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Even my most violent glare did nothing to diminish her giddiness. “Don’t forget, I can call in a firing squad at any moment if I like.”

“You can call that firing squad whenever you want, but I’ve got Grandma on my side, so I’ve got nothing to worry about.”

I slumped, letting the silliness of it all settle in. “Sadly, Neena, I think you’re right.”

“Don’t feel too bad. She means well at the heart of it all.”

“I’ll try and remember that. So are we okay for now? I need to go learn some Finnish.”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” I said, bursting into the library. The boys cheered at my entrance, and I scurried over to an open seat at a table with Henri, Hale, and Ean. “Duty called.”

Erik chuckled, placing a small packet of papers in front of me. “You’re excused. Don’t worry. We haven’t gotten too far. Look over the first page, and Henri will help you with pronunciations while I check how everyone else is doing. Then we’ll move on.”

“Okay.” I picked up the paper—a copy made of Erik’s handwritten notes with hand-drawn pictures in the margin—and smiled. First task of the day was learning to count to twelve, so we could tell time. Staring at this simple lesson made me instantly embarrassed. All I could think of was that it seemed there weren’t enough vowels in the words, and the ones that bothered to show up were all in the wrong places. “All right,” I said, looking at the first word: yksi.

“Yucksey?”

Henri giggled and shook his head. “Is said yoo-ksi.”

“Yooksi?”

“Yes! Go, go,” he encouraged, and though I couldn’t be anything close to perfect, it was still nice having my own personal cheerleader. “Is said kahk-si.”

“Kahk-si … kaksi.”

“Good, good. Now, is kolme.”

“Coolmay,” I tried.

“Ehhh,” he said, still trying to be positive. “Kohl-may.”

I tried again, but I could see I was getting it wrong. I was being foiled by the number three. Ever the gentleman, he leaned in, preparing to take as much time as I needed.

“Is said oh. Kohl-may.”

“Ooh. Ooh,” I tried.

He lifted his hand and gently put his fingers on my cheeks, trying to change the shape of my mouth, and it tickled. I broke into a smile, unable to even make the sound he was going for in the first place. But he held my face all the same. After a moment, the humor left his eyes, and I recognized the look in them. I’d seen it before, in the kitchen, when he’d turned his shirt into an apron for me.

It was such a captivating stare, I completely forgot there were other people in the room.

Until Erik dropped a book on the other desk. “Excellent,” he said, and I pulled away from Henri as quickly as I could, praying that no one had noticed what had nearly just happened.

“It looks like you’re all doing well with the numbers, so we’re going to start using them in sentences. If you’ll look up at the board here, I’ve got a written example; but as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the pronunciation is a bit tricky.”

The boys laughed, seeming to have struggled with the numbers as much as I had … and also seeming to have been too engrossed to have noted my almost kiss. I focused my gaze on the board, trying to take in the phonetics of the words in front of me instead of focusing on how close Henri was sitting.

THE FIRST FREE MOMENT I had that day was lunch, and I knew I needed to use the time to focus on damage control. While everyone headed off to the dining room after our Finnish lesson, I went back to my office and pulled Marid’s card from my desk drawer. It was clearly made from expensive paper. I wondered what his family was doing now to afford that. They must have done well for themselves, wherever their path had taken them.

I dialed the number, kind of hoping he wouldn’t pick up.

“Hello?”

“Yes, um, Marid?”

“Eadlyn, is that you?”

“Yes.” I fidgeted, straightening out my clothes, even though he couldn’t see me. “Is this an okay time?”

“Absolutely. How can I help you, Your Highness?”

“I just wanted to say, I saw some speculation about our relationship in the press the other day.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m sorry about that. You know how they can take a thing out of context.”

“I do,” I nearly exclaimed. “And really, I wanted to apologize to you. I know what an upheaval it can be when someone’s life is caught up in mine, and I’m sorry you’ve been going through that.”

