Queen Hespa stood at the window slit of her tower, looking over the same woodland that Prince Heyworth had so recently considered counting, as she contemplated his death. She had known of his robust reputation and had hoped her daughter’s temper would dispatch him. Now his death would be recorded as nothing but a lover’s quarrel, slain in an act of self-defense. Unbidden, the queen felt a surge of affection for her daughter and just as swiftly quashed it.
Over the years she had seen the results of the succession of nannies who had grown close to the little princess, only to die with no mark or warning in the night. The castle and its servants had been questioned by the royal guards numerous times but no one had any idea why the nannies were dying. The queen had not told anyone but Bortix, the Captain of the Guard, what the fairy’s curse had been. The wizard Sapius knew without being told, and the three of them did not share the knowledge with any other as the death toll mounted. She was able however to surreptitiously maneuver those who had lost her favor to the position and disposed of them thus. This had gone on for twelve years until the princess had been judged old enough to take care of herself, to the relief of the matrons of the kingdom.
The Princess Alasin proved to be a nightmare in the castle under her own charge. She was demanding, bossy and on more than one occasion had a serving girl thrashed for taking too long to appear when summoned. The queen was not to be questioned, certainly, but there was a certain amount of muttering about “ the little hell-child” who treated them all like dogs. Hespa was well aware of this and encouraged it, knowing that only their unanimous dislike of the princess was keeping them from forming any sort of meaningful bond with her and sealing their fates.
Hespa pulled the red velvet cord which ran along the ceiling and down to the floor of her chamber. From the depths of the castle, she could hear the distant tolling of a bell. Within seconds a figure appeared, clad in the same red velvet as the cord, hooded in black.
“Lady.” The voice came from the red-clad figure, though it seemed to come from everywhere.
“See that Prince Heyworth’s body is satisfactorily removed,” she said, draining her glass. “That task will have been delegated to the castle guards, and I would not credit them with any maneuver outside of the defense of the castle.”
“Nor would I, madam.”
“See that it is done, and send the wizard to me.” The queen dismissed her royal guard with a wave of her hand and took a deep drink from her glass.
Sapius stood atop the south tower and studied the stars. They were bright, and the darkness around them was dark, but apart from that, he could discern nothing. He shook his head in frustration and brought up his pipe, stoking it with a special blend of dwarf tobacco he imported under an understanding. Sometimes the stars were obstinate, and it was better to just enjoy them.
A spark flew from his fingertips, igniting the leaves in his pipe. He closed his eyes as he inhaled before a banging at his door wrenched his attention away. His eyes opened, holding the smoke for a moment before exhaling a mighty cloud as he said “Enter.”
Bortix, the Captain of the Guard, stood framed in the doorway, his frame filling it. His sword hand rested on its hilt as though it were born there. “Her Royal Highness bids you come before her, Master Wizard.”
Sapius allowed a thin smile on his bearded face. “I’m sure she does. Let us go.”
They marched in silence down the tower stairs, Bortix following Sapius who was puffing on his pipe as though he were out for a midnight stroll. When they came to the queen’s chamber, Bortix rapped three times on the door.
“Milady, the wizard awaits your pleasure.”
“Send him in and go away.”
Sapius entered, closing the door behind him. The queen stood before the fire, her back to the mantle, her arms crossed.
“My lady,” he said inclining his back. “You wish to see me?”
“What is my daughter taking?” Hespa asked, her voice businesslike.
“As you stipulated, it is a harmless composition made to increase her metabolism and raise her natural aggression.” The wizard’s thin smile returned. “I daresay it is working?”
Hespa snorted. “She has slain that troll-hunting lummox without exerting herself halfway. I fear the day her temper should turn on me.”
“She would never,” Sapius said. “You would have to provoke her.”
“All I can do is provoke her,” the queen snapped, pulling a bejeweled flask from her bodice and drinking deeply from it as she crossed to the window, looking moodily out at her kingdom. “I’ll not run the risk of my daughter feeling anything for me but indifference.”
“A wise choice, lady,” said the wizard, and puffed at his pipe.
Hespa turned, opening her mouth to lash out at the puffing fool for his sycophancy but the wizard was gone. A second later, a single rap came at the door.
She stiffened, the mask she had worn since her daughter’s christening slipping effortlessly over her face. “Daughter.”
Alasin stepped into the room, her face sullen and splattered with red. “Prince Heyworth is dead. I presume this comes not as a shock to you.”
Hespa restrained a smile, instead affecting a look of cold disgust. “It has been told already. How did this happen?”
Alasin moved toward the dresser which held a crystal decanter of the cellar keeper’s finest aged brandy, pouring herself a glass. “His very presence was unwanted and he was unwilling to accept that fact. He kept mentioning you as if it mattered. Let me express my appreciation, O queen, for bestowing that oaf upon me.” She drained the glass, glaring at her mother.
The queen had foreseen this, having gathered intelligence from the local peasantry in Heyworth’s kingdom, for there are no greater wagging tongues than those who toil beneath royalty’s lash. Now, the kingdom’s aging ruler, the last of his line, would be hard-pressed to father any heir, leaving themselves vulnerable to being usurped by the kingdom of Dandoich when the monarch passed. The wizard’s drug had done its job perfectly and it was hard not to feel delighted.
“Daughter, you have a few things to learn about how to treat royalty from another kingdom,” Hespa spat with ire she did not feel. “Heyworth was our guest and you were his host. You should have done whatever it took to make him feel at ease. The good of the kingdoms are more important than your petty feelings.” She registered the look of hurt in Alasin’s eyes and crushed her own hurt for causing it, turning away as if in dismissal. “Get out of my sight, you little pestilent, while I try and fix the damage you have caused.”
Hot, angry tears filled Alasin’s eyes as she left her mother’s chamber. She could not think of a time she had not left the chamber thus, nor a time that ascending to it did not fill her with dread. As usual, upon leaving she went up to the very top of her mother’s tower. She had come up here after her first big fight with the queen when Hespa had informed her that she would be caring for herself now and would no longer have a nanny. The thought had sent her into a tantrum and she had run from the chamber after screaming at her mother that she would kill herself by jumping from the battlements.
Now, years later, atop the same tower, she considered, not for the first time, throwing herself from her perch, forever ending anything she knew in favor of the unknown void before her. Once again, fear mastered her, and she shifted her balance away from the void. She looked up, taking a deep breath. The air, damp from the recent rain, was rich and fragrant. She smiled. It could be worse. There were some things worth living for.