“You’ve been avoiding me,” Daphne said, her tone playful and the lilt of her accent tickling my ears. There was always something musical about the way she spoke.
“Not at all. It was bit more crowded than I thought it would be.” I looked back at the handful of people still intent on seeing the sun rise through the palace windows.
“Your father, he enjoys making a spectacle.”
I laughed. Daphne seemed to understand so many things that I’d never said out loud. Sometimes that made me nervous. Just how much about me could she see without me knowing? “He outdid himself, I think.”
She shrugged. “Only until next time.”
We stood there in silence, though I sensed she wanted to say more. Biting her lip, she whispered to me. “Could I speak to you in private?”
I nodded, giving her my arm and escorting her to one of the parlors down the hall. She was quiet, saving her words until I shut the doors behind us. Though we often talked in private, the way she was acting made me uneasy.
“You didn’t dance with me,” she said, sounding hurt.
“I didn’t dance at all.” Father insisted upon classical musicians this time. While the Fives were very talented, the music they played lent themselves to slower dances. Maybe, if I had wanted to dance, I would have chosen to dance with her. It just felt wrong with everyone asking me questions about my future mystery wife.
She let out a breathy sigh and paced the room. “I’m supposed to go on this date when I get home,” she said. “Frederick—that’s his name. I’ve seen him before, of course. He’s an excellent rider, and very handsome, too. He’s four years older than me, but I think that’s one of the reasons Papa likes him.”
She looked over her shoulder at me, a little smile on her face.
I gave her a sarcastic grin in return. “And where would we be without our fathers’ approval?”
She giggled. “Lost, of course. We’d have no idea how to live.”
I laughed back, grateful for someone to joke about it with. It was the only way to deal with it sometimes.
“But yes, Papa approves. Still, I wonder . . .” She dropped her eyes to the floor, suddenly shy.
“You wonder what?”
She stood there a moment, her gaze still focused on the carpet. Finally she focused those deep blue eyes on me. “Do you approve?”
I laughed. “I can’t really say, can I? I’ve never met him.”
“No,” she said, her voice dropping. “Not about the person, but the idea. Do you approve of me dating this man? Possibly marrying him?”
Her face was stone, covering something I didn’t understand. I gave a bewildered shrug. “It’s not my place to approve. It’s hardly even yours,” I added, feeling a bit sad for the both of us.
Daphne twisted her hands together, like she was maybe nervous or hurting. What was happening here?
“So it doesn’t bother you at all, then? Because if it’s not Frederick, it’ll be Antoine. And if it’s not Antoine, it’ll be Garron. There’s a string of men waiting for me, none of them half the friend to me that you are. But, eventually, I’ll have to take one as a husband, and you don’t care?”
That was gloomy indeed. We scarcely saw each other more than three times in a year. And I might say she was my closest friend, too. How pathetic were we?
I swallowed, searching for the right thing to say. “I’m sure it will all work out.”
With no warning whatsoever, tears began streaming down Daphne’s face. I looked around the room, trying to find an explanation or solution, feeling more and more uncomfortable every moment.
“Please tell me you’re not going to follow through with this, Maxon. You can’t,” she pleaded.
“What are you talking about?” I asked desperately.
“The Selection! Please, don’t marry some stranger. Don’t make me marry some stranger.”
“I have to. That’s how it works for princes of Illéa. We marry commoners.”
Daphne rushed forward, grabbing my hands. “But I love you. I always have. Please don’t marry some other girl without at least asking your father if I could be a choice.”
Loved me? Always?
I choked over words, trying to find the right place to start. “Daphne, how . . . I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll ask your father,” she pleaded, wiping away her tears hopefully. “Postpone the Selection long enough for us to at least see if it’s worth trying. Or let me enter, too. I’ll give up my crown.”
“Please stop crying,” I whispered.
“I can’t! Not when I’m about to lose you forever.” She buried her head in her hands, sobbing quietly.
I stood there, stone-like, terrified I would make this worse. After a few tense moments, she raised her head. She spoke, staring at nothing.
“You’re the only person who really knows me. The only person I feel I truly know myself.”
“Knowledge isn’t love,” I contradicted.
“That’s not true, Maxon. We have a history together, and it’s about to be broken. All for the sake of tradition.” She kept her eyes focused on some invisible space in the center of the room, and I couldn’t guess what she was thinking now. Clearly, I was oblivious to her thoughts in general.
Finally Daphne turned her face to me. “Maxon, I beg of you, ask your father. Even if he says no, at least I’ll have done everything I could.”
Positive that I already knew this to be true, I told her what I must. “You already have, Daphne. This is it.” I held out my arms for a moment and let them drop. “This is all it could ever be.”
She held my gaze for a long time, knowing as I did that asking my father for such an outrageous request was beyond anything I could truly get away with. I saw her search her mind for an alternative path, but she quickly saw there wasn’t one. She was a servant to her crown, I was a servant to mine, and our masters would never cross.
As she nodded, her face crumpled into tears again. She wandered over to a couch and sat down, holding herself. I stayed still, hoping to not cause her any more grief. I longed to make her laugh, but there wasn’t anything funny about this. I hadn’t known I was capable of breaking a heart.
I certainly didn’t like it.
Just then I realized this was about to become common. I would dismiss thirty-four women over the next few months. What if they all reacted this way?
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