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Neena tilted her head, trying to put doubt in Lady Brice’s mind. “It could easily fall apart on the ten-minute drive.”

“Also, the likelihood of someone thinking Neena and I are sisters is slim,” I added. “Stay with us.”

She pursed her lips as if she thought this was somehow a bad idea. “Fine. Let’s go.”

We piled into the limo, my dress taking up the space of three people. There was so much laughter and feet stepping over feet that the whole thing started to feel funny. I took a deep breath. All I had to do was say a few words, make a promise I’d already made in my heart. I looked across the car to Mom. She gave me a wink, and that was all I needed.

Josie and Neena followed me down the aisle of the church, holding my cape so it didn’t drag across the floor. As I walked, I looked at the signet ring on my finger, the Illéan crest gleaming in the center. Dad already trusted me in this role. He was already delighted with the way I was handling it. This was just making everything official.

I caught the eyes of as many people as I could, hoping to convey my gratitude. At the head of the church, I knelt on the little resting stool, feeling the weight of my dress fanned out behind me. The bishop took the ceremonial crown and held it above my head.

“Are you, Eadlyn Schreave, willing to take this oath?”

“I am willing.”

“Do you vow to uphold the laws and honor of Illéa all the days of your life, governing your people according to their traditions and customs?”

“I do.”

“And do you vow to protect the interests of Illéa, both at home and abroad?”

“I do.”

“And do you vow to use your power and placement to bring mercy and justice for all Illéa’s people?”

“I do.”

It felt appropriate that vows to a country required four affirmations, whereas vows to another person only required one. With my final words spoken, the bishop set the crown on my head. I rose and turned to face my people, my cape looking rather beautiful curled up around my feet like a cat. The bishop placed the scepter in my left hand and the orb in my right.

There was a loud knock of a staff on the floor, and the people around me shouted, “God save the queen.”

And I felt a thrill in my chest to know those words were meant for me.

“OSTEN, FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE, STAND up,” Mom ordered.

“But it’s so hot,” he complained as we began what would be a marathon photo session.

Dad stepped around me. “You can pull it together for five minutes of pictures, son.”

Ahren laughed. “Oh, I’ve missed you all.”

I swatted him. “I’m so glad no one’s actually filming this.”

“Okay, okay. We’re all ready,” Dad called to the photographer. He and Mom posed behind me, their arms on the back of my chair. Osten and Ahren knelt on either side of me, while Kaden stood with one hand behind his back, almost challenging me for the most regal-looking family member of the day.

The photographer snapped shot after shot until he was satisfied. “And who’s next?”

We all stayed where we were, pulling Camille into the picture. Then, so we would have a picture of the whole family, each of the Elite boys was rotated through the portrait.

Then it was a picture of me with the Legers, then one with each member of the advisory board, including Lady Brice, who bypassed the traditionally stiff pose and hugged me tightly instead. “I’m so proud!” she kept saying. “Just so, so proud!” Then, of course, we had to get a shot with the entire Woodwork family.

Josie walked up as fast as she could, placing herself so she was practically front and center. I shook my head as Miss Marlee gave me a big hug.

“I’m so happy for you, honey. You’ve grown up so fast.”

I laughed. “Thank you, Miss Marlee. I’m glad you could all be here today.”

Mr. Woodwork smiled. “As if we’d miss it. Congratulations.”

Miss Marlee still held my hands. “These past few months, seeing you ascend, and watching you and Kile become so close, have been wonderful.”

I smiled. “Honestly, it’s hard to imagine us not being friends now. I can’t believe it took us this long to actually get to know each other.”

“It’s funny how that works,” Miss Marlee replied. “It seems like a shame you and Josie have hardly gotten to spend any time together.”

“What?” Josie said, able to hear her name if it was so much as tapped out in Morse code on a different continent.

“It might be good for you to do more together.” Miss Marlee looked between the two of us, glowing with joy.

“Yeah! We totally should!” Josie squealed.

