Chapter no 27

The Crown (The Selection, 5)

“I DON’T UNDERSTAND,” NEENA CONFESSED the next morning as I recounted the date to her. “Isn’t him confessing his devotion a good thing? Like, maybe he could be one of the top two instead?”

Everyone else was still at breakfast, so the office was empty. As the sun beamed through the windows, we sat together on a couch, legs curled beneath us, as if this was the morning after a slumber party.

“I don’t think so. Something about it felt so forced. Not that he didn’t actually feel those things, but it was like he orchestrated a moment so I would have to hear it.” I rested my head on my hand, the lines repeating in my head. “And then I felt guilty. He talked about his dad and said I’d make a good Wesley and . . . it was all just off somehow.”

My free hand picked at the hem of my skirt as if my fingers could undo my tangled thoughts. “I think what it was,” I began, “is that he said he’d felt this way since the night of the kitchen fight, but we haven’t really had much interaction since then, at least not one-on-one. So for him to have this growing, deep, serious attraction to me . . . where does it stem from?”

Neena nodded. “It’s like he’s in love with someone he thinks you are, not who you really are.”

My whole body wilted in relief. “That’s it. That’s exactly what this feels like.”

“So send him home?”

I shook my head. “No, I promised Hale he could leave next. He’s ready, and I don’t want to disappoint him, not after everything he’s done for me.”

“Good morning, Your Majesty. Hi, Neena.” Lady Brice walked in, holding a muffin in her hand. “Your Majesty, I have some documents from your brother for you to review. It appears France wants to renegotiate their trade deal. I think this will be the easiest one in years.”

“Aww, what a handy little thing, that Ahren.” I was sure this was more Camille’s doing than his, but I knew his presence was helpful.

“He sure is. I also have three contracts for you to review from New Asia; they’re waiting on your desk. And the producer of the Report would like to film an interview with you this afternoon, something about transition pieces, I don’t know.”

“Oh, so, a nice, easy day?” I joked.

“As always!”

“Lady Brice, did you help Dad this much?”

She laughed. “Only for a short time. Once you grew up, he wanted you to take on a bigger role. And as soon as you feel you’re on your feet, I’ll happily step back, or maybe retire.”

I scrambled off the couch and grabbed her by the shoulders. “No. Not ever. You will live and die in this office!”

“As you wish, my queen.”

“Your Majesty! Your Majesty!” someone yelled.

“Josie?” I called, watching as she ran in. “What’s the matter?” “I was watching TV. Marid.” She was gulping in breaths. “What about Marid?”

She swallowed. “He was seen shopping for engagement rings. It’s all over the news.”

All the advisers flooded into the parlor as we watched everything unfold. Very quickly, the many people I didn’t trust with my secrets were made all too aware of what Marid had been plotting and just how close he was coming to the crown.

“He’s got the look of a king, doesn’t he?” one newscaster said. “Of course he does! He’s descended from one!” her cohort replied. “Really, wouldn’t that be so romantic?”

“It would. Oh, it so would, but she is in the middle of a Selection.”

The newscaster brushed her hand across the air. “Who cares? Let them go.

None of them has the charm of Marid Illéa, not by a long shot.” I flipped channels.

“According to the jeweler, Mr. Illéa was looking at some rather expensive pieces, which would only be fitting if he is indeed planning to propose to the queen.”

“This is yet another unlikely event in a series of unprecedented moves surrounding the royal family. First, we have a Selection led by a princess instead of a prince. Second, we have a young woman ascending well before she’s been either fully trained or her father has passed. And now we have an outside suitor trying to steal the queen’s heart before one of the Elite has a chance. It is absolutely fascinating.”

I flipped channels again.

“Kathy here was on hand when the young Mr. Illéa came in. Can you tell us what you saw?”

“Well, he seemed a little bashful at first, as if he wasn’t ready to admit why he was here. But after about fifteen minutes of him lingering along the

case, it was pretty obvious what he was looking for.” “And did he seem drawn to anything in particular?”

“He had me pull out at least a dozen different rings, and when nothing was quite what he was looking for, I told him we could design a piece for him if he liked, and he lit up. I’m hoping he comes back soon.”

“So would you choose Marid over, say, Sir Hale or Sir Kile?”

“Oh, goodness! I really can’t say. All I know is, Queen Eadlyn is a very lucky woman to have so many eligible men fawning all over her.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned off the TV and fell with a huff onto the couch.

“I should have known,” I said. “Silence seemed smart, but now he’s made this huge.”

Mr. Rasmus grunted. “We need a plan.”

“We have a plan,” I snapped. “Is there anything we really could have done besides marrying me off faster?”

General Leger stood with his back against a bookshelf, still staring at the blank screen. “We could kill him.”

I sighed. “I really don’t want that to be my go-to move.”

Sir Andrews was angry, too, but for all the wrong reasons. “You shouldn’t have provoked him.”

“I’ve done nothing,” I shot back. “You were actively ignoring him.”

“Calm down, Andrews.” Lady Brice paced behind the couch, enraged. As I watched her, I caught Josie standing in a corner. She must have missed her opportunity to escape and was now trapped, looking afraid of the loud voices and anger that surrounded her. “We have to shut him up, once and for all.”

“The only way to do that is to get Eadlyn engaged,” Sir Andrews stated. “Yes, we’re aware,” Lady Brice agreed in a tired tone. “But she shouldn’t

be rushed into this. How can she have anything close to a successful marriage if she forces it?”

“It’s her duty to make it successful!”

“Duty? She’s a person,” Lady Brice argued. “She’s agreed to do this, and there’s no reason—”

“She has never been just a person!” Andrews reminded her. “From the second she was born, she’s been a commodity, and we need to—”

General Leger was moving toward Andrews. “Say that again. I’m not afraid to make death my go-to move.”

“Are you threatening me, you little—”

“Stop,” I breathed. And it was amazing. With the quietest of commands, the entire room came to a standstill.

I’d known it was coming for me. And I really had come to terms with it. Marid had shown how much influence he truly had, and I had to fight him off. I couldn’t help worrying that even marriage wouldn’t keep the people on my side, but it was all I had left. “Lady Brice, if you would, please, bring Fox to the office. It’s time we said our good-byes.”

“Are you sure, Your Majesty? Once you narrow it down to three—”

“I’m not narrowing it down to three.” I swallowed. “Please send Hale soon after. I’ll be making my final choice this evening, and we will do a live broadcast tomorrow night instead of a Report. No doubt, after this week, everyone will be watching.”

“Absolutely, Your Majesty.”

“There, Sir Andrews. You have your progress. My official engagement announcement will come from the palace tomorrow afternoon.”

“Are you sure we ought to wait that long? If Marid—”

“If Marid pulls another stupid stunt, it will be shot down in less than twenty-four hours. That is good enough for me, sir, so it is certainly good enough for you.”

I stood. It was done.

I was certain something would give me away, convinced that everyone in the room would see that a part of me had lost oxygen and was suffocating then and there. In my head, I watched Eikko pack his suitcase and disappear from my life forever. It was a new kind of pain, pressed into this doomed heart of mine.

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