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s. morgenstern's classic tale

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Once upon a time, there were two girls who lived a quaint life on a farm. One of them was a worker, and the other was a piece of work.

"Farm girl!" Chloe cried, without shifting her gaze from the ceiling. She was leaning back in her chair, idly eyeing the pitcher hanging from the roof. "Come here and get this pitcher down for me."

The door banged twice to let the farm girl in. Her dark brown hair was setting itself free from its ponytail in flyaway wisps, and there was a smudge of something worryingly like manure on her pale cheek. She looked annoyed, which Chloe had decided long ago was a fetching expression on her. "I have a name, mistress," she said, swiping hair out of her face and looking up to the ceiling as well. "And you know you could reach that way more easily than I could."

Even though Chloe knew, of course, that the farm girl would just do it anyway, she leaned back in her chair a little more, because she liked feeling difficult about it. "Maybe," she said smugly. "But I'm sitting down, and I don't want to. Meanwhile, you're standing up, and besides that, you're beneath me. So you have to do what I say."

Grumbling, the farm girl dragged over a chair with her foot. "Yeah, yeah," she said, stepping up and hooking the pitcher with her index finger. "As you wish."

Dropping it, none too gently, in front of Chloe, Farm Girl stepped down, gave a sweeping bow just this side of sarcastic, and headed for the door again.

"Excuse me?" Chloe called, still without moving an inch. "I don't intend to just sit here and look at it. Pour some water for me, farm girl."

Farm Girl did an about-face, marched back, and snatched the pitcher. "I do have other duties on this farm, you know, working for your family," she said, stalking across the room and sloshing water into the pitcher. "But, don't you worry about that." She came back marching like a militant, slammed down the pitcher, and poured a glass without breaking eye contact with Chloe once. "As you wish, mistress."

There was still shit on her cheek. Chloe licked her lips. She'd forgotten to keep tilting her chair back, and it fell forward to rest on four legs, amplifying to the already-present swoop in her stomach. The farm girl was leaning across the table now to hand her the glass, and she was very close and her eyes were very beautiful.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?" the farm girl asked, and she wasn't smiling but there is a strange light in her eyes. "Mistress?"

Chloe opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Keeping their eyes locked, she reached for the glass, and took a sip.

The farm girl was far too mysterious for a farm girl, in Chloe's opinion. She gave Chloe a look that could be something like satisfaction, or derision, nodded, and heads for the door again. "Okay then."

After trying very hard to resist the urge to say anything else (because then Farm Girl wins, and she shouldn't win, she rolls around with pigs and Chloe is above that and above her), Chloe, against better judgment, called out, "Farm girl!"

The sound of the door swinging open paused, but then stayed where it was. "I actually do have a name, mistress," the girl repeated, firmly. Then, "And other chores I need to be doing."

Chloe swallowed. Her throat was dry, and the water wasn't helping. "Max," she said tentatively.

The sound of footsteps came pattering, slowly, back to her, and when Max reappeared she was smiling. It was a grossly romantic idea, and very much unlike Chloe, but when she saw that smile she thought that Max could outshine the sun and moon and whatever great light she chose, if she wanted to.

Horrified at the thought, Chloe quickly molded the thought into one of irritation, annoyed that the farm girl was far too pretty to be a farm girl and should learn her place, and said, "Yes. Okay. When you're done with the daily chores, would you bring some fresh flowers by my room? The old ones are off color."

Max glanced out the window, where an array of flowers were swaying in the breeze and begging to be plucked. "I can do that for you now, mistress," she said.

"Later," Chloe said sharply, then regretted it. Thankfully, Max didn't flinch. She just shrugged, and smiled with one side of her mouth.

"As you wish," she said, and for a moment Chloe was sure she was going to say something else. Then she was gone, farm door banging three times behind her.

Here is the point in the story where Chloe realizes she's in love with the farm girl, and becomes very distraught about it.

| | |

It was six hours before Max came by Chloe's room with the flowers, which was, in Chloe's mind, entirely too long and still not even close to long enough. Chloe spent most of the time waiting for her pacing around her room, and a little bit of it punching her wall. By the time Max rapped on the door, there was a noticeable dent.

Chloe threw the door open so hard it made a very loud crack, winced, and then said, "Listen, I'm in love with you."

Max blinked. The flowers in her hand were lovely, a splurge of reds and whites and yellows, but Chloe barely glanced at them, focused entirely on Max's face. "Um," Max said, and blinked again. "What?"

Letting out a long sigh, Chloe kept one hand on the door, and put the other on her hip. "Okay, I'll say it again, but only because I'm so irritatingly in love with you I'd probably do anything you asked. I love you. I realized I was in love with you about six hours ago, but I actually think I've loved you a lot longer than six hours, just without realizing. Now that I have realized, though, it keeps getting worse, like, exponentially worse. Don't ask me to explain why, because it's not like I know, but the point is I'm devastatingly in love with you and I need to know if you love me back."

Only once in her life had Chloe ever cracked a whip at one of the horses at the farm, and she'd sworn never to do it again because of the look of raw shock and terror in its large eyes. That's the same look gracing Max's face now, her cheeks pale and eyes wide, flowers still clutched in one hand.

Then she shoved them at Chloe, and slammed the door shut, without a word.

Without a word!

An hour passed, and Chloe stood exactly where she was for the entirety of it, positively humiliated and unsure of how to proceed. Hopefully Max would just pretend it had never happened, and she could pretend it never happened, and go back to bossing her around. It would be easy, Chloe thought, to go back to how things had been with Max, if she just ignored the fact that she was agonizingly in love with her.

She'd decided, with finality, to act as though it had been a practical joke, just as there was another rap on her door. It was the farm girl's knock, rap-tap-rap-tap-tap.

When she opened the door, Max's hair had been retied resolutely into a tight ponytail, and there was a bag slung over one shoulder. She had changed out of her mud-stained work clothes into a white, billow-sleeved shirt and a pair of brisk khaki pants. "I'm leaving, Chloe," she said.

Even though this was the worst thing that had ever happened in Chloe's life, it was still the first time Max had ever said her name, and it gave her a little shiver. "Max," she said, uncertain of how to act, to reverse rather than halt. "Is this about what I said?"

"Yes," Max said. All firmness, no hesitation.

Chloe's heart sank. So not only did she not love her back, she must absolutely despise her. "W-well," she said, and went to lean casually against the door. It opened a little wider, and she stumbled. "You know, I thought you might be a little surprised, but I didn't think you'd be so stupid as to take me this seriously."

Max didn't say anything. Just watched her, still-faced.

"It was a joke," Chloe said, now a little desperate. "Bad taste, I guess, but you definitely don't need to be so hard-assed about it, besides, if you leave here who'll take you? You're a farm girl, after all, and our farm girl, so I don't think-"

Max rolled her eyes, which was not a grand gesture but so classically Max that Chloe automatically closed her mouth. "Chloe, would you shut up? God, you drive me crazy."

In her entire life, Chloe had been told to shut up a lot of times, but never ever by Max. She gaped like a fish. "Excuse me?"

"I come here trying to be romantic," Max said, waving one hand in the air irritably, "after I pack all my things and prepare a whole speech and everything, and you keep going on and on and I can't get a word in! Typical!"

All Chloe had heard was the word romantic. "Uh- what?"

Sighing, Max looks at her through her lashes, her gaze burning but its direction a little shy. "If anyone's stupid, it's you," she said. "Why do you think I stayed on the farm all this time and let you boss me around? It definitely wasn't for the love of manual labor. Why do you think every time you said 'farm girl, do this' or 'farm girl, do that', I said 'as you wish' instead of 'shove it, mistress'? It's because you kept hearing 'as you wish' when I was really saying 'I love you'! You ass!"

This was a lot of words coming very fast, and Chloe's mind was moving too slowly to piece them together, as they kept getting stuck on the word love. "Max, I'm not sure I really-"

Max exhaled hard out of her nose, and looked up at Chloe through her fringe, childlike. "Look, unfortunately, the truth is that I love you and I'd do anything for you," she says. "That's just the way it is. But right now I can't do much of anything for you, because I'm poor and a farm girl and not special."

Finally, Chloe's brain clicked back into function. "I think you're special," she said fiercely. "I think you're the most special person I've ever met."

Even in the sad afterwards, Chloe was always glad she said that. Max's face curled into the most delicate, sweetest smile that had ever been smiled, and she made a move as if to glance down modestly, but couldn't bear to look away. "I think you're amazing, Chloe," she said. "And I really want us to be together. But I'm not the person I need to be yet. I'll go out and become someone worthy of you, I swear."

