"For thousands of years, mankind has dreamed of destroying the sun! But today, I shall go beyond that! I shall exceed the greatest dream of humanity, and I shall devour the sun! It will replace my feeble and decrepit human heart, its power fuelling me and me alone, and through this I shall rule over a blackened world forever! I am invincible! I am unstoppable! I am… you know, my left arm is really hurting. I wonder why? Oh well. Today is the day of my ultim…"

The last words of Pope Obteneratus III

Under the crimson light of the full red moon, a windship drifted over the city of Bruxelles. Its crew were short, smelly and none too bright, and for that reason it was flying a Gallian flag. The fact that the crew were each wearing a necklace of onions only helped to support the first impressions, and coincidentally noticeably improved their odour.

However, shockingly, the alleged Gallian nature of the crew was a lie. The diminutive and pungent crew of the ship were in fact the minions of the vile Overlady of the North, working ceaselessly day and night against the causes of righteousness.

At least when they remembered. Or weren't distracted. Or the overlady was not attempting to secretly use them to further the goals of righteousness while pretending to be Evil. Though they managed to work pretty effectively against the cause of righteousness when being used for righteous goals; quite suspiciously well, in fact. One might even question how righteous the goals of their mistress were.

But that would be vile calumny and slander.

"Tacky cool hopper eight-er, this are eagle one-er," reported the disguised minion on the mast. "I no see stuff through spyglass. It are broken."

"Roger… no, eagle one-er, this vessel are doin' stuff when blind. It are a hot zone out there," declared the captain.

"No it isn't," objected another minion. "It very cold."

"It are a cold zone out there!" continued the captain, unbashed. "And we gots no warm coats or stuff! So sneaky team one-er will be going in cold." He gripped tight onto the wheel; not through any choice of his own, but because Maggat had lashed him to it prior to the ship's departure.

The entire crew was under orders from the overlady, and Gnarl had made those orders explicit. Which was to say, if they didn't follow the orders they had been given by Louise, explicit things would happen to them. And then keep happening until they had fully paid for their failure.

"We is nearing the drop place." The brown-skinned captain paused, and in a panic stared at its hands and then its feet, lips moving in furious calculation. "Ten-er four… uh, number what I just said but again," it said. "Making the drop-thing readiness."

"Aye, cap'n!" reported a green, stepping smartly past the captain and filching his hat, a particularly nice highwayman's tricorn. "The droffin are in place! I is ready to go down with it! We is going in cold, because it are really freezing up here!"

"Roger, Roger!"

"What?" yelled the minion on top of the mast. "I tell you, spyglass not worky no more! It are terrible weapon!"

"Not talking to you, Roger!" snapped the captain. "Brave-ooh one-er two-er… er, er, er, more numbers-er! Ten shun on the triple! We is dropping in some time mine-us some other time! Are the crane ready?"

"Oooh rah! It are!" declared a red, pointing at the contraption of wood and rope set up on deck. A coffin was slung in a cradle, hanging over the side.

The green vaulted up onto it, straddling the box. "I are ready!" it declared. "Let's get this sucker goin'! I is ready for this high attitude hard landin' drop!"

The captain-minion drew in a deep breath. This was it. This was his big chance. This was his chance to get in with the overlady, to show how he was the bestest-best minion and way better than Maggat and his crew, who were getting all the attention. Why, the overlady probably even knew their names!

"Then we is go! Drop the coffin! We is go go go! Bravo two-er many-er stuff-er! And… eh, where the bloody hell is my hat?"

"Yee haw!"

The captain of this ship of fools stared at the falling coffin and the minion riding it, and screamed in frustration. "That was my hat!" it screamed. "I kill him! I kill him double dead!"

