"There's a wall on the edge of the Queendom," she says, "almost up to the final cliff of our furthest isola. Supposed to have been there long since before the Civis occupied it, still there after they pulled out. It's old brick, just a symbol itself, but built between the two oldest Pillars in the network."
She takes a sip of kafi from a little porcelain cup. You notice four or five empty cups of the same kind, even as she beckons to a waiter to keep more coming.
"There's a door. You open it and walk through, you're outside the protective influence of the Pillars, standing at the utter end of the Queendom, staring into naked Zenith space where the Pilgrims have never trod."
"I grew up just a little bit Pathward," you say. "Heard most of that story already. Protectors of the Spiral, sacred guardianship, easily visible genetic gift for keeping the monsters away, blah blah blah. Standard Queendom propaganda. Look, my guy said you were some kind of palace insider."
She laughs. A high, amused giggle.
"He could safely say that, yes."
"I need information on the royal treasuries. They're in the middle of some kind of succession crisis, and the interests I represent think the place is ripe for the picking."
"Your interests aren't wrong. There are decades of riches in there, especially given that they haven't built any new Pillars in a while. What do you want? Maps? Security codes? Vault manifests?"
This isn't your first job, it won't be your last, and you weren't born yesterday. A good fixer is just one misplaced trust away from a dead fixer.
"All of those, if you can get them. But I'm gonna need proof before payment that you're actually connected in the Queendom, and aren't just blowing smoke up my ass."
The woman nods. She brushes a lock of unkempt blonde hair back behind her ear, tilts her head at you, finally says, "Proof can be provided. That's where I was going with this."
"Okay. Go ahead."
"So, the wall and the door. Every queen of the royal line has taken her daughter past that door and showed her what's outside. Every princess of the royal line has come back in, horrified, and sworn themselves to maintaining the Queendom and the Pillars. They won't speak of what they've seen, but the Queendom has endured for hundreds of years so far. A sacred guardianship indeed. Until the, as you called it, succession crisis. I was there when it started."
"I gathered the current heir couldn't handle it, or something? Didn't see what she was supposed to see, up and disappeared somehow, slipped past or took down her own mother's guards, and now part of the Queendom's looking for her, and another part is looking for a more tractable replacement with the right genes."
She shakes her head. You notice her eyes are a peculiar shade of teal, and also a little bit bloodshot.
"Half right. In fact, the current heir saw the same thing as every other princess. She saw that the isola she stood on was not the last isola. That there were more, floating just past the edge of the Queendom, in the darkness, visible only as shapes and shadows once she got used to it. And there was another wall, and another princess, standing across a narrow gap. Her mother, the queen, told her that what she was seeing in that dark reflection was the dream of an entity that once prowled past the Zenith. That it envies the Spiral, but that the Pillars keep it dreaming instead of waking, and the princess would use them, empowered by the genes of the royal line, to keep its dreams away from the dreams of the people of the Queendom. So what do you think the princess did?"
"I don't know. Like I said, I'm not from there, I've just heard the propaganda. Seems kinda silly to me, honestly, no offense meant, but they're far from the only Zenith polity with weird myths justifying their power structure."
"That's… maybe true. But here's the part you take to your bosses, and they'll know it, if they are who I think they are: she reached out across the gap, curious, and touched the other princess's hand. She made contact with something from the Dust. And what she learned in that moment of contact was everything she had been told was wrong. So she ran from the Pillars and the Queendom, unwilling to be part of what was going on there, carrying part of the entity in her head. To ensure that they could not use her dreams, she's barely slept since, so much so that sleeping and waking are much the same thing to her now."
You take a moment to process this.
"Are you telling me you're the missing princess?"
She speaks in a subtly different and echoing voice, "Princesses."
Black lightning crackles around her fingertips.
And again in the voice you've been hearing, "Tell the ministers-in-exile that I'm ready to deal: I'll help them loot my Queendom. They'll help me burn the Pillars down, and free what's been wrongfully chained."