“Ruthlessness is to be commended if it is for the good of another.”

Elle sipped her tea. “No, that part I do not regret. I was wrong to accuse you of not making sacrifices. I shouldn’t have said that, and I apologize.”

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“So you believe determination in securing protection for another is wrong?”

“I suspect what we are disagreeing about is the method of protection, not the desire to protect in itself.”

“Explain.”

“You believe the ends justify the means, yes? As long as the outcome is what you desire—protecting those you love—the way you achieve the goal doesn’t matter.”

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“I suppose that is one way to say it. You think otherwise?”

“I do. I would also give much to help and protect those I love, but I would not compromise my morals to accomplish such goals,” Elle said.

Severin sipped his wine. “Then you will not be able to fully protect those you love, and they will die.”

“They’re going to die eventually. We are born to die. And saying they will die because I will not forsake doing what is right is melodramatic. No one is going to come into their house and place a sword to my sisters’ throats and a sword to the throat of the old man who lives next to them and tell me to choose. It is the little things I would be asked to compromise. By making those compromises I would not be choosing to show my devotion, I would merely be taking the easiest path,” Elle said, picking up her silverware.

“I find myself unconvinced,” Severin said, his cat whiskers shoved forward as he grimaced.

Elle shrugged. “I did not think I would convince you.”

“I believe the difference in our stations is what creates the clash of our beliefs,” Severin said. “You will never be called to make a drastic sacrifice for your family, but for my brother and me it is a common occurrence.”

Elle clenched her fork and knife until her hands shook. The servants nearest to her eyed her silent display of anger and looked worriedly to their master.

“Severin,” Elle said, her tone was calm. “You don’t know the first thing about my family. Please refrain from making light of my situation,” she said before shoving another spear of asparagus in her mouth.

Severin studied her as she chewed. “I apologize,” he said. “My words were careless.”

“I take no offense,” Elle said, reaching for her tea.

“Tell me about your family,” Severin said.

Elle choked on her tea. “Pardon?” she said when her coughing subsided.

“You said I know nothing of your family. Enlighten me,” Severin said, crunching on candied fruit.

Elle leaned back in her chair, as if her spine had collapsed. “I am the oldest of three daughters. My mother died when I was young,” Elle said. She had to be careful with the truths she told.

“Your father?”

“He is alive and well. My sisters live with him in the countryside.”

“What profession is your father chiefly occupied in?”

“Gardening mostly, and caring for the hay crop. My family lives on a small farm. My sisters raise goats and chickens.”

“What did he do previously?”

“I don’t understand,” Elle said.

“Your manner of speaking is too educated for you to be of the peasant class. I assume your father had a higher post when you were young.”

“He was a merchant,” Elle said. “He lost the business after a string of unfortunate events.”

Severin stopped eating. “You are an indentured servant to the crown,” he guessed. “The crown paid your family debts in return for your service?”

“Yes.”

“I apologize for my thoughtless words. You have made immense sacrifices for your family,” Severin said.

“You couldn’t have known.”

Severin ate and Elle thoughtfully studied the servants—who were hiding private smiles.

“A truce then?” Elle asked.

Severin looked up.

“We are friends again?” Elle asked.

Severin twitched his whiskers again, this time in amusement. “If you wish.”

“I do,” Elle insisted before she stood, groaning. “Once again I have consumed too much, but I cannot help it. The food is much too good. Bernadine is going to make me as overweight as Jock,” Elle said, patting her stomach before she retrieved her crutches and propped them under her arms.

“Do you like animals?”

Elle blinked. “Pardon?”

“Do you like animals, like horses and cats?” Severin asked, staring at his wine cup.

“I do. Not so much goats. My sister’s goats ate all the buttons off my best dress the last time I visited home, but I enjoy viewing and riding horses,” Elle said.

Severin nodded and sipped his wine.

Elle waited to see if he said anything else, but he didn’t. “Good night, Your Highness,” Elle said.

Severin nodded, staring intently at his wine cup as he sank deeper in thought.

The serving maids nudged each other as they took away platters and dishes and the manservants beamed behind the prince’s back as they tended to the candles and fireplace.

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