Shadow of the Sun

10. Cause

by dietsoda

Tags: #cw:noncon #cw:sexual_assault #D/s #f/f #pov:bottom #sub:female #bondage #bratty_sub #dom:female #fantasy #sadomasochism
See spoiler tags : #exhibitionism #humiliation #transformation

so close!! just 1 or 2 chapters left. always happy to hear thoughts/feedback! cw shitty parent

“Will it work?” Paolo hovers behind Eshe, fidgeting with the clasp of his bracer. “I know it’s not exactly pristine.” 

The husk of Tiern manor is anything but. None of its inhabitants have yet returned to clear the mansion of dust, pry the boards from its shattered doors and windows, or replace the rotting hardwood whose must is ever-present. Only cracks and slivers of light make it into the front hall, barely illuminating the disheveled interiors with a fuzzy yellow glow. Eshe can feel a monstrous hacking cough coming on after only being inside a few minutes.

“It’s perfect.” The sun-knight turns and swiftly exits. For their purposes, the physical condition of the building doesn’t matter—so long as it’s intact enough to provoke powerful memories, it will suffice. 

Paolo follows behind, taking care not to bump the slightly-askew front door they’d forced open to gain entry. “Excellent! Is there anything else I can do for you before I depart to make our…arrangements?” The viscount has been walking on eggshells around them since his initial proposal as if he thinks one tiny breach of decorum will suddenly change their mind. 

“No.” Eshe doesn’t look back, busy sorting through their saddlebags. 

“So be it. Adocco, Ser knight! I will bring them here at dusk. And...thank you again for this.”

They grunt. “Don’t thank me yet.”

Paolo departs down the path to the main road, leaving Eshe to prepare for the ritual. In truth, ‘ritual’ is probably too formal a word for their haphazard arrangement of incense, sun orbs, and excerpts from the First Executor’s Will—the Order’s actual rites are far more elaborate affairs, involving precise steps developed by generations of knights. Unfortunately, time constraints made proper procedure impossible, meaning Eshe has to rely mostly on their faith in Sol to guide them through the task and smooth over any shortcomings in planning. It should be enough—while reagents, lists of instructions, and rote memorization are often important tools for channeling focus and calming oneself, a suitably strong will is technically the only necessary component of any given spell.

Eshe begins ferrying their meager setup from Gruch to Tiern Manor’s front hall, burying themself in simple tasks. Brush dust away from a windowsill. Place the scroll of the First Executor’s Will upon it. Unroll to the proper section. Clear the mind of mundane cares. Hang sun orbs from the manor’s long-unused chandelier hooks. Use a lens to focus the orbs’ radiance on a stick of incense, lighting it. Don’t think about how terrible an idea this is. Don’t think about how foolish you are for going along with it.

Eshe struggles with the last two.

Rescuing a dissident in the middle of a negotiation is risky. Rescuing a famous, high-value dissident neither side wants free is completely deranged. Yet the more Eshe reminds themself why they shouldn’t save Lady Veronica, the more they remember the noblewoman’s desperate plea for rescue, or how the light and personality drained from her eyes when Queen Helena ensorcelled her once more. And given their current lack of sleep and grave concerns with the Order, the idea of bucking political concerns to save a genuine victim of sorcery is far more palatable. 

So long as they don’t think about it too hard.

Daytime creeps to an end as they finish getting ready and bring Gruch behind the manor to graze. Even in spite of their worries, a hint of excitement glimmers within their core—they get to play the savior once again! After weeks of grueling defeats and painful inaction, the opportunity to genuinely better someone’s life is dangerously close to a novel thrill. And so when Paolo returns to the manor, he finds them sitting cross-legged on the floor of the front hall with a smile on their face. 

“Come, come. Let us begin.” They keep their voice even and low. Self-control is critical for what they’re about to attempt. 

Veronica slips into the room behind Paolo, the small woman glancing around the room with a nervous expression. Fear of the memories lurking within her old home, perhaps? Of risking discovery? Of the ritual itself? She does seem particularly curious about the artificial light of the sun orbs. Eshe gestures for her to sit on the small red rug they brought, and she obeys. Best not to let her anxieties stew no matter their source. 

“Indeed. The faster we can do this, the better.” Lady Francine brings up the rear, shutting the door behind her. 

