The Evil Queen – Gena Showalter

Once upon a time in the magical land of Enchantia, a queen sat in her turret, dreaming of a new life. One of hope and fulfilment rather than dread and emptiness. She was not alone. Whether a royal or a peasant, a newly married woman had twelve months to conceive a child. If the clock ran out, a husband had the right to end the union—with the wife’s beheading. The queen had been married for eleven months, had seduced her husband time and time again…to no avail. Desperate to survive, she joined forces with four other women trapped in similar situations. Another queen, a princess, a witch and an oracle. The five females scoured the earliest Annals of Enchantia…and learned of the mystical Tree of New Beginnings. Owned by a cruel king, the tree possessed a trunk both towering and broad, its ebony-black limbs displaying snow-white leaves and bloodred apples. A mesmerizing triad of colors. The king guarded his treasured possession mercilessly. Eons had passed since the consumption of an apple. A shame, for legend claimed the apples restored lost power, strengthened magic, healed physical injuries and aided a woman’s quest to conceive. The legend provided warnings, as well.

Apple babies—forever known as bonum et malum— would wield more power and magic than any of their peers… But they would also suffer a tragic end. The hopeful mothers-to-be chose to believe the blessings and dismiss the curse. Risking everything, they stole and ate one apple apiece. Except for the second queen. She ate two apples, just to be doubly sure. Nine months later, on the same day, each woman gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl. Actually, Queen Doubly Sure gave birth to two healthy, beautiful baby girls. The new mothers rejoiced…until the oracle spoke a prophecy of doom and darkness, claiming the six newborns would one day play a part in “Snow White and the Evil Queen,” the fairy tale a road map for their fates. First, though, they had to escape the cruel king. When he learned what had happened, he ordered the executions of the mothers and their children.

One of the queens ran away…and died at the hands of a dangerous sorcerer. The oracle and the witch went into hiding…only to be found and killed. Thankfully, their daughters survived. Terrified, the princess and the other queen enacted a desperate plan to secret their girls to the mortal world, where the king would never think to search. But there was one thing that they did not yet comprehend. Evil never came dressed as a devil; evil came disguised as a dream, as tempting as the shiny red apples they’d once consumed. If they weren’t careful, they would succumb… Prologue A brief glimpse into the future The Enchantian Forest “Well, well, well.” Overcome by dark delight, I unveiled my coldest, wickedest smile. “Hello, my darklings.” Standing before me, bound by thorny vines, were my greatest enemies—Snow White, Prince Charming and three of the seven dwarfs, or protectors.

Above us, golden sunlight filtered through a canopy made of ivory leaves. Around us, majestic trees teemed with fruit and flowers. The loveliest war zone I’d ever seen. Radiating her patented mix of shock and fury, Snow White bucked and strained for freedom. I didn’t want to brag, but I was the one who had introduced her to that fury. Before me, she’d been all sunshine and roses. You’re welcome. One by one, the protectors bowed their heads, ashamed. Too little, too late. All the while, Prince Charming held my gaze, unafraid of my wrath.

But then, he was a warrior to his core, forged in fire, then honed and sharpened like a blade, one strike at a time. Shivers careened down my spine as I breathed in the sugar and spice of his scent. Focus. “Dear, sweet Prince Charming. Mere hours ago, you wished to prove your love for me.” Would he prevail at long last, or let me down once again? “Behold. This is your chance. Side with me, and lose her. Or, side with her, and lose me. What you cannot do? Side with us both.

” Snow White had wounded me so deeply, so profoundly, I would never recover. But I could be comforted by Prince Charming—if he did as I asked. The fact that he didn’t respond right away… I bit my tongue until I tasted blood. Calm. Steady. Whatever his decision, I would survive. Finally, he said, “I love you, Everly, and I choose you.” His ragged voice teased my ears. “I will always choose you.” Joy began to stir to life.

I’d actually won? Then he added, “But I will not let you kill her.” My lungs deflated, leaving me breathless and dizzy. “You love me, so you protect her? Good one. For your next trick, pull a rabbit out of your invisible hat.” He lifted his chin. “I will be your sword, and I will be your shield. I will protect you until I take my last breath…even when you are your own worst adversary.” A lie! No adversary was worse than his precious Snow White. I longed to shout curses at him. But I couldn’t reveal my true feelings without also revealing my vulnerabilities.