The truth was Max was already too good for her, but there was no way of convincing her of that. Tragically, Chloe loved Max's stubbornness as much as she loved the rest of her, which was exactly too much to bear. "Don't swear to be better," she said, and grabbed Max's free hand to clasp in both of hers. "Just swear to come back."

Smiling just a little crookedly, Max bent just slightly to kiss Chloe's fingers. "I swear I will come back to you," she said, in the secretive spaces between their shared knuckles. "If you swear to wait for me while I'm gone."

"Fair enough," Chloe said, squeezing Max's hand. "I swear I'll wait."

Max's crooked smile became a real one, and she gave a final kiss to the back of Chloe's hand, and made to untangle their hands.

"What?" Chloe said, offended, and tugged her back in, chest to chest. "Without a single kiss?"

Of course, there are many true loves throughout literature and life, and many great kisses. But out of all of them, this kiss was objectively the best kiss of all time.

One mark of how truly great it was- afterwards, the two of them remained together, foreheads leaning against one another, eyes closed and breathing like there would never be another sunset or another tide or anything that might move this moment forward.

"Goodbye," Max whispered.

Here is the point in the story where Max leaves Chloe forever.

| | |

So naturally there must come a point in the story where Chloe finds out Max has died.

Joyce, her mother, was the one who told her. After Max left, Chloe didn't go out much; she stayed in, and read books, and learned to ride horses like a master, because if Max was out somewhere in the world becoming better, then, goddammit, Chloe could stay home and become better too.

The whole ordeal was a very gentle affair, Joyce telling Chloe. She came into Chloe's room and gathered her in her arms, which she hadn't done since Chloe was six years old. Chloe's first instinct was to shove her away, but there was such a deeply sad look in Joyce's eyes that she paused.

"Mom, what is it?"

It was hard on Joyce to say so. Max had stayed on the farm for Chloe, but Joyce had kept her on the farm because she loved the farm girl as dearly as a daughter. "Sweetheart," she said, pressing her forehead against Chloe's temple, "Max's ship... it's been lost."

This was only two months after Max had set sail, so if it had been anything less fatal- being mistaken for a Sicilian ship and boarded, losing her passport- Chloe would have laughed. Typical farm girl behavior, botching the simplest things. Instead she said, "What do you mean, lost?"

Joyce closed her eyes. "It was overtaken by the pirate queen," she said. "The scourge of the seas, you know. They took the crew and sunk the boat, and- and-"

Everyone knew exactly what the pirate queen did to prisoners. You don't become the scourge of the seas, or the scourge of anything quite frankly, by being kindhearted.

"So she's dead," Chloe said flatly.

Biting her lip, Joyce nodded.

"Did she drown?" Chloe asked, her voice slightly higher but otherwise unaffected. "Did they throw her to sharks? Or was she stabbed? Would they want to hurt her badly or do you think they were quick about it because she wasn't an important passenger?"

Joyce barely had time to open her mouth, unsure to reprimand or comfort, before Chloe shook her head, hard, as if to clear it, then spoke again. "Sorry, I'm talking crazy. I guess it doesn't matter how it happened. Thanks for telling me."

She kissed her mother on the forehead, disentangled herself from the embrace, and went into the bathroom and locked the door. She stayed in there for six hours, which drove her mother nearly insane with worry, but came out for dinner as though nothing had happened.

There was no sign of tears or trauma. The only visible difference to her appearance was that all her long blonde hair was gone, chopped off carelessly and turned a morning blue. She nodded to her mother, sat down at the table, and began to eat.

"Honey," Joyce said uncertainly. "Are you all right?"

Swallowing her stew, Chloe looked up to meet her mother's eyes and nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said. "I'm just never going to love anyone again."

In her short life, Chloe had been called dramatic, by her mother specifically, a hundred and eighty-two times. This was by far the most dramatic thing she'd ever said, but for once Joyce didn't criticize, because it was true.

| | |

Three years to the day of Max's death at sea, four men rode up to the Price farm, all on white horses and all, in Chloe's opinion, dressed like douchebags.

"Oh my goodness," Joyce fluttered, hand to her chest. "It's the prince. Chloe! What have you done now?"

Gazing out the window with minimum interest, Chloe decided the prince was probably the pissy-looking, smallest one. "Nothing, Mom," she said. "You make the payments on the land?"

Joyce elbowed her. "Yes! Not that they've made it easy on me. Go on, go out there and find out what they want."

"What? Why me?"

"Just- go!" And with a flailing of knees and hands, Chloe was pushed out the door.

If she was the kind of person to worry about appearing indecent, she would've worried. Her shoulders and thighs were bare, damp with summer heat, and her hair was beginning to show yellow at the roots. However, she wasn't the type to worry. She threw an arm over her eyes to block the sun, and said, "Uh, hi? Your Highness."

The pissy one looked down at her, confirming her suspicion. "You're the Price girl?"

"That's me," Chloe said. "Not to be rude or anything, but why the fuck are you here? Your Highness."

The prince sat up on the horse, affronted, but the man beside him, wearing a monocle and an atrocious goatee, smiled. "Sorry if we startled you, Miss Price," he said. "You and your family aren't in any legal trouble. To be straightforward, Prince Nathan is looking for a wife amongst the commonfolk, and you were recommended by several sources."

Chloe could guess at the several sources, and they were probably all people she had flipped off at one time or another. If there was one person middle-aged women and entitled lordling kids hated more than Chloe, it was Prince Nathan, known throughout the land to be a money-grubbing, woman-hating ass of a man.

"What if I don't want to?" she said.

Prince Nathan's cheeks turned red with indignation. "You little bitch, you'll do what I tell you and you'll-"

Cutting across him smoothly, the man with the monocle said, "Of course, we cannot force your hand. But there will be rewards for your service. You will be rich, and the queen, pampered day and night and rolling in jewels." When Chloe's eyebrow didn't move from its skeptical tilt, looking between him and the still-bitching Nathan pointedly, the man added, "And of course, your mother needn't ever worry about land payments again."

At last, something appealing. Chloe looked up at the prince, and her lips twisted. "I can't love him," she said.

If it was possible, Prince Nathan's cheeks turned even redder, and he lost the ability to form words and just began to sputter with rage.

"That's quite all right," the man with the monocle said. "He can't love you either. I suppose that makes you a perfect couple."

Chloe winced at the thought of it, but then she looked back, and saw Joyce watching her nervously through the farm window. "You swear my mother and the farm will be taken care of if I say yes?"

The man with the monocle smiled, and gave a polite nod to Joyce inside the house. "All you need to do is say that you accept."

Of course, Chloe hated Prince Nathan and the Prescott reign as much as anyone, but she loved her mother more, and she couldn't bear to keep living on the farm with the memory of Max, scowling and laughing and smiling her sunlight smile. Besides, it was better to be in a loveless marriage than one where she would have to fake being in love all the time.

"I accept," she said.

The only one who was really pleased was the monocle man. "Excellent," he said. "I'll go speak with your mother, Princess Chloe. Highness?"

Grumbling, Nathan reached out a hand to Chloe, which she, grumbling, took. After about a minute of pulling, stumbling, and loud swearing on both ends, they were both on the horse, riding back towards the castle.

| | |

Two years to the day Chloe had accepted to marry Nathan and five years to when Max has been lost to sea, and the wedding was only two days away.

Princess lessons were insufferable, and it was becoming quite clear to everyone that Chloe was not going to be an excellent royal. She wouldn't be broken of her foul mouth, or her stubbornness, and all her satin and silk dresses ended up ripped within three hours of putting them on. The man with the monocle, who turned out to be named Count Jefferson, kept reassuring the nobles that it didn't matter if their princess was crass and blue-haired and bad-mannered; worse come to worst, she'd be kept out of sight.

Worst of all, she and Nathan had grown no fonder of each other than the day they had met. If possible, they hated each other even more. In Chloe's opinion and in truth, the Prescott castle was a richly dressed den of hatred and bitterness, and her only daily joy was getting out of it, even just for a while.

Chloe could still ride horses well, which was relief but only a small one. Riding made her think of Max, who she'd become good at it for. Also, the Prescotts forced her into a dress even when she rode, with ridiculous matching boots, so when she rode she had to think about them too.

She was struggling with her gown- a big fluffy blue thing, with sleeves too long to be reasonable- when a woman approached her horse.

"Hello, ma'am," the woman said. "Sorry for bothering you, but- are you the princess?"

Still fighting the dress, Chloe barely gave her a glance. "Yeah, but I don't do autographs or school functions of anyth-" Then she stopped, and looked again.

