Gemma shifted so her head was able to rest against the back wall as she remembered watching Lord Lovland slink to the back of the throne room while King Torgen sentenced her. “Lady Linnea is a good person.”

The mage whistled. “High praise coming from a girl as reluctant as you.”

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Gemma’s lips curled into the faintest hint of a smile. “Lady Linnea deserves it. She is unusual, but lovely.”

“I’m sure, to win over your loyalty. It’s probably easier to move a castle than you,” the mage said.

“I am practical, not stone-hearted,” Gemma said.

“No. You’re guarded,” the mage corrected.

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Gemma shrugged.

“Right. Well if you’re going to stay awake, we may as well play a word game.”

“A word game?”

“Yes. I choose an object that is visible in this room. You ask me ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. Based on my response, you make guesses about what the object is. I will pick an item first, and once you correctly guess it, it will be your turn to pick an item. Do you understand?”

Gemma glanced at the spinning wheel. “Is it gold?”

“You don’t start by directly guessing the item; you ask questions about it! And no, it’s not gold.”

“Hm. Is it the spinning wheel?”

“Why do I suspect you are being deliberately obtuse?”

“Fine, Sir Mage. Is it brown?”

“No.”

Prince Toril pounded on his father’s door the moment the sun peeked over the horizon. The mountains that stood guard at the castle’s back cast purple shadows across the land as Prince Toril hollered, “Father, I know you are awake.”

“What do you want? I thought you were off sighing over your lost princess?” King Torgen said, throwing open the door to his room.

Prince Toril was disappointed to see his father already wore a mad smile in spite of the early hour. Occasionally, if he caught him while he was still half asleep, King Torgen was more amiable.

Or perhaps he’s just less bitter, Prince Toril thought. As little as he liked to admit it, his father was growing crueler as the seasons passed. While he never had to fear for his own life, he knew the people were uneasy—even before Elsa—no—Elise was almost burned at the stake.

“You have a peasant girl imprisoned,” Prince Toril said.

King Torgen rolled his eyes and sighed in disgust. “Fell for another pretty face, did you? I should have beaten your gullibility from you as a child,” he said.

“I haven’t fallen for anyone,” Prince Toril said. “But you have to let this girl go.”

“Why?” King Torgen demanded. He started walking down the hallway. Prince Toril followed him, keeping pace.

“She hasn’t done anything wrong.”

“She wasted my time—which is more valuable than the blood that pumps in her veins.”

“Her father wasted your time,” Prince Toril said.

King Torgen stopped to stare at Prince Toril. “You are well informed of the matter.”

“I am,” Prince Toril said.

King Torgen looked down the hallway.

“It isn’t because I’m in love with the girl,” Prince Toril was quick to say.

“So you still love the mute swan girl, then? It’s a pity you’re so stupidly loyal.”

Prince Toril winced. “You must let the girl go, Father.”

Prince Toril ducked just in time to avoid King Torgen backhanding him.

“Listen closely, son,” King Torgen spat. “I must do nothing. I am King, and it isn’t until I die that you will rule. As long as I breathe, I reign. You would do well to remember that.”

Prince Toril was frozen by the mad, frenzied look in his father’s eyes. It wasn’t until King Torgen had walked twenty paces before Prince Toril was able to break out of his paralysis and follow.

“You are right. You are the King, Father,” Prince Toril said. “But it is your position only because you were granted it. You have an oath to uphold; we are to protect the weak, not behead them,” Prince Toril said, passing a line of guards.

King Torgen narrowed his eyes at Prince Toril. “You seem set on this girl.”

“I am set on freeing her, yes.”

King Torgen stopped outside a barred door. “Fine,” he said, sticking the key in the lock and twisting it.

“She will be free to go—even without spinning the flax into gold?” Prince Toril eagerly asked as guards removed the bar from the door.

“The peasant girl can—,” King Torgen went silent when the door opened.

“She can?” Prince Toril prompted. When his father did not respond, Prince Toril peered over his shoulder.

A rather normal-looking girl with brown hair and large eyes was standing in the middle of a barren room. Next to her was a spinning wheel, upon which there was a spindle of thread that glittered and twinkled like gold.

In that moment, Prince Toril knew the girl was doomed. He would never be able to save her from his Father’s clutches now.

Chapter 5

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