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“But other women aren’t expected to produce an heir.”

I hit him again. “Help me! What do I do?”

His eyes searched mine, and I knew, as easily as I could read any emotion in him, that he saw I was terrified. Not irritated or angry. Not outraged or repulsed.

I was scared.

It was one thing to be expected to rule, to hold the weight of millions of people in my hands. That was a job, a task. I could check things off lists, delegate. But this was much more personal, one more piece of my life that ought to be mine but wasn’t.

His playful smile disappeared, and he pulled his chair closer to mine. “If they’re looking to distract people, maybe you could suggest other . . . opportunities. A possible marriage isn’t the only choice. That said, if Mom and Dad came to this conclusion, they might have already exhausted every other option.”

I buried my head in my hands. I didn’t want to tell him I tried to offer up him as an alternative or that I thought Kaden might even be acceptable. I sensed he was right, that the Selection was their last hope.

“Here’s the thing, Eady. You’ll be the first girl to hold the throne fully in her own right. And people expect a lot from you.”

“Like I don’t already know that.”

“But,” he continued, “that also gives you a lot of bargaining power.”

I raised my head marginally. “What do you mean?”

“If they really need you to do this, then negotiate.”

I sat up straight, my mind running around in circles, trying to think of what I could ask for. There might be a way to get through this quickly, without it even ending in a proposal.

Without a proposal!

If I spoke fast enough, I could probably get Dad to agree to practically anything so long as he got his Selection out of it.

“Negotiate!” I whispered.

“Exactly.”

I stood up, grabbed Ahren by his ears, and planted a kiss on his forehead. “You are my absolute hero!”

He smiled. “Anything for you, my queen.”

I giggled, shoving him. “Thanks, Ahren.”

“Get to work.” He waved me toward the door, and I suspected he was actually more eager to get back to his letter than he was for me to come up with a plan.

I dashed from the room, heading to my own to fetch some paper. I needed to think.

As I rounded the corner, I ran smack into someone, falling backward onto the carpet.

“Ow!” I complained, looking up to see Kile Woodwork, Miss Marlee’s son.

Kile and the rest of the Woodworks had rooms on the same floor as our family, a singularly huge honor. Or irritation, depending on how one felt about the Woodworks.

“Do you mind?” I snapped.

“I wasn’t the one running,” he answered, picking up the books he’d dropped. “You ought to be looking where you’re going.”

“A gentleman would offer his hand right now,” I reminded him.

Kile’s hair flopped across his eyes as he looked over at me. He was in desperate need of a cut and a shave, and his shirt was too big for him. I didn’t know who I was more embarrassed for: him for looking so sloppy or my family for having to be seen with such a disaster.

What was especially irritating was that he wasn’t always so scruffy, and he didn’t have to be now. How hard would it be to run a brush through his hair?

“Eadlyn, you’ve never thought I was a gentleman.”

“True.” I pulled myself up without help and brushed off my robe.

For the last six months I had been spared Kile’s less-than-thrilling company. He’d gone to Fennley to enroll in some accelerated course, and his mother had been lamenting his absence ever since the day he left. I didn’t know what he was studying, and I didn’t particularly care. But he was back now, and his presence was another stressor on an ever-growing list.

“And what would make such a lady run like that in the first place?”

“Matters you are far too dim to comprehend.”

He laughed. “Right, because I’m such a simpleton. It’s a miracle I manage to bathe myself.”

I was about to ask if he did bathe, because he looked like he’d been running away from anything that resembled a bar of soap.

“I hope one of those books is a primer on etiquette. You seriously need a refresher.”

“You’re not queen yet, Eadlyn. Take it down a notch.” He walked away, and I was furious with myself for not getting the last word.

I pressed on. There were bigger problems in my life right now than the state of Kile’s manners. I couldn’t waste my time quibbling with people or being distracted by anything that couldn’t put the Selection to death.

CHAPTER 4

“I WANT TO BE CLEAR,” I said, sitting down in Dad’s office. “I have no desire to get married.”

He nodded. “I understand that you don’t want to get married today, but it was always something you’d have to do, Eadlyn. You’re obligated to continue the royal line.”

I hated it when he talked about my future like that, like sex and love and babies weren’t happy things but duties performed to keep the country running. It took every speck of joy out of the prospect.

Of all the things in my life, shouldn’t those be the real pleasures, the best parts?

I shook the worry away and focused on the task at hand.

“I understand. And I agree that it’s important,” I replied diplomatically. “But weren’t you ever worried when you went through your Selection that no one in the pool was right for you? Or that maybe they were there for the wrong reason?”

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