“Even though Father will leave the decision up to you, you will marry for the better of the country if Rune can’t win you over.”

Elise narrowed her eyes. “That’s true; I forgot the financial aspect. Well, if you want to marry me, we will have to make sacrifices. Financial ones. I won’t marry until Arcainia is back on track, and Carabas harbor is opened. But we’re crafty. We will manage. We’ll just have to increase our agricultural exports.”

Falk blinked. “I recognize I’m not the most social man, but I am certain most women don’t consider budgets and line items when talking about love.”

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“Why not? You love me; I love you. That seems pretty settled,” Elise said.

“This is completely unromantic. Even I recognize it,” Falk grumbled.

“Falk,” Elise said, stepping close enough to take his hand. “We are just getting over defeating a wicked witch. I spent the summer saving you and your brothers, and you spent the summer guarding me and looking for ways to ease my pain. As far as I’m concerned, there was a cloud of dramatic tension and love hanging over our head for the past season. I welcome a clear-cut business goal to work towards that will also bring me personal happiness.”

“I still don’t believe you,” Falk said, his head tipped as he looked down at her.

“Fair enough,” Elise said before sliding her arm behind Falk’s neck and standing on her tip-toes so she could kiss him. She blushed heavily as their lips met.

Falk was so stunned, he did not respond for several seconds. Then he wrapped his arms around Elise, cradling her close.

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“This is your last chance to back out, Elise. I love you. If you return my love, I will never let you go, and I will drive this country forward until you feel we can marry,” Falk said, his voice hoarse.

“I’ve made my choice, Falk. I love you,” Elise said.

Falk’s look of joy took Elise’s breath away. His eyes went soft, and his lips crept into a roguish grin as he traced Elise’s jaw with his fingertips. “Thank you,” he said, his lips brushing her forehead.

“Don’t thank me yet. We have to tell Father.”

“And Steffen.”

“And Rune. That one I will have to take care of, alone. You cannot rub this in his face.”

“You forget, Sweetness, out of all my brothers I am the one most likely to empathize with him,” Falk said before laying another kiss on Elise.

This was never a future Elise had considered, and in some ways it was exactly what Elise expected. She would marry a member of nobility who was highly influential in a government department. Working jointly, they could take their departments to new heights. But even in her most fanciful dreams, Elise never thought her husband would love her as deeply as Falk did. She never imagined kisses as passionate and tingling as the ones Falk gave her. She never dreamed she would love her husband with a matching passion.

So no, it wasn’t exactly what Elise had planned. It was a thousand times better.

For the first time in months, perhaps since the death of Queen Ingrid, Elise looked forward to the future.

When the new ambassador of Kozlovka took up his post in Arcainia, he complained to his predecessor. “Arcainia is a small country; why must we bow and scrape to them?”

The previous ambassador lifted his eyes to the heavens. “You so closely resemble myself when I first arrived at the Arcainian court that it pains me. I will tell you what my predecessor told me: do our country a favor, and keep your mouth shut until you have a solid grasp of Arcainia’s power.”

“I know plenty of Arcainia’s power,” the new ambassador protested.

“You are the second son of a duke who is known for being a rake. Forgive me for my doubts,” the previous ambassador wryly said.

The words stung the new ambassador of Kozlovka so much that he spent much of his first party in Arcainia sulking. “I don’t see what he’s talking about,” he muttered. “This court is a rag-tag spectacle. The royals are dressed no better than Mother’s maid.”

The country was pretty in an idealistic, cheerful song-bird sort of way. The ambassador of Kozlovka grudgingly admitted that the land was pretty and the subjects jolly, but the royals and the palace were a disgrace to behold. Why, the Crown Prince Steffen and his wife Princess Gabrielle were a handsome pair, dressed neatly in nice clothes, but there was no splendor. They did not drip with jewels or gold or expensive ornaments. The food was delicious but common, the castle was comfortable but not ornate. Even government employees were invited to the party, and they milled and conversed with Arcainian nobility without hesitation!

The ambassador of Kozlovka felt like he was visiting the estate of a country lord rather than a palace. “Disgraceful,” he muttered into his wine cup.

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