Chapter 3 – Thirdhand

It had been two weeks since Daniel had announced his third selection on the Report with Tom Blake. Two weeks during which the palace had been flooded with applications coming through every day. It had started slowly, but as the days passed, more and more arrived. Marielle Rose and his mother, Queen Penelope, were already hard on work on the applications, putting aside the most susceptible to be chosen later on. They had decided to go through them as they arrived so as not to be drowned by the sheer number of envelopes piling up by province, and it had been a good idea. They were already several days late and the piles were growing tall. No one had expected so many, least of all Daniel.

But all this gave Daniel lots of time alone, time to work of course, but also time to think. Way too much time to think. There was so much he could do, working at his desk reading reports or approving and signing papers, so much he could do with his advisors once a week. The Tough Nut who had been giving him so much trouble in the last months was now gone, kicked out from his council. He needed to replace him soon, but for now, his seat stayed vacant.

Since going over the forms took lots of time, Daniel had to find something to do while Marielle and his mother worked on the selected. And the two things he had found that brought comfort and solace to his soul – as much as could be found, at least – were a quick swim in the cold river in the morning, getting his blood to flow nicely for the day and the punching bag in the basement in the evening.

He punched. And he punched. And he punched. And he kicked. And he punched. And punched and punched and punched and– until he was out of breath and had to lay down on the floor, gasping for air. His bare chest was covered in warm sweat and the ventilation system in the boxing room kept the air flowing and made his skin cool down. Daniel just lay there, watching the bag swing back and forth, synching his breathing with it.

Back and forth, in and out. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back... and... forth, slower and slower.

At least, when he was punching the bag, his mind wasn't filled with terrifying thoughts about the next Selection. Yes, Daniel was scared. Terrified, even. What had gotten into him? Why had he said yes? What if the Rebels managed to slip in another of their girls? What if one tried to kill him again? What if this time she'd do it? What if another virus crept it? What it this time he wasn't so lucky? What if this time he died, for real?

The logical part of his brain tried to reason with him: the Rebellion was squished and they had everything under control. Fine, there were still tiny pockets of extremists here and there, but they were not dangerous. The Virus was eradicated and vaccines had been given to everyone. Any mutation was quickly found out and taken care of.

But what if? asked the other half of his mind, the one that still had nightmares, the one that was still terrified when meeting new people. The one that couldn't quite bring itself to trust people completely…

Daniel knew that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride; but knowing was a lot different than believing it. Out of a third Selection, the chances of it ending in a catastrophe again were low.

Daniel took a deep breath and let it out slowly, clearing his mind and his thoughts on the process. The bag above him had stopped swinging and his skin was now cold, covered in goosebumps.

"Again," he muttered through gritted teeth. As long as he could still stand up and punch, he would not stop. He planted his feet on the ground, the left in front of the right, and punched again, and again, and again. He felt the cold leaving him and he was panting again, tiring faster than before. He was so focused on the task that he didn't hear the light knock on the wall.

"Daniel?"

The king startled, distracted, and looked at who had called him. The bag came back bumping into him and pushing him a few steps back. "Mother?" he gasped, stopping the bag. "Is something wrong?"

"No," she said. "But you missed dinner. Again."

"Oh." The King ripped open the Velcro on his left glove with his teeth and slipped it off before taking off the other one. "What time is it?"

"It's almost nine o'clock," the queen replied. "Aren't you hungry?"

Daniel frowned, trying to focus on his belly. Was he hungry? A deep rumbling sound came from there and he chuckled. "I guess I am."

"Danny, you've lost weight in the last past couple of weeks. Please be careful."

Daniel's shoulders slumped a little. "I'm just so nervous and scared," he admitted, "that it's getting hard to eat and keep it down."

Queen Penelope nodded. "I understand," she said. "Why don't you cool off, take a shower and join me in my apartment, and you can have a light dinner?" She asked. "Thirty minutes?"

Daniel nodded. "Yeah, I can do that."

His mother smiled and walked away, giving him the privacy he needed to get ready, her burgundy skirt swishing as she went. Daniel sighed and headed to the adjoining changing room and the shower and got ready to go eat dinner with his mother.

Thirty minutes later, he was knocking on the queen's door. Her lady's maid opened the door and welcomed him in, and Daniel joined his mother at the small dining table where she was already sitting, sipping on a cup of herbal tea.

