Gender: Male Age: 29 Location: San Francisco.
|Introduction: Just who is the fairest of them all?|
"The stepmother had a mirror to which she referred—
something like the weather forecast—
a mirror that proclaimed
the one beauty of the land.
She would ask,
Looking glass upon the wall,
who is fairest of us all?
And the mirror would reply,
You are the fairest of us all.
Pride pumped in her like poison."
-Anne Sexton, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall…"
"What's that, mother?"
The Queen turned away from the looking glass; her stepdaughter sat by the tower window, embroidery in her lap, looking at her with a curious expression.
"Just something I used to say when I was a little girl," said the Queen. "A rhyming game of sorts. There's a second part to it, but I can never remember how it goes."
She looked in the mirror again, frowning over her reflection. Something didn't look quite right about it, but she wasn't certain what it was. It took another minute's gazing for her to notice the man in the room; she was briefly startled, having completely forgotten that he was waiting on her. He was the captain of the castle guard, the one whose name she could never remember but nevertheless one of the only people allowed into the Queen's private sitting room, here with some report or another. She allowed him to kneel, then took the scroll he held.
"What's this?" said the Queen.
"A writ of execution, your majesty," said the captain. The Princess looked startled. The Queen bit her lip.
"A woman in the township was convicted of witchcraft," said the captain. "I believe she's some manner of peddler."
"And they're certain of her guilt?" said the Queen.
"The bishop swears it was a thorough inquiry," said the captain. He paused. "But of course, the final authority on the matter is yours and yours alone. Your majesty."
The Queen sighed, then went to her desk and found the royal seal, pressed it into the soft wax on the bottom of the scroll, then handed it back to the captain, who saluted. The Queen watched him leave. She noted that the Princess watched him too, with an expression the Queen did not entirely approve of. But she supposed the captain was a handsome enough man, and what else could she expect?
The Queen sat in the other chair by the window, opposite her stepdaughter. The Princess lowered her eyes in a gesture of respect. The Queen watched the rise and fall of the Princess' breasts and noted the barest flickering of her tongue between her red, red lips. Yes, the captain had been looking at her too, though he was subtle about it, as always. It couldn't be helped. There was nothing so eye-catching as the expanse of pure white flesh over the neckline of the Princesses' favorite dress. No one could resist at least a glance at such a sight.
"Do you know," said the Queen, abruptly, "I was sitting at this window the first time I held you in my arms?"
The Princess had no visible reaction.
"Your poor mother was dead, your father mad with grief, and you were no more than four hours old. I was not yet your mother, but I felt a kind of…stirring. It's a difficult feeling to describe to someone who has never experienced it. There was a blizzard that night, and do you know what I said? I said, I wish this child should grow to have lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony, and skin as white as—"
The Queen stopped. She bit her lip again.
"What's that, Mother?" said the Princess. "Go on?"
"Nothing, my darling," said the Queen. She'd been looking at her reflection in the window glass but now looked at her stepdaughter instead; the younger woman was, in her own way, a reflection of the Queen, or perhaps a memory, for though there was no blood between them the resemblance was so strong they could easily be mistaken as true parent and child. Was I ever so beautiful at her age, the Queen wondered? Did the people who looked at me feel what I feel now, looking at her? Has anyone ever felt this way before? Or is it a magic hers and hers alone?
The Queen took a deep breath. "We must talk about a serious matter," said the Queen. The Princess assumed an attentive expression. "I'm afraid you're long past the age when we should have had you married."
The Princess sat forward a little.
"You know that there are many eligible lords from other provinces who have expressed a desire to pay your court."
"Oh Mother, who?" said the Princess. "Has the Duke of Hammand spoken to you? Or the Duke of Carrel? Or—"
"But you must never marry," the Queen hastened to finish.
The Princess looked stunned. "I don't understand?" she said.
"To be a queen, a queen with any real power, is to be always in danger," said the Queen. "Consider, I have only been the queen these last ten years. Before that I was just a king's wife. Do you understand? No, of course you don't."
The Queen put a hand to her temples; she was going about this all wrong.
"When your father died without a male heir the ministers accepted me as their sovereign only because they did not want to risk a crisis of succession. They saw it as the lesser of evils. But if a man, any man, could ever replace me, they would throw their support behind him in an instant. It's the way of things; a queen rules only in absence of a king, any king.
"Once you become queen in your own right and marry some will look on your husband as the king even if he has no such authority. And to which of you do you think the people will swear greater allegiance if they had to choose: you or him? And he would unseat you, or even me, to consummate his power."
"But if I marry a good man—" said the Princess.
"There are no good kings," the Queen said. "And there are no good queens."
"You're a good queen!" said the Princess.
"Few think so. In the townships and in the vales they call me the evil queen, the wicked stepmother."
"They do?" the Princess said, shocked.
"It doesn't matter," said the Queen. "They do not have to love me so long as they stay loyal to me. That's why I never married again, and why you must never marry now."
