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He pursed his lips, looking around the room. “Fine. We’ll talk about this. If Eadlyn was a typical girl, one who wasn’t raised to be in control all the time, this would probably look different. But pick up any of those papers,” he said, gesturing to the pile. Dad did. “In general she comes across as distant, and every picture from last night’s dinner is uncomfortable to look at. You’re nearly scowling in some of them.”

“If you were in my shoes, you’d know how hard this is.”

Ahren rolled his eyes at me. More than anyone, he knew I wasn’t intending to pick a mate in the next few months.

Mom left me and peeked over Dad’s shoulder. “He’s right. On your own, you look like an island, and with the Selected there’s no chemistry, no romance.”

“Listen, I’m not performing for anyone. I refuse to act all dopey over a bunch of boys to entertain people.” I crossed my arms, determined.

Two days in and this was already a disaster. I knew it wouldn’t work, and now I was stuck in this humiliating situation. Could they dare ask me to sink further into shame for the sake of something that clearly wasn’t going to help?

The room went silent, and, foolishly, I thought for a moment that I’d won.

“Eadlyn.” I looked at Dad, trying not to be moved by the pleading in his eyes. “You promised me three months. We’re trying hard to brainstorm on our end, but we can’t extinguish that fire if we’re dealing with new ones. I need you to try.”

In that moment I saw something I hadn’t really noticed before: his age. Dad wasn’t old by any stretch of the word, but he had done more in his lifetime than most people twice his age could even hope for. He was in a constant state of sacrifice—for Mom, for us, for his people—and he was exhausted.

I swallowed, knowing that I’d need to find a way to look like I cared about the Selection, if only for his sake. “I assume you know how to get in touch with the press?”

Dad nodded. “Yes. We have trusted photographers and journalists on call.”

“Get a few cameras in the Men’s Parlor tomorrow morning. I’ll take care of this.”

CHAPTER 11

THE NEXT MORNING I SKIPPED breakfast with my family so I could compose myself. I didn’t want anyone seeing how rattled yesterday had left me, and I felt like I was building a shield around myself, one steady breath at a time.

Neena was humming as she tidied my room, and it was one of the best things. Not only was she gentle with me after I came in yesterday, she didn’t ask a single question or bring up the topic again. I didn’t have to worry about her, which was why she couldn’t leave the palace one day. What about me?

“I think it’s a pants day, Neena,” I called.

She stopped humming. “More black?”

“At least a little.” We shared a smile as she handed me my tight black pants, which I paired with heels that would kill me by noon. I pulled on a flowy shirt and a vest, and found a tiara with jewels that matched the shirt. I was ready.

I decided that I was going to do exactly what Dad had done with his Selection. On his first day he sent home at least six girls. I was planning to eliminate nearly twice as many. Certainly weeding out all the unlikely candidates would show how seriously I was taking this process, that the outcome was important to me.

I wished there was a way to do this without the cameras, but they were a necessary evil. I had a mental list prepared, and I knew vaguely what I wanted to say; but if I made a mistake with reporters present, it would be just as bad as yesterday . . . meaning I needed to be perfect.

Because the Women’s Room was considered the property of the queen, any male had to ask permission before entering. The Men’s Parlor had been thrown together for my convenience, so no such formality stood, and I was able to complete a rather dazzling entrance by pulling the double doors open and letting the rush of wind blow back my hair.

The Selected all hurried to face me, some jumping to their feet or pulling themselves away from the reporters accompanying the cameras.

I passed Paisley Fisher, noticing that he audibly gulped as I stopped. Smiling, I placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You can go.”

He glanced at the people beside him. “Go?”

“Yes, go. As in, thank you for your participation, but your presence at the palace is no longer required.”

When he lingered, I leaned in, breathing my instructions. “The longer you stay, the more embarrassing it becomes. You should leave.”

I pulled back, noting the marked anger in his eyes as he slowly left the room.

I couldn’t figure out why he was so vexed. It wasn’t as if I’d kicked him or shouted. I internally praised myself for getting rid of someone so childish and tried to remember my list. Who was next? Oh . . . this one was well deserved.

“Blakely, isn’t it?”

“Ye—” His voice squeaked and he started again. “Yes, Your Highness.”

“When we met, you couldn’t stop staring at my breasts.” His face went pale, as if he seriously thought he was so subtle no one would notice. “Make sure you get an equally satisfactory look at my backside as you leave.”

I made sure to address him loud enough that the cameras and the other boys would hear. Hopefully his humiliation would prevent others from thinking they could behave similarly. He ducked his head and left the room.

I stopped in front of Jamal. “You can leave.” Next to him, Connor was breaking out into a sweat again. “You can join him.”

They shared a confused look and left together, shaking their heads.

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