Chapter no 32

The Heir (The Selection, 4)

WANTED TO LIVE IN that place, to forget about all the worries hanging over my family, threatening to drop at any moment. But the peace was gone by dinner. Some of the Selected boys who missed out on the game were complaining that they should have been told about it. The ones who were present, they claimed, had gotten an unfair amount of additional face time with me, and they were asking for some sort of group date for them.

They elected Winslow to tell me this, and he stood in front of me with puppy dog eyes relaying the collective dejection of the group. We were outside the dining hall, where he caught me as I was heading back to my room.

“We’re simply asking for another group date to keep things fair.”

‌I rubbed my temple. “It wasn’t exactly a date. There was no planning involved, and my family was with me for most of it, including my younger brothers.”

“We understand that, and we’re willing to do any planning if you’ll agree to come.”

I sighed, frustrated. “How many people would it be exactly?” “Only eight. Ean asked not to be included.”

I smirked to myself. Of course Ean wanted nothing to do with a bunch of boys grumbling about more time. It made me wonder if I should go grab him right now for a date simply to make a point. I suspected he’d hoped for just that.

“You organize the date, and I’ll do my best to make time for it.” Winslow beamed. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

“But,” I added quickly, “please pass along to the others that griping like this does not elevate my opinion of you. If anything, this is a bit childish. So you’d better make this the date of your lives.”

Winslow’s face fell as I walked past him and up the stairs.

Two more months. I could do this. Admittedly, there were as many lows as there were highs, but I sensed the worst had passed. I was feeling less intimidated by the boys after the game, and I felt sure I could give Dad the time he needed.

I still wasn’t quite certain what to do with my heart.

I rounded the stairs to the third floor, catching Ahren leaving his room.

He’d changed out of his suit coat and into a vest, and I felt sure he was heading to Camille’s new suite.

‌“Do you ever stop smiling?” I asked, unable to believe his face could hold that pose for so many days straight.

“Not when she’s here.” He straightened his vest. “Do I look okay?”

“As always. I’m sure she doesn’t care one way or another. She’s as head over heels for you as you are for her.”

He sighed. “I think so, too. I hope so.”

It was like he was already gone. In his mind, he was in Paris, showering Camille with kisses and debating what to name their children. I felt him leaving me I wasn’t ready.

I swallowed, daring to say what I’d been deliberating over for a very long time. “Look, Ahren, she’s a great girl. There’s no denying it. But maybe she’s not the one.”

His smile finally faltered. “What do you mean?”

“Just that you might want to consider other options. There are so many eligible girls in Illéa that you’ve completely bypassed. Don’t rush into something that you can’t undo. If you and Camille broke up, it would be nothing. If you got divorced, we could lose our alliance with France.”

Ahren stared at me. “Eadlyn, I know you’re hesitant to fall in love, but I know how I feel about her. Just because you’re scared—”

“I’m not scared!” I insisted. “I’m trying to help you. I love you maybe more than anyone. I’d do nearly anything for you, and I thought you’d do the same for me.”

Every ounce of happiness left his face. “I would. You know I would.” “Then, please, think about it. That’s all I’m asking.”

‌He nodded, running his fingers over his mouth and cheeks, looking concerned almost lost.

Ahren brought his eyes to mine, gave me a tiny smile, and opened his arms for a hug. He held me tightly, like he’d never needed a hug so badly in his life.

“I love you, Eady.” “And I love you.”

He kissed my hair and let me go, continuing on to Camille’s room.

Neena was waiting for me with my nightgown ready. “Any plans for the evening? Or do you want to dress for bed?”

“Bed,” I assured her. “But wait until you hear what these boys are doing now.” I told her about the demanded group date, adding that Ean had excused himself from it.

“Smart move on his part,” she agreed.

“I know. I keep wondering if that warrants a special date, just for him.” “A real date or a spite date?”

I laughed. “I hardly know. Ugh, what am I supposed to do with all these boys?”

“Weed ’em out. Ha! I found a piece of grass we missed earlier.” She pulled the blade around for me to see before tossing it in the trash.

“That was so much fun,” I said. “I’ll never forget Mom’s face, hanging out of the window telling me to go for it. I was sure I was in trouble!”

“I wish I could have seen that.”

‌“You really don’t need to hide in my room all day. It’s always clean, and it doesn’t take too long for me to get dressed in the morning. You should come with me places, see more of the palace than this room and yours.”

She shrugged. “Perhaps.”

But I could hear in her voice that she was excited about the possibility. I wondered if I should train Neena for travel. It would be nice to have her with me next time I went abroad. But if she really was planning on leaving within the next year or so, it might not be worth it. I knew I couldn’t keep one maid forever, but I dreaded the thought of someone replacing her.

