“From whom the offer originates, yes. As far as Loire knows, we are nothing but a small, powerless neighbor. It is unanticipated that Loire’s King would choose Prince Lucien’s bride—the future queen of Loire—to come from such a place,” Elise said, making a tally mark on some parchment. “Not to mention you hired an assassin guild to kill one of the princes. Even though the plan failed, they must know we financed the attempt. If they do not have proof right now, I imagine they will shortly—those Rangers the Loire princes play around with are just as good as Mikk’s sneaks.”

“But that is all that surprises you? I was shocked to receive the offer at all,” Steffen said, looking around for a chair. He stared at Falk, who was sitting in the only free chair in the room, perched near Elise.

Falk stared back at Steffen and made a shooing motion.

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Steffen rolled his eyes and found a chair under a precariously balanced stack of books, which he set on the ground before making himself comfortable.

Elise cleared her throat after the interchange was over. “You think I am unmarriageable, Steffen? Or do you doubt anyone would want to marry the foster daughter of the King of Arcainia?”

“That’s not it at all. You’re a princess all the way through,” Steffen said, his lips reforming into the usual smile. “I merely think it is a little early for you to marry.”

Elise went back to her accounts. “I am 18, nearly 19. It is the right age for suitors to express interest,” she said, copying down numbers.

“You are ready to be married, then?”

“It is not so much that I am ready, but more that I cannot avoid the duty much longer. I have told Father as much.”

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“You’ve spoken to Father about marriage?” Falk asked, straightening up in his chair.

“Briefly. I told him I would never forgive him if he married me off to someone poor.”

Steffen stared. “Why? You are not one to demand luxuries.”

“Indeed. But the north wall of the castle needs repairing, and it’s going to be costly. My suitor could pay for it as the bride price,” Elise said, dipping her quill into an inkwell of tar black ink. She paused. “Loire is a very rich country.”

“No,” Steffen said.

“No,” Falk repeated.

“I’ve already sent a refusal. It’s probably a ploy. Some of Mikk’s undercover men heard more rumors of Prince Lucien’s warmongering. He’s still set on coming after us,” Steffen continued.

“And?”

“And what?”

“So what was the purpose of storming my office to inform me of this development? Since you have already sent a refusal on my behalf, I don’t have much to do with the matter,” Elise said.

“I wanted someone to complain to,” Steffen said.

“Gabrielle wouldn’t hear you out?” Falk asked, referring to Steffen’s wife, Princess Gabrielle.

“Gabi is gone for the day, and she took her dratted cat with her. Good riddance,” Steffen said. “So you would seriously consider marriage? Not to the Loire Pig Prince of course, but to a suitable candidate?”

Elise was spared from replying as her secretary, Gretta, arrived with the tea.

“Your refreshments, Fürstin,” Gretta said, setting a tray laden with a three-person tea set and various treats on an end table another secretary brought in.

“Thank you, Gretta,” Elise smiled.

The secretary gave Elise a dimpled smile before she left.

“Well?” Steffen asked.

Elise stood and set about serving tea, pouring it with elegance and poise. “I am a princess, Steffen. It is my duty as a member of this family—foster child or not—to marry for the betterment of our country. I have never shrunk away from my duties before, and I do not intend to start doing so now.”

“That’s our Perfect Princess,” Steffen said, repeating the court’s pet name for Elise.

“If you say so. Tea?”

“No, thank you. So, do you have anyone in mind for marriage?” Steffen asked.

Elise paused. “Perhaps,” she said, deliberately looking to her the door of her office. It opened into the Treasury Department’s headquarters, and directly across the hall from the Treasury Department was the Commerce Department. Mertein—the young noble who was casually courting her—worked there.

“Hm. Should have guessed. I must be going; I have a somewhat urgent correspondence I must see to,” Steffen said as he rocked to his feet. “But you two enjoy.”

“Were you pleasant when you refused the Loire Crown Prince?” Falk asked as he took the tea cup Elise offered him.

“Goodness, no,” Steffen said.

“Excellent,” Falk said.

“Be careful when playing with Loire, Steffen. That second prince is dangerous,” Elise said, pouring a cup of tea for herself.

“Prince Severin? He’s not a beast anymore, did you hear? He went off and fell in love with a merchant’s daughter. Broke the curse right off him.”

“Yes that’s why he’s even more dangerous now.”

“I agree. Take care, sister.”

“You as well, brother,” Elise watched Steffen leave with a fond smile. He was the only member of the royal family who had encouraged her from the day she was taken in as a foster child to refer to him as brother.

She loved him for his acceptance.

“I believe I found another error in my department’s accounts, Dove.”

Elise steeled herself to keep a grimace off her face. Steffen’s acceptance was more than she could say for some of her other foster brothers.

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