He sat down and the maid served him a plate of pumpkin soup, his favorite, with a couple of slices of fresh bread and some cheese on top. It smelled heavenly, and Daniel's stomach rumbled in anticipation.

/ / /

A week later, Daniel was playing with his cats with the Red Dot. It never got old and even Raven the Majestic played along, unable to stop himself to lower his games to Toothless' fun. Cats were cats, and nothing could stop them from running after the Red Dot. Daniel had worked hard all day – all week, really – and he allowed himself some lighter moments at the end of the week. It was Friday, but he wouldn't appear on the Report that week. The next time was when he'd be announcing the Selected.

A slight knock on his door made him look up to the pretty redhead woman who was peaking inside.

"Do you have a moment, right now?" Marielle asked, knowing well enough that Daniel had a moment since he was playing with his cats.

"Sure." He turned off the red laser and slipped it into his pocket to his cats' dismay. The king followed his personal assistant to a small conference room close by and stepped in. His mother was there, dressed in the most casual of outfits he had ever seen her in – dark blue jeans with a burgundy cashmere sweater and some ankle boots – and dozens of files on the table.

"What's all this?" he asked, terrified of the answer.

"Hello, Daniel," his mother said. "Please sit down." She offered him a warm smile and Mari filled a glass of water for him and placed it in front of him. "We've been working relentlessly for the past three weeks to choose the best candidates for you," she said. "We've picked three candidates from each province, and we thought you might want to choose one from each pile."

"Me?" Daniel snorted. "I thought you two were doing this."

The queen exchanged a glance with Marielle. "We did. We narrowed it down for you because we didn't always agree, so we decided to pick the best three and let you choose." She paused. "There are several from the two previous Selections as well."

Daniel's mouth was suddenly very dry and he downed his water in one gulp. "I said ex-selected had the priority over new ones, no?"

"Yes..." his mother said. But–"

"But I know those from the Second Selection and I'm not sure they're all a good choice for you," Marielle interjected.

Daniel shot her a glance but didn't say anything. "Fine. Show them to me."

The queen sighed, relieved. "Alright, so let's do this in alphabetical order of provinces," she said. "From Allen's, we have three delightful ladies," she continued, pushing the three files towards her son. A picture of each lady was clipped to the yellow folder.

"Tell me about them," Daniel ordered. He was not going to read all the forms, lest he starts mixing up the ones he had kept and put aside. "And keep it to the basics, please."
The queen nodded and Marielle sat on the third chair.

One of the girls was a thirty-year-old teacher with three young children, the second one was a nurse, and the third one was a baker. Daniel's choice was between the mother and the baker, but he wasn't sure he was ready to have three kids at the same time. So, the Baker it was.

After putting aside one of the folders, the queen went on to the next province. "From Angeles, we have one former selected from the first Selection, and two completely new girls."

Daniel frowned. "Why is this even a choice? I said to prioritize former Selected."

"Because the Selected is Avery Delle," Marielle said. "And if I remember correctly, she was one of your favorites during the first Selection. Correct?"

"Aves?" Daniel said smiling. "Of course, she's in. Why are we even discussing this?"

Penelope sighed. "Because she now has two children to care for."

"...hers?" Daniel asked. "She never told me she had married."

"No, her brother's children."

"Oh." He paused. "Would she bring them along?"

Marielle took the folder and skimmed through its contents. "No. She says here that she has a friend who can watch over them while she's here– if she's Selected."

Daniel nodded and placed Avery Delle to the tiny pile of accepted girls.

They continued to discuss the girls from the next provinces and the pile was slowly but surely growing next to him. Most of the time he didn't know them, and he picked them for their job – something that would be interesting to discuss or something that would help them to be Queen, maybe – or if they had kids or had had kids at some point. He also needed to make sure he would be able to have an heir. He honestly felt horrible about thinking down that line, but he told himself that he had to, considering it was one of the reasons he was doing this third Selection in the first place.

Until it was Sonage's turn and again, there was the choice between one former Selected from the First Selection and two totally random girls.

Daniel looked at the pictures of the three girls and smiled when he saw the Selected. "Bree," he said softly. "Of course, she's coming, too." He looked at her picture and a warm feeling filled his chest. They had kept in contact all those years, but they hadn't really seen each other much. At least not in person. But why would she sign up without even telling him?