Eshe’s jaw clenches with an audible click. “Lady Francine.” 

“Ser Eshe.” The spymaster sniffs. “You look unwell.”

Despite Paolo’s repeated assurances of Francine’s good intentions, Eshe’s skin still crawls when she enters. Any royalist knowing about their rescue attempt would be enough to make them wary, and the spymaster’s high rank and personal involvement with Veronica's punishment only amplifies that feeling. In Eshe’s experience, people like Lady Francine didn’t have changes of heart—only changes of plans. 

“Is everything okay?” Veronica looks them over, worry flashing in her big brown eyes. Her demeanor and speech lack the manic anger of their last meeting, filled instead with demure apprehension; it inspires a fierce protective instinct within Eshe.

“Of course.” They smile reassuringly. “I’m fine. Only a bit fatigued by the city goings-on.”

“Good.” Lady Francine steps forward and places a hand possessively on Veronica’s shoulder. “Consider my end of the bargain fulfilled. And as for my payment?”

Veronica reaches beneath the skirt of her peach dress and pulls a folded sheet of paper from her white lacy garter belt. Eshe looks away, feeling oddly bashful considering the circumstances. 

“Here. And thank you, Francine. I know you didn’t have to do this.” 

The spymaster plucks the single sheet of paper from Veronica’s fingertips. “Where’s the rest?” 

“You have it already.” Veronica’s smile rests on the border of playful and downright smug. “That’s a cipher for actually understanding it.” 

Francine blinks, looking momentarily lost. “You hid your secret notes…inside your secret notes?” 

“It worked, didn’t it?”

For a moment, all is silent as Francine fumes. It’s a delightful sight, albeit one short-lived as she quickly regains control of herself and pivots to face a very amused Paolo. “So be it. Now Viscount, why don’t we leave our friends to their toys and go discuss the real purpose of this meeting?” 

“One moment.” Paolo steps over to Veronica’s seated form and kneels down, taking one of her delicate hands in his own. “In case we do not get the chance to speak again…”

Veronica shakes her head. “Paolo, I—”

He leans in—tentatively at first, then with confidence once he sees Veronica smile—and the two share a long, chaste kiss.

“You owe me one. Several, in fact.” 

The viscount winks, stands, and exits without another word. Lady Francine follows close behind, leaving Eshe alone with Veronica. Out of courtesy, they offer her a moment to collect herself, pretending to be busy adjusting a nearby bundle of incense. 

Not long after, though, she takes a deep breath and speaks up with newfound resolve. “I’m ready.”

Eshe sits up a little straighter and smiles comfortingly, hoping to stave off as much of her anxiety as they can. To that effect, their explanation comes in a soothing tone.

“You can close your eyes if you like.” She does. “Lovely. Before we begin, it’s important you understand something of the forces involved. Spells aren’t like pieces of clothing you can take on and off; they’re a series of countless edits, like a sculptor working a block of stone with a chisel. While I can make many changes of my own to counteract the Queen’s, I cannot simply return everything back to what it was.” 

Veronica frowns, deep in thought. “Are there things you can’t fix?”

“I…hmm.” Eshe considers how to soften the blow their words will likely bring. They hadn’t put much thought into how little Veronica knew about the nature of the evening’s ritual. There simply hadn’t been enough time to consider it. “We only have one night, and I don’t know you very well. Therefore, the scope of this session will be rather limited. As of right now, my plan is to focus on the blatant and intrusive mental changes, as those will be easiest for me to notice and remove. Much of the subtler spellcraft and all of the physical changes will remain, I’m afraid, lest in my haste I change you into someone else entirely.”

Veronica responds with the softest “okay” Eshe has ever heard. Her bottom lip juts out and quivers. 

In an instant, Eshe leans far forward and wraps their arms around her in a tight embrace, one she relaxes into almost immediately. They rock the soft, sweet-smelling girl back and forth, stroking her hair and murmuring gentle words until her breathing calms and she stops twitching from held-in sobs. “It’s okay, Veronica. You’re safe. You’ll get through this. Paolo mentioned you broke some of the sorcery on your own—it takes incredible strength to do something like that. Before you know it, you’ll have shaken any lingering effects. I promise.”

