Author's Note: There's a lot of non-Selection things happening in this chapter, but I promise there will be more of the Selected in chapters to come :) I hope everyone is enjoying their weekend, especially if you get that extra memorial day! Thanks for reading as always and I hope people still like this lol

Chapter 21: 72 Days Before

The hecticness returned to the palace with a vengeance after the first round of deployments. If anything, Nolan supposed that it was even busier than before. Now, with troops on the ground, Oliver was getting constant reports or pulled into meetings at odd hours of the night to account for the time changes overseas.

It was scary to feel Oliver's absence already, as Nolan was left to deal with their everyday life with his mom. The king would officially deploy the following Monday, and though Nolan had virtually toured the plans, memorized the deployment plans, knew that Oliver would be safe, it still made his chest tighten uncomfortably every time he thought about it.

He wasn't ready to be king. Maybe technically, he was. He knew about national budgets, taxes, economics, how to make laws. He understood the importance of public perception and that he needed his country to support the Woodwork-Schreave family.

But emotionally, he wasn't ready. He still had so many questions for Oliver. How did he make the hard decisions, the ones that might mean life for some and death for others? How did he wake up every morning knowing that hundreds of thousands of people depended on his ability to make the right choice?

Even worse, how did he keep going when his choice turned out to be wrong?


His attention jolted back to his mother. "Still with me?" she asked, a knowing smile on her face.

"Yeah," he insisted, picking up the packet that had slipped out of his hands, "Sorry, we were talking about…?"

"The fundraiser," she reminded him.

"Right." He rubbed a hand across his forehead. "Friday night's fundraiser."

While the Schreaves had money, thanks to Porter's ill-gotten gains, it had suddenly become more important than ever for them to play nice with the other rich families in Illéa. Oliver had, admittedly, damaged some of these relationships. Though they had always had the powerful Seymours on their side, Oliver had always possessed a low tolerance for those who tried to use their status to make their way into his inner circle. Even more so, he hated the ones whose ancestors had flourished right alongside Gregory Illéa and thought that elevated them over others somehow.

But now, the country needed money. Most of the national budget was being directed to the military, a necessity at the given moment. But Illéa's population wasn't just soldiers. There were plenty of other people that would need help now that they were at war.

The fundraiser had been Nolan's idea. He thought it was a good one at the time. Hosted at the palace, the benefits would go to the families of those who died at Pacifica and Dominica. And every person who had ever made a magazine's list of "Illéa richest" was invited.

The prince groaned. "Ugh, was this a terrible idea?"

"You know I would have told you if I thought it was," Mae countered swiftly.

"Dad's going to hate it," Nolan frowned. It was the kind of party his father had avoided like the plague since becoming king.

"He'll make the dutiful appearance that's expected of him," Mae assured Nolan. Though she didn't say it, Nolan had a feeling she included "I'll make sure of it" in her mind.

"Are you planning on bringing the Selected?" his mother asked, swiftly steering the topic away from his father. Though Mae could be found with either Nolan or Oliver most days now, Nolan had noticed that she didn't like to talk about Oliver too much lately, like his looming departure made it painful. "We could scatter them at different tables. Isadora and Haven will both know people in attendance."

"Should I?" Nolan asked. "All eight of them?"

Mae shrugged. "Why not? Better for them to hit the ground running, get an idea of what they're getting into."

"Are you saying this as a former Selected or a current queen?" Nolan chuckled.

"Perhaps both," she admitted. "I can tell you from personal experience that some people are more aware of what this entails than other. Some are also more well-suited. You have to have a degree of… tenacity, let's call it, to do this job."

"Did you always think you could do it?" Nolan asked.

Mae thought for a moment. "I did," she admitted. "I didn't have it easy after my parents died. I thought nothing would ever be as hard as picking myself up after that." She chuckled to herself. "That wasn't entirely true, but I think I've managed fairly well."

"Yeah, to put it mildly," chuckled Nolan. His mother smiled too, aware that she was maybe withholding some of the credit she deserved. A queen hadn't been tested as strongly as she currently was since the monarchy's inception, and she was certainly rising to the occasion.

