There is no king, this time.
Ravenna is found by no lust-palsied prince, no jeering throng of footsoldiers. Instead, after the battle, there is only a girl in greaves and gauntlets—a girl as dark and fair as a winter night; a girl who bounds into her gloaming berth, and kneels to her in breathless gallantry.
“I know how to free you,” she says, a low gasping pledge, and lifts her sword to strike the chains that bind Ravenna below the muted velvets of her gown.
At the sure touch of steel, black iron shatters into glass, and Ravenna shivers in sympathy as her manacles are dashed into a thousand shards. When she dreamed this battle into being, she cut her knights from sleekest obsidian. For their banners, she bid them carry silks of boldest red. She thinks she sees something of her dream linger about her unlikely liberator—but none of her dreams have ever been so bright as this girl, none of them so aching to behold.
Her saviour has a rope of hair that might sweep over her skin like a raven’s wing, if it were unbound; her mouth holds all the bloody promise of a songbird’s heart—and yet that is no comfort. In her flesh, there is the glow of a sublime deliverance, of a radiance that Ravenna cannot bear to see reflected anywhere beyond the golden circle of her mirror.
She is nearly blinded by the sight, even in the shadows of her carriage. For a long moment, she stares into the familiar darkness of the fallen glass, until the girl reaches out to take her hands between her own; her touch is careful, chaste. “Will you ride with me?” she asks, in solemn entreaty. “I’ll defend you as one of my own blood, I swear.”
Looking down once more into the dauntless face of beauty, Ravenna feels a crackling chill about her heart, as though it were a thing which could break.
Still, there is only one thing to be done.
She will ride with this damsel-errant; and she will find a way to swallow down this light, just as she will swallow down this kingdom.
“Snow White,” she says, the name low and lilting on her tongue, as though it belongs to a language of bewitchment. “Your Majesty. Tell me how you came to be the queen I see before me.”
Though her request is barbed with an edge of mordancy, Ravenna draws it out with slow relish, like she is tasting the tender sinews of talon-skewed birdflesh. She feels it almost as a kindness, this freedom to talk in the inflections that she favours when she is alone with her darkling fancies. Not even Finn dares listen to her sealike murmurs for long. Men in armour, men in chains, and men in crowns—they all are deaf to her eventually. In the presence of others, she is used to screaming out at them, and hearing how her rage thunders in the stone heavens above. But tonight, she throws no curses into the abyss.
Tonight, she dines with a fellow queen.
It was not long ago that Snow White was a mere princess. They say she came of age the very day her father drew his final breath, half-maddened by war and grief and fevers of the blood. This much Ravenna has learned from the flock of handmaidens who were sent to her chambers earlier this evening, haggard women with hearts worn threadbare by the reign of King Magnus. Not long ago—and yet already, Ravenna sees fitful shadows of herself in the girl who sits opposite her in the arching gloom of the great hall.
This girl—whose diadem of gold nestles in her hair as though blackest night has laid claim to the glory of the sun; who holds herself with such resolve that her slender, silk-gowned frame looks as though it could outlast empires. Who sits beneath a circlet of suspended candles as though divine lights have always guided her to her fate.
She nearly burns from her desire to scream the castle down and bury Snow White beneath the ruins. Too-mortal dread works like a quick poison in her veins. But there is the matter of conquest to attend to—and—
(Somewhere beyond her fury and her fear, she knows that she will not relinquish this bright twin without safer mirrors for company.)
“I learned what it is to be a queen from my mother,” Snow White says softly, when words find her.
Always, Ravenna hears her mother’s cry for vengeance. She hears it howl around her in every storm and feels it weighing on her soul in every silence. She has never heard anyone beside her in this maelstrom before—yet for a moment, Snow White murmurs to her beneath the threnody, singing out across kingdoms, across lifetimes.
“I’ve heard she was a woman of great beauty,” Ravenna hears herself saying from afar. She wills her face to remain as smooth as storm-washed stone; surely the years will grant her that much.
“She gave the kingdom more than beauty,” the other queen tells her, in sombre earnestness. “My mother always wished for me to be strong," she says, fierce light warming to a sweet glow that is somehow still blinding to behold. "She used to tell me stories of how she saw a rose that bloomed in winter, and how it drew her blood. How she wanted her child to be like that rose.”