The woman tilted her head, long blonde hair cascading over one shoulder. She was the most beautiful person Chloe had ever seen since Max, bird-boned and fair-faced. (And in actuality, while Max was very pretty, the reader must take into account Chloe's bias, being in love and all. The truth was that this woman was simply the most beautiful woman alive, and was heralded by seven separate nations for it.) "So," the woman said, slowly and clearly, "you are the princess, then?"

"Yes," Chloe said, and finally managed to tear the excess cloth off her sleeves. "So-"

Smiling sunnily, the woman made some sort of gesture Chloe didn't understand. "Great!" she said. "We've been looking for you."

There was a sudden, sharp blow to the back of Chloe's head, and the woman vanished into blackness as quickly as a candle being blown out.

| | |

When she woke again, it was to the sound of people talking.

"- following us," said one voice. It sounded like it belonged to the beautiful woman from before.

Chloe's senses were still a little hazy, but she attempted to flex her wrists, then her feet. Both were bound together. She kept her eyes closed, and listened.

"It doesn't matter," said another voice. It was a second woman, but her tone was sharper and more precise than the first's. "Whoever they are, we've got the lead on them, and they'll never be able to follow us up the Cliffs of Insanity."

There was a low, masculine grunt. "Fuck. I was really hoping we wouldn't have to do the cliffs."

"Sorry, buddy," the first woman said sympathetically.

The Cliffs of Insanity were the border between Arcadia and the next country over, and given the rocking beneath her, Chloe figured they were a boat. She rolled over, as subtly as possible, towards the edge of the ship.

The second woman spoke again. "It's inconvenient, but we'll just have to get to the top, kill her, and then-"

Chloe rolled a little faster.

"Whoa," said the first woman. "Whoa. You never said we were going to kill the princess. You just said kidnap."

The man added, "Yeah, this wasn't in the contract."

"God, would you shut up!" the woman snapped. "It's not like two freaks like you have a lot of job offers, so I don't want to hear you complain about mine! Who else would hire a meth head the size of a house and a girl obsessed with beating the shit out of anyone who comes near her?"

As much as Chloe loved hearing strangers shit talk, she didn't love the prospect of her own impending death, so as stealthily as she could with bound hands and legs, she threw herself over the side of the boat.

And landed face-first in a sand bank.

"Ah, princess," said the second woman's voice from above her, then there was a whuff of air and a pair of polished leather boots had landed beside her. "I guess you're awake. Welcome to the Cliffs of Insanity."

Chloe rolled over, spat out a mouthful of seaweed and sand, and glared upwards. Standing just before the rising sun was another blonde woman, this one short-haired and sharper-faced than the first, with a face meant for smirking.

"So you're the one that's going to kill me?" she said, annoyed. "That's sad."

The smirk wavered just a bit, but it was victory enough. "It's going to be a group effort," the woman said, then snapped her fingers. "Frank! Carry her."

A man hopped off the ship behind her, heavily tattooed and visibly bad-tempered. "I'm not your dog," he said irritably, but scooped Chloe up over his shoulder anyway.

The beautiful woman Chloe had first met was still standing at the bow of the ship, hand shading her eyes as she squinted out into the distance. "Victoria," she said uncertainly, "the ship's still following us."

"Yes," the woman evidently named Victoria said patiently. "That's why we are leaving now. Get your bony ass off the ship and over her, you twig bitch."

Still looking concerned, the woman leapt off the ship and approached the other three by the wall. Victoria hooked herself to a loop in the man Frank's belt, and the beautiful woman wrapped her arms around his neck. Without much further ado, Frank began scaling a rope up the steep side of the Cliffs of Insanity, at frightening speed.

Balancing over the side of his shoulder and facing only the rocks below, it was undoubtedly the worst view Chloe had ever had in her life, and she'd walked in on naked Prescotts more than once.

"Listen, I'm really sorry about this," the beautiful woman said to Chloe, turning her head so that their eyes could meet. Even if she was one of Chloe's soon-to-be murderers, it was a relief to look anywhere but down. "Victoria didn't tell us we were going to kill you. I thought it was just a ransom job."

"Nah, I get it," Chloe said, because, after all, look what she'd done for money, and which was worse, killing someone or willingly marrying Prince Nathan? She honestly didn't know. "We all have bills to pay."

The beautiful woman gave her a smile. "You seem pretty cool, Princess Chloe," she said. "My name's Rachel, by the way."

"Amber!" Victoria snapped, from somewhere on Frank's other side. "Stop talking to the prisoner!"

Rolling her eyes, Rachel stuck her tongue out in Victoria's direction, and leaned closer to Chloe. Frank made a faint sound of discomfort as her arms tightened around his throat. "Listen," she said. "Not to wish myself badly or anything, but I've already been paid so who cares. There's someone down there following us. Maybe they'll save you."

Even though she really, really didn't want to, Chloe looked down again. There, on the quickly shrinking ground, was a second, smaller fishing boat landed beside the kidnappers', and on the rope beneath them, a slim black figure was pulling itself up, rapidly gaining distance.

Slim black figures, in Chloe's experience, were usually wild cards. Still, this was not the most stable situation she'd ever been in, and maybe she could use one.

"They're gaining on us, Frank!" Victoria snapped, worry beginning to creep into her clipped voice. "Go faster."

Frank kept going at the same speed. "Well," he said, his tone measured and tight. "Maybe it's because I'm carrying three people, and whoever's down there has only themselves to worry about."

"We're almost to the top anyway," Rachel said soothingly. "Frank, you're very talented at climbing."

"I don't need you to patronize at me," Frank said, but he sounded mollified.

Victoria was over the ledge first, and she pulled Chloe off Frank's shoulder and dumped her unceremoniously against a rock. Before waiting for Rachel to dismount or Frank to pull up, she ran over to the rope and began to cut at it.

It was almost entirely severed when Rachel managed to pull Frank onto the ledge. "Well," she said to Victoria, stretching her legs and helping Chloe move into a sitting position, "you certainly weren't very helpful."

"Shut up!" Victoria said, and the rope was broken, going tumbling over the side of the cliff.

Frank and Rachel went to look over the side. If Chloe had been offered the choice, she would've passed; human beings splattered like ants wasn't a sight she particularly enjoyed.

Then. "They're still there," Rachel said, sounding pleasantly surprised. "On the rocks." She paused, frowning. "I think it's a woman."

Victoria had been untying the ropes at Chloe's feet, and Chloe was going to deliver a really sound kick to her face when the news made her startle. She released Chloe's legs and stood up, dragging Chloe up with her, and went over to the cliff face. "What?"

The force of her grip made Chloe look over the side of the cliff with her, which was still unsettling but not as bad as it had been dangling from Frank's shoulder. Down the nearly flat side of the cliff, maybe three yards away, the figure in black was clinging to the rocks, pressed as close to the cliff as the vines around her.

Rachel was right. It was a woman. She was wearing an ensemble of a billowy black shirt and pair of pants, knee-high leather boots, and a black cloth tied around her eyes. Only pale skin and a mousy brown bob of hair colored her, and when she looked up at the four of them, her teeth were grit white against her face.

Maybe it was the weirdness of the whole day getting to her, but looking at the woman made Chloe shiver. Just a bit.

"It's fine," Victoria said, a little shakily. "There's no way she could climb the Cliffs without a rope. She'll hang there till she dies, or she'll fall."

As if she'd heard, the woman in black looked back down and faced the cliff wall again. Then, suddenly, she was a foot closer. Two feet. Four.

She wasn't even moving. Chloe couldn't see her jumping, or climbing, or even flying. It was as though the woman in black was teleporting her way up the cliff face.

"Frank," Victoria said, and now she was backing away, "carry the princess. We're leaving. Amber, you stay here, and when she gets to the top, kill her."

Tearing her eyes away from the cliffside, Rachel protested, "This is the second murder I didn't sign up for!"

"The third will be you, if you don't do exactly as I'm telling you," Victoria said, forcing Chloe back onto Frank's shoulder. "I'll be watching. Don't fuck up."

And then they were gone, tearing across the countryside.

Rachel looked over the side of the cliff again. The woman in black was two feet away. She knelt, and offered a hand down. "Here."

The woman in black gave her a skeptical look. "Uh," she said. "No offense, but I'm not sure I trust you to actually pull me up."

"Fair enough," Rachel said, and sat back. "I'll just wait then."

She didn't wait long. The woman in black rolled over the side of the cliff one minute later, panting and brushing dirt off her pant legs. She glanced at Rachel, who was still perched peacefully on the ground, and drew her sword.

