Chapter no 24

The Crown (The Selection, 5)

“GOOD MORNING, YOUR MAJESTY,” LADY Brice greeted me as I walked into the office. Typically, I’d been able to sleep in on Sundays, but there was no way I could spend my first day as queen in bed, especially not after the way things ended last night.

I sighed, both tired and thrilled. “I heard it a million times yesterday, but it still feels strange to answer to that title.”

“You’ll have decades to get used to it,” she replied with a smile. “Speaking of that, I need to speak with you about the Selection, and my

reign, and an unexpected complication.” “Complication?”

“Can you tell me something? How popular is Marid?”

Lady Brice whistled. “He’s made quite a name for himself over the last few years. He’s frequently interviewed on the radio, and he’s so handsome and comes from such a well-known family that he ends up in a lot of print media as well. Plenty of people listen when he speaks. Fortunate he decided to turn up when he did, huh?”

Before I could explain what had happened last night, I heard the door open behind me, and Josie burst into the room.

“Hey! Hope I’m not late!” she exclaimed.

I closed my eyes in frustration. I completely forgot she was supposed to start shadowing me today.

“Can I help you?” Lady Brice asked.

“Oh, I’m here to help you,” she announced. “I’m shadowing Eadlyn today.

Maybe longer, if this goes well.”

“Miss Marlee suggested it during the family photo session yesterday,” I said quickly.

Lady Brice nodded, and it was at this moment that Neena entered the office as well. Though I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was sharing everything in front of Josie, it seemed I had no choice.

“Okay,” I began slowly, “we have a problem. And his name is Marid Illéa.”

“Really?” Neena asked. “He’s seemed helpful so far.”

“Yes, that was how he meant it to look. But, in truth, his goal has always been to take the crown.” I swallowed, feeling stupid all over again. “Last

night I called him out for encouraging the press to think that we were more than friends, and he made it clear that he was planning to pursue this angle until the public would demand that I marry him.”

Lady Brice put her head in her hands. “I knew he could undermine this whole thing. I knew it. We should have squashed the rumors.”

I shook my head. “This isn’t your fault. You gave me the opportunity early on, and I didn’t take it. I just never thought he’d try to worm his way into the palace as a permanent fixture.”

“It’s so sneaky,” Lady Brice said, balling her hands into fists. “His parents threw rocks and stormed the palace. All he has to do is make a few properly timed speeches, and he’s in without looking remotely aggressive.”

“Exactly. And I’m . . . I’m scared. If he sways the people to believe he should be my prince consort, they’ll come after the monarchy. They’ve been on the edge of revolt for a while, and now that I’m queen, there’s nothing to stop the people who held out for my father’s sake. But if we concede, and he’s here . . . if he could lie that easily just to get near to me . . .”

“What would he do when he sees he doesn’t need you anymore?” Lady Brice said somberly.

I’d already pictured a dozen different scenarios. He’d say I slipped down the stairs, or fell asleep in the bath, or that the Singer genes had gotten to my heart, too. I didn’t want to think of Marid as purely evil, but I understood that he was out for power and had no regard for me.

It was possible I was being paranoid, I knew that. But after having missed so many things in the last few months, things that should have forced me to be careful, to speak up, to do something, now wasn’t the time to assume things would be fine.

“Then we have to silence him. What do we do?” Neena asked.

“Why do you need to do anything?” Josie asked. We all turned, and her smile faded under the weight of our stares. “I mean, you’re the queen. You could just kill him if you wanted. If he was being a traitor, right?”

“If he acts like a traitor, yes. But when it seems like he’s in love with me and I decide to hang him, how does that make me look?”

She squinted, taking that in. “Awful.”

“Worse than awful. And my approval is hanging on by a thread as it is. I can’t have him killed. I don’t even think I can publicly say I have no interest in him now, not without backlash.”

“Then what?” Lady Brice asked.

“This doesn’t leave the room. Does everyone understand?” I stared at Josie, hoping she understood the importance of secrecy. “First, we will ignore Marid. He’s not allowed in the palace, and if he calls, no one speaks to him.

He’s completely shut out of my presence from here on out. We can’t give the press so much as a whisper to draw from.”

“Agreed,” Lady Brice commented.

“Second, I’ve mapped out how the next few weeks will go in terms of the Selection. Ean is heading home this morning. We spoke last night, and he’s ready to go. Early next week Hale will be leaving as well.”

Neena made a face. “I’m sad to see Hale go.”

“Me, too. But this was a mutual agreement, so I assure you there are no hard feelings on either side.”

“That makes it easier,” she admitted. “But wait. Aren’t you supposed to choose within four days once you get to a top three?”

“Yes. The only way to beat Marid at his game is to choose a husband as quickly as possible. And regardless of how deeply in love I may or may not be, it has to look as good as what my parents have. Better, if we can manage it.” I took a deep breath. “So once Hale is gone, we’ll wait a few days and then eliminate Fox. He’s nice, but we don’t have a real connection. That will leave Kile and Henri as the final two, and I intend to do a live broadcast in about two weeks to announce my fiancé.”

“Two weeks!” Neena gasped. “Eadlyn!”

“I will need help with the perception of this,” I went on. “I checked some recent poll numbers, and Hale and Kile have been front-runners for a while. I’ll take care of making sure that Hale’s decision to go is seen as necessary so the people will be satisfied with his departure, but we need something sensational about Henri. Like that he bakes for people in nursing homes or that his family is descended from Swendish nobility. Even if you have to stretch the truth, do it. Get him to the final two with everyone’s approval.”

No one spoke for a moment.

“Do you even love Kile?” Josie asked. For once her face had lost its ridiculously blank look, and I saw the deep, genuine concern in her eyes.

I thought of Erik. Of him promising me that it was worth it. Of how he’d treated me from the very start. Of how he’d kissed me.

Of how he’d be gone soon. “I’d be happy with Kile.”

Certainly leaders before me had made much bigger sacrifices, but Lady Brice, Neena, and Josie all looked as though I was marching into death.

“Are you going to help me or not?” I demanded.

“I’ll see what I can find out about Henri,” Lady Brice said. “I’d prefer to start with the absolute truth first.”

“As would I. And I feel confident you’ll be able to find something for him. He’s such a sweetheart.”

“He is,” Neena agreed. “As is Kile. You could do much worse.”

Yes, I thought. But I could also do much better.

“Do what you need to get everything in place for this. I’m going to spend the rest of the day working from my room. Josie?” She snapped to attention. “Are you coming back tomorrow, or was this enough for you?”

“It was more than enough,” she said, swallowing. “Not a word, you understand?”

She nodded, but I could hardly bear to look at her. She seemed so sad for me, and of all people, I couldn’t stand her pitying me. But when I looked at Neena and Lady Brice, their expressions were just as bad.

I pulled myself up as tall as I could and left the room, remembering that, no matter what, I was still queen.

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