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I wondered what Dad would think about that.

Then I realized that a few of the boys were missing as well. Maybe Camille and Ahren weren’t wrapped in each other’s arms after all. It was possible there was a bug going around. That was far more likely . . . and much less exciting.

I left the dining hall to find Leeland and Ivan waiting for me. They both bowed deeply.

“Your Highness,” Ivan greeted. “Your presence is requested in the Great Room for the greatest date of your life.”

I smirked. “Oh, really?”

Leeland chuckled. “We were up all night working. Please say you’re free right now.”

I checked the clock on the wall. “I have maybe an hour.”

Ivan perked up. “That’s plenty of time. Come with us.” They both offered their elbows, and I grabbed on to them, allowing myself to be escorted into the Great Room.

Along the back wall, a small stage had been set up and covered with what appeared to be tablecloths from our Christmas supplies. Spotlights that we sometimes brought out for parties were aimed at the center of the stage, and as we approached, the boys all shushed one another as they stood in a line.

I was brought to the lone chair right in front of the stage, and I took my seat, simultaneously curious and confused.

Winslow spread his arms wide. “Welcome to the first ever Selection Variety Show, starring a bunch of losers competing for your attention.”

I laughed. At least they owned it.

Calvin jumped off to the side and sat at the piano, playing music that had a ragtime feel, and everyone left the stage except for Winslow.

He bowed very solemnly. But when he stood back up, he smiled hugely, bringing three beanbags in front of him. Then he started juggling. It was so silly, I had to laugh. Winslow turned to the side, and from offstage someone threw a fourth beanbag. Then a fifth and sixth. He managed to keep them going for a couple of tosses before they all fell to the ground, with one slapping him on the head.

Everyone lamented but applauded his efforts, even me.

Lodge got out a bow and arrow and a target covered with balloons, then managed to shoot and pierce each one. As they burst, glitter flew out of them, slowly settling on the floor. All the while, Calvin played on, switching up tunes for each act.

Fox, who I was surprised would rope himself into another group date, got onstage and drew. Horribly. I was sure Osten had made better stick figures as a child, but since this show seemed to either be highlighting their strengths in a ludicrous way or shrugging off their weaknesses as comedy, it ended up being quite charming. I was trying to think of a way to inconspicuously pilfer the picture he drew of me, which was little more than a balloon-shaped head and some brown waves of hair coming off it. I’d been drawn and painted countless times . . . but they never came out that sweet.

Leeland sang, Julian hula hooped, Ivan bounced a soccer ball for an incredibly long time, and Gunner read a poem.

“Our lovely Princess Eadlyn,

It’s hard to rhyme your name.

And though we really ticked you off,

We love you all the same.”

I giggled the whole way through it, as did most of the boys.

The grand finale was the eight of them cluttered onstage dancing. Well, trying to dance. There was a lot of grinding and hip shaking, to the point that I blushed a few times. In the end I really was impressed. They’d organized the whole thing overnight, both trying to entertain me and apologize at the same time.

There was something really sweet about it.

I applauded them as they had their final bow, giving them a standing ovation.

“All right, I should go to work . . . but what if I get some drinks in here for us instead and we talk for a bit?”

They all answered affirmatively over one another, so I sent for tea and water and some cold drinks as well. We didn’t bother with rolling out tables and instead sat on the floor. Sometimes these pain-in-the-neck boys could be so nice.

Ahren didn’t come to dinner either. I watched as the Selected boys filed in, and all our guests, then Mom who was running a little late . . . but no Ahren.

Dad leaned over to me. “Where is your brother?”

I shrugged, cutting my chicken. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him today.”

“That’s not like him.”

I glanced around the room, looking at the remaining nineteen candidates. Kile gave me a wink, and Henri waved. Every time I looked at Gunner, all I could think about was his silly poem. Fox nodded his head at me as our eyes met, and when Raoul stretched, I remembered the care he took teaching me to grip a bat.

Oh, no.

It had happened. Even with the boys I hadn’t spent much time with, I knew that each of them had a hold on me in some way. I already knew that some of them claimed a spot in my ever-terrified heart, but how had it come to pass that they all mattered?

I felt a heaviness settle in my chest. I was going to miss these loud, strange boys. Because even if I miraculously found one to stay with me in the end, there was no way to keep them all.

I was thinking about how worried I used to be about losing my quiet house when Gavril walked in, one of the news staff we kept around for the Report trailing him.

He bowed in front of the head table, looking at Dad. “I’m so sorry to bother you, Your Majesty.”

“Not at all. What’s wrong?”

Gavril glanced at all the watching eyes. “May I approach you?”

Daddy nodded, and Gavril whispered something in his ear.

Dad squinted in disbelief. “Married?” he asked only loud enough that probably Mom and I could hear. He pulled back to look into Gavril’s eyes.

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