I went down for breakfast the next day and noticed that Ahren didn’t come. I worried he was upset with me. We never stayed cross with each other for long, but I hated when that happened at all. Ahren felt like a piece of me sometimes.

I didn’t notice until a bit later that Camille didn’t make it either. I assumed one of two things had happened: Ahren had come to his senses and told her that he needed to consider other options, and they were both in the process of avoiding each other . . . or they’d spent the night together and were maybe still in bed.

I wondered what Dad would think about that.

Then I realized that a few of the boys were missing as well. Maybe Camille and Ahren weren’t wrapped in each other’s arms after all. It was possible there was a bug going around. That was far more likely . . . and much less exciting.

‌I left the dining hall to find Leeland and Ivan waiting for me. They both bowed deeply.

“Your Highness,” Ivan greeted. “Your presence is requested in the Great Room for the greatest date of your life.”

I smirked. “Oh, really?”

Leeland chuckled. “We were up all night working. Please say you’re free right now.”

I checked the clock on the wall. “I have maybe an hour.”

Ivan perked up. “That’s plenty of time. Come with us.” They both offered their elbows, and I grabbed on to them, allowing myself to be escorted into the Great Room.

Along the back wall, a small stage had been set up and covered with what appeared to be tablecloths from our Christmas supplies. Spotlights that we sometimes brought out for parties were aimed at the center of the stage, and as we approached, the boys all shushed one another as they stood in a line.

I was brought to the lone chair right in front of the stage, and I took my seat, simultaneously curious and confused.

Winslow spread his arms wide. “Welcome to the first ever Selection Variety Show, starring a bunch of losers competing for your attention.”

I laughed. At least they owned it.

Calvin jumped off to the side and sat at the piano, playing music that had a ragtime feel, and everyone left the stage except for Winslow.

‌He bowed very solemnly. But when he stood back up, he smiled hugely, bringing three beanbags in front of him. Then he started juggling. It was so silly, I had to laugh. Winslow turned to the side, and from offstage someone threw a fourth beanbag. Then a fifth and sixth. He managed to keep them going for a couple of tosses before they all fell to the ground, with one slapping him on the head.

Everyone lamented but applauded his efforts, even me.

Lodge got out a bow and arrow and a target covered with balloons, then managed to shoot and pierce each one. As they burst, glitter flew out of them, slowly settling on the floor. All the while, Calvin played on, switching up tunes for each act.

Fox, who I was surprised would rope himself into another group date, got onstage and drew. Horribly. I was sure Osten had made better stick figures as a child, but since this show seemed to either be highlighting their strengths in a ludicrous way or shrugging off their weaknesses as comedy, it ended up being quite charming. I was trying to think of a way to inconspicuously pilfer the picture he drew of me, which was little more than a balloon-shaped head and some brown waves of hair coming off it. I’d been drawn and painted countless times . . . but they never came out that sweet.

Leeland sang, Julian hula hooped, Ivan bounced a soccer ball for an incredibly long time, and Gunner read a poem.

“Our lovely Princess Eadlyn, It’s hard to rhyme your name.

And though we really ticked you off, We love you all the same.”

I giggled the whole way through it, as did most of the boys.

‌The grand finale was the eight of them cluttered onstage dancing. Well, trying to dance. There was a lot of grinding and hip shaking, to the point that I blushed a few times. In the end I really was impressed. They’d organized the whole thing overnight, both trying to entertain me and apologize at the same time.

There was something really sweet about it.

I applauded them as they had their final bow, giving them a standing ovation.

“All right, I should go to work . . . but what if I get some drinks in here for us instead and we talk for a bit?”

They all answered affirmatively over one another, so I sent for tea and water and some cold drinks as well. We didn’t bother with rolling out tables and instead sat on the floor. Sometimes these pain-in-the-neck boys could be so nice.

Ahren didn’t come to dinner either. I watched as the Selected boys filed in, and all our guests, then Mom who was running a little late . . . but no Ahren.

Dad leaned over to me. “Where is your brother?”

I shrugged, cutting my chicken. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him today.” “That’s not like him.”

‌I glanced around the room, looking at the remaining nineteen candidates. Kile gave me a wink, and Henri waved. Every time I looked at Gunner, all I could think about was his silly poem. Fox nodded his head at me as our eyes met, and when Raoul stretched, I remembered the care he took teaching me to grip a bat.

Oh, no.

