have made me smile.

“You’ve ruined my image of Camille! How am I supposed to keep a straight face the next time I see her?”

“Don’t,” he said simply. “Just laugh. Your impression of everyone is probably wrong in some way.”

Shaking my head, I sighed. “I’m sure you’re right. Which makes everything I do that much harder.”

“Like the Selection?”

“There are moments when a room full of politicians seems easier to manage than six boys. For everything I’ve learned so far, there must be a dozen things I’ve missed.”

“Relying heavily on gut instincts then?”

“Very heavily.”

“Well, they’ve been spot-on about Henri. He’s as nice as he seems. You must have already known that, though, to keep him in the final pool.” I noticed something off about his tone as he spoke, like this was a disappointing thing to admit.

I clasped my hands together, only just then realizing that we’d moved well past the kitchen. I supposed I could always go back for coffee if I still wanted a cup.

“This whole situation has been a hard one to navigate. I wasn’t supposed to have a Selection. In the past, princesses were married off for international relations, but my parents promised they’d never do that to me. So to find myself with a roomful of boys and be expected to choose a lifelong partner from them . . . it’s scary. All I have to go on are a handful of impressions, and a hope that no one is deceiving me.”

I risked a glance at him, and he was attentive, his expression downcast. “That sounds incredibly frightening,” he said slowly. “I’m surprised it’s worked so well in the past. I don’t want to sound rude, but it does seem a bit unfair.”

I nodded. “That’s exactly what I said when the idea was presented to me. But they insisted that I try, so . . .”

“So . . . this wasn’t your idea?”

I froze.

“Did you even want it to happen?”

There’s a chill that runs down your back when you realize you’ve been caught in a lie. And it was scary, because this had already been hinted at in the papers, guessed at by plenty of people.

“Erik, this needs to stay between us,” I said quietly, the words coming out more like a request than a command. “I admit, in the beginning, I wanted nothing to do with the Selection. But now . . .”

“Now you’re in love?” he asked, his tone both curious and melancholy.

I laughed once. “I’m a lot of things. Infatuated, frightened, desperate, hopeful. It’d be nice to add ‘in love’ to the list.” I thought of Kile and our conversation in the garden. Love was still too big a word for that, and none of what I’d said to Kile felt appropriate to share with Erik. “Sometimes I think I’m close, but right now, the Selection is something I need to finish. For a lot of reasons. A lot of people, too.”

“I certainly hope you’re one of them.”

“I am,” I promised. “Just maybe not in the way people would think.”

He didn’t answer. He merely walked along, taking in my words.

“You can’t repeat any of that, not to anyone. I can’t believe I said those things to you. If this Selection seems like it was a joke or fake in any way—”

He held up a hand. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’d never break your confidence. I assume it’s not an easy thing to acquire in the first place, and I’d hate to waste it.”

I smiled. “Well, you more than earned it. You’ve kept secrets for me already, and pulled me out of the middle of a fight, and brought me a flower when you didn’t have to.”

“It was only a dandelion.”

“Perspective,” I reminded him, and he grinned at his words coming back to stare him in the face. “All I’m saying is, you’ve done a lot for me without being under any obligation to do so. You’ve earned my trust.”

“Good,” he said plainly. “Because I’m here for you, anything you need, any time you need it.”

The sincerity in his voice was so painfully clear that I was drawn to a standstill. Erik’s eyes were clear and blue, a stark contrast to his dark hair. Maybe that was why they stood out so brilliantly in the moment.

“Really?” I asked, though I had no reason to doubt his words.

“Of course,” he replied. “You’re going to be my sovereign. It’s a privilege to serve you.”

I cleared my throat. “Yes. Right. Thank you. It’s a comfort knowing there are at least a handful of people I don’t have to break my back to win over.”

His smile was kind, and I reminded myself that this was a victory, to have someone like him on my side.

“If you’ll excuse me,” I said, stepping away, “I really ought to try to sleep.”

He bowed. “Of course. I know I’m meant to be at Henri’s disposal, but please let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help you.”

I smiled, not answering, and strode back to my room, my back as straight as an arrow.





CHAPTER 8


“FOR THE REPORT TONIGHT, THE focus will be on you.” Lady Brice was pacing in front of my desk. It was comforting to watch her elegant steps as she thought everything through. Dad was like that sometimes. He’d make me walk the garden with him while he was trying to unravel a mess.