"Was it hard, in the beginning?" Nolan wondered. He had been born to be king one day, and there were certainly moments that he doubted himself. How did someone who hadn't been prepared their entire life cope under the pressure?

"A few moments have given me pause," she confessed.

He wasn't comforted by her response. His mother had always seemed so natural and confident in the role that she had occupied for the last twenty-one years, yet even she found it difficult.

He didn't press her, but she added, "The Selection is a good test, though. Certainly a few of those moments arose during that time."

Though he was one of the few people who would share the experience, Nolan had never asked many questions about his parents' Selection, unlike Lea, who wanted to know every romantic detail. But now, he couldn't help himself. "What happened during the Selection?"

Small frown lines formed on his mother's usually youthful face. "Alaric Illéa and your father were once… allies, I suppose," Mae answered. "And Kaitlyn and Alaric… well, they were far more than that."

Nolan blushed as he thought of how he had overheard his mother and Kaitlyn talking during his birthday ball. "We've never had any direct proof," Mae acknowledged, "but your father has always believed that Marid orchestrated the crash."

"Oliver had promised Alaric that he would never hold him responsible for anything Marid or Regan did," Mae continued. "But he didn't keep his promise. After the crash, he told Alaric to leave Angeles and never come back."

It didn't sound like his father. While Nolan knew that Oliver had a temper and was fiercely protective of the people he cared about, he had always been fair.

But he thought of the way that Alaric and the Illéas had always been a taboo, off-limits topic. He thought of how his Aunt Kaitlyn had never married… until Alaric returned. Perhaps he didn't know his father as well as he thought he did, he realized.

"The thing about our family is they're important other than because we love them," Mae explained, something that Nolan had always been aware of even as a child. "The Schreaves are the embodiment of Illéa, and Marid had tried to kill one of them, in Oliver's eyes."

"So, you disagreed with what Dad did when he made Alaric leave?" Nolan asked.

"As someone who cared about Alaric and Kaitlyn and saw them both hurt, yes," Mae replied. "And it made me wonder if, in Oliver's place, if I would have been able to make the same decision."

"Well, but was it necessarily the right decision?" Nolan frowned.

Mae shrugged. "It's impossible to know sometimes. But I certainly think Marid viewed it as a slight against him, despite how little he cares for Alaric. As Oliver standing up to him."

"Everything has always been so complicated with the Illéas," Nolan sighed.

Mae reached across the table and took his hand. "Marid," she reminded him, "Not all Illéas."

"Do you think I asked anyone back who can't do it?" he asked, nervousness clawing at him.

Her face apologetic. "I'm not sure, Nol. Honestly, with everything going on, I haven't had the chance to be as involved with the Selected as I would have liked."

"I think you get a pass," Nolan offered with a smile, "You've only been distracted by a world war."

She smiled ruefully as well. "I think you should remember that you asked them all back for a reason though," she reminded him. "And you've always had an incredible sense of duty, so I think ultimately you'll know who can do it and who can't."

But what if the one his heart wanted in the end was someone who couldn't do it?

A knock at the door interrupted Nolan's thoughts. "Come in," Mae called.

The butler that appeared bowed deeply. "Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness. The first car has arrived."

A mixture of excitement and nerves shot through Nolan's veins. He met his mother's gaze. "It feels like a lot longer than just a week or two that I last saw them," he noted.

"A lot has happened since then," Mae pointed out.

It was a bit of an understatement in Nolan's opinion, but he nodded. "I'm going to go say hi," he decided, "Make sure everyone's trip was okay."

"That's very sweet of you," his mother smiled. "We'll see you at dinner later tonight." With Oliver's departure arriving so soon that coming Monday, the royal family had been making an effort to congregate together at least once a day at dinner.

He nodded before he followed the butler out to the front of the palace where the girls were unloading from the car that had brought them back to the palace from the airport. Nolan had tried to group their flights together based on location in order to save as much money as possible. Isadora and Jay had flown together from central Illéa on a plane that Isadora's family had graciously chartered. Later that day, Murphy, Cheryl, Margo, and Haven would arrive on their flight from the east coast that Nolan had arranged. Given Whites' distance, Kylee had a solo flight bringing her back from the north and would arrive shortly before dinner.