The Princess looked helpless. Her eyes turned red around the edges. Then she said, "What should I do? To be always alone…"
"Well, you can have however many consorts you wish, so long as your rendezvous are kept secret," said the Queen. She stood and moved behind her stepdaughter's chair, lacing her arms around her the Princess' neck and cradling her head. "Your political enemies will brand you a whore if they can, you see. Never let them see you as anything but pure and virginal. As pure January sn—"
A little sigh from the Princess cut her off. The Queen stroked her stepdaughter's cheek. She paused again, and though her outward demeanor did not change, inside her heart was racing.
"Of course," said the Queen, "there are many ways to be happy, and many ways to find love." She knelt by her stepdaughter's side, the first time the Princess had seen her stepmother bend knee to anyone. The Queen looked the Princess in the eyes, dazzled by her for a moment. The Princess drew a quick breath and the Queen was enthralled by the tiny movements of her delicate throat. She saw those red, red lips purse in an expression of confusion and worry and her breath almost went away.
"You are such a beauty, my darling. You are the only thing in the world that matters to me. I love you as if you were my own true daughter, and I've tried my best to love you as your real mother would, for she was my dearest friend. And each year that goes by you grow only more beautiful, only more like her."
The Princess smiled, but it was a small, confused smiled. "Thank you, Mother; but what does that have to do with—"
The Queen put the Princesses' hand to her breast. "Do you feel my heart beating? It beats for you, my darling one. A mother's love is special. It can be all you need, if you let it. Who else in the entire world can love you as I do? Who else has admired your beauty for your entire life?"
The Queen moved in, her face right next to the Princess'. "But of course, we are not blood relations. There would be no crime in it, no sin. Don't you see how perfect it is? And am I not beautiful, too? Do you not love me the same as I love you? Or perhaps you could grow to love me in that way? Perhaps, with time…?"
The Princess went wide-eyed, pale, startled, speechless. Something turned over and snapped inside the Queen and before she knew what she was doing she pressed her lips to her stepdaughter's. She held the trembling kiss for a handful of seconds, and then pulled away. And then she saw the fear in her stepdaughter's eyes; fear, and disgust. The Queen looked away, bowing her head with shame.
"Of course, there are other ways too," she said.
The Princess said nothing. The Queen turned back to the mirror. "Go and rest, my darling. You've had a long day. There are longer days ahead of you. Yes, we both need rest."
The Princess stood. She left her embroidery behind. She did not meet her stepmother's eyes. The Queen looked at the mirror, trembling, tears stinging. All of a sudden she flew to the door and ran into the corridor, catching up with the Princess just as she was passing the captain of the guard on the stairs.
"Captain!" cried the Queen. "Put my daughter under arrest."
The Princess whirled around; the captain gaped. The sentries and servants nearby cried out, their jaws slack.
"Your majesty?" said the captain.
The Queen put her hands on her hips. "Arrest the princess. Lock her in her chambers and do not allow her to leave until I order her freed."
The Princess said nothing. The sentries, their movements slow and their faces ashen, seized on her, though each put only a hand on one of her elbows. The captain regained his composure first.
"And what is the charge, your majesty? For our records."
The Queen pursed her lips. "Treason," she said.
The Queen heard one of the sentries whisper an apology to the Princess. She said nothing, going along meekly, eyes on the floor. The Queen went back to the sitting room and locked herself in. She paced up and down. Would the Princess tell anyone what happened? Would they believe her? The Queen contemplated her mirror again; why was she so drawn to it tonight? She touched the glass, tracing her features in it.
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall," she whispered, "who's the fairest of them all?"
"The princess is fairest, fairest by far."
The Queen whirled around. "Who's there?" she said.
"Look here," said the voice again. Was it coming from—? But that was impossible? The Queen faced the looking glass; her reflection stared back at her but somehow it was changed, lips smirking and eyebrows arched, the eyes themselves invested with a ghastly, inhuman quality. And the mirror spoke, with a voice that was empty and masculine: "The princess is the fairest in all the land," it said. "Her lips as red as blood, her hair as black as ebony, and her skin as white as—"
"You're right," said the Queen. "She is beautiful."
"She's more than beautiful!" said the mirror. "She is beauty itself. But you? You age. The weight of years lies heavy on you. Why would the fairest girl in all the land ever love an aging matron who will visit the grave before her time?"
"Yes. Yes, you're right," said the Queen. She chewed her fingernails, pacing the room again.
"But if you were to become more beautiful," said the mirror, "become the fairest of them all, then she would not be able to resist you. She would throw herself at your feet."
"But how?" said the Queen. "I cannot turn back time."
"There are powers beyond the kin of mortals, but still not entirely beyond your reach," said the mirror.
"I don't know what you mean."
"Don't you?" said the mirror.
The Queen stopped pacing. Then she ran to the corridor and cried for the sentries again. She didn't bother waiting for one to kneel before barking out, "The execution in the township, is it over yet? Is the witch woman dead?"