“I know I don’t have much experience doing this alone, but Gavril will be there to help. And I have an idea how to address my progress with the Selection.”

“Good. It’s about time you brought something to the table,” she teased. “Speaking of the Selection, there’s something else. I’m trying to decide if it’s worth addressing.”

I squinted. “What’s going on?”

“Well,” she started. “Marid Illéa was on another radio program yesterday. We have a recording if you’d like to hear it, but basically, it’s gotten out that he’s visited the palace and that he sent you flowers.”

“So?”

“So he was asked if that meant anything.”

I stared at her. “But I’m in the middle of a Selection. How . . . ?”

“He said the same thing, but also said he regretted falling out of touch with you and how beautiful and intelligent you grew up to be.” She raised an eyebrow as I felt my insides flutter a little.

“He said that?”

She nodded.

“Why are we bringing this up?” I tried to even my breaths.

“You need to be aware that you two have been linked in the press. And it could do one of two things: undermine your Selection to the point that it seems you don’t care about it or—”

“How could it undermine it?”

“Well, if it seems like you’re abandoning your suitors for him . . .”

“Got it. What’s the second thing?”

“It could offer up another suitor, if you’re not opposed.”

I laughed. “I’m confident the rules of the Selection are pretty binding. I don’t think I could simply quit it for someone else, could I?”

She shrugged. “He’s pretty popular.”

“Are you advising me to consider him?”

“No. I’m advising you to be aware that this has become public, and you need to be conscious of how you interact with him. And with the Elite.”

“I can do that. Especially since I’ve hardly interacted with him. I don’t want to do anything that might undermine this process. I’ve already accidentally done that so many times, and I want the people to know this matters to me. I’ve done nothing to encourage Marid, and I don’t think it’s worth addressing on the Report.”

“Agreed.”

“Good.” Only for me would a generous act of kindness be twisted into something scandalous.

“And, now don’t take this the wrong way, but what are you wearing tonight?”

I looked down at myself. “I have no idea. I’ve hardly been able to dress myself.”

She studied my clothes. “This will seem like an insult, but trust me when I say that’s not how it’s intended. I think you need to step it up a little. While the clothes you’ve chosen or designed in the past have been beautiful, it’s time we move on from playing with your fashion to using it as a means of backing up your words.”

It felt like a stab to the gut, thinking of undoing this image I’d made just for me and turning it into something for other people. “I get that. What are you thinking?”

She crossed her arms, thinking. “You could borrow one of your mother’s dresses?”

I looked at the clock. “If I go now, I can pick something. But Neena’s the only one who could alter it quickly enough, and she needs to finish my schedule for next week. And I have a lunch date.”

She clasped her hands together. “Ohhhhh.”

“Seriously? As if it wasn’t bad enough to have my grandmother tell Fox how cute he is.”

Lady Brice wrapped her arms around herself and laughed. “Did she really?”

“There’s no stopping that woman.”

“It must run in the family. Hurry. Go pick a dress.”

“Okay. Send for Hale. I’m sure he’s just as skilled as Neena, and I guess we’ll find out how fast he is. And make a bullet point list for me for tonight. I’m terrified I’m going to blank.”

“I’m on it.”

I hurried into the hallway, hoping Mom hadn’t been released from the hospital wing yet because I was going to feel wholly awful if I bothered her by looking for a dress in her room. No more than two steps out the door, I saw Gunner waiting for me. He popped off the bench immediately and bowed.

“Hi. Is everything all right?” I asked, coming over.

“Yeah,” he said. “Well, except that I’m probably about to do something so incredibly stupid that I can feel my heartbeat banging in my feet.”

“Oh, please don’t. I’ve had enough stupid to last a lifetime.”

He chuckled. “No, it’s not like that. I just . . . I wanted to ask you for something.”

I raised my eyebrows, proceeding with caution. “All right. You have two minutes.”

He gulped loudly. “Okay, wow. So I’m really flattered that you kept me in the top six. It made me feel like I did something right, though I’m still clueless as to what that was.”

I shrugged. “Your poem made me laugh. Laughter is important.”

He smiled. “I agree, but it kind of proves my point.” He fidgeted with his hands. “It’s just, this far in, with you so busy and with me never having had one-on-one time with you, I was wondering how good my chances are.”