As the car slowed in front of palace, Nolan's heart thumped loudly against his chest. He felt torn in two, an even mixture of excitement and fear. He wanted the girls to come back. He had made sure of it before he had even broached the topic with his father. But at the same time, he was afraid whether they would be able to handle the situation. Some days, he wasn't even sure if he could.

But then the car stopped, and Nolan quickly abandoned his internal dialogue of worry, because he was attacked by a wolf.

"Animo!" Jay called exasperatedly as she rushed out of the car. Izzy followed her, giggling, though Nolan wasn't sure whether it was at the dog's behavior or the way he had jumped backwards.

Nolan quickly realized that 'attacked' might have been too strong of an assessment as Animo licked at every inch of the prince's skin that he could reach (which was, surprisingly, a lot when the dog stood on his hindlegs). Jay stopped a few steps away and gave a sharp whistle. With a whine, Animo dropped back to all fours and dutifully trotted back to Jay's side.

"I'm so sorry," Jay offered, clipping a leash to Animo's collar. "He's really well-behaved when he's on duty, I swear."

Nolan laughed as he discretely tried to wipe the dog saliva on the back of his pants. "Nice to meet you, Animo," he told the large, black dog. "And wonderful to see you again," he directed at Jay.

Objectively, he knew that only two weeks had passed since the girls had left. But it still surprised him that Jay looked exactly the same the last time he had seen her: blue gray eyes, long blonde hair collected into a bun, the small sprinkle of freckles on her bare shoulders.

"Thank you for inviting me—us—back," she replied with a smile. "And for letting me bring Animo this time." She paused before she added, "And for making the force let me bring him."

Nolan tried to assure her that it was no big deal, but before he could, Izzy had decided that she had waited long enough to say her hello. She rushed forward and threw her thin arms around his neck. If he was taller, he might've been able to use her inertia to spin her around like in the movies, but as it was, he had to brace himself from stumbling backwards.

She released him a moment later, her delicate hands framing either side of his face as she inspected him. It seemed like she, too, was surprised that he appeared the same after everything that had happened since Pacifica.

"Hi," he smiled at her. It felt like they, at least, had less catching up to do, thanks to their correspondence. Izzy smiled brightly at him in return.

She looked like she wanted to hug him again, but she was interrupted by the sound of someone dropping their bag on the ground loudly. Izzy glared at the interloper but reluctantly took a step away. Nolan, for his part, tried his best to recover smoothly when he realized who the additional party was.

"Lady Rhiannon," he managed.

She curtsied, her face looking overjoyed. "Thank you so much for inviting me back, Your Highness."

Nolan swallowed deeply. He couldn't admit to her that he hadn't. It would be embarrassing and seemed rude after she had made the trip there. He tried to delicately pry instead. "So, you got my invitation?"

One of Rhiannon's gloved hands plucked an envelope from the front pocket of her bag, and Nolan's confusion grew as he realized that it was, in fact, his stationary. "I have to admit that I was a little surprised," Rhiannon demurred, "but I am so happy to be back." After a pause, she added, almost an afterthought, "And to see you, of course."

"I am equally happy," Nolan replied, forcing a smile. Rhiannon's reappearance was a mystery that he would have to solve later, he decided, realizing that he didn't have time to squander.

"We've moved you all to the royal family's floor," he told the girls. Izzy clapped her hands together excitedly, while Rhiannon's eyes lit up. Only Jay looked a little nervous. "We have a wing that's usually reserved for our French family, but they're not doing a lot traveling right now, as you can imagine. Most of the rooms on the guest floor where the Selected were staying are currently being used by military officers, so I thought it might make you all feel more comfortable to be around people you know."

"That's extremely thoughtful of you, Your Majesty," Rhiannon noted, smiling sweetly at him.

He was spared the trouble of replying when the one of the butlers who was unloading the girls' bags from the trunk of the car dropped one, and it thudded loudly against the ground. The sound made him jump, something that had been happening much more often, he'd noticed, since his trip to Pacifica when the island had been an exploding, loud fireball.

Izzy put a hand on her arm, her eyebrows knit. Ever perceptive, she had noticed his reaction.

