The queen’s face was white as she looked at her daughter standing in the doorway behind the fairy’s still bleeding body. Alasin looked back at her mother, breathing heavily and shaking with rage and shock.
“Cursed…? My whole life I was cursed and you never saw fit to tell me?” Alasin’s voice trembled as well. “All this time and I find it out from the very…creature to put the curse upon me, told as she mocks you with what she has done to the kingdom?” Alasin gestured at the dead rat woman on the ground, revulsion in her voice. “I have seen it. There are more of them. Many more! If not for the kindness of one person, I might have been set upon by them and torn to pieces. But that would likely be a worthy price for you to pay, mother, to get your filthy cursed daughter out of your sight at last!” Her voice had risen steadily until she was screaming.
Her mother stood impassive, letting her daughter’s words wash over her as any parent does when ignoring the tantrums of their child. Hespa half expected Alasin to begin storming around the room, breaking things and rending hangings from the wall.
“And yet, I still have no idea the nature of this curse,” Alasin finished at the top of her lungs, her fingers curled into fists. “Tell me what damns me!”
“The fairy said that the one whom you love the most would perish.” Hespa looked at her daughter with something like pity. “Poor thing. It wasn’t your fault.”
Alasin scarcely heard this last. Her mind was whirling with this latest revelation, much of her life coming in to focus for the first time. Her revolving door of nannies, her mother’s constant icy indifference toward her, some of her earliest memories were of attempting to forge a bond with Hespa only to be coldly rebuffed. She would take solace in the arms of one of her nurses, only to be told the next morning that the nurse had been called away forever and she would be meeting her newest nanny shortly. This new nanny would be an unknown quantity and Alasin would shy from her for some time before trust was built and inevitably love, then the cycle would repeat itself.
In particular, she was reminded of the way Madam Flood and the blacksmith had met their ends. She particularly remembered the blacksmith and tears of hot shame and regret came to her eyes.
“Tears won’t help you, my daughter. They did not help me, though buckets of them I cried to watch my only child being raised by others.” Hespa’s face trembled. “It was a pain unlike any other I have borne.”
“Your pain did not stretch so far as to preclude you from sending your only child from all she had known into the world with such a curse attached to her!” Alasin shrieked. “There is blood upon your hands, mother, the blood of innocents!” Her eyes were wide and rolling as she pointed at Hespa with a quivering finger.
“Blood is upon the hands of your dead father, you little brat!” screamed the queen, for the moment, looking just as unhinged as her daughter. “I was not the one two-timing one of the most powerful species to ever exist even as you were being born! I did nothing I did not have to do in order to preserve the kingdom so you could grow up as a spoiled little hellbitch!” She shrieked this last with such force that it lifted her to her toes.
Alasin felt burning tears leap to her eyes as she glared at her mother, fists clenched so hard she could barely feel them. “At least now you don’t have to worry about dying because I love you,” she hissed through trembling lips, her cheeks shining. Without another word, she turned and left Hespa staring after her, shaking.
The wizard sat at his workbench, his great book of spells open before him. The book was very old and had been given to him by his master before the elder had succumbed to the Darkness and departed this realm. Sapius had asked his master to whom the book had originally belonged and the old man had struck him upside the head. He had not dared ask again. All the spells in the world were said to be in that book, and Sapius had been poring over it with increasing desperation in the recent weeks as reports of the rat people increased and the rumblings from the townsfolk grew ever louder. The queen was in denial as the castle staff continued their spiral toward outright mutiny and rebellion, prompting Sapius to redouble his efforts.
So engrossed was he that his chamber door swinging open scarcely registered on his fevered consciousness. Not until the princess was standing right in front of him did he realize with a start that she was there.
“By the gods,” he gasped, putting a hand to his heart where the belabored organ pounded frantically in an attempt to recover as he stood. “You gave me a fright, Princess.”
“Wizard, what know you of love potions?” she snapped.
“They are divided in kind,” he said, remaining standing as he did. He did not care for the look in the eye of the princess at all. It was the look of madness.
