“You admit to me that you do not love your fiance.”
“He knows I do not love him.”
“Are not capable of love is what you mean.”
“I have loved more deeply than a killer like yourself could ever dream.”
-The Princess Bride, 1987
Hero has made peace with the fact that, very soon, she is going to die. Even if the ringleader of her captors hadn’t said it right out the moment she was rescued from the eels -- damnit, Peter, keep a better eye on her. We’re not supposed to kill her until we reach Guilder-- she can tell in the very way they treat her. There have been no threats of ransom, no worry about keeping her uninjured as they navigate their way through the rocky terrain. Nor have they shown any issues with attempting to kill the pirate that had trailed them across the sea, as painfully as that had failed for them. If she ever returns to Florin, she won’t make it past her wedding night.
The woman who stands in front of her is most likely no different, if the sudden silence on the part of her captor is evidence enough.
“Come,” the woman orders with an infuriatingly familiar voice, pulling off her blindfold, and Hero blinks at the sudden sunlight. “We should get away from here before anyone discovers the body.”
Disoriented, the princess can do nothing but follow the woman as she cuts her bonds and drags her away by the hand. As her eyes adjust to the light, she peers at her rescuer, the woman who is about to kill her. Obviously a pirate from her garb, she walks with a hand on the hilt of her sword, a black mask covering most of her face.
“Who are you?” Hero asks, and the woman stops. She turns to her, and there is something in the pirate’s gaze that terrifies her.
“Who do you think I am?” asks the masked woman, voice far too soft for a dangerous pirate and confusingly familiar. The princess looks at her for a moment, considering-- the all-black clothing, the mask, the authoritative air-- and, oh. She knows this pirate. Countless heartwrenching hours have been poured into finding out everything about her, to finding out why. Her heart stutters.
Hero steps back as far as she dares, fingers slipping out of the woman’s hand. “You are the Queen of the Seas,” she answers, and her voice does not tremble. “You are one of the few people I truly despise.” Her stomach churns to look at her.
The woman’s features soften for a moment, but her hand is still on her hilt and there is a sharp glint in her familiar eyes. Hero retreats another step; if she can get back to the body of the ringleader, she will be able to use his weapons.
“Why is that?”
“You killed my beloved.”
The words sting, like pouring lemon juice on wounds that had never truly healed. Each syllable threatens to stick in her throat, and is forced out scraping at the sides. It shouldn’t hurt so badly; it’s been a year, and she’s learned to breathe. She’s begun to live again, as much as she can with her imminent murder hanging over her head. They should not feel like a raw wound. She stumbles back another step.
The woman tilts her head speculatively, following. “And who would that be? I can’t say I remember every person that encounters my sword.”
“Princess Ursula of Guilder,” Hero says, and it has been so long since she last uttered that name, since she has been permitted to. “She was travelling to Florin for our wedding, just over a year ago.”
“I remember her,” the woman says after a beat. She hesitates again, more melancholy than a pirate reminiscing on her past kills ought to be. “If it is any consolation to you, she died well.”
Hero screws her eyes shut, feet rooted in the ground, quest for the dagger forgotten for half a moment. Her throat aches, and she breathes deeply. “‘Well’?” she manages after a moment. “What do you mean by ‘well’?”
“She did not beg for her life; that is what stood out to me. She never begged, but she gazed at me with solemn eyes and asked if I would allow her just five minutes to write a letter to you. I asked her who you were, and she told me that you were the person that meant the most to her in the world; her closest friend. That she loved you with all of her being. She died with your name on her lips.”
Hero can do nothing but nod. Pressure builds in her chest and wraps around her throat, misting her eyes and causing her head to pound. The bone deep agony she has learned to ignore over the year of her betrothal to Claudio resurfaces viciously. Her voice trembles when she speaks again.
“Did you let her write the letter?”
The pirate shakes her head. “I cannot afford to let people live; what sort of fearsome pirate would I be, then?” She laughs, but not humorously. “Take no prisoners. Leave no witnesses.”
She is going to kill her, Hero remembers, having forgotten in the midst of her grief. She braces herself, fingers curling into fists. Her tears threaten to spill. “Please make it fast,” she says. “Just as I pray Ursula’s was.”
The pirate is shocked for a moment, and her eyes are so familiar-- too familiar-- that for a moment her fear is forgotten. Then it returns and her pain increases tenfold, for of course Ursula’s murderer shared her eyes.
“I am not going to kill you,” the pirate hisses, once she has recovered. “That was never my intent, here. I am simply taking the valuables of your captors and returning you to your distraught fiancé.” There is a bitterness in her words.
Hero ignores it. “Why? Why do you not wish to kill me?”
