“Yes, Falk. Where is it?”

“Here. We grew several acres more of alfalfa hay than what is recorded. I apologize, but it might take me more than one day to finish inspecting these numbers.”

“Of course.”

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“I will have to intrude upon you while I do so, of course. The Treasury Department records things differently than we do in the Agriculture Department.”

That would be just her luck. Elise bit her tongue to keep from snarling. “Of course,” she pleasantly said.

Two weeks later, Elise walked with her subordinates to the dining hall.

“Princess, would you look at the Carabas accounts after lunch? The master craftsman submitted their bid for the shipyard docks. I’m not certain they used the right dimensions, based on their estimates,” one bookkeeper asked.

“I would be happy to, Fritz. Thank you for so carefully recording the bids,” Elise said, tightening the red ribbon that held her unruly mess of curly, brown hair back in a ponytail.

“It’s my honor,” Fritz said. “Thank you, Princess.”

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“Lisel, did the last payment for the college’s new astronomy lab clear the daily treasury?” Elise asked, craning her neck to look for the red-haired accountant in the herd of scholars that surrounded her.

“It did. It will dry the daily treasury for a time, but since we paid off our debts, we will no longer owe compounding interest. I suspect we’ll recover in a matter of weeks,” the accountant said, popping out in front of Elise.

“Perfect,” Elise said as her employees stopped at the dining hall entrance. “With that our—Yeek!” Elise squealed when someone grabbed her from behind and swept her into the air.

“Working too much as usual, Elise?” Elise’s captor chuckled, still holding her aloft.

“Rune,” Elise said, throwing her arms around the handsome man’s shoulders. “You’re back!”

“Yes. Steffen finally stopped handing out assignments and let me come home,” Rune said, tucking an arm behind Elise’s knees, so the black skirts of her work uniform cascaded from his hands.

“Good afternoon, Prince Rune,” Elise’s underlings chorused.

Rune gave the staff his most charming smile. “Good afternoon, Treasury Department. Do you mind if I steal your chief for this meal?”

“Of course not,” they said, bobbing in curtseys and bows before they took their leave. “Enjoy your lunch, Fürstin, Prinz.”

“You are still the number one idol and Treasury Department darling?” Rune asked, watching the scholars enter the dining hall.

“They value my mental calculation abilities. Could you put me down?” Elise asked.

“As you wish,” Rune said, setting Elise on her feet.

Elise fussed with her uniform—a simple but elegant black dress with white sleeves and gold trim—before she fixed the red sash that crossed her chest and cinched around her waist, signifying her position as the Treasury Department head.

“It’s good to see you. I didn’t know Steffen called you home,” Elise said, checking her low ponytail before smiling at her foster brother.

“It was rather sudden. He had something important he wanted to discuss with me,” Rune said.

Elise frowned. “Really?”

“It’s nothing for you to worry about,” Rune said with another one of his dazzling smiles.

“Ah, hero work.”

“Yes.”

As the middle child of seven brothers, and all of them deeply involved in Arcainia’s government, Rune was hailed as the heroic brother. He fit the image with his gold hair and dreamy hazel eyes. As Steffen liked to say, “You were made to be fawned over, so put your pretty face to good use and raise the public’s opinion of us!”

“How did your adventuring go?” Elise asked.

“Well enough. I trounced the ogre that set up camp in GlassGlow Forest, killed a sea serpent that was hindering restoration efforts at Carabas, took care of a chimera, and drove a few mountain hags back into Loire,” Rune said, offering his arm.

“I heard about the sea serpent. You did tidy work, from what I was told,” Elise said, tucking her hand in Rune’s elbow before they entered the busy dining hall.

Breakfast and lunch at Castle Brandis, the Arcainian palace, was a public affair. Soldiers, governmental staff members, servants, and nobility ate together in a massive dining hall that buzzed with conversation and gossip.

The tradition was scorned by some of the high-brow countries Arcainia shared borders with, like pompous Loire, but for a country as small as Arcainia, it provided an easy way of exchanging information and forming inter-department friendships.

“I’m not sure ‘tidy’ is the correct way to describe how I handled the situation. I killed a male sea serpent, but I am almost positive it had a mate. We can only hope they didn’t have hatchinglings,” Rune frowned.

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