Brida’s forehead wrinkled. “Not being officially adopted might be a lucky break, Fürstin.”

“I agree. Who would want to be related to this pack of jackals?” Elise said.

“That is not what I was referring to. If you were adopted, neither Prince Rune nor Prince Falk could marry you,” Brida said.

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“What?”

Gerhart blinked. “You didn’t know that was why Father and Mother didn’t adopt you?”

“Why would I know that!?” Elise said.

“Brida,” Nick said, “You just ruined a portion of our fun. We were waiting for Mr. Hero or Gloomy Agriculture boy to point that out.”

Elise tried to take deep calming breaths. “I love them all, that is why I work to free them. I love them all.”

“Why do you sound like you’re trying to convince yourself? Have you already made up your mind on which brother you want? Elise, you are so hot-headed,” Nick said.

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“And violent reaction due in three, two, one,” Steffen said, studying his nails.

“QUIET,” Elise growled, winding a towel around Nick’s neck and pulling it tight. “All of you stop talking about it!” she said before climbing the ladder to the loft.

“Perhaps there is wisdom to Fürstin’s reason for not wishing to be adopted. It would take great resilience to claim a true relationship to all of you,” Brida said.

“Truth,” Mikk grunted.

“Elsa, Elsa, I brought you a real treat,” Prince Toril hollered as he trotted down the hill and made his way to the cottage.

Elise sat outside with the sixth shirt, which was almost finished. Swan Falk was at her side, and he made a disparaging hiss when Prince Toril strolled up.

“Hello to you, too, foul-tempered bird,” Prince Toril said, plopping down next to Elise. He removed a folded handkerchief from his tunic and peeled back the cloth. “Ta-da,” he said, revealing several cookies. “Go on, try one,” Prince Toril urged.

Elise hesitantly took a cookie and bit into it. It was sweet, but there was an odd flavoring Elise never had before. She looked inquisitively at Prince Toril.

The young man did not disappoint. “It’s a cardamom cookie. Have you had one before? No? Well, you may have them all—although I suppose you will insist on sharing with your bear-maid, won’t you?” Prince Toril said.

Elise took the handkerchief and bowed her head at him. She brushed crumbs from her lips before smiling.

“You’re welcome,” Prince Toril said, surprisingly accurate at interpreting Elise’s gestures and behaviors. He glanced at the nettle shirt as Elise set the treat aside to pick up her knitting needles again. “You’re still working on those?”

Elise nodded.

“How very loyal,” Prince Toril said, his voice lacking conviction and feeling.

Elise raised her eyebrows, but the prince looked away and didn’t acknowledge the hollow sound of his words.

Prince Toril rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I’m just going to say it. I leave tomorrow for a two-week trip. And no, it’s not hunting.”

Elise thoughtfully nodded and stared at Prince Toril until his ears turned red.

“It’s fishing, but now is the right season, and I want to go! If you’re afraid Father will do something to you while I’m gone, you could come with me. I mean, it would be highly improper, but gossip doesn’t seem to bother you anyway,” Prince Toril said.

Elise set her knitting aside. Prince Toril’s absence was a grave thing. She couldn’t go with him—it wouldn’t be practical to try and lug seven swans and all her knitting across Verglas—but the idea of staying in the cottage left her uneasy.

“I’m sorry, but I want to go,” Prince Toril said, his voice colored with guilt.

Elise studied Prince Toril. She didn’t despise him for his selfishness. It merely showed how immature he was. He did his best by her, and Elise suspected it was very difficult to be raised by King Torgen.

Elise patted Prince Toril’s knee in sympathy.

Prince Toril looked at her with wide eyes. “Ouch,” he said when Falk nipped him.

Elise placed a hand on Falk’s soft, feathery back before she resumed knitting.

“Is there a reason why you love these wretched birds so much?” Prince Toril complained. “Because I have to say they’re a downright nuisance.”

Elise looked up from her knitting, and the prince hurried to retract his statement. “I mean, they seem like marvelous pets for you. They match your grace and, um, beauty. Ouch! Would you stop that?” Prince Toril said when Falk bit him again.

Elise soundlessly laughed, which made Prince Toril pull a lopsided grin. “OW!” he said when Falk got him again. “Blasted bird!”

Falk fluffed his feathers and looked beautiful.

“Are you sure they’re really swans? They seem too bloodthirsty—agh!” Prince Toril said when Falk flapped his white wings and smacked the Verglas Prince in the face.

“That’s it. I’m not bringing you any corn today,” Prince Toril declared, holding his nose as Falk settled down behind Elise.

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