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“I think you have a crush on my brother.”

“I think that pipe is making you soft in the head.”

“You think he’s top-notch.”

I refuse to answer; my lips are closed. My cold shoulder has been known to freeze people to death.

“I’m going to tell him.” He pokes. “I’m going to say, ‘James Dean has nothing on you, Edward, because Princess Lenora is totally gone for you.’”

Like a cobra striking, I reach up and yank a few strands of his hair out, at the nape of his neck where it’ll really hurt.

“Ow! Fucking hell!”

“I’ll have you killed. I know people. I’m a princess on the edge—don’t push me.”

“You can’t have me killed—I’m the only friend you’ve got.”

I flop back on the grass, shrugging. “That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

Chuckling, Thomas tucks the letter in his pocket, then lies back on the grass beside me, our heads just a few inches apart.

“I think Winston fancies you,” he says softly.

Maddox Winston is the newest addition to my personal security team. He’s mysterious in a cold, brusque sort of way. Rumor has it he was a notorious assassin during the war.

I roll my eyes. “Oh, bollocks.”

Thomas glances at me. “No, truly. The way he watches you . . .”

“He’s on my security team—he’s supposed to watch me.”

Thomas shakes his head. “Not the way he does it.”

I ignore that comment and gaze up at the sky. There are no clouds tonight, just a thousand silver-white dots of light glowing brilliantly. And I think about Edward’s letter.

“Do you ever wish you could trade places with Edward? That you had left and he had stayed here?”

In the dim light, Thomas’s face is as pale as the stars—it makes him look like a bespeckled marble statue. A rascal angel.

“No. I couldn’t serve in the military because of the asthma, but I’ve always wanted to do my part. Something more than just inheriting the Rourke money. Parliament is my chance to do that. To make a difference, leave my mark. And maybe if I do it well, someone somewhere will remember me. I think I’d like that . . . to be remembered.”

I turn my head toward him.

“I’ll remember you.”

He smiles softly. “Well, that’s one person, at least.”

“I’m heir to the throne, silly. My remembrance is worth a thousand commoners’.”

Thomas snorts. “What about you? Do you ever wish you were Miriam?”

Miriam went a little mad after Mother died. If I’m a rule-breaker now, she’s a full-out revolutionary. Sometimes she goes out wearing trousers . . . and no bra. Yesterday she was caught for the second time this month with a boy in her room—an earl’s son we’re actually distantly related to—a fourth something-or-other twice removed. Father’s ready to box her up and ship her to a convent on the next train out.

“No, I wouldn’t trade places with Miriam. This life can be suffocating and stupid, but one day I’m going to be able to do amazing things, Thomas. I feel it in my bones. Being first anything is always hard, but I’m going to do it. And when I do, I’m going to change the world.”

I tilt my head back to the sky, but in my mind’s eye, instead of black, I see vibrant swirls of green and deep purple and fiery orange-red.

“Still . . . aurora borealis . . . it must be incredible.” I can hear the longing in my own voice. The yearning for a piece of something outside the palace walls. Something new and wild and real.

“I would love to see it.”

“So, fuck it all and go see it.” Thomas sits up and plucks the blades of grass out of the ground. “Like Edward, he gets an idea in his head, something he wants to do—and he does it. Simple as that. No hesitation. No doubt.”

I shake my head. “I’m needed here; Father would never let me. And even if he did, it wouldn’t be like Edward—on a hillside with a tent and a campfire. There’d be press and security and servants. It would all be a . . . shit-show.”

Thomas laughs, but in a subdued, sympathetic sort of way.

I wave my hand—I have no patience for self-pity, even when it’s my own.

“Oh, listen to me going on—the poor princess. Irish whiskey makes me go all pitiful.”

Thomas stands, brushes off his trousers and offers me his hand, pulling me up. “Then it’s time for you to sleep it off, Pitiful Princess.”

“I will. After I do my required reading.”

The dark-haired joker lifts his hand to the sky, like he’s reciting Shakespeare. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, what is the boringest of them all?”

“Trade legislation!” we say in unison.

I heard a new term the other day on an American television show—nerds. I’m fairly certain that’s what Thomas and I are.

He walks me to the door.

“Good night, Thomas.”

“Pleasant dreams, Lenora.”

Thomas bows, then he slips his hands in his pockets and heads down the path, whistling a quick, cheery tune.

Palace of Wessco, 1956

IT BEGAN SLOWLY, subtly, the way terrible things often do. A flinch, a pause, a grimace of pain—my father hid it well, but I noticed. And I wasn’t the only one—rumors and whispers filled the palace like a moldy stench. Within months it graduated to the occasional postponed meeting, then missed functions that I attended in his place, delayed starts to his schedule and finally, whole bedridden days.

And here is where it ends.

In the royal apartments, the antechamber of the King’s bedroom. My uncle is here—my father’s youngest brother, the Duke of Warwitch. They’ve never been especially close, but he’s on the Advising Council, so he’s here. A few of the men in this room have genuine affection for my father, and they chat easily with the ones who don’t. The ones waiting like vultures, ready to swoop in and claim their chunk of the carcass.

Because that’s how this works.

“The King is dying.”

Those words were delivered to me two days ago by Alexander Bumblewood, the Prime Minister, who was the only man the King’s doctors informed. Like a morbid version of the telephone game.

That’s the way it goes. Secrecy is paramount. Because governments don’t do change well, and monarchies . . . despite all our rules and laws and traditions . . . we’re bloody awful at it. Historically, change brought power struggles—it used to be all false imprisonments, murders, full-out wars and royal heads rolling.

We’re better now.

More . . . outwardly civilized. But the hidden, hushed motivations—ambition, fear, greed—those will remain for as long as humans are humaning.

Miriam and Alfie step out from my father’s bedroom. Alfie’s nose is red and he wipes at his watery eyes with a handkerchief. He tries to give me a smile, but he can’t quite manage it.

And that cracks something inside me—a small fissure in the veneer I’ve lacquered to perfection.

Miriam shudders with great, gasping sobs—openly and unashamed. My sister’s always been emotional, wearing her heart on her sleeve for all to see. A young blond footman guides her from the room with his arm around her. If I had it in me, I’d make it clear he’s being too familiar—but I’m too drained.