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I pulled back, watching her. “I know. By the way, your first job is to pick a new maid for me.”

“Not a problem.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you soon.”

I swept from the room, feeling better knowing I had people on my side. General Leger would be my line to Mom and Dad, Lady Brice would be my chief adviser, and Neena would help me shoulder the workload.

It had been less than a day, and I already understood why Mom thought I’d need a partner. And I still intended to find one. I just needed a little time to figure out how.

That afternoon I paced worriedly as I waited for Kile outside the Men’s Parlor. Of all my relationships with the Selected, ours felt the most complicated and yet the easiest place to start.

“Hey,” he said, coming to embrace me. I couldn’t help smiling thinking about how if he’d tried that a month ago, I’d have called the guards on him. “How are you doing?”

I paused. “It’s funny—you’re the only one who’s asked.” We stepped apart. “I’m okay, I think. At least I am as long as I’m busy. The second things slow down, I’m a ball of nerves. Dad’s a wreck. And it’s killing me that Ahren hasn’t come back. I thought he would for Mom, but he hasn’t even called. Shouldn’t he at least have done that?”

I swallowed, knowing I was getting too worked up.

Kile took my hand. “Okay, let’s think about this. He flew to France and got married in one day. There has to be a ton of official paperwork and other stuff to sort through. And there’s a chance he hasn’t even heard what happened.”

I nodded. “You’re right. And I know he cares. He left me a letter, and it was too honest for me to question that.”

“See, there you go. And last night your dad looked like he was two seconds away from needing to be checked into the hospital wing himself. Being with your mom and monitoring her probably gives him a feeling of control when there’s absolutely none. She’s made it through the worst, and she’s always been a fighter. Remember when that one ambassador came?”

I smirked. “You mean the one from the Paraguay-Argentina Union?”

“Yes!” he exclaimed. “I can still picture it perfectly. He was so rude to everyone, falling down drunk by noon two days in a row, and your mom finally grabbed him by the ear and dragged him out the front door.”

I shook my head. “I do. I also remember the endless phone calls afterward trying to smooth things over with their president.”

Kile brushed that detail away. “Forget that. Just remember, your mother doesn’t let things happen to her. When something tries to ruin her life, she drags it into the street.”

I smiled. “True.”

We stood there, quiet for a moment, and it was pleasant and still. I’d never been so grateful. “I’m busy the rest of today, but maybe we could spend some time together tomorrow night?”

He nodded. “Of course.”

“There’s a lot to talk about.”

His eyebrows knit together. “Like what?”

We both turned at the same time, noting the figure in our periphery.

“Excuse me, Your Highness,” the guard said with a bow, “but you have a visitor.”

“A visitor?”

He nodded, giving me no information as to who it might be.

I sighed. “Fine. I’ll get in touch later, okay?”

Kile gave my hand a quick squeeze. “Sure. Let me know if you need anything.”

I smiled as I left him, knowing that he meant that. In the back of my mind, I felt certain all the young men in that room would rush to my side if I needed them to, and that was a small silver lining on an otherwise dreary day.

I rounded the stairs, trying to guess at who was here. If it had been family, they’d have been brought to a room; and if it was a governor or some other official visitor, they’d have sent up a card. Who was so important that they couldn’t even be announced?

As I descended to the first floor, the answer to my question stood there, his bright smile making my breath catch.

Marid Illéa hadn’t set foot in the palace in years. The last time I’d laid eyes on him, he was a gangly preteen who hadn’t quite mastered conventional conversation. But his round cheeks had turned into a jaw line sharp enough to cut, and his stringy limbs had filled out, hitting the seams of his suit with perfect precision. He held my gaze as I approached, and even though his hands were full with an overflowing basket, he bowed and smiled as if he was completely unencumbered.

“Your Highness,” he said. “I’m sorry to come unannounced, but as soon as we heard about your mother, we felt we had to do something. So …”

He held out the basket toward me. It was full of gifts. Flowers, thin books, jars of soup with ribbons around the lids, and even a few bakery items that looked so good it was hard not to take one for myself.

“Marid,” I said, a greeting, a question, and an admonition all at once. “This is above and beyond, all things considered.”

He shrugged. “Disagreements don’t mean a loss of compassion. Our queen is sick, and this was the least we could do.”

I smiled, moved by his sudden appearance. I motioned to a guard.

“Take this to the hospital wing, please.”

He took the gift basket, and I turned my focus back to Marid.

“Your parents didn’t want to come?”

He shoved his hands into his pockets and grimaced. “They were afraid the visit would seem more political than personal.”

I nodded. “Understandable. But please tell them not to worry about that in the future. They’re still welcome here.”

Marid sighed. “They didn’t think so, not after their … exit.”

I pressed my lips together, remembering it all so clearly.

August Illéa and my father had worked together closely after my grandparents died, trying to dissolve the castes as quickly as they could. When August complained that change wasn’t happening fast enough, Dad pulled rank and told him to respect his plan. When Dad couldn’t quite erase the stigma of being in the lower castes, August said he needed to get his “spoiled ass” out of the palace and into the streets. Dad had always been a patient man, and, from what I remembered of August, he was always on edge. In the end there was a big fight, and August and Georgia packed their things, including their bashful son, and left in a hurricane of hurt and anger.

I’d heard Marid’s voice once or twice on the radio since then, giving political commentary or business advice, but it was strange now, having that voice sync up to the movements of his lips and seeing him smile so easily when I mostly remembered him slouched over himself when he was younger.

“Honestly, I don’t understand why our fathers haven’t spoken recently. You’ve certainly seen the issues with the post-caste discrimination we’ve been trying to quell. I thought one of them might break and seek out the other. It’s past being a point of pride anymore.”

Marid extended an arm. “Perhaps we could walk and talk?”

I linked my arm through his, and we began moving down the hall.

“How is it going so far?”

I shrugged. “As best it can under the circumstances.”

“I’d like to tell you to look on the bright side, but it might be hard to find one.”

“So far, all I can think of is that I’m helping my parents.”

“True. And who knows? You might be able to make some serious changes while you’re in office. Like all the post-caste issues. Our parents couldn’t get it right, but maybe you could.”

That thought comforted me less than he intended. I didn’t hope to be in control long enough to make any changes at all.

“I’m not quite sure I’m capable of that.”

“Well, Your Highness—”

“Please, Marid. It’s Eadlyn. You’ve known me since before I was born.”

He smirked. “Very true. Still, you are regent right now, and it feels wrong not to address you properly.”

“And what should I call you?”

“Nothing but a loyal subject. I’d like to offer any help I can in this tense time. And I know the dissolution of the castes wasn’t as clean as you all hoped, not even in the beginning. I’ve spent years lending my ear to the public. I think I’ve heard them very clearly, and if my commentary would be useful, please let me know.”

I raised my eyebrows as I considered his words. I knew a lot more about the lives of commoners these days thanks to the Selected, but an expert on public opinion might be a perfect tool to have in my arsenal. And even if I didn’t have great ambitions for my short time on the throne, something like this might show my people I cared, and that was critical. Especially considering what Ahren had said in his letter.

It hit me like a punch every time I remembered his words, but I knew he wouldn’t have told me that the people despised me if he hadn’t thought it would serve some good. Even though he left, I trusted that.

“Thank you, Marid. If I could do anything to ease the stress that this situation has brought to my father, it would be a huge blessing. When he’s ready to come back to work, I’d like the country to be the calmest he’s seen it in years. I’ll be in touch.”

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