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Chapter no 23

The Crown (The Selection, 5)

“HERE SHE IS, THE LADY of the hour,” he said, wrapping an arm around me as the interviewer giggled.

“Your Majesty, how are you feeling?” she asked, pointing the microphone at my face.

“Am I allowed to say tired?” I joked. “No, it’s been an incredible day, and with so many distressing things happening in our country recently, I certainly hope today will lift everyone’s spirits. And I’m very excited to get to work. Thanks to the wonderful young men in the Selection and friends, like Mr. Illéa here, I’ve gotten to know so much more about my people. I’m hoping we’ll be able to find ways to hear and address needs much more efficiently.”

“Can you give us any hints at what you’re planning to do?” she asked eagerly.

“Well, I think our town hall meeting, which was completely Marid’s idea,” I said, gesturing to him, “started off a bit rocky but was ultimately very informative. And Sir Woodwork actually had an interesting proposal recently about giving citizens a much easier way to petition the crown. I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but it was incredibly inspired.”

“Speaking of proposals,” she said excitedly, “any news on that front?”

I laughed. “Let me get through my first week as queen and then I’ll turn my focus back to dating.”

“Fair enough. And what about you, sir? Any words of advice for our new queen?”

I turned to face Marid, who shrugged and ducked his head. “I just wish her all the luck with her reign, and finishing her Selection. The guy who wins her heart will be luckier than he knows.”

Marid swallowed, seeming to have a hard time meeting the interviewer’s eyes again.

She nodded heartily. “He certainly will.” She turned to the camera and signed off, her attention no longer on us.

I took Marid’s arm and swung him around, moving us out of earshot. “I don’t want to be rude after all the kindness you’ve shown me, but behaving like that is inappropriate.”

“Like what?” he asked.

“Like you and I might have been something if only the Selection hadn’t

happened. This is the third time I know of that you’ve said something like that, but I haven’t even seen you in years. I am duty and honor bound to marry one of my candidates, so acting wounded when we’ve had absolutely nothing together is unacceptable. I must insist that you stop it at once.”

“And why would I do that?” he said, his voice becoming slick. “Excuse me?”

“If your family had been paying the slightest bit of attention to your people, you might have learned by now that when it comes to the public, I have an incredibly powerful voice. They treasure me. You should see the piles of fan mail I receive. Not everyone thinks the Schreave line is the valid one.”

I froze, terrified that there was truth to what he was saying.

“You owe me a lot, Eadlyn. I’ve kept you looking good in papers and spoken well of you in interviews, and I saved that town hall meeting. I did that, not you.”

“I could have—”

“No, you couldn’t. And that’s the problem. You can’t do this job alone. It’s nearly impossible, which is why you getting married is a wonderful idea. Only you’re looking in the wrong place.”

I was too stunned to speak.

“And, let’s be honest: if any of those boys were that excited about you, wouldn’t they be swarming around you this very second? From the outside looking in, they’re all indifferent.”

My shock turned to anguish. I looked around the room. He was right.

None of the Elite seemed remotely aware of my presence.

“In the meantime, if you unite with me, the Illéa-Schreave line will be completely secure. No one would dare question your right to rule if you were my wife.”

The room swayed a little, and I fought to keep myself together as he went on. “And you can check the figures if you like, but as far as public opinion goes, my approval rating is twice what yours is. I could elevate you from tolerated to adored overnight.”

“Marid,” I said, hating that my voice sounded so weak. “This isn’t possible.”

“But it is. And either you can end this Selection on your own, or I can drop rumors about us to the point that no one takes it seriously anyway. By the time I’m done, you will look more heartless than they already think you are.”

I straightened my back. “I will ruin you,” I vowed.

“Try it. See how fast they turn on you.” He kissed my cheek. “You have my number.”

Marid walked away, casually shaking hands with those he passed as if he was already a member of the royal family. While all eyes seemed to follow him, I quietly ducked out of the room.

I was a fool. I’d thought that Hale cared about me, that Ean was here to support me, and I couldn’t have been more mistaken. I’d been wrong to trust Burke and Jack and Baden. I’d been positive Marid was here to help me, and he’d only been trying to set himself on the throne. My instincts were wrong at every turn, and suddenly it seemed as though the people around me were nothing but fakes.

Was I mistaken about anyone else? Was I wrong to trust Neena or Lady Brice? Was Kile not the friend I thought he was? Could I trust what I felt or thought about anyone?

