“Elise?”

Elise snapped her gaze up from the pile of dust.

King Henrik stood. He was still grey and hunched, but his eyes were bright and intelligent. “Elise, your hands—what has happened to you, darling?”

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Elise couldn’t help it. She burst into tears. “Father,” she cried, throwing herself at him.

“There, there, darling. Whatever nightmare you’ve faced is over. All is well,” King Henrik said, hugging her and rocking her like she was a little girl again.

“Gabi!”

“Steffen, you’re well!”

“Father!”

“Elise, Father!”

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“Elise, you did it! You beat that—ahh, you beat her!”

The throne room was filled with laughter and tears as everyone cheered and hugged—Nick even did a short dance.

Elise clung to King Henrik and cradled Queen Ingrid’s crown as she sobbed in sheer relief. Finally, the nightmare was over.

It took the better part of the afternoon to explain to King Henrik what happened. He didn’t remember much since the wedding, so recounting the cursing of his children gave the king a great deal of pain.

“How could I be so foolish?” King Henrik said, shaking his head when all the stories were told.

“Don’t blame yourself, Father. That woman was a snake,” Nick said, taking a swig of cider. (Bless the servants who thought to bring refreshments when the family moved to the dining hall for storytelling.) Elise sat somewhat apart from her family, not due to any feeling of separation, but because it warmed her heart to see all of them at once.

Steffen and Gabrielle were inseparable since Steffen’s return. The pair looked controlled enough, but from her vantage point Elise could see that Steffen held Gabrielle’s hand with trembling fingers.

Nick had coaxed Brida into joining the family, saying, “You were the only one who could talk during the day. It’s only proper for you to tell your parts of the story.”

Brida was sitting in a chair next to Nick, mostly silent, but she smiled whenever Nick flashed a grin at her.

A steady stream of men and women ghosted up to Mikk and whispered in his ear, most likely giving him the details of all that happened in his absence.

Gerhart, although listening to his family, was hard at work writing up invitations and sending out notices. “Do you have any idea how far behind I am in social engagements? I was in the middle of a number of talks that have probably all gone sour or been forgotten since the snake’s rule. I have to start over from the beginning,” Gerhart sighed, laying an arm across his eyes when his brothers scolded him for working.

Rune and Falk were seated closest to Elise, so they were the ones who looked up when Elise finally spoke. “I nearly forgot in all the chaos, but where is Angelique?”

“Recovering,” Falk said.

“What?”

Rune, more prone to give details, picked up the story. “When we set foot on Arcainian soil, we set off some kind of curse. Apparently Clotilde worried we might return, so she set up some defenses. One of the curses alerted her to our presence—that one was too fast for Angelique to get—but the other unleashed a basilisk on us. Nasty thing,” Rune said, shaking his head. “I’m not sure if I could take one on alone. Anyway, she sent us on ahead and said she could handle it. We didn’t make it far before we heard explosions. She caught up to us on her flashy horse, but she was pale as snow and as cold as ice.”

“Did it hurt her?” Elise asked.

“No,” Rune said. “It didn’t get the chance. She hit it with the most powerful spells she had.”

“It is generally known that powerful magics cannot be used without incurring a sort of penalty or backlash. Typically it makes the caster ill or saps their strength. There are some exceptions of course,” Falk said, eyeing Elise.

“She couldn’t keep up with us in her condition, so we left her in a village on our way here,” Rune said. “She assured us she would be fine. She just needed to recoup a little bit.”

“I see,” Elise said.

“It doesn’t matter. You managed perfectly well anyway,” Falk said.

“Gabrielle said her cat was going to check on her,” Rune said, looking a little confused by the report. “She said he is an old companion of hers.”

“Boys, scatter,” King Henrik said, seating himself in a chair next to Elise.

Falk scowled, but Rune placed a brotherly arm around him. “Yes, Father,” Rune said before he and Falk joined the rest of their siblings.

Elise smiled at King Henrik when they left. “I’m so happy to see you, Father.”

“And I am overjoyed to see you,” King Henrik said, patting Elise’s hair. “It seems I have you to thank for saving not only my family, but our country.”

Elise shook her head and ran her fingers on the edges of Queen Ingrid’s gold crown, which was on her lap. “It was more than just me. I couldn’t have done any of that without Brida, or my brothers.”

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