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under the soil

Chapter Text

Without you, away from the beatings of your heart

     There, my heart rots away under the soil.

 

-- Forugh Farrokhzad, excerpt of Without You



 

“You’ll be married soon, you know,” Her maid says. She is brushing Emma’s hair, picking the leaves and twigs out as she goes. Though Nomey is normally very gentle, when it comes to brushing hair she tends to yank hard enough to pluck the thoughts clear out of Emma’s head. “Don’t you think you ought to act a little more ladylike?” Nomey sighs. “At least until the wedding is through.”

Emma just shrugs and counts brushstrokes. She suspects that soft hair may be her one and only charm, as her mother has ordered the maids to brush it one hundred times each night. So far, she has counted only sixteen.

“I only worry for you, my dear,” Nomey worries, as she has done almost every night since the proposal. Nomey is a stern woman who never feigns anything, not laughter or politeness, not even for social pleasantness, and now she sighs mournfully over Emma’s hair, as if she can see the future mapped out on her skull. “You will make life so much harder for yourself, my girl, if you do not learn how to settle down and be still.”

Emma closes her eyes. She numbers the strokes silently, though she knows only Nomey’s count matters.

“Maybe, if your husband is kind, it won’t matter so much.”

 Thirty. Thirty-one. Thirty-two. Thirty-three.

“Or maybe a witch will turn you into a wild goose and save you both the trouble.” Nomey sighs.

Thirty-eight. Thirty-nine. Forty. Forty-one.

“Well. At least try to keep out of the woods, love. You’ll find more trouble than you know what to do with, over there,” her maid grunts, and yanks the brush so hard the room loses shape and swims in front of Emma’s eyes. She presses her lips tight together as to not make a sound. She keeps her eyes closed, listens to the quiet rustling sound her hair makes with each firm stroke of Nomey’s brush. “My god, these sticks sure do love your hair, don’t they?” the woman sighs mournfully. “Oh Emma.”

Eyes closed, she doesn’t think about her wedding day. She doesn’t think about the unnamed prince who will one day soon become her husband. She doesn’t think about being Queen or how eager her mother seems to be about closing the loose-ends of her daughter’s freedom, putting her future away on a box on a shelf. She counts brushstrokes.

*

Though Nomey does her best to block all known escape routes in the palace with her army of stocky nosey maids, Emma has always had a talent for finding a way out. Early in the morning, as the cooks blue the air outside with their smoke, Emma climbs out of the small square kitchen window, slips the attention of both the guards and the dogs. Scrabbling over the tall wall of mossy stones that borders the woods, Emma grunts, and pushes herself up and over the wall, dropping onto the other side where all the rules are different, and the traps are at least swift and honest.

All her life, the woods have been her one and only escape. From her mother, from her life, from everything. She was not a princess in these woods. She doesn’t know who she is: she is unnamed, unknown, a person walking away from a beautiful castle that is not her own.

It is a clear cool morning and the sky is a pale blue, spattered with barely-visible stars that wink in and out of Emma’s sight.

Emma walks out between the trees, absentmindedly whittling herself a ring out of a buckeye. The tall wet grass dampens the end of her dress.

An hour pass, and another. Along a sloping green hill, white flowers blow back and forth like waves of a green ocean.

When her legs tire, Emma takes a seat on a mossy log. Wistfully, she carves her initials into the side of the wooden ring, rather fancying the idea of wearing a ring like this instead of the heavy, punishing sort of thing her mother will want her to wear. She can already imagine the daily pain it will inevitably cause her: the snagging of her hair, the constantly pinched skin, the new holes in her clothes.

She can’t quite imagine the way marriage will transform her life yet, but it turns her stomach with a sour kind of dread knowing that every aspect of it will be done without her.

And, why not? Everything else in her life has happened that way.

Once, a few years ago, a surprised horse reared back onto its hind legs in front of her little brother: it cut its great black hooves into the air and missed his tiny skull by mere inches, stamping the ground with unforgiving fury. She knew in that moment that nothing in the world would have been able to keep those hooves from stomping out her brother’s life if he had been even an inch closer. Nothing -- not if she cried or plead or ran to him. Nothing.

Much in the same way, she knows she will be married. There is no real escape.

Gradually, the morning warms into day. A sparrow darts from tree to tree, filling the air with its soft chatter.

With a sigh, Emma sits on the warm dry earth. She turns the leaves with her fingers and roots idly in the dirt, trying to gather up the courage to leave this place. 

It is then, as she is digging through the dirt, that her fingers bump up against a strange branch sticking up from the ground. It is hidden well by weeds and moss, buried deep beneath a heavy log, but Emma can see the slender, shapely look of it, almost like a hand, with five long bony points.

“Huh,” Emma smiles after a moment, and gently traces a finger along the soft, smooth wood. “You’re sure a weird-looking thing,” she says. “And quite possibly the unluckiest thing out here. You’re never going to get any sun beneath a log like this.”

Staring down at the branch, a funny warmth fills Emma’s stomach. It looks so hand-like, so regal and expectant, it is as if a Queen had pushed her hand up from the ground to be kissed by Emma alone.

Warmed by the thought, Emma bends to do just that. Her lips smack a sweet chivalrous kiss against the hand’s brown knuckles.

Immediately, the hand twitches in surprise, pulling reflexively back. Emma doesn’t notice. She has already turned away to inspect the log.

“You know, it’s too bad. I bet you’d be as tall as all these other trees if you weren’t trapped under this damn thing.” Emma gives the log a hard pat, pleased by the hollow, echoing sound the wood makes against her palm. She tilts her head back, considering.

After a long moment, absentmindedly trailing her fingers along the strange hand-like branch, Emma comes to a decision and stands.

“Well,” she brushes off her trousers. “Any fool can push a log, right?”

Planting her feet, Emma positions her two hands firmly on the log, giving it a firm push. When it doesn’t budge an inch, she grunts, and pushes again, hard enough to make her boots slide into the mud and put her bones up close against the skin. Using her shoulder as leverage, she pushes, scrabbling against the ground. She pushes until her hands hurt, until her ribs ache around her lungs, until the log is nearly a full three feet away.

Sapped of all strength, Emma lets herself go limp against the log.

“Goddamn,” she groans, and lets her head fall back against the log. Between the gaps of the slender branches, the sky whirls with motion over her head, spinning white with clouds. Overwhelmed, she lays an arm over her eyes.

Slowly, the newly exposed soil warms under the sun.

Deep, deep beneath the earth, there is a soft, relieved sigh.

The fingers of the hand extend slowly from the palm, test out its reach in the empty space in front of it. Very gently, the hand turns its wrist in slow circles, warming up the stiff  cold muscles.

“Gods,” Emma, oblivious, breathes up at the sky. “Why couldn’t I have been born a knight? Or a farmer or gods, anyone useful,” she passes her fingers absentmindedly through her hair, oblivious to the small movements beneath the earth. “Even a prince might have been able to push that log farther. He’d at least have a sword.”

