Chapter no 20

The Crown (The Selection, 5)

THE NEXT FEW DAYS PASSED in a whirlwind of preparation for the coronation. I did my absolute best to stay in my office and take meals in my room, but even so, I couldn’t avoid Erik completely.

We had to go by the church and practice the procession, in which he was forced to participate in order to even out the number of people walking behind me. And he had to stick by Henri as we walked the Elite through the Great Room, explaining how best to circulate at a formal party. And I had to approve the final fitting of their suits, which I managed to do without making eye contact but which still was much, much harder than I’d have thought.

The coronation would be one of the most important moments of my life, and still, all I could think about was how it might have felt to kiss him.

I was running late. I never ran late.

But my hair wouldn’t curl the right way, and a seam popped under my arm, and though I’d picked out sensible heels earlier in the week, once I tried them on with the dress, I hated them.

Eloise took deep breaths as she got my hair right, practicing with a mock crown to check that everything would look as beautiful as possible when the actual moment arrived. Neena was busy making sure people were dressed and ready, so it was Hale who dashed in at the last moment with a needle and thread to make sure everything with the dress was fixed.

“Thank you,” I breathed.

He tied off the last stitch. “Any time.” He looked at his watch. “Though I really wish you’d have asked earlier.”

“It didn’t pop until I put it on!”

He smiled. “I gave everything a once-over, and it looks like that was the only weak spot. Better we caught it now than in the middle of the day.”

I nodded. “I need things to be perfect today. Just once I’d like to come across as put together but not so put together that I hate everything and everyone around me.”

Hale laughed. “Well then, if it happens to pop again, roll with it.”

Eloise went to fetch something from the bathroom, and I took my chance. “How’s Ean?” I asked in a whisper.

“Good. Stunned,” he answered, almost giddy. “We both want to help you

in whatever way we can. You’re making our futures possible, so we owe you one.”

“Just help me get through today, and that will be plenty.” “Something every day,” he reminded me.

I hopped off the pedestal and hugged him. “You’ve been incredibly worthy.”

“That’s good to know,” he replied, returning my embrace. “Okay, I’m getting my suit jacket and heading downstairs. Let me know if you need me today.”

I nodded, trying not to tense as Eloise came back to do her final touch-ups.

“He’s a nice one,” she remarked, spraying the last of the flyaways. “He is.”

“Personally, I’d pick Kile,” she commented with a giggle.

“I know!” I shook my head at her. “I still haven’t forgotten how you let him sneak into my room.”

She shrugged. “He is my favorite. I have to do what I can!”

Finally everything was in place. I made my way downstairs, the tail of my cape draped over my arm. The foyer was a mass of people. General Leger on one side holding Miss Lucy’s hands to his lips, Josie and Neena in matching pale-blue gowns that would look lovely as they held my train down the aisle, and the five remaining Elite in a circle toward a corner, with Erik wearing a tie that was a shade of blue slightly brighter than the others.

But I only had eyes for one boy in the crowd. As I reached the middle of the staircase, I caught sight of Ahren. He was here.

I rushed through the herd, elbowing my way past advisers and friends, running not into Ahren’s arms, but Camille’s.

“Is he well?” I asked into her ear. “Oui, very.”

“And are your people pleased? Do they accept him?” “As if he was born one of our own.”

I held her tighter. “Thank you.”

I pulled away, turning to see my stupid brother. “You clean up nice,” he teased.

I didn’t know if I should joke with him or punch him in the arm or scream or laugh or anything at all. So I crushed him in a hug.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I shouldn’t have left the way I did. I shouldn’t have left you alone.”

I shook my head. “You were right. I miss you so much it hurts, but you had to go.”

“As soon as I heard about Mom, I wanted to come back. But I didn’t know if it would make things worse or better, or if it was even fair for me to show up since it seemed I was the cause.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. All that matters is that you’re here now.”

He held me close for a minute as Lady Brice organized everyone into cars. The advisers went first and the Elite just after, all of them bowing deeply to me, Erik especially. He didn’t meet my eyes, and I was grateful. Who knew what my stupid heart might have done if he had?

It did melt a little when he walked away, pulling repeatedly at his sleeves, seeming painfully uncomfortable in his suit.

“Okay, next car,” Lady Brice announced. “Everyone whose last name is Schreave, even you, Monsieur French Prince.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ahren said, taking Camille’s hand.

“Eadlyn’s in first, followed by Neena and Josie. The rest of the family in after that, and I’ll be in a car right behind you.”

Dad paused. “Brice, you should be with us.”

“Absolutely,” Mom agreed. “There’s room in the limo, and you’re the one holding this whole thing together.”

“I’m not sure that’s appropriate,” she replied.

Neena tilted her head, trying to put doubt in Lady Brice’s mind. “It could easily fall apart on the ten-minute drive.”

“Also, the likelihood of someone thinking Neena and I are sisters is slim,” I added. “Stay with us.”

She pursed her lips as if she thought this was somehow a bad idea. “Fine.

Let’s go.”

We piled into the limo, my dress taking up the space of three people. There was so much laughter and feet stepping over feet that the whole thing started to feel funny. I took a deep breath. All I had to do was say a few words, make a promise I’d already made in my heart. I looked across the car to Mom. She gave me a wink, and that was all I needed.

Josie and Neena followed me down the aisle of the church, holding my cape so it didn’t drag across the floor. As I walked, I looked at the signet ring on my finger, the Illéan crest gleaming in the center. Dad already trusted me in this role. He was already delighted with the way I was handling it. This was just making everything official.

I caught the eyes of as many people as I could, hoping to convey my gratitude. At the head of the church, I knelt on the little resting stool, feeling the weight of my dress fanned out behind me. The bishop took the ceremonial crown and held it above my head.

“Are you, Eadlyn Schreave, willing to take this oath?” “I am willing.”

“Do you vow to uphold the laws and honor of Illéa all the days of your life, governing your people according to their traditions and customs?”

“I do.”

“And do you vow to protect the interests of Illéa, both at home and abroad?”

“I do.”

“And do you vow to use your power and placement to bring mercy and justice for all Illéa’s people?”

“I do.”

It felt appropriate that vows to a country required four affirmations, whereas vows to another person only required one. With my final words spoken, the bishop set the crown on my head. I rose and turned to face my people, my cape looking rather beautiful curled up around my feet like a cat. The bishop placed the scepter in my left hand and the orb in my right.

There was a loud knock of a staff on the floor, and the people around me shouted, “God save the queen.”

And I felt a thrill in my chest to know those words were meant for me.

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