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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.

“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.”

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