“What about Henri? Will you be happy with him?”
I swallowed. “He does worship the very ground I walk on.”
Kile nodded, allowing that. “I suppose you could do worse than absolute devotion.”
I smiled. “Thank you. You have kept me sane through so much of this, but I can’t take away the one thing you really care about.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
I walked toward him, and he folded me into an embrace, holding me so close it almost hurt.
His voice sounded tight when he finally spoke. “If there’s anything I can ever do for you, tell me.”
I wept into his shirt. “I will. And I’ll do anything you ask.”
“Except marry me.”
I pulled back, happy to see him smile. “Except marry you.” I let go, lacing my fingers together. “I’m going to make the official announcement tomorrow. I need you to stay until then so the press doesn’t get wind of what’s going on. After that, I don’t want to see your face for a year. You hear me, Woodwork?”
“I get a pass for the wedding, right?”
“Well, of course, for the wedding.”
He considered. “What about your birthday?”
“Well, Ahren did say he’d come back, so it’ll probably be a marvelous party.”
He nodded. “Okay then. A year except for those three days.”
“Perfect. And in the meantime, you’ll just be doing the thing you were born to do,” I said with a shrug, as if this was all nothing.
He shook his head. “I’m going to build something. I’m really going to build something.”
“And you will change lives because of it.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“You’re welcome.” I kissed his cheek and ran out of the door before I changed my mind. “I’ll see you in the studio tomorrow. I’ll send details once I have them.”
In the hallway, I held my hand to my stomach and took a deep breath. I’d made a choice. So why did I suddenly feel out of control?
I hurried back to the office, glad to see that everyone was on the move, making tomorrow come together as smoothly as possible. Everyone it seemed, except for me.
“Lady Brice, can you please get Erik for me? I need to speak with him about the specifics of tomorrow.”
“Consider it done.”
I PACED THE OFFICE’S SIDE parlor, waiting for him to come. Every second, the mass in my throat grew bigger, threatening to trap all the words I had to say beneath it.
“Your Majesty?” he said quietly, and even though there were people swarming around, he didn’t think twice about smiling at me like I was his sun and stars.
“I need to speak with you about tomorrow. Would you close the doors, please?” I tried to keep my voice even, but his expression showed he knew I was holding back. And that made the attempt at diminishing how important this was that much harder.
“Are you all right?” he whispered, even though we were alone.
I exhaled, trying to keep calm. “Not quite.”
“According to the news, you have an unexpected suitor,” he said plainly.
“How long has this been a problem?”
“Longer than I knew.”
“I imagine this has caused you undue stress.”
“It’s done so much more than that.” I swallowed. “Because of this issue, I am forced to announce my engagement tomorrow.”
“Oh.” The tiny word held a world of shock.
“And due to Kile having other pursuits that I couldn’t ignore, I will be proposing to Henri. Today.”
At that he couldn’t muster a word at all.
I reached for his hand, and he gave it to me. He didn’t even look angry, which would have been fair since I’d backed out of nearly every promise I’d made. He was, quite simply, only sad. A feeling I identified with all too well.
“I’m sure you understand that I will have to leave after tomorrow,” he said quietly.
“I’ll have Neena find another translator. You shouldn’t be forced to replace yourself.” My breathing hitched, and the tears came. “I’m planning on going within the hour to see him. Do you think … could you please not be in the room?”
He nodded. “If you had asked me to stay, it might be the first time I tried to refuse you.”
We stood there, quietly holding hands. Maybe if we were still, nothing could change.
“I’d prepared myself,” he said. “I understood what was coming and still—”
The pain of standing there watching Eikko’s lip tremble was acute.
I fell into him. “Eikko, I need you to hear it. Just once, I need you to know it without doubt. I love you. And if I was free, if I was my own person, I’d escape with you now. But Marid would use my absence as a reason to take the throne, and my people.” I shook my head. “I can’t …”
He took my face in his hands, making me look into his eyes. Though they brimmed with tears, they were as beautifully clear as ever. “What a privilege it is to come in second place to your people. What a queen you’ve become, that you can’t bear to part yourself from them.”
I pulled him to me, kissing him as if our lives depended on it. Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest kiss, with moisture under our noses and mascara on my cheeks, but it was the encapsulation of all the other ones we’d never get to have.
Kile was right. It was the last kisses that mattered.
I stepped back, wiping my face. I really wanted to be a lady in this moment. I reached down, slipping his great-great-grandmother’s ring off my finger.
“Don’t be silly.”
“It’s an heirloom, Eikko.”
He wrapped his hand around mine. “The day I gave it to you, I had no intention of taking it back. I couldn’t give it to anyone else.”
I smiled sadly and put it back in place. “Well, then.” I reached down and pulled my signet ring off instead.
“Eadlyn, that is for royalty.”
“And you would have been an excellent prince. For the rest of your life, you’ll have proof.”
We stared down at our rings. They weren’t on our left hands, but it was as close as we’d get. A part of my heart would always be locked away for Eikko.
“I have to go,” he said. “He should be in his room.”
Eikko gave me a faint kiss on my cheek and whispered in my ear, “I love you. I hope you have a beautiful life.”
And then, as if he couldn’t take another second, he slipped back out through the office, sliding the door closed behind him.
I sat down, gripping the arm of the couch. I felt positively sick. Like I might faint. Or vomit. I ran to the door that led straight to the hallway, dashing to my room as quickly as I could.
“My lady?” Eloise asked as I bolted past her and into the bathroom, heaving up everything I’d eaten today.
Between bursts of sickness I wailed, furious and broken and just so tired.
“Get it all out,” Eloise whispered, coming over with a damp cloth. “I’ve got you.”
She knelt behind me and wrapped her arms around my stomach. The pressure was surprisingly soothing.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you. Everyone having an opinion, everyone having a request. But when you’re here, you scream and you cry all you want, okay? We’ll get you through it.”
I sobbed, turning myself in to her chest. She didn’t even say a word, just held me as I let everything flood out of my system.
“Thank you,” I said when my breathing had slowed.
“Any time. Now, do you need to get back to work?”
“I have to go propose to Henri.”
If she was surprised, she didn’t show it. “First things first. Let’s wash your face.”
And with that I began the slow process of preparing myself for the first step of the rest of my life.
ELOISE HELPED ME PULL MYSELF together, and I looked nothing short of magnificent when I walked down to Henri’s room. Just as I’d done when I thought I’d end up with Kile, I reminded myself that this wasn’t a bad choice. Henri would be devoted and kind, and while our means of communication might be unconventional for a while, it didn’t mean that our life together wouldn’t be a happy one.
His butler answered the door and kindly ushered me in. Henri was at his table with books opened and a pitcher of tea at his disposal. He stood when he saw me, bowing in a way that could only be described as joyful.
I giggled, walking over with the wide wooden box in my arms. “Hello, Henri.” I set it down on his table and hugged him, and he brightened at my affection. “What’s all this?”
I touched his books, taking in the pages. Of course, even if he had no help, he was studying his English. He grabbed at a notebook and held it up, pointing.
“I write for you. I can read, yes?”
“Oh, yes, please.”
“Okay, okay.” He took a deep breath and smiled as he held up his papers. “‘Dear Eadlyn. I know I cannot be saying, but I am thinking of you each days. My words are no good yet, but my heart,’” he said, touching his chest, “‘feels what I cannot saying. Even in Finnish, I would say them bad.’”
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