"You know what you must do." Even whispering, her mother's cold voice thundered loud in her ears. The only reaction her body gave was the tightening of her fingers on the hilt of the blade, her nails cutting the skin of her palm.
Alethia knew what she had to do, but it wasn't what she wanted to do. The searing pain in her back was a reminder of the consequences that came with disloyalty.
The prisoner's head lolled back in the chair, and he gurgled blood out of his mouth. "Please, don't. I only did it for my children."
Alethia's stomach twisted in knots as nausea threatened to overtake her. She wanted to scream, I know. I understand. It's okay. She wanted to ignore his mumbled words. But she'd hear them when she slept as clear as day; the words, the agony, the suffering, all of it would be committed to memory. Everything she had done to him. From the moment she shoved the poison into his mouth.
The same poison her mother had shoved down her throat when she was ten years old. She knew about the hallucinations he had seen, the way his body felt like it was melting apart, and the way his veins seemed to creak against each other. But she couldn't react. She couldn't do anything except watch.
"Now, Alethia," her mother snapped. "Do not waste my time."
Fear made her take a step forward. The prisoner jerked in the metal chair bolted to the ground, his hazy, diluted brown eyes latching on to her face. The last face he was ever going to see; the last face the men before him had ever seen. Alethia swallowed the taste of the bile that arose with the thought of what she had to do.
She pulled the long sword out of its sheath, the rasping sound echoing the ringing calls of the reaper. The prisoner's eyes glowed brighter as he attempted to use his earth magic. But in a metal room designed for Kantian prisoners, there was no soil or mud for him to pull from—especially in his weakened state.
The scabbed over wounds across her back burned from the effort of lifting her sword. Ignoring the pain and refusing to show any weakness in front of her mother, Alethia sliced the sword through the air and his neck. His head fell off, landing with a plopping sound and rolling across the floor. Blood splattered onto the metal walls, the sound echoing in the small space.
She wiped the blood off her sword. Returning the blade to her sheath, she looked away from the table filled with torturous instruments and the head that now rested near its leg. Alethia turned from the darkened, bloodstained cell. She dragged controlled breaths through her mouth to avoid the awful stench of rusted iron that perforated the air.
"Good girl." Her mother's vacant icy grey eyes took in Alethia's face then ran over her body. "If you had done that before, we could have avoided your punishment. I do not wish to inflict pain on you at such an age. You simply have to do as you're told. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Your Majesty." There was a tightness in Alethia's chest then, as there always was when her mother forced her to kill. You must be prepared to take the lives of those who disobey. It was something her mother said at the start of each session.
While most princesses were getting lessons on the history of their kingdoms or on their needlework, Alethia was getting lessons on how to torture someone for answers, and how to kill them for giving the wrong ones; it was a lesson she could do without.
"Now, go clean yourself up, darling." Her mother smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "You smell absolutely terrible."
Alethia swallowed down the sharp words at the tip of her tongue and bowed to her mother. She walked stiffly around the Queen, before breaking into a run at the start of the stairs. The wooden door slammed against the wall as Alethia gasped for fresh air while running for her quarters on the far side of the castle grounds. The quicker she made it into her room, the faster she could wash the blood from her hands and burn the clothes right off of her body.
She didn't bother to glance at the servants who stopped at the sight of her and bowed. They ignored the bloody clothes, the ragged scar across her left cheek, and the tears that welled in her eyes. They knew better.
They feared not only the Queen but Alethia as well.
She wanted to yell that it wasn't her fault. That she couldn't do anything. That none of this was her choice. But who would believe her anyway? If there was one thing her mother was right about, it was the fact that actions spoke louder than words.
She stumbled to a stop in front of her bedroom door, gasping for breath. Tears flowed down her face and the tight feeling in her chest increased in pressure. She flung the door open and slammed it shut with a loud bang. The pain in her back flared up, and she grimaced, biting down hard on her bottom lip.
"Your Highness," A gentle voice said from the bathing room, "I've prepared a nice, hot bath—"
A short, freckle-faced girl stepped into the room and stopped at the sight of her. "Oh no, what's happened?"
"Rebecca." Alethia wiped the tears from her eyes quickly before snatching her stained sleeves away. "It's been a long day."
"As you say." Rebecca inched forward. "Would you like help to get into the bath, Your Highness?"
"Call me Alethia, you know this," Alethia snapped, her voice colder than she meant it. At the servant's wince, Alethia added softly, "I would appreciate the help. Thank you."
Rebecca nodded and gave a small smile, following Alethia into the bathing room. The steaming water was a welcome sight after the day she had been through. Slowly, the two of them stripped Alethia of her clothing. The soaked garments pulled at her leaking wounds, blood trickling down her backside. It was a process so aching and painfully slow that Alethia wanted to tell the girl to just leave her in peace, but Rebecca was always a comforting presence to have after a day with her mother, despite how talkative she was.
Several cloth rags floated in the water and she grasped one of them. She had hoped for a long relaxing bath but with her wounds reopened, the choice was taken from her. Alethia began rubbing herself down with the rag, dipping it into the water and out again as she cleaned her body. Alethia tried to tune back into what Rebecca was saying as the blissfully warm water soaking the rag lifted the day's work off of her body.
"—which is why the cook was so mad," Rebecca chattered nervously as she began the careful process of washing Alethia's long jet-black hair.
The clear water rapidly turned a dirty brown as Alethia pushed the bloody rag back into it. Alethia washed multiple times, scrubbing her skin until it felt painful to continue to do so. Rebecca said nothing about it, but then again, it wasn't as if Alethia was listening. The servant appeared to have an endless number of things to discuss. But it was a much needed distraction from the thoughts that were nearly overwhelming Alethia on the inside.
The tasks her mother assigned her seemed to escalate every day now, and she wasn't sure she could take much more of it. Dread arose in her whenever Rebecca walked in to take her to her mother. As if a hand was gripping her heart and squeezing the life right out of it.
With trembling hands, Alethia dropped the stained rag back in the bath while Rebecca began applying a salve on her wounded back before dressing it in new wrappings. Putting on her undergarments and a nightgown, Alethia allowed Rebecca to braid her hair before dismissing her.
The silence that fell with the servant's absence was deafening. Alethia sat at the reading chair stationed near her window, a cool breeze blowing open the curtains and loose hairs into her eyes. The face of the prisoner loomed in her head, haunting her as all the other faces did. He had paid the ultimate price for something so trivial. He hadn't been able to afford to pay the newly raised taxes inflicted by her mother without letting his children starve to death. So instead, he had bought food for his children and protected them and his wife. Alethia was forced to listen to him beg for mercy, torture him, and kill him.
Her stomach bubbled uncomfortably, and the agony in her chest increased as she gasped for breath. As his princess, she was supposed to save him.
A lump rose in her throat as she tried to swallow. She covered her mouth with a trembling hand, a choked sob echoing in her chambers. Every emotion she was unable to display in front of her mother rushed to the surface, they ripped her apart from the inside. She cried for the man she had to kill. She cried for the people she slaughtered in the past. And she cried for herself—a prisoner to the woman who ruled them all.
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