In another place and time, Eshe might have questioned their incredibly affectionate instinctive response. But here and now, they’re content to hold Veronica as long as she needs to be held. It makes them feel stronger, calmer, and safer themself seeing the trust she places in them. Like maybe they are worth believing in if only for now. 

“Thanks,” Veronica whispers, still not letting go.

“Of course,” Eshe replies, still not letting go. 

The embrace long outlives Veronica’s initial panic, eventually becoming far more than a simple comfort as the pair’s heartbeats and breaths intertwine. Eshe sees much of the same exhaustion and pain they’ve experienced mirrored in the young woman’s eyes, telling a tale similar in theme if not in content to their own. This is it. Their connection is as strong as it’s going to get—chants and reagents be damned. The beauty in Eshe’s lap keeps them grounded in the present moment, making the process of channeling magic simplicity itself.

“Shall we begin?”

Veronica nods.

After a few deep breaths to still their mind, Eshe begins to see the layer of pure magic potential hidden beneath the physical; there, Veronica appears as an elaborate web of starlight shooting out in every direction. Some strands are dead ends, some loop back around on themselves, and some continue to be woven—but collectively, they represent everything Veronica was, is, and still might be. 

Eshe distantly feels their fingers brush against the noblewoman’s temple in the physical world as they sort through nearby strands of light, searching for abrupt cuts or drastic alterations the Queen might have made. As they lose themself in the task, memories written in the strands of light envelop them… 

“…is absolutely unacceptable,” Mother shrieked, her voice echoing throughout the entire upper floor of the manor. “Leave and do not come back, you simpering idiot!” 

I rushed through the halls toward her bedroom, passing a terrified fleeing servant on my way—likely the cause and primary target of her wrath. As her health declined, Mother seemed to have less and less patience for dealing with anyone but me. Maybe that was because she wanted to spend her final days with her daughter. Maybe it was just because I’d spent so long learning how not to upset her.

I paused outside of her bedroom door and took a moment to steel myself before strolling in with a smile on my face. “What’s wrong, Mother?” 

The aura of decay in the bedroom was difficult to describe but impossible to miss, sticking to Mother’s plain nightgown and tangled cream bed sheets like a heavy cloud. Even contorted with pain and rail thin, she was still imposing enough to instantly set me on edge. 

“My daughter is an adult and can’t keep this House from falling into shambles, that’s what’s wrong.” Grumbled insults were manageable; easier to deal with than screaming, anyways. Days she had the energy to scream inevitably ended with me bawling in Paolo’s arms. 

“Was there something you needed?” I hardly needed to ask; there always was. 

Mother tried sitting up in bed, but her arms gave out halfway through, sending her tumbling back down with an involuntary grunt of pain. She played it off as a gesture of exasperation. “Laudanum, for gods’ sake. Your little runt of a servant boy wouldn’t give me any. Said I had to wait before taking more like I’m not already rotting away from the inside out.” 

I sighed and walked over to the dresser where Mother’s favorite brown bottle awaited. She was right, after all; if the opium was to kill her, it’d have to get in line. I poured out a cap full of the rust-colored liquid and brought it over to her dried, thin lips. She sucked it up greedily.

“Finally.” Mother leaned back and shut her eyes while I put the medicine away. 

I retreated over to the door. “Is there anything else I can get you?”

One of her eyes cracked open. “Already so eager to leave. What, hoping you won’t have to tell me about some other disaster? Another failure of yours, perhaps?”

I took a deep breath and reminded myself that Mother was in terrible pain—pain bad enough to make even the kindest of souls grow bitter. Getting defensive would only make things worse. I should have sympathy for her. It was an inner monologue I had come to know well.

“No, Mother. I just have to get back to work.”

Her second eye opened, joining the first in a suspicious glare. “Have you met with Marcus yet?”

My shoulders tensed at the change of subject. “He’ll be over soon.”

“Good. This is your chance to prove useful—don’t waste it.” 

“Yes, Mother.” 

I turned to depart, only to find my feet rooted in place by guilt. With every servant scared off, Mother’s appearance and surroundings had devolved into a cluttered mess. The once highly sought-after noblewoman lay sweating in a pile of dirty bed linens with errant strands of gray, greasy hair plastered to her face. 

I couldn’t leave her like that.

