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Chapter no 26

The Heir (The Selection, 4)

TONIGHT WAS GOING TO BE a challenge. Yes, the pictures with Ean looked fantastic in print, and yes, the little game show clips came off as charming, but I wondered if Gavril would feel obligated to ask about Jack’s and Burke’s dismissals instead of focusing on the remaining candidates.

What was worse was that I wasn’t sure I had much to tell about the boys as it was. Dad was entering his security sweep, so unless the guards moved quickly, I wouldn’t have any dates this week . . . meaning nothing to share on next week’s Report. Tonight had to matter, and I wasn’t sure how to do it.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off, like I was missing some key piece of information that would make the Selection process better.

‌It wasn’t an absolute disaster in my eyes, if only because I got to know Kile, Henri, Hale, and Fox. But as far as the public knew, nearly everything was going down in flames.

Even though I’d only glanced at the paper that day for a millisecond, I remembered the way I looked shrinking down on the parade float. Worse than that, I could still see people on the sidelines pointing and laughing. We’d kicked out two candidates this week alone for misconduct, and in their wake every romantic gesture had been completely overshadowed.

It looked so, so bad.

I sat in my room, sketching, trying to organize my thoughts. There had to be a way to spin this, to turn it into something good.

My pencil zipped across the page, and it felt like each time a line straightened out, so did a problem. I’d probably have to skip talking about my previous dates this week. Bringing up one would require me to bring up them all, and I didn’t want to rehash Jack’s hands on me.

But maybe, instead of events, I could talk about what I knew of the boys. There was enough to praise, and if I came across as enamored by their talents, it would make sense to be confused about who to choose. It wasn’t that the Selection was falling apart; it was that there were too many good choices.

By the time I had a plan, I also had a beautiful design. The dress came up into a halter, was very fitted, and ended mid-thigh. Over it I drew a sheer, long bubble of a skirt that made it look modest. The colors I’d used—a burgundy for the dress and a golden brown for the overskirt—gave it a delicious autumnal feeling.

‌I could imagine how I’d style my hair with it. I even knew what jewelry would look best.

As I looked at it, though, I knew this gown was more suited for a starlet than a princess. In my eyes, it was gorgeous without end, but I worried about other people’s opinions. More than any other season of my life, they really mattered now.

“Oh, miss!” Neena said, catching a glimpse of the drawing in passing. “You like it?”

“It’s the most glamorous thing I’ve ever seen.”

I stared at the gown. “Do you think I could get away with wearing this on the Report?”

She made a face as if I should already know. “You’re basically covered from head to toe, and as long as you don’t plan on coating it in rhinestones, I don’t see why not.”

I petted the paper like I could almost really touch it.

“Should I get started?” Neena asked, a hint of excitement in her voice. “Actually, could you take me down to the workroom? I think I’d like to

help make this one. I want it for tonight.”

“I’d be thrilled,” Neena said. I grabbed my book and followed her into the hallway, more excited than I’d ever been.

‌It was worth the marathon of cutting and sewing when I walked in for the Report and the first thing I saw was the out-and-out envy in Josie’s eyes. I’d worn a pair of golden heels and curled my hair so it fell loosely over my shoulders, and it was possibly the most beautiful I’d ever felt. The blatant stares from the Selected only confirmed I was particularly lovely tonight, and I was so bewildered, I had to turn my back on them to suppress my grin.

It was then that I felt something was off. There was a pang of tension that seemed to be floating through the room, and it was far more powerful than the pride over my dress or the sense of admiration coming from the boys. It was so weighty, it nearly gave me a chill.

I looked around, searching for a clue. Mom and Dad were in a corner, trying to be discreet. I could tell by Dad’s tensed brow and Mom’s gestures that something was wrong. What I wasn’t sure of was if I could go talk to them. Was a few days of silence enough?

“Hey!” Baden had snuck up on me. “Hi.”

“Did I startle you?”

I focused politely. “No, I’m fine. A little lost in thought. Do you need something?”

“Well, I was wondering if I could invite you out for dinner or something this week? Maybe another jam session?” He strummed an invisible guitar, biting his smiling lip.

“That’s sweet, but traditionally, I’m supposed to do the asking.”

He shrugged. “So? Didn’t that cooking thing happen because those guys invited you?”

I squinted, trying to remember. “Maybe technically.”

“So, since I didn’t grow up in the palace, I can’t ask, but Kile can?”

‌“I assure you, Kile has less of an advantage than you’d imagine,” I answered with a laugh, thinking of all the years of frustration.

Baden stood there, silent and unbelieving. “Sure.”

I was completely shocked when he walked away, hands in his pocket and footsteps steady. Had I done something rude? I was being honest. And I hadn’t actually turned him down.