"I do not know, your majesty."
The Queen flew to her desk, unrolling parchment and scratching a quill across it as fast as she could. She set the royal seal on the pardon and handed it, wax still dripping, to the sentry.
"Go into town as fast as you can. Bring that woman to the castle, and pause for nothing!"
The man left in such a hurry that he did not salute. The Queen paced some more. Her reflection watched her all the while, a coy smile on its lips. After an hour they brought the prisoner in, an old crone with not a tooth in her head. The witch tried to curtsy but her knees would not bend, and she fell down instead. The Queen sent the sentries away, and the two were alone together.
"So," said the Queen, "is it true?"
The witch seemed at a loss.
"Is it true that you've had congress with the devil and that he taught you magic arts?"
"No, your highness," said the witch.
"I signed the writ of execution that said it is true, which means you're calling me a liar. That's treason, and it's punishable by death."
The old woman worked her gums and turned her jaundiced eyes from side to side. "What I’m accused of is also punishable by death. It seems your majesty would have me put to death either way."
The Queen leaned in. "Tell me the truth, whatever it is, and you will be freed. I swear on…my daughter's life."
The witch's eyes lit up. Then she smiled with her gums and said, "Yes, then. It's true."
"Tell me how."
The witch looked baffled, then said, "All you must do is summon the devil."
"Your majesty," said the witch, "he is here already!"
She pointed with a gnarled finger; she pointed at the mirror. The Queen's reflection leered as the Queen went back to face it; the light in its eyes was chilling.
"All right. What else?" said the Queen.
"You must abjure God and all forms of divinity. But you must have a witness, someone who is already learned in the Forbidden Arts."
"Will you suffice?"
The witch nodded.
"Very well then," said the Queen. "Here, in the eyes of this solemn witness, I do renounce my filial bonds to God, and to every god, and to every power save the one I see before me in this mirror, provided that this being, whatsoever it may be, will furnish me with the power to achieve all of my ends.
"So help me…no one."
The flames of the lamps in the room blazed, shooting up six inches. Several of the glass chimneys exploded; the old witch squawked and covered her gray head, but the Queen did not react.
"You will have all that you desire," said the mirror. "But there will be a price."
"Whatever it is," said the Queen, "I will pay it."
"Be careful, your majesty," said the witch. "You are new to the power, and your familiar spirit will try to lead you to its own ends."
"Your further council is not required," said the Queen. She rang for the sentries. "Take this old crone away," she said. "Take her out of the township. And give her gold. And remember, old one, that your pardon is from henceforth valid only outside the bounds of this castle and the adjoining town. If you ever return, you'll face the noose again."
The sentries were surprised but did not hesitate to obey. Alone again, the Queen returned to the mirror. "What is your price for the beauty that will capture my daughter's heart?" she said. "What rituals must I perform?"
"No ritual, oh queen," said the mirror. "Merely a favor. In the town below there is a church, and there are many such churches in your kingdom, and priests and friars, and even a bishop. You must cast them out. Pull down the churches, raze their foundations, and outlaw these holy clergy. Do this, and I will make you the most beautiful creature in the world, indeed, the most beautiful creature in the history of the world."
"It will be done," said the Queen. She paused. "And my daughter? What should I do with her?"
"Keep her locked away," said the mirror, "until the task is complete. It will teach her respect, and a new appreciation for you."
And so it was done. The Queen's soldiers evicted the bishop and all his followers, and burnt the churches, and the new law was set down against any prayers or invocations. The dungeons swarmed with prisoners and every one of her royal ministers told the Queen to abandon this mad edict, but she would not budge. A year passed, and the Princess languished in prison all the while. The Queen, as per the mirror's promise, grew more beautiful every day, and though most of her subjects soon hated her with a passion those who looked on her face could not help but fall under the spell of burning, poisonous, all-encompassing lust.
One day the Queen stood nude before the mirror, admiring herself. "Am I really the fairest of them all?" she said. "It seems to me that my daughter is fairer still…"
"That doesn't matter," said the mirror. "She will not be able to resist you now. Send for her."
The Queen rang the captain of the guard, and he entered. She clothed herself only in a light robe and he stood, transfixed, unable to take his eyes off of the magnificent smoothness and whiteness of the Queen's exposed flesh. She ignored his stares. "I have had a change of heart," said the Queen. "Set my daughter free and bring her to me."
"Yes, your majesty," mumbled the captain. He had a fevered look about him.
The Queen reclined on a chaise lounge, admiring the curves of her own calves and thighs. She had always been beautiful, but never had she been vain, no was she now, at least in her mind; she coveted not beauty, but what beauty could bring her. The Princess entered; the Queen's heart climbed into her throat. Though her stepdaughter had become wan and dark-eyed in her years of confinement her loveliness was not diminished. Indeed, her state only lent to her essential essence of fragility; she seemed like a wilted flower that yearned for care.
