The Queen had a great love of rare and beautiful things, and surrounded herself with them whenever possible. Her chambers were the most opulent in the palace; the walls were almost entirely hidden behind fantastic paintings and tapestries, the floor was practically layered in rugs from exotic lands, and the furnishings were the finest to be had anywhere, at any cost.
She adorned herself in much the same way, with glittering rings and a swath of necklaces, baubles in her hair, and the most fabulous gowns; not even the wealthiest baroness could afford half as much. Some had said that the Queen’s style was gaudy; other’s believed her to be compensating for an otherwise unremarkable persona.
Marcella could not have disagreed more.
She curtsied deeply, the only formality required of her after so many years of loyal service. “You called for me, my Queen?”
“Yes," The queen said without looking at her. "Marcella, I must know where your loyalties lie.”
Marcella’s breath caught at the question; she frantically searched her memory for anything that she could have done or said that would have cast doubt on her fealty to her queen. Then, realizing that hesitation was probably worse than any answer she could give, she answered, “My loyalties are with you, as always…”
“With me? Or with the royal family? The kingdom, perhaps?”
Again Marcella was caught of guard. The king and prince each had servants of their own; there was no better way for her to serve her kingdom than to spend her life in servitude to the queen. She looked the queen in the eye, and with all her heart, she answered, “My loyalties are with you, my Queen.”
“Very well, then. I have a favor to ask of you, Marcella, and it is crucial that no one ever know of it.”
“You must give this to a member of the kitchen staff. Which one is up to you, but you must not be overly fond of them. This powder is to be placed in the evening tea of the king.”
Marcella took the powder, but her confusion must have shown.
“Will you balk at this request, Marcella?”
She shook her head. “No, my Queen.”
“Good. Now listen to me. This powder will make the king fall ill, but do not despair. It is entirely undetectable, and even were someone to suspect you, I would vouch for your whereabouts and your innocence. Remember also that this is not a fatal poison, and the king will recover shortly.”
Marcella nodded, and swore to do as she was asked.
Vera gently slid a single finger across the mirror’s smooth surface, tracing the lines of Achossebein’s lips, forming a connection between his world and hers. When the Demon’s eyes seemed to focus on her, she quickly stepped back; the bindings on Achossebein were weaker than she had ever dared before, and she intended to take no chances.
“Nice dress,” he purred, his tone both appreciative and mocking.
Vera narrowed her eyes, but said nothing.
“I assume that all did not go as you planned, then?”
“Achossebein, you will get me out of this or pay dearly.”
“Ah, but I thought you wanted all this…”
“You heard me, Demon.”
Achossebein chuckled, then seemed to look not at Vera, but through her. “The bindings on me are weakened. All that holds me now is a thin line of impure salt.” His voice was a mixture of hunger and conjecture.
Vera swallowed hard as she realized that she had no idea how impure the bath salts were, or what they were mixed with, or if they would even hold. Combining that with the lack of candles…
“Get me out of this, Achossebein!”
The Demon licked his lips. “Gladly, my sweet. Simply run your finger through the salts. Give me a pathway out of here, and I shall provide you with a way out as well.”
“No? Really? But I thought you wanted out. You know very well that all I can do while trapped like this is speak to you.”
“If I let you out, the only path to freedom you would grant me is that of the grave.”
The Demon’s eyebrows went up in mock surprise and his lips curled cruelly. “I am shocked. Surely you know me better than that? There are many things I would rather do to you than kill you…though that is still on the list, of course.”
“I will not avoid letting the king have his way with me by allowing you that same privilege. I know ways of hurting you, Achossebein, and you will find me a way out of this situation you have created, or I will use them.”
Again the Demon laughed. “I have other aspirations besides tasting your flesh, girl, and pain holds no fear for me. I find it interesting, though, how often you are calling me by name. It’s as if you think that that word has power over me.”
Was he lying? Vera had been taught that knowing a Demon's name was one of the ways to bind him, but if not, then she had even less control than she'd thought. And now that he mentioned it, she had to wonder what aspirations he had, other than devouring her soul. Why else did he come when she called? “What aspirations do you have, Achossebein?”
