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I came upon Kile next. Unlike most of the others, he didn’t avert his eyes. On the contrary, he stared into mine, and I could see him pleading for me to end his misery and get him out of here.

I might have if I didn’t think his mother would kill me—as I would surely have to make him leave the palace—and if I hadn’t seen his name on the most signs yesterday. Of course, Kile was the hometown pick, so maybe the crowd was biased. Still, I couldn’t get rid of him. Not yet.

Beside him, Hale swallowed. I remembered how he’d protected me during the parade, knowing he’d taken hits that were intended for me, some of which had seemed rather painful.

I came near and spoke softly. “Thank you for yesterday. You were very brave.”

“It was nothing,” he assured me. “Though the suit couldn’t be saved.”

He said it jokingly, trying to make the whole thing seem like less of an issue than it was.

“Shame.”

I lowered my eyes and continued walking. I didn’t think the cameras would have picked up the conversation, but I knew they’d see our smiles. I wondered what would be made of that.

“Issir,” I said to a slick-haired, gangly young man. “No. Thank you.”

He didn’t even question it. He blushed and fled as quickly as he could.

I heard a mumbling and wondered who would dare to speak right now. As I whipped my head around, I saw Henri’s translator relaying the scene in Henri’s ear as quickly and quietly as he could. Henri’s eyes were stressed, but when he finished listening, he looked up at me and smiled. He had such a goofy little grin and his hair curled in a way that he looked like he was playing a game while standing still.

Ugh. I had intended to end his suffering and send him home, but he looked far too pleased to be here. Some of them had to stay anyway, and Henri was harmless.

I simply flicked my hand as I passed Nolan and announced to Jamie that his request for a payout was the most offensive way to introduce himself.

I continued to stalk around the room, checking to make sure I covered everyone I wanted gone. The reactions of the spared boys ranged from interesting to bizarre. Holden kept swallowing, waiting for the bomb to drop, while Jack smiled in a strange way, almost as if he found this all entertaining or exciting. I finally came up to Ean, who didn’t look away but chose to wink at me.

I noticed he was sitting alone, with only a leather-bound journal and pen to keep him company. Not here to make friends it seemed.

“A wink is a bit bold, don’t you think?” I asked quietly.

“What princess would want a man by her side who wasn’t bold?”

I raised an eyebrow, amused. “You’re not at all worried about being overconfident, are you?”

“No. It’s who I am. And I don’t intend to hide anything from you.”

There was something almost frightening about his presence, but I liked that he had the nerve to be real. I noted the camera coming to hover behind him, trying to capture my expression, and I shook my head at him, suppressing a smirk. I moved on, adding Arizona, Brady, Pauly, and MacKendrick to the ranks of the evicted. If I’d counted correctly, that was eleven gone.

Once the eliminated had all left, I went to the door, turning to face the remaining candidates. “If you’re still here, that means you’ve done something between our first meeting and now to impress me or have at least had the common sense not to offend me.” Some smiled, probably thinking of Blakely, while others stood there stunned. “I want to encourage you all to be deliberate, because I take this very seriously. This isn’t a game, gentlemen. This is my life.”

I pulled the doors shut behind me and heard the flurry of activity pick up in my wake. Some laughed or sighed, while someone simply repeated “Oh, my goodness, oh, my goodness” again and again. The reporters’ voices rose above them all, encouraging them to recount their feelings on the first elimination. Letting out a long breath, I walked away feeling confident. I’d taken a decisive step, and Dad could rest easy now, knowing the Selection was properly under way and that I wouldn’t let him down.

To make up for the lackluster first evening and the complete absence of interaction after the parade yesterday, the boys were invited that night to a predinner tea to meet the household and, of course, speak with me, their beloved would-be bride. Mom and Dad were there, along with Ahren, Kaden, and Osten. Josie came with the Woodworks—who were working very hard not to hover over their son—and Miss Lucy was circling the room, not really speaking to anyone but looking lovely. She never seemed to care for crowds.

I’d changed into a gown for dinner and put on another pair of toe-destroying heels. I was still riding my post-elimination buzz, so pleased to be making steps to help Dad. It dwindled quickly though as Ahren walked toward me with a warning glare in his eyes.

“What in the world did you do to them?” he asked accusingly.

“Nothing,” I vowed. “I held an elimination. I wanted to show everyone that this was important to me. Like Dad.”

Ahren pressed his palm into his forehead. “Have you had your nose buried in reports all day?”

“Of course I have,” I replied. “You might not have noticed, but that’s kind of my job.”

Ahren leaned in. “The clips on the news have painted you to be a black widow. Your face was smug as you kicked them out. And you got rid of a third of them, Eadlyn. That doesn’t make the candidates look important. It makes them look disposable.” I could feel the blood draining from my face as Ahren continued in a whisper. “Two of them have asked in the most circumspect and quiet ways possible if there was a chance that you prefer women.”

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