For years, Hespa had been plagued by stories of the rat people. She had forbidden their mention in her court, but updates and rumors still flew through the castle in spite of (or perhaps because of) her edict. She knew, for example, that the rat people were taking over her kingdom at an astonishing rate, replacing her subjects with feral monstrosities which fed on death and decay and were eager to spread their disease. She knew that the rat people now outnumbered those not so afflicted and that within weeks if not sooner she would be the head of a kingdom consisting of nothing but rat people. Already several had been found inside the walls of the castle, one of them only a few floors down from her private chambers. Hespa shuddered and drained the wine from the glass she held. She extended her arm and immediately the empty glass was replaced with a full one by her handmaiden.
“Leave me,” the queen snapped. The handmaiden was happy to do so.
Hespa also knew that the humans still under her rule were muttering and that their mutterings had grown loud enough to be heard clearly by spies and castle guards. The word “rebellion” had not yet been uttered, but any fool could tell that it was on the minds of many. Hespa had witnessed castle guardsmen holding her eye contact longer than was proper, staring back at her insolently until she was forced to drop her own eyes, hating herself as she did so. She had never felt so vulnerable as these past months, surrounded by inhuman things and resented by those in whose hands she placed her life.
The mid-morning sun reflected from the armor of the guard on duty at the front gate of the castle. He belched and squinted into the sun, straining to discern mirage from reality as a figure approached the castle gate. Or was it two figures? No, just one.
His eyes widened.
“Halt and be–”
Esemli raised her left hand and the guard was thrown into the nearest wall with such force that his breaking bones were heard hundreds of feet away. He screamed and she winced.
“No,” she said, and waved her hand again. The guard continued screaming but no noise came out, eyes bulging as he attempted to cradle his broken parts and give voice to his hurts. The other guards stampeded each other trying to get out of Esemli’s way. She swept through the gate and past them without a look. In her right hand she held a leash and to her leash was attached one of the rat people, a woman who had perhaps once been plump but now appeared emaciated to the point of death.
Her skin was caked with filth and blood was smeared around her mouth. Her clothes were rags, held together mostly by luck. Her eyes darted this way and that and she never seemed to stop licking her lips. Part of her bottom lip was gone from a time when the woman had been so desperate for meat that she had begun eating her own face. Half of her teeth grinned through her cheek at anybody who looked at her. On all fours, she scuttled behind Esemli like a dog which has been beaten often enough to fear its master but not often enough to attempt escape.
Esemli did not appear even to notice the creature in her wake. She mounted the stairs to the queen’s chamber with the rat woman at her heels. Raising her left hand, the queen’s chamber door slammed open with such force that the metal handle cracked the stone wall. Hespa whirled as Esemli let the leash go and snapped a word in a strange language that meant nothing to the queen, but the rat woman clearly understood. Still on all fours, she made straight for the queen, a horrifying grin etched on what remained of her features as she snapped her teeth.
Hespa was frozen only for a moment before countless hours on self defense spent with Bortix the Captain of the Guard leapt to the forefront of her mind. The queen whirled, seizing a long metal spike from beside her window and as the rat woman leaped, Hespa extended her arm and set her feet. The rat woman collided with the spike, the force of her attack impaling her upon the spike through one of her crazed rolling eyes.
The fairy laughed. “Well done, Queen Hespa. Perhaps you should be standing guard over your castle rather than the bumbling fools currently there.”
Hespa did not hear. Her eyes were locked on the rat woman’s face, overcome with horror as the woman’s eye ran down her hollow cheek. She had heard of the rat people, yes, but she had never seen one, much less this close. The humanity she could still detect beneath the dirt and waste was worst of all. Now that the woman was dead, Hespa could see the peasant woman who had once resided behind those eyes. Her face was relaxed, her eyes no longer rolling. But for the spike through her eye and half her lip being gone, she could have been asleep.
Esemli closed the door behind her. “Queen Hespa, you forget your manners. I have brought you a gift, the least you could do is offer me some of your wine.”
This time, the words sunk in. Hespa tore her eyes from the rat woman with an effort and dropped the spike. “Fairy, your presence here is less welcome than the plague. I would sooner spit in your face than offer you wine.” Pasting a sneer on her face, Hespa moved to where her goblet stood and drained it before refilling it from the crystal decanter.
A flicker of annoyance flashed across Esemli’s face and she moved her left hand, ever so slightly. The decanter overbalanced and splashed wine all over the queen. Hespa swore and drained what was left in the decanter before throwing it out the window in a blind fury that abated as she heard the crystal smash on the stones far below. She did not look at the fairy, sipping her wine from the goblet as she wrestled back control.
“Decades I have been gone from your eye,” Esemli said, her voice quiet but with an intensity Hespa could hear across the room. “But I have not been gone from this realm. I have watched your daughter grow from innocent child to petulant woman, never able to love her mother because you have made it impossible. I have witnessed your subjects regress and devolve until the wisest of them is merely a few steps above yonder wretch.” She gestured at the rat woman’s body which lay in a puddle of her own blood, eyes still open, one staring at the spike which had impaled its mate. “Your husband’s disrespect was not forgotten and as your daughter was cursed, so was the entire kingdom, to descend slowly into bestial madness. The suffering of the monarchy and the collapse of the kingdom have been a pleasure to behold for all of my kind.” The fairy laughed.
“Why did you bring that…creature, Esemli?” Hespa asked, staring at her kingdom.
“Bringing you what hath been wrought, Your Highness,” the fairy said, and sank into a deep and mocking curtsey which was wasted on the impassive queen. “This is one of your subjects with all the trappings of décor stripped away, exposed for what they are. Nothing but a pathetic, slavering, mewling–”
The door slammed open behind Esemli. Her eyes widened and she was halfway through turning toward the door before Princess Alasin’s poisoned dagger buried itself in the fairy’s throat. The blood which spurted from the wound was not precisely red but nearly purple and seemed almost to glow.
The queen turned just in time to see her daughter lunge through the door. The goblet of wine fell from Hespa’s numb fingers. Her feet seemed rooted to the spot. Her glass shattered on the stone floor as the fairy fell, her throat gushing strange blood.
Esemli sank to her knees, one hand reaching to the handle in her throat. The glowing purple blood coated her fingers and she grimaced as she touched the blade.
“Guh…” she said and wrapped her fingers around the handle sticking out of her throat. She pulled, the sound of the blade sliding through her flesh sending the queen’s skin crawling as fresh gouts of blood poured from her mouth. “Guh…” she said again, her hand dropping from the handle with the blade still buried in her throat.
“Isss… too…toooooo…” she said, her words obscured by the blood which flowed, faster now, out of her mouth. The color was draining from her face. “Toooooo…” she moaned and fell forward. She landed on the handle of the dagger and with a horrid squelching sound the point of the blade stabbed out the opposite side of her neck.