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“It’s awful. He’s the stable one.”

“Don’t worry too much. It makes sense that he’d be a little shaken right now.”

I inched even closer to Kile. “I know. It’s just hard to see it happen to someone who never gets shaken.”

“Which is why breakfast was so great. I thought we were going to suffer through a painful meal together, unable to talk about what was happening, or even talk at all. Then you just opened it up. It was remarkable. Don’t forget you have that skill.” He shook his finger at me.

“What skill? Distraction?” I laughed.

“No.” He wrestled with the words. “More like the means to alleviate. I mean, you’ve done it before. At parties or on Reports. You change momentum. Not everyone can do that.”

We walked to the edge of the garden, where the land opened up to a wide, flat space before the forest started.

“Thanks. That means a lot. I’ve been worried.”

“Nothing wrong with that.”

“It’s bigger than Mom though.” I stopped and put my hands on my hips, wondering how much I should tell him. “Ahren left me a letter. Did you know that the people are displeased with the monarchy? Specifically, me? And now I’m basically in charge, and honestly, I’m not sure if they’ll stand for it. I already had food thrown at me once. I’ve read so many awful articles about myself … What if they come after me?”

“What if they do?” he joked. “It’s not like there aren’t other options. We could become a dictatorship—that’d put people in line. There’s a federal republic, a constitutional monarchy … oh, maybe a theocracy! We could give everything over to the church.”

“Kile, I’m serious! What if they depose me?”

He cradled my face in his hands. “Eadlyn, that’s not going to happen.”

“But it has before! That’s how my grandparents died. People came into their home and killed them. And everyone worshipped my grandmother!” I could feel the tears rising. Ugh, I’d been such a weepy mess the last couple of days! I wiped them away, fumbling over his fingers in the process.

“Listen to me. That was a pocket of radicals. They’re gone now, and the people out there are too busy trying to live their lives to spend time messing with yours.”

“I can’t bank on that,” I whispered. “There were things I was always sure of, and almost all of that has fallen apart in the last few weeks.”

“Do you …” He paused as he gazed into my eyes. “Do you need to not think right now?”

I swallowed, processing the offer. Here with just the two of us in the dark, quiet evening, it felt so similar to the night of our first kiss. Only this time there’d be no one watching, no one to print it in a newspaper. Our parents were nowhere in sight, and the guards weren’t trailing our steps. For me it meant that, for just one moment, there was nothing to keep me from having what I wanted.

“I’d do anything you asked me to, Eadlyn,” he whispered.

I shook my head. “But I can’t ask.”

He squinted. “Why not? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, you idiot,” I said, pulling away. “Apparently …” I huffed. “It seems you did something right. I can’t just kiss you like it’s nothing, because it turns out that you’re not nothing.”

I stared at the ground, growing increasingly irritated.

“This is all your fault, by the way!” I accused, glaring at him as I paced. “I was fine not liking you. I was fine not liking anyone.” I covered my face. “And now I’m in the middle of this thing and so lost I can hardly think straight. But I know that you matter, and I don’t know what to do about it.” When I gathered enough courage to look up at him again, he was smirking. “For goodness’ sake, don’t look so smug.”

“Sorry,” he said, still smiling.

“Do you know how scary it is for me to say all that?”

He bridged the gap between us. “Probably as scary as it is for me to hear it.”

“I’m serious, Kile.”

“So am I! First of all, it’s strange to think about what it all means. Because you come with a title and a throne and a whole life planned out for you. That’s insane for me to try and take in. And second of all, more than anyone here, I know that you hold your cards close to your chest. A confession like that must be practically painful for you.”

I nodded. “Not that I’m mad that I like you … except that I kind of am.”

He laughed. “It is rather infuriating.”

“But I need to know, now, before we go any further, do you feel anything like that for me? Even the smallest glimmer of something? Because if not, I have to make plans.”

“And if I do?”

I lifted my arms and let them flop down to my sides again. “Then I still have to make plans, but they’ll be different.”

He sighed heavily. “Turns out you matter to me, too. And I wouldn’t have thought about it except for my designs lately.”

“Uh … how romantic?”

He laughed. “No, really, it kind of is. Usually I get excited about designing skyscrapers and homeless shelters, things that someone might remember, or might help people. But the other day I found myself designing you a summerhouse, a miniature palace, maybe something with a vineyard. This morning I got an idea for a beach house.”

I gasped. “I’ve always wanted a beach house!”

“Not that we’d ever get to use it with you running the world and all.”

“It’s a sweet thought all the same.”

He shrugged. “It just seems like everything I want to make lately is something for you.”

“That means a lot. I know how important your work is to you.”

“It’s not really my work. Something that I care about is all.”

“Okay, then. How about for now we just add this to that pile? This is something we care about, and we both know it, and we’ll watch it and see what happens.”

“That’s fair. I don’t want to discourage you at all, but it feels too soon to call this love.”

“Absolutely!” I agreed. “It’s too soon, and that’s too big.”

“Too busy.”

“Too scary.”

He laughed. “On par with being dethroned?”

“At least!”

“Wow. Okay.” He continued to smile, probably considering the unlikelihood of us falling for each other himself. “So, what now?”

“I continue the Selection, I think. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I have to keep going. I have to be certain.”

He nodded. “I wouldn’t want you if you weren’t.”

“Thank you, sir.”

We stood there, the sound of the wind in the grass the only noise.

He cleared his throat. “I think we need food.”

“As long as I don’t have to cook it.”

He threw his arm around my shoulder as we turned back to the palace. It felt like a very boyfriendish thing to do. “But we did so great last time.”

“All I learned about was butter.”

“Then you know everything.”

In the morning I headed straight down to the hospital wing, desperate to see Mom’s face. Even if she was asleep, I just needed to be reminded she was alive and healing. But when I cracked open the door this time, she was sitting up, wide awake … and Dad was asleep. Smiling, she held up a finger to her lips. With her other hand she traced gentle lines through his hair as he lay spilled out of his chair and onto her bed, one arm beneath his head and the other across her lap.

I quietly walked to the other side of the bed to kiss her cheek.

“I keep waking up in the night,” she whispered, giving me a little squeeze. “All these tubes and things are bothering me. And every time, he’s awake, watching me. It does me good to see him sleep.”

“Me, too. He’s been looking a little rough.”

She smiled. “Eh. I’ve seen him worse. He’ll make it through this, too.”

“Have the doctors checked on you yet?”

She shook her head. “I asked them to come again once he’s rested a little. I’ll get back to my room soon enough.”

Of course. Of course the woman who just had a heart attack could spare getting herself to a more comfortable place so her husband could take a nap. Seriously, even if I did find someone, could it ever compare to them?

“How are you doing? Is everyone being helpful?” Mom continued to run her hand through Dad’s hair.

“I fired Coddly. I don’t think I told you yesterday.”

She stilled, staring intently. “What? Why?”

“Oh, no big deal. He just wanted to go to war.”

She covered her mouth, trying not to laugh at how cavalierly I discussed invasion. A second later she stopped smiling at all and moved both of her hands to her chest.

“Mom?” I asked too loudly. Dad’s head instantly shot up.

“Darling? What’s wrong?”

Mom shook her head. “It’s just the stitches. I’m fine.”

Dad settled back into his seat but sat up, done with sleep for the moment. Mom tried to start up the conversation again, doing anything to take the focus off herself.

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