"No, no, it's okay," Rachel said, waving her off. "Catch your breath."

The woman in black stared at her, then sheathed her sword again and sat down across from her. "Thank you," she said. She had a nice sort of voice, soft and with measured thought.

"But if you don't mind," Rachel said, "I don't have a sword. When you're ready, could we fight without?"

Fanning herself, the woman in black shrugged. "All right. I'm fine either way."

Rachel smiled to herself. Not that she wanted to kick the woman in black's ass so soon after introductions, but an assured victory felt good no matter who it was against. "I'm Rachel Amber, by the way," she said. "Nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you too," the woman in black said politely, without offering her own name. Then she stood. "Thank you for giving me time to rest, but I am in kind of a hurry so if you wouldn't mind."

Eagerly, Rachel got to her feet. "Look, I don't like to pick a lot of fights," she said, even as she lifted her fists.

The woman in black lifted hers. "Me neither, to be honest," she said.

Rachel smiled appreciatively. "But if we're being straight with one another," she said, "I am really good at fighting. Just a few years ago I was terrible, but now I'm excellent at it."

So she threw a punch at the woman in black, who dodged it so expertly it was as though she had been warned it was coming. "That was very good form," the woman in black said, and swept a kick out, low to the ground. Rachel only just managed to jump over it. "If you don't mind me asking, why would a woman like you train herself to become so deadly?"

"I could ask the same thing of you," Rachel said, and dove to roll behind the woman. Once she was back on her feet, she struck out at the soft point between black-swathed shoulderblades. "Tell me your reason and I'll tell you mine."

Even though Rachel was entirely out of sight and her movement completely peripheral, somehow the woman managed to duck and circle out of the strike again. "Fair enough," she said. "The truth is, I'm a woman of the sea. I once made a promise to become better than I was, and if anything makes you sharp, it's life on the water. Now I've come to settle some business I have with your princess."

"Ah," Rachel said. "Well, if you're looking to kill her, you shouldn't have come all this way. Apparently Victoria's been planning to do that all along. Without telling us, natural-"

She was struck in the cheek as she said so. A light blow, but an embarrassment nonetheless.

"My business with the princess is very personal," the woman in black said. "Still, thanks for your concern. Now, the reason for your talent is?"

It was a shame that Rachel had not been able to display much prowess, because really she was very good at fighting and she was beginning to suspect this wasn't a fair fight. "Well," she said, wiping the blood from her lips, "if you're so interested. There's a man out there somewhere who has a goatee and a monocle. He is a genuinely evil man, and I trained for a long time so that someday I can kill him for what he has done to me."

"I'm sorry to hear that," the woman in black said. She was not even fighting now, just circling, like a vulture, as though the kill strike was coming. It was a little offensive to Rachel's pride in her own ability; after all, only one hit's been put in and it wasn't even hers. "What'll you do when you find him?"

Since they were barely even fighting now, Rachel straightened up, and pressed one fist over her heart. "I will confront him," she said, "and I will say, hello. My name is Rachel Amber. You tortured and dishonored me. Prepare to die. Then I will kill him."

Putting her own fists down, the woman in black nodded, with unmistakable empathy. "Thanks for telling me this," she said. "Miss Amber, I really feel like we would be friends if we hadn't met under unfortunate circumstances. And if I find the man with a goatee and monocle before you, I promise he'll meet justice."

Rachel opened her mouth to thank her, and possibly agree, but suddenly the woman in black was gone. Gone, as though she had vanished into thin air.

The blow to the back of her head happened just as fast.

| | |

"She's back," Victoria breathed, and Chloe twisted over Frank's shoulder to look behind them. About nine hundred feet away, the woman in black was in pursuit again, looking none the worse for wear. In fact, she was doing her strange form of motion again; not quite running or jumping, but teleporting across the land, being in one place and then very suddenly in another.

Briefly, Chloe remembered something she'd heard whispered in the palace, her ear pressed against the door of Prince Nathan's chamber. Count Jefferson's voice murmuring about the pirate queen and her new, worrying ability to appear and disappear from place to place.

The pirate queen, the one who had killed Max.

"Give her to me," Victoria snapped, and then Frank was shoving Chloe off his shoulder and onto her feet, Victoria grabbing quick hold of her wrists before she could even think of running. "You stay here, stop her and catch up with us."

Despite being slouchy-eyed and gruff, Frank still managed to convey incredulity quite well. "You expect me to stop her? If Rachel couldn't handle her, we're toast."

Already hurrying away with Chloe in tow, Victoria rolled her eyes, tossing her head impressively to look back at him. "Are you high? You're twice her size! Just sit on her or something!"

Then they were gone, and the woman in black was standing in front of him.

She really was very small. "Hey," Frank said, and she nodded to him cautiously, one hand on her sword. "Just curious, did you kill Rachel? Because if you did, I'm going to be really mad. She's a great girl."

"I didn't kill her," the woman in black said. "Just knocked her out. She had a pretty good attitude about the whole thing, and I was kind of hoping you would too. I understand this is your job, but I really need catch up with the princess."

Frank shrugged. "I'm not that dedicated," he said, "but. Money's money, and it's not like I owe you anything either."

The women in black nodded, then took her hand off her sword and held it out in front of her instead. "Then, sorry about this," she said, and disappeared.

He didn't even have time to react before the woman in black's weight was thrown onto his back, her lean arms wrapping into a chokehold around his neck.

Trying to yell was difficult, so he bashed around against some rocks instead. Still the woman in black held steadfastly around his neck. "Don't... get it," he wheezed. "She's not... even married to... what's so special about... princess..."

Then he fell over, and was still.

The woman in black crawled off his back, checked his pulse, then stood back up. "She's more important than you understand," she told the unmoving body, and was off again.

| | |

Victoria had tied Chloe back up and laid out two wineglasses by the time the woman in black reached them. Chloe supposed if there were any decent time to get wasted, it would be now.

Apparently that wasn't what Victoria had in mind, though, because when the woman in black appeared she forgot all about the wine and stuck a knife under Chloe's throat.

Great. Just when she was thinking she might get out of this murder thing.

"Listen," Victoria said to the woman in black, knife sharp beneath Chloe's chin. "Those two chickenshits ahead of me weren't serious about this, but I am. One more step and I'll kill her."

The woman in black stopped. "You're last," she said slowly. "So I guess you must be best, then."

A little proudly, Victoria tossed her head. "Someone had to do the thinking, with those two buffoons around."

"I guess so," the woman in black said agreeably, and took another step forward.

The knife broke skin. Chloe inhaled sharply, felt a drop of blood roll down her throat. "You're killing her!" Victoria shouted.

Hands raised in appeasement, the woman in black froze. "So," she said. "I guess we need to negotiate."

"Obviously," Victoria sneered. "You've beaten Rachel and Frank, which means I'm no match for you physically, and naturally you're no match for my intellect."

Unsmiling, the woman in black raised an eyebrow. "You're that smart?"

"Certainly," Victoria said, lifting her chin. "The Chases are only the most knowledgable lineage in history."

The Chases were also asshats, if what Chloe overheard at council meeting was any indication, but there was still a knife under her throat so she didn't say anything.

"I guess it's down to a battle of wits, then," the woman in black said, and sat down across from them. She didn't look once at Chloe. Instead, she gestured to the wine glasses. "May I?"

Smugly, Victoria nodded. "Be my guest, cherie," she said, and offered them up. Pulling both glasses near her, the woman in black reached into her shirt and withdrew a vial full of white powder.

Cocaine, Chloe thought wildly, shit, this kidnapping has gotten crazy. Then the woman in black held it out to Victoria to sniff. "A poison from Asia," she said. "Dissolves instantly in liquid, colorless, and odorless. I'm going to put it in one glass, and it will be up to you to decide which one each of us will drink."

So she did. Chloe tried to peek, but she couldn't see over the woman in black's shoulder. After a moment, she turned back and placed a glass in front of each of them again. Victoria immediately held up the one placed in front of her, gazed into it, and gestured to the woman in black to do the same.

"This is your choice?" the woman in black said carefully, lifting her own.

"Clearly," Victoria said coolly. "Now drink."

Chloe tried to watch both of them at once, but all she could tell is that they both at least took a sip. The woman in black put her glass down, and wiped at her mouth delicately with one gloved hand. "You're very smart, Miss Chase."

"I know I am," Victoria said, and smirked. She was still smirking when she fell over unconscious.

The woman in black withdrew a knife, stepped over Victoria carelessly, and cut Chloe's bindings. Rubbing her wrists, Chloe glowered at the woman in black. "Great," she said bitterly. "So what are you going to do to me?"

