“We love you, Princess Eadlyn,” someone called, and I waved in the direction of the sound.
“Long live the king!”
“Bless you, Princess!”
I mouthed my thanks to them for their support, and I felt encouraged. It wasn’t every day that I saw my people face-to-face, heard their voices, and sensed how they needed us. I knew they loved me, of course. I was going to be their queen. But typically, when I did leave the palace, the focus was on Mom or Dad. It felt amazing to have so much of the affection finally centered on me. Maybe I could be as beloved as my father.
The parade went on, with people calling our names and throwing flowers. It was turning out to be the spectacle I’d hoped. I couldn’t have asked for anything better, until we reached the final stretch of the route.
Something hit me that was clearly not a flower. I looked to see a runny egg dripping down my dress and onto my bare legs. After that, half a tomato hit me, then something else I couldn’t identify.
I dropped down, covering myself with my arms.
“We need jobs!” someone shrieked.
“The castes still live!”
I peeked out and saw a cluster of people protesting and hurling their rotten food at the float. Some held angry signs they must have hidden from the guards until now, and others threw disgusting words at me, calling me things that I’d never imagined even the worst of people saying.
Hale dropped down and lay in front of me, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.”
“I don’t understand,” I mumbled.
Henri got down on one knee, trying to hit anything that came near us, and Hale guarded me without wavering, even though I heard him grunt and felt him clench up when he was hit with something heavy.
I recognized General Leger’s voice shouting at the Selected to get down. As soon as everyone was low and secure, the float sped up, moving faster than it was probably designed to. People who actually cared about the parade booed as we hurtled past them, stealing their opportunity to catch a glimpse of the whole entourage.
I heard the float hit the gravel of the palace driveway, and the instant we came to a stop I pulled back from Hale and jumped to my feet. I hurried to the ladder and worked my way down.
“Eadlyn!” Mom cried.
Dad stood in shock. “Love, what happened?”
“Hell if I know.” I stormed off, humiliated. As if the whole thing wasn’t embarrassing enough, the sad eyes of everyone around me made it even worse.
Poor thing, their expressions seemed to say. And I hated their pity more than I hated the people who thought this was acceptable.
I scurried through the palace, head down, hoping no one would stop me. It wasn’t my lucky day, of course, because as I rounded onto the landing of the second floor, Josie was there.
“Ew! What happened to you?”
I didn’t answer, moving even faster. Why? What had I done to deserve this?
Neena was cleaning when I walked in. “Miss?”
“Help,” I whimpered before bursting into tears.
She came over and embraced me, getting my mess all over her pristine uniform. “Hush now. We’ll clean you up. You get undressed, and I’ll start the bath.”
“Why would they do this to me?”
“Who did it?”
“My people!” I answered in pain. “My subjects. Why would they do this?”
Neena swallowed, disappointed for my sake. “I don’t know.”
I wiped at my face and makeup, and something green came off on my hand. The tears fell again.
“Let me start that bath.”
She scurried away, and I stood there, helpless.
I knew the water would get rid of the mess, and I knew it would take away the smell, but no amount of scrubbing would ever wash away this memory.
Hours later I was scrunched up on a chair in Dad’s sitting room, bundled in my coziest sweater. Despite the heat, my clothes were my only armor at the moment, and the layers made me feel safe. Mom and Dad were both drinking something a little stronger than wine—a rare occasion—though it didn’t appear to be doing much for their nerves.
Ahren knocked but came in before anyone answered the door. Our eyes met, and I rushed across the room, throwing my arms around him.
“Sorry, Eady,” he said, kissing my hair.
“Glad you could come, Ahren.” Dad was looking at some of the stills from the parade that the photographers had provided him, stacking them on top of several of today’s papers.
“Of course.” He put his arm around my shoulder and walked me to my seat, going to stand with Dad while I curled back up into a ball.
“I still can’t believe this happened,” Mom said, reaching the bottom of her glass. I could see her weighing in her head whether or not to have another. She decided against it.
“Me either,” I mumbled, still suffering under the surge of hatred those people felt for me. “What did I do?”
“Nothing,” Mom assured me, coming to sit beside me. “They’re mad at the monarchy, not you. Today your face was the one they could see, and that’s the one they attacked. It could have been any of us.”
“I felt so certain a Selection would lift their mood. I thought they would delight in this.” Dad stared at the pictures, still shocked.
We sat silent for a while. He’d been so wrong.
“Well,” Ahren started. “They might have if it wasn’t Eadlyn.”
We all gaped at him.
“Excuse me?” I nearly started crying all over again, pained by his cruel words. “Mom just said it could have been you or her or anyone. So why are you blaming me?”
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