“It’s a fair question. But I can’t really answer it right now. I have so much to figure out.”

“Exactly,” he replied enthusiastically. “So I am going to ask for something ridiculous. Could I kiss you?”

I stepped back. “Excuse me?”

“We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. But I think a kiss can say a lot. I think one kiss would be enough for you to know if it’s worth me pursing you or you pursuing me.”

There was something sweet about his request, like even though a picture of me kissing Kile had been plastered across the country, he still didn’t think it was a given that I’d just go and kiss anyone. And that he’d learned enough from Jack’s expulsion to move with care. That alone made me want to give him what he was asking for. But to do this, to potentially lose a final suitor without even trying to know him better? It felt foolish.

“You could be a prince. You could have more money than you knew what to do with, be so famous people who don’t even have televisions would know your face. Are you willing to bet all of that on one kiss?”

“I’m willing to bet your happiness and mine on it.”

I inhaled, thinking. “Okay.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.”

Once the surprise wore off, Gunner placed his hand on my waist. He lowered his face to mine, stopping momentarily to laugh.

“This is a bit surreal.”

“I’m waiting, sir.”

He smiled just before our lips touched. There were plenty of good things about the kiss. His mouth wasn’t rigid, and he didn’t try to stick his tongue down my throat. He also smelled pretty good, though not like cinnamon or flowers or anything recognizable. Overall, I would say not bad.

But then, the fact that I could make that assessment as it was going on . . .

Gunner pulled away, pressed his lips together, and considered.

“No, right?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Not that it was bad!”

“It just wasn’t that good.”

“Exactly.” His stance shifted in relief. “Thank you so much for this experience, but I think it’s time for me to head home.”

I smiled. “You sure? You’re welcome to stay for the Report, go home in the morning.”

“Nah.” He smiled bashfully. “I think if I stayed, I’d try to talk myself back into it. You might be the most beautiful girl I’ll ever meet, but . . . I don’t think you’re the girl for me. I’d hate to find a reason why you could be when I’ve been trying to tell myself for a while that it was unlikely.”

I held out my hand. “I respect that. Best of luck to you, sir.”

Gunner shook my hand. “And to you, Your Highness.”

As Gunner made his way to the stairwell, I saw a butler escorting Hale toward Mom’s room. I waved him over, though his eyes were on my dismissed suitor as they passed.

“What was Gunner doing up here?” he asked.

“Making a choice. Come with me. I need your hands.”





CHAPTER 9


I CAME OUT OF MOM’S closet wearing our top pick, pressing it to my chest to save my modesty. “Thank you for doing this,” I said as Hale went to work, pulling at seams and pinning them in place.

“Are you kidding? I’m helping dress my future queen right now. I’m over the moon.” He pulled some more, watching the way the fabric reacted in the mirror. “Of course, it’s not the same as building you a gown from scratch, but this will be an impressive addition to my resume.”

I chuckled. “I just feel bad you have to give up your afternoon for this.”

“Well, it gets kind of boring in the Men’s Parlor. I’m sure if I ask Kile, he’ll come and sit with me while I work. Or Ean, maybe.”

“Ean,” I said, shocked. “It’s hard to imagine him willingly joining anyone anywhere.”

Hale smiled. “Yeah. I think he’s finally getting used to us. He talks to me sometimes, and to Erik. Probably because he’s not competition.”

“That makes sense. Ean seems like the ‘not here to make friends’ type, but I don’t think anyone could go through this without getting close to someone. It’s too hard. As difficult as it is for me, I know it’s just as bad for you all.”

“We definitely get the better end of the deal though,” he said, winking at my reflection.

I tilted my head. “I don’t know about that. The more I think about it, the sadder I get about having to send all but one of you away. I’ll miss having you here.”

“Have you considered a harem?” he said, deadpan.

I bent over in laughter and was rewarded with a pin stabbing my waist. “Ow!”

“Sorry! I shouldn’t joke when there are needles around.” He walked in front of me, and I held still, watching his eyes, recognizing the analytical gaze, knowing I did the same thing myself to designs and proposals and sometimes even to people. “I think we need to streamline this a little. Are you sure this is absolutely okay with the queen? Because some of these cuts I can’t undo.”

