His incredulous stare first pleased her, and she could see his throat working to form words that he was long in saying, but he did not return her smile; he didn't even look happy.
When he finally spoke, his words gouged her heart like the tip of a lash laced through with shards of glass.
"You little fool, you've signed your death warrant..."
"You call me a fool? Clyden...am I now a fool?"
His head dropped from exhaustion, and he breathed in the dank cellar air; when he came up to stare at her again, her open palm branded his filthy cheek.
"If I was ever a fool, Clyden," she slapped him again, "it was to think someone like you," she stressed the word with another slap, "could ever feel love!"
A final slap left him gasping, with a gash on his bottom lip from her nails.
When he managed to open his eyes again, she was just turning out of sight. He tried to call her name, but it came out in a strangled sob, and he sank against his chains; his wrists, long chafed and calloused, swollen and infected by the rusty manacles, no longer felt the pain, and fresh blood washed over the scabs and gnats, slinking down his arms to drip from his elbows.
Whatever glimmer of hope remained in him was mashed under the heel of his grim, dead god's celestial boot.
Vivian waited, smiling on the outside, seething on the inside. She knew exactly where Veronica was, and why.
Her sister, little sister by a mere ten minutes, thought herself clever, thought herself a woman, but her emotions always got the better of her, and she was little more than a child stamping her feet in mud puddles because her parents told her not to.
Vivian always half-expected her to hold her breath, or stick her tongue out, or pout. Veronica was what some men would call a firebrand, but Vivian had long ago gone from entertained, to amused, to bored with her sister's antics.
Now, she was entering into a phase of impatience; Veronica would have to be taught a lesson, and soon, or one day her rashness could cost Vivian the crown, and maybe the queendom.
There were times she was grateful the line of succession was through the maternal side, but there were times she would have gladly relinquished it to Veronica and left on the fastest horse, had there been a legal way.
And speak of the devil...
"What do you want, Vivian?"
"Is that any way to greet your sister, your benefactor, and your queen?"
"Mother was a queen; you are an accident."
Vivian's ire was stirred, but she hid it behind a deep sigh. Yes, a lesson is definitely in order...
"Have a care, girl. Insolence doesn't go unpunished, even if it's by the princess."
Veronica knew something of Vivian's capacity for cruelty; they'd shared a bedroom for years, and Veronica's best efforts to defend herself quickly crumbled under her sister's unrelenting onslaughts.
Her face heated, and she held her peace.
Vivian dismissed the guards.
Veronica grew concerned, but said nothing. Her hands nervously smoothed her skirt, and she tried her best not to tremble.
Vivian grew haughty and formal.
"I called for you because I wanted you to hear it from me, first. There are those on the council who would gladly have come to you with the news to turn you even further against me,and to offer you an alternative."
"You're speaking in riddles: an alternative to what?"
She rose from the chair, came toward Veronica, smiling, not answering.
"But I don't want to fight you, sister. We are the last of our line, and our unfortunate feelings for the knave Clyden were misguided; look how deep the wedge is driven between us."
She caressed Veronica's cheek, kissed it lightly, and whispered.
"I know that you seek to kill me."
Veronica gasped in surprised pain as the knife Vivian held in her left hand entered her stomach, and warm blood pulsed as it sluiced around the blade.
"But you can't," said Vivian, twisting the blade, wringing another gasp.
"And you won't." Another twist, another gasp, and she pulled it out; Veronica cried out, and fell to her knees, then to her side, looking up into her sister's eyes, cold with rage, burning with hate.
Veronica's breathing grew shallow, her vision dimmed.
Vivian knelt beside her, wiped the blade on her dress, and put it back in the sheathe she wore on her thigh.
"Because you see, little sister, you've forgotten that after all these years..."
Veronica was getting cold.
"...everytime you've competed against me..."
Veronica went blind.
"I always won..."
Veronica stiffened and shuddered.
"And Clyden is mine."
Veronica stopped breathing.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
December 23rd, 2014
In the Presence of the Queen
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