“Henri’s very sweet,” Mom commented. “Not the direction I was expecting you to go in, but he’ll certainly make you smile.”
“Pfft.” Dad turned to her. “What do you know about picking husbands? Last time you tried that, you got stuck with me.”
She smiled and hit his arm.
“You two are so gross, you ruin everything.” I spun and headed toward the door.
“Have a great day, honey,” Mom called after me, and I raised a hand in acknowledgment before pausing by Henri.
He beamed. “Yes! Good, good!” He dropped his napkin by his plate and took my arm.
“Wait up!” Fox called, and Kile was right behind him. “I’m looking forward to this. I think I did pretty well last time.”
“Erik’s such an encouraging teacher. Though you could just be stringing together random sounds, he’d tell you ‘nice try,’” Kile said with a laugh.
I nodded. “Maybe it’s a Swendish thing? Poor Henri was stuck helping me last time, and he had to grab my face because I was making the shapes wrong.” I mimicked the action, and Henri caught on, smiling at us. “But was he bothered? Nope.”
A second after I brought it up, I remembered that Henri and I might have been on the verge of a kiss in that moment. And while I was relieved to see neither of them seemed to have noticed it, I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t thought about that almost kiss at all.
When we got to the library, Erik was already in there, writing on the board.
“Good morning, Professor,” I greeted, walking over him.
“Your Highness. Or do we say Majesty, now?”
“Not yet!” I exclaimed. “Just thinking about that gives me the shivers.”
“Well, I’m thrilled for you. We all are. I mean, they all are,” he corrected, nodding toward the Elite, including Hale and Ean, who were walking in behind everyone. “I didn’t intend to lump myself in with them. I just get to see everyone’s reactions up close.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re part of the gang.” I laughed, looking around the room. “Sometimes this feels more like a weird little club than a competition.”
“You’re right. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is.”
His somber tone drew my eyes back to his face, though he was avoiding my gaze. Instead he picked up a handful of papers and gave them to me.
“And how lucky am I to be able to say I got to help the new queen learn Finnish?” His eyes glowed with pride.
I peeked over at the others, watching them choose seats, and stepped a little closer to keep my words between the two of us.
“I’ll miss you, too, you know. When it’s all over. You mean as much as the others. More than some.”
He shook his head. “You shouldn’t say that. I’m not like them.”
“You are exactly like them. As common and as elevated, Eikko.”
He stilled at the sound of his given name, and, just barely, the corners of his lips hitched up into a smile.
“Hey, Eady,” Kile called. “Want to be my partner?”
“Sure.” I walked over to him, and Erik followed.
“We’ll spend a few minutes going over what we learned last week,” Erik began. “Then we’ll move on to some basic conversational questions and answers. I know a few of you were studying other things, and I’m happy to help with any of that, too. For now, let’s go back to the numbers.”
“Okay, here we go. Yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä, viisi,” Kile recited proudly.
“How do you do that? I’m so jealous.”
“Practice. What, you don’t have a spare hour to devote to counting in Finnish?”
I laughed. “I’m taking showers at a breakneck speed these days. I miss my time. But it’ll be worth it, getting Mom and Dad a chance to breathe.”
“I feel weird saying I’m proud of you, but I am.” He tried to suppress his grin and failed. “It’s like this lets me know that I’m not falling for some figment of my imagination, that you’re really as smart and selfless and determined as I’ve started thinking you are.”
“As opposed to Eadlyn circa this time last year?” I said slyly.
“Don’t get me wrong, she was a fun girl. Knew how to party, knew how to light up a room. This girl does that and a hundred things more. And I like her. But you already know that.”
“I like you, too,” I whispered. I caught sight of Erik out of the corner of my eye and turned back to the paper. “Eight and nine trip me up because they’re similar but really different at the same time.”
“Okay. Let’s look at those again then.”
Erik walked away, and I felt guilty for wasting this class time when it was something I genuinely wanted to learn.
“Speaking of liking you, I’m sorry I haven’t been able to make much time.”
Kile shrugged. “Don’t worry about me, Eady. I’m still here.” With that he pointed to the paper in front of me, forcing me to focus on the syllables. I watched him exaggerate the shapes of the words with his mouth, all the while feeling grateful for language and time and everything waiting on my horizon.
I pushed open the office door to find Lady Brice on the phone. She waved at me as she continued speaking.
“Yes … yes … one week from today. Thank you!” She plunked down the receiver. “Sorry. Your desk is the biggest, and with the coronation in a week, there’s a lot to take care of. Flowers are ready, the church is booked, we have three designers working on dress options; and if you want Neena to oversee any of that, I’m sure she’d be thrilled.”
I stared at the piles of folders she’d set out. “Did you do all this in a day?”
“More or less.”
I made a face at her, and she grinned before confessing the truth.
“I had a feeling it was coming, so I had a few things hammered out just in case.”
I shook my head. “You know me better than I know myself.”
“Part of the job. Side note,” she said. “I got a call this morning from Marid. He thanked you for his family’s invitation to the coronation but wasn’t sure his parents would be completely welcome.”
“I spoke with Dad. He knew that, right?”
I sighed. “But Marid’s coming?”
“Yes. And once this has all passed and you’re settled in as queen, you can keep reaching out to them if you want.”
I nodded. “If that’s a bridge that can be mended, I want it done.”
“That seems very wise.”
I took a deep breath, basking in the praise. I’d need to keep the kind words I received close to me, like armor, if I was going to survive.
“I’m ready to work. Hit me with it.”
“Actually, I think the best use of your time might be to speak with some of the Elite, or go on a date or something.”
“I was just with them,” I protested. “They’re all fine.”
“I mean more in the one-on-one sense. Besides the coronation details, which you shouldn’t even be bothered with, there’s nothing that can’t wait until Monday. Your professional life is moving forward, and you were the one who said that it went hand in hand with your private life.” She raised her eyebrows at me.
“Why so glum? If I remember correctly, you think all five of them are front-runners.”
“It’s complicated. The one I most need to talk to might not even want to speak to me.” I sighed. “Wish me luck.”
“You don’t need it.”
I SAT IN MY ROOM, waiting for Hale to arrive. I wanted to have this conversation in a place that was intimate and comfortable. My palms were sweating, and I realized rather abruptly I was getting down to the boys I really didn’t want to send home. I knew only one would stay in the end, but I almost wished the others could call the palace home, too, or maybe promise to visit on holidays.
I snapped my head up at the knock on the door and went to answer it myself. I didn’t want Eloise around for this.
Hale bowed. “Your Highness.”
“Come in. Are you hungry? Thirsty?”
“No, I’m good.” He rubbed his hands together, looking as nervous as I was.
I sat at the table, and he joined me.
When I couldn’t bear the silence any longer, I spoke. “I need you to tell me what’s going on.”
He swallowed. “And I want to tell you. But I don’t know what I’ll do if you end up hating me because of it.”
Despite the warmth, I felt a chill. “Why would I hate you, Hale? What did you do?”
“It’s not something I did. It’s something I can’t do.”
Though I’d been expecting as much, though my heart had never really, fully been his, it was still a painful blow.
“What—” I had to stop and breathe. This was my worst fear coming to life. I was unlovable. I knew it. All it had taken was a few weeks by my side for him to figure it out. “What suddenly made you so certain you couldn’t marry me?”
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