Though I was getting tired, I knew it wasn’t yet time for me to sneak away. One last lap, I told myself. I’d shake hands, give two or three interviews, and duck out the side door.
So many smiles and hugs, so many well wishes and promises to be in contact soon. It cycled energy through me almost as quickly as it sucked it back out. As I rounded the corner where Ean was speaking with a few people who had won the lottery to come to the coronation, another waltz started playing.
“Oh, a dance!” a young girl pleaded. I thought she meant she wanted Ean to dance with her, but she nudged him in my direction, and he was only too happy to escort me onto the floor.
After a few turns I had to ask, “How long have you liked Hale?”
He smiled. “From the moment we were getting prepped to meet you. He just looked so happy, to the point of being cartoonish. It was endearing.”
“It is endearing,” I agreed.
“I’m sorry I lied to you. I was planning on taking this to my grave.”
He shrugged. “I’m not sure. But Hale’s so damned insistent on being true to yourself that, at the very least, I wouldn’t try to use someone like a screen to hide it, the way I tried to with you. It’s not fair to anyone.”
“It’s hard to be fair to yourself sometimes, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “I wouldn’t compare our circumstances though. In the end, no one cares about me, and everyone cares about you.”
“Don’t be silly. I care about you. I cared about the swaggering snob who introduced himself that very first day.” He laughed, thinking back. Some of that veneer had slipped away. Not all of it, but I knew how hard it was to let walls down. “And I care about this nervous, gentle person in front of me now.”
Ean was not the type to cry. He didn’t swallow or blink or give any of the typical signs, but I sensed that if he’d ever been close to shedding a tear, it was right now.
“I’m so glad I get to see you be queen. Thank you, Your Majesty. For everything.”
The song came to a close, and we bowed our heads to each other.
“Is it all right if I leave in the morning?” he asked. “I’d like to have some time with my family. To talk.”
“Of course. Stay in touch.”
He nodded and crossed the room, ready to begin his new life.
I’d done it. I’d made it through the day without doing anything humiliating, no one had protested, and I was still standing. It was over, and I could escape to the peace and quiet of my room.
And then when I was about to hit the side door, I saw Marid speaking in front of a camera.
He looked at me and lit up like a firework, waving me over to join in his interview. And while everything in me wanted to go and rest, his smile was so charming that I went to his side.
“HERE SHE IS, THE LADY of the hour,” he said, wrapping an arm around me as the interviewer giggled.
“Your Majesty, how are you feeling?” she asked, pointing the microphone at my face.
“Am I allowed to say tired?” I joked. “No, it’s been an incredible day, and with so many distressing things happening in our country recently, I certainly hope today will lift everyone’s spirits. And I’m very excited to get to work. Thanks to the wonderful young men in the Selection and friends, like Mr. Illéa here, I’ve gotten to know so much more about my people. I’m hoping we’ll be able to find ways to hear and address needs much more efficiently.”
“Can you give us any hints at what you’re planning to do?” she asked eagerly.
“Well, I think our town hall meeting, which was completely Marid’s idea,” I said, gesturing to him, “started off a bit rocky but was ultimately very informative. And Sir Woodwork actually had an interesting proposal recently about giving citizens a much easier way to petition the crown. I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but it was incredibly inspired.”
“Speaking of proposals,” she said excitedly, “any news on that front?”
I laughed. “Let me get through my first week as queen and then I’ll turn my focus back to dating.”
“Fair enough. And what about you, sir? Any words of advice for our new queen?”
I turned to face Marid, who shrugged and ducked his head. “I just wish her all the luck with her reign, and finishing her Selection. The guy who wins her heart will be luckier than he knows.”
Marid swallowed, seeming to have a hard time meeting the interviewer’s eyes again.
She nodded heartily. “He certainly will.” She turned to the camera and signed off, her attention no longer on us.
I took Marid’s arm and swung him around, moving us out of earshot. “I don’t want to be rude after all the kindness you’ve shown me, but behaving like that is inappropriate.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Like you and I might have been something if only the Selection hadn’t happened. This is the third time I know of that you’ve said something like that, but I haven’t even seen you in years. I am duty and honor bound to marry one of my candidates, so acting wounded when we’ve had absolutely nothing together is unacceptable. I must insist that you stop it at once.”
“And why would I do that?” he said, his voice becoming slick.
“If your family had been paying the slightest bit of attention to your people, you might have learned by now that when it comes to the public, I have an incredibly powerful voice. They treasure me. You should see the piles of fan mail I receive. Not everyone thinks the Schreave line is the valid one.”
I froze, terrified that there was truth to what he was saying.
“You owe me a lot, Eadlyn. I’ve kept you looking good in papers and spoken well of you in interviews, and I saved that town hall meeting. I did that, not you.”
“I could have—”
“No, you couldn’t. And that’s the problem. You can’t do this job alone. It’s nearly impossible, which is why you getting married is a wonderful idea. Only you’re looking in the wrong place.”
I was too stunned to speak.
“And, let’s be honest: if any of those boys were that excited about you, wouldn’t they be swarming around you this very second? From the outside looking in, they’re all indifferent.”
My shock turned to anguish. I looked around the room. He was right. None of the Elite seemed remotely aware of my presence.
“In the meantime, if you unite with me, the Illéa-Schreave line will be completely secure. No one would dare question your right to rule if you were my wife.”
The room swayed a little, and I fought to keep myself together as he went on. “And you can check the figures if you like, but as far as public opinion goes, my approval rating is twice what yours is. I could elevate you from tolerated to adored overnight.”
“Marid,” I said, hating that my voice sounded so weak. “This isn’t possible.”
“But it is. And either you can end this Selection on your own, or I can drop rumors about us to the point that no one takes it seriously anyway. By the time I’m done, you will look more heartless than they already think you are.”
I straightened my back. “I will ruin you,” I vowed.
“Try it. See how fast they turn on you.” He kissed my cheek. “You have my number.”
Marid walked away, casually shaking hands with those he passed as if he was already a member of the royal family. While all eyes seemed to follow him, I quietly ducked out of the room.
I was a fool. I’d thought that Hale cared about me, that Ean was here to support me, and I couldn’t have been more mistaken. I’d been wrong to trust Burke and Jack and Baden. I’d been positive Marid was here to help me, and he’d only been trying to set himself on the throne. My instincts were wrong at every turn, and suddenly it seemed as though the people around me were nothing but fakes.
Was I mistaken about anyone else? Was I wrong to trust Neena or Lady Brice? Was Kile not the friend I thought he was? Could I trust what I felt or thought about anyone?
I leaned against the wall, on the verge of tears. I was the queen. No one was as powerful as me. And yet I’d never felt more helpless.
Another figure came out of the doorway, and before I could duck farther out of sight, Erik’s face came into view.
“Your Majesty, I’m sorry. I was just escaping the crowds. It was a little too much for me in there.”
I didn’t answer.
“Seems to have been a bit too much for you as well,” he added cautiously.
I stared at the floor.
“Your Majesty?” He moved closer, whispering, “Can I help you?”
I stared into those wildly blue eyes and abandoned all the worries in my head. My heart said, Run. So I grabbed his hand and did just that.
I tore down the hallway, looking back once to make sure no one was following.
As I hoped, the Women’s Room was empty. Leaving the lights off, I pulled us closer to the window, so at least I’d have the moon to help me see.
“At the risk of making an even bigger fool out of myself than I already have, can you please answer something for me? And you absolutely must be honest here. I give you permission to hurt my feelings. I have to know.”
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