He pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to me. “That’s my personal number. Call anytime.”
I smiled. “Will your parents be upset that you’re helping me? Isn’t this fraternizing with the enemy?”
“No, no,” he said, his tone light. “Our parents had the same goal. They simply had different methods of reaching it. And now, with your mother unwell, you shouldn’t have to worry so much about things that are fixable, and the country’s morale certainly is. Now more than ever, I think our parents will approve of us working together.”
“Let’s hope,” I said. “Far too many things have been breaking lately. Some mending would do me good.”
I SLIPPED INTO THE BATH, noting there was no lavender, no bubbles, no anything to sweeten the water. Eloise was quiet and fast, but she was no Neena. I sighed. It didn’t matter, I supposed, since this was little more than a small space where at last I could stop pretending I knew what I was doing. I curled my knees to my chest, finally free to weep.
What was I going to do? Ahren wasn’t here to guide me anymore, and I worried I’d make mistake after mistake without him. And why hadn’t he called yet? Why wasn’t he on the first flight home?
What would I do if they took the tubes out of Mom’s throat and she couldn’t breathe on her own? I suddenly realized that even though I’d never thought of marriage and children in a specific and personal way, I’d always envisioned her dancing at my wedding and cooing over my firstborn. What if she wasn’t there to do that?
How was I supposed to step into Dad’s shoes? Today had worn me down to the bone. I couldn’t imagine doing this all day every day for the next few weeks, let alone the years I’d have to do it when I truly inherited the throne.
And how was I going to choose a husband? Who was the best choice? Who would the public approve of the most? Was that even a fair question to ask? Or the right one?
I wiped my eyes with the heel of my hand like a child and wished I could go back to being blissfully unaware of how much bad could pile up in a single day.
I had power and no idea how to use it. I was a ruler who didn’t know how to lead. I was a twin who was on her own. I was a daughter with missing parents. I had a half dozen suitors and wasn’t sure how to be in love.
The tension constricting around my heart would be enough to overwhelm anyone. I rubbed at the ache in my chest, wondering if that was how it all started for Mom. I sat up, sloshing the water, pushing the thought from my head.
You’re fine. She’s fine. You just have to keep going.
I got dressed and was almost ready to turn in for the night when I heard a timid knock at the door.
“Eady?” someone called.
“Osten?” He poked his head in, with Kaden right behind him, and I rushed over to them. “Are you two all right?”
“We’re okay,” Kaden assured me. “And we’re not scared or anything.”
“Not at all,” Osten added.
“But we haven’t heard any news about Mom, and we thought maybe you would know something.”
I smacked myself in the head. “I’m sorry. I should have told you what was going on.” I cursed myself, thinking of how I’d just spent twenty minutes in a bath instead of taking the time to find my brothers.
“She’s recovering.” I tried to choose my words carefully. “She’s being kept asleep so she can heal. You know Mom. If she was awake, she’d want to chase after us to make sure we were doing everything we were supposed to. This way she’ll get enough rest so that she’ll be healthy when she wakes up.”
“Oh.” Osten’s shoulders lifted, and I could see that, as much as all this was getting to me, it was even harder on them.
“What about Ahren?” Kaden picked at a hangnail, a thing I’d never seen him do.
“No word yet, but I’m sure it’s just because he’s getting settled in. After all, he’s a married man.”
Kaden’s expression showed he wasn’t satisfied with that answer. “Do you think he’ll come back?”
I took a deep breath. “Let’s not worry about that tonight. I’m sure he’ll call soon, and he’ll be able to tell us everything. For now, all you two need to know is, your brother is happy, your mom is going to be okay, and I have everything under control. All right?”
They smiled. “All right.”
Osten’s expression went from perfectly fine to completely distraught in seconds, and his lip began to tremble. “It’s my fault, isn’t it?”
“What’s your fault?” I got on one knee in front of him.
“Mom. It’s my fault. She always told me to calm down a little more, and then she’d run her hand through her hair like she was worn out. It’s my fault. I made her too tired.”
“At least you didn’t bother her over school so much,” Kaden said quietly. “I was always bugging her for books and better tutors, and making her answer questions when she had other stuff to do. I took up all her time.”
So we were all blaming ourselves. Perfect.
“Osten, don’t think that. Ever,” I insisted, pulling him in for a hug. “Mom is a queen. If anything, you were the least stressful part of her life. Yes, it’s hard to be a mother, but she always had us to run to if she needed a laugh. And who’s easily the funniest of the four of us?”
“Me.” His voice was weak, but he did smile a little as he wiped his nose.
“Exactly. And Kaden, do you think Mom would rather you ask her a dozen questions or have you wander through life with the wrong answers?”
He fidgeted with his fingers some more as he thought it over. “She’d want me to come to her.”
“So there you go. Let’s be honest—we’re a pretty intense bunch, yeah?” Osten laughed, and Kaden’s expression brightened. “But whatever we put her through, it was welcome. She’d rather have forced me to learn my penmanship than never have had a daughter. She’d rather have been your living encyclopedia than not connect with us. She’d rather have begged you to sit still than have had only three children. None of this is because of us,” I promised.
I waited for them to turn and run, to get past showing this tiny chink in their armor. But they didn’t budge. I sighed to myself, knowing what they were hoping for and realizing I was prepared to lose some much-needed sleep on their behalf.
“Do you want to stay here tonight?”
Osten bolted over to my bed. “Yeah!”
I shook my head. What was I going to do with these boys? I crawled into bed, and Kaden pressed himself against my back as Osten rested his head on the pillow across from me. I realized that the bathroom light was still on, but I let it go. We needed a little light at the moment.
“It’s not the same without Ahren,” Kaden said quietly.
Osten pulled his arms in close, bundling himself up. “Yeah. It doesn’t feel right.”
“I know. But don’t worry. We’ll find a new normal. You’ll see.” Somehow, for them, I would make that happen.
“GOOD MORNING, YOUR HIGHNESS.”
“Good morning,” I replied to the butler. “Strong coffee, please, and whatever the chef has prepared for the Elite is fine.”
He returned with blueberry pancakes and sausage links, and a hard-boiled egg sliced in half. I picked at my meal while I skimmed the papers. There was news of bad weather in one area and some speculation over who I might marry somewhere else, but in general, it looked like the entire nation had lost the will to do much more than worry about Mom. I was grateful. I had been positive the country would revolt when I was named regent. Part of me was still worried that if I gave the slightest indication that I might fail, their hatred would slam into me without mercy.
“Good day today!” someone called. Not someone. I would have recognized Henri’s greeting even in the grave.
I lifted my head to smile and wave at him and Erik. I kind of loved that Henri was impervious to the sadness hanging over the palace. And Erik seemed to be the hand that guided his charge back down to Earth, calm and kind, regardless of what happened around him.
Osten and Kaden walked in with Kile, their heads together as they moved. Kile was trying to make them smile—I could read it in his body language—and, for their part, they gave him small, tight-lipped grins. Ean entered with Hale and Fox, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him finally interacting with some of the others. Gunner trailed behind them as if forgotten. I’d kept him in the Elite because I couldn’t shake how his poem had made me laugh. But beyond that, I hardly knew him. I was going to have to try harder with him, with all of them.
My brothers sat down together at their normal places, more subdued than usual. Seeing our family table so empty sent a pang of sadness through my whole body. That type of sorrow, the quiet, lonely kind, can take over so quickly that a person could miss it. I could see it trying to creep into my brothers now, in the way they held their heads a little lower, probably not even aware they were doing it.
“Osten?” He peeked over at me, and I could feel the Elite’s eyes on us. “Do you remember the time Mom made us pancakes?”