“Very well. You may leave. Just this once though,” Rune said as Mertein approached them. “I won’t let you go running off with men much longer,” he said, leaning over to kiss her forehead.

“You’ve been out in the woods too long,” Elise said, taking a step towards Mertein. “But I thank you all the same for the rescue—you and Falk both.”

Falk bowed. “Always,” he said before stalking off, ignoring a pretty girl who tried to get his attention.

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“Prince Rune,” Brida said.

“Fine, fine. Where is Nick?” Rune asked, turning away as Elise and Mertein clasped hands.

“Good evening, Fürstin,” Mertein said, bowing over Elise’s hand.

“Good evening, Mertein. I hope I did not pull you away from anything important?” Elise asked.

Mertein shook his head. “Just work discussion.”

“Good. Please pardon my rudeness, but I wanted to dance with you,” Elise said.

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“There is nothing to pardon. I am happy to talk to and dance with you,” Mertein said with a boyish smile.

“How have you been?” Elise asked as the young man led her to the mass of swirling dancers.

“Quite well, thank you,” Mertein said. “My department is busy preparing for the opening of Carabas Harbor, but it is very exciting. And how are you?”

“As well as can be expected. I enjoy parties and feasts, but sometimes I feel they are more trouble than they are worth,” Elise said.

“But that cannot be so,” Mertein said with wide, innocent eyes. “Everyone is such great company; the food is outstanding, and it is hard to otherwise find a suitable location in which to dance.”

Elise smiled at Mertein’s earnest statements. “Everything you say is true. So, let us enjoy our dance,” she said as they slipped into place among the dancers.

“Absolutely, Princess,” Mertein said. “I am glad I have convinced you.”

Elise refrained from correcting the sweet boy. Later in the evening, she would have to attend to Ambassador Orazio—a situation thorny enough to make the most enjoyable events sour. But Mertein’s good humor was one of the things Elise liked about him. His good countenance would make marriage pleasant if King Henrik did not find a more suitable candidate.

“Father. Father,” Elise said, trying to get King Henrik’s attention with no such luck. The King was seated in a chair behind his desk, staring vacantly at papers.

“Father,” Elise said, dropping a thick stack of reports on his desk, making a loud smack.

“I beg your pardon, who—? Elise. H-hello, darling,” King Henrik said, shaking his head as if to clear it. “You startled me, child.”

“I apologize. I knocked before I entered,” Elise said.

King Henrik smiled. “I must have been deep in thought. How can I help you, daughter?”

“I have the finance reports you requested,” Elise said, sliding the stack of papers across the desk.

“Wonderful. Thank you for your swift work,” King Henrik said as he flipped through the top few pages of the report with shaking fingers.

“You’re welcome. Father, are you alright?”

“Hm?” King Henrik said, looking up at Elise.

“Are you feeling alright?” Elise repeated.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You merely seem a little preoccupied,” Elise said.

“Nonsense. I’m fine. I’m just fine…,” King Henrik trailed off as he paged through the report.

“Father?”

“Yes?”

“Did you need anything more?”

“No, child. This is all for the moment. Thank you, Elise. Run along, now.”

Elise retreated to the door of the king’s private study. She studied her foster father as the normally attentive man flipped through the financial reports, scattering other papers to the floor.

It was odd behavior for man who was usually just as fastidious and dutiful as Elise.

Elise flattened her lips before she left the king’s study. If the behavior persisted, she would mention it to her brothers.

Chapter 2

“It is a shame you have to leave so soon after your arrival. You haven’t been home for a full month,” Elise said, leaning against a stairway banister.

“I know, but it was my mistake not to hunt down the female sea serpent as well. Carabas cannot afford to have a sea monster plaguing its harbor when we aim to open it for business in spring,” Rune said.

“I know,” Elise said. “I shall miss you.”

Rune smiled playfully—a gesture that normally made women swoon. “I shall miss you more,” he said.

“Take care, and be safe,” Elise said, stepping closer to smooth a crease in his over shirt.

Rune was dressed in his usual hero garb of black breeches and boots with a black, fitted tunic trimmed in gold. “I will do my best,” Rune said, hefting his sword.

“What-ho, my sweet little family?” called one of two similar men who approached the staircase. They were big and broad shouldered, built like twin bulls. They were nearly identical, except one of the men had a crooked nose that looked like it had gotten smashed a couple dozen times.

“Greetings, Nick and Mikk. I am leaving,” Rune said.

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