The blue sky above her head erupts with restless birds. Small black dots swirl above her head, their swarm falling apart and coming back together again. Emma watches them without interest, breathing quietly, gradually slower.

“A princess can’t do much,” She says softly, to herself. She pushes a curly blonde strand of hair behind her ear. Her fingertips rasp against her cheek, dry and rough with dirt. “Well -- they can marry. But that’s just about it. That’s all I got to offer.”

Beside her, the hand tries to find her, searching blindly with muddy fingers. Once, the hand grazes the side of Emma’s arm, but Emma neither startles or jumps, having mistaken the hand as a harmless stick, she merely brushes the touch away as she would brush a strand of hair off her forehead.

“But I guess marriage is something,” Emma continues absentmindedly, and smiles, warming up to her own joke. She plucks the ring she whittled out of a buckeye back out from her pocket, now as smooth and thin as a coin. She rubs off some of the wet dirt with the hem of her shirt. “As a princess, I have only myself to offer,” she says, “And though I may not be the best company, or much of a wife, I am kind and I am loyal. I promise to care for you, to protect you from misery and loneliness, to stand beside you as a wife and a friend -- or, I suppose I will just sit,” she laughs, and puts the ring on a slender finger. “Till death do us part, I’m yours.”

The hand grips Emma’s wrist.

Startled, Emma yelps and yanks back. Beneath her knees, the earth shakes, tumbling into a widening hole in the ground.  A boom of magic thunders from below, cracks open the bed of black earth where a hand lifts towards Emma. It is truly a hand now, connected to slender bony wrist that follows with an arm, an elbow, a slowly rising body.

Emma sits there, too frightened to move. She watches as the blind hand reaches for her. It coasts its muddy fingers along her ear, slides down her jaw to put her palm fully on Emma’s cheek.

“Foolish girl,” the voice of a woman croaks humorously from the pit of dirt, her voice as rough as sandstone. “You’re mine, now.”

All the space in Emma’s chest constricts. Scrambling up to her hands and feet, Emma pushes herself up and runs, darts blindly through trees. She doesn’t stop until she has cleared the woods, until she has scrambled and scraped herself up the stone wall and rolled over onto the other side.

When her mother finds her muddy from head to toe, a warm bath is called to scrub her skin back to soft cleanliness, and two-hundred strokes ordered to clear her hair of tangles and sticks and selfish ungrateful thoughts. But Emma hardly notices, lying against the edge of the porcelain tub, she doesn’t even count the strokes. She merely lies there, stunned into a silence so deep not even Nomey can rouse her from it.

**

Her mother announces the very next morning that the wedding will be this afternoon. Her father’s face broadens with a smile, all the maids clap and smile with happiness, and Emma just nods. Since then, Emma has tried to follow along with the conversation, with everyone’s excitement, but her mind keeps going blank, empty, and whenever she is roused again, by a loud laugh or by her mother’s voice, she finds that she has not been thinking of her wedding at all, but of the mossy log where white flowers had grown in between the cracks and where a cool, firm hand had closed around her own.

“Emma?” her mother asks again, voice now sharp with warning. “Are you listening?”

Emma blinks. “Yeah.” she answers, hollowly.

“I will need you to be ready on time, just this once, honey. I don’t want any of your usual shenanigans, alright?”

“Alright.”

She didn’t have the heart to make much of an escape, anyway. After a long warm bath, Nomey starts the slow torturous process of preparing her body to be wed. It is slow and painful: she must be fit to her dress, by her mother’s dream, which involves a lot of scrubbing, plucking, pulling, softening her hard-rough features.

Staring in the mirror, Emma can see where her mother’s beauty had crashed and ended in her face. The boneless prettiness of her mother is cut square and harsh with her hard jaw, steel-grey eyes, and small chin.

“You seem worried,” Nomey says after a little while. Her fingers do the quiet, careful work of braiding her hair with flowers. “Nervous about meeting the prince?”

A horror blooms in Emma’s chest at the thought, but it quietly dies. Emma sighs and shrugs, picking hopelessly at the thin silver bracelet on her wrist.

“Not really,” Emma says. When Nomey meets her eyes in the mirror, she rubs her hand, squeezing the bones. “Or maybe I am, I don’t know.”

“What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing,” she mumbles, and looks down into her lap until Nomey pulls impatiently on her hair, makes her grimace and press her shoulders against the maple back of her chair again. “Fine. I guess...I guess I was thinking about what might be out there in the woods.”

Nomey grunts, unimpressed. “If you tear your dress trying to get out there today, I promise whatever is out there will be the last of your worries.”

“I’m not going, anywhere,” Emma says glumly and picks at her bracelet. “I was only wondering. I mean, you’re the one always telling me to be careful out there. I was just wondering what kind of trouble you think is out there.”

“Oh, now you wanna know?” Nomey stops. “You’ve never seemed all that worried before.”

When Emma only shrugs, Nomey makes a flat line with her mouth, but she resumes her work, combing her fingers slowly through Emma’s long hair.

“Well, there’s no short list of trouble that will find you in the woods, my dear,” she teasingly tugs on a strand of Emma’s hair, and bends to pick up another white flower from the porcelain bowl on the oak desk. “There’s bears, and wolves, and snakes, poisonous plants and devilish bugs that will give you a mean little sting. And if no creature manages to snatch you up for dinner, you’d probably end up lost, waiting for the hunger and cold to get you instead.” Nomey glances at the side of Emma’s face to see whether her words have made any effect. “No? Not scary enough for you? I could go on.”

Shrugging, Emma looks down at her hands. “You’ve never heard of anything...else...being in the woods?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know...something ...magical?”

Nomey frowns, and squints at her in the mirror. “No,” she says, after a long silence. “Not for a long time. Your parents have made sure of that,” she pauses, her fingers slowing in their work. In the mirror, Emma watches Nomey’s face tighten, falling for a moment into the secret lines of worry that are usually pressed clear by scorn and exasperation during all hours of the day. “Well. Except for maybe one mean old witch. But you don’t have to worry about her, love, she is as good as dead.”

Emma’s heart kicks up hard against her ribs. “Oh yeah?” she asks, “What’s the story?”

Nomey shrugs and threads her fingers through long yellow hair. “You must know it already. Your mother likely told you.”

“My mother?”

“Well, sure. About your step grandmother.”

“What?’

Nomey glares at her. “Don’t be funny with me. You know all about the Evil Queen -- her picture hung for a little while on these walls. Don’t act like you don’t.”

“No, I know, but Mother told me she was dead. Like dead dead.”

“Right. She might as well be.”

“But she’s not, if you just said -- you just said, she’s as good as dead, ” Emma slinks down in her chair, and puts her head in her hands. “Oh gods. The Evil Queen?

“Darling, it doesn’t make any difference.”

“Uh, yeah, it does.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Nomey gripes, exasperated now as she plucks another flower up from the bowl, carefully tucking its small stem into a loose curl. “Trust me darling. She’s as good as dead. She’s been buried in those woods longer than you have been alive, dear. She’s not coming back out.”

