Brida, Steffen, Erick, Mikk, and Nick all looked up from the fire where they were roasting fish. (Gerhart’s location was unknown.) “Steffen, tell Rune and Falk to stop making fun of me,” Elise sniffed, wiping a tear from her eye with her wrist.
Steffen pushed off the tree he was leaning against and hugged Elise. “There, there, dear sister. I will protect you from the ugly thugs,” he said before turning to his brothers. “Your stupidity has reached new heights. Do you enjoy making women cry?”
Rune puffed up in anger. “This is your fault. If you had let me tell Elise last year, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“No, you would probably be dead,” Mikk said. “What? Assassinations happen, and Father does love Elise best even if she isn’t really his,” he shrugged when everyone stared at him.
Falk rubbed a piece of his goldenrod hair between his fingers. “She doesn’t believe us,” he said.
“You only have yourselves to blame for that,” Steffen said.
“Poor Elise,” Erick said, drawing Elise’s attention to him. When she saw the devious slant of his smile, she froze like a frightened rabbit. For the first time since Clotilde appeared, Erick looked intrigued. An intrigued Erick was not necessarily a bad thing, unless he was intrigued with you.
“Isn’t this great? We’ve all made up,” Nick happily said, turning the fish on the spit.
“What?” Mikk said.
“Elise is talking to us again,” Nick said.
“Only because she’s mad at Rune and me,” Falk said.
“And that should matter to us because…?” Steffen asked.
“Welcome back, Elise,” Nick said, also throwing his arms around Elise—nearly knocking heads with Steffen. “So, you’re probably going to choose Rune or Falk, right? That means you really will be my sister then, just as Mother planned.”
“W-what?” Elise asked, wide-eyed and sandwiched between the princes.
“Would anyone care to place a bet on which one she’ll choose?” Erick asked, rubbing his chin as he appraised Rune and Falk.
“Normally, Rune would be the best candidate, but she has stood next to him for all of his adult life and watched him dance, compliment, talk to, flatter, and flirt with every lady in the kingdom,” Steffen said.
“You aren’t helping, brother,” Rune said.
“Who said I was trying to?” Steffen sweetly asked.
“What do you think, Brida? Who will Elise go for?” Nick asked, abandoning the group hug to sit down next to the silent captain.
“I think I am glad I am an only child, if you will excuse my frankness, Prince Nickolas,” Brida said.
Elise pushed her head into Steffen’s shoulder. “This is so embarrassing,” she muttered.
“It’s all in good fun, sister,” Steffen said, patting the top of her head.
“Right now, the odds for either brother aren’t good,” Erick said, drawing out numbers and figures on the ground with a stick.
Mikk glanced over at Rune and Falk. “Pray a foreign prince doesn’t sweep into her heart while we are exiled,” he said.
“No foreign princes. I will mobilize any of you to woo Elise before I will allow that to happen,” Steffen said, hardly noticing when Elise slipped away from him. “We cannot let our best department head and the official savior of Arcainia slip off to another country. You two had better shape up and start courting,” Steffen said to Falk and Rune.
“If that is what you would like, may I recommend that you stop belittling me in front of Elise?” Rune said, his tone light and airy.
“You may recommend it, but I will not follow it,” Steffen said.
The two princes shared lighthearted laughter, although Rune glared daggers at his older brother.
Elise sat on the ground and took the baked fish on a stick Mikk offered her. “This is almost as bad as when they were turned into swans,” she muttered.
When Elise was halfway through the second shirt, she knew she was knitting faster. It wasn’t that her hands hurt less—they hurt more, actually—but Elise’s pain tolerance had grown significantly. It also helped that Falk gave her a new supply of ferns to rub on her hands to ease the welts and scratches every night.
It was still boring. Elise made the shirts as simple as possible to reduce the knitting time, so it was mind-numbingly repetitive and ugly beyond all imagination thanks to the abundance of knotting Elise had to make in order to tie in the nettle stems.
None of this changed the fact, though, that Elise was settling in and adjusting to the process, allowing her to knit much faster.
Elise reached for another stinging nettle stem, only to find she had none left. She set the cape aside and took a fern, rubbing it on her hands as she stretched her legs out in front of her.
Her swan companion—Elise still didn’t know which prince it was—cocked his head and watched her.