I tried to plot out my week. Apsel’s application said he played the piano, so I’d arrange for us to work on duets tomorrow morning; and in the early evening I’d walk outside with Tavish. Monday would be tea with Gunner and a photography walk with Harrison. Dad would probably love that.
I finished my plans and set down my pile of papers beside me. Without a word, Neena started a bath. I sipped the last of my tea and put the cup back on the table next to the pot so she wouldn’t have to go hunting for it later.
In the bathroom, steam was filling the air, and I planted myself in front of the mirror, pulling pins out of my hair. Between the soothing water and Neena’s calming presence, I was free from most of Baden’s harsh words by the time I was ready to dry off.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Neena asked quietly, pulling a brush through my hair.
“There’s not much to say. People will throw food at me, people will throw words at me, and I have to be stronger than that if I’m going to survive.”
She let out a disapproving sound, and I watched her troubled eyes in the mirror.
Neena stopped brushing for a minute, looking at my reflection. “For all my problems, I’d never trade them for yours. I’m so sorry.”
I pulled myself up. “Nothing to be sorry for. This was what I was born to do.”
“That’s not fair though, is it? I thought eliminating the castes meant that no one was born into anything. Does that apply to everyone except you?”
It didn’t matter that Apsel’s skills were so good I praised him endlessly. And it didn’t matter that the photos of Tavish and me in the garden were positively beautiful. With all the work I put in, neither of those things were headline material Monday morning.
Above the pictures of me and my dates was an entirely different story.
IT’S WORK! screamed the headline above a candid shot of me yawning. An “exclusive source” had shared that I felt the Selection process was “more work than anything” and that “we make it look exciting.” All I could think about was how badly I wanted to hurt Milla Warren.
I couldn’t blame her completely though. Baden’s exposé on how staged the Selection was helped nothing. He described me at length as frigid, two-faced, and distant. He spoke of our one charming moment alone and then my intentional disconnection from him, and said there was no way he could have stayed in the palace, living under such a lie. I knew it was likely that he was paid an exorbitant amount of money for his story and that he was probably worrying about a mountain of debt for his education. But I felt certain he would have said it all for free.
Juxtaposing those stories with the one of my weekend dates cheapened everything about them. It was a waste of effort and worse, it was visibly taking a toll on Dad. Weeks had passed, he still had no idea how to address the caste issues, and pockets of rioters were calling for the end of the monarchy.
I was failing in every possible way.
After breakfast I went to my room, looking at my plans for the day. Were they worthless now? Was there a way to make these dates better?
I heard a knock and turned to see Kile standing at the door. I ran into his arms without a second thought.
“Hey,” he said, holding me tight.
“I don’t know what to do. Everything’s just getting worse and worse.”
He pulled back and lowered his eyes to meet mine. “Some of the guys are confused. They don’t know if they’re being used. Eadlyn,” he continued in a whisper, presumably so Neena wouldn’t hear his words, “I know our first kiss was for show. Is it all for show? If it is, you need to come clean.”
I stared into his eyes. How had I ever thought he was anything less than smart and funny and handsome and kind? I didn’t want to respond in a whisper, so I signaled for Neena to leave, and once she had closed the door behind her, I faced him again.
“It’s complicated, Kile.”
“I’m a very intelligent person. Explain.”
His words were calm, an invitation more than a demand.
“If you had asked me the night before everyone came, I would have said it was all a joke. But it’s not anymore, not to me.” The words shocked me. I’d fought caring about these boys, and I was still terrified of them getting closer. Even now, Kile was walking the edge of my comfort zone, and I was unsure how I’d manage if he pushed himself over the line.
“You matter to me,” I confessed. “A lot of you do. But do I think I’ll get married?” I shrugged. “I can’t say.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Either you want this or you don’t.”
“That’s not fair. When your name was called, did you want to participate? Would you say the same thing now?”
I didn’t realize how tense he’d become until he let out a breath and closed his eyes. “Okay. I can understand that.”
“It’s been harder than I thought, with so many disasters along the way. And I’m not as good at showing my emotions as other girls, so it comes across like I don’t care, even when I do. I like to keep things to myself. It looks bad, I know, but it’s real.”
He’d been around me long enough to know it was true. “You need to address this. You need to say something publicly about that story,” he insisted, his eyes focused on mine.
I rubbed my temple. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. What if I somehow make it worse?”
He poked my stomach, something we hadn’t done since we were children. “How can the truth make anything worse?”
Well, that confirmed all my anxieties. Admitting how much this meant to me now might also mean owning up to the origins of this particular Selection. With the way things were going, that wouldn’t win me any sympathy.
He turned me around and pointed me toward my table and chairs. “Here. Let’s sit for a minute.”
I sat beside him, piling up some of the dress ideas I had been working on.
“Those are impressive, Eadlyn,” he remarked.
I gave him a weak smile. “Thank you, but it’s really just a bunch of scribbles.”
“Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t make it seem like it’s not important.”
I remembered those words, and they soothed me.
Kile pulled over a handful of the pencils and started some sketches of his own.
“What are you drawing?” I asked, looking at the little boxes.