But there isn’t anyone else. You are the only one who is not afraid of us, of him. You have a true and just heart. Help him, for my sake if not his.

Elle clutched her crutches until the wood creaked in protest. “Blast!” she said, stamping a crutch. “Blast!” she uttered again, glaring at the portrait before growling at Emele. “Fine. Have it your way. I’ll try befriending your dolt of a prince. But I’ll not take the blame when he ignores me and scorns my presence.”

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Emele clapped her hands in glee. Thank you, thank you my dearest friend!

Elle narrowed her eyes as thunder made the floor tremble beneath her feet. “I’m going back to my room. I want to sleep,” she said before thumping her way out of the halo of light Emele’s lamp cast.

Emele reclaimed the lamp and hurried to her side. You are so kind, Elle.

“I am,” Elle grunted. “But I owe you my thanks for the care you’ve given me. If this is how you wish for me to repay you, I will try.”

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Emele slipped her small slate into a pocket of her dress and placed a protective arm around Elle’s shoulders.

The two walked back to Elle’s room in silence.

That night the servants of Chanceux Chateau rejoiced in a voiceless celebration for the remainder of the storm.

Chapter 6

The Invasion

Early the following morning Elle knocked on the door to Severin’s study.

“Enter.”

Elle slammed the door open with a surprising amount of force and smiled winningly at Severin when he looked up from his papers. “Good morning,” she said.

“Hn,” Severin said, returning his attention to his papers.

“Set the flowers right here, Oliver. Thank you,” Elle said as the groom set down a vase of purple irises on the bookshelf closest to the door.

Oliver quit the room, leaving Elle with the silent prince. “It is astounding that your flower gardens lasted through the temperature drop over the last few days,” Elle said, affectionately stroking the vivid purple petals.

Severin’s left ear flicked as he signed a document.

“The gardens didn’t seem too damaged by last night’s storm. A tree lost a large branch. Marc was sawing it up as Emele and I went out to collect the flowers,” Elle said, tugging on one of the reed-like leaves that split off an iris.

Severin stood and cross the room. He picked up the vase, pointedly holding it out of Elle’s reach. “Did you need something, Intruder?” he asked.

“No. I thought I would come see what you are doing,” Elle said, following him back to his desk.

“Work,” Severin said, placing the vase on his desk before sitting down again. The chair groaned when his weight dropped into it.

“You’re not going out to see the gardens?” Elle asked.

“No.”

“Oh,” Elle said before sitting in a plush armchair.

Severin looked up. “What are you doing?” he said, the points of his upper fangs jutting out past his lips.

“I’m sitting down,” Elle said.

“Why?”

“Because if I want to drink my tea I need to be sitting,” Elle said.

“What nonsense are you talking about? There is no tea here.”

“Of course not. It hasn’t arrived yet.”

“You called for tea in my study?”

“Yes.”

Severin massaged his forehead.

“I apologize. I assumed you would want tea this early in the morning. Do you desire something stronger? Wine, perhaps?”

Severin shot Elle a golden eyed glare.

Elle took no notice and set her crutches aside.

“My servants put you up to this,” Severin said.

“And what if they did? Have you seen Bernadine? The woman wields a rolling pin all day long. I’m certainly not going to refuse her,” Elle said.

Severin released a bark of laughter. “I should have expected it to be Bernadine.”

“She did nothing of the sort. I merely asked what if your servants did.”

Someone knocked on the door.

“Enter,” Severin said.

A maid pushed a serving cart in the room, pouring Elle a cup of hot tea.

“Severin, would you like some tea?” Elle asked, picking three walnut cookies off a tray of tea treats.

“No,” Severin said.

The maid curtsied and left, leaving the tea cart behind.

Elle hefted herself to her feet and stood, balancing without her crutches, between Severin’s desk and the tea cart. She placed the porcelain plate with the walnut cookies on Severin’s desk before sitting down again.

Severin glanced at the cookies and stared at Elle.

“What?” Elle said, adding sugar to her tea. “There’s no need to pretend. I know you have a soft spot for that particular kind of cookie.”

Severin narrowed his eyes at Elle. “How do you know?”

“Your Highness, give me some credit. We have dined together for some weeks now. There is no one to talk to during our meals except for an overweight dog. I will have noticed some things about you.”

Severin grudgingly crunched on a cookie while Elle stirred her tea.

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