Elise saw what he meant to do and lunged for him. The soldiers grabbed her and held her back, but they couldn’t bear to look at their monarch.
When King Torgen reached the crackling fire he turned around and draped three of the shirts over his arm. He held the last shirt—the unfinished one—up as if to inspect it.
Elise shook her head and reached out, pleading for mercy.
King Torgen smiled—a sick, twisted smile—and dropped the shirt in the fire. “Black magic is not tolerated in Verglas.”
Elise opened and closed her mouth, unable to beg as her weeks of hard work burned up and turned into ash. The green nettles and endless loops turned ash gray as they caught fire and shrank, curling in the heat of the fire. Soon not a stitch of the first shirt remained. Elise hooked her eyes on the second shirt King Torgen held and struggled against the soldiers.
King Torgen dropped the second shirt in the fire. He stared at Elise, smiling in delight as he observed her despair.
The fire hissed and crackled as it consumed the second shirt, ripping apart what took Elise weeks of pain, dedication, and love to accomplish.
Elise was crying by the time King Torgen took the third shirt from where it was draped over his arm. Tears poured down her face. Please, she mouthed.
“No,” King Torgen said before he dropped the shirt. He clapped his hands as Elise sank to her knees, her tears falling like raindrops. There was a roaring in her ears as she stared at the greedy fire that burned the third shirt.
Her foster-brothers were doomed to remain swans. All of Elise’s work was for naught.
Her ears rang, and Elise knew she was losing control of herself as the last loops of the third shirt were devoured by orange flames.
King Torgen laughed, and Elise clenched her bruised, oozing, and welt covered hands into fists. All of her pain, every moment she had spent knitting was wasted.
Elise caught the thought and shook her head. The capes were gone, yes. But Elise would never call an attempt, even a failed attempt, to free her foster brothers, to free Rune, Steffen, Falk, Erick, Nick, Mikk, and Gerhart a waste.
Elise squeezed her eye shut, cutting off her tears. When she snapped her eyes open she arranged her legs beneath her and forced herself to stand. She faced King Torgen with every ounce of training she had, standing with perfect posture and her chin raised. She looked down at King Torgen as if he were her lesser, because he was her lesser.
The soldiers were crowded around Elise, but the let go of her and were unable to keep themselves from bowing and murmuring apologies for manhandling her so.
King Torgen met her gaze. “Look at the chit pretending to be—,” he cut himself when Elise smirked at him. It was the barest curling of her lips, but it was enough to make King Torgen shut his mouth with an audible click.
The Verglas King glared daggers at Elise. He threw the last shirt on the fire and stalked off. “Witch,” he hissed as he passed Elise.
Elise lunged for the fireplace. She tried to snatch the burning shirt from the flames, but the fire was too hot and blistering.
“Allow me,” one of the soldiers said, putting a hand in front of Elise and scooping her aside before he used the end of his spear to fish the shirt out of the fire.
The soldier set it on the ground and stamped on the edges to put out the flames, squashing it.
Almost half of the shirt was destroyed, but once it cooled off Elise gathered it up as if it was knitted gold.
She left the palace, barefoot and her face smeared with tears, with the presence of a queen. The soldiers escorted her and her half shirt to the cottage.
“My Lady,” they said, bowing deeply to her—the highest compliment they could pay and the only consolation they could offer—before they left.
Elise sat on her smooth rock and arranged her skirts around her. The shirt sat on her lap like a beloved pet. Elise placed a hand on it and looked up when one of the swans left the lake water to approach her.
Unable to hold back her tears any longer, Elise shook her head when the swan tilted his head at her. She unrolled the shirt, her fingers lingering on the burned spots as hot, painful tears crawled down on her cheeks.
The swan understood, or at least understood that she was upset, and craned his neck to place his head on her shoulder.
Elise sucked in air, strangling the sob that wanted to pour out of her throat. She buried her face in the swan’s soft, slick feathers and threw her arms around its body.
They were still like that an hour later when Brida found them.
“Fürstin? What happened—oh,” Brida said, catching sight of the mangled shirt. “Oh, Fürstin,” Brida said, her voice echoing Elise’s silent heartbreak.
The captain placed a hand on Elise’s shoulder, but when Elise didn’t remove herself from her bird consoler, the captain disappeared.
By sunset, Elise had some control over herself. She hadn’t cried in several hours, but her resolve crumbled as she watched her foster brothers splash their way out of the lake.