“Like you faired any better. The only reason Steffen never dealt you a blow is because you are utterly incompetent in terms of friendly communication,” Rune said, his handsome face twisting into a scowl.

Elise looked back and forth between Rune and Falk before she shook her head. “No,” she said. She turned on her heels and started marching again.

“Returning to the original point,” Rune said, easily keeping up. “When you finally announced that you were available, Clotilde already had her claws into Father. Steffen told us we could try to pursue you, but it was fairly obvious you would just end up hating us both if we attempted such a thing when you were already feeling the pressure.”

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“‘Tis true,” Falk said.

Elise hopped over a log. “You’re lying. Both of you are lying.”

“You know us, Elise. Or at least you know me. I am not a liar,” Rune said.

“Except when it comes to your feelings, eh?” Falk said.

“Shut up,” Rune snapped.

“No, this is impossible. I will tell you why it is impossible,” Elise said, stopping to shaking a finger at the princes. “You,” she said, stabbing a finger at Falk. “You hate me. You call me all sorts of sarcastic nicknames that any idiot can tell you use to mock me rather than as a term of endearment. You are a plague on my department, pointing out any perceived mathematical mistake and insisting on breathing down my neck and lingering in my office whenever our departments work together. In no way do you give off the faintest whiff of a man in love. You are as pleasant to me as a bad-tempered porcupine.”

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Rune looked away to hide his grin, but he did not bother to muffle his snort of amusement.

“And YOU,” Elise said, placing her hands on her hips as she turned to Rune. “You are worse! Yes, you acted nice to me and cared for me on a more personal level than the rest of our family, but you are an unforgivable flirt! How dare you say that you love me when I have stood next to you for countless parties and heard you flatter and compliment any female that crossed your path. You are the court favorite because you’re handsome and because pretty words fall from your mouth like honey from a beehive!”

Rune lost his mirth rather quickly. “Falk is popular, too,” he said.

“Falk is popular through no actions of his own. The man lives like a monk—I always thought he had taken some sort of vow of celibacy as he seemed to despise the companionship of any marriageable lady. But you! I could accept it, and perhaps encourage, it for the good of our country when you are my brother.”

“We’re not your broth—,”

“But when you claim to be in love with me and think that you have conducted yourself perfectly true to me?” Elise laughed and again started plowing through the darkening forest. “What a joke. Besides, look at you! Look at both of you! Matching me with you would be like a duck and a swan pairing up.”

“Technically right now it would be a human girl and a swan—,”

“That was supposed to be a metaphor, Falk,” Elise said as she climbed over a log. “Both of you will marry someone beautiful and enchanting, like Gabrielle. Not a penny-pincher accountant with wild hair, like me.”

“You underestimate your beauty, Elise,” Rune said.

“Besides, the decision is ours. And why would I want someone beautiful and enchanting?” Falk scoffed.

Rune looked at his brother. “I know we’re rivals, but do you really not notice how you accidentally insult Elise with every compliment you mean to give?”

“What do you mean?”

“By asking why you want someone beautiful and enchanting you are implying that Elise is neither.”

“What? No, I didn’t. Obviously I was asking why I would want someone whose only recommendation is being beautiful. Beauty alone makes a poor companion. Elise is obviously superior because not only is she beautiful, but she can hold a proper conversation and calculate compounding interest at the same time.”

Rune sighed as he followed the mute Elise. “I’m not much inclined to help you with Elise ever—why are you so antisocial anyway? But just this once, I shall offer this kernel of wisdom. Women think a great deal about words that have been spoken. It would behoove you to think carefully before blasting Elise with an injurious compliment. If you must say it, at least properly explain it.”

As the brothers argued, Elise increased her pace. She could see the glow of the campfire just ahead. If she reached the rest of the Arcainian princes, perhaps they would make Rune and Falk be quiet.

“Not only are you a flirt, but you are also an insufferable know-it-all,” Falk said.

“I am neither of those things,” Rune said. “And I am the only brother out of the lot of us who wasn’t good at school.”

“That does not mean you are not an insufferable know-it-all, Court Favorite.”

“Stop that,” Rune growled.

Elise burst through the last layer of trees.

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