Sheathing her knife, the woman in black shrugged. "I haven't decided yet," she said. "But the point is, you're mine now, Your Highness, and we're leaving."

She pulled Chloe to her feet, which only served to prove that Chloe was considerably taller than her, and rolled Victoria's body over so she was face-up. Chloe frowned down at the body. "How did you get her to do that?" she said. "Pick the wrong cup and kill herself?"

"She's not dead," the woman in black said, and pulled at Chloe's arm to start her into motion. "It was just a sleeping potion, but she wanted me dead so I said it was poison. How I got her to pick the wrong one is a secret."

And then they were running, the woman in black dragging her along the terrain.

| | |

After about an hour of running, the woman in black stopped, and sat Chloe down roughly against a stone. "Catch your breath," she said. Then, critically, "You're not in good shape, Highness."

Chloe glared up at her. "Well, excuse me," she said, "but I can't exactly go out on morning jogs, can I? I'm the princess."

"Oh, I'm very aware that you're the princess," the woman in black said sharply, without looking at her. She was surveying the landscape, eyes sharp.

More than just annoyed now, Chloe stood up and shoved at her. "And I know who you are," she said, shoving her again. This time her hand was slapped away. "You're the pirate queen."

This time the woman glanced at her, and from what Chloe could see of her expression, she seemed amused. "That's me," she said. "What can I do for you?"

"Die slowly and painfully," Chloe said venomously. So this really was the woman who'd killed Max. She didn't seem the type; small and lean and soft-voiced. But Chloe knew what she knew, and that was that Max was dead and her murderer was here, smiling. "You should've died a long time ago."

Now the pirate queen was studying her face. "Better a pirate than someone who lies about loving someone," she said softly.

Which was a strange tangent to go off of, but Chloe was still in defensive mode. "Prince Nathan knows I don't love him," she said. "As if anyone could."

That seemed to confuse the pirate queen for a moment, then she shook her head and was glaring again. "So you'd admit to a stranger you don't love your fiancé," she said, "and you'd still marry him?"

"It's none of your business why I'm marrying him," Chloe snapped. "Besides, look at what those three idiots did for money. What I'm doing is way more harmless."

"I guess you don't have much regard for love, then," spat the woman in black. "To throw the chance of it away for a life of riches."

Out of instinct rather than thought, Chloe's hand swung to strike her. Her wrist was caught as quickly as it moved, but still she spoke what she meant to accompany the blow. "Shut your fucking mouth," she hissed. "As if a pirate like you knows love better than I do."

The pirate queen's lips curled. "I think even the Prescotts know love better than you, Your Highness."

"Oh, fuck you," Chloe said, the words spilling easily out of her mouth. "The Prescotts can't even spell true love. But I had one. Better and truer than any you'll ever know, I'd put money on it. And don't you dare compare me to the Prescotts again."

Releasing her hand, the pirate queen stood up and began moving forward again, jerking her head to bring Chloe forward. "You're not in any position to command me," she said. "That time is long gone."

Before Chloe can guess at the meaning of that statement, the pirate queen continued speaking, hurriedly. "But, I have to know. Who was this great love? Another puffed-up prince?"

Max's name still stung in Chloe's mouth, but so did the injustice of being called unloving. "No chance in hell," she said, following a step behind her. "A farm girl. She was..." Even now, remembering Max hurt. "She was kind, and beautiful, and I didn't- I didn't deserve her."

The pirate queen paused in her movement, and Chloe waited for an apology. None came, and instead she was rounded on. "And where is this farm girl now? Abandoned for Prince Nathan?"

"She's dead!" Chloe yelled, never one for princessly composure. Honestly it was miraculous she had maintained it so long. "You were the one who killed her, you fucking bitch! She went out to sea and she never came back, and now I have to listen to you talk about her when you were the one who took her away from me!"

Behind the mask, the pirate queen's cheeks were turning red. "You swore you would wait for her, and you lied! How long after the day you heard she was dead did you get engaged? A week? Or a month out of respect to the dead?"

"I died that day!" Chloe screamed. And it was true, even though she had never said so before. Since that day she had felt very little of anything at all.

She would've told the pirate queen so, and more, about how Max smiled and how she laughed and how she swore to return and never did, and how Chloe no longer had a heart so it mattered very little who she married or where she slept. But at that moment, there was the sound of horns, from a distance a little too close to be safely called far away.

It made the pirate queen turn, away from her, to look at the cliff across from the one on which they stood. "Damn," she muttered. "Prescott again. He never lets up, does-"

But at this point Chloe was so tired, so tired of running and of being mocked and of being reminded of Max, that her arms moved of her own accord, and shoved the pirate queen off the cliff face. "You can die too for all I care," she said, not loudly, for she didn't care much if the pirate queen heard her either.

Then, even as the black-covered body was tumbling, ragdoll-like, down the cliff, her voice came floating up, sounding just as it had five years ago. "As... you... wiiiiiish..."

Here is the part of the story where Princess Chloe realizes she just threw her one true love over a cliff.

| | |

The scourge of the seas would not die so easily, of course, not after traveling thousands of miles, besting three out of three kidnappers, and finally being reunited with her one true love. Also, she was very good at tuck-and-rolling, which proved a useful skill when tumbling down a hill.

She had only just reached the bottom when she heard screeching just above her, and Chloe rolled to a halt beside her, very dirtied but otherwise none the worse for wear. She didn't have expertise in tuck-and-rolling like the pirate queen did, but she was very hardheaded, which was comparable.

Chloe, once landed, immediately sat up and turned to face the pirate queen. Her mask had fallen off somewhere in the tumble, and now she was very clearly Max, her hair shorter and lighter than it had been when she'd left, but her face the same mess of freckles and jutting bone it had always been. When her eyes met Chloe's, she smiled her light-shattering smile, and at the sight of it, the dormant heart in Chloe's chest began to move again, as if no time had passed. "I can't believe it's you," she breathed.

"I can't believe you threw yourself down the cliff after me," Max said ruefully, even though she was still smiling, and she sat up. "I guess you're still a moron."

She was only upright for three seconds, and then Chloe had knocked her back over, and they were kissing as though there was nothing else in the world but them.

"How-" Chloe managed, kissing her cheek and then her neck, "How are you here? I thought you were dead!"

Smug, Max kissed the top of her head and pushed them back up again. "Death cannot stop true love," she said. "Obviously." Then, more seriously, "Chloe, why didn't you wait for me?"

They were still together, still holding each other, so Chloe figured Max couldn't be too upset about it after this. "Again, I thought you were dead," she said, "because everyone knows the pirate queen leaves no prisoners. You were gone three years with no word, and when the prince and his people came, they said they would protect my mom. I couldn't say no."

Max smiled again, and if Chloe wasn't mistake her eyes were getting a little teary. "That's just like you," she said. She leaned forward and kissed her again, and this time Chloe held onto her, even when she pulled away. "But don't give up on me again, okay? I'll always be there for you."

"I'll never doubt again," Chloe said solemnly, then kissed Max's nose and her cheeks and her forehead until she was laughing and shoving her away. "But how are you here? Don't make me ask again, the suspense is killing me."

"Two things," Max said, getting on her feet and pulling Chloe up with her. "Actually, three. One, the pirate queen did take me. Two, I am the pirate queen. Three, it's all an awesome story but Prescott is still following us, and in twenty minutes he'll be down here. We're going to have to go through the Fire Swamp."

The Fire Swamp, about forty yards away from where they stood, was a combination of the worst parts of fire and the worst parts of swamp. "Nice," Chloe said appreciatively, and took Max's hand. "Let's go!"

| | |

After walking for maybe one minute and thirty seconds in the fire swamp, Chloe said, "Okay, you have a sword. Cut this damn skirt off."

Grinning, Max knelt down, and sheared off the fabric up to Chloe's mid-thigh. "Never thought I'd see you wearing something like this."

"Shut up," Chloe said, and kissed her again. They continued on through the dusty grayness, hand-in-hand, with Max chopping vines out of the way as they went. "I never thought I'd see you turn up after five years as a sexy pirate, either, and yet here we are. Now TELL ME what happened, before I strangle you."

There was a slow ticking noise, and Max's right hand, the one not holding Chloe's, was held up carefully. "One sec," she said. "That noise means there's a fire thingy about to come out of the ground."

"How the fuck do you know that?" Chloe said, just as Max pulled her to the right and fire shot out of the ground, where she'd just been standing. "Holy shit!"

