Oh, my sweet beloved, how fair art thine shining, opal eyes? For I know not, lest I see you once more, never to leave your sight.

            It was not the best of hooks. Yet, it caught her, and lodged itself in her mind. It let her know. It let her feel. It let her trust. She read with a steady heart, passing her eyes over every curve of the script. The old scrolls from moons ago were scattered around her, within her carriage.

            Beyond the tinted windows, a blue heron flew across the road. It carefully gained altitude, to pass overhead of the armed dragoons on horseback that followed the carriage.

            Looking forward, there was hope on the horizon. Behind, though, all they knew was doom. The royal guard was glad to leave the homeland, freed for the moment of the blight that bound their land with plague.

            Sweet Tatianna, thou art as a flame to the moths. You draw them in with your brilliance, yet their wings do burn. I assure you, my love for you, my wings, they will not burn!

            And the young aristocrat impatiently pulled her eyes past the pretentiously romantic poetry that followed. They fell upon the final words of what she was rereading.

            For with this letter, and the ring that binds it to the leg of its carrier, I ask your hand in marriage.

            The royal carriage was an anachronism of a forgotten age. It would once have been called a sports car. The unattainable kind that hung in posters on the walls of young men's rooms. Now, it trudged along by the pace of four white horses and the unsteady roll of wooden wheels.

            She knew how she had replied. Reluctant, at first. Yet, the dove flies fast with white, virgin grace. And letters later, he had tendered her heart. It did not occur to her that it could have been written by his scribes. Nor that every metaphor and simile may have been crafted by his poets or taken from the lips of his bards. Tatianna never got a chance to hear the commoners sit in their taverns, as they spoke of political marriages and the lustfully unnatural appetites of kings and princes.

            The road was rough. A dozen thousand winters, and an ungodly ice age, had wrought many cracks into the cement. And the stripes of paint had long since faded.

            A silvery suit of armour stood like a statue in the middle of the road. Its helm was a grotesque caricature of the human skull. The chainmail and the plates shone white as bone in the summer sun. Behind it, a crimson cape, stained with browning blood, tailed in the wind. The only other adornment was a gaudy, ribbed codpiece that fell to an amethyst tip.

            The princess was the first, and the second, to scream.

            Tsarevna Tatianna the Second, destined to fall upon the pages of history as Saint Tatianna the Innocent; though others might name her a demonic temptress.

            The white caravan came to a stop. There was no command. They knew the meaning of the skullhelm. The horses screamed with frustration, and the dragoons moved in with tridents of iron.

            From within the carriage, two women screamed.

            The armoured figure looked on as crossbow bolts flitted out from the ruins and forest of either roadside. With uncanny precision, they hit the weak points at the neck of the draconian helmets. The royal guard of dragoons fell from their horses one by one, with a dull clanging of their iron tridents.

            Robed men and women came out of the forest. They wore the same red as they knight's cape, but it was not stained with blood. First, they approached the horses, and calmed them with gentle patting and fresh fruit.

           The skulled knight carefully opened the left door of the carriage. It sat in the back seat, behind the two women. One of them was chanting indecipherably, and with great urgency.

            Outside, they watched as the robed people shed their garb and began to unbound the dragonlike armour of the fallen guards.

            And then, the skull knight clamped a gauntlet over the mouth of the chanting woman, silencing her. Immediately, the pages of the tome from which she read caught on fire.

            The other woman, beside her, gasped.

            A muffled, androgynous voice came from within the skull, "You will casst no spellss in my pressencce."

            "Why have you come, reaper?" asked the woman who could speak.

            "Reaperss? Iss that what you call usss?"

            "W-what are you, then?"

            "I am an Agent of the Collapssse," it hissed.

            "Th-the C-c-collapse?"

            "Of ccivilizzation." There was no pride in the distant voice, which came from behind the metal skull. "Which one of you is the Tssarevna?"

            The scared young woman grinned at her counterpart. They both had the same curly brown hair and unblemished fair skin.

            "Which one of you is Tssarevna Tatianna the Sss-second?"

            The muted spell-caster, who had put out the fire by pushing the open grimoire against the dashboard of the carriage, was wearing an orange-jeweled signet ring. And it shone with the very fires she had cast. Yet she was clothed in a servant's dress.

            "Which one of you?"

            The other wore royal threads, a mauve long skirt with gold lace. She sat before the seat with the wheel, a place of authority in the ancient carriages. She giggled, despite her trembling.

            "Twinsss!?" The voice rasped more, and was almost inaudible between the jaws of the helm.

            Her face fell to solemnity.

            Outside, a single traveler rode up the pavement. A crossbow bolt shot out from the woods, and he fell from his horse as it trotted off into the distance.

            "Very well," said the knight,  "I will disspose of you both."

            Beyond the dark windows, the fallen dragoons stood once more, and mounted their horses. However, they had been replaced. Bodies had been dragged to the roadside. One of them mounted the hood of the carriage, and held a whip firmly in hand.

            The left and right car doors opened, and two withered, naked corpses fell to the ground. And, in her mauve dress, a new Tatianna rose from the side of the carriage. Digging her heel firmly into the body below it, she pulled an empty suit of armour from between the front seats. With inhuman strength, she tossed it into a grassy ditch.

            The sun was beginning to set, and cast a warm glow across the bulky clouds.

            And with finality, she pulled the skullhelm from her head and flung it into the ditch; revealing a full head of curly brown hair and an unblemished face of fair skin. Her eyes sparkled with opalescence. Then, reaching back, she tightened the bindings of her dress. Now, she was, with every ounce, the likeness of the duplicitous aristocrat who lay dead beneath her feet.

            "Commander Detritus, shall we set forth?" the dragoon asked, from the hood of the carriage. "We don't want to be late for your wedding."

            "Please," she requested, as she got back into the seat behind the wheel, "Address me henceforth as princess." Tatianna felt very tired after her transformation. But not as tired as the bodies in her wake.

            "Yes ma'am, I mean -- Your Highness," he replied, careful not to mockingly hiss the final syllable when she was in earshot.

            And as the white sports car continued its journey into a foreign country, across a freeway ravaged by a nuclear ice age, an evil grin twisted across the stolen face of Tsarevna Tatianna the Second. All around, men on white horses clung to tridents and sought to keep her safe. And her eyes began to read, for the first time, the love letters from the man she'd soon marry.

The End

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