"They're gathering everyone in the West Parlor," a guard says from behind me. "Until we secure the castle and grounds."
Mom's recovery room is flanked with guards. Kadan, Osten, Lucy, May, and Marlee murmur on the other side of the room, giving me a moment with Mom.
"Mom?" I whisper.
She finds my hand and wraps hers around it. The tubes attaching her to machines freak me out. A cold sweat prickles my skin. She's never been sick like this. My whole life she's been my rock, strong and smiling, on the sidelines cheering me on, telling me I can do this Highness thing.
Now, lying there so fragile and vulnerable, I feel my own heart squeeze. My mom. My lovely mom.
This whole morning has been surreal. Unnerving. Wrong.
"It's alright, dear. It's not the first time the castle has been breached. We need to be smart and stay safe," Mom says, in a slow but steady voice. "We'll sit tight until your father and the guards have this under control. I'm so glad they found you. I was so worried."
Kadan steps forward and puts his hand on Mom's shoulder. "Her blood pressure was skyrocketing, Eadlyn. It stabilized when you walked in."
My little brother sounds serious and mature. How are you calm? I want to ask. Because inside I am a freaking hurricane of panic. But to ask him that would expose my weakness, and probably nettle him.
"The Selection boys are all accounted for in the ante room," Kadan says primly.
I internally kick myself for not asking about them.
"The West Parlor is overflowing with castle staff," he says. "It should be secure soon, in minutes."
"This is a disaster," I can't help but murmur.
Kadan nods. Mom keeps her face stoic.
"Why?" I ask. "Why is this happening? I know I wasn't doing a good job with the Selection but I thought it was distracting enough to buy us time. I didn't see this coming. I thought the riots were on the outskirts, and that Camille's visit had been successful."
Mom pats my hand. Her hand is cool, lighter than I remember, and her skin looks so thin, the veins so fragile beneath it. I draw my eyes to her face. Her eyes are in deep, bruised-looking hollows.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I'm so sorry," I say in a broken whisper.
I don't say the rest of my apology. It was me who ran Ahren off. It was me who couldn't put on a decent Selection, despite so many generations before me pulling it off without a hitch. It's me turning my country against me. I'm cold. I heartlessly kick boys out, lift my chin, and snub the rest without even meaning to. Because that's me.
I won't burden her with this, I realize. It's the first smart thing I've done as the new me. The me without tiaras and heels, the me I want to be now. I do not tell Mom about my guilt, my doubts, and my visceral fear. Instead, I rise and kiss her forehead.
"Get some rest, Mom. I'll be right here."
She blinks, maybe in surprise, it's hard to tell with the landscape of her face so altered. The ivory tone of her skin has no life to color her cheeks or pinken her lips. There's no spark hidden in her gaze. I give her hand one more squeeze and angle my chin at Lucy and Marlee. They immediately gravitate out of the corner to keep her company. They are able to do the job of reassuring her. Another job I am not equipped to perform.
If I had listened to my old instincts, I would have dumped my confessions on her hospital bed, bleeding her of any hope she has left. Handing her my guilt would only make me feel better--and it wouldn't be a real kind of feeling better. And what would my sadness do to her heart? I won't do that to her. That was the old me, full of insecurity and selfish needs.
I straighten and turn to the nearest guard.
"My father?" I ask pointedly. I'm turning a new leaf but I'm still the future queen and they should have apprised me of the situation by now.
"Sorry, Your Highness. General Leger is with him in the secure communications room. They are making an address to the people."
I am frozen. In anger, yes. Without knowing I am safe, without me at his side, he is addressing our people?
I pinch my lips and nod to the guard. After ten full breaths in and out of my nose, I am able to open my mouth again and ask him to find the head guard, whomever is under Leger. I should know that, I realize, but to my chagrin, all guards look the same to me. Neena would not like me to admit that.
A new guard approaches me with enough hesitation that I know he's the one I want. I nod to the corner and we meet there.
First, I snap, "Name?"
He seems stunned I don't know and says, "Heath, Your Highness. I'm sorry I didn't brief you. I was assigning patrols to secure the periphery. The castle is clean—safe, I mean. You can rest assured we drove the rebels out."
I want to lash out. How'd they get in? How long did it take to get them gone? What did they take? How many are hurt? I thought we were secure! I'll never feel that again, in my own home. But that's not his fault, like my cold demeanor isn't really my own.
That thought zings me with panic. It's true though, I've been raised to be queen. Not to be kind or friendly or charming. My parents capably raised someone like that: Ahren. But for me it was always responsibility, control, power...the things I would need to shoulder when I ascended.
A little bit of guilt flies off my shoulders. I didn't get this way on purpose. No one meant to make me this way. I'm not flawed (I don't think). I can change.
And change I will.