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After a long moment he nodded, though his expression told me he was terrified of what might come.

“Is there a chance that you feel for me the way I feel for you? If you’ve felt even a fraction of this riot that’s been happening in my heart, I need to know.”

Erik let out a breath, seeming stunned and sad at once. “Your Majesty, I—”

“No!” I said, ripping the crown off my head and flinging it across the room. “Not Majesty. Eadlyn. I’m just Eadlyn.”

He smiled. “You are always just Eadlyn. And you are always the queen. You are everything to everyone. And infinitely more to me.”

I placed a hand on his chest and could feel his heart pounding in time with mine. He suddenly seemed aware of how desperate I was and wordlessly cupped my cheek in his palm and leaned down to kiss me.

Every moment we’d ever had together danced through my head. His awkward stance the day we first met, and how I scolded him before the parade for biting his nails. The way he protected me when the fight broke out in the kitchen, and how my eyes flitted to him over and over when the boys were deep in prayer outside the hospital wing. And, most astonishingly, the moment in the Women’s Room when Camille asked who filled my head, and how hard I fought to stop myself from saying his name out loud then and there.

All of it, every magical, forbidden second burned through me as we continued our dangerously treasonous kiss. When we finally broke apart, I was in tears, positive that Ahren leaving and the fear of losing my mother had been painless in comparison to this.

He shook his head, still holding on to me. “Of course the one time I let myself fall in love, it’s with someone in another stratosphere.”

I dug my fingers into his shirt, his vest, so angry that I couldn’t hold on to it forever. “This will be the first time in my life I haven’t been able to have something I truly wanted. It’s so cruel that it happens to be you.”

He swallowed. “It really is impossible then?”

My face fell. I didn’t want to say the words. “I’m afraid so. In so many ways now. I can hardly grasp it all to explain, but everything just got much more complicated for me.”

“You don’t owe me an explanation. I already knew. I made the mistake of letting myself hope for a moment. That’s all.”

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, dropping my gaze. “If I thought I could cancel this whole thing, I would. But it would be seen as one more mistake on top of all the other selfish, stupid things I’ve done.”

Using his other hand, he gently lifted my chin. “Please don’t speak that way about the woman I love.”

My smile was weak. “I’ve been so unfair to you. It was eating me alive, all the wondering, but maybe we would have been better off if we’d never known.”

“No,” he said, somehow able to find comfort in the middle of us being torn apart. “There is no shame in loving who you love, and there is great honor in doing what is right. It’s a pity those two things don’t overlap for us, but that makes this moment no less important to me.”

“Or to me.”

He held my hand so tenderly, still seeming shocked that he had the courage to do it at all.

“I should get back,” he said. “I’d hate to cause a scandal.”

I sighed. “You’re right.” And still I couldn’t quite let go. I stood pressing myself to him. “I’m not engaged yet,” I whispered. “Would you meet me tomorrow night?”

It was impossible not to see all the gears turning in his head. It was also easy to see the moment when he stopped thinking and nodded yes anyway.

“I’ll get word to you. Leave now, and I’ll make my way out in a few minutes.”

Erik gave me one last hurried kiss and dashed back into the hall. Meanwhile, I retrieved my crown and walked over to the hidden panel behind the bookcase. I wanted to be sure no one would find me tonight.

There were no more rebels in Illéa, no threats like that to run away from. But there were still dozens of secret passages in the palace, and I knew every single one.

“GOOD MORNING, YOUR MAJESTY,” LADY Brice greeted me as I walked into the office. Typically, I’d been able to sleep in on Sundays, but there was no way I could spend my first day as queen in bed, especially not after the way things ended last night.

I sighed, both tired and thrilled. “I heard it a million times yesterday, but it still feels strange to answer to that title.”

“You’ll have decades to get used to it,” she replied with a smile.

“Speaking of that, I need to speak with you about the Selection, and my reign, and an unexpected complication.”

“Complication?”

“Can you tell me something? How popular is Marid?”

Lady Brice whistled. “He’s made quite a name for himself over the last few years. He’s frequently interviewed on the radio, and he’s so handsome and comes from such a well-known family that he ends up in a lot of print media as well. Plenty of people listen when he speaks. Fortunate he decided to turn up when he did, huh?”

Before I could explain what had happened last night, I heard the door open behind me, and Josie burst into the room.

“Hey! Hope I’m not late!” she exclaimed.

I closed my eyes in frustration. I completely forgot she was supposed to start shadowing me today.

“Can I help you?” Lady Brice asked.

“Oh, I’m here to help you,” she announced. “I’m shadowing Eadlyn today. Maybe longer, if this goes well.”

“Miss Marlee suggested it during the family photo session yesterday,” I said quickly.

Lady Brice nodded, and it was at this moment that Neena entered the office as well. Though I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was sharing everything in front of Josie, it seemed I had no choice.

“Okay,” I began slowly, “we have a problem. And his name is Marid Illéa.”

“Really?” Neena asked. “He’s seemed helpful so far.”

“Yes, that was how he meant it to look. But, in truth, his goal has always been to take the crown.” I swallowed, feeling stupid all over again. “Last night I called him out for encouraging the press to think that we were more than friends, and he made it clear that he was planning to pursue this angle until the public would demand that I marry him.”

Lady Brice put her head in her hands. “I knew he could undermine this whole thing. I knew it. We should have squashed the rumors.”

I shook my head. “This isn’t your fault. You gave me the opportunity early on, and I didn’t take it. I just never thought he’d try to worm his way into the palace as a permanent fixture.”

“It’s so sneaky,” Lady Brice said, balling her hands into fists. “His parents threw rocks and stormed the palace. All he has to do is make a few properly timed speeches, and he’s in without looking remotely aggressive.”

“Exactly. And I’m … I’m scared. If he sways the people to believe he should be my prince consort, they’ll come after the monarchy. They’ve been on the edge of revolt for a while, and now that I’m queen, there’s nothing to stop the people who held out for my father’s sake. But if we concede, and he’s here … if he could lie that easily just to get near to me …”

“What would he do when he sees he doesn’t need you anymore?” Lady Brice said somberly.

I’d already pictured a dozen different scenarios. He’d say I slipped down the stairs, or fell asleep in the bath, or that the Singer genes had gotten to my heart, too. I didn’t want to think of Marid as purely evil, but I understood that he was out for power and had no regard for me.

It was possible I was being paranoid, I knew that. But after having missed so many things in the last few months, things that should have forced me to be careful, to speak up, to do something, now wasn’t the time to assume things would be fine.

“Then we have to silence him. What do we do?” Neena asked.

“Why do you need to do anything?” Josie asked. We all turned, and her smile faded under the weight of our stares. “I mean, you’re the queen. You could just kill him if you wanted. If he was being a traitor, right?”

“If he acts like a traitor, yes. But when it seems like he’s in love with me and I decide to hang him, how does that make me look?”

She squinted, taking that in. “Awful.”

“Worse than awful. And my approval is hanging on by a thread as it is. I can’t have him killed. I don’t even think I can publicly say I have no interest in him now, not without backlash.”

“Then what?” Lady Brice asked.

“This doesn’t leave the room. Does everyone understand?” I stared at Josie, hoping she understood the importance of secrecy. “First, we will ignore Marid. He’s not allowed in the palace, and if he calls, no one speaks to him. He’s completely shut out of my presence from here on out. We can’t give the press so much as a whisper to draw from.”

“Agreed,” Lady Brice commented.

“Second, I’ve mapped out how the next few weeks will go in terms of the Selection. Ean is heading home this morning. We spoke last night, and he’s ready to go. Early next week Hale will be leaving as well.”

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