I moved her toward the head table. “He’s not deaf, Grandma.”
“Well,” she said, as if that was enough of an explanation.
“Have you talked to Uncle Gerad?”
“Gerad wants to be here, but he’s working on a time-sensitive project. You know I never understand a word he says.” Grandma waved her arm in the air as if she was slapping away the elaborate words he used. “I heard from Kota, too. He’s not sure if he should stop by or not. Your mother and him, they’ve tried over the years, but they just can’t seem to be civil. He’s gotten better, though. I think it’s that wife of his.”
I ushered her around the table, and she took my seat. Even though it wasn’t permanent, taking Dad’s empty place next to her felt strange. So much had been entrusted to me, yet I felt like I’d stolen something of his.
“Aunt Leah does sound like a rather calming person,” I agreed. “I guess those things matter, balancing each other out.”
The butlers rushed some soup in front of Grandma, knowing how short her patience was. I smiled as she dug in.
“Worked for your grandpa and me. Your parents, too.”
Ignoring my own bowl, I rested my chin on my hand. “What was Grandpa like?”
“Good. Very good. He always wanted to do what was right. He was slower to get upset than I was and didn’t let things get him down. I wish you could have known him.”
I let her eat and found my eyes wandering around the room. Kile was my opposite in that he was humble where I was proud. Henri was my opposite in that he saw everything as a joy where I focused on the challenge. Ean, Fox, Gunner … there was an element in each of them that would fall on the other side of my spectrum.
“Is the French girl like that for Ahren?” Grandma asked with no attempt to hide her disdain.
I considered this. “No, actually. It’s like they’re two halves of the same heart in different bodies.” My eyes welled. I was so tired, and I missed him so much. “I can’t begin to tell you how much he loves her.”
She grumbled. “Enough to leave.”
I exhaled slowly. “Exactly, Grandma. It hurt him so much to be apart from her that he would endure the pain of leaving his family, his home, and his country, not even knowing how that would all be received, just to be with her.”
She recognized the sadness in my voice and reached out her hand to mine.
“You all right, honey?”
I pulled myself together. “Of course. A little tired is all. I should go rest.” Just then Kaden and Osten came running in, giving me a perfect escape. “The boys will take you to Mom.”
She shrieked in delight. “My boys!”
I backed away while she was distracted, walking quietly down the side of the room until I got to Henri.
I tapped him on his shoulder, and he looked up from his meal, that ever-present smile on his face. “Hello today!”
I chuckled. “Would you like to join me for lunch tomorrow?”
I waited for Erik to jump in, but Henri held up a hand, concentrating. “Tomorrow, lunch?” he asked.
“Good, good! Yes!”
I smiled. “See you then.”
I left the room, peeking back to see Henri clutching Erik by the shoulder, elated by the invitation. He seemed so pleased to have made it through the interaction without needing a translation, too. Erik nodded at Henri, pleased for his friend … but I’d seen him smile brighter than that before.
I looked at the clock. Ten after midnight. If I fell asleep right now, I could get about five hours of sleep.
Ten minutes later it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. I used to be so good at shutting off my mind for the day, but now it seemed like every task I was halfway through stayed with me until it was done, not caring if I was well rested enough to tackle it.
I slipped on my robe, combed my fingers through my hair, and stepped barefoot into the hallway. Perhaps if I went to the office I could do some work and appease my brain, and then I could get back to bed. But if I was going to do that, I needed coffee.
It was too late for any maids to be on duty, so I headed to the kitchen. It seemed it was never empty down there, and I was sure someone would help me. Rounding the landing on the second floor, I leaped back, startled by the figure coming right at me.
“Oh!” Erik said, suddenly realizing someone was in his path.
I pulled my robe a little tighter, though I was fully covered, and swept back my hair, hoping to seem less surprised than I had been.
He backed up, fidgeted with his hands a second, and then bowed abruptly. It was such a rushed, sloppy gesture that I couldn’t help but laugh.
