The halls were empty as she liked them, the servants huddled away in their damp, dark quarters for the night. The night was a fearful stranger to them. To her it was an old friend, a constant solace. She retreated to the dark in her weakest moments. It was in the dark that she celebrated her victories and mourned her losses, recovered her strength and plotted her revenge. Yes, the dark had been much better to her than the light had ever been.
Moonlight bounced off her parchment white skin, revealing a face of extraordinary beauty and disturbing malice. The deep green eyes remembered the centuries past and the battles fought, the blood-covered steps she had climbed to reach her position. She had trampled millions on her ascent.
The queen looked over her kingdom. To the humans there was nothing but black, but she saw more than humans did. She saw the twinkling of lanterns and candles, smelled the aroma of a thousand warm bodies asleep in their beds, and heard their slow steady breaths. It was overwhelming, the sense of power that she felt. In their eyes she held a fearsome combination of fear and respect. There was no loyalty, but she had no use for that.
Her bedchamber was a tower built against all reason, lacking in comfort and compensating with its sheer character. It jutted out vertically from the castle walls, beyond the length of all the other towers. It seemed some days she could see till the end of the world from her tower. She dreamed of ruling everything she saw.
The forests were still filled with rebels, those pesky people that refused to realize their own incompetence, their own inferiority. They stole from her subjects, slayed her guards on sight. She saw the forest, heard the beat of their frantic little hearts. They feared her even in their sleep, yet they kept fighting. She wished she could see them with her own eyes. The nymphs that lived within their ancient trees and flowed as the water in the streams. Those silver creatures of the moon, the unicorns, who would look so regal within her stables. And most of all the wretched dwarfs who led the fight, and kept from her the precious jewels that belonged in her crown.
Queen Morgan turned away from the window and concentrated on the castle. It was a practice she did every night. Perhaps a tiring practice, but it had saved her life countless times. She counted the heartbeats in the castle. The old slow drum of the child's old nursemaid, the girl's only companion. There were the steady beats of her soldiers, and finally her favorite. The beat most full of life, the one she most would have loved to drain, squeezing the life out of that little body. The little princess slept between her coral pink satin sheets and dreamed of sweet things. She would've quenched her thirst a long time before, but the girl served a purpose. She was a symbol. She was the figurehead to the people, the barricade against a complete revolution. Simona wasn't a very clever child, but she was useful just by being alive.
* * *
Sim looked around at the high walls and the glass shards that glinted at their tops. She wondered why the queen was so strict, insisting that the villagers would try to steal from her if she was any less careful. The palace was littered with guards, with sentries. All the gateposts were manned, all the rims of the walls lined with glass shards and the moat filled with flesh-eating leeches. She could hear the other children sometimes, laughing and screaming as they ran to the village at sundown. She knew they didn't eat some meals, and Nan told her they never got to wear anything near as beautiful as her velvet dress, the pretty thing Nan told her was midnight blue. She was jealous despite everything Nan told her. They had homes, not castles. Homes were warm, castles were cold. Or it was so at least in her experience. Their palace didn't get snow storms like in the books she read, but on winter mornings the frost gave everything in the garden a glimmering coat. They looked like the million shards of a brilliant mirror.
And even on the nights before those beautiful mornings when the air was still and cold, there would be no fires. The fireplaces would be cleaned but never would hold tinder. She really did love the queen, but on those nights when the cold seeped through her quilts and nipped at her toes, she didn't really. Her chubby legs carried her across the garden to where Nan always waited for her with another story and a few treats. In a few years there would be a tutor brought in, Nan always said they were probably going to be a bother. Nan was a soft old woman, who thought a lot of things were a bother. In essence, anything that was different, anything that brought change was a bother.
But the tutor would have seen things, been beyond the walls to places that she could only dream of. Sim thought it might be a good thing to have a tutor. All Nan ever knew was the city outside the castle. Anything else, she said she had no need for. The little girl stepped through the soft green grass, her bare feet tickled by the blades. Her face was the color of snow, cheeks pink with exertion. Her hair was pure black, like soft strands of nothing caressing her face.
