Kaden started laughing, turning to the others to tell the story. “Mom used to cook a lot growing up, and every once in a while she’d make food for us, just for fun. The last time she tried was maybe four years ago.”
I smirked. “She knew she was out of practice, but she wanted to make us blueberry pancakes. The thing was, she wanted to arrange the berries in them so they made stars and flowers and faces. But she left the batter on the griddle so long to put the berries in that when she flipped the pancakes, they were all burned.”
Osten laughed. “I do remember! I remember the crunchy pancakes!”
I heard chuckles from the Elite.
“You were so bad, though, you didn’t even try one!” Kaden accused.
I nodded shamefully. “It was self-preservation.”
“They were pretty good, actually. Crispy, but good.” Osten took a bite of one of the pancakes in front of him. “They make these ones seem weak.”
I heard one loud chuckle and saw that Fox was shaking his head. “My dad’s an awful cook, too,” he said, projecting his voice. “We grill a lot, and he’s always saying it’s ‘charred.’” Fox lifted his fingers to quote the word.
“What he actually means is burned, yeah?” Gunner asked.
“My father,” Erik said timidly. I was surprised he wanted to join in the conversation, and I found myself leaning my head on my elbow, drawn in. “He and my mother have this one dish they make for each other, and it requires frying. The last time he made it, he left the room while it was cooking, and the smoke was so bad, they had to move in with me for two days while they aired the house out.”
“Do you have a spare room?” Kile asked.
Erik shook his head. “No. So my living room became my bedroom, which was a treat when my mom woke up at six and decided to start cleaning.”
Gunner laughed in agreement. “Why do parents always do that? And always on the one day you can sleep in?”
I squinted. “Can’t you just ask them not to?”
Fox laughed wildly. “Maybe you can, Your Highness.”
I was very aware that I was being teased, but I knew it was all in good fun.
Hale spoke up. “Speaking of which, is anyone else worried about being incredibly spoiled if you lose and have to go home after living like this?” He gestured to the table and room.
“Not me,” Kile answered flatly, and the boys erupted.
The room dissolved into stories and comments, the tail end of every sentence sparking a new memory from someone else. The conversation grew so loud, the laughter so boisterous, that no one noticed the lone maid walking down the center of the floor. She curtsied and bent her face close to mine.
“Your mother is awake.”
A flurry of emotions washed over me, a dozen feelings all practically unidentifiable except for the common sensation of joy.
“Thank you!” I rushed from the room, too afraid to wait for Kaden and Osten.
My feet flew down the halls, and I burst into the hospital wing, only pausing to brace myself once I reached her door. As I slowly opened it, I was aware of the heart monitor, still recording every beat, and how the pace ticked up a notch when our eyes met.
“Mom?” I whispered.
Dad looked over his shoulder, smiling though his eyes were red and brimming with tears.
“Eadlyn,” Mom whispered, holding out her hand.
I went to her, the tears in my eyes blurring my vision so much I could hardly make her out.
“Hey, Mom. How are you?” I wrapped my fingers around hers, trying not to grip too tightly.
“It hurts a little.” Which meant it must hurt a lot.
“Well, you just take your time feeling better, okay? No rush.”
“How are you?”
I stood up taller, hoping to convince her. “I’ve got everything under control, and Kaden and Osten are doing great—I’m sure they’re right behind me. And I have a date tonight.”
“Good job, Eady.” Dad grinned and turned his head back to Mom. “See, darling? I’m not even needed out there. I can stay here with you.”
“Ahren?” Mom asked, taking a deep breath afterward.
I was crestfallen. As I opened my mouth to tell her we hadn’t heard from him, Dad spoke up. “He called this morning.”
I stood there, stunned. “Oh?”
“He’s hoping to come home soon, but he said there were some complications, though he was a little too flustered to explain what they were. He told me to tell you he loves you.” I’d hoped those words were for me, but Dad was looking directly at Mom when he spoke.