"Oh my daughter," said the Queen. "My dear, dear daughter. How have you weathered these long months?"
"Well enough, Mother," said the Princess. "Though imprisonment runs hard on everyone sooner or later."
"Your prison is more lavish than the homes of some of the richest people in our kingdom," said the Queen.
"Not yours," said the Princess.
The Queen sighed. "You are right, of course. Your arrest was…rash. In truth, I was mad with jealousy. Can a girl your age, who has never loved, understand that? You cannot know the lengths and depths a person will go to achieve the most secret desire of their heart."
The Princess' expression remained icy.
"But that's all in the past now," said the Queen. "You are free. Just tell me, my daughter, my darling one, that you will consent to stay here with me, to rule by my side, to be the one and only sovereign of my heart. Please tell me, my fair one, that you can love me, truly love me, in every way."
As she spoke the Queen stood, throwing off the robe and displaying the unparalleled, painful beauty of her immaculate body in all its glory. The Princess watched, unblinking…and then she shook her head, once to one side, once to the other.
"No," was all she said.
The Queen frowned. She came face-to-face with her stepdaughter, peering into her eyes, looking for her reflection there but not finding it.
"So cold, my daughter?" said the Queen. "So cold, and so cruel. A heart of ice, to match your skin so white?"
"My heart is my own," said the Princess.
The Queen's brow darkened. "So it is."
She summoned the sentries again, but she motioned for the captain to stay while the others took the Princess away. She put her robe back on, then knelt over her desk for a moment before handing him a scroll.
"What's this?" said the captain.
"A writ of execution." The captain gasped. The Queen did not notice. "Take her out into the woods," said the Queen. "Do it there, out of sight."
The captain swallowed and licked his dry lips. "And how shall I…?"
The Queen turned away, back toward the mirror. "Cut out her heart," she said. "Bring it to me."
The captain trembled as he saluted. When he was gone, the Queen returned to the mirror. "So rash again, my queen?" it said.
The Queen frowned at the mirrors tone. "You lied to me," she said. "No matter how beautiful I become she will not love me."
"I didn't say she would love you," said the mirror, "I said she would throw herself at your feet. And she will. You will see."
The Queen seethed with jealous rage; her heart burned like a ball of fire in her chest. She sat by the window, waiting. In time, a storm blew up, burying the land in white. She watched the tiny crystalline flakes collect on her windowsill. Gradually, her rage cooled, and a sliver of doubt lodged in her breast, needling her until, while examining the intricacies of the frost patterned on the windowpane, she realized what she'd done. Mortal terror seized her. She ran to the opposite window, the one facing the forest, hoping it was not too late, but then there was the captain, waiting for her at the top of the stairs, looking shaken. My God, thought the Queen, what have I done?
She fought to maintain her composure; no matter what, the captain could never be allowed to see her doubt. "Well?" said the Queen.
The captain hesitated. "There is something you must know, my queen…"
The Queen almost collapsed in relief, but no, not in front of the captain; no weakness, not in front of others, not ever. Instead she struck him across the face. "I gave you an order!" she cried. "How dare you not carry it out!" Thanks the gods you didn't.
"But your majesty," said the captain, "I was fully prepared to follow your orders, but when I looked on her, pity seized my heart. How could it not? Would you not feel the same in my position?" The Queen's expression softened, but only a little. "So when she asked me if she could be permitted time to pray, I had to consent," said the captain.
"You know the law!"
"Yes," said the captain, "I do. But I could not tell her no. I am sorry, your majesty. Order my execution, if you wish. I will carry out that order myself."
The Queen merely gestured for him to continue.
"When she was done, the princess said…that she had had a change of heart. She said to use that exact phrase, your majesty. She said that if I would spare her life and bring her back to the castle and tell you that, that all would be well. Further, she says she will wait for you in your most private bedchamber. She said that you would understand what she means. Your majesty."
The Queen's breath left her body. She began to swoon, but caught herself. She reached up and caressed the captain's bruised cheek and then she kissed him, once, very lightly, on the lips. He almost fell over.
"Thank you, captain," said the Queen. "Thank you for everything."
"My lady…!" said the captain. And that was all he could say.
The Queen went down the corridor to her bedchamber. Along the way she ordered the sentries out, promising death on whoever disturbed her this night. When she threw open the doors, she found the Princess reclining in her bed, her body covered by only a single silken sheet.
"Hello, mother," said the Princess.
She stood, holding the sheet against her, keeping it wrapped across her ample breasts, and then she kneeled at the Queen's feet. The Queen saw the soft line of her stepdaughter's bare back, and her black-as-night hair spilling over naked white shoulders.
"I've come back to beg your forgiveness," said the Princess. "I see now how wrong I was, how cruel, to reject my mother's love. I can only hope that you find it in your heart to accept me back into your graces, even though I am so undeserving."
The Queen sighed, and tears pricked her eyes. "Oh my daughter," she said. "My darling one. My heart."