In the morbid, decadent and thoroughly sinister lair of the dark lady, serried ranks of minions formed up in decidedly sloppy ranks. Their eyes glowed faintly in the gloom, and they were all staring at the older minions at the front. From their slightly smaller size and prominent lack of festooned loot save for identical jackets with plates sewn onto them, it was clear to the educated observer that these were very new minions. Certainly, compared to the garish array of 'stuff they'd found lying around, often after killing the former owner' worn by the minions at the front of the audience, they were eminently inferior.

"Let's get down to busy-ness," said Maggat, striding up and down the line with his arms behind his back, "to defeat ev'ryone." He glowered at the newer members of the forces, shamefully lacking in loot. "Did they send me goblins, when I asked for minions?"

"They is a saddest, worthlessest we ever meet," Maxy said, shaking his head. "But I bet before we done, Maggat, you make minions out of everyone."

"Nah nah naaaaah," contributed Scyl.

"Shut up, Scyl," Maggat said, without looking. "Yes! We give you all stuff you need to know to survive on battlefield! Listen to us, and you might only die… like, three or four times per raid."

There was a sound of two knives being scraped together. "Yeah!" Fettid said, her pretty new earrings glinting in the light. "We is gonna give you a much-ness of teachingness of the stuff what a minion is needing to be doing for the overlady. "Stuff what is like stabbity, slashity, maimity, hurtity, gougity, sneakiness, looting, dual-stabbity, dealin' with bein'-alive-again-headaches, makin' basic stuff into deadly stuff, stabby-stab-stab-stabbity…"

"Minions! Where are you?"

"Oh wait, no time for long training mount age," Maggat said happily. "We off now. Remember everyone, if you die, do it close to a blue. Overlady getting sort of tetchy 'bout double-dead rate, and when she tetchy, it not fun for us who is not double-dead. So if you get double-dead for stupid reason, I kill you."

"Uh, Maggat," Maxy began, "I not so sure that saying that is log-ick-owww." He massaged his head.

"We here, overlady!" Maggat said loudly. "Bad an' ready to go!"

"You still have time left," Jessica said to Louise reassuringly, fastening a buckle on her adjusted armour. The rest of winter had been used productively. Raids on foundries near the capital – the minions cunningly disguised as goblins, though Louise hadn't told them that – had allowed them to properly outfit the forge, and her reforged armour was sitting much more comfortably. "Okay, move your arm; let's see if that's too tight?"

"I have a schedule I have to keep to, and don't want them to be late," Louise said, fretting. "And yes, my arm is fine." She worked her shoulder. "Breastplate is a little tight, though," she noted, taking a deep breath.

Louise, you see, had a plan. Not just any plan, either. She had prepared a presentation and given it to Gnarl, Jessica and her sister. The presentation had pictures. And minions carrying new panels in from the left, or sometimes flipping a board over. And most vitally, the plan had a map.

It had been remarkably convenient how when she had poured over maps of the palace, she had discovered that the path from the deep dungeon where the mirror was located led right past one of the royal treasure vaults. Sadly, the mirror was not located in the treasury. That would have been too easy. But royal families were, after all, very fond of keeping their hidden secrets underground – oh boy, was she not looking forwards to the bit where she had to go through an old torture chamber – and when the princess was being kept in the tallest tower there really were not many alternatives.

"Are you sure your thing will work?" she asked Jessica, as the other girl fussed over the set of her surcoat-robe.

"Of course it will," Jessica said dismissively, adjusting one of the buckles and then giving it a polish with the hem of her top. Which was, Louise noted, another one of her strange black buttonless shirts, this time with the words 'Kidnap the Princess! Rule the World!' emblazoned on it in burning letters. Attempts to ask what on earth Jessica was wearing had merely produced the answer that she had made it to support the endeavour and show team spirit. Louise was somewhat concerned that Jessica was showing things to spirits, but then again, she was half-devil. Obviously wicked spirits like that would be allowed to talk to other such beings – it would be just silly otherwise. "It's very old demonic magic. Very reliable at getting through things like walls and impregnable doors."

