“Gee, thanks,” Rune said.

“Clotilde was not a powerful dark magic user. Her black diamonds were the real power,” Erick said. “Where did she get them from?”

“Or whom,” Mikk said.

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“Yes, she wasn’t the type to go searching for a dark power. She wouldn’t be smart enough to recognize it if she saw it. Someone must have given them to her,” Gabrielle said.

“In other words, we can be sure Clotilde was acting with help,” Rune said.

“Is it possible that Clotilde was part of a bigger movement? One bigger than Arcainia?” Steffen asked.

“And the Veneno Conclave either cannot or will not counteract,” Erick said.

“Our wealth and exporting power are not common knowledge. I cannot think we would be the prime target for a reign of darkness,” Elise said.

But the royal family turned grave as they dwelt on the possibilities.

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“But, that is a matter for another day,” Gerhart said, springing to his feet. “We got rid of the harpy, and we’re no longer birds. I think it’s time we hold a celebration.”

“A celebration?” Mikk said, a frown evident in his voice.

“Gerhie is right. If now isn’t time for a feast, I don’t know when is. Lighten up, Mikk. We’ll need dancing and food,” Nick said standing up so he could bow and offer his hand to Brida in a mock dance.

“And guests—everyone should be invited from all over Arcainia,” Gerhart declared.

“And music and drinks,” Nick continued.

“And money,” Elise said with a stone face.

“Ahhhh, yes that would be the kicker,” Nick said, grimacing.

“I think our treasury could handle a small party, don’t you think so, Elise?” King Henrik said.

Elise, unable to refuse her father anything after the past few months, said, “I suppose.”

“Hurray!” Nick said.

“Excellent choice, Father,” Gerhart praised.

“Good,” King Henrik said, leaning over to kiss Elise on the temple. “I will use the occasion as an excuse to laud and praise you,” he said before shaking his head and smiling in pride. “My daughter, Fürstin Elise, the savior of Arcainia!”

Elise leaned back in her chair, a smile on her lips. She was startled when she realized Mikk stood at her side, his hands folded behind her back.

“May I have a moment of your time?” he asked.

“Certainly,” Elise said, standing up. She awkwardly brushed her skirts before joining Mikk in a stroll around the room.

“You know our family loves you for you, not for being perfect,” he said when they were far enough away from the table that they wouldn’t be overheard.

Elise weighed his words. “Yes,” she said, surprised at the realization. She didn’t know exactly when the change took place, but she pushed herself to break the curse and defeat Clotilde not out of duty but love.

“You know that I have never disliked you?”

Elise blinked. “What?” It took her a moment to recall her emotional outburst the night she was told Rune and Falk loved her. She had accused Gerhart of being a brat and Mikk of holding her in distaste. “Um,” Elise awkwardly said.

“I watched you. Out of curiosity,” Mikk said. “Two of my brothers fell for you, that’s surprisingly high odds. Also, Father told Nick and I to put a security detail on you or he would hang us from our ankles. No wooing or courting allowed,” Mikk said, drawing a laugh from Elise. “But I never disliked you. You are my baby sister,” Mikk said.

The sweet simplicity of his words made Elise’s eyes water. “Thank you,” she said, choked up.

“So you don’t have to be the Perfect Princess anymore,” Mikk said, holding out Elise’s flute in one hand, a small saw in the other.

“Mikk…”

“You hate it. Break it.”

Elise took the instrument with a grimace. “No. I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.”

“No, I can’t! Do you have any idea how much this thing costs? We could sell it to purchase a new set of carriage horses or to pay Brida’s salary for half a year.”

Mikk gave Elise a rare smile. It softened the normal stone bones of his face and brightened his eyes. “Elise, do it.”

Elise swiveled the instrument in her grip and made a noise of distress.

“I will pay a jeweler to peel off the gold work and melt it down after it is destroyed.”

“Ok,” Elise brightly said. She took the saw from Mikk, and after a moment of struggling to hold the saw and flute, Mikk took the instrument and held it secure while Elise sawed through it.

When it snapped, Elise held the two halves above her head. “Never again!”

“Never again,” Mikk echoed.

“No more being perfect!”

“No more.”

“Way to go Elise!” Nick said. “What are we cheering for?”

Elise smiled at Mikk and walked back to the table with him. “The beginning of new era.”

“Sounds poetic,” King Henrik said.

“It sounds wonderful,” Elise said. “Oh, Mikk?”

“Yes?”

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