“The guild can’t be that good. They failed to eliminate the second prince of Loire,” Erick said.
“There is no reason for Elise to undertake this task,” Falk said. “It is likely to take her a long time to perform this so-called sacrifice of love. The Lady Enchantress said she could return in a year. After finding a fellow magic user, they will eliminate Clotilde, and we will be free anyway. The wait would be a year at worst. I doubt you could knit seven shirts in that amount of time, don’t you, Honeysuckle?” Falk asked, once again using his mocking nicknames.
“Four months. Possibly three,” Elise said.
Her foster brothers blinked. “What?”
“I could finish seven shirts in three to four months. It depends what condition my hands are in,” Elise said, looking to the sky as she made the mental calculations.
“You already know how to knit?” Mikk asked.
“Yes,” Elise said.
“You only embroider, though. Father has forcibly shown me your work,” Gerhart argued.
“Now, I only embroider. When I was an orphan, I learned how to knit quite well,” Elise said.
“You’re still an orphan,” Falk said.
“No, I’m not,” Elise said, gritting her teeth. “Just because you refuse to acknowledge me, does not mean your parents did not deign to welcome me into your family.”
“Elise, you don’t have to do this. We can wait,” Rune said, taking one of Elise’s hands and lifting it to his lips.
“We cannot,” Elise flatly said. “The country needs us. We must return to our posts, and I cannot stand to let that witch win for a moment more than necessary.”
“Elise,” Rune said.
“She’s right. We’re asking a lot of her, but the country needs us,” Steffen said.
“You expect too much from her, Steffen,” Falk said. “You would not ask Gabrielle to do this.”
“Elise knows her duties,” Mikk said.
Elise sighed and let the princes argue. It was better if they thought she did it only out of a sense of duty. The royal princes of Arcainia were already divided when it came to their differing beliefs regarding her. If they knew she undertook the curse only for them, they would probably start slugging each other.
The weeks Elise spent with swans—beautiful but dumb birds—terrified Elise. Ever since Queen Ingrid had selected her as a foster child, Elise had never been alone or unloved. Yes, the royal family hadn’t fully embraced her, but during the days before Angelique arrived, Elise would have given anything just to hear Falk spit out another degrading nickname. That was how much she loved and missed them.
Elise jumped when Angelique laid her hand upon Elise’s shoulder. “There is one small consolation I can give you,” she said. “For the hour your brothers are human, you may speak. But only when they are human. If you utter a single word—even if it is while they make the switch from swan to prince—your work will be ruined.”
“Thank you,” Elise said.
“You will do it, then?” Angelique said, ignoring the quarreling brothers.
“Be careful. One of the princes mentioned the dangers of being voiceless and without human aid. He spoke the truth. Verglas is free of evil magic, but it has its share of bandits and brutes,” Angelique warned.
“Wouldn’t it be safer in another country?” Elise asked.
Angelique shook her head, making her lovely hair sparkle in the moonlight. “No. Verglas is still safest. It offers you protection from Clotilde and any vile magic she may have up her sleeve. No evil or tainted magic can breech the borders of Verglas. It has been so for centuries.”
Elise set her shoulders. “Then we will remain here.”
“I suggest you travel east, and a little farther north. There is a bigger pond there that is more hospitable for humans. It also has a large number of stinging nettles in the forest that borders it,” Angelique said.
“I thank you for your wise council,” Elise said.
Angelique snorted, looking more like a normal girl than a breathtaking beauty. “It is hardly wise. I circled it about five times when I couldn’t find you. I had to release the weakened curse and watch which way it went.”
“I don’t understand what you mean. The curse wasn’t instantly weakened when you fought Clotilde?” Elise asked.
“It was, but magic—just like everything else—takes time to cover distance. There’s only one kind of magic that allows for instantaneous travel, and those able to wield such a power are rare. As such, the broken curse ambled along with me as I sought you out,” Angelique explained.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, but I shall take your word for it. Thank you, Lady Enchantress. You do not owe us your help, and I don’t know if we will ever be able to repay you,” Elise said.
Angelique offered Elise a smile that was flavored with sadness. “I know what it is like to lose someone dear to you as the result of an enchantment. I am glad I can help you reclaim your father and foster brothers.”