It had happened. Even with the boys I hadn’t spent much time with, I knew that each of them had a hold on me in some way. I already knew that some of them claimed a spot in my ever-terrified heart, but how had it come to pass that they all mattered?

I felt a heaviness settle in my chest. I was going to miss these loud, strange boys. Because even if I miraculously found one to stay with me in the end, there was no way to keep them all.

I was thinking about how worried I used to be about losing my quiet house when Gavril walked in, one of the news staff we kept around for the Report trailing him.

He bowed in front of the head table, looking at Dad. “I’m so sorry to bother you, Your Majesty.”

“Not at all. What’s wrong?”

Gavril glanced at all the watching eyes. “May I approach you?” Daddy nodded, and Gavril whispered something in his ear.

Dad squinted in disbelief. “Married?” he asked only loud enough that probably Mom and I could hear. He pulled back to look into Gavril’s eyes.

“Her mother approved. It’s been done, all legal. He’s gone.” My body turned cold, and I ran from the room.

‌“No, no, no,” I mumbled, rushing up the stairs. I went to Ahren’s room first. Nothing. Everything looked pristine, no sign of packing or an urgent exit. But, more important, no sign of my brother.

I tore from the room, heading to Camille’s suite. I’d peeked in the day before and had seen her trunks spilling open with so many outfit choices, they probably could have filled my closet. The trunks were still there, all but the smallest. And no Camille.

I fell into the wall, in far too much shock to process this. Ahren was gone.

He’d eloped and left me here alone.

I stood there in a daze, not sure what to do. Could I get him back? Gavril said something about legal. What did that mean? Was there any way to undo this?

My world felt dimmer, slightly misaligned and wrong. How was I supposed to do anything without Ahren?

I ended up in my room without realizing I’d even walked there. Neena held out an envelope to me.

“Ahren’s butler delivered this for you about half an hour ago.” I snatched the paper from her hands.


‌On the off chance that the news has not reached you by the time this letter does, let me tell you what I’ve done. I’ve gone to France with Camille, and, pending her parents’ approval, I intend to marry her immediately. I’m sorry to have run off without you and to have excluded you and Mom and Dad from what I always knew would be the happiest day of my life, but I felt I had no choice.

After speaking with you last night, the last few years made perfect sense to me. I always assumed your dislike for Camille stemmed from you both being in the same situation. You’re young, beautiful women who will inherit a throne. And you and she handle this position in vastly different ways. She is open to everything, while you keep people at a distance. She deals out her power with humility, while you wield yours like a sword. I hate to be so blunt, though I’m sure you already know this about yourself. Still, it brings me no joy to say it.

But your positions are not the reason you dislike her so. You don’t like Camille because she’s the only person who could ever separate you and me.

Your words hit me so hard, Eadlyn. Because I wanted to believe you. I wanted to hear you out and consider your suggestions. I knew that if I did, one day you’d convince me to give up everything for you. Maybe even put your crown on my head. And, heaven knows, I would have done it. I would do anything for you.

So before you could ask for my life, I gave it to Camille.

I wish you could find love, Eadlyn. The reckless, relentless kind that consumes you. If you could, then maybe you’d understand. I hope someday you will.

‌My happiness with Camille is tarnished by one thing: that I may be estranged from you if you choose not to forgive me. That sadness will be great, but far more bearable than my separation from my soul mate.

Even as I write this I miss you. I cannot imagine us being so far apart. Please find a way to forgive me and know that I love you. Maybe not as deeply as you’d like, but still.

As a testimony to my desire to always be there for you, I want to give you one last piece of information, something that may help you in the coming months.

More provinces are protesting the monarchy than you could guess. Not all of them, but plenty. And while it pains me to tell you this, the problem people have with the monarchy stems from one person: you.

I don’t know why—perhaps because of your youth, perhaps because of your gender, perhaps for reasons none of us could believe—but they worry. Dad’s aging beyond his years. The stress of the amount of things he’s accomplished in his reign is bigger than his predecessors’, and the general population thinks you will ascend soon, and they are not prepared.

‌I hate saying those words to you, but you’ve already kind of guessed at this. I didn’t want to let you dwell on those thoughts, hoping you could move past it. And I only tell you this because I think you can change their minds. Stop holding everyone at bay, Eadlyn. You can be brave and still be feminine. You can lead and still love flowers. Most important, you can be queen and still be a bride.

I think those who cannot know you the way I do would finally have a glimpse of this side of you if you consider finding a mate. I could be wrong, but just in case this is the last time you ever want to speak to me, I must give you the only piece of advice I can.

I hope you can forgive me.

Your brother, your twin, your other piece, Ahren

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