"I'm fine," he assured her quietly, hoping the other two hadn't noticed. "Uh, except I am actually running late for a meeting," he announced, his voice louder this time. "One of the staff will take you to your rooms and you can relax, get settled in. We'll all be having dinner with my family tonight once the other girls arrive." He instructed the butler that let him outside to show the girls to their rooms and hurried back into the palace.

Truthfully, he wasn't late, but he did have a plan for the afternoon that was too important to be put off. He ducked down a set of stairs that were normally only taken by the staff, arriving on the basement level of the palace. It was just as large as any other floor of the palace, with many rooms that either housed the palace workforce or were generally reserved for their use.

A few of the rooms currently housed the intelligence operations. It was odd to Nolan to have an intelligence unit living in his basement, but he supposed stranger things had happened lately. Trying not to garner much attention, he slipped through the door.

He supposed he should have expected it, but there was someone posted at the inside of the door, and his covertness didn't last for long as the soldier bowed deeply. "Hi, can I talk to whoever's in charge?" Nolan asked.

It was unnecessary though, as a general, as Nolan determined from the ranks pinned onto his chest, quickly approached him. "Your Royal Highness." While Oliver was generally saluted now, as leader of Illéa's armed forces, most people still bowed to Nolan, which he found far less subtle and infinitely more embarrassing.

"General," Nolan nodded at the man. He wasn't sure of his name—there had been many recent promotions between Illéa's frantic attempts to amp up its military and the losses suffered at Pacifica and Dominica—but Nolan had come to realize that ranks were suitable in place of names.

"What can I do for you, Your Highness?" the general asked, clearly eager to please.

"I had a couple of, uh, general questions, I suppose," he explained.

"Have you found your briefings insufficient, sir?" the general asked, looking concerned.

"No! Not at all," Nolan assured him. "I just suppose I was hoping for some more background or context? I'm realizing that my understanding of Russia outside of their being our enemy is somewhat limited."

The general nodded as he considered the prince's request. Then, he turned around and barked, "Cross!"

As Cross—who was surprisingly a short, blonde woman who looked to be about Nolan's age—hurried towards them, the general explained, "We've been promoting to try to replace positions that were lost at Pacifica. Cross is new to her rank, but she has an extensive background in Russian intelligence so she should be able to help you with anything you need."

When Cross realized why the general had called her over, she missed a step and tripped up the stairs. She recovered enough to manage a salute as she stood before Nolan and her commander. "Your Highness, this is Lieutenant Commander Cross," the general said. He didn't bother introducing Nolan to her. "I'll leave you to it, sir." He bowed again. Nolan blushed.

Cross seemed more nervous when the general departed, glancing over her shoulder like she wished she could follow him instead of being left with Nolan. "I'm sorry to bother you," Nolan began.

"Uh, no, it's not that at all," she countered, "It's just… are you sure you need to talk to me? I'm pretty sure there are, like, fifty people in here that are more qualified."

He remembered that the general had mentioned Cross had recently been promoted due to their losses at Pacifica. If there was anyone who could understand how jarring it was to have your world turned upside down and more responsibilities than you ever anticipated, it was Nolan. So, he tried to be reassuring. "No, the general seems to think you're just the person to help me."

She did relax slightly. "So, uh, what's up then?"

"Well, Lieutenant Commander—"

"It's Whitney," she interjected quickly. "Please, call me Whitney."

"Then you have to call me Nolan," he countered.

"I can't do that," she retorted, her eyes bulging. "You're… you."

"Then you're Lieutenant Commander Cross," he bargained.

Her eyebrows furrowed as she considered him. "Fine," she finally conceded, "Nolan."

He felt momentarily triumphant until he realized she was waiting for him to explain what he needed her for. "Do you mind if we go somewhere quieter?" he asked, his eyes darting around the command room. There were more than a few people who were glancing away from their screens to look in their direction. "I'm a little embarrassed about all of this, honestly."

"I'm intrigued," Whitney declared. She didn't protest, so Nolan led her out of command and up a near stairwell. He quickly located an empty sitting room and ushered her in. He took a seat in a plush armchair by the fire place and gestured for Whitney to take the chair opposite him.

