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The cottage looked as quaint and humble as I’d expect a troll’s cottage to look. It reminded me of the one where the seven dwarves lived with Snow White. The floors were dirt, packed down into a smooth black from wear.

The table sitting in the center of the kitchen was made of thick, scarred wood. A broom sat propped in one corner, and a flower box sat below each of the small round windows. Like the flowers in the garden at home, these bloomed bright purple and pink, even though it was way past the season for them.

“Will you be staying for supper?” she asked, sprinkling something into the pot on the stove.

“What?” I asked, surprised by her invitation.

“I need to know.” She turned to face me, wiping her hands on her dress to clear them of spices. “I’ll have to make rolls if I’m feeding another mouth.”

“Oh, no, I’m okay.” I shook my head, realizing it wasn’t an invitation. She was afraid that I would impose myself on her meal and her family, and my stomach twisted sourly. “Thank you, though.”

“What is it that you want, then?” She put her hands on her hips, and her eyes were as dark and hard as Finn’s when he was upset.

“What? You…” I floundered, surprised by the directness of her question. “You invited me in.”

“You were lurking around. I know you want something.” She grabbed a rag from the metal basin that served as a sink and began washing the table off, even though it didn’t appear dirty. “I’d rather you come out and be done with it.”

“Do you know who I am?” I asked softly.

I didn’t want to tout any superiority, but I didn’t understand why she was reacting this way. Especially if she knew that I was the Princess, I didn’t know why she’d be so curt.

“Of course I know who you are,” she said. “And I assume you know who I am.”

“Who are you?” I asked, even though I knew.

“I’m Annali Holmes, lowly servant of the Queen.” She stopped wiping the table so she could glare at me. “I’m Finn’s mother. And if you came to see him, he isn’t here.”

My heart would’ve dropped if I wasn’t so confused by the way she was treating me. I felt like she was accusing me of something, and I didn’t even know what.

“I—I didn’t—” I stuttered. “I went for a walk. I needed fresh air. I didn’t mean anything.”

“You never do,” Annali said with a tight smile.

“You’ve only just met me.”

She nodded. “Maybe so. But I knew your mother, quite well.” She turned away, putting a hand on the back of one of the dining room chairs. “And I know my son.”

I understood too late where her anger came from. Her husband and my mother had been involved in an affair years ago. Annali had known about it, so of course she’d taken issue with me. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized it sooner.

Here I was, messing up her son’s life, after my mother had almost ruined her life. I swallowed hard and realized I shouldn’t have come here. I didn’t need to bother Finn or hurt his family any more than I already had.

“Mom!” a girl called from another room, and Annali instantly composed herself, forcing a smile.

A girl of about twelve came into the kitchen carrying a battered schoolbook. She wore layers consisting of a worn dress and wool sweater, looking tattered and cold despite the warmth of the house. Her hair was the same dark mess my hair had always been, and she had a smudge of dirt on her cheek.

As soon as she saw me, her jaw dropped and her eyes widened.

“It’s the Princess!” the girl gasped.

“Yes, Ember, I know who it is,” Annali said with as much kindness as she could muster.

“Sorry. I’ve forgotten my manners.” Ember tossed the textbook on the table and did a quick, low curtsy.

“Ember, you don’t need to do that, not in our own home,” Annali chastised her tiredly.

“She’s right. I feel silly when people do that,” I said.

Annali shot me a look from the corner of her eye, and for some reason, I think agreeing with her made her hate me more. Like I was undercutting her parenting.

“Oh, my gosh, Princess!” Ember squealed and ran around the table to greet me. “I can’t believe you’re in my house! What are you doing here? Is it about my brother? He’s out with my father, but he’ll be back soon. You should stay for supper. All my friends at school will be so jealous. Oh, my gosh! You’re even prettier than Finn said you were!”

“Ember!” Annali snapped when it appeared that Ember wouldn’t stop.

I blushed and looked away, unsure of how to respond to her. I understood in theory why it might be exciting to meet a Princess, but I couldn’t see anything exciting about meeting me.

“Sorry,” Ember apologized, but it didn’t dampen her delight at all. “I’ve been begging Finn to let me meet you, and he—”

“Ember, you need to do your schoolwork.” Annali wouldn’t look at either of us.

“I came out because I didn’t understand it.” Ember pointed to her textbook.

“Well, work on something else, then,” Annali told her.

“But Mom!” Ember whined.

“Ember, now,” Annali said firmly, in a tone I recognized from years of Maggie and Matt scolding me.

Ember sighed and picked up her textbook before trudging to her room. She muttered something about life not being fair, but Annali ignored it.