Chapter no 11

The Heir (The Selection, 4)

THE NEXT MORNING SKIPPED breakfast with my family so I could compose myself. I didn’t want anyone seeing how rattled yesterday had left me, and I felt like I was building a shield around myself, one steady breath at a time.

Neena was humming as she tidied my room, and it was one of the best things. Not only was she gentle with me after I came in yesterday, she didn’t ask a single question or bring up the topic again. I didn’t have to worry about her, which was why she couldn’t leave the palace one day. What about me?

“I think it’s a pants day, Neena,” I called. She stopped humming. “More black?”

‌“At least a little.” We shared a smile as she handed me my tight black pants, which I paired with heels that would kill me by noon. I pulled on a flowy shirt and a vest, and found a tiara with jewels that matched the shirt. I was ready.

I decided that I was going to do exactly what Dad had done with his Selection. On his first day he sent home at least six girls. I was planning to eliminate nearly twice as many. Certainly weeding out all the unlikely candidates would show how seriously I was taking this process, that the outcome was important to me.

I wished there was a way to do this without the cameras, but they were a necessary evil. I had a mental list prepared, and I knew vaguely what I wanted to say; but if I made a mistake with reporters present, it would be just as bad as yesterday . . . meaning I needed to be perfect.

Because the Women’s Room was considered the property of the queen, any male had to ask permission before entering. The Men’s Parlor had been thrown together for my convenience, so no such formality stood, and I was able to complete a rather dazzling entrance by pulling the double doors open and letting the rush of wind blow back my hair.

The Selected all hurried to face me, some jumping to their feet or pulling themselves away from the reporters accompanying the cameras.

I passed Paisley Fisher, noticing that he audibly gulped as I stopped.

Smiling, I placed a hand on his shoulder. “You can go.”

He glanced at the people beside him. “Go?”

“Yes, go. As in, thank you for your participation, but your presence at the

palace is no longer required.”

‌When he lingered, I leaned in, breathing my instructions. “The longer you stay, the more embarrassing it becomes. You should leave.”

I pulled back, noting the marked anger in his eyes as he slowly left the room.

I couldn’t figure out why he was so vexed. It wasn’t as if I’d kicked him or shouted. I internally praised myself for getting rid of someone so childish and tried to remember my list. Who was next? Oh . . . this one was well deserved.

“Blakely, isn’t it?”

“Ye—” His voice squeaked and he started again. “Yes, Your Highness.” “When we met, you couldn’t stop staring at my breasts.” His face went

pale, as if he seriously thought he was so subtle no one would notice. “Make sure you get an equally satisfactory look at my backside as you leave.”

I made sure to address him loud enough that the cameras and the other boys would hear. Hopefully his humiliation would prevent others from thinking they could behave similarly. He ducked his head and left the room.

I stopped in front of Jamal. “You can leave.” Next to him, Connor was breaking out into a sweat again. “You can join him.”

They shared a confused look and left together, shaking their heads.

I came upon Kile next. Unlike most of the others, he didn’t avert his eyes. On the contrary, he stared into mine, and I could see him pleading for me to end his misery and get him out of here.

‌I might have if I didn’t think his mother would kill me—as I would surely have to make him leave the palace—and if I hadn’t seen his name on the most signs yesterday. Of course, Kile was the hometown pick, so maybe the crowd was biased. Still, I couldn’t get rid of him. Not yet.

Beside him, Hale swallowed. I remembered how he’d protected me during the parade, knowing he’d taken hits that were intended for me, some of which had seemed rather painful.

I came near and spoke softly. “Thank you for yesterday. You were very brave.”

“It was nothing,” he assured me. “Though the suit couldn’t be saved.”

He said it jokingly, trying to make the whole thing seem like less of an issue than it was.


I lowered my eyes and continued walking. I didn’t think the cameras would have picked up the conversation, but I knew they’d see our smiles. I wondered what would be made of that.

“Issir,” I said to a slick-haired, gangly young man. “No. Thank you.”

He didn’t even question it. He blushed and fled as quickly as he could.

‌I heard a mumbling and wondered who would dare to speak right now. As I whipped my head around, I saw Henri’s translator relaying the scene in Henri’s ear as quickly and quietly as he could. Henri’s eyes were stressed, but when he finished listening, he looked up at me and smiled. He had such a goofy little grin and his hair curled in a way that he looked like he was playing a game while standing still.

Ugh. I had intended to end his suffering and send him home, but he looked far too pleased to be here. Some of them had to stay anyway, and Henri was harmless.

I simply flicked my hand as I passed Nolan and announced to Jamie that his request for a payout was the most offensive way to introduce himself.

