Elise smiled, the lines of her face softening with the gesture.

Prince Toril nodded a few times. “I will leave you to your knitting. I’m leaving for another hunting trip in a few days, but do not fear—the kitchen girl will still bring food,” he said as he stood. “I wish you luck with your task,” he said, walking off before Elise could even try to sign or gesture anything to him.

Elise turned to her swan companion and shrugged.

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One of the many things Elise was learning during this trial was that royal princes were moody creatures.

Several days later, Elise was sitting alone and knitting with her pile of finished shirts when four soldiers marched down the hill and up to her.

“King Torgen has asked for your presence in the palace,” a soft spoken soldier said, exchanging an uneasy glance with his fellow warriors.

Getting a terrible sense of déjà vu, Elise moved to toss her knitting in the cottage.

“King Torgen wishes that you would bring your work with you,” the soldier said.

Elise gathered the shirts in her arms, her desire to keep them safe overriding the pain of the nettles scratching her arms. She glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she should whistle for Brida, but one of the soldiers gently steered her forward before she had the chance.

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The soldiers brought Elise past the servants’ quarters, through the royal gardens, and into the splendid, wooden palace.

The servants and people they ran into and saw seemed nice enough, although everyone moved with quick, nervous energy.

Elise’s stomach was rolling by the time they reached the dining room, where King Torgen sat near a fireplace with two wolfhounds.

“So you brought the street rat that captured Toril’s attention? Good work,” King Torgen said.

Unlike his easy-going son, King Torgen looked mean-spirited. He reminded Elise of an inbred dog. His features should have been handsome, but they were too strong, and his eyes were lit with a strange, feverish light.

“She’s not much to look at. What is your name, girl?” the king demanded.

“My Lord, the girl is mute. Her traveling companion calls her Elsa,” the quiet soldier said.

Elise hunched her shoulders to and tried to look intimidated. It wasn’t very hard—King Torgen seemed to burn with deep hatred and anger.

“Trying to get Toril’s attention so you can be queen, hmm?” he said.

Elise shook her head.

“Hah, like one could believe you. Toril will not be charmed by you for long. He moves from one love to the next with great indiscretion. Soon you will be another face he wooed and forgot,” King Torgen said.

Elise could tell the four soldiers surrounding her were uncomfortable with the topic. Although they did not shift, the wooden shafts of the spears they held cracked as they clenched their weapons.

“You have the look of a mongrel. You aren’t from Verglas, are you?” King Torgen said. “Is she?” he said, fixing his gaze on the soldier who spoke for her earlier.

The soldier cleared his throat. “I was told she comes from Loire.”

“Loire? That foreign filth? Pah! I cannot believe Toril has defiled Ostfold with her presence,” the King Torgen said, leaning back in his chair. “I’m told that in addition to your traveling companion, you brought seven swans with you. Gifts for my table, perhaps?”

Elise violently shook her head.

“I believe they are pets, My Lord,” the soldier said, taking pity on Elise.

Elise eagerly nodded.

King Torgen fell silent, which made Elise even more uncomfortable than when he spoke. He stared at her with feverish intensity, and Elise could see unreadable thoughts churning in his mind.

He reminded her of Clotilde, but more twisted. Clotilde was a bigger threat because of her dark magic, but her motivation was her selfishness and greed. King Torgen was like an abandoned well. No one knew how deep the hole went, or what monstrosities the darkness hid.

King Torgen stood and walked a slow circle around Elise, making the hair on the back of her neck prickle.

After making a full circuit, King Torgen leaned in and whispered to Elise, “I don’t know who you are, but I recognize the signs of a task taken up for the sake of breaking a curse.” King Torgen’s breath was foul. It smelled like stale wine and decayed, mushy onions.

Elise’s eyes watered, but she fixed a meek look on her face as King Torgen continued. “I don’t have much sympathy for simpletons who are cursed. They deserve it,” he hissed before he ripped the nettle shirts out of Elise’s hands. “What do we have here? This is obvious the work of black magic,” King Torgen said, inspecting the four shirts.

“With all due respect, My Lord, wouldn’t the Snow Queen’s magic kept her out of our borders if her work is evil?” the soldier asked.

King Torgen narrowed his eyes at the kind soldier. “Perhaps. But one can never be too careful,” he said, walking towards the fireplace.

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