“But some idiot could accidently wake her up,” Emma groans, talking mournfully to her knees. “Any lonely idiot could just stumble upon her, wake her up for a stupid joke.”

“No,” Nomey chuckles. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“Then what would it take?” Emma asks hoarsely and lifts her heavy head. “What would it take to wake her up?”

“True love’s kiss,” Nomey says dismissively, and resumes threading together Emma’s hair, as if she had not tipped the world significantly, spun it on its great slanting axis. “Honestly, honey, I don’t know where all this anxiety is coming from. The chances of her true love just stumbling upon her cold body is very small. Nobody is going to dig up a body, much less kiss her awake.”

“Oh gods,” Emma whimpers. “Oh gods.”

Nomey gives her a queer little look and shakes her head. The fingers braiding Emma’s long blonde hair gradually slow, tucking one strand over the other, taking their time.

“You know,” Nomey says after a long moment, “I always wondered why your mother didn’t just execute the poor woman. Not to put any judgment on your mother, of course -- the Queen’s crimes were cruel. But the loneliness of being buried alive just about takes the warmth right out of the blood, doesn’t it?” she sighs.

“Yeah,” Emma croaks. “But say ...say she did wake up. I-is there a way to put her back to sleep?”

Nomey halts for a moment, as if from a mechanical error, putting her hands briefly on pause. She stares down at the top of Emma’s head with an inscrutable expression, as if she were a fortune teller peering into their clouded crystal ball where a future will present itself indistinguishable from a myriad of dangerous possibilities.

Then, slowly, she shakes her head. “Oh, honey,” she sighs. “This story is so old, and it’s been over for a long time. I can’t imagine how it could possibly impact your wellbeing, especially on a day like this, your wedding day.”

Emma merely nods and looks down into her lap. She doesn’t lift her head up again, remaining silent as Nomey finishes up, working her hair into a beautiful braid that spirals loosely down her neck with tiny white flowers. Anxiously, she waits, worrying her ring finger, rubbing the skin nearly pink.

*

The prince arrives in a parade of horses and white wedding banners, their flags snapping confidently in the wind. Emma watches her fiancé dismount, standing tall and firm-jawed beside his horse, seemingly unmoved by how the whole world prepares for him. Cooks and maids bustle about, drape everything in white. Her mother and father have orchestrated a little welcoming gift, something she is meant to deliver by their side, but when her mother came looking for her, she ducked quickly behind the nearest tapestry.

The tapestry is thick and dusty, but Emma stays there, backed up against stone, watches everything through the slightest silver of window.

Distantly, there is the sound of footsteps. Emma closes her eyes, silently hopes the feet simply move on to another room. But they don’t. The footsteps slow and stand still.

And then.

“I can see your feet.”

The voice has a deep resonating sound, echoic, as if it had come from deep within a well. Emma blinks, and looks down at her bare feet where her toes peek out from below the tapestry.

“Oh,” she says. “I guess you can.”

“In all honesty,” The woman says. “It was your dress that gave you away.”

Emma groans. Peeking through the tapestry, she glares darkly at the long white plume of her dress,  long and ridiculous as a peacocks’.

“Goddamn,” she mutters.

“Besides that, though, you’re nearly invisible.” The woman’s voice is smooth and velvety. It draws Emma’s eyes to the wall of fabric where the rugged outline of what must be a maid is visible; she’s a slim, broad-shouldered woman set with purpose, most likely sent to corral her back to her mother.

“I suppose you’re here to usher me back outside.” Emma sighs.

There’s an odd little sound, almost like a laugh, but off somehow.

“Not at all.”

“Really?” Emma asks, and peeks her head out curiously.

Immediately, it is clear to Emma that this woman is not a maid. She is wearing a beautiful dark blue dress that cuts low along her collar bones, enough to reveal the black corset underneath, and then flows out to the floor; the collar of her dress is the color of plums in the summer, juts out far enough to touch her ears, and with her long black hair piled elegant above her head, her face look severe and beautiful. When the woman tilts her head, the silver of her earrings flashes in the light, stuns Emma into silence.

The woman smiles and regards her with a playfulness that seems both genuine and menacing. Like a cat with a mouse. It fills Emma’s stomach with a nervous flutter.

“No,” the woman assures smoothly, and walks closer. “I’m not really a fan of weddings, anyway. I’m certainly in no rush to get this one started.”

“Oh”

The woman smiles with pleasure. “I am surprised, however, that you and I seem to share that feeling.”

A distinct danger makes itself known in Emma’s gut. To embarrass a high-standing prince, even to a guest or distant relative, would doom her family forever. Outside, the sound of soft, aimless laughter goes up and down the castle walls.

 “Oh, no,” she amends, quickly. “I do want to get married.”

The woman raises an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yes. Yes of course”

“And so, you were hiding behind a tapestry because...?”

“I was...I was waiting for one of my maids,” Tripped up in her own excuse, Emma anxiously runs her fingers into her hair. “You see...my...my hair, it needs to be fixed. A few flowers came loose.”

“Ah,” the woman smiles. “Well, no worries. I can easily do that.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary.”

“It would be my pleasure.”

Any excuse Emma might have uttered is disrupted by the abrupt proximity between them, closed by two steps, the space between them is set ahum with perfume and the faintly dangerous excitement of a moment going terribly astray. Very gently, the woman curls a strand of Emma’s hair around her finger and tucks it smoothly behind an ear. Those fingers trail softly over the top of Emma’s head, traces the perfect braid, still neatly in place.

“Well, if you look at that,” the woman whispers, softly. Her eyes shine with something dark, something beautiful. “Your hair doesn’t need fixing at all.”

It is then, in that single quiet moment, that Emma notices the buckeye ring on the woman’s fourth finger, fit perfectly, shines a warm red-brown.

“Oh,” she croaks, but before she can scrape up a yell loud enough to be heard, the Evil Queen covers her mouth with the palm of her hand.

“Shh,” the Evil Queen says, calmly, almost placatingly. “It’s alright.”

It’s not.

Emma pulls back, fights for distance: she jerks up her knee, twists her body away, rakes her fingernails across whatever inch of skin available. A yelp of pain confirms her aim, and puts some real fight into their scrabble, until an iron-like hand wraps around her wrist and pushes her whole body against the wall.

“Enough!” The Queen demands, out of breath. “Be still, god dammit!”

 “Get away from me.” Emma grunts, and tries to wiggle her hand out of the woman’s grip.  The stone brick pinches the back of her hand.

“My god, I’m not going to hurt you, just --” The Queen snarls with frustration, and changes her grip, wrapping her fingers around Emma’s neck. “Just hold still, will you? I’m just trying to talk --”

Emma grabs the woman’s wrist to do the one and only self-defense trick she knows how to do: butting her head hard against the side of the woman’s jaw.

