Obsidian was tired. This was nothing new, for he'd been having more nightmares than usual as of late, and his sleep schedule had always been irregular. But today... today the fatigue clung to the edges of his mind, making his eyes heavy and his motions sluggish. Despite Levana's flippant dismissal, it wasn't every day your date got interrupted by a mob of protesters, and it certainly wasn't every day your mother suggested a spy could be among your Selected.

He was seriously considering taking a nap, something he hadn't done in years, when a soft knock came at his door. He straightened, praying it wasn't his mother, hoping that Kai had come to check on him.

"Come in," he said, blinking away the exhaustion.

The door opened to reveal Melolina, being watched like a hawk by guards. She looked hesitant, fingers gripping the door. "Hi," she mumbled. "Umm... can I talk to you?"

"Oh; of course."

Surely this wasn't about the protest? Levana had asked the girls to come see her with any concerns, but then he supposed he wasn't as intimidating as the Queen. He was torn between feeling flattered and insulted.

"Want to walk?" he asked softly, offering her his arm. "The Menagerie is a nice place to unwind."

Mel's eyes lit up. "I love animals!" she said, her soft voice growing excited. She took his arm and they walked slowly through the hallways.

After a few moments of walking, with Mel stealing glances out of the corner of her eye, Sid realized that Melolina wasn't going to talk. His sleep-deprived brain could not dredge up the things he'd learned in diplomacy training, so he went with the classic question, unsure what she wanted. "So, tell me about yourself."

Her expression froze over like Artemisia Lake in winter as they exited the palace, walking toward the menagerie. "I was in a hover accident when I was two," she said softly. "Not sure if that's too much information, but... well, my ear got severely damaged. We went on vacation to Earth, where I got a prosthetic ear. Other than that... well, my life isn't that interesting."

He leaned forward all the same, intrigued. "What was it like? Earth, I mean?"

She smiled, a kindness in her eyes that he didn't see in most of the Sector Selected. "I went to the Eastern Commonwealth. Where your father is from, right?"

He nodded.

"It was beautiful. We went to the Province of Japan, where there was the most delicious food, and the landscape was gorgeous."

Sid felt a sudden longing he couldn't explain. He'd never been too interested in Earth. And yet, hearing Mel recount her experiences on the planet made Sid want to ask his father questions. About his home. About his past.

They entered the menagerie, and Mel drew a sharp intake of breath. She looked around with wondering eyes, seeing the exotic birds in the eaves, and the wolves and lions and snakes lounging in their cages. A small stream hosted brightly-colored fish, while a tiger paced in its enclosure and a white otter sunned itself on a rock.

"Amazing," Mel breathed, and Sid found himself smiling.

He was glad to know that there was something in this palace worth enjoying, amid harsh queens and fierce rebellions.

"You like it?" he asked softly.

She nodded, looking him in the eyes straight-on. "I hope you'll let me visit... After I go back to the Sectors."

Sid froze. His hand slipped from her arm. "I'm sorry?"

Had it been something he'd done? Had the Queen been unfair? He wasn't ready for this yet. He wanted to get to know these girls more before eliminating them, and he certainly hadn't intended to dismiss the girls so early—with the exception of the shallow Artemisians who were trying to steal his crown.

Mel sighed. "Those protests today... they scared me," she murmured. "But I like you, Your Highness. I was hoping we could at least go on a date or something, before... But I just don't think I should be here. With me being from the Sectors... it just looks suspicious, and I don't want to lose more than I already have. I'm so sorry."

She looked on the verge of tears. Sid didn't know what to do, what to say.

"But after the Selection, once things clear up," she continued, "Maybe I could come visit? And I could help you with your gift. I always keep a glamour up, to hide my ear. Maybe I could help you with the same type of thing?"

She looked hesitant, even scared, as if he might lash out at her as Levana had at the welcoming dinner. Never, in his whole life, had Sid been in this situation before; where he was meant to comfort and reassure someone else. But Mel looked so crestfallen and unsure.

Sid placed a hand gently on her shoulder. "Melolina," he said softly. "You're always welcome back at the palace. Maybe after the Selection is over, we could have some type of reunion? Just comm me whenever you want to visit. The door is always open." He wasn't sure if Levana would approve of such a thing, but right now he didn't really care. "Thank you for coming to me with your concerns. I'm sorry that you felt unsafe at the palace, but you're always allowed free will, and I could see why you might want to step out. I'm just glad we could part on good terms, as friends."

Mel beamed, looking relieved. "I'm glad we're friends, too," she said. "Thank you."

Sid felt lost, unsure of what to say. "You can stay in the menagerie for as long as you want," he said. "I'll send a servant to help you pack your things."

She gave him one last look, and he held her gaze for a single, serene moment before he bowed to her and left the menagerie. He needed to speak to Levana.

"How many girls have asked to go home?" said Obsidian, standing in his mother's study. She was flipping absently through some papers, barely paying him any attention.

"Oh, a fair amount," she said breezily. "A handful of the Sector girls, plus a few Earthens. No Artemisians, as I expected."