I continued to stalk around the room, checking to make sure I covered everyone I wanted gone. The reactions of the spared boys ranged from interesting to bizarre. Holden kept swallowing, waiting for the bomb to drop, while Jack smiled in a strange way, almost as if he found this all entertaining or exciting. I finally came up to Ean, who didn’t look away but chose to wink at me.

I noticed he was sitting alone, with only a leather-bound journal and pen to keep him company. Not here to make friends it seemed.

“A wink is a bit bold, don’t you think?” I asked quietly.

“What princess would want a man by her side who wasn’t bold?”

I raised an eyebrow, amused. “You’re not at all worried about being overconfident, are you?”

“No. It’s who I am. And I don’t intend to hide anything from you.”

‌There was something almost frightening about his presence, but I liked that he had the nerve to be real. I noted the camera coming to hover behind him, trying to capture my expression, and I shook my head at him, suppressing a smirk. I moved on, adding Arizona, Brady, Pauly, and MacKendrick to the ranks of the evicted. If I’d counted correctly, that was eleven gone.

Once the eliminated had all left, I went to the door, turning to face the remaining candidates. “If you’re still here, that means you’ve done something between our first meeting and now to impress me or have at least had the common sense not to offend me.” Some smiled, probably thinking of Blakely, while others stood there stunned. “I want to encourage you all to be deliberate, because I take this very seriously. This isn’t a game, gentlemen. This is my life.”

I pulled the doors shut behind me and heard the flurry of activity pick up in my wake. Some laughed or sighed, while someone simply repeated “Oh,

my goodness, oh, my goodness” again and again. The reporters’ voices rose above them all, encouraging them to recount their feelings on the first elimination. Letting out a long breath, I walked away feeling confident. I’d taken a decisive step, and Dad could rest easy now, knowing the Selection was properly under way and that I wouldn’t let him down.

‌To make up for the lackluster first evening and the complete absence of interaction after the parade yesterday, the boys were invited that night to a predinner tea to meet the household and, of course, speak with me, their beloved would-be bride. Mom and Dad were there, along with Ahren, Kaden, and Osten. Josie came with the Woodworks—who were working very hard not to hover over their son—and Miss Lucy was circling the room, not really speaking to anyone but looking lovely. She never seemed to care for crowds.

I’d changed into a gown for dinner and put on another pair of toe- destroying heels. I was still riding my post-elimination buzz, so pleased to be making steps to help Dad. It dwindled quickly though as Ahren walked toward me with a warning glare in his eyes.

“What in the world did you do to them?” he asked accusingly.

“Nothing,” I vowed. “I held an elimination. I wanted to show everyone that this was important to me. Like Dad.”

Ahren pressed his palm into his forehead. “Have you had your nose buried in reports all day?”

“Of course I have,” I replied. “You might not have noticed, but that’s kind of my job.”

Ahren leaned in. “The clips on the news have painted you to be a black widow. Your face was smug as you kicked them out. And you got rid of a third of them, Eadlyn. That doesn’t make the candidates look important. It makes them look disposable.” I could feel the blood draining from my face as Ahren continued in a whisper. “Two of them have asked in the most circumspect and quiet ways possible if there was a chance that you prefer women.”

I let out a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. “Of course, because the only way I could possibly like men is if I bowed down at their feet?”

‌“This isn’t the time to make a stand, Eadlyn. You need to be gracious.” “Pardon me, Your Highness?”

Ahren and I both turned at the sound of our title, and I found myself with a reporter in my face, her eyes and smile bordering on manic.

“I hate to interrupt, but I was wondering if I could have a brief interview with the princess before my deadline.” The reporter showed her teeth again, and I couldn’t stop myself from feeling I was about to be eaten alive either

figuratively or literally.

“She’d be happy to,” Ahren offered, kissing my forehead as he disappeared.

My pulse sped. I hadn’t prepared myself for this. But of all the things that could happen right now, I refused to let the public see me sweat.

“Your Highness, you eliminated eleven suitors today. Do you think this cut was a bit drastic?”

I squared my shoulders and gave her a sweet grin. “I can certainly see why some might think that,” I answered generously, “but this is a very important decision. I don’t think it would be wise to spend time on young men who are rude or unimpressive. I’m hoping with a smaller pool, I’ll be able to get to know these gentlemen much better.”

I scanned the words in my head. Nothing humiliating or incriminating in there.

“Yes, but why were you so harsh? For a few you simply said ‘no’ or flicked your hand.”

‌I tried not to let the worry show on my face. At the time those things had seemed kind of funny.