The Queen releases her with a pained grunt. Though this is her moment to escape, maybe the only one she will get, Emma feels herself sink back against the stone, amazed; she watches with a squeamish curiosity as the Queen gently presses fingertips to the side of her face, assessing the damage. A gleam of watery-red blood colors the woman’s lower lip before she swipes it away with her tongue.

Emma grimaces slightly. “Did I knock out teeth?”

The woman snorts. “No,” she gives Emma a surprisingly amused look. “Who taught you how to fight? A farm goat? The cattle?”

Emma’s anger comes back. “I can kick too.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” The Queen swiftly wipes a dark smudge of lipstick from the corner of her mouth. She smiles. “I won’t be needing another demonstration of that unique fighting style, by the way.”

“Then I suggest you don’t get any closer.”

"I figured as much, my dear."

This close, Emma can see the likeness of the woman captured in all the portraits that used to hang on the wall in the great hall. The paint was faded even then and her memory of being a child even more so, but somehow the worn-down expressions of those pictures remain. She remembers, as a child, she used to look for her mother in every picture, search for any secret resemblance in their youth that might hint a future where her awkward height and harshness will eventually soften and even out. When she had exasperated herself of hope, she looked for happiness instead, and found it everywhere, in every face except her -- the Queen; she stood behind Emma’s grandfather in every picture like a hostess poised at the entrance of a grand and beautiful party where everyone is exceptionally dressed, and all the drinks are laced imperceptibly with poison.

Clearing her throat quietly, Emma tries to hide the fear in her voice. “So. What are you doing here?”

“Simply to talk.”

Emma’s stomach squeezes. “Okay,” she presses back. “Why?”

“Don’t you know?”

“No,” Emma says, uneasily. “If its revenge you want, it’s a waste of whatever weird-ass second chance you got now.”

Something in the Queen’s expression ripples with anger but she promptly soothes it out again. “I want nothing to do with your mother,” she says tightly. “Quite frankly, I don’t care if she’s happy or dead in the ground.”

“Oh,” Emma hesitates. “Okay...”

“As you said,” the Queen says, and nearly takes a step closer before changing her mind. “It would be a waste of my very weird second chance."

“Right..." she says uncertainly. "So. What do you want?”

The Queen smiles wickedly. "What you promised me." she purrs.

Emma's heart jumps. “What?”

“And perhaps a better ring, too,” The Queen regards her ring with an elegant flick of her wrist. “But honestly it’s starting to grow on me.”

What?!”

“It’s not literally growing on me. I know you were a little confused about this, so let me clear it up for you -- I am not a tree. Or any other kind of plant,” The Queen smiles, softer again. “Although that was sort of cute that you would go through all that trouble for a tree. Very foolish, but ...cute.”

“You’re kidding me,” Emma sputters, but there is a crazed sort of honesty in the Queen’s eyes. Slowly, Emma deflates, sinks against the stone wall. “Oh no, come on,” she whines softly. “You can’t be serious.”

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t marry you.”

“Why not?”

“Because I --” Emma laughs, lets out a ragged breath of air, and rakes her fingers through her hair. “I mean, first of all, I don’t love you.”

“Well, no, of course not--”

“And second of all, I’m getting married to someone else.”

“But with time --” The Queen halts, and her eyes blacken. She bares her teeth with a snarl. “Oh, so now you love this prince?”

“Well, no--”

“But you’ll marry him?”

“I have to--”

“You have to marry me,” the Queen snarls, and grabs her harshly by the chin. “You know the kind of curse I was under. You kissed me awake. That doesn’t just happen. You’re not that much of a fool -- you must know -- you of all people must know what that means.”

Emma jerks her chin away, “It means nothing to me,” she spits, and knocks the Queen’s hand away. “And I told you to keep your goddamn distance.”

“It means nothing to you?” The Queen asks with a smile, but there is no real pleasure in her expression, not even in her own meanness. She looks somehow more dangerous with a smile, capable of just about anything. “Really? How darling. The daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming doesn’t believe in true love.”

“Maybe I don’t,” Emma says disdainfully. “But even if I did, I wouldn’t believe in this. This isn’t anything.”

Some horrible emotion erupts across the Queen’s face, something dark and hateful and unimaginably lonely. But as quickly as it appears, it’s gone again. Her expression goes blank, unseeing. Slowly, she straightens her shoulders and puts distance between them again.

“Very well,” she says. Her voice sounds far away, remote. “Forget your vows, if you wish. But I have vows of my own.”

Then, in a swirl of dark purple smoke, she’s gone.

**

Nothing happens at first. When she walks back outside, her mother looks on her with smiling fury and bids her to come stand beside the prince, who stands just as he had when he arrived, with such silent brooding expectation it is as if they have already married, and he is cordially waiting through what must seem like a meaningless frivolous process; her one moment of choice. Her chance to either say “I do” or run away.

 It is falling into place so easily she believes for a wild moment that she had merely dreamed up the Evil Queen, dreamed of a secret true love furious and powerful enough to destroy even the institution of marriage.

And then it happens.

It is just a small gust of wind at first. It carries in the smell of frost and damp pine leaves, and guests laugh in surprise, hold onto their hats. Birds scatter quickly into the air and disappear into a scorched blue sky. Horses stir and stamp their feet anxiously.

Then it picks up: the wind comes from every direction, furious and vengeful. It strips the earth of any unnecessary softness. Trees groan and crackle with weak branches; hats fly off the heads of the guests; white tablecloths tumble off into nearby bushes, takes all the baked treats, the silverware, and the plates with them; her mother screams in fury when she sees the white cake slide off its big glass stand.

“What the hell?” the prince grunts.

“Go inside.” Emma orders. She grabs the prince firmly by the elbow.

The prince jerks his arm away. “It’s just wind --” he starts to say but turns upon an incoming stick that pierces his eye straight to the brain, silencing him forever.

Thus, came the end to her first wedding.

*

But since her mother is nothing if not persistent, a horrible sequence of failed weddings soon follows the first. Her second fiancé -- a tense serious sort of man -- dies shortly after her mother’s toast, poisoned by a spider that had drowned in his glass of champagne. The third dies soon after arriving, kicked in the head by his own horse. The fourth Emma never really got to know as he arrived as a bloated body on the beach. The fifth merely cancelled.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Snow cries, “She’s cursed! Not a single prince in all the realms will marry her.”

Her father juggles his young son on his lap and gives his wife a comforting squeeze on the shoulder. He’s a firm believer of fate and true love, but Emma knows if she ever explained what happened in the woods, the real reason behind these murders, he’d enter a realm he couldn’t understand. He believes in good people deserving good things, and that a good heart (the only kind a daughter could have) can never be destined for a rocky, troubled life such as this.

“If she is cursed, we will break it,” her father says, and squeezes his wife’s shoulder again. “Maybe we can talk to the fairies. They’ll know what to do.”

Her parents don’t ask her what she could have possibly done to deserve a curse like this, and she doesn’t answer them. A cold bitterness is growing in her heart, pumping through all the little chambers, getting mixed up with the blood.

