“Will you go out adventuring again, or are you here for the remainder of winter?” Elise asked as they strolled through the noisy hall.

“It depends on Steffen. I hope he will let me stay, but he may not have a choice if more monsters arrive,” Rune said.

“It seems like you have quelled more creatures and magical disturbances in the past few years than usual. You used to be able to spend all of winter with us in Castle Brandis,” Elise said.

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“It is partially because Father and Steffen trust me enough to know I won’t break my neck, so they are able to send me out on more difficult missions that used to require the army. But there is some truth to your observations. There has been an increase in violent-minded creatures invading our borders,” Rune said. “I do not believe we are the only country encountering this phenomenon.”

“Have we sent word to the Veneno Conclave? As the rulers and regulators of all magic users and magic itself, I imagine they would have something to say about this subject,” Elise said.

“I requested that Steffen would do so. He gave the task to Erick—he has contacts with several enchanters and enchantresses,” Rune said, referring to one of his brothers.

“I see,” Elise said when they stopped at an empty table. She saw Mertein, who waved to her with a dimpled smile, sitting several tables away. Elise returned the smile and wave. She would have done more, but Rune interrupted her thoughts.

“We need to discuss Baron Ludwig von Drebkau,” Rune said, pulling out a chair for Elise before he seated himself.

“So you stopped by his manor then? What did he have to say for himself?” Elise asked, shifting all of her attention to Rune. She had spent months watching Baron Drebkau’s tax reports and comparing them with his public claims. They hadn’t matched up, which was usually a sign of illegal activities.

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“He was illegally importing luxury goods and selling them in the black market, as well as evading taxes by lying about his income. He has been corrected,” Rune said. When he shifted, the sword strapped to his belt clanked ominously. “Is there anyone else you need me to speak to?”

In addition to serving as the public relations poster child, Rune was also something of a one-man secret police. He investigated and reprimanded persons of interest, occasionally with the aid of one of his older brothers depending on the suspected crime. Mostly he worked for Elise, helping her keep Arcainia’s nobles in line and investigating their claims when Elise could not.

“None. I’ve spent the past month going over the Defense Department’s budget and expenses, but I haven’t gotten very far,” Elise said.

“Are Mikk and Nick avoiding you?”

“No—worse. Falk is being obstinate over several items in the Agriculture Department’s estimated budget,” Elise sighed. She smiled at the serving maid who started loading food onto the table.

“Falk is all bark. Tell him to accept your suggestions, or you’ll cut department funding,” Rune suggested. “Thank you,” he said, giving the maid a dazzling smile.

The serving maid set the last of the food and drinks on the table and bobbed a curtsey before she left, unaffected by Rune’s good looks.

“I can tell he is getting irritated with our meetings as well,” Elise said, spearing a sausage.

“Falk? How?”

“His tone is increasingly sarcastic, and he’s dropping nicknames like flower petals. Sugar Plum, Filly, Moonbeam, Ray of Sun. I have a theory. The more ridiculous they are, the more irritated he is,” Elise said.

“I am sorry you feel that he is annoyed by you,” Rune said, helping himself to a portion of salted fish.

“There isn’t much either of us can do about the situation. But let us talk of more pleasant things,” Elise suggested.

“Where is Father? Doesn’t he usually eat with everyone?” Rune asked, nodding at the royal table where King Henrik usually ate with his councilors. Instead, a smiling Prince Steffen was seated in his place.

Elise sipped a mug of hot cider. “He’s been going out a lot the past few weeks.”

“Going out? Going out where? It’s the middle of winter. We had snow last week,” Rune said.

“I am not entirely certain. I talked to him about it once—it’s not good for him to miss so many lunches—but he said he likes going to the forest to think,” Elise said.

“Does he take a guard with him at least?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“Is that so,” Rune said.

“He may simply miss Mother,” Elise said.

“Mother has been dead for several years, and he has never done this before.”

“Yes, but she died in winter. He may be trying to escape his memories of her death,” Elise said.

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