It wouldn’t be the prettiest shirt, but Elise guessed it would still break the curse. Even though it had been days since she harvested the first nettles for the shirt, the plants were still green and pliant. That had to be a sign of magic.
“It’s been over a week. Are you going to forgive them anytime soon, Princess?” Brida said, looking down at the forest from the branch she draped her body across. (After it became apparent that Elise was going to spend the hour her brothers were human in the trees and out of their grasp, Brida started climbing the tree with her for reasons beyond Elise’s comprehension.) “I already have forgiven them,” Elise said, biting her lip out of habit to keep from crying as she knitted.
“Then why won’t you speak to them?” Brida asked over a repetitious chorus.
“Because I am still furious with them.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They are my family.”
“They are my family,” Elise firmly said. “It’s possible to love family and want to save them and, in the same moment, wish they would choke on a fishbone.”
“You are going to make them pay?”
“Pay for what? No. I’m avoiding them until I can face them—any of them—without wanting to wrap this shirt around their perfect, smiling faces,” Elise said.
“So you aren’t avoiding them because of Rune and Falk’s love for you?”
Elise yanked so hard on the stinging nettle she snapped it. She was silent for a few moments to keep herself from cursing before she grabbed another nettle and slid out her last few loops so she could tie the new plant in. “No, definitely not.”
“Do you think you’ll marry one of them?”
“I do not want to talk about it,” Elise said, her voice growing high-pitched.
Brida sat up on her branch so she could face Elise in the purple dusk. “You honestly did not know, did you?”
Elise hunched further into the tree, her neck disappearing into her shoulders.
“And that is why you do not want to face them,” Brida continued.
“I’ll tie off this end, and then I will need something to cut the remaining stem with,” Elise said, trying to crowd Brida’s irritating, spot-on observations out of her mind.
The Arcainian princes still called out.
When the sun went down two days later, Elise climbed her usual tree alone.
“I’m going to meet the princes at the camp,” Brida said, resting a sheathed sword on her shoulder. “You have your whistle?”
“I will be back once they are swans again,” Brida said, saluting Elise before she strode off through the woods.
Elise sat in her tree and tried to rearrange her wild, curly locks. The red ribbon was barely enough to pull her hair to the back of her neck, and each day Elise’s hair seemed to grow more unruly.
Elise fussed with her hair, jumping when she heard a thudding noise. She peered between branches for any sign of her brothers.
She didn’t see anyone, but the afterglow of the set sun was almost gone.
Elise climbed to a lower tree branch and crouched there. No one was around, and for the first time since their argument, Elise didn’t hear her foster brothers calling for her.
In the last bits of light, Elise thought she saw something metal glint on the ground. After another cautionary glance, Elise climbed down her tree, wincing as the rough bark scraped her raw fingers. She crept through the underbrush and pushed aside a fern leaf. The metal was a buckle, like the ones on saddlebags or horse tack.
Elise blinked and picked up the buckle. Maybe Brida had dropped it.
Elise whirled around and collided with Rune’s chest. She bounced off him but was steadied by another man, Falk.
“Elise,” Falk said as Elise pulled her arms from his grasp.
“We didn’t mean to frighten you. We just want to speak with you,” Rune said, slowly approaching Elise.
“We have much to discuss,” Falk dryly said.
“We should explain—,”
“GAAAAAAAH!” Elise shouted, clamping her hands over her ears.
“We need to address the issue, Snowflake,” Falk said, still audible over Elise’s protests.
“We never told you we loved you because—,”
“This can’t be happening,” Elise said, dropping her hands so she could start marching through the forest. “This isn’t happening.”
“Actually, it is,” Falk said.
“Father forbid us from talking to you about love until you declared you were ready to marry,” Rune said.
“Rune once attempted to test that rule a year ago,” Falk dryly said. “He didn’t even get to confess to you before some guards tattled.”
Elise stopped and turned to stare at her brothers. “A year ago? Wasn’t that the summer you fought a dragon and got that horrid black eye?” she asked, folding her arms across her chest.
“The dragon fighting was really more…symbolic,” Rune said.
“Steffen was the one who gave him the black eye,” Falk helpfully piped in.