When I awake, I’m a different me again.
But where Helena took a pallet knife to the canvas of my mind, scraping away vast swaths of paint with absolute precision, Eshe used a rounded brush to blend and pick up color. I could tell the difference from the moment they began. Eshe’s sorcery felt like an act of care, draping over my conscious mind and suffusing me with calm rather than overwhelming me until they got their way.
And so when I regain my wits, I’m neither frozen in place nor unaware of who I am. Instead, I feel delicate, as if emotions have loosened within me and may spill out at the lightest touch. It’s an oddly pleasant sort of vulnerability. The fact that Eshe thought I was worthy of such kindness even after everything they saw inside my head...leaves me without words.
I settle for a show of gratitude instead, burying my face in their chest and wrapping my arms as far as I can around their waist. Theirs is a comforting smell, one of cardamom and freshly tilled soil, and their warmth does wonders to shield me from the morning chill. In the dim light provided by cracks and holes in the manor’s boarded windows, I can make out the deep red of their uniform and the peaceful expression on their face as they sleep.
“My hero,” I whisper.
Their breath serves as a pleasant metronome, marking the relaxed tempo of the moment. What I wouldn’t give to spend all day nestled up against them like this, the outside world forgotten in favor of safety and companionship. Sadly, it’s not to be. Francine will return before long to take me back to the palace lest we raise any suspicion, and I have to make a plan before then. So while my body basks in comfort, my mind begins wandering to the hours and days ahead.
I have to escape. There’s no possible outcome I can imagine where Helena allows me to remain who I am; the memories I have from my time as Vera prove that She sees me less as a person and more as a project. Truly getting out from under Her talons means going as far as I can as soon as I can, minimizing the time I spend under Her scrutiny or within the reach of Her influence. A slow and methodical approach is out of the question, then. Whatever I do will have to be messy enough that I can slip away in the chaos, but not so messy that I get caught in the process.
Unfortunately, I’ll likely be on my own—Francine’s extremely limited pool of goodwill seems to have run out, and I’ve nothing more to offer her in exchange for such a high-risk ask. Paolo or Eshe might be more willing but will have little to no access to the palace due to their associations. Which leaves me and only me to navigate a castle filled with automata, guards, and an obsessive sorceress. Then, I’ll have to arrange for transport through an occupied city while avoiding Helena’s pursuers, all of whom will likely have magical assistance from the Queen.
Or I could kill Her.
The idea pops into my head quite naturally. Seems Eshe’s sorcery unlocked some of my older…tendencies. I’m not sure how to feel about that.
It wouldn’t be hard. I sleep in Her bed, for gods’ sake. And if I could slip away in the ensuing chaos, whoever remained would be far too concerned with power-grabbing to track me down.
It’s an idea. But surely there are others. I could bribe a servant to carry me out with the laundry, for example.
None are foolish enough to risk Helena’s wrath. And bribe them with what money?
Maybe not, then. I could start a fire to serve as a distraction?
Helena’s a sorceress. She could put it out with a wave of Her hand.
Trick some automata into escorting me out?
How in the world would I do that? Terrible idea. Stupid.
…Fake my own death?
Nobody would blame me for killing Her. It’s not like before—this would be strictly self-defense.
There has to be another way.
Do I want to maximize my chances of escape or not? Because if I do, this is no time to get squeamish.
Before I can bring the thought to its inevitable conclusion, Eshe stirs beneath me.
“Mm?” I keep my face buried in their tunic, still mired in macabre contemplation.
“Are you awake?” they mumble.
Their cold hand on my cheek guides me to make eye contact, the soft touch impossible for me to deny.
“Did I break your brain?” The tiniest hint of a smile dances across their full lips.
I giggle in spite of myself. “Not that I can tell.”
“Good.” They lean their head back against the wall. We look at each other for a few brief seconds, their mellow demeanor failing to assuage the guilt growing inside me. I was just planning a gods-damned murder a moment ago, after all. How can they be so at ease around me after learning about everything I’ve done?