“I want my son,” Mom said, her voice cracking.
“I know, darling. Soon.” Dad rubbed Mom’s hand.
“Mama?” Osten came into the room, his face showing that he was barely containing his excitement. Kaden was sniffling, holding himself upright as if he thought himself above crying.
“Hi there.” Mom managed to pull up a big smile for them, and when Osten bent down and hugged her, she made a pained face but didn’t let out a sound.
“We’ve been very good,” he promised.
Mom smiled. “Well, stop that immediately.”
“Hi, Mom.” Kaden kissed her cheek, looking afraid to touch her just yet.
She raised her hand to cup his face. She seemed to grow stronger each second simply from seeing us. I wondered what she’d have done if Ahren was here. Jump out of the bed?
“I wanted you to know that I’m okay.” Her chest rose and fell aggressively, but her smile didn’t falter. “I think I can go back upstairs tomorrow.”
Dad nodded quickly. “Yes, if we get through today without incident, your mother can recuperate in her room.”
“That’s really good.” Kaden’s voice lifted at this news. “So you’re halfway back to normal.”
I didn’t want to kill the hope in his eyes, or Osten’s. Kaden was typically so clever, seeing around every pretense, but there was no mistaking how hard he was willing this to be true.
“Exactly,” Mom said.
“Okay, everyone,” Dad said. “Now that you’ve seen Mom, I want you to get back to your studies. We still have a country to run.”
“Eadlyn gave us the day off,” Osten protested.
I smiled guiltily. When we’d gotten out of bed this morning, that was my only order. I needed them to play.
Mom laughed, a weak but beautiful sound. “Such a generous queen.”
“Not queen yet,” I protested, thankful that the true queen still lived and spoke and smiled.
“All the same,” Dad said, “your mother needs rest. I’ll make sure you see her again before bedtime.”
That mollified the boys, and they left, waving to Mom.
I kissed her head. “I love you.”
“My girl.” Her weak fingers touched my hair. “I love you.”
Those words were the first bookend of my day, and I could get through the rest of it knowing Kile Woodwork would be the other.
As I left the hospital wing, I came across another Woodwork.
“Miss Marlee?” I asked.
She looked up from the bench she was sitting on, wringing a handkerchief in her hands, her face blotchy from crying.
“Are you okay?”
She smiled. “More than okay. I was so afraid she might not come back, and … I honestly don’t know what I’d do without her. Being here, with your mom, has been my whole life.”
I sat down, hugging my mother’s dearest friend, and she held on to me as if I was her own daughter. Part of me felt sad, because I knew she wasn’t being dramatic when she said that. One look at her scarred palms told the long story of how she’d gone from worthy competitor to wicked traitor to faithful lady. When they talked about the past, some details were glossed over, and I never pushed it because it wasn’t my place. But I worried that sometimes Miss Marlee felt like my parents’ pardon was still contingent on her and her husband paying it back in devotion.
“They said that you and your brothers were visiting, and I want to see her, but I didn’t want to cut off your time.”
“Did you see the boys leave? We’re all done now. You should hurry in before she falls back asleep. I know she’d want to see you.”
She wiped her cheeks again. “How do I look?”
I laughed. “Positively wretched.” I squeezed her. “Go on in there. And can you try to check on them for me from time to time? I know I won’t be able to come down here as often as I’d like.”
“Don’t you worry. I’ll send updates as often as I can.”
“Thank you, Miss Marlee.”
After one last hug, she made her way into the hospital wing. I sighed, trying to let myself enjoy this brief moment of calm. At least for now, everything was on its way to being better.
KILE HELD HIS HAND AGAINST the small of my back, walking me through the garden. The moon was low and full, casting shadows even in the night.
“You were spectacular this morning,” he said, shaking his head. “We’ve all been worried about your mom, and it’s so strange not having Ahren around. And Kaden? I’ve never seen him look so … bewildered.”
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