Two weeksafter my date with Steffan, I left for my goodwill tour with Mikaela, Rhys, another bodyguard named Elliott, the palace photographer Alfred, Alfred’s assistant Luna, and Henrik, a reporter from the Eldorra Herald.
Everyone loved my idea, including my grandfather, and the palace had worked around the clock to put together the perfect itinerary on short notice. We hit all the country’s most important regions, including the manufacturing hub of Northern Kurtland and the oil and energy center of Hesbjerg. I felt like I was campaigning for an office I’d already won, somewhat undeservingly, thanks to genetic lottery.
But I had to do it. After years of living abroad, I needed to reconnect with the people of Eldorra. Understand the way they lived, what problems kept them up at night, and what they wanted that was within my power to give. In practice, the prime minister and Parliament ruled the country, but the royal family, as an institution, wielded considerably more power in Eldorra than in other countries. It boasted an eighty-nine percent approval rating—far higher than any politician—and the monarch’s opinions held a lot of sway.
If I were to be a good queen, I needed to get back in touch with the people. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want the crown. It would be mine one day regardless.
“It’s just us and a handful of staff,” Ida, the owner of the dairy farm we were visiting, said. “Our farm is on the smaller side, but we do the best we can.”
“It looks like you’re doing a lovely job.” I walked through the barn. It was smaller than the others we’d visited, but it was well-kept, and the cows looked healthy. However, I noticed half of the stalls were empty. “Are the other cows with the farmhands?”
Behind us, Alfred’s camera clicked and whirred. The Part-Time Princess headlines, which were already fading thanks to my dates with Steffan, had all but disappeared during the tour, replaced with pictures of me touring factories and reading to schoolchildren.
I would’ve done the tour even if no one covered it, though. I enjoyed meeting with locals, far more than I did another tedious gala.
“No.” Ida shook her head. “The dairy industry isn’t doing so well. Milk prices have gone down over the years, and a lot of farms in the area have shut down. We had to sell some of our cows for extra cash. Plus, there isn’t enough demand for milk to justify keeping so many of them around.”
Despite her words, sadness flitted across her face. The farm had belonged to her family for generations, and I could only imagine how difficult it must be to see it shrink year after year.
“Have you contacted your minister about the issue?”
According to my briefing materials, the drop in milk prices resulted from a trade fight between Eldorra and a few other countries in Europe. Trade and tariff policies fell under Parliament’s purview.
Ida shrugged, looking resigned. “We used to write to our officials, but we only got form responses, so we stopped. No one listens to us anyway.”
I frowned. The whole point of Parliament was to represent constituents’ concerns. What were they doing if not their job?
“You can write to me,” I said on impulse. “All of your friends and neighbors can write to me. If you have an issue you want addressed, write or email me and I’ll bring it up with Parliament. I can’t guarantee legislation, but I can at least make sure your voices are heard.”
Elin coughed, and Henrik the reporter scribbled furiously in his notepad.
Ida blinked. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly—”
“I insist,” I said firmly. “Elin, can you please share the mailing and email addresses with Ida before we leave? Actually, please share them with everyone we’ve met so far.”
Elin rubbed her temple. “Yes, Your Highness.”
She waited until we returned to the inn that night before laying into me.
“Princess Bridget, the point of this tour is to create goodwill,” she said. “Not make things more complicated with Parliament. Do you really want random people writing to you about the smallest problem?”
“They’re not random people, they’re Eldorrans.” I sat in the common room with Rhys while Elin stood by the fireplace, her hands on her hips. Henrik, Alfred, Luna, and Elliott had already retired to their rooms. “I’m not changing policy. I’m merely helping people get their voices heard. No,” I said when Elin opened her mouth. “I’m not arguing about this. It’s been a long day, and we have an early morning tomorrow.”
Her mouth pinched, but she conceded with a reluctant, “Yes, Your Highness.”
She was a master at choosing which battles to fight, and apparently, this one wasn’t worth fighting.
She disappeared up the stairs, leaving me alone with Rhys.
He sat in the corner, staring at the flames in the hearth with a brooding expression. Whatever was bothering him, it wasn’t us and what happened in the parking lot of the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was something else. He’d been moodier than usual since the trip started.
“Penny for your thoughts,” I said. We’d barely talked the entire trip, unless good morning and good night counted as talking.
Rhys finally looked at me. The firelight flickered over his face, casting dancing shadows over his strong jaw and chiseled cheekbones
“You seem happy,” he said. “Far happier than I’ve seen you at those fancy parties you go to in Athenberg.”
He noticed.Of course he had. He was the most observant man I’d ever met.
“I love it,” I admitted. “Meeting people, hearing their concerns, having something concrete to contribute at my next meeting with the Speaker. I feel like I can finally do something meaningful. Like I have a purpose in life.”
That was one thing that had bugged me so much about being a princess. Yes, the monarchy was symbolic, but I didn’t want to spend my life just smiling for the cameras and giving lifestyle interviews. I wanted something more.
But maybe I’d been thinking about my role all wrong. Maybe, instead of conforming to what being the crown princess had always meant, I could shape it into what I wanted it to be.
A small smile touched Rhys’s lips. “I always knew you would make a great queen.”
“I’m not queen yet.”