She looked slightly out of place against the ornateness of the forest green velvet chair in her standard-issue fatigues and boots, but she did her best to pretend that she was relaxed, crossing her legs and slouching against the chair's tufted back. She waited for him to speak first, looking at him like she was a little star-struck.

"I wanted to know more about Russian history," he explained, "but more modern history, I guess. From like… now, I suppose, until shortly before my dad became king?"

"Oh." She looked surprised and relieved. "I can totally help you with that. I aced modern era in college, but that could've been because I live for gossip magazines."

Nolan chuckled. "Well, I'm all ears then."

"Where should I start?"

"Around the time Nikolai became tsarevich? I know that his brother died, but…"

"Oh, great rumors around that one," Whitney declared. "So, Vitaly—the dead tsarevich—goes horseback riding with Nikolai, one of their generals, and like, a couple of servants. I think it was a fox hunt, I don't know, something wildly archaic like that. Anyway, the drama is that Vitaly is like known for horse things. Competed in shows and stuff and was just really good."

Nolan had, of course, done his own independent research on their adversaries. But despite Whitney's unique delivery, the information that she was giving him was exactly what he was looking for and hadn't been able to find in any history books. "Go on."

"So, the story is that his horse gets spooked, throws him off, and he lands just the right way on his neck to break it."

"Sounds suspicious," Nolan noted.

Whitney neither agreed nor disagreed. "Everyone backed the story up. General Orlov, the servants. But… then the servants disappeared. And General Anton Orlov—who was, by the way, once Nikolai's BFF—was accused of treason."

"What happened to him?" Nolan asked. He instantly regretted it when Whitney cringed.

"Well… he was executed by a firing squad live on television."

The prince blanched. "Things are… different there," she added, "There's not really… due process or anything."

"So, the big rumor is that Nikolai killed his brother," Nolan surmised. "And then anyone else that could've exposed him." Whitney nodded in confirmation. Nolan groaned. "How do you reason with someone like that? I mean, Marid on his own is bad enough, but you put them together…"

"You don't," Whitney explained bluntly. "No one in Russia does. It's never been remarkably progressive since the monarchy was reinstated, but Nikolai has definitely changed things."

"Where was the tsar in all of this?" Nolan asked. "Nikolai was still the tsarevich for three years before his father died."

"Anatoly wasn't the most popular," Whitney explained. "You have to be a very big, strong, I'm-gonna-wrestle-a-bear kind of tsar there, and Anatoly wasn't. I mean, he was probably a good man. Everyone knew how much he loved his family. But that made him seem weak. He didn't really recover after Vitaly died, so Nikolai could basically do what he wanted."

He let all of the information sink in for a minute before he moved on to his next topic. "Any rumors about the Illéas?"

"Oh, tons."

"Let's start with Marid then."

Whitney's eyes flashed, like she wasn't a fan of the man either. Nolan could see why. She had been on Pacifica when it had been bombed, and everyone knew Marid had his hand in that. "Generally, everyone thinks that he's pulling the strings," she explained. "He's essentially excommunicated influential Russian families that disagree with him and conveniently taken all of their land and money. He's probably the richest man in Russia aside from Nikolai. And he's also almost the only person that Nikolai will take counsel from."

She paused before she added, "There are other rumors that he plies Nikolai with mind altering substances to keep him aggressive and unpredictable, but honestly, I think that's just Nikolai."

"What about Regan?" Nolan asked. "What's her part in all this?"

Whitney's dark eyebrows arched towards her blonde hairline. "Well, the most interesting thing I could tell you about Regan is that she doesn't live with Nikolai or Gregor. But that's intelligence, not gossip."

"Really?" He'd never heard about that.

"Yeah, she lives at Garibaldi Castle in Samara most of the time," Whitney explained. "Occasionally, she gets called to St. Petersburg to show up to something with Nikolai. Outside of court, I don't think it's common knowledge there that the tsar and tsarina can't stand each other."

"Who does Gregor live with?" Nolan asked.

"Neither of them," Whitney answered. "Gregor is usually at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and Nikolai splits his time between Peterhof and the Kremlin in Moscow."

