Well, this was certainly a tricky situation. Her Supreme Majesty about to arrive in town, and neither he and his guards nor the town itself were properly prepared for the occasion. That was stressful enough. But now Alex had to deal with this … person too. What was she? An impostor? A double? The Queen Herself, travelling in disguise? Or just an ordinary traveller who happened to look like the Queen? Maybe she was an hallucination, caused by the panic in his mind. Or a divine apparition – she was right outside the Scarlet Temple, after all.
“If you don’t mind me asking… I know it must seem a strange question, but what’s the name of this town?” Repeated the girl in white, “I’m very lost, you see…”
Alex realised he’d been staring into space for a few moments… Well whatever the explanation he wasn’t going to solve anything just by standing there. Give the woman an answer!
“This is Vermillion, Miss, and I’m in charge of the town guards, my name’s Captain Alexander. Have you been here before? Perhaps on your way to the city of Rufus, in the North?”
“I don’t think so… I don’t know… I really have no idea. I was in those caves such a long time… it was so dark and…” She was clearly upset by whatever had happened; her eyes were cast down to the ground and her slender fingers gripped tightly the gold key that hung on a chain around her neck.
A bizarre story. Alex didn’t know of any major cave systems in the area. Yet the girl seemed sincere, her eyes were frightened, confused and lost. A traveller with amnesia? Perhaps she’d been attacked in the forest.
Pitying this frail and timid girl, Alex put his hand on her shoulder “Well, let’s find you somewhere to stay the night, eh? Maybe you’ll remember a bit more in the morning. And we most certainly must find you some proper clothes, you really can’t be seen in that white dress once Her Most Superior Majesty arrives.”
Damn… he wasn’t supposed to announce Her arrival to the people until the last moment. But this poor lost soul didn’t seem much of a threat. It would be a relief to tell someone, anyway…
“Yes. Don’t tell anyone else, but we are expecting, very soon, the arrival of our glorious Queen Risque! Isn’t that a fantastic honour? You’ve certainly come to Vermillion at the right time – this is the most exciting thing that’s happened here in years!”
Alex rubbed his forehead and sighed. The poor girl must have lost nearly all her memories. Queen Risque had ruled the kingdom all his life, as long as anyone could remember, never ageing – the proof of her divinity – and her cult was central to the lives of Her minions and subjects throughout the kingdom. To forget Her was to forget everything.
“I can’t face her. Not yet. I’m not strong enough.”
“Ahh, so you’ve not forgotten quite everything then!” Alex smiled, trying to cheer up the melancholy young lady. “Don’t worry, none of us are strong enough to face the Dark Queen! And why would we want to, when She rules over us so generously, bestowing Her gifts of pain and pleasure? I saw Her once before, you know, when I went to Scarlet Palace to swear my oath of loyalty. I wasn’t close, but I could see Her. One of the proudest days of my life! Anyway, when She arrives just kneel down and copy everyone else, you’ll be fine.”
“No, please… I must get away from here before she comes, I’m not… I can’t…”
“Alright then, if you insist. But let’s find you a coat first, at least. You must be freezing.” The girl was too pretty and too naive to let her wander into the forest alone like that. So they went to the market and found a red cloak. It would keep her warm and present a more respectable image than that white dress. While Alex was talking to the market trader, the girl looked up at the temple, astonished.
“That is where you worship?”
“Yes, of course, we all go there to pay our respects to Her Dark Majesty. Vermillion’s not an important town but we have a splendid statue of the Goddess Risque at the temple! Actually you’ll be surprised – you look a lot like Her!”
“Thank you so much for your help, Captain Alexander” she replied, changing the subject hastily. “I really must be on my way to… ummm… Rufus. I think that name sounds familiar. It’s to the North, did you say?”
“That’s right! I’m glad you’re starting to remember now. If you pass Vermillion again on your way back, do stop and let me know if your memory has come back. Be careful in the forest, keep away from the Knights.”
“Knights?” Her eyes lit up at the mention of that word.
“Yes, the Knights, that’s what they call themselves. Technically they are a criminal organisation, but they’re mostly harmless if you ask me… deluded fools, they believe the old legends about Princess Cheryl, that one day she will return and bring an end to Queen Risque’s rule. Well we wouldn’t want that, would we!? So we go out of the town walls to attack them once in a while and drive them away. So that all of Her Majesty’s loyal minions and subjects can serve and worship Her obediently in peace!”
(“Attack” had been an exaggeration. Alex and the other minion guards went out into the forest every time they received fresh reports of the Knights’ camping in the woods near Vermillion. They marched around noisily, waving their scarlet banners and beating their drums, hoping the knights would move on once they heard them approach. Usually the plan worked, and the two groups rarely clashed. “We don’t really want to fight them and they don’t really want to fight us. But we have our commands, and they have their beliefs, so… the show must go on!” As Alex had justified the strategy to his troops.)
“I see,” the girl smiled at last, “don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be safe!”
“Good luck then, Miss… umm?”
“Cheryl” she grinned, as she turned away and danced into the forest.