The Queen went to her knees. She hugged herself against her stepdaughter's body, circling her with her arms, feeling the lines of her figure. The Princess let the sheet drop, and in the dim yellow light of the lamps her naked body was there in all its glory. The Queen gasped; the Princess took her stepmother's face in her hands and pulled it to hers, and the Queen dared to kiss those blood-red lips while, just behind them, a warm, wet tongue that darted back and forth in a tantalizing chase.
Arms flung around her neck, the Princess pulled the Queen onto bed, and they tumbled down together, onto the same sheets where the Queen and the Old King once shared so many hours. Their hot mouths pressed together, the Princess' supple fingers combed through her stepmother's hair, long silken strands spilling down and around them. The Princess removed the Queen's robe and they nestled together, each aware of the parity of their naked bodies, almost but not quite completely alike the other. The Queen looked at her own naked thigh pressed against her stepdaughter's; only the Princess' complexion indicated which belonged to which. It truly was difficult to tell which of them was fairest. Not that it mattered anymore; now that they could truly be together, nothing else mattered.
The Queen let her hands explore, roaming across the planes and curves of the body she'd longed for so many nights alone and cold in this same bed. The Princess lay back, sprawled on the cushions, eyes closed, face turned a little, mewling with pleasure as the Queen's fingers slid across her erect nipples; the Princess' breasts truly were a wonder, as firm and ripe as apples in the orchard, each crowned with the sweetest pink nub. The Queen compared them to her own and then pressed them together as she leaned into her stepdaughter again, kissing her with a lashing tongue while their hips glanced against one another's and legs parted, pressing together with a hint of urgency.
The room grew hot and languid with the pooled heat of their naked flesh. The Queen became lost in kisses and embraces, sometimes having to force herself to stop and come up for air; the Princess, if anything, seemed insatiable, always more eager to move on, always pulling her stepmother back again when she broke away. So soft, the Queen thought, though she was not certain whether she meant her own skin or her stepdaughter's; the mirror had done its work well, for while the Queen had always been beautiful now she truly was almost a match for the Princess. Sometimes it seemed that the Queen was making love to a reflection of herself; the thought was jolting, disturbing, and she pushed it away. She buried herself in the Princess' body instead.
Writhing, thrashing, twisting and turning, they tangled around each other in an endless, sinuous knot. The Queen's hands moved lower and the Princess' songlike moans encouraged her. Her lips roamed; the Princess was utterly pliable. Finally the Queen came to the place where her stepdaughter's thighs met, and there was a small thatch of black hair. Yes, even here, hair as black as night; and below, lips as red as blood. Her stepdaughter's sex had never been revealed to anyone before; it was the most intimate of secrets. The Queen felt reverent, as she used to before the church altar, now a feeling reserved for those moments when she consulted the mirror. The Princess sighed, a sound somehow both contented and expectant. The Queen pressed her lips against the Princess' body and kissed her, there, once, with a trembling that called to mind their first kiss. Heat blossomed on the spot, and the Princess twitched a little. Her beautiful lips parted and allowed a single breathless "Oh!" to pass. The Queen flushed.
She kissed again, and again the tiny, sweet "Oh!" Again, and the Princess indulged in a longer, more gratified sound. Her hands ran over the Queen's shoulders, pressing down. She did not say "Please," perhaps did not even think it, but the plea was implicit. The Queen kissed her sex more fully and the Princess responded by coiling herself up and crying out in ecstasy; the Queen watched and listened, fascinated. Somehow, just as the Princess' beauty burned with a quality almost inhuman, the quality of her pleasure seemed beyond the norm as well. The Queen wondered what life must be like for such an angel; was it even something that ordinary people could understand?
There was no time to consider now. She pillowed her head in the Princess' lap and kissed her again and again and again, letting her tongue slide up and down, then pressing in, penetrating, drawing out another volley of excited cries, and then the Queen poured herself into the moment and the movement of what she was doing. For the first time, she let herself indulge, completely, and shut out the thought and memory of everything except the touch, the taste, the feel, and the gratification of what her lips and tongue did now.
And when the living fount of this pleasure, the white-hot ember of languishing ecstasy whose body the Queen devoured with her open mouth, began to cry out with uneclipsed frenzy of her own, the Queen tasted sweet ambrosia and drank her fill until she lay, helpless and quivering, across the Princess' body, both too stunned to move. The Queen watched the Princess' naked breasts quiver and shake with the racking sobs of her pleasure until eventually they slowed, and stilled, and she kissed them one at a time, a final consummation. The Queen slept that night in her stepdaughter's arms, and it seemed that the Princess' figure remained visible even when the Queen's eyes closed, a vision that burned through the expanse of sleep, like a torch in the dark, leading the Queen on to some place she knew not where, nor would understand even when she arrived.