"Wow, involved parents," mumbled Nolan. He couldn't imagine being sent to an entirely different palace from Mae and Oliver. He would've moved on to his next question, but he could guess from Whitney's expression that there was some gossip that she wanted to share. "What's the rumor on that one?"

She didn't need much prompting. "Well, it's kind of a substantiated rumor," she explained, "Regan doesn't live in Samara by choice. She's sort of been exiled there by Nikolai. Not even Marid could stop that one, because…" She glanced around, like she wanted to be sure no one was listening before she lowered her voice. "She had an affair with General Orlov. They think that's what got him killed, even though his 'treason' was never publicized."

This time, Nolan couldn't help but look surprised. "And Gregor…?"

"Well, that's the big gossip at Russian court," Whitney noted. "That he's not Nikolai's son."

He thought of his father's plan to install Gregor as the new tsar if Russia fell. If Gregor wasn't actually Nikolai's heir, that could be problematic. "That can't be true though, right? Surely Nikolai would've found out for certain by now."

"Oh, probably," shrugged Whitney. "Nikolai doesn't seem like the kind to raise someone else's kid."

"Why does Gregor live at the Winter Palace instead of at Peterhof with Nikolai?" Nolan wondered. He knew that Gregor was a few years older than him, but certainly it made sense for the heir to live with the ruler, to learn from them?

"He always has," Whitney explained, "since he was a kid. I think Nikolai kept him from Regan to punish her but didn't actually know how to raise a kid himself, so he pawned him off on some noblewoman."

"Has Nikolai prepared him to be tsar at all?" Nolan asked.

"That I don't know," Whitney admitted, "Not from intelligence reports or magazines."

Nolan's cheeks flushed at the mention of magazines. He knew there were magazines in Illéa that speculated about his family just as much as their Russian counterparts, and he felt slightly guilty for seeking out this kind of information when he hated it when the Schreaves were treated as tabloid fodder. "I'm usually not this much of a gossip," he told Whitney, embarrassed.

"I am," she countered with a snort. "Uh, not in like a mean way or anything," she added when she noticed his eyebrows knit together in concern. "I'm just a little fascinated by, uh… the royalty stuff?" Her cheeks burned bright red. "Wow, I'm sorry, I'm really not helping myself."

He laughed. "It's okay," he assured her, "It's actually been really helpful. I think I just wanted to know more about their human sides. It's hard to remember that's what they are when…" He trailed off, thinking about Pacifica.

"When they blow up your biggest naval base and kill thousands of your subjects?" Whitney guessed.

Part of him wanted to cringe, but the larger part laughed, whether appropriate or not, at her bluntness. "Yeah. Exactly that."

He glanced at his watch and realized that he had spent far more time with Whitney than he had planned. He was in danger of actually running late this time. "I'm sorry, but I have to go," he explained as he stood. She jumped to her feet as well. "Thank you for your time and all of your help. I really appreciate it."

"Thank you," Whitney countered. It must've been apparent that Nolan was unsure of what she was thanking him for, because she added, "It was just really cool to be able to help, like, the prince."

"Just Nolan," he reminded her.

"Right." She mimed hitting herself in the forehead, like she couldn't believe she could forget such a thing. "Silly me. Well, it was really nice to meet you and everything, just Nolan."

"And you, Whitney," he replied.

They walked towards the door together, and before they parted in the hall, Whitney chirped, "See you around!"

She walked a few steps before she turned back towards him. "Uh, not in like a presumptuous way or anything," she added, "Just in like a you-live-here, and I'm-working-here kind of way, and we might run into each other, but if we don't, like, that's totally fine."

Nolan laughed at how flustered she seemed. "I'm sure I will see you around, Whitney," he assured her. She nodded before she turned around and disappeared down the stairs back towards the intelligence room.

Nolan made his way back to the front of the palace, ready to welcome Murphy, Haven, Cheryl, and Margo back.

While the Selected were now technically staying on the same floor as the royal family, Rhiannon wasn't quite sure that she was allowed to go directly to their wing. Not that such a technicality was currently stopping her, but it did give her a moment of pause when she rounded the corner to discover all of the guarded doors.

