Alma woke slowly. Where was she? She was wandering through the ghosts of halls—familiar, so familiar, shouldn’t she recognize them?— and wasn’t ever truly sure where she was. Figaro? Doma? The walls and tapestries blended and blurred together in memory. She looked down at herself. Where was her armor? The scarf she habitually wore? Her hand rose to her neck. The brooch her husband had given her before their coronation was missing as well. The only thing she wore was a loose silk nightgown.
She shuddered, a convulsive gathering of her thoughts. She was… she was the Queen of Doma. Her name… her name would come back to her, surely? She looked around. The walls wavered in her vision, then steadied. Doma. She was in her office in Doma. A giggle, faint, echoed around the corner. She hurried forward just in time to see a flash of blond hair flicker around the next corner.
She hurried forward, hand out to call to—whom? Who was it? Her own hair fell into her face as she ran, mouth open to yell a name she just couldn’t quite remember. That blond hair—she had seen it so recently, she was sure.
“Wait. Not again,” she said out loud. “I was already here.”
“Ah, the meal finally remembers,” said the mask, drifting in front of her, hanging on nothing but air. “My favorite part.”
Alma jumped back. “Stay back, you—“
“Oh, I need not touch you. You have been marinating for so long now that I pervade every part of your being.”
“What does that mean?” Alma edged around it, attempting to get behind it or at least to some more advantageous stance.
“You may stop trying to be sneaky,” the mask said, amused. “There is nowhere you can go that isn’t part of me.”
“Where are Jowd? And Cabanela?” She took a deep breath. “Where is my daughter, and what did you do to her?”
“Oh, you are just the most naïve little snack,” the mask snickered. “The fact that you believe, again and again, that they come for you and then betray you. It’s just so—delicious.”
“They did come for me. You’re lying—“ but Alma’s confidence was draining. Thinking back over her encounters, it had been almost too easy. She shook her head in negation. It wasn’t true. “I—I know they’re here. They would never betray me. You let me see them!”
“Oh, dear, my meal is distressed. What shall I do?” The mask chuckled. “Perhaps I should just finish you off. It might be a mercy. There’s nothing for you out there after all.”
Alma tried to regain her calm, using her breathing techniques – four in, hold four, four out, still for four—but her mind refused to quiet. It was indisputable that Kamila had shot her. And it had been, really, too easy to shake Jowd and Cabanela from their lethargy. Kamila had been rescued so easily, as well. She was starting to have trouble breathing as she thought back.
When had she come to Doma? Alma could remember the events after what she had mentally termed ‘The End’ with sick clarity. After three months of wandering the small cluster of new islands, lost and forlorn, with no way back to the mainland and no surety of there being anything to return to, she had found her former home. It sat alone, all the inhabitants long since fled in the aftermath of the poisoning. No towns had arisen from the ash here; there were lonely plains and scrubby grassland as far as the eye could see. She had been subsisting on monster meat and birds as she could catch them.
The thought of the castle larders had driven her on. Not everything would have been poisoned. Things preserved in glass and sealed well with wax, well away from the water supply, might reasonably be expected to have survived even five years. Alma suddenly remembered how eagerly she had entered the castle, excited to have some kind, any kind, of hope again.
The provisionary stores, however, were empty. The looting had been extensive and every single bit of what the townsfolk thought could be used had been taken. For Alma, it had been the last straw. She sat and cried, undignified wails as her heart rent for everyone and everything she had lost.
When she had finally caught her breath, her mind was clear as she picked herself off the floor, brushed herself off, and left the huge, empty castle pantries. She had gone to the throne room of Doma. She wasn’t sure what the plan was, but she was a queen and she was going to act like it. That hadn’t changed. She would reclaim this ruined world, sift through every bit of news for anything and everything that might give her some hope, and she would be Queen of Doma, if nothing else.
She had firmly crushed thoughts of love and family—they weren’t there. It was time to put away her hopes and dreams for them and work for the world’s good. Alma’s good was nothing compared to what she had to do. She had felt somehow cleansed, sure of her purpose at last. These thoughts had claimed her as she crested the steps to the throne. She strode forward, only to find the white mask lying at the foot. She had picked it up, sat down, and stared at the smooth white face—
Alma blinked. That was the last thing she definitively remembered before finding herself in the halls and offices of Figaro.
The mask was still there, hanging in front of her face, looking as smug as a lump of smooth white ceramic can look. Alma seized it in her hands and stared at it, face to blank white face. “I don’t know how you did this to me, but you will let me go, now!”
“Oh, my. Little snack, how many times do you think we’ve had this exact conversation?” The mask seemed to drip from her fingers and reform a few inches from her grasp. “I own you, body and mind, and I intend to savor you. Nine wonderful months has been barely enough to suck the metaphorical marrow from your psyche. I intend to eat every bite.” It drifted upwards. “You believe so strongly that you can save them, but deep in your heart you believe no one will ever save you. You’re just a meal of infinite variety and courses, snack. I can bring you back to despair and regret over and over again, endlessly creating new flavors.” It laughed, and the sound cracked the pearly steps under Alma’s feet. “Shall we try this again? Who knows? Maybe you’ll escape this time.” The cracks grew wider as Alma tried to keep her footing.
The last thing she heard before she fell backwards into the light was the mask laughing. "After all, variety is the spice of life.”