It is an old story, this tale of mother’s blood. Older than this young queen can ever fathom it to be. The endless ache of the sacrifice, the way it eats into a daughter’s bones—
“My father was lost to us all when she died,” says Snow White, her head bowed in devotional introspection. “But I know that I can’t stand to see these lands fall to death and destruction as he did.” Her glass-keen voice trembles with a sudden fervour as she says, “I know that I am not like him. I won’t find the peace he did.”
“I know of no truer gift from a mother than that of blood,” Ravenna soothes thickly, even as she is a thousand years away from this castle, this kingdom, and its queen. “All my mother left me was fairest blood, and yet her will was done.”
Beyond the walls of the castle, the sea beats at the rocks beneath them; tears sting at her eyes, and all is blurred and burning in the candlelight. Snow White rises to close the distance between them, and sinks before her again, reaching out to take her hand. Her shushing midnight silks spread wide across the stone floor. There is a gleaming wonder in her eyes, a gentle reverence in her hands.
(She is unlike any foolish saviour from the ages, unlike anything that Ravenna has seen in all the years that drag behind her like a loathly gown-train.)
Ravenna knows, then, that she will not fail in this: she will seduce her queen, she will nestle into her snow-soft breast and from it earn the love she must betray. And then she will strike out against the beating heart of this new kingdom.
All this she will do when she wakes in the grey dawn light and finds herself a stranger to the earthly spheres once more. When she makes herself anew in deceitful graces, and is untouchable beneath the shell of her immortal skin.
“You must forgive me—Your Majesty.”
Before she leaves, she looks back to where Snow White still kneels, as though in prayer for company. Yes, this queen will be her mother’s wish incarnate, strong and true—and she will never know what it is to wither and weaken into a creature none would recognise as their daughter. She will never know what it is to be borne away from her mother’s memory by the turning of the years. She will fall to fairest blood, and it will be a blessing.
And when she falls, Ravenna will rise like a cruel evening star. To Snow White’s kingdom, she will be the queen that it deserves.
For whatever would become of her, if she believed it would be otherwise? She would turn to dust, to bones—to all that remains for queenly tombs once a woman has been left to the mercies of the world.
Virgin queens are not as careless with their hearts as their fathers always are. When Ravenna sends word to Finn, she tells him to wait—to stay in the ashes of whatever former empires he so wishes, and leave his sister to her work.
Though her tower overlooks the sea, she belongs more to the air than to the water, and her days are quiet. Often, she sees Snow White riding along the chill sweep of the beach. Sometimes the queen wears ragged gowns, rumoured to be all that is left from the days when she played at being a wilding daughter to a king who was busy courting death in his crusades to pay much mind to her. At others, she wears the armour she began to favour when he led his fell assailants to the outskirts of her land.
Sometimes she carries a hawk with her, and raises it to the horizon with her gloved hand; sometimes she rides alone with such urgency that she leaves sandstorms in her wake.
Sometimes, it is enough to make Ravenna feel, for the first time in her life, as though she were too high above.
Her hands are sullied now with livid spots, from the day she drew her magic tight around her and flew down from her window in a murderous blizzard of beaks and talons, claws and wings—wings enough to blacken the sky. They carried her down to Snow White as she rode out to shore; they beat with something bright and fierce and too-alive when all that dark, unbound hair spread out to meet them like a banner.
At court, they rejoiced to know that even the crows were willing to pay such a tribute to their new queen.
They take an obscene delight in her, her people—and never more so than when they use her for their games of divination. They say they knew she would lead them to salvation from the instant she lifted her sword against her father’s enemies; they say she will be the one to heal this ravished land, for in her veins flows life itself. It is not unheard of for bold handmaids to claim that they were there when Snow White was first stripped of her armour, and tell of how they saw the dread marks of war melting away into her skin until the queen stood whole and pure before them.
Such is the lore that surrounds Snow White. Queen Snow White, maiden and mercenary and beloved to all who behold her—it is the stuff of fragile fables. It is a romance that will never withstand the ravages of time. Ravenna knows too well how queens must fall from grace when men grow tired of their fancies; she knows that life is something to be seized in blood and breath. She knows there is no eternity but that which she makes for herself, that in which she walks alone.
And yet she feels Snow White all about her heart, feels her like she feels nothing else except her longing for this fairest blood to let her know a light beyond the darkness of the world.