I leaned against the wall, on the verge of tears. I was the queen. No one was as powerful as me. And yet I’d never felt more helpless.

Another figure came out of the doorway, and before I could duck farther out of sight, Erik’s face came into view.

“Your Majesty, I’m sorry. I was just escaping the crowds. It was a little too much for me in there.”

I didn’t answer.

“Seems to have been a bit too much for you as well,” he added cautiously. I stared at the floor.

“Your Majesty?” He moved closer, whispering, “Can I help you?”

I stared into those wildly blue eyes and abandoned all the worries in my head. My heart said, Run. So I grabbed his hand and did just that.

I tore down the hallway, looking back once to make sure no one was following.

As I hoped, the Women’s Room was empty. Leaving the lights off, I pulled us closer to the window, so at least I’d have the moon to help me see.

“At the risk of making an even bigger fool out of myself than I already have, can you please answer something for me? And you absolutely must be honest here. I give you permission to hurt my feelings. I have to know.”

After a long moment he nodded, though his expression told me he was terrified of what might come.

“Is there a chance that you feel for me the way I feel for you? If you’ve felt even a fraction of this riot that’s been happening in my heart, I need to know.”

Erik let out a breath, seeming stunned and sad at once. “Your Majesty, I

—”

“No!” I said, ripping the crown off my head and flinging it across the

room. “Not Majesty. Eadlyn. I’m just Eadlyn.”

He smiled. “You are always just Eadlyn. And you are always the queen.

You are everything to everyone. And infinitely more to me.”

I placed a hand on his chest and could feel his heart pounding in time with mine. He suddenly seemed aware of how desperate I was and wordlessly cupped my cheek in his palm and leaned down to kiss me.

Every moment we’d ever had together danced through my head. His awkward stance the day we first met, and how I scolded him before the parade for biting his nails. The way he protected me when the fight broke out in the kitchen, and how my eyes flitted to him over and over when the boys were deep in prayer outside the hospital wing. And, most astonishingly, the moment in the Women’s Room when Camille asked who filled my head, and how hard I fought to stop myself from saying his name out loud then and there.

All of it, every magical, forbidden second burned through me as we continued our dangerously treasonous kiss. When we finally broke apart, I was in tears, positive that Ahren leaving and the fear of losing my mother had been painless in comparison to this.

He shook his head, still holding on to me. “Of course the one time I let myself fall in love, it’s with someone in another stratosphere.”

I dug my fingers into his shirt, his vest, so angry that I couldn’t hold on to it forever. “This will be the first time in my life I haven’t been able to have something I truly wanted. It’s so cruel that it happens to be you.”

He swallowed. “It really is impossible then?”

My face fell. I didn’t want to say the words. “I’m afraid so. In so many ways now. I can hardly grasp it all to explain, but everything just got much more complicated for me.”

“You don’t owe me an explanation. I already knew. I made the mistake of letting myself hope for a moment. That’s all.”

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, dropping my gaze. “If I thought I could cancel this whole thing, I would. But it would be seen as one more mistake on top of all the other selfish, stupid things I’ve done.”

Using his other hand, he gently lifted my chin. “Please don’t speak that way about the woman I love.”

My smile was weak. “I’ve been so unfair to you. It was eating me alive, all the wondering, but maybe we would have been better off if we’d never known.”

“No,” he said, somehow able to find comfort in the middle of us being torn apart. “There is no shame in loving who you love, and there is great honor in doing what is right. It’s a pity those two things don’t overlap for us, but that makes this moment no less important to me.”

“Or to me.”

He held my hand so tenderly, still seeming shocked that he had the courage to do it at all.

“I should get back,” he said. “I’d hate to cause a scandal.”

I sighed. “You’re right.” And still I couldn’t quite let go. I stood pressing myself to him. “I’m not engaged yet,” I whispered. “Would you meet me tomorrow night?”

It was impossible not to see all the gears turning in his head. It was also easy to see the moment when he stopped thinking and nodded yes anyway.

“I’ll get word to you. Leave now, and I’ll make my way out in a few minutes.”

Erik gave me one last hurried kiss and dashed back into the hall. Meanwhile, I retrieved my crown and walked over to the hidden panel behind the bookcase. I wanted to be sure no one would find me tonight.

There were no more rebels in Illéa, no threats like that to run away from. But there were still dozens of secret passages in the palace, and I knew every single one.

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