She was also disappointed to discover that there was no nameplate for the rooms, or identifying decoration posted to the doors. She imagined, if there had been, Bayer's would be a poster of a scantily clad woman or something equally ridiculous.

It must have been obvious that she had no idea where she was going, because a guard interrupted her wandering and asked, "Can I help you, miss?"

Rhiannon turned on her charm, batting her eyelashes at the man. "That would be very kind of you," she simpered with a beaming smile. "Could you direct me to Prince Bayer's room?"

Unfortunately, the guard seemed unmoved by charming smiles and fluttering eyelashes. "Is His Highness expecting you?"

"Oh, I'm sure he is," Rhiannon retorted. If her theory was correct, that was.

The guard seemed suspicious, but he moved from his post anyway and led her down the hall. He stopped a few paces from the door and eyed Rhiannon. "Wait here."

She rolled her eyes but followed the instruction as the man approached the guard posted outside of Bayer's door and had a hushed conversation with him. One of the guards disappeared into the room for a brief moment. When he returned, he told Rhiannon, "You can go in."

She flounced past the guards, and when she stepped into the room, she had to pause. It wasn't quite the den of inequity that she had been expecting. It looked much like her room in the French royal family's wing, which brought her to her question. "When did they bump you up to first class?"

Bayer looked relaxed as he lounged on the couch in his sitting area, his feet kicked up unceremoniously on the edge of a mahogany coffee table. "They don't mean me when they say French," he explained. Rhiannon thought she heard a somewhat bitter edge to his voice, but it was impossible to tell with Bayer, so she didn't linger on it. "They mean the real big wigs like Tante Annalise or the seven thousand people that fall before me in the line of succession."

"Maman was staying there," he admitted, "She doesn't like to be too close to Dad, but Uncle Oliver convinced her to upgrade before all the riff-raff moved in."

Rhiannon rolled her eyes. While she supposed that riff-raff could be a fine assessment of herself, it certainly didn't fit for the rest of the Selected.

"Speaking of," Bayer's relaxed smile turned to a smirk, "Interesting to see you back."

"You know, somehow I doubt you're surprised at all," Rhiannon countered, crossing her arms over her chest.

Bayer stood up, and Rhiannon scolded herself when she noticed the way her eyes followed the muscles of his back as he turned around. He crossed to a counter at the edge of the room, which Rhiannon soon realized was a bar. Typical.

"Are you accusing me of something, Lady Rhiannon?" Bayer asked as he offered her a drink.

She took the glass from his hand and gingerly took a sip. She was pleasantly surprised when she discovered it was whiskey, a personal favorite of hers. Sometimes, it was disconcerting how easily he seemed to figure her out.

"I know Nolan didn't send the invitation," Rhiannon said bluntly. "I suspected you had a hand in this from the second I got it in the mail, and my theory was pretty much confirmed when he looked shocked as shit to see me get out of the car today."

Bayer's blue eyes twinkled, confirming her theory. "Does it matter why you're back?" he asked. "You can now continue on your quest to prove yourself a perfectly charming lady and possibly win my cousin's heart with your charade."

She glared at him. "Well, maybe that's not what I want anymore."

In some ways, it was true. Illéa's entry into the war had shaken her. Did she really want to fool Nolan into thinking she was the perfect candidate for queen, spend her entire life pretending to be someone she wasn't? She could die at any moment, far sooner than expected like many of the men and women who had been stationed at Pacifica.

Briefly, her mind wandered to her best friend at home, Luke Hale, a recent enlistment who would deploy next week. Then, even worse, to her stupid younger sister Avery, who had decided volunteering as a nurse was the best way to get herself killed. But she forced herself not to think about that and took another burning sip of whiskey.

He looked surprised. "Oh? Then, pray tell, why did you come back?"

She wasn't about to admit that either. "Why did you invite me back?" she challenged.

He apparently wasn't ready to betray his secrets either, because he shrugged, "Entertainment?"

She slammed her drink down, a little regretful since it was such good whiskey. But she refused to let him treat her like one of his mindless bimbos. "Well, you made a mistake then, because I will not stay here to be treated like some play thing by the likes of you."

She turned on her heel to stalk out the door when his laughter stopped her. Her temper flared. "Would you calm down?" Bayer demanded, refilling her drink.

