“What?” Cinderella said, freezing.

“Do you really think I could use my regiment as a sort of go-between and not tell my parents?” Friedrich said.

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“Isn’t that a part of sewing wild oats and what not?” Cinderella said, her forehead scrunching. She had the barest sense of what “sewing wild oats” meant, and suspected it was wilder than what she was picturing.

“The moment I chose you I told them,” Friedrich said, sliding his hand under Cinderella’s chin.

Cinderella shifted and avoided looking at Friedrich’s painfully intense eye.

Friedrich sighed. “I wish you would stop clamping up whenever I mention how serious I am,” he said, his voice low like a dog’s growl.

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“It’s because you aren’t serious,” Cinderella said. “You always flirt and joke.”

“No, I flirt and joke because I doubt you would stay in my company for longer than a moment if you knew just how serious I am,” Friedrich said, sliding his fingers up Cinderella’s jawline.

Cinderella caught his hand and pulled it away from her face. “Friedrich, I can’t.”

Friedrich sighed and looked up at the sky. “I know.”

The pair was silent until Friedrich tore his gaze from the sky and smiled at Cinderella. “I will let you run back to your market stand. Take care, Pet.”

“You as well, Friedrich,” Cinderella said.

Friedrich was the first to go, leaving Cinderella in the shadow of the mess hall.

Her relationship with the Colonel was complicated, not just because of the position Cinderella was in, but because of who they were. “It would never work,” she said.

Cinderella squared her shoulders and put her chin up. “It would never work, and he’s not wholly sincere,” she said before she turned on her heels. “I know perfectly well he’s a rogue. He cannot be serious. It just isn’t possible.”

Cinderella realized she sounded more like she was trying to convince herself than stating a fact.

It would be easier if he were joking, Cinderella thought before she angrily shook the topic from her head. “Sun Skips! That is what I should think of. I must speak to Pierre about their price, and ask how many we should harvest per day so as to not flood the market…”

“Studies and academics are vital to humanity. They allow limits to be pushed and countries to be changed,” Queen Freja said, standing on the front steps of the Trieux Royal Library—now the Erlauf Repository of Stories and Education—with her husband, three army officers, and two government officials.

“It is my hope all parts of Erlauf will flourish if its people are properly educated and given the opportunity to seek out knowledge,” Queen Freja said. Her voice was hard, like iron.

“Every person, whether he or she is a true scholar or a baker, should have access to books,” the queen continued.

Cinderella narrowed her eyes as she studied the foreign queen. She had seen her before—she was presented to Freja when she inherited her title from her father—but back then Cinderella saw her as the hardened woman who was slowly choking Trieux to death.

Cinderella took in the woman’s height and lean stature with new eyes. There was something about her face and the sharp angles of her cheekbones that seemed oddly familiar.

“She goes on, doesn’t she, Mademoiselle?” Vitore darkly muttered as the queen continued with her speech.

Cinderella shrugged. “It’s rare for her to do something good here. I am sure she must capitalize on the few chances she has,” Cinderella said, safely surrounded by Trieux market vendors.

The milkmaid whose stand was next to Aveyron’s in the market squawked, “Good? The library was already built and furnished. She’s just renamed it,” she said, brushing goat hair off her skirt.

“She is opening it to the public,” Cinderella said.

“For the moment,” Vitore grunted.

Cinderella shifted her attention to the queen’s consort—the Commander of all Erlauf armies. The man was so uninvolved in palace politics and court happenings that Cinderella didn’t even know his name. She did know he was the terror of the Erlauf Army. His title was not something worn casually. The man was a brilliant strategist and just as hard and unmoving as his wife.

He looked incredibly common. Cinderella wasn’t sure if she would be able to pick him out of a crowd if he wasn’t standing next to Queen Freja.

“Their sons must be like slabs of marble,” Cinderella said. Neither of the Erlauf princes had deigned to attend the opening ceremony.

Cinderella was not surprised.

“Is that a surprise considering who their parents are?” the acid tongued milkmaid asked.

“Hear, hear,” Vitore said.

When Cinderella looked at them with raised eyebrows they blinked innocently.

“What is it, Mademoiselle?” Vitore asked.

The milkmaid was not so shy. “Perhaps that Colonel of yours isn’t so bad,” she grudgingly said. “But you can’t tell me those Erlauf princes are as good as him.”

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