I have to ask. My own fantasies aside, Eshe has to have a more practical reason for saving me than merely being heroic. “Why help me? I know Francine and Paolo’s reasons, but…”
Eshe frowns. “But what?”
I bite my lower lip, anxiety forming a tangled knot inside my chest. “What exactly are you getting out of this?”
“Oh.” The knight plays with my hair while pondering the question, twirling and untwirling locks around their index finger. After a , they throw out an off-handed response. “I slept soundly for the first time in weeks.”
“…That’s it?” I was right: It’s not a satisfying answer.
“No brokered deal or traded favor?”
“Nope. Paolo was surprised by how quickly I agreed, actually.” They let out a big yawn.
I furrow my brow. Are they toying with me? “A strategic move for the Order, then.”
“No, Veronica, I just wanted to help you. Is that so hard to believe?”
“Yes!” I cry out, thoroughly vexed. “Nobody in their right mind would defy Berinni and Helena alike for my sake alone. Francine did it for information, Paolo I’m sure worked something out with her. Everything is political, Eshe. Don’t pretend otherwise.”
Eshe appears distant for a long moment, their jaw set. I watch with bated breath as they process my objection, evidence of some internal struggle clear upon their face. When they finally speak, each word is careful and exact as if spoken before a judge.
“You’re right. I suppose it’s about time I stop lying to myself.”
As much as I expected that answer, it still triggers a cascade of grief. I knew it. I am not worth saving; not without some other tangible benefit.
Eshe continues their explanation. “When last we met, you came to me in need—with your own self-serving motives, no doubt, but in need nonetheless. My duty to the Order stopped me from aiding you then. Who was I to threaten our mission for the sake of one woman?” They shake their head. “But look where that mission has gotten us now: spreading disorder for coin like common bandits.”
A sigh escapes their lips as they run their fingers along knots in the floorboards. The look of exhaustion on their face is soul-deep. “Doubt is not frowned upon within the Order; it is necessary to confront and work through so one might reinvigorate their faith. Yet while my faith in Sol remains unshaken, my doubts about the Order have resisted pruning and deepened their roots. Everything has come into question. All the grim deeds and difficult choices I’ve committed to for the sake of the Order…” Their voice cracks. They swallow and try again. “Was it all just to line our pockets?”
As their nails begin digging into a patch of rotten wood, I grab their hand, hold it to my chest, and squeeze. Such vulnerability from the knight is unexpected but not unwelcome—they’ve accepted mine with grace and understanding, and I’m more than eager to return the favor. I hope they recognize that sentiment when they force themself to look into my eyes.
“Perhaps saving you is my attempt to take a stand and right one of my many wrongs. Perhaps that makes it political.” They put their hands on my shoulders. “But I’m certain about one thing: You’re a searching soul, Veronica, not a lost one. I’ve met enough of both to know the difference. And political act or not, I wouldn’t have helped you if I thought you were truly lost.”
Their speech provides much more than the ‘light touch’ necessary to bring forth a whole symphony of emotion. Tears of gratitude, more joyous giggles, and smoldering arousal erupt all at once from me, matching a similar (if far more subdued) display from Eshe once they recognize the positivity of my outburst.
I lean forward and give them a chaste kiss. “I misjudged your intentions, Ser knight, and for that I apologize.”
They shrug. “Think nothing of it. I wasn’t being entirely honest anyways.”
With utmost enthusiasm, I wave my hand dismissively and roll my eyes. “You’re the most honest person I think I’ve ever met. I’m rather fond of it, in fact.”
“Is that so? Personally, I’m rather charmed by your flair for the dramatic,” they respond, mimicking the formality of my speech.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I stick out my tongue.
Eshe grins. “Uh-huh. I’m sure the detours and flourishes of your oratory are necessities in the face of such complex and brilliant ideas.”
