“You dare refuse me?”

“It is not a matter of refusal as much as it is a matter of balance. Arcainia cannot afford to spend more on your wardrobe,” Elise said.

Clotilde looked murderous.

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“There, there, my dove. All is not lost. No matter what you wear, you look bewitching,” King Henrik cooed, placing an arm around Clotilde.

“I want more,” Clotilde said, folding her arms like a pouting child.

“If Elise says it cannot be done, then it cannot be done. But do not fret; I will give you some of my personal money for you to spend.”

“Why can’t you cut back spending in other areas?” Clotilde complained.

Elise swallowed, unwilling to answer.

“My children are, above all, trustworthy, my dove. They are doing their best for Arcainia. We must let them continue with their work,” King Henrik said.

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“If that was all you wished to discuss, may I leave?” Elise asked.

“Yes, Elise, you may go. Thank you for your explanation,” King Henrik said, patting Clotilde’s hair.

Clotilde didn’t say anything, but she narrowed her nearly colorless eyes at Elise, and her fetching face turned ugly with the glare she gave her.

Elise curtseyed and hustled out of the room. When the door clicked shut behind her, she ran down the hall like a frightened rabbit.

She had just made an enemy out of Clotilde, and she wasn’t sure what the outcome would be.

“I think it is high time Fürstin Elise marries,” Clotilde announced several weeks later during the family breakfast.

Gone were the days when the royal family ate merrily with the rest of the residents of Castle Brandis. Since Clotilde had been crowned, she insisted they eat separately—with servants serving them on their finest plates of porcelain and gold.

Elise looked up from her eggs. “I beg your pardon?”

“I do not understand why you felt the need to take on a foster daughter in the first place, Henrik. With seven sons, a fosterling is hardly necessary. But as you have her now, it would be shameful to cast her out, and she may as well be of use after living off you for so many years. Marry her off to a foreign duke or baron who will pay handsomely for her,” Clotilde said.

Nick slammed his fist on the table. “You cannot be serious,” he said.

“You seem to misunderstand, My Queen, Elise’s relationship with our family,” Steffen said, his eyes crinkled in his ever present smile after he shot Nick a warning look. “Officially Elise is a foster daughter, yes. But she is for certain a part of this family. She is my treasured sister, and I am not quite willing to part with her yet, nor would I ever wish to see her marry outside of Arcainia.”

“No matter if she is a foster daughter or not, it is the duty of female royalty to marry. Soon no one will want her, and she will be too old to marry. And what better way to spread Arcainia’s influence then to send her off to another country to fortify friendly relations? You understand what I’m saying, don’t you, Henrik?” Clotilde simpered.

“Fürstin Elise is the head of the Treasury Department. There are none who can replace her at this time, My Queen,” Mikk stiffly said, as if the admission pained him.

“Regardless of her marriage, she must be replaced. It is shameful for the children of monarchs to work like, like peasants,” Queen Clotilde said.

“Do you mean to imply we all should retire from our positions in Arcainia’s government?” Steffen asked.

“Yes, I do.”

“While your feelings are sweet, My Queen, they are perhaps too idealistic,” Gerhart said with a charming smile, although his eyes had the look of a viper in them. “If the royal family is not working to direct the country, it will fall into ruin. While people tend to overestimate Elise’s role in the country, I am forced to admit that she does fill a necessary function.”

“Sweetling, are you alright?” Falk murmured to Elise, who was leaning back in her chair.

Elise stared wide-eyed at her plate, hearing the conversation but not able to respond. It was nice to know that Clotilde had managed to bring the royal siblings together—Gerhart and Mikk never would have spoken on Elise’s behalf if they didn’t hate Clotilde just as much as everyone else in Brandis.

Even so, Elise’s heart heaved in her chest.

Clotilde was going to do everything she could to get rid of her, and her foster brothers wouldn’t always be around to protect her. One day Clotilde would succeed, and all of Elise’s work, everything she did to prove she was even a little bit worthy of the honor King Henrik and Queen Ingrid had bestowed upon her would be wasted.

Queen Clotilde shook her head and fixed a poisonous smile on her lips. “The bottom line is that as her foster parents, it is up to Henrik and I to decide what is best for her. Henrik, you must believe that I have the best interests of Arcainia and Elise at mind. We will announce her availability—,”

“No.”

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