Father, what has she done to you?

“You are more stupid than I thought if you think you can defeat me,” Clotilde said, her nearly colorless eyes were dilated in spite of the light in the room. “There is nothing you can do. Your brothers and father are lost—forever.”

“On the contrary,” a male voice said.

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Elise turned around just in time to see her seven foster brothers enter the throne room, coated with dust but looking no worse for the wear.

Elise could feel Gabrielle go taut like a violin string when she met her husband’s eyes across the room. Her muscles jerked, as if she was barely controlling herself from throwing herself into Steffen’s arms, but she stayed at Elise’s side.

“What?” Clotilde said, her voice screeching like breaking glass. “That’s not possible!”

Elise tilted her head and studied Clotilde. The wicked queen didn’t know? She didn’t feel it when Elise broke the curse? Perhaps Elise was strong enough to defeat her after all.

There was a roar. Clotilde pulled two black diamonds from a pocket sewn into her gown. She held them above her head where they glowed, dark light emitting from them.

The diamonds were the evil artifacts Angelique had warned Elise of. She was going to do it again. Clotilde was going to turn Elise’s foster brothers into swans.

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“NO!” Elise said in a scream wrenched from her soul.

“Gabi,” the cat said.

“Are you sure?” the crown princess said.

“Positive. Do it,” the cat said.

Just as the diamonds released black bolts of lightning, Gabrielle tossed her cat in the air. The feline intercepted the lightning bolts, which bounced off the cat as if they hit a mirror, burning the marble floor where they were diverted before dissipating.

Gabrielle caught her cat, tucking him under her chin.

Brida unsheathed a sword. “Go, Fürstin,” the captain said as she crouched with her sword.

Elise took a deep breath before she charged up the first few stairs.

Clotilde narrowed her poisonous eyes. “I don’t know how you managed to break my magic, but I can promise you, you won’t free your brothers a second time,” Clotilde said, gripping a black diamond in each fist. “You can’t cower behind Princess Gabrielle’s little cat forever.”

Elise kept climbing the stairs.

“Do you really think you can stop me, Elise? You are nothing but a fraud. You are even less royal than I am. You’re not a princess. You’re nothing but a street rat orphan,” Clotilde said, spit flying from her mouth in her rage. “You strive to be portrait perfect, but in the end you will die, and everyone will hear of your failure,” Clotilde said when Elise reached the top of the dais. “After I am through with you, I will curse your brothers again and put them through agony before I have them killed and stuffed as mantle piece decorations. Once they expire, King Henrik will not be far behind. I will kill them all, but I will take the greatest pleasure in killing you.”

Clotilde struck like a snake, moving to backhand Elise on the face. Elise caught her by the wrist and held it in an iron grip. “No, you will not,” Elise said, her voice strong like the ocean.

Her fears had not left her, but Brida was right. She took strength in knowing Brida, Gabrielle, and all of her foster brothers were behind her. And Clotilde’s threats? They enraged Elise.

Clotilde stared at the wrist Elise held, her eyes wide and her body stiff.

“Your first mistake was cursing my brothers,” Elise said, reaching out to pluck Queen Ingrid’s crown from Clotilde’s head. “If you had just slit our throats, none of us would have survived. But your greatest mistake?” Elise leaned in and whispered to the queen. “That was attacking my family.”

Clotilde was rattled. She shook with anger and perhaps fear. Elise coldly observed the reaction, but wasn’t satisfied. Her magic wasn’t doing much, if anything, or Clotilde’s response wouldn’t be so mild.

What was it Angelique had said would help? Skin on skin contact—the more the better. Very well, she could manage that.

Elise released Clotilde’s wrist and latched her hand on the queen’s face, covering Clotilde’s eyes, nose, and mouth with her spread fingers.

Clotilde screamed but seemed unable to pull away from Elise. Her skin was hot, boiling hot under Elise’s hand. The witch clutched her black diamonds in her fists but beat at her chest and ripped out chunks of her hair as she howled. She scrabbled at Elise’s hand, scratching like a desperate cat.

Elise held on in spite of the pain, and grabbed Clotilde’s shoulder to keep her from fleeing.

Stone cracked, and Clotilde’s screaming intensified. She howled. Her skin burst with boils and oozing wounds before it turned dry and rough like old paper, crackling under Elise’s fingers.

The screams died out, and Elise stepped back just before Clotilde’s body turned into ash, leaving behind jewels, a pretty gown, and two black diamonds cracked through the center.

It was over.

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