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“I am. Very much,” I confessed.

“Anything I can do for you?”

I placed a hand on his shoulder. “Cross your fingers. It’s going to be an interesting night.”

I took my seat next to Mom, looking out at the small crowd. Josie’s clothing choice baffled me once again. She was covered in so many sequins, one might have thought she was going to be on camera tonight. Maybe that was her plan, to be prepared in case it ever happened.

General Leger usually stood, but tonight he was seated next to Miss Lucy, and she leaned into him. He turned his head slightly to give her the gentlest kiss along her hairline. Neither of them looked at each other or spoke, but I could tell there was some wordless communication happening, and they both seemed lost in the moment.

I could have watched them for hours, but I got distracted. Kaden waved wildly, holding two thumbs up, and I smirked, giving him a small wave in reply.

“If he’s that excited about what’s coming, imagine how excited Ahren will be when he hears.” Mom tugged at her necklace again, arranging all her protective layers.

“Yeah,” I answered lamely, thinking that if he couldn’t even call me to tell me how he was, he might not be excited at all.

The cameras rolled, and the show began.

Mom opened the Report with assurances that she was on the mend. “I’m doing wonderfully, thanks to the work of our excellent doctors and the care of my family,” she promised. I knew that this was the only news that would matter to the audience until our big announcement. I could barely pay attention to the updates on funding and international relations myself; I doubted the rest of the country could.

Finally Dad walked up to the podium in the middle of the stage. Staring into the camera, he slowly exhaled. “My people,” he started, but quickly stopped and turned to face Mom and me. I took her hand, worried he would change his mind. As scared as I was to take his place, backing out now would feel like failing.

He gazed at the two of us for a moment, his lips slowly forming a smile, then looked back into the camera.

“My beloved people, I come before you tonight to ask for your mercy. In twenty years as king I have done my best to alleviate the wars and issues that threatened our peace for so long. We have formed new alliances, gotten rid of archaic social practices, and done all we can to give you, the individual, the greatest chance at personal happiness. Now, I pray you will do the same for me.

“With my wife’s recent health scare, I find myself unable to focus on moving our country forward, let alone maintaining what we currently have. As such, after much thought and discussion, our family has decided that my daughter, Princess Eadlyn Schreave, will ascend the throne.”

He paused to let the words sink in, and in that moment I heard the most unexpected sound: applause.

I looked up and saw it was the boys. They were clapping for me. Kile jumped to his feet, thrilled at the news, and Hale joined him, thrusting his fingers into his mouth to give a whistle. After the Elite were all standing, I realized that everyone in the studio had joined in. And not just Miss Marlee and General Leger, but the makeup girls and the floor runners who made sure the show went on without a hitch.

My lip trembled a little, completely overwhelmed by their instant joy. It bolstered my confidence. Maybe we’d been worried for nothing.

Dad, encouraged by the response, carried on as the noise died down. “We are settling plans for the coronation as we speak, and it will take place by the end of next week. Having worked side by side with the princess for the whole of her life, I know our country could not be in better hands. I also must tell you that she volunteered to take on this role early, so that her mother and I may step back from leading and enjoy simply being a husband and wife, a life we have not yet been privileged to lead. I hope you will join me in rejoicing over this wonderful news. Our whole family thanks you, our people, for your enduring support.”

As soon as Dad finished speaking, the clapping and whistling started all over again. We passed each other as I went to the podium, and when he raised his hand for a high five, I couldn’t not respond. I stopped in front of the podium, feeling a thousand butterflies in my stomach.

“I want to thank everyone in the palace for their help and guidance since I became regent, and let all Illéa know how delighted I am to ascend the throne. I cannot begin to express what joy it brings me to be able to do this for my parents.” That was truer than anything I knew. All the nerves in the world couldn’t dampen it. “And as I step into the position of queen, that means that one of these gentlemen back here won’t simply be a prince. He will immediately become a prince consort.”

I looked over my shoulder at them, and while some, like Fox and Kile, seemed ecstatic, Hale was frowning. So the other night wasn’t just a fluke. He was having genuine doubts. What had happened? How had I lost him?

“My upcoming coronation will be one of the biggest celebrations the palace has ever seen. Please go to your Provincial Services Office for information, as one family from each province will be invited to the palace, all expenses paid, to enjoy the festivities.” That had been my idea, one I felt sure Marid would appreciate. “And, of course, we appreciate your support of our family through this transitional period. We thank you, Illéa. Good night!”

I went over to Mom and Dad the second the cameras went down. “Can you believe that?”

“It went so well!” Mom said. “The boys clapping, starting it all themselves. It was so organic, and I know that had to encourage people at home.”

“It’s a good sign,” Dad agreed. “And I think the element of your chosen husband immediately becoming a prince consort definitely adds something to this Selection.”

“As if it wasn’t crazy enough.” I sighed and smiled, feeling too happy to care that this was all complete madness.

Dad kissed my forehead. “You were wonderful. Now, do you need some rest?” he asked, turning to Mom.

“I’m fine.” She rolled her eyes as they headed off the stage.

“Are you sure? We could have dinner brought up to our room.”

“So help me, if you do that, I will throw it at you.”

I laughed. It was making more and more sense that they fought through their whole Selection process.

Now I just needed to get through mine.

I RAN DOWN TO BREAKFAST the next morning, gripping the paper in my hand. I buzzed past the guards and the Elite, plunking it down in front of Mom and Dad.

“Look,” I urged, pointing to the headline.

What Do They Know That We Don’t? it read, the photo beneath it a shot of the boys all standing and cheering on the Report.

Dad picked up the paper, popped on his glasses, and read the article aloud, though not projecting his voice for the room to hear.

“‘When you think of Princess Eadlyn Schreave, the first words that come to mind might not be congenial, enthusiastic, or beloved. She certainly has class and beauty, and while no one could argue her intellect, one might have cause to question other traits, such as her devotion to her people. So we have to ask, what is it that these young men—indeed, these Sons of Illéa—know about her that we have missed?’”

Mom looked up at me, smiling.

“‘When the five remaining gentlemen in the Selection instantly rose to their feet and applauded at the announcement of the princess’s ascent, I will admit, that was not this reporter’s initial reaction. I was worried. She’s young. She’s distant. She’s not in touch with her people.

“‘But if these boys, all but one of them strangers to her up until recently, immediately decide to celebrate, then there must be more to our upcoming queen than a pretty face. Recently the Elite spoke of her being considerate and engaging. Are these qualities she’s had all along that merely haven’t been easy to translate on screen? Is she a genuine leader, prepared to sacrifice for her people?

“‘The nature of her rise to the crown would suggest the answer is yes. The king and queen are still young. They are still physically and mentally able to continue their reign. To see the princess take over early so that they can enjoy their time together as a married couple shows not only her love for her family, but her commitment to her work.’”

I could see Mom’s eyes welling with tears now.

“‘Only time will tell if these assumptions prove true, but I can say that my faith in the crown has been—at least temporarily—restored.’”

“Oh, honey,” Mom exclaimed.

Dad passed the newspaper back to me. “Eady, this is great.”

“It’s the most encouraging thing to happen publicly for a long time,” I agreed with a contented sigh. “I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high, but it makes going to work today that much easier.”

“I hope you’re planning to take it easy this morning.” Mom gave me a pointed look. “I don’t want you getting burned out before you even start.”

“I’d tell you I have a simple morning planned, but it’d be a lie,” I admitted. “I’m off to a Finnish lesson right now. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to count in Finnish?”

Dad sipped his coffee. “I’ve listened to it for years. I applaud you for trying.”

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