“There are those which provide only a subtle nudge of the heart and take time to build to the desired result. Others are limited in scope to one person for whom the drinker feels amorous. Most dangerous of all are the ones which provide immediate, permanent infatuation to the first person the drinker sees. These are the most risky because there is no way to undo the enchantment and if circumstances go awry, the drinker may fall forever madly in love with the wrong person.”
“I require one of the latter,” said Alasin. “Immediately.”
Alarm bells were ringing in the wizard’s head. “Might I ask why, Highness?”
“Do not question me!” she shrieked, striding forward and leaning over the workbench in his face. Tiny droplets of her spittle peppered his face. “I am the princess of the realm and it is not your place to question me, wizard! Obey my command or I will see your head on a spike!”
“Your will, Highness,” said the wizard, unwilling to show her just how disturbed he was by the lack of sanity in her voice and her eyes. “Although if I may caution–“
Her fist pounded the workbench, sending a beaker crashing to the ground. “I will not command you again.”
Never taking his eyes off her, Sapius reached inside his robes and brought forth a small brass key which he used to unlock one of the drawers in his workbench. Reaching all the way to the back of the drawer, he brought out a vial filled with a purplish, glowing liquid. The color reflected in Alasin’s eyes as they fixed on it.
“I only have but one, Lady,” Sapius said, holding it out to her. “Have a care, for it takes many turns of the sun to create more.”
She snatched it from him and turned on her heel in the same motion. She was gone before he could do more than blink. The feeling of disquiet settled deeper within him, along with the sensation that inexorable events had been set in motion.
Queen Hespa stood at her window, staring at her kingdom. Even from here, she could see the small shapes of rat people scuttling around the buildings below. Screams filtered up from the ground and she fancied she could hear the sounds of cracking bones and rending flesh. She had no idea what the rat people actually did to the living but her fertile imagination was only too happy to fill the gaps in her knowledge.
The smell of the dead rat woman and the blood of the fairy still hung in the air, though their bodies had been removed by two servants who were clearly very reluctant to do so. Hespa thought sourly of the blood, both woman and fairy, that had puddled on her floor. It would need scouring before it faded even the slightest bit and a hundred years from now there would still be some caked in the cracks between the stones.
A sound made her turn. The door was opening and Alasin came in. Hespa tensed.
“Are you here to spew more vitriol in my direction, daughter?”
“Mother, please. This bitterness gets us nowhere.” Closing the door, Alasin moved to the cart on which Hespa’s goblets and wine were stored. “All I want is for us to share a glass of wine and make peace together.”
With her back turned to Hespa, Alasin pulled the tiny flask from her bodice. Setting her nails into the cork, she pulled it out without a sound.
“Why?” Hespa’s voice was weary but Alasin could tell she had not moved from her place by the window. Alasin upended the flask over one of the goblets, sending bright purple liquid cascading into the glass.
“You are my mother,” Alasin said. “If you cannot love me, at the least, I wish for you to not hate me.” Stowing the flask back in her undergarments, she poured wine. The purple liquid at the bottom of the glass was swallowed by the dark red wine without a trace.
“A fine sentiment,” the queen said, turning from the window. “But you and I both know the dangers that lie therein.”
“Come, mother,” said Alasin, lifting both glasses and offering the unadulterated one to her parent. “Taste this wine with me and let us embark upon a new chapter in our lives.” She met Hespa’s eyes unblinking over the goblet, holding it between them.
For a moment, the queen held her daughter’s gaze. Alasin held her breath while maintaining her contact with her mother’s eyes until the glass was taken from her hand.
“I say, mother, come look at this with me,” Alasin said, gesturing at the mirror hung on the back of the chamber door, stepping toward it. In her periphery, she could see herself moving in the reflection but refused to focus on it. “If you stand here with me, over a century of the kingdom’s rule will be represented in its reflection.”
The queen joined her daughter before the mirror and stood looking. She saw herself as she always had, an inflexible example of authority and power. Beside her, for once, stood her daughter.
“New beginnings,” Hespa said, raising her glass to the mirror and draining it.
“New beginnings,” Alasin echoed and drained her own. The potion was barely discernible amid the wine and gave it a sweeter flavor than the dry red taste that Hespa preferred.
The queen smiled. “It’s good wine, isn’t it?”