“Eh, let ’em talk,” he replied with a laugh. “Really, no apology necessary. But while I’ve got you, I wanted to run an idea past you.”

“Sure.”

“I know you’ve been worried about the post-caste violence, and I thought it might be good for you to have something like a town hall session.”

“What do you mean?”

“You could choose a handful of people from various backgrounds to come to the palace and sit down with you personally. It would be a unique opportunity to hear from your people, and if you invited the press, it might also be a rather spectacular opportunity to show how well the palace listens to its people.”

I was stunned. “Actually, that’s a wonderful idea.”

“If you want, I can take care of most of the arrangements for you. I have a few links with some families that used to be Eights, as well as some that have had a hard time letting go of their Two status. Maybe we could plan on inviting a dozen or so people, so you wouldn’t be overwhelmed?”

“Marid, that sounds perfect. I’m going to have my lady-in-waiting call you. Her name is Neena Hallensway, and she’s as organized as you seem to be. She knows my schedule and would be the best person to talk to about a time and date.”

“Excellent. I’ll wait to hear from her.”

There was a long silence, and I wasn’t quite sure how to break away.

“Thank you,” I tried. “Now more than ever, I really need to prove how much I care about my people. I want them to know that, in a few years, I’ll be as able to lead them as my father.”

“How anyone could doubt that is a mystery to me.”

I smiled, thrilled to have added another ally to my arsenal. “Sorry to rush off, but I must be going.”

“Not at all. We’ll talk again soon.”

“Of course. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye.”

I hung up the phone and sighed in relief. That wasn’t as awkward as I’d been fearing it would be. Marid’s words rang in my ears. Let ’em talk. I knew they always would. Hopefully soon, they’d have something positive to say.

“WAIT, WHICH WAY DO THESE guys move again?” Hale asked before reaching over and picking up two petits fours and setting them on his plate.

“Bishops move diagonally. I wouldn’t do that if I was you, but it’s your funeral.”

He laughed. “Okay. What about the little castle ones?”

“Straight lines, either side to side or back and forth.”

He moved his rook, taking another one of my pawns. “Honestly, I never would have pegged you for a chess girl.”

“I’m not really. Ahren used to be obsessed, and he forced me to play with him every single day for months. But then he got serious about Camille, and all his chess time turned into letter-writing time.”

I moved my bishop and took his knight.

“Ugh, I didn’t even see that,” he lamented between bites. “I’ve been wanting to ask you about Ahren, but I wasn’t sure if you were up for it.”

I shrugged, prepared to dismiss the invitation, but instead I reminded myself that if I was going to have a shot at happiness at all, I had to let someone past my walls. Sighing, I told the truth.

“I miss him. It’s like I grew up with a built-in best friend, and now he’s gone. I have other people I’m close to, like my lady-in-waiting, Neena. I don’t think I realized how much I was relying on her until Ahren was gone and I could see it. But it makes me afraid. What if I get to the point I did with Ahren, where she’s the person I go to with everything, and then something happens and she leaves?”

Hale nodded as he listened, and I could see he was trying to suppress a smile.

“This isn’t funny!” I complained, chucking one of his lost pawns at him.

He laughed out loud, dodging the throw. “No, I’m not smiling because of that. It’s just … the last time we talked like this you ran. You’re not wearing sneakers under that gown, are you?”

“Not at all. They wouldn’t go together,” I teased. “No, really, I should have trusted you then, and I do trust you now. Sorry if I’m slow. Opening up to people is not a skill of mine.”

“No rush. I’m a pretty patient person.”

I couldn’t take the eye contact anymore, so I focused on the board, watching his hands hover above the grid.

“As for how you feel about Neena,” Hale went on, “even if she did have to leave, that wouldn’t make her less of a friend any more than it makes Ahren less of your brother. You might have to work harder to keep in touch, but if you love them as much as you say, it’ll be worth it.”

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