“I want what everyone wants,” the Demon answered, “I want power. Wealth. Women. Let me out now, and I will have them all.”
“And why would I grant you that?”
“Because you secretly want the pleasures I would grant you?" She opened her mouth, furious, but before she could speak, he said, "No? Then perhaps because in exchange, I shall let you leave here unharmed and with your virtue intact. I assume that at the moment, I am the only one who has such an offer for you?”
Vera considered. She knew that the Demon was evil, but he was a familiar evil, an evil she had dealt with comfortably for many years. She was much more comfortable here, in a dark room with a trapped Demon, than she would be if left alone with either the king or his wife. But still…
“What would you do if you were loosed on the world?”
“That’s none of your concern.”
“None of my concern? How can a Demon being loosed on the world be none of my concern? Especially if I am to be the one doing the loosing?”
“We will have made a bargain, and each of us will have fulfilled our end. After that, we shall part ways.” He paused to watch Vera’s face. “Let me ask you this: if you give a beggar coin, and later discover that he used that coin to commit an evil act, are you to blame? Are you to blame if you fail to kill a stray animal that later goes on to maul a child? You cannot control the beggar or the stray once they are out of your sight, and it isn’t your job to do so. Worry about yourself, girl, and let me do as I will. My doings are no more or less in your control than are anyone else’s.”
“But that isn’t true.”
“Oh? How so?”
“You do not belong in this world, and if I don’t allow you into it, you cannot harm it. If I let you in, knowing the harm you will do, then I am responsible for that harm.”
“Then why did you call me?”
“I don’t know," she said quietly, "But I will remedy that now. I cannot risk the world in order to save myself."
For the first time, anger flashed in Achossebein’s eyes, and he opened his mouth to speak, but as he did the bedroom door opened, and two large guards walked in. Vera panicked and turned her back to the mirror, hoping that the breadth of her body and the dimness of the room would be enough to block the guards’ view of the Demon she had summoned.
The guards remained focused on Vera, and before she realized it, they were close enough to grab her arms. She panicked when one of them stepped on her circle of salt, and threw herself on him, screaming for him to stop. In response, he stepped back and jerked her forward rather brutally, dragging her feet through the circle. The barrier was broken.
Vera screamed. "Let me go," she begged, "Please!" But there was no reply, other than the guards becoming even rougher, more heavy handed than before. She began to scratch and kick, fighting as if for her life, but all she accomplished was getting herself hoisted up and carried away instead of simply being drug. Soon, she was reduced to pounding her fists uselessly on the guard’s strong back and sobbing uncontrollably.
Vera was taken to a small dark room with no windows; there was only a single hardback chair and a small lantern on the floor. She assumed that she was to be punished; that the guards outside her room had overheard her conversation with Achossebein. But if that was the case, then why had they come in only after she had said that she was going to send the Demon away? And why were they not mindful of the protective ring?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud clang and the room’s only door coming open. A tall, wiry man wearing royal livery stepped in, after which someone outside pulled the door closed once more.
The man said nothing, but looked her over closely, seeming to take in even the smallest details. His gaze made her shudder.
At long last, the man asked, “Are you the girl they’re calling Vera?” Vera was confused by the phrasing of the question, but she nodded.
The man narrowed his eyes slightly. “You were brought here by coach, just after the Harvest Festival, am I right?”
Again, Vera nodded.
“Can you tell me what you have done since then? Leave nothing out; if I suspect that you do, or that you are lying, you will be tried for treason.”
Vera swallowed hard. “Where exactly should I begin?”
“The moment you walked through the palace doors. Tell me what you were wearing, what items you were carrying, who was with you, and what they looked like. I need to know everything.”
She told him of the guard leading her in and the matron’s derisive sniff, of the warm bathwater and the red powder that was put on her lips, and of the bedroom she had been left in afterwards, but oddly enough, that is where the wiry man stopped her. “Once you were there,” he asked, “you didn’t leave?”
Vera shook her head.
“And no one came in until the guards?”
“Very well then.” And with that, the man turned and left the room and Vera found herself unexpectedly and abruptly alone once again.