“Yeah, how was Elise able to break our curse if her touch cancels magic?” Nick asked.

“Breaking a curse is an entirely different matter than human-made magic. It deals with a deeper power that would easily override Elise’s magic,” Angelique said.

“I still don’t understand,” Elise said.

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Angelique tilted her head as she thought. “The magic I use—the magic any enchanter or enchantresses uses, Elise included—is a sort of surface magic. It is using your personal powers to change things. The magic that went into breaking your curse was a far deeper and older kind of magic that existed long before any enchanter walked these lands. Using love to conquer darkness is a power as old as the oceans. It is not surprising that Elise’s powers would have no affect on such potent magic. Once the steps are taken, no one can stop the consequences of a sacrifice made from love.”

“So how can I destroy her? Do you mean for me to wake Father from his stupor?” Elise said.

Angelique sipped her tea. “I’m afraid the task before you is much bigger than that. You must cut her off from her power source. Clotilde’s powers are nothing special, but if you cancel the magic of the artifacts she uses to prepare her big curses, she will expire.”

“Why?” Erick asked.

“Clotilde has put her life into those artifacts. If you destroy them, you destroy her,” Angelique said.

Steffen pressed his fingertips together. “Can you guarantee Elise’s safety?”

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“No. We know nothing about Elise’s abilities. There may be limitations, but I do not know how to properly test a magic student—I’m still an apprentice. Additionally, the testing process is a lengthy one. Based on the news I heard in Erlauf, I’m not certain Arcainia can hold out much longer.”

“News? What news?” Rune asked.

Angelique rubbed her tea cup with her thumb. “You royal siblings have worked to increase Arcainia’s power and wealth under your supervision. You have succeeded, but the country does not flourish without you.”

Steffen relaxed. “Of that we are well aware.”

“As such, Arcainia has not prospered under Clotilde’s rule. Her presence is evil, and the land is rejecting her. There was a famine this year—almost all crops were lost to blight or fungus. A storm hit Carabas harbor and nearly destroyed it. Without Prince Rune’s frequent patrols, more magical creatures with ill-intensions entered the country. Several villages were destroyed by those creatures. The army is underfunded and will not be able to survive much longer without proper finances, and as Clotilde lacks access to the majority of the country’s funds, she has raised taxes to support her spending.”

“How high are the taxes?” Elise asked, her eyes narrowed.

“Too high. After the massive crop failure, many of your subjects are unable to pay the tax. Normally, they would leave and become refugees, but your subjects trust you, and they’re waiting for your return,” Angelique said. “But Clotilde does not let them go unpunished.”

Elise stared at her welt-covered hands. Clotilde was going to ruin the country and beat all of their subjects into submission. Arcainia was suffering.

“We will have to do something,” Mikk said. “Not Elise.”

“It’s about time we take some of the burden,” Nick said.

Gerhart stood to snag a marmalade tart. “I try to look useless, but I don’t relish the idea of Elise being the only one in our family responsible for our country’s freedom,” he said.

“We can do nothing more today. That much is clear,” Steffen said, rubbing his eyes.

“Daylight is all but gone. If we set out for Arcainia, we would not get very far,” Rune agreed.

“We may spend the evening here,” Angelique said.

“Your friend will not mind?” Elise asked.

“Stil? No. Even if he comes home, I doubt he will notice our presence, although I must apologize, for he does not have enough rooms for us all,” Angelique said.

“No matter, we men will sleep here. There are plenty of cushions, and we’re used to spending our nights in much more uncomfortable places these days,” Steffen said, the corners of his mouth turning wryly.

“Does he have a room for Elise and Brida?” Rune asked.

“Yes,” Angelique said.

After another hour or two of discussion, Angelique showed Elise and Brida to a guest room—which was just as lavish as the bathroom.

Elise relished the feeling of soft, clean sheets and a feather-stuffed mattress, but her mind would not settle even after Brida blew out the last candle.

Elise couldn’t stop thinking about Arcainia.

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