I tried to shake off the snub, focusing on my duty for the evening: being charming and gracious, and trying to convince everyone that I was falling in love.

Dad passed me, and I gently grabbed his arm. “What’s wrong?” He shook his head and patted my hand. “Nothing, darling.”

The lie shook me more than Baden’s dismissal. People whirred around the room, giving commands and checking notes. I heard Josie laugh, and someone shush her immediately after. The boys talked to one another, all a little too loud to be considered appropriate. Baden was sulking next to Henri, ignoring everyone, and I pressed my hands to my stomach, calming myself.

‌Next to Henri, just offstage in the dark, I saw a waving hand. It was Erik, standing on the sideline, waiting to take his hidden seat. Once he had my attention, he gave me a thumbs-up, but the expression on his face let me know it was a question. I shrugged. He pressed his lips together, then mouthed the word sorry. I gave him a tight smile and a thumbs-up back, which wasn’t quite right but was the only thing I could do. Erik shook his head at me, and I was strangely comforted. At least someone seemed to understand how I was feeling.

Taking a deep breath, I went over to sit between Mom and Ahren. “Something’s wrong,” I whispered to him.

“I know.”

“Do you know what it is?” “Yes.”

“Will you tell me?” “Later.”

I sighed. How was I supposed to perform with worry hanging over my

head?

The updates were dispensed, and Daddy spoke briefly, though I couldn’t concentrate on anything he was saying. All I could see were the lines of stress around his eyes, the way his shoulders wore the strain of whatever was troubling him.

Partway through, Gavril stepped toward the middle of the set and announced that he had a few questions for the Selected, and I watched them all straighten their ties or cuffs and move into more assertive stances in their chairs.

“So, let’s see . . . Sir Ivan?” On the near side of the first row, Ivan raised his hand, and Gavril faced him.

“How are you enjoying the Selection so far?”

‌He chuckled. “I’d be enjoying it more if I could manage to get to see the princess one-on-one.” Ivan winked at me, and I felt my face set on fire.

“I imagine the princess has a hard time getting to everyone,” Gavril said graciously.

“For sure! I’m not complaining, just being hopeful,” he added, still chortling like this was all a joke.

“Well, maybe you can press Her Royal Highness tonight and sway her into making time for you. Tell us: what do you think the most important job of a future prince would be?”

Ivan’s laughing stopped. “I don’t know. I think just being good company is important. Princess Eadlyn is forced into lots of relationships for work, and I think it would be nice to be one of the people she always wanted to be around. Just for, you know, fun.”

I tried not to roll my eyes. You are a forced relationship, honey. “Interesting,” Gavril commented. “What about you, Sir Gunner?”

Gunner was a bit on the short side, and he looked almost petite sitting beside the gangly Ivan. He tried to straighten himself, but it was no use.

“I think any future prince should be prepared to be available. You’ve already mentioned the princess’s busy schedule, so anyone in her life should try to put himself in a position to be helpful. Of course, I don’t know what that looks like yet, but it’s important to think of how your life and priorities might change.”

‌Gavril made an approving face, and Dad clapped, which led others to follow. I joined in, but it felt strange. This was a legitimate question, and I wasn’t sure I liked it being turned into entertainment.

“Sir Kile, you’ve lived in the palace your whole life,” Gavril said, walking across the stage. “How do you think your life might change were you to become prince?”

“I’d definitely need to focus more on my hygiene.”

Pfffft!” I covered my mouth, so embarrassed, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

“Oh! Sounds like someone over there agrees.”

Behind Kile, Henri belatedly joined in the laughter. Of course, he’d heard the comment on a delay. Gavril noticed him and moved back.

“Sir Henri, yes?” Henri nodded, but I could see the pure terror in his eyes. “What’s your opinion on all this? What do you think a future prince’s most important role might be?”

He tried not to let his fear show as he leaned to the side to hear Erik. Once he understood he nodded.

“Oh, oh, yes. The preence should being for preensess . . . ummm . . .”

I stood. I couldn’t bear it. “Henri?” I called. All eyes turned to me, and I waved him over to come join me in the middle of the set. He carefully came down from his seat. “And Erik? You, too.”

Henri waited for his friend to come around from behind the set. Erik looked nervous, not prepared to be in the spotlight; but Henri mumbled something to him with a smile, and he eased as they found their way with Gavril to the front.

‌I linked my arm around Henri’s, and Erik stood just behind him, going into shadow mode.

“Gavril, Sir Henri was raised in Swendway. His first language is Finnish, so he requires a translator.” I motioned to Erik, who gave a quick bow, ready to go back into obscurity. “I’m sure Henri would be happy to answer your question, but I think it would be much easier without Erik hiding behind the risers.”

Henri smiled as Erik conveyed all this to him, and I felt strangely proud when he reached across and gently squeezed my arm.

