“Of this I am aware, which is why I will help you—though my husband must be rolling in his grave,” Lady Klara said. “But as I have neither finances nor influence, this is the only way I can help you: by lending you my name.”

Cinderella raised her gaze to rest it on Lady Klara. What had Friedrich said? Only the strong could forgive. As Cinderella stood before Lady Klara—the widow of an Erlauf war hero—it occurred to her that Lady Klara must be a very strong individual.

“Thank you,” Cinderella said, the words falling short of everything she meant to say.

Lady Klara raised her shoulders in a minute shrug. “Make the arrangements to meet with a financial officer, and I will go with you to make the claim,” she said, strolling over to a window.

“I’m sorry,” Cinderella said.


“For the war, for your losses, for judging you without mercy.”

“Don’t be silly, child. You were just a girl. You cannot be held responsible for any of those things,” Lady Klara said.

Cinderella shifted.

“But, Cinderella,” Lady Klara said, turning from the window. “Please consider carefully what you will do with your power.”

Cinderella swallowed. “Yes, Step-Mother,” she said, curtseying before she left the parlor.

Her mind spun, and Cinderella had to lean against a wall after she shut the door. It was too much to take in. Her Step-Mother was helping her. Queen Freja targeted her because she would not sell or downsize…

“What about my marriage?” Cinderella murmured. “Does Queen Freja not realize when I marry I will be forced to sell Aveyron? No one else shares my scruples in selling.”

Cinderella pushed the thought from her mind. It was more than she could handle at the moment.

“First I must make the arrangements to pay off the debt. I will free Aveyron from this financial mountain,” Cinderella vowed.

Cinderella sweated as the government official handling Aveyron’s debts—Lord Diederick—studied the sales bills and receipts for Windtop Manor. It puzzled Cinderella that a titled Erlauf Lord served in the government. Moreover, why was he in charge of debt collection? If there ever was a less glamorous government position, Cinderella certainly hadn’t heard of it.

“You claim Duke Eugene Lacreux willed this to you, Lady Klara?” Lord Diederick asked, looking at Lady Klara over the wire rims of his eyeglasses.

“Yes,” Lady Klara said, her voice stiff.

“And have you proof of this?”

“Only my word, and his heir’s agreement.”

“Hmph,” Lord Diederick said, returning his attention to the papers.

Cinderella discreetly shifted in her summer dress. She did her best to look assured and slightly bored, although she wanted to wring her hands nervously.

Lady Klara looked as unmovable as a boulder, which is to say not at all different than her usual expression.

“It appears to be legitimate,” the young lord finally said, pushing the papers aside. “The crown will hold the deed to Windtop Manor until it is sold to pay Aveyron’s debts, if that is what you wish to do with the funds you receive from the sale, Lady Klara?”

Cinderella waited with baited breath.

“Of course,” Lady Klara said.

“Very well,” Lord Diederick said. “There will be an inheritance tax, as this property was not previously reported,” he said, leveling his heavy gaze at Lady Klara and then Cinderella. “And after that, a sales tax. If it is priced reasonably, the sale will pay off Aveyron’s debt and have a small amount remaining, which will naturally go to Lady Klara.”

“I beg your pardon, there will be some left?” Cinderella frowned.

“Indeed,” Lord Diederick said.

Cinderella shook her “How can that be? Is the debt not…” she trailed off when Lord Diederick showed her a scrap of paper.

“This is the remaining debt,” he said.

Cinderella stared at the number. The Sun Skips canceled a portion of the debt, but Cinderella knew exactly how much she paid off. The number Lord Diederick showed her was incorrect.

Cinderella frowned. As much as the smaller debt would delight her, the last thing she needed was Queen Freja harping at her again in several years for failing to pay the entire debt. “I believe there may be a mistake,” she said.

“There has been no mistake. Over the past few days dozens of individuals have trooped through my offices, reducing Aveyron’s debt with copper and silver coins,” Lord Diederick wryly said.

“What?” Cinderella said, her forehead wrinkling.

“A stable boy was the last to come. He left not an hour before your arrival after depositing five copper coins against your debt. A fellow named Gilbert was the first to make a payment, I believe,” Lord Diederick said, rustling papers.

Cinderella lost the stiffness in her spine and leaned back in her chair. She stared at the ceiling, doing her best to keep from crying.

Her servants, Aveyron’s employees, were paying off the debt.

“Is everything alright?” Lord Diederick mildly asked.