“Don’t worry. You have full permission to tweak in any way you deem necessary.”

“That makes me feel so important.”

“Well, you are. You’re helping me look like a leader tonight. It takes a thousand little things to make this role work, so I owe you one. Or two. At least two.”

“You all right?”

I looked up, not realizing how somber I’d gotten. “Yes. It’s just a lot to deal with sometimes. I’m trying to hold it together, that’s all.”

Hale pulled a pin from the pile the maid had left us and held it up for me. “Use this next time you feel like things are falling apart. It’ll help, I promise.”

Slowly I took it, spinning it between my finger and thumb, and, at least for a moment, I believed it was true.

Henri was right on time, rushing into the parlor as if he’d been dying to run down for the last fifteen minutes. He bypassed ceremony as he held my hands and kissed my cheek, making me laugh.

“Hello today!”

I smiled. “Hello, Henri.”

Over Henri’s shoulder, Erik bowed, and I gave him a nod.

I took Henri’s arm and led him to the table, laid with two settings fairly close together and a third slightly distanced.

“Here,” Henri said, pulling out my chair.

Once I was seated, he eagerly ran around the table to sit across from me . . . and the conversation drew to an abrupt halt. I pulled the cover off my plate so they would know they could do the same, and after a few silent bites, I worked to bridge the gap.

“How’s your family?” I asked. “And your sister?”

“Miten on Annika?” he said, turning to Erik for confirmation. He nodded, and Henri returned to me, delighted. “Good. She very good. We miss.”

I gave him a sad look and nodded. “I understand completely. You have no idea how much I wish Ahren was here.”

He kept his expression calm but leaned over to Erik, who muttered a translation of my answer as quickly as he could.

“Your mom? Is good?” Henri said, trying so hard.

“Yes, thank goodness. Heading back to her room right now and recovering nicely.”

Once again Erik came to our rescue. We went back and forth in the same way for a few more minutes, and even with all the effort he’d been putting into learning English, Henri was as lost as I was. I hated this. It was too impersonal. It was one thing to need a translator for a visiting dignitary, but for someone who was in my home daily, it felt like too much. Even if Henri’s time in the palace was short-lived, I really wanted to be able to speak with him, just him, at least from time to time.

“Erik, how does Henri do with the other Elite? Do they all speak through you?”

He sat taller, taking this in. “Mostly. Hale and Kile have picked up a few words.”

“And the others?”

He pursed his lips, looking guilty, as if he was worried he’d sully the reputation of the others. “Gunner has been marginally interested, as is Fox, but they don’t appear to want to take on the challenge. It’s a lot of work. And Ean will speak with me but doesn’t really try to speak with Henri.”

I let out a long sigh, several thoughts flitting through my head. “Would you be up to giving us all a little Finnish lesson tomorrow morning?”

Erik raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Absolutely. It seems unfair that Henri has to do all the work.” As I said his name, Henri’s eyes darted over to me. He was certainly following our conversation in his own way, but I was excited for him to discover exactly where this was going.

Erik spoke swiftly in Finnish, and Henri’s eyes lit up.

“I speak, too? I speaking?” he asked as if this was going to be a party instead of a lesson.

“Of course,” I said, and Henri sat there, completely beside himself, the gears already turning in his head.

“I think you just made his day,” Erik commented.

“I’m upset I didn’t think of it sooner. It will make things easier on everyone.”

“I hope so. But I’m still going to focus on the English lessons. I’m hoping to avoid any more appearances on the Report.”

I made a face. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“It was awful!” After shaking his head, he pointed his fork at me. “My mom will not stop talking about it. ‘You look so good! Why didn’t you smile more?’ I swear, it’s maddening.”

“You’re blaming me?” I asked, feigning indignation.

“Forever. Forever I am blaming you! I don’t like being on camera.” He shuddered. I was glad he didn’t actually seem angry, though I could sense how serious he was about it.

I laughed, and he looked down bashfully at his plate as he smiled. It was then I realized Henri was stuck watching me chat with his translator while I was supposed to be on a date with him.

“You know, Henri, maybe we could do a full Swendish immersion experience, and you could teach everyone to make that soup you were talking about.”

Erik translated, and once again Henri was jubilant. “Kalakeitto!” he exclaimed.

