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Chapter no 24

The Heir (The Selection, 4)

ERIK RUSHED ME UP THE stairs and into the dining hall. Everyone else in the palace was in the middle of their dinner, and the room felt too loud.

“Eadlyn?” Daddy called, but Erik kept me moving, somehow knowing that I couldn’t bear to stay there. He only paused when we got to the end of the room, and just long enough to pass along the problem.

“Pardon me, officer, some of the Selected are in a fight in the kitchen. It’s very physical, and it looked to be escalating.”

“Thank you.” The officer motioned to two other guards, and they followed him as he ran toward the fray.

I realized I was hugging myself, both frightened and enraged. Erik gently placed a hand on my back and ushered me away. My parents were calling after me, but I couldn’t deal with that many people right now, surrounding me, asking questions.

‌He slowed and asked me quietly, “Where do you want to go?” “My room.”

“Lead the way.”

He didn’t touch me exactly, except for the occasional brush against my back, which made me realize he must have kept his hand there the whole time, inches away from me, just in case. I pushed open my door, and Neena was inside, polishing the table, filling the room with the scent of lemons.

“My lady?”

I held up a hand.

“Maybe go get her some tea?” Erik offered. She nodded and rushed away.

I walked over to my bed and took a few deep breaths. Erik stood there, calm and silent.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” I confessed. He got down on a knee so he was level with me. “My father has never so much as swatted my hand, and he’s always taught us to seek peaceful resolutions. Ahren and I gave up trying to fight each other before we could really talk.”

I remembered this all with a laugh.

“When we were down there, all I could think about was how I ran from Jack. Burke knocked me to the ground, and this time I was going to fight back, but I just realized I’d have no idea how to do it.”

Erik smiled. “Henri says, when you’re upset, the look in your eyes is as strong as a punch. You’re not powerless.”

‌I ducked my head, thinking of how I told myself over and over that no one in the world was as powerful as me. There was truth to it, sure. But if Jack had pinned me to the ground or Burke had turned his fists on me, my crown would have done me no good until after the fact. I could punish, but I couldn’t prevent.

“You know, boy or girl, I think aggression is a sign of weakness. I’m always more impressed when people can end something with words.” His eyes were seeing another place and time when he went on. “Maybe that’s why language became so important to me. My father, he always used to say ‘Eikko, words are weapons. They are all you need.’”

“Ayco?” I asked.

He grinned, a little embarrassed. “E-I-K-K-O. Like I said, Erik is the closest in English.”

“I like it. Really.”

He turned his attention back to me, looking at my arms. “Are you hurt?” “Oh . . . umm, I don’t think so.” I felt a little sore from hitting the ground,

but it was nothing serious. “I just can’t believe how fast it happened.”

“I don’t want to excuse either of them at all—that was unacceptable—but I hear the guys talking, and they’re stressed. They all want to impress you, but they have no idea how to do it, considering who you are. Some talk about trying to undermine others without getting caught. A few are working out at every turn to be physically superior. I understand that it’s a lot of pressure, and that’s probably why Burke snapped. But that will never make it okay.”

‌“I’m so sorry you have to be around that.”

He shrugged. “It’s fine. Mostly I just stick with Henri and Kile, sometimes Hale, and they’re good company. Not that I’d ever try to choose for you, but the three of them are a pretty safe place to start.”

I smiled. “I think you’re right.” Though I hadn’t spent one-on-one time with everyone yet, I already knew Hale was a good guy. And seeing Henri so excited about his food tonight, about this part of his life, gave me a glimpse of the person behind the barrier. And Kile . . . well, I didn’t know what to make of Kile, but he was a better companion than I’d given him credit for.

“Would you tell Henri for me how wonderful his food was? I could tell how important it was to him, and I admire his passion.”

“I will. Happily.”

I extended my hand and he gave me his, resting them both on my knee. “Thank you so much for this. You really went above and beyond tonight, and I’m so thankful you were here.”

“It’s the least I could do.”

I tilted my head, really looking at him. It felt like something had just happened, but I didn’t know what it was.

‌Erik, without knowing me, had done so much right. He pulled me away before I made the situation worse, got me to solitude before I lost control of my emotions, and stayed with me, listening to my worries and making everything better with his words. There were scores of people on call, ready to do whatever I asked.

It was so funny to me that with him I didn’t even have to ask. “I won’t forget this, Eikko. Not ever.”

There was a tiny lift of a smile at the sound of his given name, and he squeezed my hand ever so slightly.

I remembered the feeling of my first date with Hale, how I felt when I was sure he’d peeled everything back and had seen the real me. This time, I felt like I was on the other side of that, looking past duty and worry and rank, seeing the true heart of a person.

And his was so beautiful.

Neena came back in carrying a tray, and Erik and I ripped our hands apart. “Are you all right, my lady?”

“Yes, Neena,” I promised her, standing. “There was a fight, but Erik got me away. I’m sure the guards will come with a report soon. In the meantime I just need to calm down.”