"I just don't trust it," Louise insisted.

"Look, it'll work fine. It's a well-known alchemical product. Dragon's breath, a pinch of the screams of a neverborn child, finely powdered aluminium, three cups of blood from imps, bitumen, black gold, wax, a few hundred kilograms of ammonium nitrate, a handful of basalt from the depths of the Abyss, and the skull of a traitor. Though in a pinch, most of those aren't even needed."

"Well… fine," the overlady said cautiously.

"Just stay far away. It's a powerful magic and may explode you to itty bitty pieces. Call me when you get to the vault and want it sent to you. And, uh… and keep it away from fire. Really."

"I understand," Louise said. She understood all about explosions and itty bitty pieces. "Let's run over the checklist again. Minions armed and armoured, Cattleya in position, the demonic anti-treasury-door magic ready to be brought through once the path to it is clear." She took a breath. "I have a thirty minute window of opportunity, while everyone is at the midday services to celebrate the first day of spring and the mages who have just summoned their familiars. In that time, I have to get in, get to the treasury, empty it, get to the highest tower, re… kidnap Henrietta, and then get out of there. Yes, I'm tense! I'm working to a deadline here!"

She felt Jessica put a cloth bag in her hand. "What's this?" she asked, opening it and looking at the yellow-glowing crystals within.

"Oh, well," Jessica grinned sheepishly. "They started as windstones, but then I got my hands on them. Now they're soulstones; each one has the life essence of a beetle bound inside."

"… uh. Thank you?" Louise said, trying not to make it sound like a question and failing.

"You should be able to tap them for magic, or… uh, well, if you find anything in the treasury which needs souls to activate, you should be able to use them instead of having to feed minions to the machinery."

"Thank you," Louise said again, privately vowing to avoid having to use them unless she really had to. Mind you, they were only beetle souls… but still! If she started casually doing that, who knew where she might end up? She took a deep breath, and stepped back, striking a pose. "How do I look?"

Jessica clapped her hands together gleefully. "Wonderful!" she said. "It's just so gloriously malevolent! Remember to get seen on the way out, so we can get a picture for the journals; if you don't manage, I'll be watching on the crystal ball to get sketches, but they'll be worth less to the journals. They'll say we staged them or went to a drawing shop to change the details; it just isn't as real if the sketches aren't coming from the victims!"

"Well," Louise said, picking up her helmet, and letting the illusion on her glowing eyes fall. Her hair was bound up into a tightly coiled ponytail; Jessica had applied lip paint, and as she slipped the helmet on she felt that there was no going back from this. "Here goes… everything, I suppose. By the end of today, Princess Henrietta should be in my hands."

"Next year in Los Diablos!" Jessica cheered with a whoop.

Louise sighed. "You know, the princess and I were childhood playmates," she said. "Obviously, she couldn't be playing with even members of the middle nobility, let alone poor people, and I'm only a year younger than her and back then, my parents used to spend a lot more time in the capital. We used to get in so much trouble, and she had all these wonderful ideas which were so much fun. But… oh, I wonder how much she's changed? How much I've changed?"

"It'll go fine," Jessica said confidently.

"And let's just hope I don't need my insurance policy," Louise said darkly. "And that she remembers that she's an insurance policy. And doesn't, you know, get distracted and start picking off guards."

In the belfry, Louise's insurance policy hung upside down by her feet, and idly considered picking off guards. Then she remembered she wasn't meant to be doing that, and got back to her reading. She had been so clever to load her coffin – which now resided hidden on a rooftop – up with books. It meant she had something to do while waiting. This one was really interesting; she had borrowed it from Jessica, and it was all about some mages going to school and secretly worshipping demons and trying to kill a Dark Lord who was an evil dead vole or something, Cattleya wasn't quite sure what was going on there, but she certainly wanted to keep reading. And it was long past her bedtime; it was almost midday! Her body was telling her it should have been asleep almost six hours ago.