Looking quite pleased with herself, Max squeezed her hand and continued walking. "Okay, so, basically here's what happened," she said. "My ship did get attacked by the pirate queen five years ago, and everyone besides me did get killed. They left me for last because I was smallest. The pirate queen came up to me, and I was really scared but I didn't cry or anything. I just said 'please, I need to live.' She was already holding the sword to my throat, but I think the please surprised her, and she asked me why. I said, 'not far from here, there is a girl who lives on a farm, and she is rude and loud and so so wonderful, and I swore I would return to her. Please don't make me the person who breaks her heart.'"

Chloe was silent for a second. Then she said, "Is that seriously what you said or are you bullshitting me?"

"That is absolutely what I said," Max said. "I remember because it totally saved my life."

At that, Chloe stopped, still holding onto Max's hand, and kept her there. Max turned to look at her, concerned. "You okay?"

First Chloe nodded, then she shook her head. Then she stepped forward and wrapped Max in the tightest hug she'd could manage. "I love you," she said, her face smushed against the top of Max's head. "I love you so much."

Max grinned against where she was squished into Chloe's chest. "I love you too," she said. "That's kind of the whole point of everything. But we gotta keep moving."

So they got moving again, Chloe's hand so tight around Max's that it turned white.

"Anyway," Max said, "the pirate queen took me aboard, and made me her valet. She said her ship could use more stronghearted girls like me. So for three years I worked on the ship, and they tried to teach me fencing and fighting and all kinds of pirate stuff. But- oh, wait."

She stopped, and held Chloe back with one hand. Peering hard at the white earth, she frowned. "Lightning sand," she said. "You jump over, then catch me when I jump."

"Got it," Chloe said, hopped over, then swept up Max as she followed suit. Grinning, she spun her around to the other side of the grass. "Totally saved your life."

Max rolled her eyes, but let Chloe keep an arm wrapped over her shoulders. "You totally did," she said. "So the problem was, I was terrible at everything they were trying to teach me. I was bad at pirating. Then, when I turned eighteen, it all turned around."

"How?" Chloe asked, then cursed herself because that was obviously what Max had wanted her to ask. She'd fallen right into her trap.

Still, Max smiled her smile and it was all worth it. "When I turned eighteen, I found out I the ability to reverse time."

Chloe stopped walking, bringing Max to a standstill next to her. "Bullshit!" she cried, appalled. "There is absolutely no way-"

"How do you think I knew which glass Victoria would drink from?" Max said, poking her in the side. "How do you think I caught up with your kidnappers so fast? I don't know how I got it, but I have it. And once I figured out how to use it, I became good at all the pirate stuff, because I had time on my side. So when the pirate queen retired- she wasn't the original pirate queen, like me, her name was Dana- she gave me the job. I've had it for about as long as you've been engaged."

They were in the darkest part of the forest now, which meant they were only about twenty minutes from getting out. Chloe shook her head. "Well, all of that made sense," she said, "up until you brought up the time travel junk. Max, you know I love you, but that is totally impos-"

There was a sudden squealing, hissing noise echoing through the forest, coming from all directions, and then at least eight Rodents of Unusual Size leapt out at them.

It was like Max phased in and out of thin air. One minute she was at Chloe's side, the next she was a foot away decapitating a rat, two feet away stabbing another in the heart, five feet away and stabbing another to death.

She'd killed them all in under a minute. Pulling her sword out from the eighth rat corpse, she gave a hard breath, sheathed her sword, and looked back up at Chloe. "You okay?"

Chloe just stared. "Okay," she said, her voice shaking just a little. "Okay, I don't really get it, but you are by far the coolest fucking girl I've ever met."

Even though she was all bloodied and sweaty, Max was exceptionally cute blushing. "Aw," she said. "Thanks."

| | |

Here is the part of the story where Max and Chloe get out of the woods, only to be met with at least a hundred armed men and a hundred and fifty arrows aimed at their heads.

"Don't move," Prince Nathan barked, looking inordinately pleased with himself for someone who was not holding a weapon or doing anything constructive at all. "Or we'll blow your fucking head off."

Chloe squeezed Max's hand. "Hey, rewind," she hissed urgently. "Rewind!"

"I can't rewind without moving," Max hissed back.

One white horse rode up to the front, with a genially smiling Count Jefferson. "Princess Chloe, thank goodness you're safe," he said. "Now, should we dispatch of this harlot and be on our way?"

"Yes!" Nathan shouted.

"No!" Chloe shouted back, pulling Max behind her.

Count Jefferson didn't look perturbed in the slightest. "Oh, so it's like that," he said. "Princess, please do think logically about this."

"Chloe," Max whispered. "Chloe, go without me."

"No," Chloe said, teeth grit together as she glared at Nathan. "No, I just got you back. I'd rather die here with you than-"

Max tugged on her arm, pulled her backwards so they were face to face. "I didn't come all this way to watch you die," she said, holding Chloe's face delicately in both hands. "Chloe, I don't care what happens to me, but you can't die for me. You have to live. Please."

Tears were building up in Chloe's eyes. "I can't lose you again," she said.

Standing on her tiptoes, Max reached up and kissed her. It was a chaste kiss, and a sad one, and it was worse than seeing Max cry. "You'll always be my true love," Max said, and she smiled the smile that always broke Chloe's heart. "Distance and death can't change that. And I got to see you again. That's more than I thought I would ever get. Now please, please, for once can you do what I ask?"

The worst part of having a heart was that it was very easy to break. Chloe's had gone without moving for five years, only to fall apart again now. It wasn't fair.

"Hello?" Nathan said irritably. "Some time today."

Chloe turned around again, still holding tight to Max. "If I come with you and don't fight," she said, "will you promise not to hurt her, and return her to her ship?"

"It is done," Jefferson said, before Nathan could make the decision himself. "Now come along, Your Highness."

This time, a footman helped Chloe up onto Nathan's horse, and there wasn't time to look back at Max, to see her smile one last time, before they were gone.

Jefferson rode up to Max's side. "The pirate queen," he said, with interest. "I never thought I'd get to meet you. It's an honor."

Max looked up at him, and her eyes widened. "The monocled man with the goatee," she said. Then, "There was a woman who is looking for you."

"There usually is," Jefferson said, and clubbed her over the head.

| | |

When Max woke up, she was in a dungeon, flat on her back with electrodes on her forehead and inner elbows, and lying on a table as a man with a badly maintained mustache fiddled with the cuffs at her feet.

"Where am I?" she said.

The man barely glanced at her. "The Dungeon of Despair," he said. "Guess you're Count Jefferson's newest pet project."

While it was hard to look around with restrained to the table, Max was able to crane her neck and turn it from side to side. The Dungeon of Despair was sleekly silver, with a huge piece of chrome machinery at the center of its space, and dimly lit. There were framed portraits dangling in straight lines across shiny walls. One, if Max squinted, looked a little like Rachel Amber.

"Hey," she said to the man. "Hey, listen, you have to help me. I don't care if you don't give a shit about me, but your princess, Princess Chloe-"

The man waved her off. "Yeah, yeah, I've heard all about it," he said crabbily. "Thinks you're her true love or whatever. In my opinion, she can suffer losing her side piece. She's an upstart and doesn't deserve the fortune she's falling into."

"Oh, pirate queen," said a pleasant voice from above, and Max strained her neck to see Jefferson smiling down at her. "You're awake. Have you been admiring my machinery?"

She scowled at him. "Jefferson, you sick fuck," she said. "How many girls have you tortured down here?"

Stepping lightly down the stairs, Jefferson shrugged. "Lost count," he said. "But you are by far the most intriguing. The pirate queen, scourge of the seas, and I'm about to suck away her life on the very night her true love marries another. I can't imagine anything more painful and humiliating than that. I can't wait to see what your face will look like."

When he was close enough, Max spat at him. She missed.

Nodding thoughtfully, he jotted something down in a notebook labelled THE PIRATE QUEEN. "Interesting," he said. "Prepare yourself, I'll be back in four hours."

Then he was gone again, waving as he disappeared through the door.

The dungeonkeeper watched him go, then shook his head. "I don't envy you, kid," he said. "This is gonna be one hell of a night for you."

Max spat at him too.

| | |

Chloe's resolution to be noble about the marriage and about Max lasted about three hours, and then she decided it wasn't working out.

She kicked down Nathan's study door, which wasn't necessary considering it was unlocked, but it felt good to do so. "Listen," she said, over his horrified sputtering about the door. "I love Max, I've always loved her. I love her so much that I will never, ever marry you while she's still alive, you bag of dicks. I'm going out to find her. You can pick yourself up another princess, I'm leaving."