Vulnerabilities could be exploited. So I blanked my expression. Or tried to. My muscles refused to obey my mind, my pain simply too great. Very well. My illusion magic wasn’t second nature, but I could wield it when needed, as long as I remained linked to someone else and syphoned enough of their power. Since I had tapped into an amazing power source only minutes ago, I had this in the bag. Streams of heat and energy flowed into my every cell, and I moaned. Had strength ever been this intoxicating? I wanted more, more, more. More strength meant I could safeguard who and what I loved.

A truth I’d learned: love without strength equaled misery. Strength equaled security. Or maybe I should cut ties with those loved ones instead. No ties, no heartache. I would be bulletproof. With a twirl of my finger, I unleashed a tendril of magic to craft an illusion of calm. Excellent. After faking a yawn, I buffed the metal claws that adorned my fingers. “Why am I not surprised you claim to want me while defending her? Oh, yes. Because you always defend her.

” Eyes hauntingly beautiful as they filled with torment, he said, “Do you not see the irony, sweetling? You plan to commit the same crimes as the one you loathe.” How dare he! I would never be like Snow White. “This just in,” I said, mimicking a prime-time anchorman. “Prince Charming could have enjoyed a happily-ever-after with the Evil Queen, the best thing to ever happen to him. Alas. The fool tossed her aside, and she moved on.” “You are the best thing to ever happen to him?” Snow White laughed. “Poor, poor Prince Charming.” Do not react. “Yes.

Poor, poor Prince Charming. A supervillain in denial.” Without missing a beat, he said, “Every hero is a villain, and every villain is a hero. It just depends on who you ask.” He wasn’t wrong. I was a villain to many and a hero to…myself. Prince Charming and Snow White were heroes to the world, but villains to me. I had a brand-new “no mercy” policy for my villains. “She struck at you, and we will punish her for it—calmly, rationally,” he added. “Otherwise, we merely perpetuate the cycle of violence.

” My heart leaped. We would strike at Snow White together? “Tell me how we’ll punish her.” “We will lock her in the tower, to suffer as you suffered.” I waited for him to elaborate, to mention the whipping I’d suffered, too. The forced marriage to an old man. The insults lobbed at me, and the common kindnesses I’d been denied. But he didn’t. Of course he didn’t. “We both know you’ll fill her cell with luxuries, then free her far too soon.” Not.

Good. Enough. I doubted any sentence but death would be good enough. “Face it. You are blind to her many, many, many faults.” “How can you… You can’t…” Snow White peered at Prince Charming, the fury melting from her countenance, leaving only raw despondency. “She killed our king and hopes to break our bond. You cannot support her.” “I can. I will.

” He held my stare, unwavering. “I will do anything for Everly—except help her destroy herself.” I thrilled, and then I cursed. Enough! If anyone had the power to sway me from the proper path, it was this boy and his black-magic voice. But I couldn’t let him do it. Not this time. Pretty words meant nothing without consequent action. “You have made your choice,” I told him, “and I have made mine. Our course is set.” “That is true, though it will not end the way you hope.

” Snow White’s fury returned in a flash, her gaze spitting fire at me. “Prophecy says I will come back to life and slay you. Prophecy is never wrong.” Prophecy was fairy tale, and fairy tale was prophecy. While some parts were literal, other parts were symbolic. Oh, how I prayed my death and her victory were symbolic. “You will not harm Everly,” Prince Charming snapped, causing Snow White to flinch. I kissed the tip of my middle finger and blew in her direction. Once, I’d admired this girl, and yes, okay, I’d envied her, too. Such strength! Now? Pure, unadulterated rage blistered me inside and out whenever I thought of her.

“Why don’t we liven up this party?” I twirled my finger, unleashing another tendril of magic. No need to look over my shoulder to know vines had grown together to construct a regal throne, different flowers blooming over the seat, creating a colorful bouquet. Head high, I swished the tail of my gown aside and eased down. Creatures hid in nearby shadows, watching as the prophecy unfolded. I welcomed our audience, calling, “Come one, come all. Look. See. Learn what happens when you betray the Queen of Evil…” One by one, the creatures moved into sunlight, forming a circle around us. Trolls and chimera, unicorns and griffins, nymphs and centaurs. What a fearsome sight they made.