I playfully shove them as hard as I can. They don’t budge. Undeterred, I wiggle on their lap until I’m pressed up against them, straddling their thigh. “Now listen here, Ser. I will not accept such mockery from a common soldier. You wouldn’t know cultured speech if it forced its way down your throat.”
“I defer to your expertise in having things forced down your throat.” Eshe’s arms now roam freely across my back and sides, leaving trails of tingling warmth in their wake. I swat them away and put a finger up to their lips.
“That’s quite enough from you, Ser.” A bolt of excitement runs through me when I see their eyes widen in surprise. “From now on, you will address me by my proper title and speak only when spoken to, as is befitting of someone so low in status. Do I make myself clear?”
Their mouth opens wide in shock.
“I said, do I make myself clear?”
“Y-yes, Lady Veronica. Crystal.”
“Good.” I casually brush a piece of dust off their shoulder and shift my feet under my bottom for the height necessary to look down my nose at them. “Onto practical matters, then. When last we met, I seem to remember us leaving a bit of business unfinished. Do you know what I’m referring to, commoner?”
“I, uh. Yes?” Their nervous stammering and difficulty holding eye contact make my sex clench in delight; they are absolutely fucking adorable. “I mean, yes, Lady Veronica,” they hurriedly add.
“Describe it, if you will.” My fingers trail up their neck, pause, and then run through their tight curls once they give me a small nod.
“We, ah…kissed?” Eshe clears their throat. “You seemed very excited, especially when I touched you.”
“Were you excited?”
“I believe so, Lady Veronica.”
“Are you excited now?”
“Yes, Lady Veronica,” they whisper. I can tell: their cheeks are flushed, their eyes glassy and their lips hanging open slightly. It’s a look I’ve worn many times before.
“Good; as am I,” I lean forward and murmur into their ear. They shudder. “Shall we address this unfinished business, then?”
“Yes, Lady Veronica. I mean, I would like that. Lady Veronica.”
I smile wide and speak with as much honey and vinegar as I can muster. “There’s my good, brave knight.” One of my hands finds the hem of their tunic and slips beneath it, running along the contours of their sculpted abdomen. “Such strength, and yet so easily controlled. I should have known; little knights like you love following orders.”
Eshe gasps and squirms as I reach to cup one of their breasts.
“Is this what you secretly hope for every time you bed another lover? That one of them might realize how meek and pathetic you really are?”
“N-no, Lady Veronica. I mean, I…I don’t…aah!” Their blabbering is cut off easily with a sharp pinch of their nipple.
“I’ve no patience for lies, Eshe.”
“Maybe? I don’t know, I…it feels nice sometimes, that’s all!” They squeeze their eyes shut in embarrassment.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to elaborate, little knight.” I punctuate the words with a bit of nibbling along their earlobe, which they melt into immediately.
Eshe lets out a long, barely audible moan of aroused despair. It does not elicit any pity; I’ve no intention of letting them off easy. I’d forgotten how wonderful the rush of power feels. Not that I’m tempted to seek it out once more, of course.
Not from the unwilling, anyways. Making Eshe a blushing, whimpering mess with nothing but light teasing is too fun to give up.
“It’s nice…” they begin, the words slipping out between gasped breaths, “...nice not to…not to have to be everything. Sometimes.”
“Then you’re in luck, little knight. Because to me, you’re little more than a mouth.” I slide off of their lap and hike up my dress, exposing my glistening sex to the cool morning air. “Now come show your Lady how devoted you are.”
Eshe rolls over onto their stomach and shifts to put their head between my thighs, keeping their eyes fixed on the floor all the while. I grab onto their hair again and gently tug them forward until their lips rest against my sex. For a moment, I keep them on that precipice, content to watch their nostrils flare and their eyelids flutter as they take in my scent and eagerly await my taste. But only for a moment. I am not a patient woman.