Later, when the sun has sunk down below the trees and her parents have soothed themselves with a task, Emma slips into her father’s room and dresses quickly in his clothes; she stuffs her feet into shoes too large for her, straps one of his swords clumsily to her hip.

She glances at the mirror, and sighs. It looks all wrong. She plucks at her father’s large dark blue shirt, which falls awkwardly on her shoulders. A simple gust of wind could slip the material right over her head. She could sneak something out of Nomey’s sewing basket, but she wouldn’t know the first thing to do with a needle and thread.

Gruffly, she tucks the shirt into her trousers. Just then, an odd clicking sounds from behind her, oddly sharp and delicate. Like heels.

“Well this is a surprise.”

Emma stiffens. She makes her back straight, her shoulders even like a hanger.

“Get out of here,” she says. Surprised by the firm, commanding sound of her voice, she goes a little harder. “Or I’ll make you get out.”

“Oh really?” The Queen laughs, sounding highly amused by the idea. “How will you do that?”

“I’ll...” Emma hesitates, and grimaces at the tinkling laughter. “Seriously, go away. I don’t want you anywhere near me.”

“Oh, have I upset you?” the woman croons.

Soft footsteps approach. In the dark blue shade of the room, Emma can see a slim figure move closer through the mirror. The woman’s shoulders are narrow and slim, her neck elegant. Her black hair is pulled up into a different style, but it’s too dark to see how it changes her face, whether she looks any different from the pictures on the wall.

“Well I’m sorry,” the woman says, but her voice has changed. It’s taken on a softer, gentler tone. Quietly, the Queen approaches, her footsteps inaudible against the ground. “I know seeing that kind of violence is upsetting. It used to upset me too. To see life end in front of you -- it is horrible. But I came to realize that sometimes violence is necessary.”

A hot, sick anger lurches up in Emma’s chest.

 She holds very still, watches the darkness through the mirror. A second passes, and then another. Slowly, the Queen walks into the soft flickering pool of light. 

She is still so beautiful. And so terrifying.

Very gently, she lays her hands upon Emma’s shoulders.

“Don’t touch me.” Emma grunts.

The Queen sighs and lets her hands drop. “This is ridiculous,” she says, and turns to sit on the edge of the small oak drawer beside the mirror. There is a new calm about her, a glacial ease in her movements; she tilts her head and appraises Emma. “Why is it that I am being treated like the villain here? I did you a favor, darling. Those men would have sucked the life out of you the first chance they got. I released you from that.”

“Oh please,” Emma briskly continues with her menial task, tucks her shirt in around her waist. “You didn’t save me from anything.”

“You need a belt,” the Queen says, and snaps her fingers. There, between her fingers, a sleek black belt materializes. Standing, she promptly slides it through the loops of Emma’s trousers. “And of course, I saved you,” she continues, clinches the belt tightly around the waist. “Marriage is awful. Those men might have acted sweet at first, but they’re all the same. All anyone wants in marriage is control. And they’d get it, they always find a way to strip you of everything, of every little pleasure and any meager little choice.”

Emma looks at the Queen. Beneath her calm beautiful face lies a powerful anger. Along her jaw, a small muscle flickers beneath the skin. Emma imagines in the space between them a web of complicated wires where the slightest move might reveal a dangerous trap, one of deadly consequence, but despite the danger, she can’t quite thwart the urge to speak her mind. The words tumble out of her.

“And that’s somehow different from you?”

The Queen’s black eyes snap up. “Of course,” she says, and straightens up. “Of course, it’s different.”

How?”

“Because,” she scoffs incredulously. “I’m your true love.”

Emma laughs, and the sound kills the light behind the Queen’s eyes. For a single moment, as the Queen stares at her with that quietly stunned look, all the danger evaporates from her. But before the feeling can reach Emma’s heart, demand some sort of leniency, the moment is over, and the Queen sinks back into her cruelty like an eel into a rock.

“So, then what is the scenario that would finally please you, princess?” The Queen asks coolly. “Would you prefer to be married off to some oafish prince? To some boy-king who will, at best, love you as well as he can before he meets his own true love and tosses you aside, or at worst becomes cruel and keeps you forever. You’d prefer that to someone who is destined to love you?”

“I don’t want to be forced to marry anyone,” Emma snaps, and returns to her image, exasperated. She drags her fingers quickly through her hair, pulls it up from her neck, high up on her skull and ties it into a ponytail. “You think I want to spend the rest of my life stuck in some forced, loveless marriage?”

 “No,” The Queen says coldly. “Our marriage wouldn't be anything of the sort.”

Yeah. Well,” Emma grumbles. All her anger rises again, like a hot, sick rush in her chest. “Fated or not, I couldn’t love someone so cruel -- pressure me to marry you then murder all other competitors when denied? I don’t have the faintest desire to get stuck with someone like that -- you don’t give a shit what I want out of my life, and frankly I don’t care about what you want either.”

The Queen registers the words like a physical pain, but before she can respond, there is a creak of floorboards right outside the door, a warning of a visitor, and just like that, she’s gone with a crack of black magic, leaving behind the smell of ozone and the starless clear night behind her.

Emma sighs, and turns towards the open door, the worried, hawk-like face of her maid peeking out through the slats of wood.

“Hey,” Emma musters up a smile.

Nomey gives her one looks up and down, then sighs, and enters the room completely. In her arms, there is a small leather bag.

“Here,” she sighs sadly. “I packed you a few warm meals for your trip.”

Emma laughs, a teary surprised sound, and walks into Nomey’s open arms.

“You silly girl,” Nomey sighs, and wipes Emma’s wet cheeks with a swipe of her fingers. She grips the long hair and sets Emma’s head against her neck. ‘I warned you, didn’t I? Don’t go into the woods, I said. You’ll get yourself into more trouble than you know what to do with. I said it about a hundred times. At least a hundred. Didn’t I?”

“You did,” Emma nods against her shoulder. “You really did.”

“Gods. The Evil Queen as a true love -- not even I could have thought fate would pull that kind of trouble into your life.”

“I know.” Emma sighs. “Fate bites.”

Nomey chokes out a teary laugh. ‘“Just don’t fall in love with her.”

Emma laughs too. “I’ll try.”

*

Over the small rocky wall bordering the castle, the forest is different,  more alive. The trees look just the same on the side of her parents’ kingdom, but they stand with a simple beauty, their bark and leaves a shelter for other harmless animals. On the other side, something grand and deadly lives in these trees; they stand apart from everything else, full of obscure purpose; the soil makes room for their roots; the sky cannot evade their branches.

Emma weeds through the trees, steps carefully along the rocks and roots. A flock of birds flow close by, dart into the net of branches above. Absentmindedly, Emma thumbs the card in her pocket, its vague half-remembered directions leading her gradually to what Nomey believes to be her only hope.

After an hour or so, she comes upon it: a squat square little house made entirely of rocks and vines. It seems to come up directly from the earth, as if it existed naturally below the surface, but gradually, over time, the dirt and grass shifted to make room for it above ground.