Nathan stood up, but was otherwise paralyzed with fury. Two years, and he still hadn't acclimatized to Chloe's complete distaste for him. "You can't, bitch," he said. "She's gone, and you'll never find her."

"You don't know love, you pasty creep," Chloe said. "So obviously you wouldn't understand. You'll never love anyone like I love Max. No matter where she is, I'll find her. The kind of bond we have is unbreakable. And I'm sorry for you, you sad, fucked up rat, because you're too angry and bitter to have a true love at all, much less one as beautiful and amazing as mine. Bye."

This worked out badly, because the truth was Chloe hadn't been working out, and was tired from the fire swamp anyway, so it was easy for Nathan to grab her by the arm, shake her hard enough to make her teeth rattle, and drag her all the way to the throne room.

"I've had it up to here with you, you annoying, self-righteous bitch," he spat, and, pulling a pair of cuffs from his suit pocket, chained her to the altar. The hundred or so servants around them, all in the midst of wedding preparation, glanced over, shrugged, and carried on. "I should've had those lousy kidnappers murder you in the woods where they found you! I'll show you what happens when you mess with me!"

And he tore out of the throne room, tripping over his own robe and swearing loudly. Chloe tugged desperately at the chains, cursing. "Hey!" she called out to a passing servant. "Hey! I'm your princess! Fucking help me!"

The servant eyed her handcuffs, then shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry, Your Highness," he said. "But it's against the law to kinkshame the prince."

Chloe let out the least princesslike swear she knew, and tugged harder.

| | |

In the dungeon, Max was scheduled to have an hour left to live, and Jefferson was idly sketching a portrait of her for his torture wall as she cussed him out. They were both very surprised when the door to the dungeon banged open, and Nathan came storming in.

Ignoring Jefferson, he stomped directly up to Max and leaned over her. "If it weren't for you, she would've died on the border like she was supposed to," he hissed. "She wouldn't still be around to bitch at me and act like her love for you is more important than any-fucking-thing. When I kill her, maybe she'll finally go without a fucking struggle if she knows you're waiting for her in hell."

Jefferson stood up. "Not yet!" he shouted. "Not till the wedding-"

Max, on the other hand, didn't have time to say anything before Nathan threw the switch on the chrome machine.

Here is the part of the story where Max dies for real.

| | |

The resulting scream shook all of Arcadia. It was a terrible sound, especially horrible because Max had never screamed in her whole life. Even on the pirate ship all those years ago, facing death and a brokenhearted Chloe, and all she had done was whisper please.

Now she screamed. It shook the Price farm. It shook the Prescott castle. It made all the hair on Chloe's arms stand up, and she stopped struggling against her chains, just for a moment. It made Rachel and Frank, who happened to be walking dejectedly through the village, stop in their tracks.

"I know that sound," Rachel said suddenly.

Frank rolled his eyes. "Yes, Rachel, I think everyone knows the sound of screaming."

Rachel shook her head, frowning so deeply her forehead was creased almost to the bone. "No," she said. "That's the sound I made when the man with the monocle tortured me. But the voice... it's the woman from earlier. The woman in black."

"What a coincidence," Frank said dryly.

Whapping him on the arm, Rachel said, "Frank! I'm serious! Listen, if we follow that sound, we can find the woman in black and the man who tortured me, and I can finally get my revenge!" She bounced on the balls of her feet. "Revenge, Frank!"

Letting out a long-suffering sigh, Frank let her drag him forwards. "Fine, but after this, I'm going home, fucking Christ."

| | |

After following the sound of Max's screaming to the forest, it wasn't hard to find the secret tree of the dungeon's entryway. Nathan had left the door open.

David the Dungeonkeeper scrambled to his feet when they came down the stairs, aghast. "You- you can't be down here! You're not authorized!"

"Fuck you!" Rachel yelled, and elbowed Frank in the ribs. "Beat him up!"

"What? You beat him up!"

In the brief banter, David had picked up a knife, and was coming at them with it, eyes narrowed with fury. Rachel yelled, and managed to duck just before he swung. "Frank!"

"Yeah, whatever," Frank muttered, and punched him in the face. David crumpled, the knife clattering harmlessly to the floor beside him. "You happy n- oh, hey, isn't that the girl from before?"

Rachel had been bending to pick up the knife, but at this she shot back to her feet, headbutting Frank on the way up. "Oh, sorry- oh my god! It is!"

She ran over to Max's side, and reached for her wrist. "Those bastards- this is the same thing they did to me, but-"

Here in the story is where Rachel finds Max's pulse point, and here is where she finds it not pulsing.

"She's dead, isn't she," Frank said, as Rachel's upheld hand sagged, Max's wrist still in it. He came over, slowly, as though approaching something that might yet scare off. "Sorry, Rachel."

Fingers still tight on Max's wrist, Rachel shakes her head, brow creased. "But she's still warm," she says. "Listen, whoever did this to her must be from the castle, right? Because the princess and the woman in black were both captured by people from the castle. So we're going to need to get in there, but first we have to save her, so she can come with a plan. She outsmarted Victoria, so obviously she's good at plans."

Even as Frank began protesting, Rachel was already lifting the body off the table. "Rachel, wait- wait," he said, insistently. "Look, yes it's terrible, but Chiquita here is literally dead. Not even a miracle-"

At that, Rachel lit up so entirely, the sun was overshadowed for a full few seconds. She also nearly dropped Max. "Frank!" she says. "Carry her! I know where to go!"

| | |

Miracle Kate, usually not open for business on Sundays, except on very special occasions like a dead pirate queen, eyed the body on her table skeptically. "I don't know, miss," she said. "I really would like to help you, but this one's pretty dead."

Frank shrugged, and makes a move to the door, but Rachel grabbed his sleeve. "Please, Miracle Kate," she said. "If anyone can bring back the woman in black, I know you can."

Turning Max's head from side to side, Kate pressed an ear to her chest. "Well, she's not beyond saving," she said critically. "But the soul is very weak. There has to be a very strong connection to this world in order to bring her back here." Lightly, she slapped one of Max's cheeks. "Pirate queen! What do you have worth living for?"

The faintest breath of air escaped Max's lips, and quickly Miracle Kate cupped her hands around it, bringing the sound to her ear. There was a small, mouselike noise.

"What?" Rachel said.

"Sounded kinda like earmuff," Frank said.

But Miracle Kate was smiling wide. She let go of the sound, and patted Max's cheek fondly. "True love," she said. "If anything can bring her back, that can."

Rachel frowned. "True love?" she repeated. Then, "Oh! She must mean the princess! Princess Chloe!"

Miracle Kate twitched. "The princess?" she repeated. "The one who's marrying Prince Nathan tonight?"

"Not if we can help it," Frank said, as stoically as he could manage.

Nodding emphatically, Rachel added, "Yeah! If you can bring back the woman in black, we're crashing the wedding and bringing the Prescott reign down!"

"Oh my goodness," said Miracle Kate, pressing a hand to her chest. "Would you really do that? End the Prescott reign forever?"

Frank and Rachel looked at each other. "Uh, absolutely," Frank said.

"Yeah, we're so on it," Rachel said.

Miracle Kate was already rolling some clay in her hands, looking determined. "Listen, if bringing this girl back will ruin Prince Nathan," she said, "I'll do it for free."

She had a miracle pill ready in two minutes.

| | |

Carrying Max's mostly-dead body to a battlement outside the Prescott body was hard enough on its own. Shoving the miracle pill down her throat was also harder than they thought it'd be. Luckily, waking her up afterwards was very easy. In fact, she woke up all on her own.

"Bastards!" she cried immediately, eyes rolling wildly in all directions while the rest of her remained immobile. "I'll rip you apart! I'll kill you for-"

Then she stopped, and her eyes rolled downwards to gaze at her still hands. "My arm won't move," she said, not without a degree of panic.

"You've been mostly dead for an hour," Rachel said comfortingly. "It'll take a bit to get your sense back."

If Max could've moved, she would have jumped with surprise. "Rachel... Amber," she said, uncertainly. "What are you doing here? What happened? Where's Chloe?"

At this point, Frank had finished surveying the gate, and he squatted down to join the conversation as Rachel opened her mouth eagerly. "I'm going to paraphrase," he said. "Otherwise we're going to be here all night. So what's happening is, Rachel wants to get in the castle to kill the man with the monocle. You may also know him as the man who murdered you."

"Son of a bitch," Max muttered.

