Prince Erran bowed deeply. “This is Lady Veala of Narisso, Your Highness.”

Queen Pearth looked down at her great grand-nephew and his would-be fiance. The two complimented each other nicely. Lady Veala was tall for a woman, but Prince Erran was tall enough that this was good. She’d seen him have to stoop over to dance at balls. The noblewoman’s dark hair and tanned skin stood out against Erran’s snow white locks and pale complexion. Standing together, it would be impossible not to notice the two.

“I hope I meet with your approval, Your Majesty,” Veala said, curtsying. It was difficult to tell underneath that dress, but it looked like she had good hips. It wasn’t strictly necessary for the prince’s wife to survive childbirth, but it certainly would be convenient if she did.

Veala and Erran glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes, a gesture Pearth doubted they were even aware of. Their eyes swam with love for each other. Even she could see that.

She tried to remember feeling that way. She had, once, so long ago. She had known love and joy and fear and anger and betrayal.

“And why should I give you my blessing?” she asked, as she always did when people tried to marry into her family.

Veala stood tall, which Pearth appreciated. Too many people felt the need to bow or curtsy every time they spoke. It made them look like ducks.

“My father offers you the shipping fleets of our holdings, to use whenever you’d like over the next three years.”

“Thus making us dependent on Narisso for all of our trading. I daresay he’d quickly make up any money he lost over those three years.”

The noblewoman’s confidence shook a bit at that, but she didn’t look away. “It is a gift, Your Majesty. If my father should profit from it in the end-”

Erran’s laughter cut her off. “She’s playing with you, dear. Aren’t you, Your Majesty?”

“I’m the Ice Queen, if you’ll recall. I froze my heart away one hundred years ago. I don’t play games.”

“You do,” Erran said. “I sometimes think you do nothing but play games.”

The faintest smile graced Pearth’s lips. “Perhaps you’re right. At least you brought a sensible girl.” She turned to Veala. “You wouldn’t believe how many women in your position answer with ‘love,’ as if that would convince me of anything.”

“For what it’s worth,” Erran said, taking Veala’s hand in his own, “we do love each other.”

“So long as you love each other equally. I’ve found it’s imbalanced love that most often leads to people doing something stupid. A loveless marriage can be just as happy and profitable as-”

“Your Highness!” Captain Thuen called out as he ran into the throne room. He wore his guard uniform, and didn’t bother bowing when he addressed her; he was a practical man, and didn’t waste time on formalities if there were pressing issues. “Messenger birds arrived. Werewolves have attacked the town of Lindrel.”

She stood. “Take men out immediately. Anyone bitten is to be killed immediately. Any man otherwise injured is to be bound. Quarantine Lindrel. Make sure nothing gets in or out. Make sure they know that if any werewolf shows up within Lindrel tonight, the entire town will be put to the torch. Understood?”

Thuen clapped a hand to his breastplate. “Of course, Your Highness. Should I send men to neighboring towns?”

“You’ll need your men at Lindrel,” she said, mentally mapping out the area. “Send a man to each town to supervise their militias. If any of the wolves split off to attack the towns, they should be able to hold them off.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Thuen said, and without waiting for her to dismiss him, he left.

“What are your thoughts, Lady Veala?” she asked the noblewoman.

“You want me to cry out how unfair you are being, don’t you, Your Highness?” she said, looking the Ice Queen in the eye. “To tell you how horrible it is that your orders will likely put uninfected men to the sword. How cruel it is to threaten to burn down an entire town if a single man should hide an injured loved one.

“Well, it is horrible, and it is cruel, but I can’t call it unfair. Lycanthropy cannot be allowed to spread. It would be unfair to Bren, Endendale, and Willow to put them at risk. You have taken what precautions you reasonably can.”

The queen turned to Erran. “I like this one, nephew. You have my blessing.”

Erran grinned. “I never had any doubts, Your Majesty.”