“Everyone ready?” Steffen asked as the Arcainian flag—a white swan set on a background of black and gold—unfurled above them.

“I hate formal wear,” Nick complained. “We look like fairies, or a set of tiara brothers,” he said.

“Hush up, and smile,” Gabrielle said, straightening the Nick’s crooked circlet.

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Only the king and queen of Arcainia wore crowns. All other members of the royal family wore artfully crafted metal circlets studded with gems…or, as Nick had called them, tiaras.

When King Henrik and Queen Clotilde started up the wide, sweeping stairs that lead to Brandis, Elise started playing her flute.

She played perfectly. The song was bright and cheerful. It was meant to sound like a welcome to the new queen, and it did even though Elise privately wanted to do everything but welcome Clotilde to Brandis.

Elise’s timing was exactly on, and she finished the song just as King Henrik and Queen Clotilde joined Elise, Gabrielle, and the princes on the top step.

In unison, the siblings bowed. “Welcome to Castle Brandis,” they said.

“Thank you,” Queen Clotilde said, removing her hand from King Henrik’s arm so she could properly embrace them.

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Elise was near the end of the receiving line. She smiled her first real smile of the day when King Henrik kissed her forehead. “That was well played, darling,” he said before he moved on to speak with Gerhart.

Queen Clotilde was right behind King Henrik. She didn’t embrace Elise, as she did Elise’s foster siblings. “You and I have much to talk about, Fürstin,” she said.

“Oh?” Elise asked, still smiling.

“Yes. Henrik tells me you are the chief of the Treasury Department.”

“I am.”

“I wish to discuss Arcainia’s finances with you. Could you make time for me later this week?”

Elise kept her smile firmly in place. “Of course, my queen.”

“Thank you, Fürstin,” Clotilde said before she moved onto Gerhart.

Elise briefly felt for the golden key that hung from the red sash of her work uniform. It wasn’t there, of course, as she was wearing a new dress for the wedding.

Erick had guessed right. Clotilde unsettled Elise, but that wasn’t all.

Clotilde made her skin crawl.

Chapter 3

“I think we should have a race to see who has the fastest horse,” Nick said a sunny, spring afternoon as the royal family (or most of it) was sharing a horse ride at the request of the king.

“Only if Rune is banned from entering. He always wins,” Gerhart complained.

“Come on everyone, line up. Except for you, Rune. Gerhart is right. You spend too much time in the saddle, so you and your horse have an unfair advantage. Elise, you will join us, yes?” Nick said.

“Perhaps she doesn’t wish to join in this folly,” Falk said, lining his horse up with Nick’s.

“Nonsense. All of us royal siblings love horses and going fast. Come on, Elise,” Nick called.

“Elise, if I may have a word,” Queen Clotilde called.

Elise gave her foster brothers an apologetic look before she turned her mare in the direction of Queen Clotilde’s pony cart, for once not sorry to attend to her.

“Yes, Queen Clotilde?” Elise asked, directing her mare to walk next to Clotilde’s cart.

“Steffen, aren’t you joining us?” Nick called.

“Not on your life. It’s too unseemly.”

“Suit yourself. Will you make the countdown then?”

“As you wish. On the count of three. One…two… three!”

Clotilde waited to speak until Mikk, Nick, Falk, and Gerhart galloped off.

“I visited the royal vault yesterday. The guards would not let me inside even though I am the queen.”

“Please do not take it personally. They were following protocol,” Elise said.

“If the queen cannot visit it, who, then, can?”

“I can,” Elise said.

“And?”

“Only me, My Queen,” Elise said. She refrained from explaining that she could authorize anyone to visit the vault—the vault only held enough funds to keep the country running for a month, after all. Several members of the Treasury Department had the clearance to add and remove funds from the vault whenever necessary.

“I see. This is a rule you have made?” Queen Clotilde asked, her voice hardening.

“No. It was a royal decree Father made before he gave me the office of chief of the Treasury Department,” Elise said.

“By your Father, I take it you meant to say King Henrik?”

Elise swallowed the rage that bubbled in her throat. “Yes.”

“I see,” Queen Clotilde repeated.

“Did you have any other questions?” Elise asked.

“No, that is all. Good day, Fürstin.”

“Good Day, My Queen,” Elise said before nudging her horse forward.

Elise eagerly trotted ahead, joining Steffen. “Who won?” she asked.

“Falk, I think. His horse is a racer. We should catch up and find out,” Steffen said, discreetly glancing over his shoulder at Queen Clotilde. “What did she want?” he asked in a lowered tone as they left the new queen behind.

“She wanted to know why she couldn’t enter the vault,” Elise said.

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