"Are you sure?" his mother asked. "If my memory serves right, I think she and Avery weren't on the best of terms?"

Daniel looked up. "Really? I don't remember that... Besides, it's been seven years. I'm sure a lot of water has passed under the bridge, by now."

Marielle and his mother shared a quick glance but didn't argue further. Daniel put Briana Federoff's file on the accepted pile and they continued on. Marielle ordered dinner to be sent to the conference room, something simple and easy so they could continue to work. With wine, it became much easier and more fun for the King. Sometimes, when he just couldn't decide on one girl, he just picked the prettiest or the one his father would shave liked least, mainly non-white girls. He wanted to make a statement as well: he was not his racist and narrow-minded father, and people should very well not forget that.

It was almost one in the morning when all thirty-five folders were piled next to him. Some of the new Selected he didn't know but had heard of them. They were celebrities – like Miss Illéa Lissete-Rose Locke whom he had heard about and whom he had vaguely followed on her 'coronation' day – or worked for famous people – like Johanna Kenney who worked for the Montague's, the owners of the Montague's Stores that were all over Illéa – not that Daniel had ever set foot in one of those stores, or any other store for that matter, but he knew the name. Or Hayami Fujimori whom he knew the name of her father, a famous politician who stood by his father's side during the Rebellion.

He stretched like a feline on his chair, yawning, and his shirt came loose from his pants, revealing his one-and-a-half-inch scar to Marielle and his mother. He didn't notice right away but when he saw Marielle's pink cheeks, he quickly pulled his shirt down and cleared his throat. He grabbed all the thirty-five yellow folders under his arm and stood.

"Ladies, it was a pleasure working with you. But it's time for me to retire."

Marielle mumbled a little goodnight– or what he thought was goodnight, and his mother quickly stood to open the door for him since his hands were full. He thanked her and bid her goodnight before making his way to his room in the tower. He pushed the door open with his elbow and dumped all of the folders on his bed before putting on his flannel pajamas. It was starting to get cooler and just sleeping in his boxers and socks was not an option anymore.

When he was ready, he sat on his bed and quickly went through the files looking for the ones from the first Selection: Avery Delle, Brianna Federoff, and Manila Kessler.

*.*

Two weeks before his big birthday party, Daniel's father called him into his office. The Selection had been going on for a month and a half already and he had sent home thirteen young ladies. He wished he could have taken more time to get to know them, but when his father ordered something, he didn't really have a choice in the matter.

He knocked on the big wooden doors and waited. A minute later, his father's personal assistant opened the door and let him in. "You wanted to see me, father?" Daniel said, putting his hands behind his back. He had even made sure his tie was straight before coming in– no use getting a passive-aggressive comment from the King about how his tie was crooked and how it did not suit a Prince.

"Yes," his father said, leaning in his big, black leather chair. He poured himself a finger of whiskey. "You'll get your whiskey in two weeks, too, son," he said. "But in the meantime, have you thought about your Elite?"

"My Elite?" Daniel echoed.

"Yes. Stop playing the parrot: you heard me perfectly fine," King Richard said sharply. "I want you to narrow down your Selected to ten girls at the end of the Party. Understood?"

"But– father, that's more than half of them to eliminate! There are only twenty-two girls left!"

"Did I stutter, Daniel?" the King growled. "I was done with my Selection in a month. A month!"

Daniel frowned but didn't say anything further. Under his father's glare, though, he could only agree. "Yes, father. I'll narrow it down."

"Good boy." The ruthless king then waved him away. "Oh, one more thing." Daniel turned around, bracing himself. "You'll only keep white girls. I don't want any non-illéan girls left after the party. We chose them to have 'diversity'," he air-quoted sarcastically, "but you're not going to marry any of them. Am I clear?"

Daniel balled his fists in his pockets. He wanted to say NO. He wanted to spite his father and chose the most non-white girl in the Selection just to make a point, but he couldn't. As long as his father was King, he wouldn't be able to do anything about it. He would simply have to bid his time. "Crystal," he said between clenched teeth before storming out of the room. He hurried outside to get some fresh air because his father's office was so oppressive and he felt like his lungs were being compressed every time he was in there.