And so I busied myself with cleaning, recruiting passing servants to bring me a change of bed linens and a wet washcloth—supplies they left outside the bedroom door before hurrying away. Mother tracked my movements warily throughout, her eyes gradually becoming glassier over time as the drugs took effect. 

“Careful, little brat,” she slurred without much bite as I lifted her from the bed to replace her sheets. “You’re far too rough…unfit for a young lady.” 

“Hush. I’ll be done soon, and then you’ll feel much better.” I gently sponged her down, trying not to aggravate any of the countless sensitive spots I knew she had. The opium certainly made that easier.

“What am I to do?” Mother whispered once I’d finished. “Look around; I have nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

“Try and get some sleep, Mother.” I tucked her in and kissed her on the forehead, desperately trying not to take offense at her drug-induced rambling. If she truly believed she had nothing, then I’d just have to prove otherwise.

“Lady Veronica?” A servant girl called out quietly from the hall. “Baron Marcus is here to see you.” 

“Thank you, Mary.” I ran my fingers through my hair and cursed under my breath. Caring for Mother had stolen away my chance to prepare. After a brief glance in the mirror to check my appearance—my deep blue dress and minimal makeup were simple but sufficient—I strode down the stairs and into the front hall.

“Lady Veronica!” Baron Marcus shouted with delight, clearly already wasted. 

“Baron Marcus.” 

The Baron was one of Father’s old friends, a short muscular man who I’d seen gradually go from boisterous and cheery to a total drunken wreck over the course of my life. His ill-fitting beige robe was worn thin in some spots and stained in others, the splotches reminiscent of his mottled red face. The fact that men like him were responsible for the decline of House Tiern only added insult to embarrassment.

In his final years, Father had become increasingly loose with our finances, lending enormous sums to the most unreliable debtors he could find. The task of wrangling money back had occupied a great deal of Mother’s life, a miserable affair filled with excuses, threats, and pleas. It was poised to occupy even more of mine.

But I had no intention of letting that happen. I had a plan, one that would finally bring us back into solvency.

“Can I get you anything, Baron? Water, tea, something to eat?”

My not-so-subtle hint fell on deaf ears. “I suppose I could go for a brandy! Wards off the chill, you know.” 

I shot Mary a knowing glance. The servant nodded and then went off to prepare the Baron’s drink, watering it down considerably.

“Shall we to the parlor?” I guided Marcus into one of Father’s old high-backed leather armchairs in an attempt to make him feel comfortable. The more at ease he felt, the more likely he was to cooperate with what came next. “So, Baron. How have you been?”

We engaged in an appropriate amount of small talk, with me briefly mentioning Mother’s declining health and then mostly nodding while the Baron prattled on about his grandchildren and emptied his brandy in record time. During his last gulp, I put my plan into action. 

“Speaking of your grandchildren, Marcus, I wanted to briefly discuss your future finances.”

“Bah. You Tierns are all business,” he grumbled into his empty drink, signaling Mary for another. “No wonder Lady Alice devoted herself to debauchery.” 

I clenched my jaw. Every time I spoke with another noble, they found a way to mention Alice and her dalliances. Every. Single. Time. I very intentionally ignored her mention and continued onward. “Don’t worry, Baron. I’m not my Mother; I have no interest in insulting or chastising you. In fact, I wanted to extend an opportunity. A sign of good faith, if you will.”

Marcus perked up, wriggling to undo his gradual slide down the chair until he was in a sitting position once more. “Oh? Do tell.”

I plucked a strategically pre-placed contract from a nearby side table, passing it over to the Baron. He gazed at it curiously.

“I want to forgive a large portion of your debt.” Opening with a positive spin was critical to the plan, and clearly worked—the Baron’s eyes lit up. “I don’t want to spend my years chasing you about, and I imagine you don’t particularly enjoy being chased.” 

“Right you are, Lady Veronica! Goodness me. How very wise and just of you!” Marcus grabbed his incoming drink from Mary and raised it high in a makeshift toast. “To Lady Veronica Tiern!” He drained the glass in one go.

I offered a tight smile, nervous energy building within me. So far, so good, but now came the most delicate part of the plan. “What’s more, your remaining debt will no longer be yours to worry about,” I said casually, crossing my legs. “We’ll have it transferred to your next of kin.”