How much more fearsome was I? Incalculably. I almost fluffed my hair. As the creatures twittered with excitement, Snow White shrank back. Prince Charming raised his chin higher, refusing to back down, no matter the odds stacked against him. The protectors struggled against their bonds, determined to aid their royal charges. Drumming metal claws against the arms of the throne, I announced, “Today I am your judge, jury and executioner. Spoiler alert. You’re all guilty, and you’re all going to die. But we shouldn’t let the outcome taint our enjoyment. There’s fun to be had—for me.

Shall we begin?” Stubborn to his core, the prince took a step in my direction. An action he surely regretted when the vines jerked him back in place, their sharp thorns cutting into his wrists, streams of his blood dripping to the ground. “This isn’t you. Grief has hidden your joy, but we can find it again.” Hardly. “I was born to be the Evil Queen. The monster other monsters fear. Selected by Fate. Joy is the carrot forever dangled out of my reach.” He shook his head, a lock of midnight hair falling over his forehead.

“Fate might have predicted our course, and the corresponding outcomes, but we decide what parts of the fairy tale are literal and what parts are symbolic. We still have freedom of choice, and I am thankful for that. You are the one I crave more than breath, Everly.” Perhaps. No ties. “You may call me Your Majesty.” A howling wind blew past us, leaves rattling and branches clapping, an eerie ballad I enjoyed. “Or Stepmother Dearest.” “I’m sorry you were forced to wed my father.” Once again, he took a step forward.

Once again, the vines stopped him. But all the while, his eyes implored me. “Words cannot adequately express my remorse.” Another gust of wind, the scent of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves—his scent—filling my nose, stronger than before. Awareness heated my blood and fractured my defenses. Well, why not? He was my most wicked fantasy come to startling life. “Let me think about whether or not I care what you feel.” I drummed my claws with more force. “Still thinking…no. I don’t care.

” He radiated abject disappointment. Too bad, so sad. Determined, I returned my gaze to Snow White, who regarded me with haughty disdain. “Come closer, child.” I made the vines push her forward. And okay, okay. Maybe I was showing off. But only a bit! I had a link to never-ending power; she did not. “Let’s forget the atrocities you’ve committed this day.” Do not choke on your hatred.

Exhibit control. “You are also accused of selfishness, greed and rampant stupidity. Opening argument?” “You are guilty of being a plague upon humanity.” She struggled for freedom, a little crazed. “One day, one day soon, I will burn you alive, just as our fairy tale suggests.” I canted my head and met Prince Charming’s gaze. “Any admonishments for her?” “Right now, you are my primary concern.” He searched my eyes. Hoping to find a hint of the optimistic girl he’d first met? “You have never enjoyed harming others. Don’t start now.

” “Don’t do this. Don’t do that,” I mocked. Inside, I commanded, Don’t soften. “You’re no fun anymore.” But then, I wasn’t fun anymore, either. Once, I’d been an innocent who’d thought I could have anything I wanted as long as I worked hard enough. Once, I’d chosen to believe the best of people. Once…but no longer. You could work yourself to death and gain nothing. And people, well, they would always put themselves first, no matter how many others got hurt in the process.

To survive, I had to do the same. I had to be tougher, smarter, stronger. Everything always came back to strength. Finally, one of the protectors decided to speak up. The one I hated almost as much as Snow White. “If you do this,” she said, “if you step off this emotional cliff, you will fall.” “I guess you would know,” I snapped. “All of you fail to comprehend a single glaring fact.” I motioned to Snow White. “I will eagerly walk into a sword as long as I can impale her, too.

” The members of my audience regarded me with horror and awe—the perfect combination. I stood and sauntered toward Prince Charming, the hem of my gown swishing at my feet. “Evil isn’t born, it’s made. One thought and action at a time.” I paused for effect. “Take a good look at what you’ve made.” Snow White spit curses at me. When I stopped a few feet away, Prince Charming swept his gaze over me, slowly, leisurely, devouring me one tasty bite at a time—and I liked it. “I’m looking,” he rasped. His irises flamed, every muscle in his body knotting with sudden tension.

