Friedrich blinked before he grasped what she meant. With a swoop he picked up Cinderella and set her on her feet. He slid one hand up her jawline and the other around her waist, pulling her close before he leaned over and kissed her.

Kissing Friedrich was like getting caught in a summer storm. It was beautiful and perhaps a little terrifying and overwhelming. She didn’t think she could have felt more shocked and alive if the skies opened up and dumped buckets of torrential rains on her. Cinderella felt treasured in Friedrich’s arms, pulled so tight against his chest she could feel the beat of his heart. The hair on the back of her neck prickled—as it did whenever a lightning strike was within a mile from Aveyron—and, oddly enough, she felt peace.

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“Definitely worth the wait,” Cinderella pronounced, a little breathlessly, when they were finished.

“Yes,” Friedrich said, sliding an arm across Cinderella’s back. “Steel yourself; the audience will demand to know how it went.”

“How on earth did you get your soldiers to help so much with this whole thing, anyway?”

“Truthfully it was more difficult persuading them to leave you alone. My men know who I am. Naturally they were curious about you. You won them over without any help on my end—which is a good thing. It would not bode well if the Army didn’t accept you.”

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“How can they accept me if they do not even know me? I have only met soldiers from your regiment.”

“Word travels fast in the Army, and no one keeps any news to themselves,” Friedrich said as he guided Cinderella out of the gardens and straight into a scene from a tavern.

The soldiers had uncovered the cargo of a second wagon—which was composed entirely of beer and mead.

“Kurt! You’re on duty!” Friedrich shouted over the happy cheers when the soldiers caught sight of Friedrich and Cinderella.

“That’s the thing, sir,” Gustav, who was standing with Kurt and a freshly poured pint. “None of us are. We’re all here off duty—we wanted to see how this would turn out.”

Friedrich blinked. “Kurt! You said General Harbach sent you—,”

“We lied,” Kurt said.

“Cheers,” Tobias, the soldier who shot the dark mage, said as he raised a tankard in the air.

Friedrich groaned. “This is some way to convince you of my administrative capabilities,” he said.

“Friedrich?”

“What?”

Cinderella giggled and leaned in. “I love you,” she said before kissing him soundly.

The soldiers roared even louder, hooting at their commanding officer and his lady love.

“What is this?” Cinderella asked, staring at the beautiful, elaborate dress hanging in her armoire. Cinderella felt a moment of panic. “Jeanne, I didn’t order any dresses to be made!” She might be engaged to a prince of Erlauf, but that did nothing to change her monetary state until they were married. She couldn’t afford such a lavish clothing item.

“It is from Colonel Friedrich, Mademoiselle,” Jeanne said, securing the drapes in Cinderella’s bedroom.

Cinderella frowned and caressed the fabric, grimacing when the tough skin of her fingers scraped the soft fabric. “What for?”

“I would assume it is for your presentation to Queen Freja this evening,” Jeanne said.

“…What?”

“The presentation?”

“No, not that. It’s…nothing,” Cinderella said, looking at the dress.

“He sent a matching jewelry set as well,” Jeanne said, indicating to a velvet box that rested on Cinderella’s bed.

Cinderella looked from the box to the dress. She caught sight of herself in the cracked mirror positioned across the room—one of the few mirrors retained in Aveyron because the fissure reduced its worth to copper pennies.

Cinderella’s reflection stared back at her. She wore Friedrich’s dragon necklace openly, sitting on the drab cloth of her servant clothes.

“Do you think he is ashamed of me?” Cinderella asked.

“It is not my place to say, Mademoiselle.”

“Jeanne, please.”

Jeanne pursed her lips. “I would find it hard to believe so, Mademoiselle. Particularly when one considers how he carries on.”

Cinderella nodded. “Thank you. Perhaps he means to protect me from his mother.”

Jeanne’s silence was heavy with dislike, and Cinderella cocked her head as she studied the dress.

“No,” Cinderella said, closing the door to her armoire.

“No, Mademoiselle?”

“No, I will not wear the dress. Queen Freja had best know who she’s letting into the family. I don’t care if I’m as out of place as a black sheep. I go in this,” Cinderella savagely said, jabbing a finger at her fractured reflection.

“As you wish, Mademoiselle,” Jeanne said. Her words were placid, but Cinderella thought she detected just a hint of pride in them.

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