When all of her foster-brothers transformed that evening, they tried to talk her out of it. They begged Elise to give up, pleaded with her, and Mikk even threatened her that when they returned to Arcainia, she would never be without a full security detail.
Elise ignored it all. After a week, the brothers gave up trying to convince the hard-headed princess that she didn’t need to break their curse, and instead spent most of their time assigning blame.
“This is Steffen’s fault. She learned how to be a stubborn mule from him,” Nick said.
“I blame that wretched Prince Toril. Elise can’t leave this place as long as we’re swans, but if she breaks the curse, we are home free. I know I wouldn’t want to spend one day longer with him than I would have to,” Gerhart said.
“I am more inclined to say we share the blame equally. She will not give up not because of her temperament, but because of her affection for us,” Erick said. A mischievous glint lit up his eyes. “That is not to say that perhaps she loves some of us differently. Falk, Rune, do either of you care to take the lion’s share of blame?”
“I will find out,” Mikk promised.
Nick clapped. “With Mikk on the case, we’ll soon learn who our darling sister favors.”
“I’ve already told you I don’t favor anyone,” Elise said, setting aside the first few loops of her new shirt. (She spent all week repairing the badly burned shirt, and judging by the fact that it was green and holding together, Elise was confident it worked.) “Where is Steffen?”
“Outside,” Rune said, glancing out the window. “Perhaps it is your fault, Erick. You always press her about duties.”
“Yes, but I was also the one who taught her about the uselessness in doing a task that is too taxing for the payoff,” Erick said.
Elise nodded to Brida—who was chopping roots with Falk on the rickety table—before she slipped out of the cottage.
Steffen was standing in the lake, up to his knees in water. Elise could only see his back, but his head was tilted up to stare at the moon.
Elise joined him, wincing when she stepped into the cold water. When she stood next to Steffen, she smothered a surprised gasp.
Steffen had a hand over his heart. His fingers were clenched, digging into the fabric of his shirt and his skin like claws. The wind ruffled his hair and made him look picturesque, but his blue eyes were soft with heartbreak, like an injured animal or a dying man.
Never before had Elise seen Steffen wear an expression of such pain—and she had seen him wounded and bleeding everywhere after a skirmish with a goblin.
Elise ducked back to give him privacy, but Steffen spoke. “I miss her, Elise,” he said before he took a shuddering breath. “I miss her so badly it hurts. My heart, my whole being aches. I never thought I would be one of those whipped men who whimper whenever they’re separated from their loved one,” he said after a bark of laughter.
“You love her, Steffen. There is no shame in that,” Elise said.
Steffen nodded. “In my pain, I have become nothing but a hopeless romantic. I want to see her so badly that I stare at the moon, hoping she will glance at it, and for a moment we will look at the same thing.”
He shook his head, and tears slipped down his cheeks. “I feel so wretched. I cannot even count on the curse to take my memories. As a swan, I feel like I am missing a part of myself, and lately I have begun to remember her as I float on the lake. I cannot even remember that I am cursed when I am a swan, but her I recall,” Steffen cut himself off and dug his fingers deeper into his chest.
Elise placed a hand on her brother’s back. “You will see her again, Steffen. And I’m sure in the meantime she is doing her best to help our subjects in your place.”
“I don’t care about our subjects. I care about her,” Steffen said. “Gabrielle,” the crown prince breathed as he stared up at the moon.
Gabrielle glanced at the moon as she slid a second dagger up her right sleeve. “Almost ready,” she said as she tied her hair back with a leather cord.
The cat watched her, his eyes glowing in the dim light. “It is remarkable to me how easily you cast aside grandeur and silken clothes and return to looking and acting like a street urchin,” he complained. “It only goes to show that a pig dressed as a princess is still a pig.”
Gabrielle grinned and grabbed a paintbrush and a capped inkwell. “Disappointed?”
The cat shoved his pink nose in the air and made a “Humph,” noise before he leaped off the windowsill and padded across the room. At the last moment, he turned around and said, “Of course not. You wouldn’t be half as fun if you were a stuffed doll like that. Come on. The Queen won’t be out of her chambers for long.”
Gabrielle grabbed the sword—Steffen’s smallest sword—and tied it to her belt. She rubbed the pommel as pain stabbed her heart. “Steffen would laugh himself silly if he knew how badly I missed him, and then he would lecture me about duty and sacrifice, and how the country comes before me, blah, blah, blah,” she said.