The queen told her that her father would come back from war someday and that he should return to find a well-mannered daughter, a perfect princess. She smoothed out the few wrinkles in her skirt and continued on, determined to eat her crumpets without letting a single crumb drop to the ground. Nan got sad whenever they spoke of her father, but in her mind she already knew him. Tall and slender, strong without all the display of muscle and brute force. He ruled with discipline and mercy. Sometimes it felt like the entire kingdom was always in a state of unrest, of anxiety, awaiting their rightful king.
Sim ran her hand through her straight black hair, wishing it was more like the luscious gold curls of the queen. She knew the queen was probably the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Nan agreed, but it was with a grimace. Sim sat on the old woman's lap, eating her biscuits and drinking the honeyed tea. Afterwards she would play and read whichever book Nan gave her. She used to be given fairytales, beautiful stories of cursed princesses and valiant princes. Recently, Nan had been giving her books on history and astronomy. Sim wasn't pleased.
She read the chapter of the book dutifully and set it down. The garden's crowning glory was the line of rosebushes that led to a small pond of water. The rosebushes, by some odd magic, bore flowers of every hue possible. Her hand stroked the velvet petals of a violet bloom, fingered a young yellow bud, and finally selected her pick. The long spiny stem came away easily. The deep red of the rose looked almost painted. Dew drops were settled on the petals and hard thorns lined the stem.
"It's beautiful," she said to herself. Careful not to touch the thorns, she carried it up to her room, setting it in a vase next to her bed. It was still just as fresh when she got to bed. Nan took her usual stool by the side of the bed. The bedtime stories were a tradition. No matter what changed or how old she got, she always needed a story to go to sleep. Nan knew that she shouldn't encourage a girl of eleven with her made-up stories. But the little girl had to get her happily-ever-afters somewhere, so few happy things were present in her real life.
She retold a story of a beautiful red-haired princess and a magical sword. A prince who was her true love, who braved danger and death to come to her aid. There were fights, there was misery and betrayal, but in the end she always ended with her familiar phrase.
"And they all lived happily ever after."
The princess settled deeper between the sheets and looked at the rose wistfully. She wondered when the time would start for her own adventure. Nan put away her stool and tucked her in. The last thing before she went to sleep, Sim stroked the rose from the opening to the base of its contours. One of the spines, hidden among the green petals of the underneath pierced her skin, and she let out a muffled sound of pain.
* * *
The queen was in her room, lying down with her eyes closed. She wasn't asleep, never wanting to waste the freedom that night-time gave her. Most of the people in the castle were already asleep. Not that there were many. She hadn't fed for months. It wasn't about availability, but control. She would control her thirst, never could it be the other way around. She was on the verge of starving, yet she felt as human as ever. There were none of the animalistic urges of blood she had experienced in previous years.
Scents wafted in through her window. There was the smell of fresh-cut pine and wood, the lingering spices of that night's dinner, and there was something else. Tantalizingly sweet, irresistible. Control was no longer a factor. She needed to drink, and drink deep.
In a millisecond her mind morphed from the cunning mind of the usurper queen to the instinct of an animal. She didn't remember decorum, she thought nothing of running through the corridors. Her skirt caught on a fireplace poker and she ran on, ripping the green silk free. There were warnings from the human side of her as she came into sight of the princess's door. The girl was necessary. The girl was an asset, she prevented unrest... she was a figurehead... she was prey. The two doors only touched her fingers for the breadth of a second before they were thrown away and hit the floor.
The doors flew off their hinges and landed at the foot of the bed. Her eyes, bloodshot and wide, roamed over the room. The little princess's finger was the source of her misery. Everything else disappeared but the thought of her blood, pulsing and warm. The queen lunged.
* * *
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