She beat it down. It was not in full possession of the facts. And was also a horrific dead monster which burned in the sunlight.

Cattleya really did hate her role in the plan. Yes, it was true that she was the only one of her sister's allies who could be dropped out of a windship in a coffin over the palace, and sneakily sneak into the place, to get up to the belltower at the dome of the main building. The whole place was just littered with holy symbols and wardings against the undead and other such mean horrible things, but luckily she had had a minion with her. And while holy symbols made of blessed silver could technically turn a minion, what they turned them to was 'prying the holy symbol from the wall and looting it'.

They were so useful! And so adorable!

"What was that noise?" Louise asked suspiciously.

"What noise?" Maggat asked, hands behind his back and whistling an innocent tune. "Oh, you mean the screamy noise?"

"Yes," the overlady said crisply, "I meant the 'screamy' noise. Which was a scream."

"Ah." Maggat nodded solidly. "I think it probably torture chamber where people who say rude things about council go. That what this kinda place have, you know. Forgemistress say the one here place six in top ten torture chambers competition in her Abyssy journal."

"Well, they are my hated foes," Louise said slowly. "Fine. We can't stop for rests."

"No, we gots to get the shiny loot and the princess loot," Maxy interjected, having finished flailing his hands at Igni and Fettid who were stuffing a corpse into a barrel. "No time for wastingness."

Time to think about happier stuff! Ooh! Like how she really liked her new outfit, which was much more useful for this kind of sneaky thing! And it was still in that tasty shade of red, so that was just peachy! It was so useful that she still had the unicorn, no matter what her sister had said.

Yes, her sister had turned almost the same shade when she had first seen it, but Cattleya felt Louise was sometimes a bit young in some ways. It was perfectly decent for a proper lady to dress appropriately for the situation, and it wasn't as if she was showing any flesh. In fact, she was specifically not exposing anything, because the job of all this red-dyed leather and the darkened glass lenses and armoured quick-release feeding section on the mouth was to avoid exposing her to any sunlight. And so she could go around and do things in the day, and as long as she kept out of direct sunlight and didn't fall asleep she even had her powers!

Jessica was really really clever about such things! And so cute when she was being enthusiastic. And that thing she had worn on her trip with Louise looked really good in red, especially when Cattleya was slimmer than she was. The vampire turned another page, and tried not to look at all the scary scary fireworks which she had secreted around the bellfry.

"I mustn't run away," she whispered to herself. Wait, no. Not run away. That wasn't what she needed not to do – though she did need to not do that, because it was daylight outside and running away would get her burnt. That was really, really scary and no wonder she was tense.

Ah! Yes! She wasn't meant to tear anyone's throats out. Or 'do anything else which is like tearing throats out, even if technically their throat is still intact'. Louise had been very specific about that.

Her sister was so mean sometimes. Even if she was right. She really shouldn't do it. It would be bad for their reputations as good people if they killed lots of guards rescuing the princess. But wait. It would be bad for their reputations as bad people if they killed lots of guards when they kidnapped the princess. How on Earth was she meant to tell those two things apart! It was all so confusing!

Oh yes, her sister had explained to her that she wasn't meant to kill people. So she wouldn't. Because her little sister got the whole planning thing much easier, and also wasn't a cursed queen of the night driven to feed off the living yet never know the kiss of the rays of the sun. Which, Cattleya knew full well, somewhat affected her judgement.

Hopefully she wouldn't have to play around with horrible fire at all, but sometimes her sister's plans didn't work exactly like she might have wanted them to, so it was best to be safe.

"Countess, I'm at the entrance to the vault now!" her sister's voice came in. "Any attempts to raise the alarm?"

"Nope," Cattleya answered. "Some patrolling guards, but nothing out of the ordinary. I can see the parade through the streets! It's really, really good to see daylight again, even if this dark glass is in the way!"