Sid drew in a breath. He'd been hoping, foolishly, that none of them would leave. He had a sinking feeling that it was partly the Queen's fault.

"I'm just glad we got a few eliminations down," she murmured, half her attention still focused on her node.

"I think you scared them off," Sid said bleakly, before he could talk himself out of it.

Levana's node clattered to the desk and she fixed her steely gaze on him. He cringed back involuntily. "The rebels scared them off with their silly resistance." Levana looked unusually tired, and her cool veneer suddenly melted as her voice pitched to hysteric heights. "I'm not against you! Don't you think I want you to be happy, Obsidian?"

For a moment, her breath was staccato and uncontrolled. Then her expression smoothed over to one of cold indifference once again. Sid fell still. He'd never seen her like this.

"I don't know," he said hoarsely, before standing up and walking away.

...

Trials had been postponed indefinitely, to be continued after the prince had selected his princess.

Thaumaturge Valen Verona paced the throne room, which was empty of people and clean of bloodstains, a restlessness alight beneath his skin. He was growing impatient with the queen. If she didn't act, and quickly, then he'd have to. She'd leave him no choice.

He wasn't alone in his dissatisfaction either; most of the other thaumaturges were waiting in the wings, anticipating. All, except Venus. She... she was another matter entierly.

Valen missed it, the hum of power that reverberated through the walls, the way their subjects cowered and pleaded for their lives. But Levana would've corrected him, if she was here. Not their subjects. Her subjects.

And that was her problem. For years, Valen had been begrudgingly satisfied with Levana's vainglorious rule, because the Queen was vicious, and she got things done. And maybe he'd been a bit afraid for her, back then when he was young and new to the tangled maze of the royal court.

But now? Now the queen was simply a pitiful figurehead. She'd married an Earthen, of all people, nineteen nears ago. And she hadn't even killed him. Her son was a weakling, a horrible hybrid that was too weak to do anything important and too powerful for his own good. One way or another, it needed to end.

There was also the problem of that other resistance. The gunshots and the paint and the shouting had not been their doing; the thaumaturges had always been more tactful than that and, more importantly, more ruthless. When they struck, they'd strike to kill. Still, this other revolution posed a few problems for the Artemisians. Valen and his comrades wanted blood, and order, and to rule the moon with an iron fist. But the resistance would make a mess of things, and Luna's empire would crumble quicker than spun sugar if they were in charge.

Which only left one option. The thaumaturges.

It would be an understatement to say Valen Verona was patient. He'd waited so many years, given the Queen so many chances. But the trials being canceled for this Selection pushed him right over the precipice. Venus had been the one to suggest this Selection to the Queen. Now the palace was crawling with whiny girls who stared moony-eyed at Obsidian and laughed with each other, already making friends. This just simply wasn't going according to plan. And something had to be done to change that.

Regicide was certainly common in Luna. If you wanted the crown, you tried to take it. Many suspected that Levana had killed her sister, first husband, neice and stepdaughter so that her throne could be secure. Evidently, the Queen had never once stopped to question her loyal Thaumaturges, simply assuming that they'd wait nineteen years for her plan to come into motion. What was she waiting for? She should've killed her husband by now, took over Earth and worked harder to keep her subjects at bay. Yet here she was, weak as one of them.

Somebody had to stop her. Something had to be done. Anyone that pleaded the Queen's case, called her a merciful woman, a good leader, was stupid. Because it did not pay to be merciful. The assassins had not been merciful when they killed his parents. Rulers had to be monsters, for the good of their people, and soft leaders could never be on the throne.

Luna was not a place for the sweet and submissive. It did not humor the sympathetic or the empathetic. It was a place where everything could be taken from you in an instant. And maybe Levana needed a taste of that. After all, Valen's own parents had been killed in front of him, the Queen had tortured him into subservience, and look where he was now.

Luna had stayed too long in stagnant limbo, and now was the time for progression. Now was the time for change. Valen and the other thaumaturges were going to make sure it was the right kind of change.

...

A baby chapter today, but a chapter nonetheless. Unfortunately, we have our first real elimination today. Melolina Deira Sethuraman was a sweet girl who thought Sid was handsome, and who loved her friends and family. But she didn't deserve the Selection, and didn't want to be in such conflict, and I didn't want to make her suffer. She was interesting because she was a cyborg on Luna, and lived a simple, happy and wholesome life. I regret letting her go, because she stood out as one of the quieter girls in the Selection, and I really loved writing her; but don't worry, Mel isn't done quite yet, we'll see her again. Thank you to Emau for giving me such a fun character to write.

In this chapter, we learn that there's more than one group who wants to see the Queen unseated. One thing's for sure: nothing's gonna be easy for the royal family or the Selected, and our plot is finally starting to speed up! Thank you all for your reviews and support, I am just blown away and flattered that you all still want to read this story that's taking longer than I planned. I hope to see you all soon!

Miri

P.S. Happy late 2nd aniversary AIT, you temperamental, beautiful, special story! May the flame of motivation keep burning until you are finally complete!