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He stood there, mouth slightly agape.

“But a word from you and I’ll never mention it again. I want to do the right thing, and I know you’d never let me do something stupid. Tell me what I should do, and I won’t question it, Dad.”

He looked up at the clock, his eyes still wide with shock. “Eadlyn, you only have seven minutes.”

I followed his gaze, and he was right. It was seven ’til.

“So help me. Tell me what to do!”

After a stunned second, he turned back to me and pulled me out the studio door.

“We all know that you wanted to move fast because of Marid, and I think there’s some value to your line of thought. But you can’t let one bully decide the rest of your life. Trust me. You don’t have to announce anything today.”

“That’s not the point. I want to be with Eikko so much it hurts, but I’ve done so many selfish, idiotic things in the past that I fear the people won’t forgive me if I break even the tiniest rule. I can’t bear to let them down, Dad. I can’t bear to let you down.”

“Me? Let me down over a silly little rule?” He shook his head. “Eadlyn, you come from a long line of traitors. You couldn’t let me down.”

“What?”

He smiled. “Your brother running off to France was technically enough to start a war over. I think he knew that. Did it stop him?”

I shook my head.

“Your mother,” he said with a laugh. “She conspired with the Italian government to fund the Northern rebels, a move that would have sent her to her grave had my father found out.”

I stood there, stunned.

“And me? I’ve been keeping someone who ought to be dead alive for over twenty years.”

“The Woodworks?” I guessed.

“Ha! No, I forgot about them, though officially they were pardoned. It’s actually someone much more dangerous in the eyes of the monarchy.”

“Dad, I don’t understand.”

He sighed, looking up and down the hall, checking for spying eyes, before quickly unbuttoning his shirt. “I’m afraid there’s only one way to explain this.” He turned around and swiftly shoved his shirt down along with his suit coat.

I gasped in horror as I took in my father’s back. He was covered in marks, some wide, as if they’d healed without any treatment, and some skinny and puckered. There didn’t appear to be any uniformity to the marks except that they all must have come from the same cane or whip.

“Daddy … Daddy, what happened to you?”

“My father happened to me.” He pulled his shirt back on and buttoned it as fast as he could, speaking in a rush. “Sorry I never took you to the beach, honey. I just couldn’t do it.”

My posture sank. Of all the things to apologize for. “I don’t understand. Why did he do that to you?”

“To keep me in line, to keep me quiet, to make me a better leader … he had a myriad of reasons. But there are only two of these beatings you need to know about. The first is one that happened after your mother proposed we eliminate the castes.”

He shook his head, almost smiling as he remembered. “She chose to say this on a Report while she was still in the Selection. Of course my father, who already hated her, saw this as a threat to his control. Which it was. Such a suggestion is treasonous. Like I said, it runs in the family. I worried he would punish her, so I let him take it out on me instead.”

“Oh, my goodness.”

“Indeed. That was the last beating I ever endured, and for the life of me, I’ll never regret it. I’d take it a hundred times over for her.”

I’d never known about that. All I’d ever known was that they took on caste elimination together. So many of the unpleasant details of their history had been glossed over. There was plenty of awful along with the wonderful.

“I almost hate to ask, but what was the other one I needed to know about?”

He snapped the last of his buttons and sighed. “The first one.”

I swallowed, unsure if I wanted to hear this story or not.

“You see, my father was a very conceited man. He thought the world owed him everything because he was king. And, really, he had no reason to be unhappy. He had power, a wonderful home, a wife who adored him, and his very own son to carry on the line. But it was never enough.”

His eyes stared unfocused, and I watched him, still not understanding. “I always knew when his mistress was coming. He’d give my mother a gift earlier in the day, as if he was paying for his sins before he committed them. Then, at dinner, he’d fill her wineglass over and over until she was ready to pass out. And, of course, she kept her quarters in the other wing. I assume that was his idea, not hers. I can’t imagine her ever intentionally separating herself from my father. Genuinely, she worshipped him.

“Anyway, I was eleven or so when I was walking through the palace and caught her leaving one night, hair a mess and a cape over her shoulders as if she could cover up what she’d done. I knew. I knew why she was there, and I hated her for it. More than I hated him, which was unfair. As soon as she was gone, I went to my father. He was in his robe, drunk and sweaty. And I said to him—I’ll never forget it—I said, ‘You cannot let that whore in here again.’ As if I could tell the king what to do.

“He grabbed me by my arm so hard he dislocated my shoulder. He put me on the floor and caned me across the back I don’t know how many times. I was so dizzy with pain, I passed out. I woke up in my room with my arm in a sling. As I came to, my butler said I shouldn’t roughhouse with the guards, that I was too young to consider them playmates.”

Dad shook his head. “I don’t know who got fired or worse to make that story seem legit, but I knew I was supposed to keep quiet. And I was so small, I didn’t dare risk telling anyone. As I got older, I hid it because of shame. And then, somehow in my head, I turned it into something to be proud of. I endured this suffering alone, without support, and that was something admirable. Of course, it wasn’t. It was stupid, but we make excuses for ourselves when we’re small.”

He gave me a weak smile.

“I’m so sorry, Dad.”

“It’s okay. It’s made me a stronger person and, I hope, a better parent. I hope I’ve done right by you.”

My eyes welled. “You have.”

“Good. Well, to answer your question, a few years later I thought my father really had gotten rid of his mistress. As I said, I knew when he was planning to bring her, and I watched for him to go into the old routine and even snuck out several nights just to be sure. She was gone for months and months, and then, one day, there she was, walking down the hallway as if she owned the place.

“I was filled with so much anger at this woman, irate that she had the gall to show her face while my mother slept just around the corner. So I stopped her and told her something to that effect. She cocked her head and smirked at me, like I was a bug, like I was nothing. Then she lowered her face to my ear and whispered, ‘I’ll tell your little sister you said hello.’ And she walked away, leaving me completely gob smacked. I must have stood there for a solid ten minutes, too stunned to move.

“Did she say that simply to make a dig at me? Did I really have a half sister I didn’t know about? I wasn’t going to beg her for answers, and it was clear that I couldn’t go to my father. It wasn’t until after he died that I could even attempt to look for her.”

He swallowed. “Here’s the thing, though. Illegitimate children of a royal family member are not allowed to live.”

“What? Why?”

“I think because they might cause a threat to the royal line. Civil war or political unrest does no one any good. Even now, look at the trouble Marid has made. So in the past we eliminated those threats as soon as they were discovered.” He said all this coldly, disconnected in a way.

“So did you kill her?”

He smiled to himself. “No. I was enchanted with her the moment I laid eyes her. She was just a child, and she had no idea who her father was. It wasn’t her fault she’d been born half royal. So I took her away from her mother, kept her near me, and have been protecting her ever since.”

He finally risked meeting my eyes.

“Lady Brice?” I asked.

“Lady Brice.”

I didn’t know what to say. I had another aunt. And she’d done as much for me as anyone else in my family recently. More than some, really. I was indebted to her.

“I feel bad keeping her in the shadows,” he admitted.

“I know. If she has royal blood, I feel like she deserves more.”

“It’s not possible. And she understands that. She’s thankful enough to be here,” he answered. And though we both knew the truth of it, I could see we didn’t agree that it was satisfactory. “So you see, I have committed treason every single day for the last twenty years. Your mother has, your brother has. I dare say Kaden might be the only one who makes it out without ever breaking a rule.”

I smiled at the truth to that, dreading just how many Osten would destroy.

“Break the stupid rule, Eadlyn. Marry the man you love. If he’s good enough for you to approve of, then I certainly do. And if the people don’t, that can be their problem. Because who are you?”

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