Alasin raised her eyes to the mirror just as the wizard’s potion took full effect. What she saw in the mirror was more perfect than anything she could have ever imagined. Her mother seemed almost to glow. Her own smile lit up the room, and in that moment, she felt her heart fall for the figures in the mirror.
“Very good,” murmured Alasin. “I love you, mother.”
Sapius the wizard had lived in the kingdom for many years. He had served the monarchy for most of his adult life and would not have hesitated to use some of his darkest magic on anyone who threatened it. So when the castle guards came pounding at his chamber door the next morning, he was flabbergasted to find their swords drawn as he opened the door. They poured in through the entrance, surrounding him with their sharp steel before he could react.
Bortix the Captain of the Guard strode forward and struck the wizard full in the face with a mailed glove. Sapius could taste blood in his mouth and felt it trickle from the corner of his mouth. Bewildered, he could do no more than gape at Bortix, with whom he had often shared his dwarf’s tobacco in exchange for the guardsman’s secret recipe mulled mead.
“What…why…” he managed to stammer, but the look Bortix wore on his face robbed him of any further questions.
“Save it, wizard,” Bortix spat. In a trice, a dagger was in his hand and the point was under Sapius’s chin, forcing his head back. “We know what you did.”
“Pray, then, enlighten me,” Sapius managed to choke out, his eyes staring at the ceiling. “I have no idea what I did.”
“The princess and the queen have died at your hands and you dare to play the fool to me?” Bortix roared and punched the wizard square in the face, his meaty fist wrapped around the dagger handle.
Sapius went flying backward and would have certainly hit the floor had one of the guards surrounding him not pushed him back toward Bortix who responded with another fist to the wizard’s face. This time the guard moved to the side so Sapius fell all the way to the floor, where he was greeted by an army of kicking, stomping boots. One collided with the side of his head and a black cloud enveloped him, even as the words echoed in his head.
Bortix stood over the unconscious wizard, his great hands balled into fists, glaring at the prone figure with hate in his eyes as his guards took turns applying their boots to the fallen man. Normally one of the most rational and level headed men in the kingdom, Bortix made no move to stop his soldiers beating the helpless body.
When the day had passed its noon and the queen had not stirred, Bortix had entered the queen’s chamber after knocking progressively louder until he was pounding at the stout timbers. The queen lay on her bed, a peaceful smile on her face. Bortix had seen many dead bodies in his time and he did not need to shake the queen by the shoulder or shout her name to know that she had departed this realm. He did so anyway, shouting for the castle medic with tears growing in his eyes and a great sinking feeling in his chest. The medic had arrived and given the sad pronouncement before Bortix thought of the princess. Or, he thought, as she would be known henceforth, the queen.
Giving strict instructions to the medic to let no one into the queen’s chamber in his absence, Bortix hastened to the room of the princess. His adjurations to open the door resulted in nothing but silence and the door was locked from within. Bortix threw his entire body weight at the door again and again until it yielded to his bulk. There lay the princess on her own bed, arms at her sides, an identical expression of peace on her face. The only difference between her and the queen was the object in her left hand. Bortix had availed himself of the potions the wizard concocted and knew the shape of the glass bottles well. He had no trouble recognizing the bottle in the dead princess’s hand as coming from the chambers of Sapius.
When the wizard had been burned at the stake, Bortix, yielding to the clamoring of his guards, crowned himself king. This did not sit well with the subjects of the kingdom, who, having tolerated the rise of the rat people and the unwillingness of the crown to address the issue, mobilized enough to storm the castle and slaughter all of the guards. Bortix ultimately threw himself from the tallest tower after a long and protracted battle with the villagers, unwilling to let them have him. The leader of the rebels crowned himself king, only to be slain at his own coronation by what had once been his best friend, who ascended to the throne in his stead. He lasted several days before the new captain of the guards murdered him, plucking the crown from his severed head and settling it atop his own at a jaunty angle until he too was slain.
The crown passed from hand to hand with its subjects fighting tooth and nail among themselves for it. The rat people flourished and spread, until the land was covered in darkness and filth, the deluded self-proclaimed monarchs afraid to sleep nights lest they wake up dead.
Underneath it all, with the right ears, could be heard the laughter of the fairies.