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“But he will be back, right?”

I forced myself to smile. “If, for some reason, he didn’t return, the state would continue as usual. I have always been next in line to rule, and I have the same ideals as my father. He wanted so badly to see the castes brought to an end, and now that they’re gone, I would seek to further erase the lines they’ve left in their wake.”

I peeked over at Marid, who gave me a quick thumbs-up.

“But that’s the thing,” Andrew Barns began. “The palace has done nothing to help those of us whose parents were Fives and Sixes or lower.”

“I think we’ve been at a loss as to what would be most effective. That’s part of why you’re here today. We want to hear from you.” I crossed my hands on my lap, hoping I looked put together.

“Do monarchs ever really hear their people?” Bree asked. “Have you considered handing the government over to the public? Don’t you think there’s a chance we might do a better job than you?”

“Well—”

Sharron cut me off, turning to Bree. “Sweetie, you can barely dress yourself. How do you think you could possibly run a country?”

“Give me a vote!” Bree demanded. “That alone would change plenty.”

Mr. Palter—Jamal—leaned forward. “You’re too young,” he said, also ganging up on Bree. “I want to see change myself. I’ve lived through the castes. I was a Three, and I lost a lot since then. You kids don’t know enough about where we’ve been to even contribute to the conversation.”

The other single boy stood up, enraged. “Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention or that I don’t know people who’ve struggled. I want this country to be better for everyone, not just me.”

We were less than five minutes in, and the entire conversation had turned into a barking contest. It didn’t even seem to matter that I was there. Plenty of people mentioned me, of course, but no one actually spoke to me.

I supposed trying to get a glimpse at a wide range of lifestyles meant we were going to have conflict, but I wished Marid had vetted these people better. Then again, maybe he had, and we still ended up with people who didn’t care if I was present or not. I’d spent so much time worrying that they’d hate me that I hadn’t paused to consider the possibility that I was simply irrelevant in their eyes.

“If we could maybe raise our hands,” I suggested, trying to regain control. “I can’t hear your thoughts if you’re all speaking at once.”

“I demand a vote!” Bree yelled, and the others fell silent. She glared at me. “You people have no idea what our lives are actually like. Look at this room.” She gestured to the expertly coordinated paint and tapestries, the porcelain dishes and sparkling glasses. “How can we trust your judgment when you are this disconnected from your people? You rule over our lives with no understanding of what it means to live the way we do.”

“She has a point,” said Suzette Palter. “You’ve never spent a day in the dirt or on the run. It’s easy to make decisions about other people’s lives when you don’t have to live them.”

I sat there, staring at these strangers. I was responsible for them. But how could I be? How could one person make sure each and every soul had every chance they could, everything they needed? It wasn’t possible. And yet, stepping down didn’t seem like the solution either.

“I’m sorry, I have to stop this,” Marid said, coming out of the shadows. “The princess is too gracious to remind you of exactly who she is, but as her very dear friend, I cannot allow you to speak to her this way.”

He reminded me of some of my tutors, the way they stood over me and made me feel embarrassed even when I wasn’t sure there was a reason I should be.

“Princess Eadlyn may not be your sovereign today, but she is destined for the throne. She has earned it through a long line of tradition and sacrifice. You forget that while you have choice over your profession, location, your very future, hers has been assigned to her at birth. And she has willingly accepted the weight of it for your sake.

“Shouting at her over her youth is unfair, as we all know her father had little more experience when he ascended. Princess Eadlyn has studied tirelessly at his side for years and has already said she plans to carry out his ambitions. Tell her how to do that.”

Bree cocked her head. “I already did.”

“If you’re suggesting we suddenly become a democracy, that would cause more havoc in your life than you can imagine,” Marid insisted.

“But if you want a vote,” I began, “perhaps we can talk about how to implement that locally. It’s much more possible for the leaders closest to you, the ones who actually see your area day to day, to provide what’s needed most for you.”

Bree didn’t smile, but she did relax her tight shoulders. “That would be a start.”

“Okay then.” I saw Neena ferociously taking notes. “Brenton, you mentioned something about housing when you came in. Can you tell me more about that?”

After fifteen minutes the group came to the decision that housing should never be denied to anyone based on their profession or former caste, and that all prices should be made public so they couldn’t be marked up to restrict certain people from applying.

“I don’t want to sound snobby,” Sharron said, “but some of us live in areas where we would prefer … certain people not to come.”

“You failed,” one of the boys said. “That sounds completely snobby.”

I sighed, thinking. “First of all, I assume that if you live in a wealthy neighborhood, it would take a considerable amount of money to move there in the first place. And second of all, you’re assuming that people with little means would make for horrible neighbors.

“What you said about me, Suzette, was right.” She perked up at the sound of her name and smiled over being correct without knowing what it was yet. “I’ve never lived outside the palace. But thanks to the Selection, young men from many different backgrounds have come into my life, and they’ve taught me so much. Some of them were working through school or supporting their families or trying just to master English so they can have more opportunities. They might have gone through their lives with much less than I have, but they’ve enriched my life in ways I can’t begin to express. Sharron?” I asked. “Isn’t that worth something?”

She didn’t answer.

“At the end of the day, I can’t force any of you to treat people the way you should. But it should be on your conscience that whatever laws I pass won’t do much unless each of you takes it upon yourself to show kindness to your fellow citizens.”

I saw Marid smile and knew that while I may not have gotten it perfect, I’d taken a big step. It felt like a victory.

When the town hall meeting was over, I felt ready to collapse from the tension. Nearly two hours of talking felt like a week’s worth of work. Thank goodness the Elite seemed to understand how drained I was and left with little more than polite bows. There’d be plenty of time to discuss this with them later. For now I just wanted to flop onto a couch.

I groaned at Marid. “I get the feeling they’ll want us to do this again, but I refuse until I have fully recovered from today. Which may take years.”

He laughed. “You did great. They’re the ones who made it difficult. But since this was a first, no one knew how to behave. If you do this again, it will be much better on all sides.”

“I hope so.” I rubbed my hands together. “I keep thinking about Bree, how passionate she was.”

“Passionate.” He rolled his eyes. “That’s one word for it.”

“I’m serious. This mattered so much to her,” I lamented, thinking of how she looked close to tears a few times. “I’ve studied political science my whole life. I know about republics and constitutional monarchies and democracies. I wonder if maybe she’s right. Maybe we should—”

“Let me stop you right there. Have you already forgotten how deranged she looked when she saw she wasn’t going to get her way? Do you really want the country’s choices made by someone like her?”

“She’s one voice out of millions.”

“Exactly. And I have studied politics just as long as you and through a much more varied lens. Trust me, it is far better to keep the control right here.” He held my hands in his, smiling so surely that I dismissed my thoughts. “And you are very capable. Don’t let a tiny group of people with no idea of how to reasonably voice their opinions undermine your confidence.”

I nodded. “I was a bit shaken, that’s all.”

“Of course you were. That was a tough crowd. But you could wash it all away with a bottle of wine. I know you have excellent stores here.”

“We do,” I replied with a grin.

“Come on, then. Let’s celebrate. You just did a wonderful thing for your people. You’ve more than earned a glass.”

“WELL, IT WASN’T GREAT,” I admitted, “but it could have been much worse.”

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