“How?”

“You said Toril had you slung over his shoulder. If you didn’t have that whistle…,” Rune trailed off and ran a hand through his gold hair. “It’s not supposed to be like this,” he finally said.

“What do you mean?”

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“I’m supposed to be able protect you. I am—I’ve always wanted to be your hero. But right now, I am nothing.”

Elise glanced at Falk’s horse to make sure it did not seem particularly inclined to walk off before she looped its lead rope across its back. “That isn’t true,” Elise said, warily circling around Brida’s horse—knowing the captain her horse was probably bad tempered and trained to bite—to reach Rune.

“I don’t weigh my affections for you based on the present. Yes, you didn’t save me today, but there’s at least a hundred other times you have saved me,” Elise said, clasping Rune’s free hand between hers. “When I was first moved into the royal wing of Brandis and got lost for half a day, you found me. When I was thirteen and I came down with that horrid cold, you stayed with me until I got better—you refused to leave unlike everyone else so you caught my cold after I was better.”

Rune cracked a smile at the recollection.

“The summer before Mother died we went on a family picnic. I accidentally disturbed the nest of two rock griffons. You kept the male from slaughtering me,” Elise continued. “Last year, I nearly turned my office inside out because Lord Huge’s account was short some money, and I couldn’t figure out why. You staked him out and caught him in the act of embezzling. You were the department champion for a full season after that.”

“I wonder if Lord Huge has recovered from that fright,” Rune said.

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“The point is this: I don’t love you because of what you do for me; I love you because you are steadfast and loyal and good,” Elise said.

Rune gave Elise a dazzling smile. “You love me?”

“Not that way,” Elise was quick to say. “I mean, I do, but not… romantic.”

Rune sighed. “I suppose that would be too much to hope for,” he said, letting Brida’s horse go so he could graze Elise’s cheek with his fingertips.

“Um, yes,” Elise said, looking away.

“I’m sorry about the flirting, Elise.”

“Um?” Elise said, trying to take a step backwards as she let go of Rune’s hand. (That was a mistake.) Rune slid his free hand around Elise’s waist as he breeched the new gap between them. “I did it because Steffen ordered me to be pleasant, but also because I was hoping to make you jealous.”

“C-could you back up a little? Maybe?” Elise said, using her pointer finger to poke Rune in the chest.

Rune dropped his head until his forehead rested against Elise’s. “I miss you fiercely whenever I leave for my heroic duties.”

“Ahaaa.”

“Don’t you miss me?” Rune asked, his breath brushing Elise’s face.

“Of c-course I miss you.”

When Rune tangled his hand in Elise’s wild hair, Elise had enough. “No, no. This is yours, I believe,” she said, unhooking his arm from around her waist and pushing it into his chest. She jumped away from him and semi-violently brushed herself off before shaking like a wet dog.

“What are you smirking at?” she asked when she turned to see Rune grinning widely.

“I was just thinking,” he said.

“About?” Elise snapped, angry that she let Rune push her off balance.

“If being close to me makes you blush and upsets you so, you cannot possibly see me as your brother,” Rune said.

“What?”

“So I’m still a viable marriage option,” Rune said, his grin turning into a pleased smile.

All the blood in Elise’s face drained. “Pardon?”

“I still have a chance,” Rune said before patting Brida’s mare and leading her back to the pen.

Elise was silent for a few moments. “No, you don’t,” she called, suddenly remembering herself as she scrambled to grab Falk’s horse.

“I do. As sure as the sun shines, I do,” Rune laughed.

“Go turn into a swan and eat a bug,” Elise muttered.

Rune responded with a joyful, light-hearted laugh.

Elise and her swan companion sat together and watched Brida perform her morning practice routine.

Elise was shocked when, as she tied another nettle stem into the shirt, Brida dropped the sword she was practicing with.

“You honestly did not know Prince Rune loved you, did you?”

Elise eyed Brida above the shirt and suspiciously pulled her head back.

“There’s no use denying it. Prince Rune has mooned over you for years. I always thought you were malicious for ignoring his feelings. Did you really never see them?”

Elise absentmindedly knitted as she thought. Had she ever noticed the way Rune—or Falk—treated her was different? To a certain extent, yes. Falk wasn’t vocally rude to people as he was to Elise, and Rune was kind to all, but even Elise knew she was special to him just as he was special to her.

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