“Look at me, Cinderella,” the Colonel said, his voice sharp like the edge of a sword. “I want an answer. My country has done its best to grind you under its heel. You hate me and everything I stand for. Why?”

Cinderella squirmed under the Colonel’s intense gaze before blurting out, “Because you’re still a person. You’re an Erlauf officer, but even Erlauf soldiers deserve life. I won’t just sit there and watch someone be murdered in cold blood, even if the victim would be you. It’s wrong. It’s horrible.”

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The Colonel leaned back in his chair, the first hints of a smirk curling the corner of his lips.

“I still hate you,” Cinderella darkly added, lifting her tea cup to her lips.

The Colonel’s suggestion of a smirked bloomed. “I wouldn’t expect any less,” he said.

“Then why are you smiling?” Cinderella irritably asked, scrubbing her hands through her short hair.

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“Because you are universally kind.”

“So?”

“It’s a very rare and admirable trait.”

Cinderella drank her tea and ignored the compliment. A part of her still couldn’t believe she dragged the Colonel off, but she was glad she had. Her father would be proud of her, even if the Colonel was from Erlauf.

“Someone is bringing porridge for you—the nurse suggested you eat a little. After you eat it, you may go,” the Colonel said.

Cinderella eyed the Colonel over her teacup and said nothing.

As if on cue, a soldier carrying a wooden tray entered the room, two officers trailing him.

“Sir,” the officers saluted.

The lower-ranked soldier set the tray down in front of Cinderella and saluted before he left.

“Major Timo and Captain Sigmund. What did you find?” the Colonel asked.

“Two of the assassins were killed in combat. The third was captured, but the fourth escaped, Sir,” one of the men said, saluting the Colonel.

Cinderella stirred her porridge suspiciously.

“Excellent. What does the captive have to say?”

“Very little. We will try torture, of course—”

Cinderella abruptly shoved the tray of food away from her, once again feeling sick. She arranged her arms on the table top and rested her head on them.

A chair scraped.

“Perhaps it would be best to continue this conversation at a later time,” the Colonel said as he walked around the table. “Send the Scarlet and Storm Companies to comb the ruins for tracks and traces. Double the night patrols. Has General Harbach been notified?”

“He has, sir. As has the Commander The Colonel sighed. “Very good. Thank you, men. I will speak to you in the holding area in a few moments.”

“Yes, Sir,” the men saluted before leaving the room.

Cinderella was very still as she remembered with whom she was dealing. The Colonel wasn’t an everyday soldier; he was a powerful man who could wield an entire regiment to do his bidding. And Cinderella just told him she hated him.

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking when I asked them to report in,” the Colonel said before Cinderella felt him brush the fringe of her bangs.

Cinderella very slowly picked her head off the table. “There is nothing to apologize for, sir,” she said, her composure returning.

“Oh, no. You have saved my life. You must call me by my first name: Friedrich.”

“It would not be appropriate, sir,” Cinderella said, avoiding his eye by stirring her porridge.

The Colonel shrugged. “We shall argue about this later. I must go. After you eat, a squad of soldiers will escort you home.”

“That is unnecessary—”

“It is very necessary, and they are under orders to see you all the way to the front door of Aveyron. You will not wriggle out of this one, Pet,” the Colonel said.

Shocked by the improper nickname, Cinderella could only gape.

“Eat your porridge and rest. Stay at Aveyron tomorrow. I will send some men to check on you. Until then,” The Colonel said, running a finger down the back of Cinderella’s hand before ducking out of the room.

Cinderella gloomily stared at her porridge. Yes, she had forgotten how powerful the Colonel was.

Friedrich was in his office, his hands folded behind his head, when Colonel Merrich found him.

“What are you smiling at? You look like a creepy, old geezer,” Merrich said, leaning on the doorframe.

Friedrich’s smirk grew. “Just thinking.”

“Of?”

Friedrich didn’t answer.

“I heard about the attack against you today. General Hardbutt threw such a fit his heart almost stopped. I will be impressed if he doesn’t kill you himself for being alone with a civilian with no escort when you report in tomorrow morning,” Merrich said, playing with the medals pinned to his chest.

Friedrich stopped smirking. “So you heard?”

“Everyone within hearing distance of Werra heard.”

“Ah.”

“So this girl you were with, word is she is a Trieux noble?”

Friedrich renewed his smile. “Cinderella Lacreux, Duchess of Aveyron.”

Merrich whistled. “That’s some pedigree and title she’s toting. She’s one of your prospects?”

“She is the prospect,” Friedrich said.

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