“Begin,” I snap, and their strong wide tongue darts out of their mouth in an instant. What follows is a show of cunnilingus impressive enough that I can barely find anything to critique—they read my reactions well, then use them as a guide to add or reduce pressure and to tend closer or further from my clit.
In spite of the rolling swells of pleasure their tongue sends through me, though, I still make a point to criticize their form. “Look me in the eyes, little knight. This is exactly where you belong, and I don’t want you to forget it for a single second. All those years spent clamoring for respect and prestige, and you’re still barely fit to be my cunt-licker. How does that feel, hmm?”
“Mmnn!” Eshe’s wide eyes convey utmost adoration as they tongue my sex. I grind against them, dirtying their face even more and making it impossible for them to control the pace.
“And perhaps if you’re—nngh!—a very good cunt-licker, I’ll let you touch yourself from time to time. Goodness knows I won’t do it. Such—aah!—dirty work is not suitable for a proper Lady.” My teasing becomes interspersed with growls and moans as the tingling warmth of an oncoming orgasm builds. I feel my hopes building with it. Perhaps Eshe enabled me to climax at will once again?
The pleasure builds, tightens, and concentrates within me to a fantastic crescendo, and then it…dissipates.
“Aaargh!” I scream, pulling on Eshe’s hair. “You couldn’t figure out how to make me come? Are you joking?”
They look puzzled for a moment, then smile sheepishly. “Oh, you wanted to come?”
“Don’t take that tone with me, you—“
My vision blurs and my toes curl as the force of the orgasm wrenches control away from me. My limbs tense and relax repeatedly as part of a full-body tremor, and my voice cascades from a high-pitched squeal all the way down to a deep groan. I desperately hold on as long as I can to each surge of pleasure until they’ve all passed and I’m little more than a spent mess crumpled on the floor.
“Fuck. That’s…you’re…satisfactory,” I concede. “But only if you hug me tight immediately.”
“Of course, Lady Veronica.” Eshe sneaks a bit of smug satisfaction into their voice as they pull me close. I’ll punish them for it later. Probably.
“Hmph.” I lean up to kiss them, tasting the musk of my arousal on their lips. “Did you…do you have to give permission?”
Eshe holds in a laugh. “Not just me. Anyone. Was easier than removing the block altogether. Besides, someone needs to keep you in check, my Lady.”
I stuff my face in the crook of their neck and let out an exaggerated groan. The spot proves remarkably comfortable, though, and so I end up staying that way while the floaty buzz of afterglow works its way out of my body.
“How sweet,” Francine calls out dryly from the entrance hall. Eshe and I both jump in surprise and pull away from one another as she enters, her heeled boots clacking against the scuffed hardwood floor. “Very professional of you, Knight-Lieutenant.” She passes Eshe a handkerchief, one they grudgingly accept after a long glare.
“Morning,” I mumble, still worn out by the orgasm.
Francine sniffs. “Good morning to you both as well. The time has come to depart.”
Eshe gathers their materials as I get back onto my feet and compose myself, numbness engulfing me as reality sets in. Some grim deeds and difficult choices of my own yet await. Recognizing we’ve neither the time nor the privacy for an extended goodbye, my savior and I settle on exchanging hand squeezes and heartfelt looks.
“Stay safe, Veronica.”
With my future so uncertain, their words can’t help but ring hollow.
“You as well, Eshe.”
I kneel perfectly straight, vision obscured by Helena’s lacy blindfold. Her fingers occasionally reach down to brush through my hair, making me shudder every time, but I am otherwise absolutely still. Helena likes me this way, and Vera would want to do exactly as Her Majesty likes.
The familiar scent of parchment and radiating warmth of flame indicates we’re beside the east parlor’s fireplace, with Helena on my right in what is likely a tall armchair. She’s enjoyed retiring here in the evenings for the past few days to unwind from the hectic negotiations—grueling affairs that only seem to have gotten more complex given the general mood in the palace. I really can’t be sure, though. Most of my time is spent far away from where anything relevant occurs, which has made finding an ideal opening to take advantage of rather difficult.
