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“How about the Selection? How are things going there?”

I paused. “Umm, okay, I think. I haven’t had a lot of time to spend with the boys, but I’m going to work on that. Especially since there’s a Report coming up.”

“You know, honey, no one would fault you for calling it off. You’ve been through a lot this last week, and you’re acting as regent. I’m not sure you should be trying to balance all this.”

“They are very nice boys,” Dad offered, “but if it’s taking too much of your focus …”

I sighed. “I think we need to stop dancing around the fact that I am not the most beloved member of this family. At least not to the general public. You say no one would fault me, but I feel very confident they would.” Mom and Dad shared a look, seeming to want to refute this but not wanting to lie at the same time. “If I’m going to be queen one day, I need to win the people over.”

“And you think finding a husband is the way to accomplish that?” Mom asked suspiciously.

“Yes. It’s all about their perception of me. They think I’m too cold. The most absolute way to refute that would be to get married. They think I’m too masculine. The most absolute way to refute that is to be a bride.”

“I don’t know. I’m still very hesitant about you continuing.”

“Need I remind you that this Selection was your idea?”

She sighed.

“Listen to your daughter,” Dad said. “Very smart girl. Gets it from me.”

“Don’t you want some more sleep?” she asked flatly.

“No, I’m feeling very refreshed,” he said. I wasn’t sure if it was because he wanted to continue the conversation or if he felt he needed to keep his attention on Mom. Either way, he was clearly lying.

“Dad, you look like death punched you in the face.”

“You must get that from me, too.”

“Dad!”

He laughed, and Mom did, too, her hand going back to put pressure on her chest.

“Look! Your terrible jokes are now life threatening. You have to stop them.”

He shared a smile with Mom. “Go do what you need to do, Eadlyn. We will support you in whatever way we can.”

“Thank you. Both of you, please get some rest.”

“Ugh, she’s so bossy,” Mom lamented.

Dad nodded. “I know. Who does she think she is?”

I looked back at them one last time. Dad gave me a wink. No matter who was against me today, at least I had them.

I left them and strode upstairs to the office, shocked to find a beautiful bouquet of flowers on my desk.

“Someone thinks you’re doing a good job, huh?” Neena remarked.

“Or they think I’ll die from the stress and wanted to beat everyone to the punch,” I joked, not sure I wanted to admit how happily surprised I was.

“Lighten up. You’ve been doing great.” But Neena’s eyes weren’t even on me. They had zoomed in on the card.

I tucked it close to my chest as she whined, and lifted the note just enough so I could read it.

You looked a little down when we parted the other day. Wanted today to start on a happier note. I’m here for you.—Marid

I smiled and passed it to Neena, who sighed before turning back to look at the huge bouquet.

“Who are those from?” General Leger asked, coming in the door.

“Marid Illéa,” I replied.

“I heard he stopped by. Was he just bringing gifts or did he need something?” the general asked, skepticism painting his tone.

“Oddly enough, he was making sure I didn’t need something. He offered to give me a helping hand with the public. He knows a lot more about people living their lives in the wake of the castes than I do.”

General Leger joined me beside the table and stared at the extravagant arrangement. “I don’t know. Things didn’t exactly end well between your family and his.”

“I remember. Vividly. But it might be a good thing to learn a little now for when my time comes.”

The general smiled at me, his face softening. “It’s already here, Your Highness. Be careful who you trust, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

Neena was still acting swoony. “Someone needs to tell Mark to step up. I just got a huge promotion. Where are my flowers?”

“Maybe he’s planning to deliver them in person. Much more romantic,” I said.

“Pssh! The way that boy works?” she said skeptically. “If everyone in the palace died and I somehow became queen, he probably still couldn’t get time off. He’s always so busy.”

Though she was trying to joke, I could sense her sadness. “But he loves it, right?”

“Oh, yes, he likes his research. It’s just hard that he’s so busy, and that he’s far away.”

I didn’t know what else to say on the subject, so I turned the conversation back to my gift. “They’re a bit much, though, don’t you think?”

“I think they’re perfect.”

I shook my head. “Either way, these should probably be moved somewhere else.”

“Don’t you want to look at them?” Neena questioned even as she went to grab the vase.

“No. I need the desk space.”

She shrugged and carefully lifted the arrangement to take it into the parlor. I sat down at the desk, trying to concentrate. I had to focus if I was going to win my people over. And that was what I had to do—Ahren had said so.

“Wait!” My voice was a little louder than I intended, and Neena started. “Put them back where they were.”

She made a face at me but brought them back all the same. “What made you change your mind?”

I looked up at the bouquet and ran my fingers across a few of the low-hanging petals. “I just remembered I could lead and still like flowers.”

BY THE TIME DINNER ROLLED around, I was very concerned that I might fall asleep on my plate. There was a chance no one would mind if I skipped it. Meals had generally been quiet unless I worked to make them otherwise. But when I came downstairs and saw Grandma Singer flinging her bag at a butler, I knew tonight was going to be anything but dull.

“Don’t you tell me I can’t come at such an hour!” She shook her wrinkled fist, and I bit my lips to hold in the laughter.

“I wasn’t, ma’am,” the guard replied, his voice anxious. “I just said it was getting late in the day.”

“The queen will want to see me!”

Grandma Singer was a fearsome creature. If we ever did have a war under my rule, my plan was to send her to the front lines. She’d come home holding the enemy by his ear within a week.

I walked into the foyer. “Grandma.”

She instantly turned from the guard, her face melting into the sweetest expression. “Oh, there’s my precious girl. The TV doesn’t do you justice—you’re so lovely!”

I bent so she could kiss me on both cheeks. “Thanks … I think.”

“Where is your mother? I’ve been wanting to come over, but May insisted I stay out of the way.”

“She’s doing much better now. I can take you to her, but wouldn’t you like to eat first and recover from your trip?” I gestured toward the dining hall.

Grandma had lived in the palace when I was younger, but after years of Mom trying to take care of her, she finally up and left. Her “long journey” was really only an hour across town, but it might as well be from the other side of Illéa for how she behaved about it.

“Now, that would be wonderful,” she said, coming beside me. “See, that’s how you treat your elders. There’s some respect.” Her eyes darted back to the poor guard, who stood there stupefied, with her bag in his hands.

“Thank you, Officer Farrow. Please take that to the guest suite on the third floor overlooking the gardens.”

He bowed and left as we made our way into the room. A few of the boys were already waiting, and their eyebrows raised at the sight of the queen mother. Fox strode up immediately to introduce himself.

“Ms. Singer, such a pleasure to meet you,” he said, extending his hand.

“Now, he’s a cute one, Eady. Look at this face.” Grandma grabbed his chin, and he laughed through her grip.

“Yes, Grandma, I know. Part of why he’s still here.” I mouthed an apology, but Fox shook his head, positively beaming over her approval.

Gunner, Hale, and Henri all came over to meet her, and I took the chance to speak quietly to Erik.

“Are you busy tomorrow?”

He squinted. “I don’t think so. Why?”

“Just planning a little something with Henri.”

“Oh,” he said, shaking his head as if that should have been obvious. “No, we’ll both be free.”

“Okay. Don’t tell,” I insisted.

“Of course not.”

“What?” Grandma shouted. “Say that again?”

Erik hopped over, bowing.

“So sorry, ma’am. Sir Henri was born in Swendway and only speaks Finnish. I’m his translator. He says he’s very pleased to meet you.”

“Oh, that’s right, that’s right.” Grandma took Henri’s hand. “IT’S NICE TO MEET YOU, TOO!”

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