Prince Daniel passed in front of the women's room without even looking at the girls through the open doors – they were working in teams on the party organization – and he just headed outside. He walked over the little bridge that would take him to the platform, and then to the other bridge, and from there he would be able to choose one of the three gardens. Without even thinking, he went to the one to the right, the one with the most flowers. It was June, so everything was in full bloom. It was soothing.

Daniel walked along the gravel path, kicking tiny stones from his way. He stopped at the farthest corner of the garden and sat on the wall, throwing whatever he found under his fingers into the river below. If he needed to cut half the Selected during his birthday, then he'd do it. But he'd do it on his own terms.

Even if there were twenty-two girls left, he knew which ones he liked least, and which ones were on his top favorite list. He would just have to complete both lists to fill the numbers. From his seat on the stone wall, the view of his home was nice. One that he knew very well, but one he enjoyed nonetheless.

He also noticed a girl coming his way. He squinted his eyes and covered his face with his arm to see who was coming, and a grin spread on his face when he recognized the blonde young woman: Gemma Norwood.

"Hey, stranger," she said when she had reached his spot. She climbed on the wall, too, careful not to let too much leg show – though Daniel wouldn't have minded in the slightest – and took off her flats so they wouldn't fall into the river. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah, now that you're here," he said, bumping her shoulder with his. "I just needed some air, that's all."

"Oh." Gemma paused then looked at him with her gorgeous light green eyes. "Were you in your father's office, then?"

Daniel nodded, running his hand in his hair. "Yup." The prince sighed heavily. "He's just such a di– I mean… He's just awful and plain racist and there's nothing I can do about it!"

"Daniel," Gemma said, gently putting her hand over his. "Be patient. When you're King in his place, you can do whatever you want."

"I know– but I also know he'll never let me do what I want." He laced his fingers with hers – they had already done that several times and he always wondered at how perfectly well their hands fit together. "He'll always be in the background, pulling the strings."

Gemma didn't say anything. She just nodded and rested her head on his shoulders. Daniel liked her; he really did. She was funny, smart, beautiful, and she understood him. She was definitely going on his Elite list. As well as Brianna Federoff, Avery Delle, and Seraphina Hilton. He'd have to figure out the rest, but he still had two more weeks to go, which gave him plenty of time to choose.

"How's the party planning going?" Daniel asked to change to subject.

"Very well, actually," Gemma replied. "I can't tell you much because it's supposed to be a surprise – being your birthday and all. But Seraphina has the whole program planned out, I'm taking care of the music for dancing, and some others are taking care of the decorations, the food, and the outfits."

"Speaking of which," Daniel said. "What should I be wearing?"

Gemma looked up at him, her face only a couple of inches from his. "Something pretty of course."

"Yes, but what color?" he asked. "I don't want to stand out too much. I want to match with you guys." He paused. "Or just with you if you want…" he smiled and gently pushed away a long strand of blond hair that had come across her cheek. He tucked it behind her ear and then leaned in, pressing his lips onto hers. Gemma sat up straighter and kissed him back, reaching for his cheek with her hand.

"You can wear a white suit with a light blue shirt, then," she said with a smile. "I'll be wearing a white top with a light blue tulle skirt…" She pressed her lips against his, just for a peck, before climbing down the wall and slipping on her shoes. "I better get back. We still have lots of things to prepare for the party."

Daniel nodded and watched her walk away. Honestly, this girl was making him feel all kinds of feels in his belly. He wasn't as angry as before, and at least he knew a few names who were going on that Elite list. Now he just had to figure out the rest.

The Prince swung his legs over the wall and headed back to the Palace, his hands in his pockets.

*.*


May the Fourth Be With You! ;)

I hope you enjoyed this little chapter! as always thanks for reading and reviewing!

I know a lot of you guys are in Final Exams weeks, so that comes before forms, of course. BUT. if you don't have exams, I'd really appreciate it if you could send me your OC forms on May 15th at the latest. For the ones having exams, May 25th is fine! In the meantime, could you just send me the basics of your OCs (full name, job, caste, FC)? that would be much helpful to write the next chapter! (Thanks to those who already sent in their forms!)

Speaking of the next chapter, it will probably be in two or three weeks (I'm planning 2 chapters this month while I wait for all the forms), and then once I get everyone's OCs, it'll be 3 or 4 times a month... we'll see... but it'll always be on Tuesdays! ;)

anyway! have a nice week and I can't wait to get all your OCs ;) byeee