The plan I’d concocted was beautiful in its simplicity: A deal so fair that even a miserly drunk had to accept it. Marcus would no longer have the debt hanging over his head, his children would have a relatively small amount to contend with, and House Tiern would actually see some money come in for once—not as much as it would have been otherwise, but the prospect of Marcus paying off what he actually owed was pure fantasy. 

Everyone stood to benefit. And best of all, I’d done it my way, with a reasonable and fair agreement rather than Mother’s idle threats and bluster. I watched eagerly as the Baron contemplated my offer.

“No,” he replied. 


“No. I don’t think so.” He held out the contract for me to take back. I stared at it, dumbfounded. My mind raced but only traveled in circles, leaving me with an open mouth and nothing eloquent to say. 


“Could I please get another brandy, dear?” the Baron asked Mary mildly. 

After a few more moments of flailing, I was able to piece together a coherent idea of what was going on. Marcus was an idiot—clearly, he just didn’t grasp what I was offering. 

“I don’t think you understand, Baron,” I explained politely, snatching the contract from his outstretched hand. “I’ve seen your finances. This is the only way you could possibly pay back your debt.” 

“I’m perfectly aware, Lady Veronica.” Marcus relaxed back into his chair, his earlier eagerness absent. Seemed he was only interested in total forgiveness, the bastard. 

“Then why turn it down?” Frustration leaked into my tone and threatened to overcome my collected demeanor altogether. I dug my nails into my palms in an attempt to regain control of myself. Maybe this was a negotiating tactic; maybe I could still work out a deal. 

“I know I’m not long for this world, Lady Veronica. The fact that the drink hasn’t done me in yet is a minor miracle in and of itself.” He chuckled to himself. “When I die, the debt dies with me. And I’d rather take a dozen tongue lashings from your Mother than burden my children with my mistakes.” 

I jumped up and hurried over to my desk, frantically sorting through files to find Father’s original loan agreement. “There’s no mention of debt expiring on death, Baron. And with you clearly neglecting your responsibility…we’ll bring it before a judge, and we’ll win.”

The Baron sniffed. “No, you won’t. If you had the money to take me to court, your mother would have done it years ago. Besides, I’m good friends with Lord Lannith—I’m sure he’d be able to find a judge sympathetic to my plight.”

He was telling the truth. He was telling the truth, and I couldn’t stand it. “You…I…” I swallowed a thousand insults and managed to squeak out something resembling polite speech. “...perhaps you should leave then, Baron. If there’s no room for negotiation.” I needed the slob out of my house as soon as possible. Just looking at him made me want to burst into tears.

“So be it.” He finished his fourth drink and stood unsteadily. I hurried him to the front door. 

“Oh, and Lady Veronica? I’m sorry about your Mother.”

Eshe methodically sorts through beliefs and experiences, removing any of the Queen’s mental barriers or alterations they find. Or rather, removing the most disruptive ones they find—whenever they come across bright dots of starlight signifying increased empathy or compassion, they merely note their location and then move on. They’ll come back for those later. If they have time.

After what only feels like a few minutes of work, they can already feel their fingers growing sore from all the plucking and pulling required. While the actual mechanics of sorcery are based largely on the individual, they almost always involve some sort of precise, labor-intensive activity, be it writing pages of symbols in thin air or weaving threads of thought as Eshe does now. But while the magic may be tiring, it’s no bore—the mind they work on proves a fascinating canvas, one consistently offering new images…

Mother wasn’t speaking to me.

She hadn’t lost the ability—gods knew she still berated every servant who came near her—but ever since she learned how my meeting with Baron Marcus went, she refused to converse with me or even acknowledge my existence. The closest she came was to rant and scream at everyone else about how House Tiern was run by ‘miserable failures,’ or how her legacy was ‘ruined.’

It was becoming harder and harder to deny those statements. My ‘brilliant plan’ had utterly failed, with each and every one of our debtors rejecting deals similar to what I’d offered Marcus. Apparently, everyone but me had realized how little leverage our House actually had long ago. And so my days entered a grim pattern: I would search through old contracts for anything I could use to my advantage, find nothing, check on Mother, get ignored, and fall asleep in Paolo’s arms feeling absolutely numb. 

Today was no exception.

I paused outside of Mother’s bedroom door and took a moment to steel myself before strolling in with a smile on my face. “Good morning, Mother!”