Rachel nodded in agreement, and Frank rolled his eyes and continued. "Your girlfriend's marrying the Prescott prince right now, also, so you should have some motivation to help us break in. What we're going to do is this: scare the sixty guards away from the gate, crash the wedding, grab your princess, and escape. With Rachel killing the monocle man somewhere in there."

Slowly, Max absorbed this, then nodded reluctantly. "And I can't move my arm," she said, "so we only have one shot at this."

Both Frank and Rachel misinterpreted this to mean Max was worried about her lack of strength. "Don't worry, pirate queen," Rachel said, and patted her on the shoulder. Max's head rolled on her neck to face her, which was a noteworthy improvement. "With my ability and Frank's strength and scary demeanor, all we need you to do is come up with a plan to get us inside."

Max thought. "Okay," she said, after a pause. "I've got a plan. We need to set Frank on fire for it to work, though."

Frank blanched. "We're not doing that! Besides, whatever you're thinking, it wouldn't work!"

| | |

Here is the part of the story where the plan totally works. Frank by himself was scary enough, but on fire he was petrifying, and they managed to frighten off fifty-nine out of sixty guards, and get the gate key from the sixtieth.

| | |

Inside, Nathan and Chloe's wedding was going badly, to put things lightly. Chloe was still chained to the altar, and Nathan had all but chewed a hole through his cheek trying to stay silent.

The priest wasn't enjoying himself either, as Chloe'd kicked him eight times, four on purpose and four by accident trying to free herself of the cuffs. "So," he said, and grunted a little as she kicked him again. "So, do you, Nathan Prescott the Third, take Chloe Price as your lawfully wedded wife?"

"Whatever," Nathan muttered.

Uncertainly, the priest looked to King Sean, who nodded him on. "Uh, okay. And do you, Chloe Price, take Nathan-"

"FUCK no," Chloe said, her feet braced horizontally against the altar now as she tried to pull herself free. "Jesus Christ, aren't you a priest? Help me, for fuck's sake!"

More than a little unsettled now, the priest looked to King Sean again.

"Do the man and wife bit and get this over with, for God's sake," King Sean said.

"I now pronounce you man and wife," the priest said gratefully, and ran out.

Nathan, grumbling, unchained Chloe and started dragging her towards the honeymoon suite, totally out of time with the wedding march. She screamed all the way, kicking and biting and cursing. Finally, when they came to the door, he shrieked, "SHUT UP, whore, Jesus," and shoved her through.

Here is the part of the story where both Nathan and Chloe find the pirate queen lying across their wedding bed.

"Hey, Chloe," Max said, and winked at her in order to feign complete control of all her facilities. "How was the wedding?"

"Max!" Chloe cried joyfully, just as Nathan screeched, "I fucking murdered you, how are you here!"

Max's gaze turned on Nathan then, and it was an awe-inspiring, chilling display of fury to behold. "NATHAN PRESCOTT," Max said, in the loudest and most pirate-queenly voice Chloe had ever heard. "You are the most fucked up individual I've ever met, and I've met cannibals and seven-handed dictators and a man who tried to sell me my own eyeballs. However, none of these people have committed the wrongs against me that you have, which include but are not limited to murdering me in your creepy torture chamber and attempting to kill the woman I love. No one crosses the Pirate Queen, Scourge of the Seas, and now, you will PAAAAAAAY!"

She hadn't moved an inch from the bed. Prince Nathan promptly burst into tears and dropped his sword, shivering with fear.

"SIT DOWN," Max shouted.

Nathan hobbled over to the nearest chair, and sat.

"Chloe," Max said, dismissively, "tie him up."

Chloe did so, with enthusiasm.

Once Nathan was secured, Max shifted her arms, with considerable effort, and reached plaintively towards Chloe. "Now carry me, please," she said. "I actually can't move for another ten minutes."

"Faker!" Nathan cried.

Both girls glared at him, which was enough to shut him up again.

Grinning, Chloe scooped Max off the bed with ease and kissed her nose. "Now this is a wedding night I can get behind," she said. "You wanna elope?"

"I am totally up for eloping," Max said, and was able to tilt her head back just slightly for Chloe's answering kiss. "But first let's ditch."

After securing her hold on Max, Chloe kicked Nathan in the balls, knocked open the door, and began to make her way down the hallway at impressive speed.

"Wait- wait!" Max cried once they were only a few feet from the end of the hall, clutching at Chloe's neck with what little strength her hands had regained. "Rachel and Frank are here somewhere, they helped me break in. We can't leave them-"

Just as she was saying so, Rachel skidded into the hallway, a few feet away from them. She had two thin cuts on her cheeks, and was doused in blood, some apparently hers and some apparently not. Somehow, she was still the most beautiful woman in the world.

Upon seeing the two, she broke into a wide grin and ran up to them. There was a thin, blood-drenched rapier in her right hand. "Hey, princess! Pirate queen!" She swung the sword in an arc, looking pleased with herself. "Guess what? I just killed Jefferson!"

"You did what?" Chloe said, just as Max said, "Oh, Rachel, that's awesome! I'm so proud of you!"

Ducking her head modestly, Rachel plants the sword in the ground. "Thanks, me too. Glad to see you two lovebirds found each other. Anyway, either of you seen Frank?"

"Rachel!" came a voice from the window, perfectly timed. "And the princess and whoever! Can you hear me?"

All three of them ran over to the window, which was large and beautiful stained-glass and wide enough for a human being to fit through. For now, though, all of them just leaned down to look.

"Frank!" Rachel cried with delight.

And it was him, and more importantly he was holding four horses by the reigns, the same four white horses that had brought Chloe to the palace all those years ago. "What's up," he said, giving Chloe a nod. "If you're all done wreaking havoc, let's split."

Immediately Rachel hoisted herself to stand on the ledge, then she paused, and looked back at the other two girls. "Wait," she said. "What are we supposed to do, when we escape?"

"I'm going home, you crazy bitches," Frank said. "Also, I'm keeping a horse. I've named mine Pompidou."

Max shrugs. "My ship's in the harbor," she said. "That's where me and Chloe are heading. I figure we'll rule the seas together, it's a tough job doing it by yourself. That sound good to you?"

"Absolutely," Chloe said. "But we're getting married right away."

"And Rachel," Max continued, tightening her grip on Chloe's neck, "if you don't have a prior engagement, you should come with us. I could use a woman with your skills onboard."

Rachel considered for a moment, then grinned. "You know what?" she said. "That sounds like a completely excellent idea. Also, I can marry you guys when we set sail, if you want! I'm ordained."

"Of course you are," Chloe said. "Why not?"

A rock struck just below the ledge, with considerable force. "Are we leaving or what?" Frank bellowed. "The guard's still coming, you nuts!"

"Oh, right," Rachel said, and leapt. Frank caught her, passed her onto a horse, following suit with a now mostly-mobile Max. Finally, Chloe leapt, wedding dress flowing delicately in the breeze, and mounted.

"Okay," she said, and spurred on the horse. "Let's blow this popsicle stand."

Here is the part of the story where our four heroes ride off triumphantly into the sunset.

| | |

The water was gorgeous blue, the sun was setting with perfection, the ship was rocking very gently, and altogether it was the most beautiful place for an elopement that could possibly exist.

"Princess- uh, Princess Chloe," Rachel said, grabbing at the wheel of the boat as water rippled beneath them, her makeshift bible (actually an old cookbook stolen from below deck) still clutched in one hand. "Do you take the Pirate Queen Max as your sort-of lawfully wedded wife?"

Chloe's left hand was linked with Max's, which wasn't exactly wedding protocol but kept the both of them from swaying with the tide. "I absolutely do," she said.

"Cool," Rachel said. "Pirate Queen Max, do you take Princess Chloe to be your wife, to honor and cherish and rule the seas with her for as long as you both shall live?"

The sunset was spraying them all over with orange and yellow, and Max turned to Chloe to smile at her, and for a moment all light throughout all of time coalesced into one moment, just for them. "I do," she said.

Snapping the book shut, Rachel tossed it overboard and clapped her hands. "Awesome! By the power vested in me by my own ability to kick ass, you are now wife and wife. You may kiss the brides!"

They both leaned in for a kiss at once, but the ship lurched and their foreheads collided. Chloe just managed to catch Max before either of them fell over. Max's eyes widened, and she stretched out her right hand.

Chloe caught it before she could do anything. "Don't rewind," she said, "that was really cute," and then they were both laughing, and then it was hard to kiss with smiles as wide as theirs were, but they managed.

Here is the point in the story where the Pirate Queen, Scourge of the Seas, and the Princess Bride are deigned a phrase such as this: and they lived happily ever after.