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Chapter no 18

The Crown (The Selection, 5)

I SAT IN MY ROOM, waiting for Hale to arrive. I wanted to have this conversation in a place that was intimate and comfortable. My palms were sweating, and I realized rather abruptly I was getting down to the boys I really didn’t want to send home. I knew only one would stay in the end, but I almost wished the others could call the palace home, too, or maybe promise to visit on holidays.

I snapped my head up at the knock on the door and went to answer it myself. I didn’t want Eloise around for this.

Hale bowed. “Your Highness.” “Come in. Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

“No, I’m good.” He rubbed his hands together, looking as nervous as I was.

I sat at the table, and he joined me.

When I couldn’t bear the silence any longer, I spoke. “I need you to tell me what’s going on.”

He swallowed. “And I want to tell you. But I don’t know what I’ll do if you end up hating me because of it.”

Despite the warmth, I felt a chill. “Why would I hate you, Hale? What did you do?”

“It’s not something I did. It’s something I can’t do.” “Which is?”

“Marry you.”

Though I’d been expecting as much, though my heart had never really, fully been his, it was still a painful blow.

“What—” I had to stop and breathe. This was my worst fear coming to life. I was unlovable. I knew it. All it had taken was a few weeks by my side for him to figure it out. “What suddenly made you so certain you couldn’t marry me?”

He paused, looking pained, and I took some consolation in the fact that he didn’t seem to want to hurt me. “When I found I had feelings for someone else.”

At least that was easier to handle than my initial worry. “Carrie?” He shook his head. “Ean.”

I was driven to absolute silence. Ean? Like, Ean Ean?

I didn’t see that coming. Hale had been so tender, so romantic. But instantly everything about Ean became clear.

When the castes had been in place, it was law that every family fell into the caste of the husband. Because of that, there could only ever be one male head of the household. The same went for women: no married couple, no legitimate household. Some people lived together without bothering with marriage, calling their lovers roommates, but it was frowned on. Mom told me about a same-sex couple back in Carolina who’d been shunned to the point that they were driven out of town.

I’d never cared for that story. It sounded to me like way too many people had it hard when she was growing up. Why would anyone go out of their way to make someone’s life any harder?

Regardless, same-sex couples tended to live in the shadows, on the outskirts of society, and unfortunately that was still the case today. This made Ean’s acceptance of not finding love in his life much more understandable.

But Hale?

“How . . . how did you even . . . ?”

“We started talking one night in the Men’s Parlor. I hadn’t been able to sleep and decided to go there to read. I found him writing in his journal.” Hale smiled to himself. “You wouldn’t think it to look at him, but he’s actually very poetic.

“Anyway, we just talked. And, I don’t know how we even got to the point where we were sitting beside each other, but then he kissed me, and . . . I knew why I never had a crush on Carrie. I knew why, even though you are the smartest, funniest, bravest girl I know, I couldn’t marry you.”

I closed my eyes, taking this in. And I felt absolutely horrified, because all that came to my mind was how badly this might affect me. Forget that Hale was going to have to explain this discovery about himself to his family, forget that Ean might finally be forced to come clean. What would the press say when they eventually learned that not one but two of my suitors would rather be with each other than with me?

Sometimes I was a really terrible person.

“I know that a Selected being in a relationship with someone else is treason,” Hale breathed. I raised my eyes, having forgotten that detail. “But I also know that a short, honest life is better than a long, deceitful one.”

“Hale,” I urged, leaning across the table to take his hand. “What makes you think I could even punish you?”

“I know the rules.”

I sighed. “We live our lives bound by them, don’t we?” He nodded.

“Perhaps you and I could make a deal?” “What kind of deal?”

I pulled my hands back, rubbing them together. “If you would do me the favor of staying until after the coronation and letting me dismiss you and Ean a few weeks, or maybe even days, apart, then I will allow you to leave the palace without any sort of repercussions.”

He stared at me. “Really?”

“I admit, I’m worried about the fallout from all this. But if it looks like you two fell for each other after you were eliminated, then no one could accuse you of treason. And, I’m sorry, but if the press found out, they’d tear me apart over this.”

“I really didn’t want to make things harder for you. I’m not in love with you, but I love you enough to tell you the truth.”

Standing, I bridged the space between us. He stood, too, and I flung my arms around him, resting my head on his shoulder. “I know. And I love you, too. I wouldn’t wish you a lifetime shackled to me when it would make you miserable.”

“Is there anything I can do for you? Leaving here with your blessing was more than I hoped for. How can I help you?”

I stepped back. “Just be an exemplary Selection candidate for a few more days. I realize that’s asking a lot, but getting me past the coronation would mean the world to me.”

“It’s not asking a lot, Eadlyn. It’s hardly asking anything.” I put a hand on his cheek. Something every day.

“So, is he the one or what?”

Hale laughed, the relief finally hitting him. “I don’t know. I mean, I’ve never felt like this before.”

I nodded. “Since he and I don’t talk much, maybe you’d like to tell him how your eliminations will work? He’ll probably go home before you, since publicly he looked like a less likely candidate.”

Saying that out loud caused a little ping in my chest, too. Ean had been a safety net; and still, knowing the truth, I didn’t relish the idea of him going home.

“Thank you. For all of this.” “Don’t mention it.”

Hale swept in and hugged me again before running off. I smiled, thinking that Hale and I were in very similar situations: charging headlong into the future with no guarantee of a happily ever after. All the same, it meant something that we ran, didn’t it?

I liked to think so.