“When my father is stern, no one chastises him. I don’t think it’s fair that when I act similarly, I’m seen as cruel. I’m making a huge decision, and I’m trying to be wise about it.” While I wanted to scream those words, I said them with the voice I’d been trained to use in interviews, and I even managed to smile through most of it.

“But one of them cried after you left the room,” she informed me. “What?” I asked, worrying that my face was growing paler by the second. “One of the Selected cried when the elimination ended. Do you think

that’s a normal response or that you maybe elicited it by being severe with them?”

I swallowed, scrambling for anything to say. “I have three brothers. They all cry, and I can assure you, the reasons rarely make sense to me.”

She chuckled. “So you don’t think you were too hard on them?”

I knew what she was doing, digging at the same question until I snapped.

She was very close to getting the better of me.

‌“I can’t imagine what it would be like on the other end of the Selection process and to be removed so early on. But, besides my father, no one here knows what it’s like to be on this side of it either. I’m going to do my best to find a worthy husband. And if that man can’t handle a harsh word or two, he definitely wouldn’t make it as a prince. Trust me on that!” I reached out and touched her arm, as if this was gossip or a joke. It was a disarming technique.

“Speaking of suitors, I hope you’ll excuse me. I need to go spend some

time with them.”

She opened her mouth to ask another question, but I turned away, holding my head high. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go straight to the drinks, I couldn’t unleash every swear word I knew into the air, and I couldn’t run into the arms of my parents. I had to look content, so I walked around the room, smiling and batting my lashes at the boys as I passed them.

I noticed those small things alone made them grin at me or change their posture. Instead of retreating, their expressions softened, and I could see these tiny moments of gentleness were erasing their memories of this morning in the Men’s Parlor already. I wished with everything I had that the public would let it slide as quickly as the boys did.

I figured eventually one of them would be brave enough to speak to me.

And it turned out that person was Hale.

“So, we’re at a tea party,” he said, falling into step beside me. “What kind of tea does the princess like best?”

He sipped from his own cup, smiling shyly.

Hale had an effortless warmth about him, similar to Miss Marlee, and it was easy to hold a conversation with him. At the moment, I was more grateful he was the first one to approach me than he could have ever guessed. He’d rescued me twice now.

‌“It depends on my mood. Or the season. Like I can’t seem to enjoy a white tea during the winter. But black tea is a good staple.”

“Agreed.” Hale stood there, nodding.

“I heard someone cried after I left today. Is that true?”

Hale’s eyes widened and he let out a whistle. “Yeah, it was Leeland. I thought he’d broken a bone or something. Took us nearly an hour to calm him down.”

“What happened?”

“You happened! You come in, prowling around the room, eliminating people at random. I guess he has a timid disposition, and you really shook him.”

I spotted Leeland standing alone in a corner. If I was sincerely looking for a husband, he’d be gone already. I was a little surprised he hadn’t asked to leave.

“I think it came out more callously than I’d intended.”

Hale laughed once. “You don’t have to be callous at all. We all know who you are and what you can do. We respect that.”

“Tell that to the guy who asked when he was getting paid,” I muttered.

He didn’t have a response for that, and I felt bad for bringing our conversation to a halt.

“So, what is it today?” I asked, trying to regain my composure. “I’m sorry?”

“How are you proving yourself to me today?”

‌He smiled. “Today it’s my promise never to bring you white tea in the winter.” He didn’t say good-bye or bow but walked away, seeming hopeful.

Over his shoulder, Baden caught my eye. My first impression of him had nothing to do with our initial conversation. I only saw him as the boy Aunt May thought had promise.

I could tell he was debating whether or not to walk over. I looked down at the floor and peeked his way from under my lashes. I felt foolish trying to play this part, but it worked and he started to cross the floor. I thought back to the interviewer, musing over how funny it was that I’d been taught plenty of disarming techniques for interviews or negotiations, but when it came to boys, I was left to figure it out alone.

Baden looked eager to speak to me, but we were both shocked when another boy coming from a different direction arrived at us at the exact same moment.

“Gunner,” Baden greeted. “How are you enjoying the party?”

“It’s excellent. I was just coming to thank Her Highness for hosting it. It’s been a pleasure to meet your younger brothers.”

“Oh, dear. What did they do?”

Baden laughed, and Gunner tried to suppress a smile. “Osten is awfully . .

. energetic.”

I sighed. “I blame my parents. It seems that by the time you get to your fourth child, your desire to instill certain values goes out the window.”

“I like him though. Hope he’ll be around.”

‌“It’s hard to say. Osten’s the hardest to keep tabs on. Even his nanny— whom he despises, by the way—can’t keep up with him. Either he’s causing chaos or he’s hiding.”

