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“I see what you’re saying. But what else? You’re not rushing through the Selection, are you?”

“Not on purpose. It seems to be thinning itself out for me.”

“What do you mean?”

I sighed. “I can’t really say now. Maybe once everything’s settled.”

“You can trust me.”

“I know.” I leaned my head into his shoulder. “Kile?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you remember our first kiss?”

“How could I forget? It was printed on the front of every newspaper.”

“No, not that one. Our first first kiss.”

After a beat of confusion, he sucked in a huge breath. “Oh. My. Gosh.”

I just lay there laughing.

When I was four and Kile was six, he and I played together a lot. I still didn’t remember what made him start hating palace life or when our mutual dislike for each other kicked in, but back then Kile was like another Ahren. One day the three of us were playing hide-and-seek, and Kile found me. Instead of tagging me out, though, he bent down and kissed me full on the mouth.

I stood up and pushed him to the ground and swore to him that if he ever tried it again, I’d have him hanged.

“What four-year-old knows how to threaten someone’s life?” he teased.

“One who was raised to, I suppose.”

“Wait, is this your way of telling me you’re having me hanged? Because, if so, this is incredibly cold.”

“No.” I laughed. “I felt you deserved an apology by now.”

“It’s fine. Really funny years later. When people ask about my first kiss, I never say that one. I tell them it was the daughter of the Saudi prime minister. I guess that one was actually my second.”

“Why don’t you tell them about me?”

“Because I thought you might follow through on the hanging thing,” he joked. “I guess I just blocked it out. It wasn’t exactly a fantastic first kiss.”

I started giggling. “Mom told me that she was Dad’s first kiss, and she pretty much tried to back out of it.”

“Really?!”

“Yeah.”

Kile laughed. “Do you know about Ahren’s?”

“No.” But Kile was so tickled, I was in tears before he said a word.

“It was with one of the Italian girls, but he had a cold and—” He paused because he was laughing so hard. “Oh, man, he had to sneeze mid-kiss, so there was snot everywhere.”

“What?”

“I didn’t see the kiss, but I was there for the aftermath. I just grabbed him, and we ran.”

My stomach hurt from laughing, and it took a while for it to wear out of our systems. When we finally calmed down, I realized something. “I don’t know anyone who’s had a really good first kiss.”

After a second he answered. “Me neither. Maybe it’s not the first kisses that are supposed to be special. Maybe it’s the last ones.”

I STOOD STILL AS NEENA placed pins down the back of my coronation gown. It was a showstopper, with a sweetheart neckline and a full skirt all in gold. The cape was a little heavy, but I only had to wear that in the church. While I had chosen this gown out of the three that had been offered to me, it probably wasn’t what I’d have worn if I’d had time to design the dress myself. Still, everyone sighed when they saw it, so I bit my tongue and was grateful.

“You look beautiful, darling,” Mom said as I stood on a raised platform in front of huge mirrors that had been brought to my room especially for this fitting.

“Thanks, Mom. How do you think it compares with yours?”

She chuckled. “My coronation dress was also my wedding dress, so there’s no comparison. Your gown is perfect for the occasion.”

Neena chuckled as I touched the embroidery on the bodice. “It’s definitely the most ostentatious dress I’ve ever worn.”

“And just think, you’ll have to one-up yourself when you get married,” Neena joked.

My smile faded. “True. That’ll be a challenge, huh?”

“You okay?” she asked, looking at me in the mirror.

“Yes. A little tired is all.”

“I don’t care what else happens this week, you need to rest,” Mom ordered. “Saturday is going to be long, and you’ll be at the center of it all.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I watched her fiddling with her necklace. “Mom? What do you think you would have done if you couldn’t have married Dad? Like, if it got to the end and he chose someone else?”

She shook her head. “He very nearly did. You know about the massacre.” She swallowed, pausing for a minute. After all this time it was still hard for her to go back there. “That day he might have gone down an entirely different path, which meant I would have, too.”

“Would you have been okay though?”

“Eventually,” she said slowly. “I don’t think either of us would have lived a life that was bad necessarily. It just might not have been the best it could have been.”

“But you wouldn’t have been completely miserable the rest of your life?”

She studied my face in the mirror. “If you’re worried about letting your suitors down, you can’t focus on that.”

I pressed my hands to my stomach, holding the dress tight as Neena worked. “I know. It’s just harder than I thought it would be by this point.”

“It’ll become clear. Trust me. And your father and I will support you in whatever choice you make.”

“Thank you.”

“I think this is finally coming together,” Neena commented, stepping back to appraise her work. “If you’re happy, you can take it off, and I’ll have the courier send it back to Allmond.”

Mom nibbled on some apple slices. “I don’t understand why he wouldn’t let you do the sewing. He trusts you to fit it.”

She shrugged. “I just follow orders.”

A quiet knock on the door drew our attention. “Come in,” Neena called, falling into her old role. I wished she could just run my entire life for me. Everything felt easier with her around.

A butler entered and bowed. “Pardon me, Your Highness. There’s some confusion about the suit for one of the gentlemen.”

“Which one?”

“Erik, miss.”

“The translator?” Mom asked.

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“I’m coming,” I said, following him out the door.

“Don’t you want to take off the gown?” Neena asked.

“It’ll give me a chance to practice walking in it.”

And it did. It was incredibly heavy, and a little hard to navigate down the stairs. I’d need sturdier heels.

As I approached Erik’s room, I could hear him imploring someone to reconsider. “I am not an Elite. It would be inappropriate.”

I pushed the door open wider, finding him in a suit with chalk lines down the sides and pins in the hem.

“Your Highness,” the tailor said, immediately dropping into a bow.

Erik, however, stared and stared, unable to look away from the dress.

“We’re having a problem coming to terms with his suit, miss.” The tailor motioned to the chalked-up suit.

Erik regained his composure. “I don’t want to confuse anyone by wearing a suit that matches what the Elite are wearing.”

“But you will be walking in the procession, and there will be scores of pictures,” the tailor insisted. “Uniformity is best.”

Erik looked at me, his eyes pleading.

I pressed my fingers to my lips, considering. “Could you give us a moment, please?”

The tailor bowed again and exited, and I crossed to stand in front of Erik.

“It does look rather sharp,” I said with a grin.

“It does,” he admitted. “I’m just not sure it’s proper.”

“What? To look nice for a day?”

“I’m not an Elite. It’s … confusing to have me standing with them, looking like them, when I can’t … I’m not …”

I put a hand on his chest. “The tailor is right. You will want to blend in. A different color of suit wouldn’t help your case here.”

He sighed. “But I’m—”

“What if your tie was a slightly different color?” I offered quickly.

“Is that my only option?”

“Yes. Besides, think of how much your mother will love this.”

He rolled his eyes. “That’s so unfair. You win.”

I clapped my hands. “See? That wasn’t so hard.”

“Of course it was easy for you. You were the one giving the command.”

“I didn’t mean to command you, not really.”

He smirked. “Of course you did. You’re made for it.”

I couldn’t tell if that was a critique or a compliment. “What do you think?” I asked, holding out my arms. “I mean, you have to try to imagine it without all the pins.”

He paused. “You look breathtaking, Eadlyn. I couldn’t even remember what I was so worked up about when you first walked in.”

I fought the blush. “I’ve been wondering if it was too much.”

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