The woman seems to be lost for an explanation for a moment. Her chest rises as she takes a deep breath and looks away. By the time she looks back at the princess, her eyes are hard and cold, a stark contrast to the wild shock she had displayed just a moment before. Hero wonders which is true. “If you are murdered on these shores, the seas will be bursting with soldier’s ships,” she recovers cooly. “I do not have the patience to deal with blundering cannon fodder stumbling their way through my domain. Now let’s find our way back to your love and his armies before you start a war.” She takes Hero’s wrist far too gently in her gloved hand and begins to walk in the direction they came.
“He is not my love,” the princess interjects automatically, and the woman stops. Her grip tightens, but not painfully.
“Not your love?” she scoffs, not looking at the princess. “Is that what you told him when you were betrothed not three months after I killed her?” She lets go of her wrist, letting her hand drop to her side.
Hero gapes. She swallows, once, twice, the tears still hovering just under her vision. She doesn’t know why she is surprised; the woman in front of her killed her fiancé. “There is no one I hate more in the world than Claudio of Messina,” she says, voice barely above a whisper. “Not even you.”
“You may have torn my heart to shreds by murdering the woman I love, but he has terrorised my people time and time again.” Her voice rises. “He has imposed laws I have no power to change that benefit no one but him. The only reason I am still alive is so that his claim to the throne is secure. The moment I am coronated and we are married, you can be sure that I will not live to see the dawn.” Hero takes a shuddering breath.
“And yet you accuse me of loving him; you accuse me of not being faithful to Ursula. Know this, pirate: every fibre of my being aches for her. There are nights I cannot sleep because all I can see is her face as we parted; her last words to me hanging between us like stars. There are days I fear I shall never smile again. But she is dead.” The tears begin to come, hot and fast, pouring down her cheeks and catching on her words. “Do you know what Claudio told me, the first time I met him? I was in manacles and only half awake, and I didn’t know where my brother was being kept-- I did not know that my own brother was dead--, and he said ‘Your kingdom is mine. You are mine.’” She shudders and hiccups, but the words won’t stop, not now that they have started. “I told him I would marry him if he just let my people be. What did it matter anyway, if I could not be with her? What did anything matter, if she was gone?”
The pirate steps toward her, reaching for her, and the princess wrenches away. “Don’t,” she warns. “Just-- just give me a moment.” She takes a deep breath, regulating her breathing as Beatrice has shown her, and wishes for sleep. Her sobs slow but do not cease.
“Hero,” the pirate murmurs, and the voice is so familiar that for just half a second Hero forgets that the woman standing in front of her is the murderer of her love, and not Ursula herself. That thought brings an entirely new pain, and Hero screws her eyes shut. “I thought you loved him.”
“Never in a million years,” she replies, breath shuddering, and it is harsh, but not as harsh as Ursula’s death and his constant leering glances.
“Hero,” the pirate says again, so softly, like she fears she may break her.
“I would not have done this, had I known your feelings.”
Hero refuses to look at the woman, as if she could see anything through the trances of her tears. “My feelings have no import in the matter,” she says. “Now leave. Claudio will be here at any moment; he has always been protective of his things.”
“You have never been anyone’s plaything,” the pirate insists, and there is such a deep affection in her voice that Hero almost starts sobbing again. She knows that voice, knows that affection, knows those eyes, but it’s not possible because Ursula is dead and her murderer stands in front of her. “Hero,” she says again, and the princess looks up.
Everything in her just freezes for a moment, because a very alive Ursula is standing in front of her with tear-filled eyes and a mask in her hand. Hero reaches out with a trembling hand, fingers brushing the other princess’s cheek. She is no apparition, and Hero’s heart sings.
“Ursula,” she breathes, and the girl nods once, eyes glittering. There will be time for confusion and explanations and anger later, but now, all she can feel is overwhelming joy.
Hero flings herself into Ursula’s arms, and the taller girl buries her nose in her hair, fingers tangled in the fabric at the back of her dress. For a moment they are simply lost in each other’s embrace. The blonde princess lets herself relax into her love’s arms, the last of her tears staining her neck.
“You were dead,” she gasps, voice muffled. “You told me you were dead.”
“I thought you’d moved on,” Ursula says, voice thick with tears, and Hero wonders how she ever missed the connection. “I thought you were happy with Claudio. I thought if I let you think I was dead--”
“No.” Hero draws back and cradles Ursula’s face in her hands, rubbing away her tears with her thumbs. “No, never in a million years would you be better to me dead.”
Ursula looks away. “I just wanted you to be happy,” she says. “But I missed you so much. I’m so sorry; I should never have done any of this. I should never have accused you before.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “I missed you, too, Ursula.” She leans in and lets their foreheads rest together. Their eyes meet. “More than you know. I love you.”
“Always and forever,” Ursula replies, voice trembling.
“Always and forever,” Hero promises, and for the first time in over a year, she is at peace.