Nothing. She stared out the window, watching a pair of sparrows chase each other around the garden. A full bowl of broth sat on her bedside table, cold and untouched. 

“No appetite, hmm? Maybe you can try again later.” I grabbed the bowl and set it out in the hall for a servant to pick up. “All is well with the family; Harrison found a buyer for his latest painting, and Juniper’s really taken to her sewing lessons. She says she’s going to make everyone socks.” 

Mother gasped and shut her eyes tight, gripping her side. 

“Mother? Is everything alright?” She didn’t respond. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Do you need laudanum? When was the last time you took some?” Silence. I hurried over to her dresser and grabbed the bottle, abandoning the cap in favor of a small glass. Mother normally did everything she could to hide pain, meaning strong reactions like this one indicated serious agony. A higher dose was called for. 

I brought the medicine over to her, then put the glass against her lips when it became clear her arms were trembling too fiercely to hold it. “Easy, now. Don’t drink it too quickly.”

Our eyes briefly met when her head was tilted all the way back, offering a brief moment of connection. In spite of everything, her gaze was steady and clear.

It was filled with nothing but blatant contempt.

I recoiled, pulling the empty glass away and backing into the dresser with a clattering thud. Mother took the opportunity to lie down again, breaking eye contact to stare up at the ceiling. Her sheets were dirty, her hair was a mess, and she needed a change of clothes. But at that moment I realized any help I offered her would only make her feel even less in control; would only make her hate me more.

And so I left.

I walked out of her bedroom, down the stairs, and through the front door, heading to the main road of the noble quarter. I walked winding paths, gentle slopes, forest trails, and city streets, having no destination in mind. And as my body walked, my mind worked.

What had I expected from her? Teary gratitude? Mournful regret? A declaration of love? The woman wasn’t even speaking to me, for fuck’s sake. Yet I’d convinced myself—or she’d convinced me, more likely—that there was such a thing as a ‘good daughter,’ and that if I could become one I’d finally be enough for her. But that obviously wasn’t the case. Mother was a broken woman made spiteful by a lifetime of failures, and there was nothing I could do to change that. 

All I could do was make sure I didn’t end up like her.

I needed a new plan. 

Eshe pulls away from their work, taking in all of the elaborate patterns dancing within Veronica’s silhouetted form. Their fingertips are numb, their brow coated in sweat; the effort is well underway by now and has them delving into tangled knots of unresolved emotions and difficult choices. In addition, they have to frequently pause and take stock of what needs doing and what they’ve already done lest they focus too heavily on one particular area. 

It’s a grueling task, one they are by no means done with yet. But no matter how much pain, sorrow, and rage they encounter, they can’t help but notice how radiant Veronica is as a whole. A whole mess of contradictions and misdeeds, perhaps, but one that draws them in nonetheless and makes them search for more worth saving. And so they delve into the fabric of being once again…

sorry for your loss,” Lord Michael murmured, clasping my gloved hand in his own and offering a sympathetic smile. 

“Thank you, Lord Michael.”

He squeezed my hand and wandered off, his boots trudging through the short grasses and mosses of the Tiern family graveyard. I was surprised at how much of the gentry had come to the funeral—nobles from an assortment of different houses and generations milled about, all dressed up in fashionable coats to ward off the spring morning chill. Gawking and satisfying their morbid curiosity, no doubt, gathering around to see the reclusive lunatic widow one more time before she was put into the ground. 

There’s your legacy, Mother. You didn’t need me to ruin it; you did that yourself.

More nobles approached, blurring together into a mass of doughy entitled flesh. 

“She was a magnificent woman. So sorry for your loss.”  

“She truly was. Thank you.”

“Gods bless her, and may her soul rest in peace.” 

“Indeed. Thank you.”

“Sorry for your loss.” 

“Thank you for coming.” 

“She cared for you deeply.”

I nearly burst into laughter at that one. 

“Thank you, Sir.” I couldn’t even remember Mother's last words to me; they were spoken nearly a month before her death. The silent ‘act’ had never stopped.

“A true tragedy. Deepest condolences, my Lady.” 

“It is. Thank you for coming, Baron Kutje.”

Whatever her last words were, they likely didn’t hold any particular meaning. Probably just another sad insult.