Five days I’ve been back in the palace with my mind in one piece; five days of playing up my submission and hoping nobody notices a shift in my behavior. I suspect Celeste already knows something has changed within me, though she’s remained discreet, thank the gods. Helena, on the other hand, hasn’t had the energy to notice. She’s happy just to have me by Her side so She can relax by doting on me.
It’s frustrating, really. If She was tormenting me, it would make what I have to do much easier. Whatever subtle strands of Her magic remain aren’t helping either—the pleasant shudders and warmth I feel from submitting to Her are genuine, and I can’t stop the upsides of my situation from regularly flashing through my mind.
So long as I’m with Her, I’m protected. Cared for. Loved, if a bit intensely. What awaits me outside? If I want to escape Her, I can’t stay in Niol. I’ll have to go someplace I’ve never lived before, someplace I don’t know anyone. I’ll have nothing. Nobody.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared to leave. But Celeste’s suspicions only prove how dangerous it is for me to stay any longer.
The time to act has come.
“Well, sweetness,” Helena says softly, kissing me on the temple. I smile in Her general direction. “I suppose we ought to get to bed, hmm?”
“Yes, Miss Helena.” Leaning indulgently into another head pat, I nudge my forehead against the armrest of Her chair and shift my blindfold ever so slightly. A sliver of the floor becomes visible from the bottom.
I stand. Helena takes me by the hand—the right hand. Good.
Six steps into our journey back to the royal chambers, I see the leg of a desk in my limited sight line. I purposefully clip my foot against it, stumbling and placing my left palm flat on the desktop to steady myself.
“Sorry, Miss Helena!”
“Not to worry, sweetness.” She guides me away from the desk and continues onward. I exhale in relief.
She didn’t notice me grab the letter opener now hidden flush against my wrist.
While I’m no expert at sleight of hand, I’m competent enough to keep my left wrist angled toward my body so as to conceal the implement from any passing guards. My nudity—save for the anklet marked with Helena’s crest, of course—certainly doesn’t help matters, but it’s become so blasé around the palace that nobody spares me a second glance. Nevertheless, my heartbeat quickens and my vision tunnels for fear of discovery until long after I’ve tucked the blade beneath a corner of Helena’s mattress.
She removes my blindfold and takes me through our nightly routines, aided by several ladies-in-waiting: taking down and brushing my hair, bathing me and rubbing floral-scented oils into my skin, cooing and whispering praise to me all the while…I want to cry throughout. I’m not sure how I manage not to. A monstrous horror lurks just ahead, and I can’t make out if it’s who I already am or who I’ll have to become by night’s end.
Once Helena and I are both ready to sleep, she gives me several more kisses and then leaves me to lie at the foot of Her bed. Minutes pass. Hours, maybe. The rest of my life; I really can’t be sure. I stare into the darkness, straining my eyes to catch a glimpse of nothing in particular. Behind me, I hear Helena’s breathing grow soft and even. I wait for a thousand extra years just to make sure She’s asleep, and then I slip off of the bed and onto my feet.
Lift the edge of the mattress. Grab what lies beneath. Two steps forward to the head of the bed. A plunging thrust down. Turn around, eleven steps forward. Listen at the door for the footsteps of the night guard. Once they grow sufficiently distant, slip out of the royal chambers, turn left, take eighteen steps, turn right, and shimmy into the dumbwaiter. Finagle the pulley from inside until it descends. Disembark into the servant passages. Take the route I’ve plotted, reconsidered, and debated inside my head for the last week. Exit out the back door of the kitchens and disappear into the darkness. That’s the plan.
But I can’t even bring myself to complete the first step. And this time, there’s no magic, no tricks. Just the crushing weight of indecision.
What will Eshe think? Will they be shocked? Regret their decision to help me? Or will they merely feel disappointed?
They’ll know I did what I had to. Besides, what do I care what they think of me?