He smiled a little himself, shaking his head at the silliness of the moment. He, too, was in his pajamas—striped-blue pants and a plain cotton shirt—and wandering the palace in bare feet.
“What in the world are you doing up at this hour?” I asked.
“Henri has been working especially hard on his English since you announced the Elite. And with a date tomorrow, he wanted to be extra prepared. We only quit for the day a few minutes ago, and I was heading to the kitchen for some tea and honey. Honey is supposed to make you sleep well.” He said all this in a low, hurried voice, as if he was worried he might bore me.
“Is it? I might have to try that tomorrow. I was actually just going to the kitchen for coffee.”
“Your Highness, I feel you’re a very bright woman, so it pains me to tell you that coffee will not help you sleep. Not at all.”
I giggled. “No, I know. I was going to get some work done. I haven’t been sleeping, so I thought I might as well be useful.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re always useful. Even when you sleep.”
I ducked my head, moving around the banister, and he followed me down the steps. All I could think of was how drab he had seemed that first day, a grayed-out shadow of a person. I knew now his plainness was his shield, hiding how smart, thoughtful, and funny he was. Though I still didn’t understand the choice, I knew there was more to him than he let most people see.
“How is Henri doing? With the English lessons?”
He shrugged and tucked his hands behind his back. “Good. Not great. What I told you before is still very true; it would be a long time before you could communicate on your own. But he cares so much, he’s been trying harder than ever.” He nodded to himself as if assessing their work in his head. “Forgive me—I should have asked. How are your parents? I heard your mother is awake and recovering.”
“She is, thank you. She was supposed to move back to her room today, but there was something funny about her oxygen levels so they kept her in the hospital wing one more night for good measure. And Dad is still sleeping in a cot by her bed.”
Erik grinned. “It makes the idea of ‘in sickness and in health’ much more real to see it play out in front of you.”
I nodded. “Honestly, sometimes it’s intimidating to watch them. Finding anything close to what they have seems impossible.”
He smirked. “There’s no way to know everything about someone else’s relationship, even your parents’. Sometimes especially your parents’,” he added, as if he’d thought about this before, perhaps about his own family. “I guarantee you—he’s given a terrible Christmas present at least once and has earned himself a day of silence for it.”
Erik was unfazed. “You have to embrace the idea of imperfection, even in the thing that is most perfect for you. Your brother whisked away a girl and got married in a whirlwind and could be discovering right now that she snores so loudly, he can’t even sleep.”
I covered my mouth, but not fast enough to smother the laugh that escaped. Something about the image of poor Ahren with pillows slammed over his ears really got me.
“It’s very possible,” he added, looking quite pleased to have made me smile.
“You’ve ruined my image of Camille! How am I supposed to keep a straight face the next time I see her?”
“Don’t,” he said simply. “Just laugh. Your impression of everyone is probably wrong in some way.”
Shaking my head, I sighed. “I’m sure you’re right. Which makes everything I do that much harder.”
“Like the Selection?”
“There are moments when a room full of politicians seems easier to manage than six boys. For everything I’ve learned so far, there must be a dozen things I’ve missed.”
“Relying heavily on gut instincts then?”
“Well, they’ve been spot-on about Henri. He’s as nice as he seems. You must have already known that, though, to keep him in the final pool.” I noticed something off about his tone as he spoke, like this was a disappointing thing to admit.
I clasped my hands together, only just then realizing that we’d moved well past the kitchen. I supposed I could always go back for coffee if I still wanted a cup.
“This whole situation has been a hard one to navigate. I wasn’t supposed to have a Selection. In the past, princesses were married off for international relations, but my parents promised they’d never do that to me. So to find myself with a roomful of boys and be expected to choose a lifelong partner from them … it’s scary. All I have to go on are a handful of impressions, and a hope that no one is deceiving me.”
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