To Severin’s relief, Lucien had refrained from bringing up a pending war. His brother seemed taken with the idea of marching against Arcainia, which was troubling. Even though Arcainia was smaller with a less extensive army, it would not reflect well on Loire to attack an ally that had done nothing wrong.

Severin’s thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. “Enter,” he said, gratefully pushing his paperwork aside. It was too late for it to be Elle—she had just left not an hour ago, intending to retire for the evening—but any distraction would be welcome.

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Duval shuffled into the study. He was smiling, but the gesture was wane and his movements were hesitant.

“Good evening, Duval,” Severin said.

The barber-physician bowed and handed his slate to Severin. I have just come from Mademoiselle Elle’s room. Her leg is healing wonderfully.

Severin nodded. “And?”

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Duval took back his slate, wiped it clean, and thought for a moment before writing. In two to three weeks she will be able to try walking without her crutches.

Severin blinked. “She will be healed enough to survive a carriage ride home without additional injury?”

Yes.

“Does she know?”

No.

“I see. Thank you, Duval.” Severin slouched in his chair, deep in thought.

Duval bowed and took his leave, turning around to watch Severin as he closed the study door.

Severin frowned at the leafy green twigs shoved in a vase that Elle had brought him that day. She had run out of flowers, and instead resorted to clipping branches from bushes. Severin could see the flattened leaves the maddening girl had no doubt rubbed. Severin heaved his shoulders up before returning his attention to his work.

It would do no good to think about Elle leaving yet.

“Why do we always meet on the most wretched days of the month?” Lucien complained, glaring at the wall of the abandoned lodge.

“Winter is coming. Every day is the most wretched day,” Severin said, delicately leafing through papers.

Lucien sunk his head into his shoulders. “I feel a draft and my fingers are cold.”

Severin lifted his eyes. “You expect me to do something to remedy that?”

“No,” Lucien sulked.

“Then may I suggest that you curb your tongue.”

Lucien sighed and drummed his gloved fingers on the table.

Severin again raised his gaze from the Ranger intelligence report he was reading. “If you are unable to occupy yourself go through this,” Severin said, passing his expenditures and supplies requests to his brother.

Lucien swiped the reports and carelessly glanced through them. “Why bother? It is not in your nature to ever buy something out of the ordinary—a pony?”

“Hm?”

“You are requesting the purchase of a mild mannered but stocky pony. One that is used to dogs,” Lucien said, setting the papers on the table and pointing to the request.

“Yes.”

“Why do you need a pony?”

Severin hesitated. “It is for Elle.”

“The intruder?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re sending her home soon?”

“I’m not certain,” Severin confessed.

Lucien cocked his head. “What do you mean?”

“Duval tells me she will be able to safely travel in a few weeks,” Severin said.

“I see,” Lucien said, looking at Severin’s supply list. “Well, then, I’ll have one of my men get a pony.”

“Thank you,” Severin said.

“My pleasure.” Lucien hesitated. “So, how does this girl act around you?”

“She is not falling in love with me.”

Lucien scowled and looked away. “It’s the least she could do after you’ve housed her for so long,” he grumbled. “Have you even tried to encourage such affections in her?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Severin sighed and pushed the reports aside. “Because it’s not going to work. It didn’t work the last three times, and I have no desire to repeat those embarrassing and crushing experiences.”

Lucien stared at Severin. “You want to stay a beast, don’t you?”

“I don’t want to. I—,”

“But you plan on it,” Lucien said. “Because then you never need to worry that someone will think you’ll make a better King than me, and you’ll never have offspring who might feel like they are more worthy than my heirs.”

Severin was silent.

Lucien slammed his fist on the table. “Severin, I’ve told you before, if people think you’re better than me so be it. You are my brother. I will not stand for you giving yourself a shadow of a life because you won’t forgive yourself for being illegitimate.”

“Your affection for me does not change the fact that I am the greatest threat to your reign,” Severin said.

“But you’re not!” Lucien exploded, standing up so fast he sent his chair clattering to the ground. “Perhaps if you weren’t so blasted honorable and if we hated each other it would be true, but you are my closest companion. Severin, in case you haven’t realized it I can’t rule without you. Everyone knows that except for you!”

“You are a perfectly capable leader, all you need is the occasional bit of guidance,” Severin said as a servant scrambled to right Lucien’s chair.

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