It was Erick’s mistake to speak of duty.
“Our duty? Since when was this our duty?” Elise asked. “Angelique made it clear this is my duty. It has always been this way, hasn’t it? I have been valued by this family because of what I do. I do the things no one else wants to do.”
“You’re the one who acts the part of Perfect Princess,” Gerhart muttered.
“You think I WANT to be perfect? I hate the flute. I wish I could break my instrument in half! Horses terrify me, but I force myself to go riding for the sake of this festering family. I would rather eat glass than converse with the smug Sole Ambassador, but none of it is good enough for you! No matter what I do, you want more. You don’t even like me.”
“That’s not true,” Nick started to say.
“Oh, is it? Is that why you have so much fun picking at what I do?” Elise asked, folding her arms across her chest.
“You always do. Not like any of the others are any better. Steffen only likes me because I’m the one sibling he can get to do whatever he wants. All he has to do us utter the words duty, and I will do it. Mikk has never bothered to hide his distaste of me; Erick is just as bad as Steffen as he constantly reminds me that I need to perform better, that I have to do more.”
“I do not—,”
“I can’t believe you dare to say that when you just got over asking me if I could knit faster! At least Hart is openly bratty and doesn’t even pretend to like me. And you two,” Elise said, twisting to face Rune and Falk. “I don’t believe a word of what Hart said about you. It’s impossible. Everyone knows Falk hates me.”
Rune and Falk were silent, and Elise lost some of her certainty.
“Rune, you didn’t bully Mertein,” Elise said, changing tactics.
Rune opened his mouth but said nothing.
“He did it only because he is in love with you, Elise,” Nick said.
Elise shook her head. “No.”
“Why do you think he won’t let you call him brother?” Gerhart said.
“Elise,” Rune said, reaching for her.
Elise leaped backwards. “Who are you really?” she whispered.
“Elise, you’re over-wrought,” Steffen said.
“Of course I am!” Elise snarled. “The one brother I counted on is-is..! I lost the man I wanted to marry because of YOU. Mertein was my personal choice, and he’s gone because I’m out here sacrificing for you, and you all expect me to.”
“We don’t expect—,”
“Then why are you treating me like this? The second you turn human you want to know my progress. You push me to knit in the firelight, to collect more stinging nettles. You won’t let me do anything but sleep, eat, and knit! This stupid shirt is red because I’m bleeding on it! And you all act like Brida is saving the world because she’s doing things so I can knit more! I HATE you! Forget breaking the curse by midsummer—I’m not going to knit as much as another loop. You all can stay swans for the rest of your lives. I DON’T CARE!” Elise said.
She left the firelight and stomped into the woods.
“Elise,” Rune called.
Elise heard one of her foster brothers move, as if to follow her, and she bolted. She raced blindly through the dark trees, crashing through bushes and almost wiping out on a fallen log.
When the glow of the campfire couldn’t be seen anymore, Elise found a giant tree and started climbing. She lost her grip a few times, and the bark scratched her already injured hands, but when Elise was high enough, she found a cradle in the center of the tree formed by three large branches stretching out in different directions.
Elise huddled there, tears streaming from her eyes.
“Elise!” an Arcainian prince called.
Elise closed her eyes and covered her ears, blocking out the shouts. She was exhausted; she felt horribly alone, and she didn’t know what to do.
Elise woke to the scraping noise of a knife on wood. She slowly opened her eyes, grimacing and rolling her shoulders, which had grown stiff in her unusual sleeping position in the tree. After anchoring herself to a branch, Elise leaned over the side to look for the source of the noise.
Brida was sitting at the base of Elise’s tree, whittling away at a chunk of wood. “I waited until sunrise to track you through the forest,” Brida said.
Elise leaned back into her spot on the tree. How does she know I’m awake?
“Your brothers looked for you until they had to return to the pond. They’re worried.”
Elise rolled her eyes. They were probably more worried that Elise wasn’t going to knit their shirts.
“If you don’t intend to talk to them tonight, I would like to tell them you are safe.”