Neena made a face. “I’m sad to see Hale go.”
“Me, too. But this was a mutual agreement, so I assure you there are no hard feelings on either side.”
“That makes it easier,” she admitted. “But wait. Aren’t you supposed to choose within four days once you get to a top three?”
“Yes. The only way to beat Marid at his game is to choose a husband as quickly as possible. And regardless of how deeply in love I may or may not be, it has to look as good as what my parents have. Better, if we can manage it.” I took a deep breath. “So once Hale is gone, we’ll wait a few days and then eliminate Fox. He’s nice, but we don’t have a real connection. That will leave Kile and Henri as the final two, and I intend to do a live broadcast in about two weeks to announce my fiancé.”
“Two weeks!” Neena gasped. “Eadlyn!”
“I will need help with the perception of this,” I went on. “I checked some recent poll numbers, and Hale and Kile have been front-runners for a while. I’ll take care of making sure that Hale’s decision to go is seen as necessary so the people will be satisfied with his departure, but we need something sensational about Henri. Like that he bakes for people in nursing homes or that his family is descended from Swendish nobility. Even if you have to stretch the truth, do it. Get him to the final two with everyone’s approval.”
No one spoke for a moment.
“Do you even love Kile?” Josie asked. For once her face had lost its ridiculously blank look, and I saw the deep, genuine concern in her eyes.
I thought of Erik. Of him promising me that it was worth it. Of how he’d treated me from the very start. Of how he’d kissed me.
Of how he’d be gone soon.
“I’d be happy with Kile.”
Certainly leaders before me had made much bigger sacrifices, but Lady Brice, Neena, and Josie all looked as though I was marching into death.
“Are you going to help me or not?” I demanded.
“I’ll see what I can find out about Henri,” Lady Brice said. “I’d prefer to start with the absolute truth first.”
“As would I. And I feel confident you’ll be able to find something for him. He’s such a sweetheart.”
“He is,” Neena agreed. “As is Kile. You could do much worse.”
Yes, I thought. But I could also do much better.
“Do what you need to get everything in place for this. I’m going to spend the rest of the day working from my room. Josie?” She snapped to attention. “Are you coming back tomorrow, or was this enough for you?”
“It was more than enough,” she said, swallowing.
“Not a word, you understand?”
She nodded, but I could hardly bear to look at her. She seemed so sad for me, and of all people, I couldn’t stand her pitying me. But when I looked at Neena and Lady Brice, their expressions were just as bad.
I pulled myself up as tall as I could and left the room, remembering that, no matter what, I was still queen.
“WHAT IS THIS PLACE?” ERIK asked. I’d done my best to make it cozy, sneaking in with a basket full of candles and blankets midday, and another full of food when everyone left for dinner.
Erik said he was sick, I said I had work, and we met in an inconspicuous spot on the second floor. One of the easiest passages that led down to the massive safe room was by my mother’s old bedroom, the one she’d had during her Selection. Sometimes she took pilgrimages there, like it was the calmest place for her to be in the palace.
“Back when the rebels were a deadly threat, the royal family used to escape down here,” I told Erik as we made our way through the passage. “But this place hasn’t been used in well over a decade, and now I think it may be the palace’s best kept secret.”
“In other words, no one’s finding us,” Erik responded with a smile.
“Not if we don’t want them to.”
He took a deep breath. “I’ve felt so guilty today, torn between how excited I was about your invitation and how guilty I feel since I’m not even a choice.”
I nodded, pulling plates from the basket and setting them on top of the blankets. “I know. I’ve been cursing the Selection in ways I haven’t since my parents first mentioned it. And then I take it all back, because if it had never happened …”
We shared a long look. I broke it with a sigh, continuing to set out our candlelit picnic.
“You know, my father wasn’t supposed to marry my mother.”
“You’re kidding,” he said, joining me.
“Apparently my grandfather had handpicked the girls who came to compete. He only threw in three Fives to appease the lower castes, and he hated Mom from the get-go. On top of that, I found out my parents used to argue all the time.” I shrugged, still surprised by their rocky history. “I grew up thinking that they were a fairy tale, you know? It turns out they were just like anyone else. Somehow that makes it even more magical.”
I let the words hang, thinking of everything I knew now.
“They slow dance when it rains. I have no idea why, but every time the sky turns gray, you’ll find them together.” I smiled. “I remember once Dad barged into the Women’s Room, which is completely improper. You’re supposed to be invited in. But it was raining, and he wasn’t going to wait to sweep her away. And one time he dipped her in the hallway, and she just laughed and laughed. She was still wearing her hair down then, and I’ll never forget how it looked like a waterfall of red. It’s like no matter what happens, they can find themselves again there.”
“I know what you mean.” Erik eyed the bottle of red wine I’d snagged and grinned. “My parents find themselves over omenalörtsy.”
I wrapped my arms around my knees, tucking my dress beneath me. “What’s that?”
“It’s like an apple doughnut. My mother made him a batch when they were dating, and it became their thing. When something good happens: omenalörtsy. When they’re making up after a fight: omenalörtsy. When it seems like a particularly wonderful Friday: omenalörtsy.”
“How did they meet?”
“This will sound strange, but through bolts and screws.”
I squinted. “So … are they mechanics?”
“No,” he replied with a chuckle. “My parents have known each other basically their entire lives. They grew up in the same small town in Swendway. When they were eleven, some guys at school were picking on my dad, throwing his schoolwork in the mud. My mom was even smaller than him at the time, but she went right up and yelled at them and pulled my dad away.
“He was embarrassed, but she was enraged. She forced him into an alliance, and that night they met each other on a back road, ran to each of the three bullies’ houses, and stole the screws out of their bike wheels so they’d have to walk. For weeks after that, any time they saw that one of the bullies had replaced the screws, my mom and dad would go steal them. After a while the bullies gave up and walked.”
“I like your mom,” I said through bites of bread.
“Oh, you guys would get along great. She loves food and music and is on a constant hunt for a good reason to laugh. My dad, on the other hand— Well, if you think I’m shy, you should meet him. He’s much more comfortable with books than people, and it can take him a while to warm up to strangers. Anyway, my parents grew up, and because they were very different people, they ran in different circles. Boy after boy came by for my mother, while my dad was spending weekends in the library.
“When my dad got older, he bought a bike. And one morning he woke up and found the screws for his wheels were missing.”
“Yes. And she did this until he wised up and started walking with her to school. And they’ve been walking together everywhere since.”
“That is amazing.”
He nodded. “They married young but waited awhile to start a family. They tell me not to take offense but that they weren’t ready to share each other with anyone else, not even me.”
I shook my head. “I really wish I could meet them.”
“They’d have liked you. Dad might have spent most of the visit hiding in his room, but he’d have liked you all the same.”
Erik uncorked the wine, and we shared fruit and bread and cheese. For a long time we didn’t speak. The silence made everything feel bigger, better. There was no rush to fill the space, and after days and days of sound, the comfortable quiet with Erik was the most soothing thing in my world. It was like being alone without really being alone.
“I have to ask an embarrassing question,” I admitted after a while.
“Oh, no.” He took a deep breath. “All right, I’m ready.”
“What’s your full name?”
He nearly spit out his wine. “I thought I was going to have to confess some dark secret, and that’s it?”
“I feel bad that I’ve kissed you and don’t know your last name.”
He nodded. “It’s Eikko Petteri Koskinen.”
“Eikko Pet … Petteri?”
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