My hand reaches out and rests on the corner of the mattress.
They put themself in danger to rescue me; took the difficult road of self-reflection even when it meant challenging everything they knew.
These are completely different circumstances. Besides, I’m no martyr. I survive, no matter what it takes. It’s who I am.
My fingers slip between the mattress and the box spring.
I know where that path leads. It leads to bits of shattered glass reflecting Alice’s shock and terror. It leads to Paolo’s desperate pleas at the river’s edge.
It leads to lying in bed, clinging to life in spite of your all-encompassing isolation and pain.
But at least it leads somewhere.
I grab the handle of the letter opener, pull it free, and take two steps forward to the head of the bed. The blade arcs downward in a plunging thrust.
I barely redirect it before it can meet Helena’s neck. I can’t kill Her. No, I won’t kill Her. I choose not to have Her blood on my hands, consequences be damned.
Before I can turn away and stash my weapon, though, I notice Helena’s silver necklace glowing bright orange.
I’m such a fucking idiot.
An overwhelming blast of shrieking sound sends me toppling to the floor, clutching my ears and curling into the fetal position. Distantly I recognize that it’s all in my head, that the fires now licking at my skin lack any physical presence, but it feels real enough to make the distinction of little import. Helena bolts upright and kicks away Her bedsheets, fear in Her eyes as they dart about the room to assess the situation.
And then they land on me, and on the knife clutched in my hand by my spasming, unresponsive muscles.
“Vera?” Helena’s voice is filled with confusion, disbelief, and hurt.
My teeth chatter far too violently for me to respond. Beyond the intense physical discomfort, primal fear rips apart any of my complex thoughts in a frenzied panic.
“How did…” Helena’s eyes glow a similar orange as She stares straight through me. Whatever She finds makes Her recoil. “No! What did they do to you?”
She grips her necklace and dims the light within it. My nausea and disorientation fade slowly but surely as She picks me up and places me on the bed.
“Speak,” the Queen commands, and a hint of Her sorcery presses on the edges of my consciousness. “Who did this?”
I lack the willpower to lie outright but muster enough to control the phrasing of my truths. At least I can try and protect Eshe, Francine, and Paolo. “Berinnist…sun-knight…”
Helena unleashes a furious wail loud enough to make Her night guards burst in through the door.
“Your Highness! Is everything alright?” One of them asks, their lantern illuminating the feral-looking Queen perched above me.
“Summon Berinni’s delegation for an emergency meeting,” She growls.
The guard knows better than to hesitate. “Yes, Your Highness!” They sprint away, barking rapid-fire orders to anyone in earshot.
“The nerve of that man, the fucking gall to think he could get away with this…” Helena holds onto my shoulders tightly, Her nails digging into my skin. I’m paralyzed with fear, waiting for the end to come in whatever form She decides it will take. “Assassins are one thing, but this? Turning my sweet Vera against me with that cult buffoonery they call sorcery? Unforgivable. It is abject cruelty; it is entirely a step too far.”
I blink. Helena seems to have underestimated me one last time, viewing my changes as part of a broader Berinnist conspiracy rather than as my own doing. Not that it matters, really—either way, She’ll erase me and bring Vera back.
Helena takes a few deep breaths, then lets go of me and idly brushes away the drops of blood drawn by Her vicious fingernails. I watch mutely as She lights the room’s lanterns with a wave of Her hand and hurries about getting dressed, murmuring to Herself the entire time.
“Okay. This is fine; everything is fine. Berinni overplayed his hand, just like they always do. I can fix whatever damage his lackeys did to you, take advantage of his misstep, and everything will be fine.” She whips back around to face me, now dressed in a tight-fitting purple gown with gold trim. Despite Her slightly disheveled state, She still radiates power and control.
“Eyes closed, sweetness.”
I close my eyes involuntarily.
