He had been expecting her. Only a fool wouldn’t have. Her entrance, he thinks, leaves something to be desired. When the Alpha of the Panhandle makes an assault on a villain’s lair, one expects explosions, a high body count, and an epic soundtrack in the style of John Williams. Princess takes a significantly more low-key approach. Ballsy, yes. Epic, no.
The park he had chosen for his home base is very low-tech. The original owner hadn’t managed to make many rides that worked and those that had worked had been commandeered by the enterprising citizens of Lando decades before. What had been left relatively unscathed was the Magical Main Street. For some reason, the old kook had thought that what young children really wanted to see was a replica of a good old-fashioned small town America. He substituted hardware stores, grocery markets, and other useful businesses with kitschy souvenir shops where parents would undoubtedly be compelled by squealing rug rats to buy overpriced candies and cheaply made clothes branded with his cartoon characters. It would have made him rich beyond his wildest dreams, had there not been super heroes. No child can get excited about anthropomorphic cartoon animals when they can see the exploits of super heroes just by watching the news.
Most of the shop windows were boarded up, the glass broken or stolen years before. The pastel paint that had once been cheerful has faded to mottled grays. Shutters hang crookedly and gaping doorways beckon. The few still discernible cartoon characters painted on shop signs or even acting as sign posts merely make the street more unnerving. Princess feels eyes crawling on her skin and a reluctance that she normally only gets when going to the dentist. Still, sneaking would be a far bigger mistake on her part. Keeping her stride long and confident, she strolls down the street, boots crunching loudly on various debris, toward the castle which stands completely out-of-place at the end of the lane.
In her mind she dissects the ridiculous castle as she would any stronghold. It truly is absurd. Useless pointed towers, no curtain wall, a pathetic moat, and no standard outer defenses. Castles should have catapults or, bet yet, trebuchets. There should be burning oil chutes, arrow loops, crossbows the size of horses. But, if the purpose is to look enchanting, then it serves it’s purpose well. The word that keeps coming to her mind is “confection,” as though the entire structure could be made of cake and frosting like that horrid fairy tale. Her stomach lurches involuntarily with that memory. One foster-mother had told her that tale every night for a week, adding gruesome details until she cried, all because she had snuck a piece of bread to ease a starved stomach. The witch had only stopped because the last night, Princess had actually vomited all over her. The Alpha shakes her head to dislodge the awful memory and takes a firm hold of her digestive system. Her footsteps echo woodenly on the false draw bridge. She can smell the filth of the moat, refuse mostly, but also a slightly charred meat smell that almost destroys her self-control. At the other end of the bridge stands a skeleton draped in scraps of blue tulle, the sheer material hiding nothing on the starving woman. She must have displeased him. The Dragon prefers full-figured women.
Without any change in expression to indicate that the woman saw her, she turns away and begins walking into the castle, muscles working because a powerful will has commanded that they must. Princess follows, swallowing to moisten a suddenly dry throat. Her guide’s ribs show clearly, moving faintly beneath stretched skin. Hips stick out, every vertebrae is visible, shoulder blades straining to stab through paper-thin flesh. The woman should be dead, but he keeps her mind alive and suffering because he can. The last thing Princess needs walking into the hands of her enemy is self-doubt, but her small talent with compulsion seems just that now: small. Convincing weak old men that she is a capable super hero and has done numerous acts of valor was difficult for her and she clearly hadn’t fully compelled them or they wouldn’t doubt her now. Could she make Merlin obey her so utterly? Would he stave off death just because she told him he wasn’t dead yet? Her stomach clenches again, but she shows no outward sign of distress in case he is watching her entrance. This level of compulsion is unusual, clearly. It’s probably just the result of his intensive contact with the woman. Physical contact makes the compulsion that much stronger and the Magic Mirror had shown Princess that the Dragon was not shy about being physical with his slave girls. Yes, that’s it.
It doesn’t take long to reach the throne room. It’s smaller than she thought it would be. The marble pillars are not marble at all, but painted concrete or something. The floor is cheap linoleum. The tapestries are faded prints, tattered and frayed. What strikes her first is the smell. The moat was a bucket of flowers in comparison. Human sweat soured by fear and desperation, sickly sweet traces of rotting meat, vomit, blood, and human waste. Her eyes fall on a pile lying in a niche between the pillars, a space that would have been filled with some sort of royal statue in a real castle. The swarming flies shift just enough for her to see part of a face writhing with maggots. She can’t help it. She retches, leaning against a cool wall, stomach emptying itself of bile and take-out Chinese. Through streaming eyes, she sees that some of it got on her boots. Suddenly angry and ashamed, she jumps when a hand touches her shoulder. She whirls angrily, fists raised, and then she freezes. The Dragon stands a foot away, hands raised in surrender, his perfect face a picture of concern.
“Sorry about the mess,” he says with a wry grin. “The cleaning lady doesn’t come until Thursday.”
Princess stares at him in disbelief. Then she slaps him hard across the cheek. “Too far, John. Too cape-damned far!” she replies, her voice shaking with anger. Then she relaxes, wipes spittle from her chin in disgust, and looks around again, especially at the children standing stock-still around the dais. With relief, she sees that none of them appear starved. Just dirty.
John looks a little surprised, but his composure quickly returns. “What do you think of my little kingdom, Margarete? I know it’s not much now, but you came at night. It’s quite the children’s paradise during the day.”
“You have to stop, John,” Margarete says. She leans a little weakly against the wall, carefully avoiding the pool of sick. She tries to tell herself she is only pretending to be weak and frightened so he will underestimate her. A sound strategy if John wasn’t ignoring her.
“I’ll have the rides working in a few weeks. They don’t mind the wait. My subjects are satisfied with everything I give them,” he states regally, gesturing to said subjects. At his gesture, the slave girls fall to their knees and bow their faces to the filthy floor, hands before them clasped together tightly. The children just smile beatifically. Margarete had seen that phrase in a children’s book once next to a picture of a princess doing just that. She does not recall the picture frightening her at all, but the identical blissful grins on those children sends spiders climbing up her spine.
Forcing her legs to straighten, Margarete steps away from the wall. “Listen to me! This has gone on long enough. Let the children go, John.” Part of her is aware that the Alpha should ask for the freedom of all prisoners, yet she cannot make herself care for those women. The resemblance is quite remarkable, making it difficult to focus on him when their faces make her gut boil with hatred. John turns his back on her, heading to his throne. Desperate, she puts all the power she can into her voice and commands him to stop. To her surprise, he does.
All charm has disappeared from his face when he turns around. This face, cold with rage and hatred, is more familiar to her. He looks so much like their father that she takes an involuntary step back, right into the pool she had so diligently avoided. Memories of that face, twisted in fury above her, of pleading with that face for mercy, all flash before her mind’s eye in a rush. When she comes to, she’s crouched in a ball with her hands over head, gibbering nonsense through tears. She is aware of arms wrapped around her and a soothing voice in her ear. “He can’t beat me, Grettie. Not any more. We made sure of that. She stood and watched, like these witches do now. We did what had to be done, remember? What she couldn’t do.”
She does remember and her sobs cease. Now is her chance, she knows. All she has to do is touch him, tell him to go, to disappear. It would all go away. But he’s still talking. She realizes then that it’s too late. “Together, we can punish the wicked witch. Punish all of them. No one wanted these kids, just like no one wanted us. But we will take care of them. You’ll help me, won’t you? We can play Castle like when we were kids. The benevolent Prince and Princess caring for all the children in the world. Say you’ll stay with me, Grettie?”
“Of course, John. Why would I ever leave you?”