"Fine. Keep an eye out. And don't kill anyone. It's been very quiet at my end too; only a few guards, and I locked them in a cell and then dropped the key down some stairs, so they're going to need an earth mage to get them out. Overlady continuing with her mission." A pause. "Also, don't kill anyone, Catt."

It was so very mean how her sister didn't trust her, Cattleya thought sadly, before turning another page of her book. She'd already told her that.

Louise sighed, and cut the spell from the gauntlet. She was very afraid her big sister was going to lose control and kill someone, but… no, she should trust her. And as long as Louise didn't accidentally raise the alarm, Cattleya could stay up there until nightfall, and then sneak out on a cart to get over the Senne and get to one of the relays which would get her home.

As long as nothing went horribly wrong.

"Ahem. My overlady," Gnarl said to her. "I have something you might wish to hear."

"What is it Gnarl?" she asked.

"Your wickedness, I have discovered something of interest. I enquired after a precise list of the prisoners in the basement. They're mostly a pathetic lot, with no real skills. Quite a few enemies of the duc de Richelieu, some petty traitors. Almost no one with any real skills who you might be able to recruit – most of them have apparently been moved to secret prisons run by the duc. But there is one person; Foquet of the Ruined Tower, the infamous thief, is a prisoner here and has been since the praised Hero Guiche de Gramont caught her. If you were to spring her from jail, you may be able to recruit her to your cause. And we might at the very least find out what she did with some of the artefacts she stole from the bloody vampire who was your predecessor!"

Louise pursed her lips. "That would leave no time in the schedule," she said, flatly.

"Yes, overlady. You will need to balance the increased risk against the aid you might get from such a famous thief, if you can get her on your side."

The overlady took a deep breath. Contemplated the odds. "We stick to the plan," she said. "I'm not going to risk screwing this up because I got greedy. Princess Henrietta is my objective; I'm not going to risk failing in that."

"As you wish, your wickedness. After all, aren't a princess and the contents of a treasure vault enough of a prize?"

Louise nodded. "Hurry up and get those things in place!" she ordered. She needed to have the things which would break the door to the vault in place first before she went up to Princess Henrietta, because setting them off would be loud, but she wanted to be ready. One of her reserve plans, if things went topsy turvy, was to set off the demonic explosives while escaping from another exit, thus providing a handy distraction.

She watched in satisfaction as browns moved some of the last crates into place. "Does that look right?" she asked Jessica through the Gauntlet.

"Yep! Primed and ready."

"Overlady!" Scyl said, bouncing up and down enthusiastically.

"No, you cannot set off the explosives now," Louise snapped automatically.

"No, no, I not ask that like reds," the blue-skinned minion said calmly. "What I think is we not need boomy to get through door."

"Oh really?" Louise said, resorting to sarcasm against the minion, which was sadly much like trying to blind a human by shining radio waves in his eyes. "And I assume we will just walk on through, then?"

"Yes. We just walk through giant metal door."

Beneath her helmet, one eye twitched.

"Because it not locked. See!" Scyl said, pushing the door.

Louise opened her mouth. Louise closed her mouth. Louise opened her mouth again. "Oh, you have to be f… flipping kidding me," she managed, staring at how it was now ajar. She boggled. This clearly had to be a trap. "Minions!" she snapped, "go open the door." Then she ducked around a solid stone corridor.

There failed to be fire. Lightning was likewise absent. Nothing whatsoever sent forth even the meanest breeze of a flesh-flensing wind to scourge the corridor of life. And as for the paucity of poison or the inadequate lack of imprisoning ice… well, there was something in Louise which was left feeling vaguely cheated. Though not cheated enough not to step through the door, after carefully checking that minions had trodden on all the paving slabs she stepped on.

It was… emptier than she might have expected. She could say that not only because she had certain expectations for what should be in one of the royal treasure vaults, but also more critically there were unfaded marks on the walls which clearly should have had things there.