She knocks twice for politeness, but when no one answers, she opens the door.

Inside, the space is warm and earthy. The kitchen is small and tidy, with broad-planked floors. It smells strongly of grass and in the corner,  small fire burns. On a rock beside the fire, a small copper kettle quietly simmers.

“You’ve come in time for tea.” A man says, directing Emma’s attention to the corner. She blinks. “Would you like a cup?”

The man has a hard, quirky face with thin lines that bracket his mouth. He wears only an old woolly sweater, his broad torso disappearing into a thick hide of black fur. His legs shift absentmindedly, and his hooves make a soft noise against the wooden floor.

“Uh, sure.” Emma answers finally. Cupping her hands together, she blows out short streams of air into her fingers. “So, are you half...goat?”

“A fawn,” he answers. His voice is deep, so deep that the source of it seems to rumble up from some separate, remote place in his chest rather than his mouth. “Although, not too far off from a goat, I suppose. Other than language and magic, the only real significant difference between us may be our taste in tea.”

“Uh,” Emma offers a smile. “Okay.”

The fawn smiles back. “Why are you here?”

Emma glances around the small living space. There were old musty books lined neatly on a shelf, a cup of white daisies on the windowsill.

“I need a spell,” she says. She watches his face for any indication that she has reached the place Nomey had described, but his face is smooth and clear as a dinner plate. She continues, hesitantly. “I heard you were a person I could trust if I needed a dark spell.”

“Yes,” the man says blankly, and pours hot water into two cups.

“I need to get rid of my true love.”

The fawn laughs. The sound comes from deep in his chest, a rumbling sound that seems to shake up from his bones.

“I’ve lived a long time, my dear. Longer than some mountains and rivers, and many of that time was spent in the middle of affairs of people like you, but never have I heard such a request,” The fawn smiles, reveals his tiny pointed teeth. “In fact, I don’t think it’s ever been done.”

“I figured,”  Nobody in the world seems to be as unlucky as her when it comes to love. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“Well sure. I would think any kind of poison would do the trick.”

“No, no,” Emma cuts in quickly. “I don’t want to poison her -- I just want her out of my life. I woke her up with a kiss, and now she thinks we’re meant to be. Isn’t there anything to undo it?”

The fawn lifts his great curious head, stares with black unblinking eyes at Emma. Something in his black eyes makes Emma want to look away, but trapped as she is by her polite upbringing, she holds still.

“What do you think would undo a kiss of True Love?” the fawn asks.

“I thought, well, maybe I could just put her back to sleep.”

“A sleeping curses.” The fawn hums. “Well. That would work.”

Emma nods hesitantly. It’s what the Queen deserves -- if not for her previous atrocities, then certainly for the deaths of the four princes who will never look upon the sky again, never feel the sun, never stretch their stiff joints or seek out warmth in another. For their abrupt deaths, for the loss to their families, for the hole their futures fell into, the Queen deserves nothing more than to close her eyes and never wake. Staring down, Emma hooks her fingers together, digs her thumbnail into her palm.

“Just for curiosity’s sake,” She starts. “How...uh, how bad is a sleeping curse?”

“It’s forever.” The fawn says, then tilts his head. “Unless, of course, you have a true love to kiss you awake.”

“Right, but what I mean is - how bad is the experience. Do...you know, just fall asleep or what?”

“You revisit all of your most painful memories and your deepest regrets.”

“Oh,” Emma mutters. Her heart falls into a deep black pit inside her chest. “That’s...um. Pretty rough.”

“Yes.”

She sighs. “Isn’t there some way just to...I don’t know, break your true love with a person?”

The fawn turns to look at her again but this time his sight seems to go through her, unfocused and slightly myopic, as if he were watching something deeply fascinating in the space just a few inches in front of his face. A hazy stream of golden light catches on a hanging pot and darts quickly in all directions like a school of small fish. Emma watches and waits.

After a long while, the fawn inhales deeply, and seems to return to himself. He puts his tea mug down.

“It might be possible,” he says. “But difficult. And very time consuming. Poison certainly would be quicker.”

A soft hope fills Emma’s chest. “I don’t mind if it takes a little while.” She says.

“Very well.” The fawn rumbles, voice deep and far away. “I’ll come up with a list of what you’ll need for the spell. It is of course only guesswork, but...it should work.”

*

On a flat round tree stump, Emma hopelessly reviews the small list of items again:

  1. The All-Seeing Eye of the Ancient Haddock
  2. A tooth from the Black-Horntail Dragon
  3. A Rose plucked from the Garden of Immortality
  4. A Phoenix feather plucked from the rejoined twin flame
  5. A Treasured Belonging from your True Love

“What does a twin flame even mean?” Emma mutters.  Against her leg is the small wooden compass the fawn had lent to her. It would help guide her, he said, but only in navigation. “How the hell do I even get a tooth from a dragon?”

From high above, birds caw, sounding far away. The forest slumbers in the midday light, seemingly quiet and contented.

“Whatever,” she sighs, again, and stands. In her palm, the compass whirls, its red arrow ticking inside its wooden chest, passing little apertures.

She follows the compass into the depth of the buzzing grass, winds through trees and walks well into the forest. Crows hop along on the branches above her. She pays them no mind. The sun is warm, and it rests steadily on her neck and back as she makes her way through the trees.

After nearly an hour of walking, she happens upon the coastal edge. The ocean sits still as a dish, shimmers with a deep dark blue importance.

The compass freezes, unmoving.

Emma’s heart drops. “Oh no,” she groans and taps a fingernail frantically against the thin glass surface. “Come on, you can’t just leave me here! What the hell am I supposed to do?”

The compass remains unmoved. It points a straight red finger to the large blue ocean in front of her. The water before her is so steady and flat, it seems almost featureless. Yet something about it frightens her.

It seems, for a moment, that an immense presence is watching her from below the surface. Something vast and silent and unmoving.

A cold shiver crawls down Emma’s neck at the thought of continuing. The thought of venturing down into deep water terrifies her; she had nightmares like what she would be willingly walk into, the little suffocating traps waiting for her in underwater caves, the black water impossible to navigate on her own. Her chest cramps with fear.

She could drown, she could get lost down below. She’d never find out if a princess could be anything more than a wife or a victim.

But she’s gone so far. After a long moment with the sun warm on her back, with fear gripping her stomach, she pulls off her shirt and shoes and heads towards the water.

The water is chilling, and it almost steals the warm golden confidence in her legs and arms. To keep from backing out, she jumps in head first.

Below, the water is cold and dark. Her arms and legs feel strong as she swims down, ignoring the cold and the gentle sway of the current. She swims down, follows the rugged edge of the black coastal rocks that will likely lead to her destination.

 She ignores the  pressure in her head, swims until the water grows darker, and darker, and the rocks seem almost unidentifiable against the black.