The Queen woke the next morning alone. The Princess was gone. The Queen looked at the hollow in the sheets left by the Princess' sleeping body and felt a stab of panic. The room just barely held the lingering vestiges of her scent, still distinct but fading fast…
The Queen dressed in a hurry, barging into the corridor and waylaying the first servant she found. "Where is my daughter?" she said, almost screaming. The poor serving girl was terrified and unable to speak. "Never mind," said the Queen. She pushed the girl out of the way and found the stablemaster.
"The Princess?" he said. "She went out riding this morning."
"Where, where did she go?"
"Into the forest, your majesty," said the stablemaster.
"How long ago? Can we still catch up to her if we leave now?" The Queen stood at her full height to all but shout into the tall man's face. The stablemaster looked bewildered.
"Hours since, my queen," he said. "In truth, I see no reason to be alarmed. The Princess often went for a morning ride in the days before her incarceration. Doubtless she missed the practice."
The Queen said nothing, returning to her private chambers and refusing visitors all day. She even covered the mirror. She sat by the window, glowering, waiting for her stepdaughter's party to return and certain that it would not. When night fell, she knew she was right.
"I'll search every rock and tree in the kingdom for her," she said.
"You will not find her," the mirror said. "You have been betrayed. Now she is under the protection of fairy creatures from the woods, the clever little men who dwell under the ground and are known as the dweorg, or the dvergr. They are seven in number, a most auspicious charm among their kind, one that will make it all but impossible to find her."
The Queen sagged. "Then all is lost."
"Perhaps," said the mirror. "Or perhaps not. It may be in my power to find her, eventually. But first you will have to deal with the war."
The Queen started. "War?"
"Don't you realize what she'll do?" said the mirror. "You yourself gave her the plan: She will marry an eligible lord from a neighboring kingdom, and then he will use the marriage to drive you from the throne. Likely she will go to Hammand as soon as she is able."
The Queen fretted. "How will I weather it?" she said. "I kept the army small so that they could not threaten my position…"
"We will attack first," said the mirror, "and head off their invasion. Begin mobilizing now. Draft every able-bodied citizen, seize the bulk of their property, command your castle guards to begin training the militia and to imprison anyone who defies the order. Within a year we can be ready."
The Queen chewed her nails. "And my daughter?"
"In time, I will find a way to bring her to you," said the mirror. "This war will swell my power. Do this for me, and she will be yours forever."
And so it was done. The Queen all but enslaved the citizens, and for a year and a day they made ready for war, columns of grim-faced conscripts marching through the streets of the towns and villages all day long to the music of blacksmith's hammers ringing, always ringing. Now even those people who had once defended their ruler called her the evil queen, and the stories of her darks powers spread far and wide. When the year was out the invasion force was ready, but it seemed that the Princess never appeared to Hammand, never married, never tried to stage the predicted coup. The Queen was almost disappointed. Of course, she launched the war anyway. She saw no reason not to. But her stepdaughter remained hidden.
On the eve of the invasion the mirror promised to deliver the Princess home, and the Queen spent that day walking the highest towers and battlements of the castle, watching the horizon in all directions, waiting. After sunset she saw a procession of torches making its way from the township. She ordered the gates opened and the multitude brought in. She raced to the courtyard to meet them. The captain of the guard waited for her there. He was no longer the man he used to be; mad with love for her beauty, he'd hung himself from the battlements six months prior, but had lived. The rope mark on his neck would take the rest of his life to fade.
"Your majesty," he said, voice still a bit garbled. "These pilgrims come with a gift for you."
"Who are they?" she said. "Why have they come? Is it…" She dared not ask.
"The Princess," said the captain, with a nod. The Queen almost leapt for joy.
"Is it really? Is it her? Is my daughter here? Is my daughter—"
"Dead. Your majesty."
The Queen froze. The words were impossible. They could not mean…?
"She's dead, my queen," the captain said again. He took her to the courtyard. A ragged mob of peasants were there to meet her, bearing their precious cargo on log rollers they'd spent all afternoon making; it was a casket of purest crystal, panes as clear as glass but as strong as steel, built by the seven dweorg and delivered to the village that morning. Inside, dressed in whitest lace with a bouquet of white lilies in her hands, was the Princess. So perfectly preserved was she by the fairy magic of the crystal casket that one expected to see her breast rise and fall with the quiet breath of a sleeper.
But of course, it did not.
The crowd parted for the Queen. They failed to kneel to her, but she did not notice. There was something lodged in her throat, and she swallowed hard around it. "How?" she said.
"An old woman fed her a poisoned apple," said the captain. "She confessed the whole story to us. She said that when she learned the princess was a fugitive she decided to repay you for saving her life with a pardon of execution years ago."
The Queen gasped, and a tear squeezed from the corner of her eye. Her heart shriveled. She turned and left the courtyard. The assembled villagers stirred in her absence. The captain caught her just inside the gate.
"Your majesty," he said, "we can't keep it here. The people are already treating it as a shrine, a holy thing."
"I don't care," said the Queen.
"Your majesty, you don't understand what's happening. The people believe that you murdered the princess."