Pausing to collect himself, Henri gave his answer. I could see he was thinking about his words, and even though he’d been thrown off, he was deliberate as he spoke. Finally, he came to a finish and all eyes fell on Erik.

“He says that any future prince should remember that it isn’t simply one role to fill but several. Husband, consultant, friend, and dozens more. He would need to be prepared to study and work as hard as Her Highness and be ready to set his ego aside to serve.” Erik put his hands behind his back, and I could see he was trying to remember the last of Henri’s words. “And he would also need to understand that there is a weight she carries that he never could and be ready to sometimes just be a clown.”

I giggled, happy to see Henri’s huge smile when Erik was done. The entire room erupted in applause, and I got up on tiptoes to whisper in his ear.

“Good, good.”

‌He beamed. “Good, good?” I nodded.

“Your Highness, this is an extraordinary complication in the Selection process,” Gavril gasped. “How do you manage?”

“Right now, with two things: patience and Erik.” There was a smattering of laughter across the room.

“But how could this work? At some point it would have to change.”

This was the first time in my life that I’d ever wanted to run over, grab my chair, and fling it across the room at Gavril Fadaye.

“Yes, probably, but there are certainly worse things than a language barrier.”

“Could you give us some examples?”

I motioned for Henri and Erik to go sit down, and worked very hard not to laugh at how quickly Erik moved. Henri gave me an affectionate smile as he left, and that inspired me.

“Well, since this began with Henri, let me use him as an example. We have to work hard to communicate, but he’s an incredibly kind person. Whereas Jack and Burke spoke perfect English but behaved rather poorly.”

“Yes, we all saw the story of Burke’s fight, and let me say, I’m happy to see you were unharmed by that outburst.”

Uninjured? Sure. Unharmed? That was questionable. But no one would want to hear about that.

“Yes, but they seem to be the exception, not the rule. There are so many candidates I could brag about.”

‌“Oh? Well, don’t let me stop you!”

I smiled and peeked back to the boys. “Sir Hale has incredible taste and works as a tailor. I would not be surprised to see all of Illéa covered in his designs one day.”

“I love that dress!” he called.

“I made it!” I yelled back, unable to contain my pride. “Perfection.”

“See,” I said, turning back to Gavril. “Told you he had good taste.” I looked around again. “Of course, I’ve already mentioned Sir Baden’s musical skills, but they’re worth bringing up again. He’s so talented.”

Baden gave a quick nod, and, if he was still irritated, he was covering it well.

“Sir Henri, I’ve discovered, is an amazing cook. And it takes a lot to impress me in that department because, as you know, the palace chefs could rival anyone in the world. So trust me when I say you’re jealous of me

because I’ve gotten to taste his food.”

More laughter filled the studio, and I caught a glimpse of Dad in a monitor looking so, so delighted.

“Sir Fox . . . now, some might not be aware of what a valuable skill this is, but he has the ability to make the best out of any situation. The Selection can be stressful, and yet he is always looking at the bright side. He’s a pleasure to be around.”

I shared a gaze with Fox, and, even with the gash on his head and his bruised eye showing slightly through the makeup, he looked as far from menacing as possible. I was glad I’d let him stay.

‌“Anyone else?” Gavril questioned, and I scanned the boys. Yes, there was one more.

“Most people have a hard time believing that I don’t know Sir Kile backward and forward because we’ve lived in the same place our whole lives, but it’s true. The Selection has allowed me to get to know him much better, and I’ve now learned that he’s a very promising architect. If we ever needed a second palace built, he’s the first person I’d call.”

There were some sweet sighs around the room at the idea of childhood friends finally becoming possible lovers.

“Although, I can confirm, he needs help in the hygiene department,” I added, sending the room into laughs again.

“It sounds like these are some truly amazing young men!” Gavril called, beginning another round of applause for them.

“Absolutely.”

“So, if you’re so impressed, I have to ask: has anyone got a special place in your heart just yet?”

I found myself fiddling with my hair. “I don’t know.” “Oh, ho!”

I giggled, looking down. This wasn’t real . . . was it? “Does it happen to be anyone you mentioned?”

I slapped his arm playfully. “Oh, my gosh, Gavril!”

He snickered, as did most of the room. I fanned myself with a hand and turned back to him.

“The truth is, it’s still difficult to talk about this so publicly, but I’m hoping to have more to say in the future.”

“That’s wonderful news, Your Highness. Let me join all of Illéa in wishing you luck as you look for your partner.”

‌“Thank you.” I nodded my head modestly and casually peeked over at Dad.

The expression on his face was one of disbelief, almost as if he was

optimistic. It was bittersweet for me, to feel so unsure about the whole thing but to see that even the slightest glimmer of possibility took so much worry out of his eyes.

For now, that would be enough.

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