She feels out the cave with her hands, the rock jagged in some places and smooth in others. She had read somewhere that underwater caves sometimes had pockets of air trapped inside. And others only water. People sometimes got sucked into them; they get lost, they get trapped below a wall of water.

Finally, the cramp in her lungs is too much, the need for air swelling up like a huge balloon against her ribs, but when she turns around, she doesn’t see the watery green brightness of the surface above her. There is only blackness. She must have slipped farther in the cave then she thought because all around her there is only a deep black silence.

Kicking with her legs, she scrambles along the rock. She tries to find her way back, retrace her steps. Didn’t she go straight down? Didn’t she keep one hand always against the rock. Wouldn’t she be able to just turn around, go straight back where she came? But again, and again, wherever she turns, there is a flat wall of rock.

It’s alright, she thinks to herself with some panic. She’s just gotten turned around, she thinks. Only that. She’s not in trouble, she tells herself. Not in serious trouble, at least. She can still find the surface. She’ll be alright.

With her palm flat against the rock, she follows a trail towards what she believes to be the surface. Everything is black.

Time passes. She doesn’t know how long. The only way to mark it is through her own experience, which seems to be going backward. A moment ago, her chest had been aching, but now she doesn’t even notice it. And the water doesn’t even seem all that dark anymore. It is shifting and bright, granular. It is full of glass. There are so many colors. She can stay and sleep, she thinks.

Then, suddenly, as if a rope has slipped around her chest, she feels a powerful jerk lift her upward. The water blurs around her quickly, a swirl of colors before suddenly she is cutting through beams of sunlight, the water blue again, a bright glimmering blue.

When she breaks through the surface, her lungs start hurting again. She sucks in lungful of air, in desperate gasps. She gasps, coughs, and sucks in more air.

Above her, the blue sky expands. Little black dots swim in her vision.

Softly, her back touches the beach. The sand feels soft and warm against her back. And though she can’t quite breath yet, her body registers the ground with relief, allows her to sink down into the comfort of warm sandy dirt.

“What were you thinking?”

Jolting, Emma’s eyes open wide.

Above her is the Queen.

Blood rushes painfully to her head. The Queen looks truly ferocious in her anger, like some dangerous snarling creature, about to lunge, and though most of Emma’s brain is still laboring to get air through her lungs, the rest of her blooms with panic.

The Queen must see it in her face, because she snaps her fingers, and freezes everything in Emma’s body.

“Explain,” she says coldly, brooking no argument.

Emma coughs, spits out a mouthful of water. She croaks up a hoarse strange voice. “It’s n-none of y-your--” she coughs again, grimaces at the water in her throat.

“None of my business?”

“Y-Yeah.”

“I just saved your lousy life,” the Queen snarls. “Tell me what the hell you were doing.”

Emma can’t do much more than glare. But she has a good glare, so she throws her best at the somewhat blurry vision of the Queen.

Anger pulses in the Queen’s jaw, but after a long moment, she sighs and looks away. She snaps her fingers and releases her.

“Fine,” the Queen stands over Emma. “Forget gratitude entirely then. At least tell me what you were thinking.”

Emma tries to get up, but she’s too numb. She tries to lift onto her elbows, but they don’t move; they remain frozen beside her, as if detached from her body. Slumping against the beach, she stares up at the sky. She is shaking, she realizes. The thought comes to her a second later, slow, detached: she’s freezing.

“Is this your spell, still?” she asks.

“No,” The Queen sighs. “You’re likely in shock. That water is freezing.”

“When will it wear off?” she asks, tries not to panic.

The Queen sighs again and snaps her fingers. A heavy blanket wraps around her, a fur-covered blanket, thick as an otter’s coat. The warmth comes gradually to her, like the sun in the early morning. It comes from a great distance.

Emma sighs, and closes her eyes. She can hear the Queen moving around on the beach. Her feet make a soft sound along the sand, and Emma realizes dimly (stupidly) she’s barefoot. When she speaks again, her voice is closer.

“That water is also well-known to be infested with dangerous creatures. I’m sure even you are aware of that.”

“I didn’t ask for your help,” Emma grumbles weakly. “I don’t owe you an explanation.” It sounds weak even to her ears, swaddled now in warmth.

The Queen’s upper lip curls. “How about you tell me what you were doing in that water and I don’t put you right back in one of those underwater caves to turn into mush like you were going to.”

Emma grimaces. Glumly, she looks away, squints at the deep blue ocean. The water has grown choppy now, its wrinkled surface bright and alive with froth. She listens to the water’s soft, repetitive sounds that roll softly to the beach and fall back again.

After a long moment, she sighs. “There’s this spell.”

“A spell?” the Queen’s voice lifts immediately into interest. “Really? What sort of spell?”

Emma hesitates.

“Ah,” the Queen smiles, wanly. “A surprise for me, then?”

“No,” she lies weakly. “It’s got nothing to do with you.”

The Queen ignores her, looks out at the sea. “You’re looking for ingredients,” she continues. “There’s something in the water that you need, then.”

“Yes.”

The Queen holds out her hand. “Let me see your list.”

“I-I can’t.”

“You can’t?”

“I...” Emma tries to think of a clever lie. “I lost it in the water.”

“Then I will send you back to look for it,” the Queen says it in the sort of voice that Emma doesn’t feel tempted to test, and so glumly, with warmer hands, she searches for the small sheet of paper in her shirt pocket. She hands it over with a hard ball of dread, watches the Queen’s eyes flit quickly over the list, back and forth.

A minute passes. And then another.

Gradually, the Queen looks up again. Her eyes are black and keen.

“What is this?” she asks. Her lips thin into a line. “I don’t recognize it.”

Relief wells in Emma’s chest. She shrugs.

The Queen gives her a brief appraising look, then purses her lips. “If you’re trying to poison me, you should know you’ve been terribly misleading. None of these ingredients would actually do me any harm.”

Emma sighs in exasperation. “I’m not going to poison you.”

A short “Hmph,” is all the Queen has to say about that before a wrinkle of concentration forms between her eyebrows. She runs the tip of her thumbnail over some of the words, as if she could feel out for a secret meaning in its letters. “For all intents and purposes, it looks like a love spell. But it’s...not,” she says softly, almost to herself. Her head tilts to the side. “It’s all out of order. It not like any spell I have seen,” the Queen looks up at her again, this time with a guarded look, far more suspicious. “Are you sure it’s an actual spell? It looks like utter nonsense to me.”

Emma just shrugs. She’s incapable of looking innocent.

The Queen’s eyes narrow. After a long silence, appraising it over again, she sighs, and gives it back.

“Well, whatever it is, it’s going to get you killed. I suggest putting it to rest.”

“No.” Emma folds the paper neatly, tucks it into her front pocket. “And it’s not nonsense. I’m going to finish what I started.”

“From the looks of it, you’ve hardly started anything.” The Queen gives her a dry passing look. “Plus, you couldn’t even get the easiest one.”

