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Chapter no 2

The Crown (The Selection, 5)

MOM’S HANDS FELT SO SOFT, almost papery in a way. The feeling made me think of how water smoothed out the edges of a stone. I smiled, thinking she must have been a very rough stone once upon a time.

“Did you ever used to get it wrong?” I asked. “Say the wrong words, do the wrong things?”

I waited for an answer, receiving nothing but the hum of equipment and the beat of the monitor.

“Well, you and Dad used to fight, so you must have been wrong sometimes.”

I held her hand tighter, trying to warm it in mine.

“I made all the announcements. Now everyone knows about Ahren getting married and that you’re a little . . . indisposed at the moment. I cut the boys down to six. I know that’s a big cut, but Dad said it was okay and that he did that when it was his turn, so no one can get upset.” I sighed. “Regardless, I have a feeling people will still find a way to get upset with me.”

I blinked back tears, worried she’d sense how scared I was. The doctors believed that the shock of Ahren’s departure was the catalyst for her current condition, though I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d contributed to her stress daily, like drops of poison so small someone didn’t realize they’d ingested something dangerous until it had overtaken them.

“Anyway, I’m off to run my first advisory board meeting as soon as Dad gets back. He says it shouldn’t be too difficult. Honestly, I feel like General Leger had the toughest job of anyone today, trying to get Dad to go eat, because he fought so hard to stay here with you. The general was insistent, though, and Dad finally caved. I’m glad he’s here. General Leger, I mean. It’s kind of like having a backup parent.”

I held her hand a little tighter and leaned in, whispering. “Please don’t make me need a backup parent, though, okay? I still need you. The boys still need you. And Dad . . . he looks like he might fall apart if you leave. So when it’s time to wake up, you’ve gotta come back, all right?”

I waited for her mouth to twitch or her fingers to move, anything to show that she could hear me. Nothing.

Just then Dad tore through the door with General Leger on his heels. I wiped at my cheeks, hoping no one would notice.

“See,” General Leger said. “She’s stable. The doctors would come running if anything changed.”

“All the same, I prefer to be here,” Dad said firmly.

“Dad, you were hardly gone ten minutes. Did you even eat?” “I ate. Tell her, Aspen.”

General Leger sighed. “We’ll call it eating.”

Dad shot him a look that would have been threatening to some but only made the general smile. “I’ll see if I can sneak some food in so you won’t have to leave.”

Dad nodded. “Look out for my girl.”

“Of course.” General Leger winked at me, and I stood up and followed him from the room, looking back at Mom just to check.

Still asleep.

In the hallway, he held out an arm for me. “You ready, my not-quite queen?”

I took it and smiled. “No. Let’s go.”

As we made our way to the boardroom, I nearly asked General Leger if he would take me for another lap around the floor. The day felt so overwhelming already that I wasn’t sure I could do this.

Nonsense, I told myself. You’ve sat in on these meetings dozens of times. You’ve almost always thought the same things Dad has said. Yes, this is your first time leading it, but this was always waiting for you. And no one is going to be hard on you today, for goodness’ sake; your mother just had a heart attack.

I pulled the door open with purpose, General Leger trailing behind me. I made sure to nod at the gentlemen as I passed. Sir Andrews, Sir Coddly, Mr. Rasmus, and a handful of other men I’d known for years sat arranging their pens and paper. Lady Brice looked proud as she watched me sweep around to my father’s spot, as did the general when he settled into the place beside her.

“Good morning.” I took my seat at the head of the table, gazing down at the thin folder in front of me. Thank goodness the agenda looked light today.

“How is your mother?” Lady Brice asked solemnly.

I should have written this answer on a sign so I could stop repeating it. “She’s asleep still. I’m not sure how serious her condition is at the moment, but Dad is staying by her side, and we’ll be sure to update everyone if there’s any change.”

Lady Brice smiled sadly. “I’m sure she’ll be fine. She always was a tough one.”

I tried to hide my surprise, but I didn’t realize Lady Brice knew my mother that well. In truth, I didn’t know that much about Lady Brice myself,

but her tone was so sincere, I was happy to have her beside me at the moment.

I nodded. “Let’s get through this so I can tell her my first day on the job was at least slightly productive.”

There were gentle chuckles around the room at that, but my smile quickly faded as I read the first page presented to me.

“I hope this is a joke,” I said dryly. “No, Your Highness.”

I turned my eyes to Sir Coddly.

“We feel this was a deliberate move to debilitate Illéa, and seeing as neither the king nor queen gave their consent, France has essentially stolen your brother. This marriage is treasonous, so we have no choice but to go to war.”

“Sir, I assure you, this was not treasonous. Camille is a sensible girl.” I rolled my eyes, hating to admit it. “It’s Ahren who’s the romantic one, and I feel certain he urged her into this, not the other way around.”

I balled up the declaration of war, unwilling to consider it for another moment.

“My lady, you cannot do that,” Sir Andrew insisted. “The relations between Illéa and France have been tense for years.”

“That is more on a personal level than a political one,” Lady Brice offered.

Sir Coddly waved his hand in the air. “Which makes this all much worse. Queen Daphne is brandishing more emotional suffering on the royal family under the assumption that we will not respond. This time we must. Tell her, general!”