Under her helmet, Louise pouted. That was very unfair! Someone had clearly half-emptied out this treasure vault already, and they weren't doing it for a fundamentally righteous cause like she was! That could not stand!

Still, there were some things left. "Empty it out!" she ordered her minions, drifting over towards a delicate glass cabinet which was protecting a single book. Goodness. That must have been the royal family's copy of the Founder's Prayer Book, one ancient artefact which had allegedly belonged to the Founder himself. Oh, certainly, heretics – or at least Gallians, Albionese, Romalians, Iberians, Germanians and quite a few other nations – argued that this wasn't the real prayer book and that the claimants had it, but that was ridiculous. She knew they were flawed by the way they weren't Tristainian, but that was no reason to be quite so dense.

It was ancient beyond belief, and incredibly holy. There was no way it should be left in the hands of the Council. She should take it, and make sure she gave it to Princess Henrietta, who could keep it safe.

Though she would need to be subtle about this.

Fettid leapt onto the glass, stabbed it repeatedly, and then ran off tittering like a child in a sweet shop.

… that also worked, Louise had to agree, picking it up in her left hand. Yes, it was the famed blank prayer book of the Royals; she would need to keep this safe.

"Overlady!" Igni said cheerfully, now wearing a beaked knight's helmet on top of his head, the armour having failed to get over his horns, "I find ring! Precious! For you!"

Louise took the ring.

How many hands has she known over the countless years? A hundred? A thousand? She lost count long ago. So many hands. All different. Some brutish and gnarled, some delicate and cruel, a few entirely missing and so she ended up fused to the stump. She never liked those ones. It always felt rather like cheating.

"Tyrant!" she hears. "Today is the day you die!"

Yes, they always say that, don't they? Or things of that ilk. Countless repetitions have worn thin any novelty. If only that sort would be more imaginative in their challenges. Oh, boo hoo hoo, you burned down my village, killed my parents and used their life energy to make more minions. Cry some more, big baby. And the worst thing is how they never even specify which village it was. It's really thoughtless of them!

Ah, but this was one of the earlier ones, wasn't it? Was it?

"Fiend! You'll pay for what you did to the dragons! And the dwarves! And the halflings! And the northern elves! And all those innocent baby seals. And…"

Her master chuckles. "Please, if you start listing everyone I've wiped out, you loud-mouthed halfling, you'll be here until you die."

A blur of motion. She is flung out imperiously, and she moans in joy as the dark energy courses through her.

"Well, I say 'halfling', but she's really more of a quarterling now," her master says drily. "Oh, I'm sorry? Was I meant to hold off the killing spells while I waited for you to finish posturing? Incidentally, the elf with the bow might want to get ready to cast his charming little Counter spell, because I could do it any moment like… now!"

She is thrown out imperiously again, but the energy which passes through her is weak, pathetic, shaky. A feint. She hears a thunderous detonation, and something warm and wet hits her.

"Goodness gracious me. It's almost like the Firstborn filth among you can't trust the spirits in my territory. You think to draw upon them? To have them protect you? From me, when I let them suckle on the power I give freely to them and ask nothing in return? Ha ha. And… oh, my."

She feels the pulsing shudder of her master's laughter, and hears the scream and the tearing of flesh.

"Oh dearie, dearie me. And there goes the dwarf. Looks like someone drank from the Fountain of Immortality outside. It does exactly what it says, you know; his flesh is now immortal – and reproducing out of control. You fools – I never thought anyone would actually fall for that. Who do you think will die next? The other elf, who doesn't have a drop of magic to use which doesn't rely on calling on my spirits? I offered you a peace treaty, Sasha; you could have said yes, and bought a hundred years or so while I finished wiping out the dwarves. Maybe the dragon, who's already dying from the toxins ravaging his system? Or your little pet Markay wizard? I wonder how all his brains would look on the outside?"

She is raised into the air, and she lets out her cry.