“Terribly sorry for your loss.” 

“Thank you.” 

“My condolences, Lady Veronica.” 

“Thank you for coming.” 

At some point during the endless procession of bootlickers, Alice gently touched my wrist. “Everything alright? Did you want to take a break?” 

I shrugged, barely registering the question.

“Veronica? You’re as pale as a ghost. When was the last time you ate something?” 

Another noblewoman came forward. “Sorry for your loss, Lady Veronica.”

“Thank you.”

“Come on, let’s get you off your feet.” Alice placed a hand on my shoulder and guided me away from the crowd, offering excuses to nearby attendees. “She just needs a minute—it’s been a long day.” 

She ushered me onto a nearby stone bench, signaling Paolo to join us along the way. He kissed me softly. I stared at nothing. Alice held me close and stroked my hair like she used to when we were little and I was upset. Only now we weren’t little, and I felt fine. 

If anything, I felt better than I had in weeks. There was a strange sort of electricity buzzing through me, a sense of nervous excitement that dulled my other emotions and fuelled me in spite of little food or sleep. Because of it, I’d done more in the last five days than I had in the previous five months. After standing still for such a long time, it was a relief to finally start gaining momentum.

“Love you, Veronica. We’ll get through this, I promise.” Alice gave my hand a squeeze.

“I know,” I said flatly.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure why she came. She’d wanted nothing to do with Mother for years, and I’d already handled all the planning by the time she arrived. But then again, that was Alice for you: absent when you needed her, present when you didn’t. 

“It was a lovely service,” Paolo offered from my left.

Alice hummed in agreement. An awkward silence descended over us, one I hardly noticed due to the thundering of my heartbeat in my ears. Eventually, the twitching in my limbs from inaction became unbearable. I had to press forward with my plan. Had to keep going forward.

“You know what? I think I will lie down for a bit. Maybe get something to eat,” I lied. 

“Do you want one of us to come with you?” Alice was reluctant to let go of me, but I steadily worked my way out of her grasp.


My sister and lover shared a nervous glance. 

“I’m just going to be sleeping anyways,” I added hastily.

“Alright, pe fira. Let us know if you need anything, yes?”

“Of course.”

I wandered back over to the manor, catching glimpses of my reflection in the paned windows. My black gown and veil were precise and elegant, doing well to hide my gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes from days without sleep. 

The kitchen was the most likely location of my quarry, and I quickened my pace toward it as soon as I was out of Alice and Paolo’s sight. The Baron was a man of worldly pleasures and carnal delights, after all. He’d be attracted to the racks of wine and lamb like a moth to the flame. 

Excitement welled up inside me as my intuition was proven correct: Baron Marcus was indeed following his nose, and we made eye contact just outside the kitchens proper. 

“Lady Veronica!” he greeted me, leaning against the wall casually in a shoddy attempt to conceal his original intent. “Good to see you! I was only taking a breather. Thought I might admire some of your collected art in the meantime.” He gestured to a painting on the far wall. 

“Baron Marcus.” I held my hands in front of me tightly to keep them from shaking with anticipation.

“Terribly sorry for your loss, dear. I know your mother and I didn’t always get along, but I always admired her wisdom and grace. If only you could have met her when she was your age—you remind me so much of her as a youth.”

The comparison made me want to smash his gods-damned drinking glass over his stupid square head. I settled for a dry remark instead. All in good time. “She loathed you.”

Baron Marcus chuckled good-naturedly. “Well, we had our disagreements. She certainly had a way with words, I’ll give her that. Especially when riled up.” He raised his glass. “Here’s to putting such unpleasantness behind us, hmm? I truly do appreciate how understanding you were in our last meeting. It was a lovely change of pace.” Booze slid down his throat as he tossed it back.

I forced a tight smile to stretch across my lips. He was actually toasting how he fucked me over. At my Mother’s funeral. When I didn’t even have a glass. 

This was going to be a pleasure.

“How could I not understand? You have a duty to provide for your family. In fact, I had the pleasure of meeting one of your children the other day.” I looked off to the side and tapped my chin as if in thought. “What was the name again…”

“Liam?” The Baron offered cheerily, happy to be discussing his miserable offspring again.



I shook my head. “Not Emmaleigh, no.” 



Marcus frowned. “Those are my only children.”