Baden jumped in. I wondered if he was trying to flirt or just seem brave. “Those two moods are so different! Is everyone in your family like that?”

I knew what he was asking: Was I the kind of girl who aimed to find solace or cause a stir with no in between? “Unquestionably.”

Baden nodded. “Good to know. I’ll buy a shield and some binoculars.”

And, darn it, I giggled. I didn’t mean to, but I did. I tried not to be upset for letting my guard down. Hopefully it would make for some good pictures. I curtsied and continued around the space.

I saw Henri across the room, Erik shadowing his every step. When our eyes met, he began walking my way immediately, grinning from ear to ear.

“Hello! Hyvää iltaa!” He kissed my cheek, which, again, would have

been shocking from anyone else. “He says ‘Good evening.’”

“Oh um . . . heevat eelah?” I mumbled, attempting to duplicate his words.

He chuckled as I butchered his language. “Good, good!” Was he always this cheerful?

I turned to Erik. “How bad was it really?”

His tone was kind, but he wasn’t going to lie. “I’m sorry to say, there is no way I could have even guessed at what that was.”

‌I smiled, genuinely. The pair of them were so unassuming, and considering how alienated Henri must have felt, that was saying something.

Before I could continue the conversation, Josie was beside me. “Great party, Eadlyn. You’re Henri, right? I’ve seen your picture,” she said in a rush, sticking her hand out to greet him.

He must have been confused, but he accepted the gesture all the same. “I’m Josie. Eadlyn and I are practically sisters,” she gushed.

“Except that we’re not related at all,” I added.

Erik tried to convey everything to Henri quickly and quietly, which distracted Josie.

“Who are you?” she asked. “I don’t remember seeing your picture.” “I’m Sir Henri’s translator. He only speaks Finnish.”

Josie looked incredibly disappointed. I realized then that she must have come over because she found Henri attractive. He certainly seemed younger than most of the others and did have that happy-go-lucky air about him, which she must have thought suited her better than me.

“So . . . ,” she began, “how does he, like, even live?”

Without even checking with Henri, Erik spoke up. “If you’re practically Her Highness’s sister, then I’m sure the palace has afforded you an excellent education. So, of course you know the relations between Illéa and Swendway are old and strong, drawing many Swendish people to settle here, making small communities, and vice versa. It’s not difficult at all.”

‌I pressed my lips together, trying not to grin at how articulately he put Josie in her place.

Josie nodded. “Oh, of course. Umm . . .” And that was as hard as she was willing to try. “Excuse me.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered once she was out of earshot. “It has nothing to do with you two. She’s just terrible.”

“No offense taken,” Erik replied honestly. He conversed back and forth for a moment with Henri in Finnish, presumably catching him up on what just happened.

“Pardon me. I need to speak with someone, but I’ll see you at dinner.” I

curtsied and left them, searching for any sort of retreat.

I’d been totally thrown off by that interview earlier, and I was proud that I pulled myself back together in the aftermath. But Josie had the ability to ruffle me without fail.

I saw Mom alone and rushed over to her, hoping for some solace. Instead I was greeted by a glare similar to Ahren’s when I’d first come in.

“Why didn’t you tell us that was what you were going to do?” she asked quietly, holding a smile as if nothing was wrong.

I did the same as I answered. “I thought it would be good. That’s what Dad did.”

“Yes, but he did it on a much smaller scale and privately. You put their shame on display. No one will admire you for that.”

I huffed. “I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t realize.”

‌She put an arm around me. “I don’t mean to be hard on you. We know you’re trying.” Just then a photographer came up to get a candid photo of us talking. I wondered what the headline for that one would be? Something about the Selected teaching the Selector maybe.

“What am I supposed to do now?”

She looked around the room, double-checking that no one could hear. “Just . . . consider a little romance. Nothing scandalous, for goodness’ sake,” she added quickly. “But watching you fall in love . . . that’s what the people want to see.”

“I can’t make that happen. I can’t—”

“America, dear,” Dad called. It looked like Osten had spilled something on himself, and Mom rushed over to lead him away.

I would have bet money that whatever just happened was a deliberate attempt on Osten’s part to get out of the room.

I stood there alone, trying to be inconspicuous as I scanned the room. Too many strangers. Too many eyes watching and waiting for me to perform. I was ready for the Selection to be over about four hours ago. I took a deep breath. Three months would buy me freedom. I could do this. I had to.

I walked across the room deliberately, knowing who I needed to speak to.

Once I found him, I leaned in and spoke in his ear. “Come to my room. Eight o’clock sharp. Tell no one.”

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