"Are you incapable of taking anything seriously?" Rhiannon demanded.

"Spare me the self-righteous act," Bayer retorted. "Look, I'll level with you a bit. The war has shaken things up around here, and I guess you could say I'm lonely."

It almost sounded more ridiculous to hear Bayer say something that bordered on sincere. "What?"

"It's true," he shrugged. "Everyone has a purpose around here all of the sudden."

"You could enlist," Rhiannon pointed out. "I'm sure that would keep you busy."

He laughed like it was the most ridiculous idea he had ever heard. "Do I look like a patriot to you?"

He had a point. Rhiannon realized she didn't know whether he identified as French or Illéan or a mixture of both. She wondered if he was even sure himself.

"Plus," Bayer added, "I need to think long-term. Look at World War I and II. The royals that stayed out of it were able to fare a little better, a refugee in some shoddy castle in one of the victorious countries at the end. Maybe married to some minor noble to preserve the bloodline. The ones who got involved? Shot down, executed, made an example of. No thank you."

It was grim yet surprisingly honest, and honestly, far more perceptive than she would've thought him capable of. Rhiannon realized that Bayer was just as scared about his future as any other person in Illéa.

She sat down next to him. "My stupid best friend enlisted, and my idiot sister has decided to volunteer as a nurse."

"Morons," Bayer sighed in agreement.

They clinked their glasses together.

"Nolan's going to figure out it was you that sent my invitation," Rhiannon pointed out.

"Probably," Bayer shrugged. "I suppose there's no grass growing in that head of his."

"He's probably going to send me home soon," she added. "I think the only reason he didn't do it today is because he's too polite and hates confrontation."

Bayer smirked. "He has a weak spot where family is concerned. He'll let me keep you."

Rhiannon rolled her eyes and threw back the rest of her drink. "I've officially reached my limit of you today." Though Bayer laughed it off and tried to call after her to come back, she left, slamming the door behind her.

She was so preoccupied by her internal diatribe about what a useless, misogynistic, spineless dickhead Bayer was that she only noticed at last minute that she had walked directly into someone else's path.

"I'm sor—oh my god."

Rhiannon bowed deeply, her cheeks burning as she realized she had almost collided with Princess Imani.

"Lady Rhiannon," Imani smiled, and Rhiannon almost fell over at the realization that the princess knew her name.

"I am so sorry, Your Imperial Highness," Rhiannon replied, still crouched in her bow.

Usually, Rhiannon resented rich people born into privilege. It was easy when they acted like Bayer, which most of them, she had found, did. But Princess Imani was different. She was inherently regal, her stoic presence commanding respect. Perhaps it was the fact that she was heir to a throne that had never been held by a woman.

Imani's smile radiated a warmth that Rhiannon could actually feel. "Do not be sorry," Imani insisted. "I am happy to see the Selected return to the palace."

"You are?" Rhiannon asked, her nose scrunched in confusion. It baffled her that a foreign princess who would one day be a queen in her own right would be glad to see a bunch of idiots who had signed up to marry a prince they didn't even know.

"I suppose I have felt alone since…" Imani's eyes wandered to a letter clutched in her hands. Rhiannon forced herself not to look, which was really hard since she probably would have been able to read the name on the letter.

"I thought you'd be pretty busy since Sahara entered the war," Rhiannon muttered before she could stop herself.

Imani's smile faltered. "My father is still emperor," she pointed out. "It is not my place."

She thought of how Bayer had explained that he felt lonely now that everyone was busy with the war. She felt a rush of sympathy towards Imani. Not only was she alone, but she was stuck in a foreign land. Plus, it was a lot easier to feel bad for Imani compared to Bayer.

"Well, you could always come hang out with us in the Women's Room," Rhiannon offered. "Uh, if you wanted, of course."

"That's very kind of you, Lady Rhiannon," Imani smiled.

Despite the princess's response, Rhiannon suddenly felt stupid for extending the offer, which she hated. Why would a princess want to hang out with them? "Uh, yeah, so I better get going," she decided, with one more curtsey before she hurried off back towards the Selected's wing before Imani could even manage a goodbye.

Royals. They were going to drive her nuts.