“And I’d love to,” I lied. “But now that I’m queen, I’m afraid my free time will be very limited.”

Mom smiled knowingly behind her friend. I could tell she realized exactly what I was trying to do.

Miss Marlee frowned. “True. Oh, I know! Why don’t you have Josie shadow you for a few days? She’s always had a deep interest in the life of a princess. Now she can study a queen!”

“That. Would be. Amazing!” Josie grabbed my hand, and to my credit, I didn’t jerk it away.

With everyone waiting for me to speak and my mother’s eyes warning me that, queen or not, I’d better not disappoint her closest friend, I didn’t have a choice.

“Sure. Josie can shadow me. That will be … great.”

Josie danced back to her spot, and I eyed Kile, who was doing his best not to laugh at my newest predicament. His amusement made me smile, and I felt confident that I’d at least look happy in the pictures.

Finally it was time for the individual portraits with the Elite. I stood in my coronation gown as they were each cycled onto the set.

Fox was first, and he looked sharp in his dark-gray suit. “Okay, so what do I do?” he asked. “In the family picture, I put my arms by my side; but I feel like I should, I don’t know, hold your hand or something.”

The photographer called out, “Yes, that’s good,” as Fox took my hand in his. He stepped a little closer, and we smiled as clicks flashed through in quick succession.

Ean sauntered over next, looking quite pleased. “Stunning, Eadlyn. Absolutely stunning.”

“Thanks. You don’t look so bad yourself.”

“True,” he said, smirking. “Very true.”

He positioned himself behind me. “I haven’t gotten to thank you yet. Both for your pardon and your discretion.”

“You and I always got by on minimal communication. I knew you were thankful.”

“I’d been preparing myself for a life of disappointment,” he admitted, his tone the closest to nervousness I’d ever heard it. “To consider that anything else is possible feels unreal. I’m not quite sure how to move forward.”

“Just live.”

Ean smiled at me, kissed my forehead, and moved to the side.

After Ean it was Kile’s turn, and he barreled across the set, making me scream when he scooped me up and spun me around.

“Put me down!”

“Why? Because you’re queen? I’ll need a better reason than that.”

He finally stopped, facing the camera, and I knew we were both grinning like idiots. These pictures would be a completely different kind of spectacular.

“I nearly killed myself stepping on that cape,” he said. “Fashion is deadly.”

“Don’t say that to Hale,” I commented.

“Say what to me?” Hale said as they switched places.

“That fashion can kill.” Kile straightened his suit as he walked.

“Hers could. You look amazing,” he said, embracing me.

“Thanks so much for your help this morning. Everything held together.”

“Of course it did. Did you doubt my skills?” he teased.

“Never.”

I stood back so we could take a few pictures with our faces showing, though I couldn’t wait to see the ones of us embracing.

Finally it was Henri’s turn, and his smile alone was enough to make this long day feel short. He stopped a few steps away from me and took a deep breath.

“You are look very beautiful. I am happy for you.”

My hand flew to my mouth, so moved. “Henri. Thank you! Thank you so much!”

He shrugged. “I trying.”

“You’re doing great. Really.”

He nodded and came over to me, gently turning me away from him. Then he walked around to move my cape so it fluttered around from behind me, and he came to the other side, placing his hands on my waist, standing proudly just over my shoulder.

It was clear he had put a lot of thought into how he wanted to be perceived in this portrait, and I admired that. When the photographer was done, Henri began to walk away, then paused.

“Umm, entä Erik?” he said, pointing to his friend.

Kile caught on and was in full agreement. “Yeah, Erik’s been through this, too. He needs to get up there.”

Erik simply shook his head. “No, I’m fine. It’s fine.”

“Go on, man, it’s just a picture.” Kile pushed him a little, but he still didn’t move.

Part of me worried that somehow, everyone would be able to hear my pulse beating out his name if he got any closer. But as hard as I’d worked to avoid him the last few days, it was just as challenging not to run to him now.

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