The festival sent the city into a frenzy. This week was a celebration like none other: this week, they celebrated the soldiers from other worlds, and their own part in protecting those worlds by hosting the most dangerous monster imaginable. The monster's visage decorated banners, and children threw rotten eggs and tomatoes at targets made to look like it. The creature's face was all red eyes and black horns and snarling wicked teeth, with claws ready, and as the day progressed, the festival workers lowered the banners of the monster and raised banners that showed an orb of green and blue surrounded by wings, with a twisted halo over top that resembled a sideways numeral. Today, the last day of the Festival of Greenstone, a special guest was slated to appear. All but the last monster banner had been lowered and replaced with the banner of the heroes, and a hush fell over the crowd, little by little, as the king stepped forward. "Good eve, one and all!" His booming voice echoed as he raised his hands. The crowd grew still as people of all ages and walks watched their ruler, heads upturned as the quiet grew and the monarch waited. Finally, his voice shattered the silence with a thunderous laugh. "I promised you a special guest tonight, and it's not just one of our allies protecting us and fighting for the truth of existence: no, today, it's someone special, someone whose presence with us has enabled us to protect existence as much as our revered allies!" The crowd began to murmur. "I present the monster, bound to the form of a maiden and shackled for your pleasure!" A pair of doors opened under the king's balcony, and a tiny woman walked slowly forward, onto a platform. Her figure was petite, more than two heads smaller than the guards who bound her wrists to the platform. Her pale skin looked like snow against the blood and black of her dress, which looked darker still against the pale green stones that decorated her jewelry. Most striking was her ankle-length golden hair that blew freely in the light breeze, wavy and thick, her vivid red eyes, and a black ring of horns that grew from her head in a crown. "I have a few rules!" The king shouted over the excited crowd. "The biggest is you don't touch beneath her clothing, and the second is not to damage her crown. Her crown keeps us safe from her cruelty." The king laughed, and almost immediately, an egg flew at the young woman's face. She closed her eyes, but made no move to defend against it. Dzhed stood, ready for the impact, and the egg shattered against her crown. Agony rocked her, and her vision blackened as she felt more impacts against her body and clothing. It felt like forever, but eventually the attacks stopped, and a hand rested on her shoulder. She jumped and turned to look, only to see the king standing with a guard nearby. "Time to wash up, Dzhed. You did well, my pet." The monarch purred. The light flickered across his broad form, and Dzhed looked around to see that the guard held a torch, and the night above was filled with stars. "Thank you." Dzhed murmured as she turned and bowed. "You look pretty, with that martyred expression. Go wash, and meet me in the throne room." The night went by with none of the promised cherries, and the next morning, Dzhed laid in bed, nursing bruises all along her arms as she trembled at the memory of the day and night before. Tears flowed freely, and she did her best not to think about how it made her feel. Even the act of feeling the pain of everyone's hatred brought throbbing pain to her head. A knock at the door warned her of someone, and then the door opened. "You're not joining me for breakfast?" The king walked to the bed and sat on it. "It's tomato soup with soft-cooked eggs." He reached out and slowly rubbed her hip. "Please forgive me. I do not feel well." The lie sent burning pain through her. "I feel very sad and want to lay in my bed for a time longer. Please, may I?" The honesty and begging reduced the pain, and she trembled as she felt the grip on her slender hip tighten. "Oh?" The man gripped her dress and pulled upward as his hand slid that way. His weight on the bed shifted, and suddenly she could smell his breath as much as she felt it against her neck. "I have something for you to do tonight. I have a meeting, and you're going to make an appearance and show them how happy you are to be with me." Dzhed swallowed, then nodded. ~*~ That evening, after dinner, the king sat at a long table, with Unifiers on either side, and Dzhed stood beside him, smiling as she held her head down, one hand rested against her thigh, and one atop the king's shoulder. Today, she had to pretend to be happy. That was the order, and as long as she looked happy, her crown would not hurt. So far, it was easy. Nobody paid any attention to her as they spoke about things she knew already to ignore. Any time their words lingered on her mind, she felt a dull throb, so instead thought only about the tension in her back as slow tingles spread across her shoulder blades. Thinking of nothing like this made the time move faster, and kept her from pain. It was an ideal arrangement, to her. She was thankful one of her previous keepers taught her this 'trick'. She used it often. It kept her sane, kept her from suffering, but only when she wasn't ordered to feel pain. Each time her thoughts drifted, she brought them back to the tension in her back, until a hand on her shoulder caught her attention, and she looked up to see one of the Unifiers looking down at her. "Yes, Master Unifier?" She smiled at him. "How are things with his majesty? Tell me truthfully, is he doing anything that might lead you to having too much freedom?" Her crown ached. The Unifiers held more power over her than her Keeper. "He keeps me locked away, and if I am to roam the city, I am followed. He b-" Her crown throbbed. "He is very kind." The pain ebbed. "I know my place is beside him." She lowered her gaze. "Forget his orders on how to act and answer how he treats you honestly." Fresh pain blossomed. "He beats me if I don't obey, and starves me if I act too coldly toward him. He uses me and then locks me away, to be used again when he wills it." Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw the king's face redden with barely-repressed rage. "Oh, is that all?" The soldier nodded. "I thought you were going to say he'd been breaking your crown off. It looks a bit jagged. No problems, then." He smiled, then looked toward the king. "Sorry for overriding your control of her. We have to make absolutely certain nothing is happening that would lead to her freedom. Even contained on a planet like this, she could be quite dangerous, you know." The king forced a smile. "I'm well aware." He shot a glare toward Dzhed, and suddenly, she wanted nothing less than another 'reeducation session with the Unifiers to save herself from his wrath. She opened her mouth to speak, and her crown began to burn, and its base to redden. She only had to ask a question. Five words. Five words, but they died in her throat as the pain stretched along her skull until she nearly collapsed.