Cinderella was in her room—studying the two good dresses she still owned. The Delattres recently sent her a dinner invitation for the following week. As these were advance invitations, it was likely to be a more formal event, and all remaining Trieux nobility were invited. Cinderella would have to make a greater effort to look presentable according to Trieux standards.
“I think I will grow too hot in my winter dress, but my summer dress…,” Cinderella trailed off and brushed the silk skirts. Both dresses were simple—Cinderella sold her more lavish dresses out of practicality—but Cinderella was reluctant to wear her remaining summer dress as it was the last gift she had received from her father.
Cinderella sighed and turned her back to the nearly empty wardrobe.
Her thoughts were interrupted by three timid knocks on the door.
“Come in,” Cinderella said.
“Mademoiselle,” Jeanne curtsied after she opened the door. “There is an Erlauf man here to see you.”
“An army officer?”
“No. A government official.”
Cinderella sucked a breath of air in and placed a hand on her stomach, as if to hold it in place. Erlauf officials were never a good thing. “Thank you, Jeanne. I will see him now. He is still in the main entrance?”
“Thank you,” Cinderella said, dread filling her as she made her way to the entrance.
What could they want? They publically post tax law changes. We paid last season’s taxes. Did we not renew our stall license for the market stand? Cinderella’s mind crawled with possible problems and worst-case scenarios. She was stiff with worry by the time she greeted the Erlauf Official.
“I am Duchess Cinderella Lacreux. You asked to see me?” Cinderella asked.
The official raised his eyebrows at Cinderella’s appearance—shorn hair and servant-length skirts—before he extended a stack of papers. “I was sent by Queen Freja to address your unpaid fines.”
“What?” Cinderella said, plucking the papers from his grasp.
“After the war, Aveyron failed to pay several of the landholding fines. As half of them were paid off, the Crown assumed the rest would be forthcoming, but was never compensated. The interest has accrued quite steeply.”
“I don’t understand. I was never told of landholding fines,” Cinderella said.
“It was a one-time amount placed on nobles newly adopted into Erlauf,” the official said.
That’s a fancy way of saying only Trieux nobles had to pay this, Cinderella thought.
“But I never heard of this, I never received any notice of it, nor of the compounding interest.”
“I believe the Lord of Aveyron at the time of the fine was Eugene Lacreux. It was his failure to pay off all the fees, but as you inherited his estate, you inherited his debt as well.”
“My father knew about this?” Cinderella said.
The official indicated the papers Cinderella held.
Cinderella flipped through them, taking note of the dates and the signatures. Her Father’s signature was scrawled on some of the paperwork, indicating he acknowledged the fine. The dates all matched up—the fines were from when her Father still breathed.
Why didn’t he just pay them?
“What is the total?” Cinderella asked.
The Erlauf official took the papers from Cinderella and flipped through them. He pointed to a figure on the second to last page.
“What?” Cinderella said. “This cannot be right. That’s half the yearly income Aveyron makes before taxes and expenses are calculated. We cannot pay this on top of our usual tax burden.”
“Should you be unable to pay the fine, the Crown will seize Aveyron itself as payment.”
Cinderella gaped in shock.
“The Crown expects the majority of the debt to be paid off by the end of summer. Do you understand?”
“That concludes our business. Good afternoon, Lady Lacreux,” the official said. He bowed at the waist and left the chateau.
Alone, Cinderella sank to her knees.
This was it. She was going to lose Aveyron, and fail in her duty to Aveyron’s servants and tenants. There was no way Cinderella could pay off the debt. She could have limped by, paying off the initial fine, but the debt had accrued so much the number was a mountain she couldn’t overcome.
What was Father thinking? Cinderella wondered. What do I do? What do I tell everyone?
“Cinderella? I hope you have a reason for slumping on the filthy floor like a common beggar,” an icy cold voice said. It was Lady Klara.
Cinderella opened her mouth several times before she was able to speak. “Good afternoon, Step-Mother.”
“What did the official want?”
Cinderella plucked the paper out of the packet that detailed the fines and interest due. She handed it up to her Step-mother, too weak to stand.
Lady Klara took it and started reading.
A sliver of hope resonated in Cinderella. Perhaps her Step-Mother would finally be moved to financially help Aveyron?
“You will marry and sell Aveyron?”
“What?” Cinderella said, her lips stiff.
“Your only other option is to entirely lose Aveyron. At least with marriage you will not find yourself penniless.”