Severin nodded and leaned back in his chair.

“Your servants seem to have a vested interest in our friendship. I noticed from the onset when they insisted that I—an assumedly ill mannered peasant—dine with you—a prince—as soon as I was fit to. I paid no mind to it, until recently. They seem to be increasing their antics. I want to know why.”

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Severin rubbed his forehead. “They refuse to tell you?”

“Yes.”

“I take it, then, that you do not know the nature of my curse?”

“I only know that you were cursed by a wicked witch, and a beautiful enchantress broke off the worst of it,” Elle truthfully reported.

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Severin nodded. “The original curse made me not only look like a beast, but think and act like one as well. The enchantress was able to break off the psychological aspects of the curse, but not the physical. However, she supposedly was able to create a way to entirely destroy the curse.”

“How can you break it?” Elle asked when Severin didn’t continue.

Severin rolled his shoulders, making the fur leaking out of the collar of his waistcoat fluff up. “By falling in love, or by being loved,” he finally said.

Elle stared at Severin in stunned silence.

“She said it is because love is the most powerful, healing emotion humanity is capable of,” Severin said, his voice slightly defensive.

“I see. I would not disagree with that.”

“But?”

“But I would not think it would be very easy to fall in love when one is self-exiled in an abandoned chateau.”

“You are correct, and that is why I am here,” Severin said.

“I’m sorry, what?”

Severin turned in his chair to stare at the wall that was covered in maps. He was silent for a few moments before he spoke slowly, like the words were costly gems he was reluctant to part with. “I made previous… attempts to break the curse to no avail. It did nothing but bring me shame and break the hearts of my servants when the curse was not lifted. Rather than live in the continuous pressure of misleading hopes I resolved to move here.”

Elle frowned. “And you entirely gave up on breaking the curse? That hardly seems like you.”

“It has been proven to me that this curse can never be broken. Women claim to love me, but in their hearts they love my title, or wealth, or my family connections, but never me,” Severin said, avoiding Elle’s eyes.

Elle’s frown took on a shade of sadness. “It saddens me to hear you say that, though I can understand how you came to that conclusion. Do you have no hope of breaking the curse at all?”

Severin raised his oddly pupiled eyes to meet Elle’s gaze. For a moment Severin saw what his servants could see in Elle. He saw the compassion in her face and the way she did not shrink from his intimidating gaze. He recognized the sparkle of intelligence in her beautiful eyes, and her humble, unadorned beauty instead of criticizing the size of her mouth or the length of her nose. Severin blinked and squashed the thoughts like unwanted bugs. “No, no hope at all,” he echoed.

“I see,” Elle said.

The silence stretched for a few moments before Severin spoke again. “I apologize if my servants have made you uncomfortable in any way, or if they raised… expectations.”

Elle shook her head. “There is nothing to apologize for. I was merely curious. It is I who in all probability needs to apologize for thrusting myself into your confidence.”

“That is not necessary. Your questions were logical,” Severin said.

A quirk of a smile folded the edges of Elle’s lips. “Perhaps, or maybe it was another example of, how did you phrase it? Poking my nose in someone else’s business for the fun of it.”

Severin shrugged. “It is one of your charms.”

Elle hooted in laughter. “Isn’t that a boldfaced lie? I will miss our conversations when I leave this place.”

“You mean to leave soon, then?” Severin asked.

“I haven’t talked to Duval about it, but I think I will be strong enough this week,” Elle said, slowly rising to a standing position.

Severin flatly stared at her. “You are not back to a peak physical condition.”

“No,” Elle agreed. “But I’m not sure how much longer the crown will tolerate my absence without a punishment.”

Severin stood as well, looming above Elle. “You have nothing to fear. As little as I like to claim the relationship, might I remind you that I am a part of that family. I will inform whatever steward is in charge of your contract that you are to be forgiven for your absence.”

Elle smiled. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

“Severin. With all the soul baring we have experienced in this past hour calling me by my title seems ridiculous,” Severin dryly said.

“Then thank you, Severin.”

“You are welcome, Elle.”

Duval carefully ran his hand along the smooth, unblemished skin of Elle’s mending leg. He watched her stand and walk at the speed of a crawling turtle around the room—unaided.

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