“By the heavens, what have you done to your hands?!”
Elise almost dropped the bread in surprise. She glanced down at her hands, which Prince Toril stared at in morbid fascination, before tucking them behind her back.
Although Falk’s pastes and plants lessened the pain when Elise was not knitting, they did nothing to improve her hands’ appearance. Her long, slender fingers were marred and swollen—her nails broken and cracked. The tops and palms of her hands were covered in oozing welts, and the skin of her hands was tinted red—whether it was from the nettles or the constant pinpricks that leaked blood, Elise didn’t know.
“Has that bear-maid of yours been mistreating you?” Prince Toril demanded.
Elise shook her head and ate her first bite of bread before she motioned to her knitting materials.
Prince Toril briefly crouched and prodded the green, prickly shirt Elis was working on. “You’re knitting with nettles,” he said before hopping upright to avoid getting nipped by a swan. “Maybe Ludger was right. Are you crazy?”
Elise shrugged at Prince Toril, picked up her knitting, and walked further up shore with her flock of swan chaperones.
Prince Toril trekked around her for a few minutes, until Brida returned.
“You,” Brida said, narrowing her eyes as she slid from her horse’s back.
“Good day to you, madam. I have returned as promised, and I brought provisions,” Prince Toril said, holding the bag of food out in front of him.
Brida ignored the offering. “Has he been bothering you?” Brida asked Elise, sliding her sword out of its scabbard with an ominous swish.
Elise shook her head and held up the hunk of bread she still had left.
Brida took the bread and sniffed it before she handed it back to Elise. She frowned at Prince Toril. “Leave.”
“Madam,” Prince Toril protested. “I have come here to offer you sanctuary and protection. It is clear that the two of you are travel companions of a sort. But living in the wild is not safe for two innocent ladies.”
When Brida extended her sword at him, Prince Toril hastily added, “Even one as dangerous and well-armed as you.”
Brida sniffed in contempt.
“The invitation is genuine,” Prince Toril insisted. “But we are leaving tomorrow, so you shall have to make up your mind quickly.”
“We’re not leaving,” Brida said.
“These woods you live in belong to my father. He won’t suffer your presence very long,” Prince Toril said.
“The only way he’ll even know of our presence is if you or that big-mouthed hunter mention it,” Brida said.
“That may be so, but I still insist that you return home with me. Both of you will be very comfortable in the palace. You can go on knitting with prickly plants and… being prickly in general,” Prince Toril said.
“I think it is time for you to return home, Prince Toril.”
Prince Toril braved the swans to pass Brida the sack of food. “Very well, but please think about it. That is all I ask.”
“Oh, sure,” Brida dryly said. She muttered under her breath as Prince Toril hurried back into the forest. “Prancing do-gooder. We will mention it to your brothers tonight, Fürstin, but I can’t see them agreeing.”
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Steffen said.
Everyone turned to stare at him.
“Think about it for a moment,” Steffen said.
Erick reached for his missing glasses before he made do with rubbing his temple. “Elise would be safe, fed better, and given more comfortable quarters to work in. She’ll have Brida with her to talk on her behalf, too,” he listed.
“But everyone knows the King of Verglas is off his rocker,” Nick said.
“Verglas is the only country with an organized, accepted guild for assassins,” Mikk said, exhausting his supply of words for the day.
“She’ll be living with a madman,” Nick said.
“Wouldn’t that bring less attention to her actions, though?” Gerhart asked, sitting next to Elise. He blanched and turned to her. “No offense; it’s not like you want to do this.”
Elise smiled. “I know what you mean. If the king really is mad, the people will not think my knitting is at all noteworthy.”
“Madmen are unpredictable,” Falk said, his voice chilly with disapproval.
“Prince Dimwit doesn’t know Elise is the princess of Arcainia. He isn’t going to invite her to the royal table or anything. In fact, I would say it is safe to assume that Elise will never see King Torgen,” Steffen said.
“We’re gambling that Elise will be safe in the palace of a tyrant. King Torgen is not known for his kindness. It isn’t safe there,” Rune said.
“It isn’t safe for her out here, either,” Steffen snapped. “I don’t revel in the idea, but if she’s separated from Brida, Elise is an easy mark for anyone.”
“We could protect her,” Rune said.
“We’re swans, in case you’ve forgotten,” Steffen said.