The Heir Page 2

“Is there a way to regulate this? Could we create a board to oversee grievances?” I looked at the photo again. In the corner, the young son of the restaurant owner wept over losing everything. In my heart I knew complaints would come in faster than anyone could address them, but I also knew Dad couldn’t bear doing nothing.

Dad looked at me. “Is that what you would do?”

I smiled. “No, I’d ask my father what he would do.”

He sighed. “That won’t always be an option for you, Eadlyn. You need to be strong, decisive. How would you fix this one particular incident?”

I considered. “I don’t think we can. There’s no way to prove the old castes were why the waiter was denied the promotion. The only thing we can do is launch an investigation into who set the fire. That family lost their livelihood today, and someone needs to be held responsible. Arson is not how you exact justice.”

He shook his head at the paper. “I think you’re right. I’d like to be able to help them. But, more than that, we need to figure out how to prevent this from happening again. It’s become rampant, Eadlyn, and it’s frightening.”

Dad tossed the paper into the trash, then stood and walked to the window. I could read the stress in his posture. Sometimes his role brought him so much joy, like visiting the schools he’d worked tirelessly to improve or seeing communities flourish in the war-free era he’d ushered in. But those instances were becoming few and far between. Most days he was anxious about the state of the country, and he had to fake his smiles when reporters came by, hoping that his sense of calm would somehow spread to everyone else. Mom helped shoulder the burden, but at the end of the day the fate of the country was placed squarely on his back. One day it would be on mine.

Vain as it was, I worried I would go gray prematurely.

“Make a note for me, Eadlyn. Remind me to write Governor Harpen in Zuni. Oh, and put to write it to Joshua Harpen, not his father. I keep forgetting he was the one who ran in the last election.”

I wrote his instructions in my elegant cursive, thinking how pleased Dad would be when he looked at it later. He used to give me the worst time over my penmanship.

I was grinning to myself when I looked back at him, but my face fell almost immediately when I saw him rubbing his forehead, trying so desperately to think of a solution to these problems.

“Dad?”

He turned and instinctively squared his shoulders, like he needed to act strong even in front of me.

“Why do you think this is happening? It wasn’t always like this.”

He raised his eyebrows. “It certainly wasn’t,” he said, almost to himself. “At first everyone seemed pleased. Every time we removed a new caste, people held parties. It’s only been in the last few years, since all the labels have officially been erased, that it’s gone downhill.”

He stared back out the window. “The only thing I can think is that those who grew up with the castes are aware of how much better this is. Comparatively, it’s easier to marry or work. A family’s finances aren’t capped by a single profession. There are more choices when it comes to education. But those who are growing up without the castes and are still running into opposition . . . I guess they don’t know what else to do.”

He looked at me and shrugged. “I need time,” he muttered. “I need a way to put things on pause, set them right, and press play again.”

I noted the deep furrow in his brow. “Dad, I don’t think that’s possible.”

He chuckled. “We’ve done it before. I can remember. . . .”

The focus in his eyes changed. He watched me for a moment, seeming to ask me a question without words.

“Dad?”

“Yes.”

“Are you all right?”

He blinked a few times. “Yes, dear, quite all right. Why don’t you get to work on those budget cuts. We can go over your ideas this afternoon. I need to speak with your mother.”

“Sure.” Math wasn’t a skill that came to me naturally, so I had to work twice as long on any proposals for budget cuts or financial plans. But I absolutely refused to have one of Dad’s advisers come behind me with a calculator to clean up my mess. Even if I had to stay up all night, I always made sure my work was accurate.

Of course, Ahren was naturally good at math, but he was never forced to sit through meetings about budgets or rezoning or health care. He got off scot-free by seven stupid minutes.

Dad patted me on the shoulder before dashing out of the room. It took me longer than usual to focus on the numbers. I couldn’t help but be distracted by the look on his face and the unmistakable certainty that it was tied to me.

CHAPTER 2

AFTER WORKING ON THE BUDGET report for a few hours, I decided I needed a break and retreated to my room to get a hand massage from Neena. I loved those little bits of luxury in my day. Dresses made to my exact measurements, exotic desserts flown in simply because it was Thursday, and an endless supply of beautiful things were all perks; and they were easily my favorite parts of the job.

My room overlooked the gardens. As the day shifted, the light changed to a warm, honey color, brightening the high walls. I focused on the heat and Neena’s deliberate fingers.

“Anyway, his face got all funny. It was kind of like he disappeared for a minute.”

I was trying to explain Dad’s out-of-character departure this morning, but it was hard to get it across. I didn’t even know if he found Mom or not, as he never came back to the office.

“Do you think he’s sick? He does seem tired these days.” Neena’s hands worked her magic as she spoke.

“Does he?” I asked, thinking that Dad didn’t seem tired exactly. “He’s probably just stressed. How could he not be with all the decisions he has to make?”

“And someday that will be you,” she commented, her tone a mix of genuine worry and playful amusement.

“Which means you will be giving me twice as many massages.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think in a few years I might like to try something new.”

I scrunched my face. “What else would you do? There aren’t many positions better than working in the palace.”

There was a knock on the door, and she didn’t have a chance to answer the question.

I stood, throwing my blazer back on to look presentable, and gave a nod to Neena to let my guests in.

Mom came around the door, smiling, with Dad contentedly trailing her steps. I couldn’t help but notice it was always this way. At state events or important dinners, Mom was beside Dad or situated right behind him. But when they were just husband and wife—not king and queen—he followed her everywhere.

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