"Why, I think I'll just swarm you with minions."

Louise put down the ring, hands shaking. Or, rather, she put down the golden band. The gemstone had vanished from it, and now adorned the back of the gauntlet of her left hand, over one of the knuckles. And that was very suspicious in its own right, because she had picked the ring up with her right hand.

She raised the gauntlet, staring at the back of her hand. The world felt detached, strange, and almost dreamlike. She looked at the prayer book held in her gauntleted hand, and her eyes widened. It was no longer blank!

"Foreword," Louise read. "Henceforth, I shall record the truth I know. All materials in the world are comprised of fine grains. The four branches intervene with these fine grains and apply an influence, which tr…" and that was where the words she could read ended. After that, there was a scrawl of evil burning malevolent runes over the top of the original words. She could see the occasional bits under the new text, but she couldn't follow the flow.

And it was a completely different language of evil burning malevolent runes than the one she could read! The characters were completely different! Was the later text in another hand, or the same one?

She couldn't tell.

And she needed to focus on the here and now! She did the strange hand gesture to transport the prayer book back to her treasury. The minions, for their part, were very efficient, prompt, and punctual at stripping the entire room bare. She would have called them locusts, but a plague of locusts had nothing on a gaggle of minions who were presented with shiny things. She sent some carrying the contents of the treasure vault back to the mirror through which she had entered, and issued dire threats about how they were not to get distracted and how their sole duty was getting all her new loot back.

Attended by the remaining – and almost all better-equipped – minions, Louise set back off, climbing out of the dungeons. She was already behind her initial plan, because that had assumed that she would pillage the vault after she kidna… wait, no, rescued the princess. So she had to move quickly.

By the time she reached the top of the tower Henrietta was confined in, her legs were aching. Full armour was not meant for this kind of thing! Some of her minions had also acquired elements of maid outfits, from innocent maids along the way, though Louise had been very strict about not killing them. Still, she was feeling somewhat guilty about all the underdressed maids now occupying closets and doors which had been locked before minions happened.

"Overlady!" Fettid whispered, a maidly headdress taken from a dark-haired girl now occupying her head. "There are a woman in front of the door you is wanting to go to. She is having many shineys on her head."

Louise blinked, her mind whirring. "The queen?" she whispered to herself, looking around wildly. Opening the nearest door, she pointed a finger. "Everyone in!" she hissed; for once, they obeyed. Stepping through herself, she hushed the minions, listening as hard as she could. She could just about hear the voices.

"… I am giving you yet another chance, you spoiled brat! All you need to do is confess your wicked sins to Lord and Founder in public, at the ceremony! I am already late for it because of you! If you just beg for forgiveness for your slatternly ways, I will let you out of here!"

"No, mother," she heard, faintly.

"That… you little chit! If your father was alive, who knows what he'd say! Well, you can stay in here! You shameless little brat!"

Louise heard the stomp of the queen past the room, and her heart nearly stopped when her monarch stopped and sniffed. "What is that stench?" she heard the other woman ask. "What do the maids think they're doing?"

The overlady could breathe again when the queen passed, although not too deeply because she was occupying a room full of minions. Letting herself out after a suitable wait, she gulped down cleaner air, and snuck up to the princess' door.

There was a thump almost exactly like someone had kicked a pillow at the wall. "Stupid hypocritical horrible worthless hag!" she heard her princess, her friend hiss harshly. "I… I'm never going to… to publically embarrass myself for… for daring to love someone! Oh, I know all about the stories about you! Okay, Henrietta, Henrietta, calm down. Stay calm. She's just saying it to hurt you because… because she's a hag. Don't listen to her!"

Louise felt her chest flutter, and swallowed deeply. This was it.

Nine months of necessary evil had gone into this moment, and now that it was upon her, she felt sick. Heart a beating drum within her chest, Louise de la Vallière crept up to the slot in the door, and peered through the bars at the princess.