“The tea will help. I got some chamomile, and we’ll get you into something comfortable before you need to report anywhere,” Neena said, already making my night easier by planning it.

I turned back to Erik, who was standing by the door. He bowed deeply. “Goodnight, Your Highness.”

“Goodnight.”

‌He walked away quickly, and Neena came over, handing me a cup of tea.

The strange thing was, my hands were already so warm.

About an hour later I met Mom and Dad in the office to discuss what’d happened.

“Sir Fox looks pretty bad,” a guard relayed. “Sir Henri tried to pull him away, but Sir Burke was practically unstoppable. Both Sir Henri and Sir Kile got some marks simply from trying to separate them.”

“How bad?” I asked.

“Sir Henri has a bruise on his chest and a cut just above his eye. Sir Kile’s lip was busted open, and there aren’t any big scars besides that, but he feels sore from trying to contain Sir Burke.”

“You can stop calling him ‘Sir’!” Dad insisted. “Burke is leaving right now! The same for Fox!”

“Maxon, reconsider. Fox didn’t do anything,” Mom urged. “I agree it was inappropriate, but don’t make that choice on Eadlyn’s behalf.”

“I will!” he yelled. “We did this to bring our people joy, to give our daughter a chance at the same happiness we have. And since it began, she’s been assaulted twice! I will NOT have monsters like that under my roof!” He finished his speech, slamming his fist into a side table, knocking his tea onto the floor.

I stiffened, gripping the arms of my chair. “Daddy, stop,” I pleaded, my words hushed with fear I might somehow make it worse.

‌He looked over his shoulder at me, as if he only now realized Mom and I were still in the room. His eyes instantly softened, and he turned away, shaking his head.

After a deep breath he straightened his suit and spoke to the guard. “Before anything continues, I expect thorough background checks on each of the Selected. Do it secretively and use whatever means possible. If anyone has so much as gotten into a squabble in grade school, I want them gone.”

Calm again, he sat beside Mom. “I unconditionally insist that Burke leaves. That’s not up for debate.”

“But what about Fox?” Mom asked. “It sounds like he didn’t really instigate anything.”

Dad shook his head. “I don’t know. The idea of letting anyone involved stay seems like very poor judgment.”

Mom leaned her head on Dad’s shoulder. “Once upon a time I was involved in a fight during the Selection, and you let me stay. Imagine how things would have been if you hadn’t.”

“Mom, you got into a fight?” I asked, dumbfounded. “It’s true,” Dad confirmed, sighing.

Mom smiled. “I actually still think about the other girl often. She turned out to be quite lovely.”

Dad huffed, his tone begrudging. “Fine. Fox can stay, but only if Eadlyn thinks he might be someone she’d have a chance at happiness with.”

‌Their eyes settled on me, and I was confused about so many things at once, I felt positive it read on my face. I turned to the guard. “Thank you for your update. Have Burke escorted from the premises and tell Fox I’ll speak with him shortly. You can go now.”

Once he left the room, I rose from my chair, trying to compose my thoughts.

“I’m not going to ask about that fight, though, for the life of me, I cannot

figure out why you two have withheld so much about your Selection from me and have only decided to share some of the bigger bits and pieces now. And after I’ve faced something you’ve already experienced.”

They sat there guiltily.

“Mom met you before she was supposed to,” I accused, pointing to Dad. “Your candidates were all planted by your father. . . . Maybe you could have given me a heads-up about how to deal with a fight two weeks ago.”

I crossed my arms, exhausted.

“I promised you three months, and I’m going to give you that,” I said, taking in their worried expressions. “I’ll go on dates and let people take pictures so we have something to print in the papers and to talk about on the Report. But you two seem to think that if I stick this out, I’m magically going to fall in love.”

I stood there, shaking my head. “That’s not going to happen. Not for me.” “It could,” Mom whispered tenderly.

‌“I know I’m disappointing you, but it’s not what I want. And these boys are fine, but . . . some of them make me uncomfortable, and I don’t think they can handle the pressure of this position. I’m not going to handcuff myself to a weight for the sake of a distracting headline.”

Dad stood. “Eadlyn, that’s not what we want either.”

“Then please”—I raised my hands in front of me, guarding myself—“stop pressuring me to fall for people I never wanted here in the first place.”

I clasped my hands together. “This whole situation has been awful. I’ve had people throw food at me in public; others have judged me over a kiss. One boy touched me against my will, and another flung me to the ground. For all the effort I put in to make things right, the papers have had a field day with the constant shame.”

They exchanged a concerned glance.

“When I said I’d help distract people, I didn’t think it would be this degrading.”

“Sweetheart, we were never trying to hurt you.” Mom looked heartbroken, close to tears.

“I know, and I’m not mad. I just want my freedom. If this is what I have to do in order to get that, then I will. If you want your distraction, I’ll deliver. But please don’t place all those expectations on me. I don’t want to let you down any more than I have already.”

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