Elise bobbed in a curtsey. “Thank you.”
Angelique tucked her hand under Elise’s chin, forcing her to look into Angelique’s eyes. “This is a burden they are placing on you, Princess. But I think you underestimate how important you are to them,” Angelique trailed off and removed her hand from Elise’s chin, thoughtfully looking at it.
“Lady Enchantress?” Elise ventured.
Angelique shook herself. “Something to think about,” she murmured before turning back to her horse. “You cannot wear your uniform. Arcainian work uniforms are impossible to miss, and it will mark you out in a country of cut-throats. Here are some clothes that will suit you better,” Angelique said, retreating to her odd mount. She removed a burlap sack from a saddlebag and handed it over to Elise.
“Thank you,” Elise said, looking down at her ruined uniform. It was dirty, stained, and ripped beyond repair… but Elise was still pained at the thought of parting with it. It felt like she was giving up her position as department head.
“We thank you for your aid, Lady Enchantress. When this is all over, if there is anything we can do for you, please do not hesitate to call on us,” Steffen said, exiting the family argument.
“Thank you,” Angelique said as she climbed her way into the saddle. “I wish you all luck. Be on your guard, but do not fear Clotilde. Evil can never win for long. Farewell,” Angelique said.
Steffen and Elise, the only ones attending to the enchantress’s exit, bowed and curtsied.
“Thank you, Lady Enchantress.”
Angelique acknowledged their farewells with the flick of her hand as her night-sky mount carried her into the shadows of the forest. They disappeared from sight shortly after.
“What will you do, Elise?” Steffen asked.
“Break the curse, of course.”
Steffen scuffed his foot in the sand. “You do not have to. I did not mean to imply you had no choice,” he said.
“You are right; I don’t have to,” Elise said, turning to face Steffen. “But if I want our country to survive, if I want you all to survive, I must. And besides, as Mikk said, it is my duty.”
“I know it’s wonderfully responsible of you, but sometimes I wonder if you may be too dutiful,” Steffen said.
Elise smiled. “That is hardly a fault.”
Steffen returned the smile and embraced Elise. “Thank you, sister.”
“Oi, where did the enchantress go? Ouch!” Gerhart said when Nick smacked his back.
“She left. You’re so unobservant, Gerhie,” Nick said.
“I said not to call me that!”
“What do we do?” Rune asked.
“I believe that answer rests with Elise,” Erick said, shifting his sharp eyes to her face.
“Angelique said we should move to a different pond. We can travel there tomorrow in the daylight, when you are all swans. I feel it would be wisest to stay here for the night,” Elise said.
“What’s so good about this new place?” Gerhart asked, dodging another smack from Nick.
“The pond is larger, and Angelique mentioned it would be more hospitable for me. It also has more stinging nettles in the surrounding area.”
“You will try to break our curse?” Mikk asked.
“I won’t try. I’m going to,” Elise grimly said. “I never settle for less than perfection. This will not be any different.”
“We certainly lucked out when Mother found you. To think she’d be right after all these years—mind you, this isn’t what I was picturing,” Nick said, folding his arms behind his head.
“What?” Elise frowned.
Mikk elbowed Nick, and Steffen gave Elise one of his statesman smiles. “Nothing. He is merely overcome by gratitude for you.”
“Naturally,” Nick coughed.
“I see,” Elise said, unconvinced.
“I suspect we would better use our time as a human by planning for tomorrow, yes?” Erick asked with a harmless smile.
“Of course,” Elise agreed.
“What direction did Lady Angelique point you in?”
“Wonderful. When the sun rises…”
Getting her foster brothers/swans brothers to the pond Angelique mentioned was easier than Elise thought it would be. She went first, riding Falk’s horse, and the seven princes of Arcainia followed behind, walking on their black, webbed feet. They chortled and hissed, smacking each other and squabbling amongst themselves every step of the way. They followed Elise, however, with great determination, squawking and flapping their wings to catch up whenever they thought she rode too far ahead of them.