The day had gone from wonderful to complicated very quickly, and by the end of it I was ready to bypass dinner and fall straight into bed. I pushed my door open, trying to hold on to the best parts of the day. Lady Brice saying I was wise. The press feeling hopeful. Hale’s smile before he ran out of the room.

“You know,” a deep voice said, “I think I might be your maid’s favorite.”

Kile was lounging on my bed, his arms comfortably crossed behind his head.

I laughed. “And why is that?”

“Because she was far too easy to bribe.”

“The least you could have done was take off your shoes.”

He made a face and slipped them off, then patted the space on the bed beside him.

I flopped down, looking incredibly unladylike. He rolled over, facing me, and I caught a glimpse of his fingers. “What in the world have you been doing today?”

“I spent the afternoon sketching with charcoals,” he answered, flipping his blackened hands over. “Don’t worry. They won’t rub off on your sheets. My fingers are just stained.”

“What’d you dream up?”

“I realize this might be overstepping boundaries, but I was thinking about the town hall, and I was wondering if it might be helpful to have things like that more often. I was redesigning one of the parlors into a permanent throne room, where you could receive people, hear individual petitions, and address them one-on-one. Something official but understated.”

“That’s really thoughtful.”

He shrugged. “I told you, I keep making things for you.”

The glimmer in his eyes was so boyish that for a moment I forgot we were on the verge of so many grown-up things.

“You also might want to think about setting up a radio station,” he commented.

“Ugh, why? The Reports are bad enough.”

“When I was taking classes in Fennley, my friends and I listened to the radio a lot. We would leave it on in the kitchen or while we worked, and any time we heard something interesting, we’d stop and listen and start our own discussion. It might be a good way for you to reach people. And it’s not quite as bad as having a camera in your face.”

“Interesting. I’ll think about it.” I touched the tips of his dirty fingers. “Did you work on anything else?”

He made a face. “Remember those little units I was talking about? I was

trying to see if they could be built with an upstairs, for larger families. But looking at the materials I wanted to use, it doesn’t seem possible. The metal would be too thin. It would be helpful if I could actually build one and test it out. Maybe one day.”

I stared at him. “You know, Kile, princes rarely get their hands dirty.”

“I know.” He smiled. “It’s more something nice to think about than anything.” He shifted his weight and the conversation in one swift movement. “The papers looked good today.”

“Yeah. Now I just have to keep that momentum going. I have no idea how to re-create it though.”

“You don’t have to. Sometimes things just happen.”

“It would feel nice to not try to work at it all so much.” I yawned. Even a mostly good day was tiring.

“Do you want me to go so that you can get some rest?”

“Nah,” I said, settling in a little closer and rolling onto my back. “Can you stay here for a little while?”

“Sure.”

He held my hand, and we stared at the intricate painting on my ceiling. “Eadlyn?”

“Yeah.” “You okay?”

“Yeah. I feel like I’d be doing better if I could go slower, but everything has to be now, now, now.”

“You could push the coronation back. Stay regent for a while. It’s practically the same thing.”

“I know, but it doesn’t feel the same. My dad was doing okay with me as regent, but even in the short time since we set a date for the coronation, he’s been much better. I know it’s all mental, but if it helps him sleep, which helps him with Mom, which helps her get better . . .”

“I see what you’re saying. But what else? You’re not rushing through the Selection, are you?”

“Not on purpose. It seems to be thinning itself out for me.” “What do you mean?”

I sighed. “I can’t really say now. Maybe once everything’s settled.” “You can trust me.”

“I know.” I leaned my head into his shoulder. “Kile?” “Yeah.”

“Do you remember our first kiss?”

“How could I forget? It was printed on the front of every newspaper.” “No, not that one. Our first first kiss.”

After a beat of confusion, he sucked in a huge breath. “Oh. My. Gosh.” I just lay there laughing.

When I was four and Kile was six, he and I played together a lot. I still didn’t remember what made him start hating palace life or when our mutual dislike for each other kicked in, but back then Kile was like another Ahren. One day the three of us were playing hide-and-seek, and Kile found me. Instead of tagging me out, though, he bent down and kissed me full on the mouth.

I stood up and pushed him to the ground and swore to him that if he ever tried it again, I’d have him hanged.

“What four-year-old knows how to threaten someone’s life?” he teased. “One who was raised to, I suppose.”

“Wait, is this your way of telling me you’re having me hanged? Because, if so, this is incredibly cold.”

“No.” I laughed. “I felt you deserved an apology by now.”

“It’s fine. Really funny years later. When people ask about my first kiss, I never say that one. I tell them it was the daughter of the Saudi prime minister. I guess that one was actually my second.”

“Why don’t you tell them about me?”

“Because I thought you might follow through on the hanging thing,” he joked. “I guess I just blocked it out. It wasn’t exactly a fantastic first kiss.”

I started giggling. “Mom told me that she was Dad’s first kiss, and she pretty much tried to back out of it.”

“Really?!”

“Yeah.”

Kile laughed. “Do you know about Ahren’s?”

“No.” But Kile was so tickled, I was in tears before he said a word.

“It was with one of the Italian girls, but he had a cold and—” He paused because he was laughing so hard. “Oh, man, he had to sneeze mid-kiss, so there was snot everywhere.”

“What?”

“I didn’t see the kiss, but I was there for the aftermath. I just grabbed him, and we ran.”

My stomach hurt from laughing, and it took a while for it to wear out of our systems. When we finally calmed down, I realized something. “I don’t know anyone who’s had a really good first kiss.”

After a second he answered. “Me neither. Maybe it’s not the first kisses that are supposed to be special. Maybe it’s the last ones.”

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