Lady Brice shook her head in frustration as General Leger spoke. “All I will say, Your Highness, is that we can have troops in the sky and on the ground within twenty-four hours if you command it. Though I certainly wouldn’t advise you to make that command.”

Andrews huffed. “Leger, tell her the dangers she’s facing.” He shrugged. “I see no danger here. Her brother got married.”

“If anything,” I questioned, “shouldn’t a wedding bring our two countries closer? Isn’t that why princesses were married off for years?”

“But those were planned,” Coddly stated in a tone that implied I was a little too naive for the conversation at hand.

“As was this,” I countered. “We all knew Ahren and Camille would wed one day. It simply happened sooner than expected.”

“She doesn’t get it,” he muttered to Andrews.

Sir Andrews shook his head at me. “Your Highness, this is treason.” “Sir, this is love.”

Coddly slammed a fist on the table. “No one will take you seriously if you do not act decisively.”

There was a beat of silence after his voice stopped echoing around the room, and the entire table sat motionless.

“Fine,” I responded calmly. “You’re fired.”

Coddly laughed, looking at the other gentlemen at the table. “You can’t fire me, Your Highness.”

I tilted my head, staring at him. “I assure you, I can. There’s no one here who outranks me at the moment, and you are easily replaceable.”

Though she tried to be discreet, I saw Lady Brice purse her lips together, clearly determined not to laugh. Yes, I definitely had an ally in her.

“You need to fight!” he insisted.

“No,” I answered firmly. “A war would add unnecessary strain to an already stressful moment and would cause an upheaval between us and the country we are now bound to by marriage. We will not fight.”

Coddly lowered his chin and squinted. “Don’t you think you’re being too emotional about this?”

I stood, my chair screeching behind me as I moved. “I’m going to assume that you aren’t implying by that statement that I’m actually being too female about this. Because, yes, I am emotional.”

I strode around the opposite side of the table, my eyes trained on Coddly. “My mother is in a bed with tubes down her throat, my twin is now on a different continent, and my father is holding himself together by a thread.”

Stopping across from him, I continued. “I have two younger brothers to keep calm in the wake of all this, a country to run, and six boys downstairs waiting for me to offer one of them my hand.” Coddly swallowed, and I felt only the tiniest bit of guilt for the satisfaction it brought me. “So, yes, I am emotional right now. Anyone in my position with a soul would be. And you, sir, are an idiot. How dare you try to force my hand on something so monumental on the grounds of something so small? For all intents and purposes, I am queen, and you will not coerce me into anything.”

I walked back to the head of the table. “Officer Leger?” “Yes, Your Highness?”

“Is there anything on this agenda that can’t wait until tomorrow?” “No, Your Highness.”

“Good. You’re all dismissed. And I suggest you all remember who’s in charge here before we meet again.”

As soon as I finished speaking, everyone other than Lady Brice and General Leger rose and bowed—rather deeply, I noted.

“You were wonderful, Your Highness,” Lady Brice insisted once the three

of us were alone.

“I was? Look at my hand.” I held it up. “You’re trembling.”

I pulled my fingers into a fist, determined to stop shaking. “Everything I said was true, right? They can’t force me to sign a declaration of war, can they?”

“No,” General Leger assured me. “As you know, there have always been a few members of the board who have thought we should colonize in Europe. I think they saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of your limited experience, but you did everything right.”

“Dad wouldn’t want to go to war. The banner of his reign has been peace.”

“Exactly.” General Leger smiled. “He’d be proud of how you stood your ground. In fact, I think I might just go tell him.”

“Should I go, too?” I asked, suddenly desperate to hear the little monitor announcing that Mom’s heart was still there, still trying.

“You have a country to run. I’ll bring you an update as soon as I can.” “Thank you,” I called as he exited the room.

Lady Brice crossed her arms on the table. “Feeling better?”

I shook my head. “I knew this role would be a lot of work. I’ve done my share of it and watched my dad do ten times what I did. But I was supposed to have more time to get ready. To start the job now, because my mom might die, is too much. And within five minutes of being responsible, I have to make a decision about war? I’m not prepared for this.”

“Okay, first things first. You don’t have to be perfect yet. This is temporary. Your mom will get better, your dad will come back to work, and you will go back to learning with this great experience under your belt. Think of this time as an opportunity.”

I let out a long breath. Temporary. Opportunity. Okay.

“Besides, it’s not all completely up to you. This is what your advisers are for. Granted, they weren’t much help today, but we’re here so you aren’t navigating without a map.”

I bit my lip, thinking. “Okay. So, what do I do now?”

“First, follow through and fire Coddly. It will show the others you mean what you say. I do feel somewhat bad for him, but I think your father only kept him around to play devil’s advocate and help him see all sides of an issue. Trust me, he won’t be sorely missed,” she confessed dryly. “Second, consider this time a period of hands-on training for your reign. Start surrounding yourself with people you know you can trust.”

I sighed. “I feel like they’ve all just left me.”

She shook her head. “Look closer. You probably have friends in places you never expected.”

Again, I found myself seeing her in a new light. She’d stayed in her role longer than anyone; she knew what Dad would decide in most situations; and she was, at the very least, another woman in the room.

Lady Brice stared into my eyes, forcing me to focus. “Who do you know will always be honest with you? Who will be by your side, not because you’re royal, but because you’re you?”

I smiled, absolutely positive of where I was going once I left this room.

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