“I must return to my office and finish copy-editing the Black Army’s accounts. Aren’t you supposed to be making inspections today, Nick?” Elise asked.

“Rats. Fine. Let’s go terrorize some recruits, Mikk. What-ho!” Nick said before leaving as abruptly as he arrived, his twin moving in his shadow.

“Do you have plans for the afternoon, Hart?” Elise asked.

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Gerhart tipped his chin up. “Hmph,” he said, a high pitched noise exhaled from his nose. He turned on his heels and went back down the stairs.

Elise sighed as she watched the young prince go before she smoothed the black skirts of her work uniform and set out as well.

Elise was last to arrive to the royal family dinner some weeks later—or the second to last, as it were. “Where is Father?” Elise asked.

“Dunno,” Nick said.

Princess Gabrielle, Steffen’s beautiful wife, further explained. “Good evening, Elise. King Henrik should be along shortly. He sent a note ahead of him; he is bringing a guest.”

“I see,” Elise said, heading for her usual chair between Nick and Falk. When sitting by age, as the Arcainia Royalty tended to do for formal occasions, Elise sat between Falk and Gerhart. However, the youngest prince gave Elise dirty looks and would ignore her for the duration of the meal if she tried to sit near him at a time when it was not required.

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As Steffen and Gabrielle were seated next to the King, Elise usually chose to sit with her friendliest brother, Nick, when Rune or her remaining foster brother, the intellectually minded Erick, were not present.

“Hey there, Perfect Princess. Sit on down and join in the fun,” Nick said, pushing Elise’s chair out for her.

“Thank you,” Elise said.

“Does anyone know who this mysterious guest is?” Nick asked, turning back to his siblings once Elise was seated.

“I have not heard of any visiting dignitaries,” Falk said, rubbing a lock of his stick straight hair between his fingers.

“No one new has entered Castle Brandis,” Mikk said.

“Father hasn’t been meeting specifically with any family of nobility,” Gerhart said. “No one’s been trying to squirrel their way into our good graces either—well, no more so than usual.”

“It seems odd that he would invite a guest to a family dinner,” Princess Gabrielle said.

“If his counselors are going to join us, he tells us several days in advance. This was very sudden,” Steffen said.

Nick nudged Elise. “Has he said anything to you, Elise? After Steffen and Gabi you see him the most.”

Elise shook her head. “For the past week, he has spoken little with me, except…”

“Yes?” Mikk said, leaning forward so he could peer past his twin and stamp Elise with one of his heavy gazes.

“He has taken a sudden interest in Arcainia’s gross income and wealth,” Elise said.

Gerhart snorted. “He’s King. It’s not odd that he should be concerned with his country’s finances.”

“Yes, of course. But he’s requested a number of reports. He wants to know on a daily basis what the accumulated wealth is. Previously, he would ask for estimates. Now he wants specifics,” Elise said.

Mikk tapped the table with a spoon as he thought.

“Perhaps it is time that we more closely watch Father,” Steffen said.

Nick nodded, looking like Mikk in his seriousness.

Before any of the other siblings could respond, the doors banged open, and King Henrik entered the private dining room with a tall, regal woman.

“Children, allow me to introduce you to Lady Clotilde,” King Henrik said, approaching the table.

Elise and her foster siblings stood, inclining their heads in deference to their father.

Elise studied Lady Clotilde under her eyelashes. The woman was almost as tall as most of Elise’s foster brothers. Her shoulders were wide, but she walked with an air of self-assurance few ladies of Arcainia could muster. Although she was King Henrik’s guest, she wasn’t more than a year or two older than Steffen. She was fair haired and had light blue eyes that were almost colorless. She was pleasing to look at, but she gave off the same sort of sharp beauty as a crow or a bird of prey.

King Henrik smiled widely as he escorted his companion to the table, seating her in the empty seat next to his.

“Lady Clotilde, may I introduce you to my children: Kronprinz Steffen and his wife Prinzessin Gabrielle, Prinz Mikkael, Prinz Nickolas, Prinz Falk, Prinz Gerhart, and Fürstin Elise,” King Henrik said before he too sat.

The introduction bothered Elise. Whenever King Henrik introduced his family he usually waxed poetry over them for a bit and called them by their first name. Never before had King Henrik introduced her in an informal occasion as Fürstin.

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