“We have been unusually lucky that no one has discovered Elise before now,” Erick acknowledged.
“I believe I have done a suitable job of protecting Princess Elise since my arrival,” Brida stiffly said.
“Of course you have,” Nick said, quick to defend her.
“Brida has done a fantastic job,” Elise said, “But there is truth in what Steffen says. I have no defensive skills. I could rip a country to shreds or build it up to the sky if I had access to its treasury, but I am not learned in any kind of weapon.”
“You want to go with Prince Toril?” Rune asked, looking as betrayed as if she had stabbed him in the gut.
“No. Truthfully I don’t know which option is better. I am merely acknowledging my limitations,” Elise said.
“Elise should stay here,” Rune said. “Only Erick and possibly Gerhart are siding with you, Steffen. We have no real reason to move Elise.”
Brida shifted uncomfortably on the log she sat on.
Falk flicked his eyes in her direction. “What?”
“Prince Steffen may be right,” Brida slowly acknowledged.
“Why?” Mikk asked.
Brida rearranged the stack of firewood placed next to her before she replied. “Soldiers from Arcainia have been dispatched to find Fürstin Elise.”
“What?” Nick yelped. “How?”
“How do you know,” Mikk asked, his eyebrows sinking over his eyes.
Brida bit her lip.
“Captain Meier,” Mikk said.
“I met one of the squad captains while exercising my horse today.”
“And you didn’t think to tell us before now?” Rune demanded.
Brida winced but did not defend herself. “None of Arcainia’s soldiers would willingly look for Fürstin, much less bring her back to Arcainia, but Clotilde smartened up. She sent a squad of soldiers only after she took their families captive.”
“And this fellow captain just volunteered this information? You don’t find that suspicious?” Falk scoffed.
“The captain said he trusted no harm would come to the families—before his squad left, Princess Gabrielle contacted him to let him she would free Clotilde’s civilian captives. They aren’t really looking for Fürstin Elise,” Brida said.
Steffen sniffed. “At least Gabi is managing to do something useful,” he scoffed.
“But?” Mikk prodded Brida.
Brida looked at the ground. “But the captain expected soon Clotilde would send forth a squad who would eagerly search out Fürstin. Apparently she has been working her magic arts on a few soldiers, and they are just as besotted with her as King Henrik is.”
“Well, that changes everything,” Erick said.
Nick cracked his knuckles. “Elise will have to go with Toril.”
“Maybe we could follow Prince Toril and ditch him at the outskirts of a large city,” Elise said.
Steffen scowled. “No, it won’t work out well. By inviting us to the palace, he will place us under his protection, and as scant as that protection is, even besotted soldiers would think twice before dragging you back home. Besides, we do have a grip on Verglas, should we need to use it.”
“A grip?” Gerhart said.
“Two years ago, I bought a large portion of Verglas’s governmental debt,” Elise said. “We could force their good behavior by making the debt due. All the same, I would like to avoid such a confrontation. It would be easy enough to silence us as we are in their country.”
“I still don’t like it,” Rune said.
“Of course you don’t. We’re leading Elise into the den of a man who could very well be a marriage prospect,” Steffen said.
“You and I would die before we handed her over to that idiot,” Rune declared.
“As we keep pondering, Verglas does have a legal assassin guild,” Falk smiled.
“I am not excited about it either, but Elise’s safety is our top priority,” Steffen said.
“So is everyone in agreement, then? Elise and Brida should accept Prince Toril’s invitation?” Erick asked.
Six reluctant males chimed in.
“If she must.”
“So it is settled. When Price Toril returns, Brida will tell him they accept his offer,” Erick said.
“Provided she can bring us with,” Gerhart was quick to add.
“Very well,” Brida said.
“In that case, we need to start packing Elise up,” Rune said, heading for her shelter.
“We must also plan out acceptable behavior,” Erick said.
“Erick is right. Captain Meier, Elise, you cannot let anyone find out who you are. Do you understand? If King Torgen realizes he has the beloved princess of Arcainia in his clutches, there is no telling what he will do,” Steffen said.
“Yes, Prince Steffen.”
Brida and Elise were ready for Prince Toril when he showed up the following day.
“Good morning to you, madams. I trust you slept well? Yes?” he answered himself when Brida stonily stared at him and did not deign to give him a response. “Have you thought about my offer?”
“We have. We will come.”