There were things I was curious about with Henri. I wanted to know more about his family, particularly his sister. And I wanted to know if he was at peace with the idea of living here and working beside me, or if it worried him that we could have moments like the parade all over again and he’d be stuck trying to protect me from angry masses for the rest of his life. I wanted to ask him about that kiss in the kitchen, if he’d thought about it much or dismissed it as a lapse of judgment on one or both our parts.

But until I could ask him those things without having to ask Erik, too, there was no way I’d be able to.





CHAPTER 10


THE DRESS WAS RED. MOM hadn’t worn it in years, which was one of the reasons I chose it. Hale trimmed the long lace sleeves up to my elbows and pulled a few of the layers from beneath the gown so it wasn’t quite as full. He was right about some of this being irreversible, but he’d handled it all so tastefully that even if Mom eventually wanted it back, she’d probably be thrilled with the alterations.

Eloise helped me do my hair, and it looked so smart, with braids leading back to a modest bun. I chose a tiara with rubies in it, and I looked like I was on fire.

It was beautiful, really. I knew that, and I was thankful for all the hands that had gone into making me look like someone who could be trusted with the decisions that had to be made on behalf of the country. It just felt old, older than I truly was, though maybe closer to the age I should behave. Sighing, I came to terms with the dress. This was who I had to be for now.

I was tugging at my seams in the studio when Josie came up to talk to me. “That dress is amazing,” she praised, unable to keep her fingers off the layers of satin.

I kept straightening. “It’s my mother’s.”

“I’m sorry about all that, by the way,” she said quietly. “Don’t think I’ve told you yet.”

I swallowed. “Thank you, Josie. That means a lot.”

“You know, since everything’s been so serious, it might be a good idea to have a party.”

I huffed out an almost laugh. “I’m a little busy for that. Maybe once things settle down.”

“I could plan it! Just let me talk to a few maids, and we could pull something together in a week.”

I turned from the mirror. “Like I said, maybe one day, but not now.” I moved away, trying to focus.

She trailed me across the room, insistent. “But why? Shouldn’t you be celebrating? I mean, you’re practically the queen, so—”

I spun on her, enraged. “But I am not the queen. That title belongs to my mother, who nearly died. That you so casually brush over that fact makes the condolences you just gave me meaningless. What don’t you get, Josie? Do you think this job is nothing but dresses and galas?”

She stood there, stunned. I watched her eyes dart around the room, checking to see if anyone was watching our interaction. I didn’t want to humiliate her. In a way, I understood her. There might have been a time when nothing brought me more joy than a reason to start a guest list, a time when I thought this role was nothing more than dresses and galas myself. . . .

I sighed. “I’m not trying to insult you. But it would be inappropriate to throw a party when my mother is still recuperating. Please, what I need from you tonight is some level of understanding, which I realize may be too much, considering our history. Still, for my sanity, I beg you, just try to consider what it’s like to be in my shoes.”

She sulked. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Of course that only matters to you when it’s convenient.”

I wanted to rip her head off. What part about my life right now did she think was convenient? But I had a broadcast to think about.

“Excuse me?” I called to a passing maid. “Please escort Miss Josie to her room. Her attitude tonight is unsettling, and I need to concentrate.”

“Yes, Your Highness.” The maid turned cheerfully to Josie, not worried about our personal issues and ready to do her job.

Josie huffed. “I hate you.”

I pointed to the door. “Yes, and you can do that from your room just as well as from here.”

Without waiting to see if she obeyed, I made my way to my seat. I’d never seen it set up this way: the Elite on one side and a single chair on the other.

As I was staring at the sad, lonely seat, Kile sidled up to me.

“What was that with Josie?”

I smiled and batted my eyes. “Nothing, sweetheart. Just making me seriously doubt how much I want her as an in-law.”

“Still too soon.”

I laughed. “No, we had a . . . disagreement. And I feel kind of bad, because I understand her. I just wish she could understand me.”

“That might be hard for Josie. She’s only aware of herself. Also, have you seen Gunner?”

I squinted. “He left this afternoon. Didn’t he say good-bye?”

Kile shook his head.

I walked over to the other boys, who all sat up straighter as I approached. “Did Gunner say good-bye to any of you?”

The others shook their heads in confusion as Fox cleared his throat. “He stopped by to see me. Gunner’s a bit sentimental, and he didn’t have it in him to go throu