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“Tell your daughter to give herself more credit,” Marid insisted.

Mom and Dad smiled, and I was glad we’d run into them in the hallway. Dad’s voice, above all the others, would help me sort out exactly what I’d just said and done.

“We try, Marid, I assure you.” Dad took a sip of his wine before setting it down, pushing it far away, and pouring himself a cup of tea, just like Mom.

The doctor said an occasional drink was fine, but she clearly wasn’t interested in risking it, and I wasn’t surprised Dad would follow her lead.

“How’s your mother?” Mom asked. The set of her lips made me feel like she’d been dying to ask the question.

Marid grinned. “She never slows down. She’s sad, of course, that she can’t do bigger things, but she works diligently to take care of those near us in Columbia. Even a small bit of good is better than none.”

“Agreed,” Mom replied. “Would you please tell her I think of her often?”

She flicked her eyes toward Dad, who remained unreadable, but Marid seemed pleased. “I will. And I can assure you, she feels the same.”

The conversation paused, and everyone focused on their drinks for a moment. Finally, Dad saved us from the silence.

“So it sounds like that one couple was borderline vicious. The wife, what was her name?”

“Sharron,” Marid and I chorused back.

Dad shook his head. “She came in with an agenda.”

“They all did,” I said. “But wasn’t that the point? Everyone probably has a specific idea of how to improve their day-to-day life. The hard part wasn’t that they had those thoughts—it was how they were trying to get them across.”

Mom nodded. “There has to be a way to do something like this without all the arguing. It slows everything down.”

“In some ways, but in others it adds to the discussion,” Marid claimed. “Once they were reminded of who they were speaking with, the conversation became much clearer.”

“I definitely think there was more positive than negative today,” I added.

Dad was looking down at the table.

“Dad? Don’t you think so?”

He looked up at me, smiling. “Yes, dear. I do.” He sighed, straightening his posture. “And I owe you thanks, Marid. A move like this is certainly progress, not just for the palace, but for the country—and it was a very good idea.”

“I will pass along your thanks to my father. He put the idea in my head years ago.”

Dad grimaced. “Then I also owe you an apology.” He tapped his finger on the table, collecting his thoughts. “Please tell your parents they needn’t stay away. Just because we disagreed on methods doesn’t mean—”

Marid raised his hand. “Say no more, Your Majesty. My father has said on more than one occasion that he stepped over the line. I will urge him to call. Soon.”

Dad smiled. “I’d like that.”

“Me, too,” Mom added.

“And you are welcome to visit as often as you like,” I added. “Especially if you have any more thoughts on how to reach our people.”

Marid’s face was triumphant. “Oh, I have plenty.”

The following morning I was almost first to the office, beating everyone except for General Leger, who was rooting around rather forcefully in my father’s desk drawers.

“General?” I asked, announcing myself.

He bowed curtly and went back to his search. “Sorry. Your father has broken his glasses, and he said there was another pair in his desk. I’m having no luck at all.”

His voice was gruff, and he shoved the drawer closed before turning around to scan the shelf behind him.

“General Leger?”

“He said they would be here. Are they right in front of me and I’m missing them?”

“Sir?”

“One thing, that’s all I had to do. I can’t even find a pair of glasses.”

“General?”

“Yes?” he replied without looking at me.

“Are you all right?”

“Of course.” He searched and searched, not pausing until I laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“You wouldn’t lie to my father. Please don’t lie to me.”

He finally looked up from his task, bewilderment in his eyes. “When did you get so tall?” he asked. “And so eloquent? I feel like it was just yesterday that your mother was rushing into the room to get us to come watch your first steps.” He smiled a little. “I don’t know if you know, but Ahren nearly beat you to the punch. But even back then, you weren’t going to let anyone show you up.”

“You still haven’t answered my question. Are you okay?”

He nodded. “I will be. I’ve never been good at accepting defeat, even when it was the best thing. Lucy’s actually taking this better than I am, though not by much.” He squinted. “I assume you know what I’m talking about.”

I sighed. “I do. But only barely. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve been so focused on myself I didn’t realize how much you’d struggled. I wish I’d been more sensitive about all this.”

“Don’t blame yourself. We don’t live in the palace, and not having a family isn’t something we willingly chat about. Besides, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

“Nothing?”

“Like I said, we’re accepting defeat. In the beginning we thought we had so much time, and when we tried to get help, it just kept falling through. Lucy can’t take it anymore.” He paused, swallowing before he gave me a weak smile. “I hope I’ve done right by you. As an official, as a friend. You’re the closest I’ll ever have to a daughter, so that matters to me.”

I found myself near tears, thinking of how I’d called him a backup parent not that long ago. “You have. Of course you have. And not just by me but by every other child in this palace you helped raise.”

He squinted.

“Mr. Woodwork had a broken leg when Kile was ready to learn to ride a bike. I remember you running behind him on the gravel in front of the palace until he finally figured out how to balance.”

General Leger nodded, the ghost of a grin on his face. “That’s true. I did that.”

“And Mom and Dad were in New Asia when Kaden lost his first tooth, right? Miss Lucy was the one who helped him get it out. And she taught Josie how to put on eyeliner. Don’t you remember how she bragged about it for weeks?”

“What I remember is Marlee telling her to wipe it off,” he said, his spirits rising.

“And you taught Ahren and Kaden how to handle a saber. Kaden recently suggested a duel, and the first thing I thought of was how he would have won hands down thanks to you.”

General Leger watched me. “I treasure those memories. I do. I’d defend all of you to my last breath. Even if I wasn’t essentially paid to.”

I giggled. “I know. Which is why there’s no one else I’d trust with my life.” I reached out for his hand. “Please take the day off. No one’s going to invade today, and if they do, I’ll call you,” I added quickly when I could see he was going to protest. “Go spend time with Miss Lucy. Remind her of every good thing you’ve been to each other, and remind her of everything you’ve been to us. I know it’s not a reasonable substitute, but do it all the same.”

“I haven’t found the glasses yet.”

“I’m sure he’s left them in the parlor. I’ll take care of it. You go.”

He gripped my hand one last time before letting it go and dropping into a bow. “Yes, Your Highness.”

I watched him leave, leaning against the desk as I considered the general and Miss Lucy and their life together. They’d faced so much sadness, so much disappointment, and yet he still showed up every day, ready to serve. So did Miss Lucy. It was a strange thing to measure them beside my parents, whose lives had seemed to fall into place perfectly.

I was surrounded by examples of how love, real love, could make you less bothered by your circumstances, whether it was facing the greatest disappointment of your life or shouldering the weight of a country. And suddenly, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember why I’d been so afraid of it.

I mentally thumbed through my list of suitors. Kile’s sweetness, Fox’s enthusiasm, Henri’s joy … these were all things that drew me in. But, beyond that, was there something beautiful and lasting?

I still didn’t know. But finding out no longer looked so frightening.

I shook the thought away for the moment and headed into the parlor. Sure enough, Dad’s glasses were sitting, unfolded and upside down, on a pile of books. I carried them toward his room, still wondering about the future. In an effort to keep from waking Mom, in case she was sleeping, I knocked on the door to his personal study.

“Yes?” he called.

I walked in to find Dad at his desk, squinting at some papers.

“I found these,” I said, holding up his glasses and wiggling them between my fingers.

“Ah! You’re a lifesaver. Where’s Aspen?” he asked, happily taking the glasses and popping them on his face.

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