“This should only take a moment. We’ll have time to fix you up into a proper, healthy little toy later, but until then I need to know you won’t do any other silly things.” She strides toward me. I instinctively bolt for the door in a blind panic.
“Be still,” She commands. The words are laden with power and freeze my muscles in place. “Let Miss Helena fix you.”
Deep breaths. Focus. I’ve resisted Her before, and I can do it again.
Though it feels like dragging myself through wet concrete, I’m able to thrash weakly and whimper “no” in spite of the spell upon me.
Helena’s eyes narrow. “Fucking cultists. Fine; we’ll do this the hard way.”
She wraps Her fingers around my neck and begins to squeeze. “You are nothing without me, Veronica. Do you understand that?” Her eyes are wild now, the deep black pools of a woman losing control. “If it weren’t for me, you’d still be the miserable bitch everyone hated. Everything you are is mine. Your morals, your decency, your compassion, all of it was created by me.”
As the corners of my vision start to darken, Helena leans in close and whispers in my ear. “And without me, you’d go right back to being the way you were.”
A moment later, I feel the intense pressure of Her ‘love’ once again as She begins channeling Her sorcery. The battle for my mind has begun—already I can sense Vera on the edges of my psyche pressing in.
I struggle fiercely against her, pouring everything I have into holding her at bay. But almost immediately, it becomes clear that I’ll lose; the harder I fight, the stronger Vera seems to become.
Yet even as she threatens to seize control, I cannot bring myself to hate Vera. How could I? As much as I once would have loathed to admit it, she’s not some invading entity overwriting my personality; she’s a part of me and always has been. She is my love, trust, and kindness; she is everything I had to bury because I was afraid of being hurt. Helena is taking advantage of those feelings now just as Mother did so many years ago. But it’s not Vera’s fault now, and…and I suppose it wasn’t my fault then.
If anything, the most abhorrent things I’ve done only came after I locked her away in a corner of my mind. Without Vera, I couldn’t bring myself to forgive Alice for running away; without Vera, I put my own ambitions ahead of my and Paolo’s feelings. Without Vera, I ruined countless lives for my own gain and felt no remorse. There are worse fates than letting her take control, I suppose. I only wish I could have stayed myself long enough to try and atone.
I stop struggling.
And to my surprise, so does Vera. Helena certainly isn’t done—Her magic still pours into me—but when I stop fighting Vera, Vera stops fighting me. Without that fracture in my psyche, there’s nothing more for Helena to push against; no two halves of me for Her to play against one another. The spell resolves as if it was successful.
But when I awake, I am the same me as before.
“Good. That will do,” Helena sighs, then turns to the guard behind her. “Let’s go. We’re already late.”
As the guard slings me over his shoulder and walks out into the corridor, I take stock of my surroundings. Some amount of time has clearly passed—moonlight spills in through the palace’s many windows at a sharper angle than before, and more servants and guards are buzzing about. Preparing for Helena’s ‘emergency meeting,’ no doubt. Despite having the element of surprise on my side, I’m unsure how to use it; this situation could quickly turn volatile in a number of ways. Best to wait and see.
My escort carries me along the familiar route from the royal chambers to the court, slipping into the semi-darkness of the dome through the backdoor and depositing me next to Helena’s throne. The room looks much the same as it has throughout the negotiations, with an arc of chairs in front of the many rows of empty pews and desks. I’m the last to arrive—royalists and Berinnists alike already fill the seats. Francine pales when she sees my slack form but otherwise stays still. Paolo looks down at the floor. Eshe maintains a perfectly neutral expression, standing behind Berinni with a half-dozen other sun-knights.
“…exactly is this about?” the Duke drones, blinking owlishly. What little hair he has left sticks out at odd angles, and several of the medals on his chest are crooked. “Or must I remind you that those of us without sorcery need sleep?”
Helena’s poise is too exact and sharp to be mistaken as natural, her voice too tight to fully conceal the danger lurking in each word. “I believe you know exactly why you are here, Berinni.”
