Queen Ingrid had passed away suddenly due to a fast onset sickness about three years ago. The entire country was devastated; Queen Ingrid was beloved by all. But King Henrik took it particularly hard. For a while, the royal family wasn’t sure he would outlive Ingrid because he pined for her like a swan after it loses its mate. But with time and much love from his children, King Henrik returned to his joyful self.

“If that is the case, I cannot fault him. I can hardly point fingers for staunch loyalty in love,” Rune said.

“What do you mean?” Elise said as a maid set a tray of apple fritters down.

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“Gads, how I have missed eating in Brandis,” Rune said, twitching a hot fritter off the tray.

“And we are ever so glad you have returned. Welcome home, Rune.”

Rune licked sugar off his fingers. “Thank you. I’m happy to be back,” he said, his words adorned by a dangerously charming smile.

“I’m sure the ladies of the court are especially glad,” Elise said with the princess smile she reserved for state affairs. “There is a ball tonight, you know.”

Rune winced. “Oh. What ill timing. I think I may have to make spontaneous inspections of the army barracks with Mikk and Nick.”

“That is unfortunate. I was looking forward to dancing with you,” Elise said.

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“For you, My Lady, I would slay a dozen sea serpents or, even worse, attend a party.”

“How very heroic of you.”

“Indeed. If you wish it, I shall brave the ballroom tonight, but only if you allow me to be your escort.”

“It is very sad, but I must respectfully decline. Father still insists on being my escort. You could always ask him.”

“I could, but he is fiercely protective of the honor. I doubt I would succeed,” Rune said.

“I think he uses me to keep the eligible ladies and widows away,” Elise said, helping herself to a fritter.

“It would be the smart thing to do.”

“But will you come tonight anyway?”

“Will any of my brothers be there?”

“Gerhart will for certain, and Steffen of course. Falk usually comes to this sort of thing, but I don’t think Erick will. He is still at the university, and he would have arrived by now if he meant to attend. As for Mikk and Nick, no one can pretend to predict what they will do,” Elise said.

“And you will attend,” Rune said.

“Naturally. It is one of my duties,” Elise said before she bit into her fritter. She closed her eyes in ecstasy when she bit through the crunchy, sugared exterior.

“Naturally,” Rune echoed before he brushed sugar off Elise’s cheek with a finger.

“So you will come?”

“I will come.”

“Thank you, Rune.”

“My pleasure, Elise.”

“Your country is so quaint, Princess. I dearly enjoy your state events; they are so charming in their modesty.”

“You are too kind, Ambassador Orazio,” Elise said, her smile pasted in place. She had to be kind to Orazio. He was from Sole, one of the few countries Arcainia did not loan money to or ship many supplies and exports to. They were allied only through political maneuvering, which meant a misspoken word could bring the relationship crashing down.

“In Sole, a royal ball would so fill the royal palace, normal government activities would be halted for a week,” Orazio continued, lifting his prominent nose into the air like the sail of a boat.

“How inconvenient. Although I suppose you must miss it?” Elise said, feigning sympathy. Ambassador Orazio was a fussy, opinionated man. Elise did not enjoy speaking to him, but it was in Arcainia’s best interests to see that he was properly entertained.

Orazio stroked his greasy goatee. “The food, the colors, the brilliance of Sole cannot be imitated. However, Arcainia is a pleasant post—although I must confess I do not understand your obsession with work uniforms,” he said, watching three secretaries from the Commerce Department walk past. Their department affiliation was clearly indicated by the black bands they wore on their arms over their party clothes.

“For a country as small as Arcainia, the uniforms provide an easy method of organization and wordless communication,” Elise said, her hand lingering on the red sash tied around the waist of her white dress.

“If you say so, Princess,” Orazio said, taking a goblet of wine from a serving maid. “I find your lack of class distinction… refreshing,” Orazio said, placing the pause to make it clear he found it anything but. “In Sole, hardly any sort of royal ball would allow government employees to attend.”

If the royals are anything like you, it’s no wonder, Elise wryly thought.

“Another symptom of our small country, I suppose. Our government subordinates have much to do with the running of the country, so we feel it is appropriate to welcome them into occasions of celebration,” Elise said.

“I see,” Orazio said.

“If you will pardon us, Ambassador Orazio. Could you spare Elise for a few minutes?”

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