I tilted my head, keeping my eyes squarely on the Baron’s. “Oh?” 

He began to shift from one foot to the other and glance around the room. “Perhaps you met one of my grandchildren. There are a lot more of them; some days I can hardly keep track!” The Baron followed his joke with a short, pathetic bark of a laugh. I kept staring at him.

“I don’t believe I did.” 

The more his discomfort grew, the more Marcus looked longingly down at the bottom of his glass, as if hoping it would magically refill. “Then I don’t know what you’re talking about. You must be mistaken.” 

I shrugged. “It’s no matter. I can always stop by the brothel and ask his mother.” 

The Baron paled—a difficult task for a drunk—and began stammering nervously. “I…that’s…I’m not sure what you’re…such wild accusations are…are…slanderous!”

Fear and outrage poured off of him and flooded the room like cheap cigar smoke, soaking into every surface it could find. I couldn’t get enough of it. For the first time in days, I felt alive. For the first time in months, I felt glee. 

“Did it ever occur to you that instead of falsifying his birth record, you could have just…not recorded his birth?” I hadn’t even been looking for dirt when I’d found out about the Baron’s little accident; I’d just been consulting the records hall to compose my original contract. The absurdity of it all made me want to giggle, and so I did. “Or were you so sloshed by then that you just scribbled nonsense on whatever was put in front of you?” 

Marcus hung his head in defeat. “I…I panicked. I didn’t know what to do.” 

“And it shows. You left quite the paper trail.” 

“I…what?” He still hadn’t gotten it. The depth of his stupidity was mind-boggling.

“If such convincing proof were to become public, you’d have quite the scandal on your hands—not to mention indecency charges, extra hands clambering for an inheritance, and a stain on you and your family’s legacy.” I forced down more giggles to finish my threat, feeling dizzy with delight at the sight of the Baron slack-jawed. “Curtis is a clergyman, yes? Of course, the temple is supposed to advance careers based on merit, but…well, I’m sure he’d be fine.”

After a few more slow blinks, the Baron finally shook his head. “You…you wouldn’t.”

I stepped forward, towering over him. “You know who dealt in idle threats? Mother. She was too weak to act, and so pathetic fools like you bled her dry.” My hand shot out and plucked the glass from Marcus’s feeble grip. “I. Am. Not. My. Mother.” I longed to crush the man before me into dust, to see him choke on his own tears and snot beneath the weight of his many failings. But I needed him coherent.

For now.

“So you tell me what it’s going to be: Are you willing to place a terrible burden on your family after all? Or would you rather cooperate?”

Baron Marcus stood tall and adopted a stony expression. “I’ll get you your damn money, witch.” 

I snorted. “Oh no, Baron. You’ve had more than enough chances to pay in coin alone.” I began pacing the length of the room. “This time, you’ll pay in deeds as well. After all, I’ve got seven more deadbeats to collect from. And then? Who knows.” 

Through the window, I could see the crowd beginning to disperse. Alice sat alone on the same bench, the rest of the nobility giving her a wide berth, while Paolo comforted Juniper and the other children of House Tiern by making silly faces. It all felt so strangely…alien. Like hearing a familiar song sung in a new language. 

I turned back to the Baron.

“We’ve got work to do.” 

Eshe slumps against the wall, using the last of their energy to wrap their arms around Veronica once more. They’re done. After a full night of tampering with her mind, they can say with some confidence that any of her remaining compulsions, triggers, or memory blocks are minor enough to be relatively insignificant. 

They even found a simple spell that prevented Veronica from orgasming without the Queen’s permission. Eshe didn’t have time to remove it, but did have time to edit it; now, Veronica can’t orgasm without someone else’s permission. Based on what they saw inside her head, they figured she wouldn’t mind. 

As they blink rapidly and refocus on the physical world, they catch a glimpse of the dark blue sky through a crack in the door. Dawn will arrive soon, bringing a new batch of hazards and travails for them to overcome. But until then, they can take satisfaction in their minor victory.

Veronica stirs, then opens her eyes and looks up at Eshe as if awaiting judgment. 

“Now you know,” she whispers, her voice quivering with fear.

“Now I know.” Eshe offers a comforting smile and kisses her forehead. She sighs in relief.

The two of them fall asleep together.

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