“Oh for goodness…why don’t you remind me then, Your Majesty, instead of wasting my time.” The Duke’s impoliteness seems to come less from any negotiating tactic and more from his being grumpy. He’s likely the only person here who’s failed to recognize the tension in the air.
“Two hours ago, Vera attempted to kill me with a knife she’d hidden.” The room goes absolutely silent. Francine’s eyes practically bulge out of her head. Paolo shakes his head sadly. A pang of guilt hits me at his reaction. “One of the Knights of Sol Gloria ensorcelled her and forced her to do it.”
Murmurs echo throughout the court as nobles and knights alike discuss the development—one that clearly surprises all of them to some extent.
“Oh come now,” Berinni blusters. “A wizard made her do it? Don’t be absurd. She already tried to kill you once. Besides, you keep her as a…as a sex object. Is it really so hard to believe she just snapped?”
Helena somehow sits even straighter, appearing to channel her raw anxiety and frustration into her posture. “Impossible. I have—I had complete control over her until you and your cohorts poisoned her thoughts.”
Berinni rolls his eyes and turns to the older sun-knight beside him. “Knight-Captain Laviny, do you have any idea what she’s talking about?”
“No.” The Knight-Captain’s voice is perfectly flat.
“Well, there you have it.” Berinni throws his hands in the air. “What do you think is more likely: me sabotaging my frankly excellent negotiating position with an absurdly risky gambit, or your little pet liar acting out and taking you by surprise?”
Helena spits out a response through gnashing teeth, leaning forward on the edge of Her throne and balling Her fists. “You cannot lie your way out of this, Duke. I saw inside her mind; saw the sorcery your lackeys used to manipulate her. You will admit what you have done and…” A vein throbs in Her forehead as Her eyes flit back and forth between Berinni, the sun-knights, and me. “...and you will withdraw these cultists from Niol. Otherwise, I and my allies will walk away from all negotiations.
Seemingly satisfied with Her ultimatum, the Queen sits back and crosses Her arms. “And let’s not waste our time pretending your rapidly dissolving ‘coalition’ of murderers and thieves can hold against the combined might of Arlunn.”
The Duke scowls. “A moment, if you will.” He turns and begins animatedly whispering to Laviny.
Across the arc, a number of royalist nobles nervously look over at Francine. She shakes her head almost imperceptibly, then stands. “I believe we should hold an investigation into this matter.”
“No,” Helena snaps. “There is no need. I am not allowing these snakes any opportunity to regroup.”
“Perhaps we should not be so hasty, Your Highness.”
“It is not your decision to make, Francine. You would do well to remember that.” Helena’s subtle warning is laced with venom.
The spymaster merely looks to the other royalist nobles one by one, and one by one each of them speaks.
“I…um, I agree with Lady Francine.”
“As do I.”
“We should not proceed without knowing the facts.”
“An investigation, yes. Definitely.”
Francine looks to Duke Berinni. He sighs. “If we must.”
Helena looks around the room at the various nobles, suddenly appearing very alone. The corners of Her mouth tighten with the fury of a tyrant who cannot get what she wants—fury I know all too well. The slightest provocation will set Her off now.
My provocation isn’t very slight.
“You’re nothing without them, Miss Helena. Without me.”
The Sorceress-Queen gapes at me in fear and horror for several seconds, then jumps to Her feet and screams at Berinni.
“YOU BROKE HER! I WILL NOT LET YOU GET AWAY WITH THIS, YOU IGNORANT FOOL!”
The Duke snorts. “If anyone broke Veronica, Your Majesty, it was you—“
A wave of excruciating heat flies forth from Helena’s outstretched hand toward Berinni. In the blink of an eye, he becomes a pile of greasy ash and bone atop a large charred portion of the floor. A bit of molten gold from one of his medals sparkles in the lanternlight.
For a moment, everyone is quiet and still as they try to process what happened.
And then chaos breaks loose.