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I flipped channels again.

“Kathy here was on hand when the young Mr. Illéa came in. Can you tell us what you saw?”

“Well, he seemed a little bashful at first, as if he wasn’t ready to admit why he was here. But after about fifteen minutes of him lingering along the case, it was pretty obvious what he was looking for.”

“And did he seem drawn to anything in particular?”

“He had me pull out at least a dozen different rings, and when nothing was quite what he was looking for, I told him we could design a piece for him if he liked, and he lit up. I’m hoping he comes back soon.”

“So would you choose Marid over, say, Sir Hale or Sir Kile?”

“Oh, goodness! I really can’t say. All I know is, Queen Eadlyn is a very lucky woman to have so many eligible men fawning all over her.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned off the TV and fell with a huff onto the couch.

“I should have known,” I said. “Silence seemed smart, but now he’s made this huge.”

Mr. Rasmus grunted. “We need a plan.”

“We have a plan,” I snapped. “Is there anything we really could have done besides marrying me off faster?”

General Leger stood with his back against a bookshelf, still staring at the blank screen. “We could kill him.”

I sighed. “I really don’t want that to be my go-to move.”

Sir Andrews was angry, too, but for all the wrong reasons. “You shouldn’t have provoked him.”

“I’ve done nothing,” I shot back.

“You were actively ignoring him.”

“Calm down, Andrews.” Lady Brice paced behind the couch, enraged. As I watched her, I caught Josie standing in a corner. She must have missed her opportunity to escape and was now trapped, looking afraid of the loud voices and anger that surrounded her. “We have to shut him up, once and for all.”

“The only way to do that is to get Eadlyn engaged,” Sir Andrews stated.

“Yes, we’re aware,” Lady Brice agreed in a tired tone. “But she shouldn’t be rushed into this. How can she have anything close to a successful marriage if she forces it?”

“It’s her duty to make it successful!”

“Duty? She’s a person,” Lady Brice argued. “She’s agreed to do this, and there’s no reason—”

“She has never been just a person!” Andrews reminded her. “From the second she was born, she’s been a commodity, and we need to—”

General Leger was moving toward Andrews. “Say that again. I’m not afraid to make death my go-to move.”

“Are you threatening me, you little—”

“Stop,” I breathed. And it was amazing. With the quietest of commands, the entire room came to a standstill.

I’d known it was coming for me. And I really had come to terms with it. Marid had shown how much influence he truly had, and I had to fight him off. I couldn’t help worrying that even marriage wouldn’t keep the people on my side, but it was all I had left. “Lady Brice, if you would, please, bring Fox to the office. It’s time we said our good-byes.”

“Are you sure, Your Majesty? Once you narrow it down to three—”

“I’m not narrowing it down to three.” I swallowed. “Please send Hale soon after. I’ll be making my final choice this evening, and we will do a live broadcast tomorrow night instead of a Report. No doubt, after this week, everyone will be watching.”

“Absolutely, Your Majesty.”

“There, Sir Andrews. You have your progress. My official engagement announcement will come from the palace tomorrow afternoon.”

“Are you sure we ought to wait that long? If Marid—”

“If Marid pulls another stupid stunt, it will be shot down in less than twenty-four hours. That is good enough for me, sir, so it is certainly good enough for you.”

I stood. It was done.

I was certain something would give me away, convinced that everyone in the room would see that a part of me had lost oxygen and was suffocating then and there. In my head, I watched Eikko pack his suitcase and disappear from my life forever. It was a new kind of pain, pressed into this doomed heart of mine.

EVERYONE LEFT IN A HUFF for lunch, and I stayed in the parlor, craving solitude. In truth, I craved Eikko, but there was no way I could get to him without raising suspicion. Gritting my teeth, I turned the TV back on. I muted it, watching the images of Marid play across the screen.

Maybe the people were right. Maybe I should step down now. If we trained Kaden for the crown, that might save everything. It would be humiliating for me to abdicate after less than a week, but it might at least keep the rest of my family from being shamed.

“Your Majesty?” Josie snuck up on me. “Can I get you anything? Some food? Coffee?”

“No, Josie. I’ve lost my appetite.”

“I don’t blame you,” she said with a tiny smile.

“I want to thank you for coming to warn me today. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but those extra five minutes helped me brace myself. It would have been a thousand times worse if Sir Andrews had found out first.”

She widened her eyes. “He’s horrible. Do they yell like that all the time?”

I nodded. “Not Lady Brice or General Leger. But the others were like that with Dad, too. It’s as if they think the only way to make you understand how adamant they are is to scream about it.”

We were quiet for a minute, watching Marid’s handsome face on the screen. He certainly had his wave down.

“I’m so sorry, Eadlyn,” Josie whispered, drawing my focus back to her. “For everything, and for how I’ve been, and for what you’re dealing with now.”

“You had no idea, did you?” I asked, my tone gentle.

Embarrassed, she shook her head. “I thought everyone did the work for you, and you just said yes or no.”

“That it was all parties and money and power?”

“Yeah.” She let out an almost laugh. “I can’t believe I spent my whole life wanting to be a princess only to see I could never, ever handle it.”

I shifted on the couch, finally putting to voice a thing I’d been almost positive about from the very beginning.

“Is that why you put Kile’s name in? So you could be a princess?”

She blushed fiercely. “I didn’t think he’d actually get drawn. And if he did, I didn’t think there was any way you’d choose him. When I saw that kiss on the front page of the newspapers, I was so excited. I started designing tiaras in my notebooks.”

“And now?”

“I’d still like to have one of my very own, but I know I haven’t earned it.” She smiled slowly. “And I realize that even if he wins, I wouldn’t exactly be a princess, but it still feels like a big deal. I look at your aunt May, and how glamorous she is, traveling around the world and meeting all these people and looking like a runway model.”

“I can see the appeal,” I agreed. “Mom’s siblings definitely got a better deal than she did in certain ways.”

As I thought of my aunt and uncles, a wonderful idea struck me, and I was thrilled that at least one good thing might come from this day.

Josie played with the hem of her dress. “Yeah, it looks fun. But I was way too obsessed with it. I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time.”

“So am I. It was hard growing up with someone who wanted to be me without doing any of the work.”

“And it was hard for me growing up in your shadow.” She seemed sad, unsure of herself now.

“You know, Josie, it isn’t too late to fall in love with something else. You happen to have an excellent resource in me, and I’d like to help you find the right path. So long as that path is far away from my tiaras.”

She giggled. “I have no idea where to start.”

“Well, you’ve proven these last few days how helpful you can be. What if we put you on the payroll, as an office intern? Whatever you’re going to do, you’ll need your own money for it.”

“Really?” she gasped.

“Really.”

Josie flung herself across the room, colliding with me in a hug. For the first time, I didn’t mind her being so close.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’ve got to do the good I can while I’m here.”

She pulled back. “I swear, if you step down, I’ll never forgive you.”

I hadn’t meant to give that much away in a sentence.

“I realize that doesn’t mean much, but still. Don’t do it. You can’t.”

I shook my head. “I won’t. I promise. As tempting as it is, I’m too proud to do it.”

Dear Uncle Gerad,

This letter is long overdue. How are you? How’s work? How’s …

Okay, I need a favor. My lady-in-waiting’s boyfriend is also a talented scientist. I’m not completely sure if his field and yours are similar, but I thought you might at least have a connection that could get him work in Angeles. It would mean the world to her if he was closer, and it would mean the world to me if she was happier. Do you think you could help?

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