"What?" said the Queen, turning on him.
"Rumor holds that you disguised yourself as the old witch and framed her for the deed."
"Nevertheless, it is what they believe. The people are restless and angry, they have been for some time. They have just been waiting for an excuse like this…"
"It doesn't matter," said the Queen. "My daughter's heart has stopped. If mine does too, I will scarcely notice."
And she left.
The mirror was waiting for her. The Queen picked up a silver candlestick from the bureau and raised it over her head. "You lied to me, again" she said.
"Not entirely," said the mirror. "I promised that the Princess would be yours forever. Is she not?"
The Queen let the candlestick fly and the mirror shattered to pieces. But beyond the now-empty frame she saw a great void, as if the mirror were a window into an impossible abyss, and her reflection was still there, standing on the opposite side, a flesh and blood double, and now it stepped through and fully into the room, birthed into this world, finally tangible. The Queen backed away, stunned, frightened. The Other Queen smiled, pitiless, stretching its arms above its head now that it was free.
"Perhaps you would like to bring her back?" said the Other. "It is within my power."
"Your power never gives me anything without finding some way to rob me of it," said the Queen, backing further away from the doppelganger.
"But what more can I take?" said the Other. "Is there any fate worse than this? And won't everything you've done up till now be for nothing if she stays dead?"
The Queen hesitated before replying. "And what price do you ask now?" she said.
The Other assumed an unreadable expression. "You," is all it said.
The two stood face to face; it was so strange for the Queen to see herself, but not herself, identical in so many ways, and yet, not. The Other touched the Queen's cheek (so cold, those hands, like glass) and kissed her; it felt…not like a kiss at all. Then the Other all but threw her to the floor; the Queen landed hard, shocked, the breath leaving her. The Other began to disrobe, revealing that its entire body was the perfect reflection of hers, just as its face was her own, though of course backward, in the manner of a mirror. Naked to the waist, the Other crouched over her. The Queen's pulse raced.
"What's the point of this?" she said.
"Must there be one?"
"Don't play games."
"Maybe I just want you to love yourself?"
The Other climbed on top of the Queen, holding her in place, though the Queen did not struggle. The Other's lips were cold and hard, but she didn't mind. What did it matter anyway? Shards of glittering mirror glass littered the floor around her; the irises of the Other's eyes seemed broken as well. Its hands felt like vices, mauling her body, stripping her clothes away, tearing and pawing, but the force it used was gratifying, somehow. She closed her eyes, relishing the rough touch on her soft flesh. Yes, why not this? Why not now, finally?
Once it had stripped her the Other forced the Queen's legs open. It ran its cold hands down her thighs and it touched her, there, and she gritted her teeth, gasping. There was no joy to be found in that touch, for the Other was empty of anything resembling delectation, but there was elation, and relief, alien though it was. The Other stripped the remainder of its own garments now and stood over her, legs apart over her body, and that's when the Queen saw it: the Other was her double in every way except for one, that being the man's genitalia. It stroked the tip of its swollen penis, as if verifying for itself that it was really there, and then it crouched over her again, taking her face in its hand, squeezing her cheeks and directing her vision to its eyes as it prepared to force its way into her. Just breathe, the Queen told herself. Just breathe and remember—
The rest of her thought was cut off by the stabbing sensation below. It was not pain, exactly; it was closer to the feeling of being smothered, somehow. The Other's icy member pushed into her and slid all the way in. The Queen sobbed now, as she had her first time, and indeed, somehow the Other reawakened that long-ago pain too. But just like the first time, it was good too; there was gratification under the discomfort.
The Other never blinked, the Queen realized as it looked at her, its eyes burning like amber. Its face moved back and forth with the rocking motion of its body but its gaze remained level and steady on her. The intensity grew, as if the constant thrusting of its turgid cock were breaking down some essential barrier that she never knew as there but now keenly missed more and more with each breach. The Queen's body shook with the force of the Other's violent movements. She cried out, something between a gasp and a moan; the sound of her own voice horrified her.
This went on and on. Before long the Queen's head was pounding and her vision swam, eyes rolling in her head and lips twitching, as if she were drunk or sick or suffering a seizure. A hazy film came over the world. Now and then the Other would strike her in the face; not in any effort to hurt her but to make sure she remained conscious. It was a struggle, still; she remained on the delirious, half-conscious verge of either death or insanity, she knew not which. The entire time the Other continued its joyless, relentless assault, machine-like, uncaring, impassive and impersonal, capable of being pleased. Its body was a function, nothing more. Not so for the Queen; her body ached in a way that was distinctly sinful.