Shame scalds Emma’s cheeks. “I don’t care,” she huffs, and sits up, working her wet hair into something of a ponytail. “I’m going to go back in and get that stupid fish-eye.”

“No, you are not.”

“Yes --

No, you are not. You are completely unprepared. You don’t even know how to find this goddamn fish, much less how you will manage to scoop out its eye.”

“Well, I want to at least try.”

“That’s incredibly stupid.”

Emma sucks the back of her teeth, holds in her angry retort. She shouldn’t take the bait, she knows, she’ll just end up giving everything away, all for pride’s sake. But there’s that age-old irritation, that red shame, the sense of being sized up and then shuffled off to the side. Forgotten. She takes a slow breath and busies herself with the task of drying out her hair, wringing it out and running her fingers through its wet snags.

A stitch of time passes. But, gradually, the silence turns on her. Her remaining irritation kindles, turns into a hot red shame.

“You must think I’m some kind of coward,” she says at last, just as angry as before, and yanks her fingers through her hair. “To think I’d just give up right at the start. But I’m not as weak as you think I am. I’m going to do it, I’ll get all of it.”

“You can call it weak if you’d like,” the Queen says flatly, and lets her attention drift on to some other minor thing in the distance. The afternoon light is drawing out shadows, picking out the shapes of the trees and draping them upon the floor. “Personally, I can’t think of anything less interesting than someone who pretends to be fearless. It only sounds like stupidity and pride to me.”

Emma frowns, but her anger is shunted, closed off behind some other feeling. She watches how the small facial muscles below the Queen’s skin tightens, forms a rigid face of disdain, and resumes the task of drying her hair. It seems impossible to her that this dark-eyed, furious woman -- dismissive towards death, uncaring of others’ feelings, prone to fits of unimaginable cruelty -- could ever really want anything out of love. That any kiss could have woken her up.

“I’m not going to give it up.” she says at last, unyielding.

“No,” The Queen agrees. Her voice is measured and cool. “And you’ll fail miserably doing it,” She gives Emma a cool sideways look. Then she sighs. “ But I’ll help you.”

“What?” Emma asks.

“I’ll help you get your silly spell.”

“You don’t even know what it is.”

“No,” the Queen looks at her briefly, irritably, and then looks away. “But if you’re not going to see reason, I might as well help you.” She stands and brushes the sand from her leather pants, flicks the loose strands of her hair impatiently back from her face. “And anyway, I don’t want to keep dragging you out of this godforsaken water -- it’s an exhausting effort.”

 “Well,” Emma pauses, unsteady. On the rock, her compass lies still. Of course, it will: it knows nothing of morality, and will be unable to guide her between fair or cruel anymore than it could cut the eye out of the fish itself. She stands uncertainly, looks to the water. “Do you know how to get to that fish?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

The Queen smirks. She snaps her fingers, and in a whirl of black smoke, Emma feels everything inside her shrink, and turn in on itself.

She drops abruptly, gasping helplessly, feeling a suffocating pressure all around her. And then hands scoop her up and toss her into the water where, inexplicably, breathing seems to come easier.

The water feels different, too. It’s not as cold, and the blue seems somehow more vibrant. She turns to see the surface and catches a terrifying glimpse of what she only assumed would be where her arms would still be, her legs, her torso -- but instead, everything is gone, slicked back into what appears to be slimy scales. There is just one long snake-like yellow tail, smooth and narrow and framed on top by a thin, flimsy dorsal fin.

She’s an eel.

Fucking bitch, Emma thinks.

A long black eel slides past her. Emma immediately recognizes her, not necessarily by looks, but by the dangerous presence she emits; it seems only fitting that the Queen should take the shape of a far larger eel, with far sharper teeth. Scary bitch, Emma thinks.

The water feels wonderful. It is cold and utterly clean -- and so bright and full of life. An enormous school of fish streams by her, passing through a watery beam of sunlight. Below her, the water opens into a blue nowhere. Emma’s heart blooms in her ears.

It’s just so bright.

There is a kingdom of purple corals. Orange starfish glow dimly in the dark, cemented to rocks. Below, blowing back and forth in the tide are see-through flowers with long poison tentacles; along the rocks lie fields of clams and pink spheres with a thousand needles on their back.

Emma falters, but the Queen slides by her, teasingly nudging her forward.

She follows.

The water grows dark, nearly black, but everything remains visible in Emma’s sight. She can see the shapes of the rock, the sway of the water, the slow movements of the other creatures, navigating through a watery granular darkness.

It doesn’t take very long; it seems only minutes before the Queen slows again, her body coiling at the entrance of an impossibly cold cave. The water seems to resist their entrance. It has an acrid smell, slightly brackish, as if the cave were the mouth to a darker richer body of water from a different source.

After a stitch of time, a moment of deliberating, Emma catches sight of the Queen’s face, somehow still snidely triumphant in its blank, expressionless design; her sharp needle like teeth seemed to sneer back at her.

Irritated, Emma swims past the Queen, going ahead on her own. But all her confidence evaporates once she enters the cave.

For a moment, there’s just black water. And then, in the deep black, Emma catches the sweep of a fin -- it’s spined and flat, broad as her hand. The creature roves around soundlessly, and then, Emma sees it.

The eye.

One staring yellow eye, big as a poker chip. Rising towards her.

Emma freezes.

The Queen moves quickly. The water ripples all around them, filling the small compact space with an ink-like smoke, hiding them. And yet, through the gray-black, Emma can still see the globe-like eye, a golden orb that never closes, set on her with a terrifying focus. All around her, the water is black, cloudy with magic, but still that eye holds her.

And then, it’s gone. There’s a blind scramble of movement, a soundless struggle as a large black eel wraps itself around the enormous body, sets its teeth deep into the socket; and just like that, the eye, previously intact, searching for movement, is gone; in its place is merely a red socket.

A horrible sound shakes the water, rattles the whole cave-like world. The sound is an awful and pained, and the space around them seems to shrink, crumbling forward. Before Emma can make sense of the danger around her, she feels a powerful  inner tug, just as before; it lifts her up, pulls her from the water.

Soon enough, she is standing in knee-length water, coughing out salt water. As she climbs the slick seaweed covered bottom, she squints towards the beach where the Queen is already standing. In her hand is the small golden orb, now as glossy and still as marble. She is analyzing it with a cold curious eye, and it makes Emma hurry along, worried suddenly that the Queen will destroy it.

But when the Queen sees Emma, she drops the golden orb into a small pouch and swiftly pulls the drawstring closed.

“Here,” the Queen offers, and tosses over the bag.

Emma catches it with a sigh of relief. She pockets the bag.

When she looks up, the Queen is watching her with an oddly hopeful smile on her face, as if one helpful incidence could make them into companions. Two people who might smile and laugh with one another. Emma stares blankly back. She knows she should be able to muster up some real gratitude for the Queen, as she has now saved her twice. But after a silent moment, Emma just snatches her bag from the ground and busily searches for her compass.

“Let’s go,” she says, and nods towards the pointing arrow’s new horizon.