“Never want to stop.” New shivers almost knocked me down. Hide your vulnerabilities. Grin. Better. I traced a fingertip along the dark stubble that shadowed his jaw, then glided around him, scrutinizing him the way he’d so often scrutinized me. Could I truly destroy this beautiful warrior? He turned with me, twisting the vines that bound him. Fraying the vines. Soon, he would gain his freedom. “Want to know the difference between us?” I asked, unconcerned.

“I admit I’m bad. You pretend you’re good.” The vines fell away, and he walked me backward. Soon was now. Got it. My heart raced. Eventually, a tree trunk halted my retreat. Prince Charming reached up, bracketing my temples with his hands, caging me in. At six-foot-four, he loomed over me, his gloriously broad shoulders seeming to surround me…and I loved it. When I inhaled, he exhaled and vice versa.

We breathed for each other, agonizing awareness sizzling between us. “Once, I hurt you when I should have safeguarded you. Something I will forever regret. But I have learned from my mistakes.” He moved one of those big, calloused hands to my jaw and traced my cheekbone with his thumb. “Your happiness is my happiness.” Pull away. Pull away now! But my limbs had frozen and refused to obey my mind. I stood there, floundering, trapped by my own weaknesses. For him.

For what he made me feel. And he wasn’t done! “Marry me, Everly. Become my wife. Let’s make each other smile and laugh for eternity.” I gulped. Technically, I could wed him. My so-called husband was dead. But… No! “You can’t be serious,” I said, my heart racing faster, thudding against my ribs. “This madness must cease.” Snow White yanked at her bonds.

“Has she ensorcelled you?” The protectors issued protests of their own, until my tree limbs stuffed their mouths full of leaves. “Your thoughts and opinions are unwelcome,” Prince Charming told Snow White. His gaze never released mine. Those exquisite eyes, framed by the longest, thickest black lashes, created a beautiful portrait of fierce adoration. “Say yes, Everly.” Must stay strong. If I weakened, the vulnerability he oh so easily cultivated would cost me everything—again. I’d lost too much already. “I say…no. My vengeance will not be denied.

” I twirled my finger, new vines wrenching Prince Charming back in line. Much better. I returned to my throne and sat with far less grace than before. “Do I have your full attention?” I asked. He remained unperturbed. “You’ve had my full attention since the moment we met.” Ignore the pleasure of his words. Forge ahead. “I declare everyone is guilty as charged.” I extended my arm to the side and slowly opened my fist.

At the same time, a tree branch stretched out…out…to place a white apple in my palm. Prophecy proclaimed I would kill Snow White with poisoned fruit—for a time, at least—so I would. Only, hers would not be a restful sleep. “Now, for the sentencing portion of the trial.” Just as the Apple of New Beginnings had once granted me life, the Apple of Life and Death would grant me peace. “One bite,” I said, “and you will sleep for eternity.” Still not good enough. I raked my claws over my forearm. Skin tore, my venomous blood welling. I painted each claw crimson before I sank the metal tips into the apple.

In seconds, one half of the fruit turned red. Fear shook Snow White when I added, “You will willingly eat this poisonous, poisonous apple, Princess, or you will watch me force-feed it to your friends. Decide.” Prince Charming jerked as if I’d struck him. Realization: yes, I could destroy him, as long as I destroyed Snow White, too. I might feel guilty for it, but I wouldn’t be swayed from my course. Not again. This is justified. She paled, her mouth floundering open and closed. “I won’t…you can’t…” She would.

I could. Sounding resigned, Prince Charming said, “This is what you need, Everly? This will help you heal from the damage we’ve caused?” The questions surprised me. “Without a doubt,” I replied. Except, deep in my bones, I knew I couldn’t heal. Some wounds were permanent. “Very well. For you, my queen, I will do anything. Even this.” Somehow, he freed himself a second time, shot across the distance in a blink and snatched the apple from my grip. No! “Don’t you dare—” Too late.

With his gaze still locked on mine, he bit into the poisoned fruit.

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