Once, it stopped, and the Queen thought perhaps the whole thing was over, but it didn't let her rest long, seizing her body and turning her over so that she had to fight to hold her head up and avoid cutting her face on the glass shards. The Other entered her from behind and her a feeling like fire ran up from the base of her spine. She saw her face reflected over and over again in the broken glass, and behind her, her other face, her Other's face, and in a moment of mortal horror she realized she could barely tell them apart. This is all there is for me then, she thought, there was no third way, no other role afforded to her. She'd be forced one way or the other. Who she was before didn't matter. She could be anyone, no one; do anything, do nothing. Who would know? Who would care? It was all the same in the end. The book had already been written. The ending was always the same.
Now she pushed herself back against the violation. Now she welcomed it. She threw her head back and moaned, constantly, admiring the sinewy strength of her Other body. She lost herself in the hundred and hundreds of reflected images of herself, and herself, and herself, over and over and over again? There was a cut just above her lip, and it bled as she shook, and the taste filled her mouth. She saw the bloody O of her mouth in the broken mirror and thought, oh yes, lips as red as blood. Oh yes.
When it was over (it would never really be over, of course, but it at least had ended) the Other seemed to have lost something of its tangibility; it seemed empty now, and barely there. She was disappointed; she would have hoped she had more substance than that. The Queen cleaned and dressed herself. She felt vacant. She kicked the broken glass with her bare foot. "What now?" she said.
"The relief to the curse that laid your daughter low is simple," said the Other. "All she requires is true love's first kiss."
The Queen prepared to go.
"Wait," said the Other. "The kiss must come not from one who loves her, but from one she loves in return."
The Queen bit her fingers. "There is no such person," she said.
"Not yet, perhaps," said the Other. It went to where the scattered shards of the mirror still lay and with a wave of its hand the pieces rose up. They melted together into a strange, crystalline mass while the Queen watched, confused.
"For years you have spoken your heart's desire into this glass," said the Other. "For years you have nursed your sinful lust for your daughter before its face. The essence of your heart is here, in the very glass itself, and I will grant it a figure and form pleasing to the princess' eyes."
The liquid mass of liquid glass took on a human shape, and then somehow it became solid and real. Before the Queen was an androgynous thing, a masculine figure somehow invested with the Queen's own beauty, cold-eyed and smiling. It was a dull puppet, moving at the Other's command, but it appeared real and alive in every way. The Queen looked at the bizarre creation with a mix of awe and horror. It was awful, and yet she knew, in her heart, that it was the perfect snare for her stepdaughter.
"Shall I send your daughter her charming prince?" said the Other.
The Queen nodded her assent and the toy prince left on his mission, a blank automaton obeying the will of whatever inhuman power inhabited it. The frame of the mirror was empty now, no longer a window to the void, and the Other seemed to have vanished, though the Queen suspected that the better part of its dark self went with the prince. There was nothing to do now but wait.
An hour later the captain arrived, looking shaken and amazed. He stammered out: "Your daughter!"
The Queen nodded. "Is she…?"
"Alive!" said the captain. "A miracle. The people are calling her a goddess."
"And so she is," said the Queen, rising. "Take me to her."
"But your majesty, you don't understand —"
"Take me to her."
The captain opened his mouth to protest again, but a look from the Queen silenced him. "Very well, my queen. She is in the great hall."
The masses of villagers were in the hall as well, forming a closed circle around the opposite end. They did not part for the Queen and somewhere in her mind she registered outrage that these filthy, unkempt people should be so presumptuous, but most of her ignored them and simply pushed through. The captain stayed by her side all the way.
The Queen finally fought through the crowd and there, waiting for her, was her stepdaughter. The Princess' beauty blinded the Queen; she had grown up in the missing year, becoming more fully herself. Her eyes were two bright blue shards of ice to match the wintry tones of her complexion, and her oh-so red lips were frozen in a coy half smile while her black-as-night hair coiled on top of her head like some lustrous snake. The puppet prince stood by her side, a blank, grinning idiot. The Queen was so overcome with the image of her stepdaughter that she almost knelt. Her heart was ready to burst.
It was a moment before she realized something was wrong: the Princess sat on the throne, the Queen's own throne, and on her fair brow there was a crown. The Queen became aware of the closeness of the mob, and for the first time noticed that they carried heavy instruments and sharp-edged farm tools. The Princess, in her royal splendor, looked at the Queen with a face devoid of life or emotion, as blank-eyed and pitiless as the prince. The air around her was as cold as a January morning. One could scarcely believe her heart beat.
"What is this?" said the Queen. "What's going on?"
The Princess did not answer. The Queen took two steps up to the throne—her throne—but somehow the toy prince blocked her path.
"What is this?" she said again, turning on the crowd. The villagers stared at her with hateful expressions. They stirred, clutching their weapons and instruments in dirty, calloused hangs. The Queen began to tremble.
The captain came up to her. He put a scroll in her hand; tears blurred her vision, so she could not read it, but she saw the royal seal pressed into fresh wax at the bottom, though she had no handed down no declarations today.
"What is this?" she said again, looking at the captain. The captain sighed and looked away, overcome with some emotion she could not place. The Queen waited for an answer. It was the Princess who finally spoke:
"It's a writ of execution," she said.
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