In all the kingdoms that lie behind her, Ravenna has known no golden idolaters whose saints could outshine her, no eremite wood-dwellers whose dank exiles were lit by any force to rival her own beauty. Fairest of them all, crowned and robed in silver, she may as well be dawn itself—and still she cannot hold the shadows back. But where her dreams were once as black as starless night, there is now the soft gleam of Snow White beneath her eyelids. If it were possible for anything in life to be so fair—
It cannot be, it cannot be, she tells herself each night, in a swelling whisper that begins to fill her chambers like a rising wave.
It is her only mantra, until the day her mirror comes to her from over land and sea.
It is cold beneath her hands, this old friend of hers, and hangs too close to her in the confines of her quarters. For a long while, she does not speak, transfixed by the sight of her fingers resting against its untarnished metal.
In the thickness of the silence, she feels how the air is sharp around it. Like a knife that waits to taste her flesh.
Slowly, the old words rise within her throat.
“Take her heart in your hand,” say the golden depths of the mirror.
(She realises, then, that she has never before taken youth from a girl whose life was not already hers to command. Still she holds her head high before her mirror, unflinching and undefeated.)
Take her heart in your hand.
In the morning light, it calls to her above every protest of the sea and every hymn that soars up from the chapel. She hears it like an unearthly summons that would lead her down from the topless spires and deep through the stone labyrinths of the castle, until she was delivered to her prize.
At nightfall, it draws her from a throng of dancers halfway through a whirling saltarello.
Ravenna has always had a light step, even though her feet were made to trample empires. Finn thought her mad when she spun alone in their empty courts, in the years when stolen youth could still rebel below immortal skin—and though those days were long ago, they do not seem so far away when Snow White stands opposite her for the carols. Her queen’s eyes are pale and bright when she dances; they burn with gentle certitude even when her feet are faltering. Her hands are graceful and beseeching, whenever she lifts them to the light. Slowly, the glittering circlet of ladies around them grows dim, narrows until only they are left to advance and retreat, and clap the hands that they once clasped.
The men who take over from their queen in the dances that follow can do nothing to bring her to life, but that is no matter. Ravenna exalts in the roar of admiration that flares like the gleaming folds of her gown with every leap she makes. She is still young enough to raise her body higher than all other ladies, heedless of dashing her bones on the stones above or below as the dance grows frenzied, and her daring serves her well. It sends her far enough into the air for her eyes to catch the shadow of Snow White as she slips beyond the gasping crush of dancers.
Take her heart in your hand, Ravenna hears her purpose sing to her above the every beat of music that the courtiers keep pace to. She feels her fingers twitch, talons drawing blood from her luckless partner just before she is gone.
She lets the shadow guide her through a darkening maze of tallow-candled corridors, until she finds herself at the doors of a deserted council chamber. At the head of the table, Snow White stands alone, her neck a moonstruck curve as she bends to study an abandoned map.
“Your Majesty,” Ravenna croons in low accompaniment to the distant sounds of revelry, “do you not wish to be among your people?”
“Not all of them are mine,” says Snow White, cheeks warming even in the pale light of the moon. “You can’t be my only honoured guest,” she adds, raising her eyes to Ravenna with a gleam that is both sharp and shy, and so unexpected that Ravenna almost feels her own blood rush to darken her face.
“Your legend spreads beyond the boundaries of your kingdom, lady.” With a slow push from a clawed forefinger, the door is left to close. “There will be many who wish to see your graces for themselves.”
“No, it’s not that.” For an instant, Ravenna sees a glint of the impetuous girl that lies below the steel, and the air itself seems to pulse with the heart she seeks. “It’s only—half the men who come here want me to marry their kings, when it was only months ago they sat on their war councils.”
“Does this peace not suit you, lady?”
“I’d do anything to keep my kingdom safe,” says Snow White, lowering her head to curtain herself in silence as though that should be enough. “But—they won’t fight me like they fought my father, and yet I know that they still circle me.”
Ravenna knows how she must look as she steps further into the light, the silver scales of her gown trailing on the floor behind her. If her queen feels the sting of this injustice, then it is a pain that she may ease. She can take her life with the very weapons that would have claimed her father, had he lived; with beauty and the knives that wait upon it.
“When it was all that I could do to watch the land wither away, I thought I knew how to be the weapon that it needed,” Snow White begins again, gentle words at odds with the stubborn line of her jaw. “But I never wished to stay a blade.” Ravenna is almost beside her by the time she says, “I want—I want so much to see a life beyond this.”
“And you will,” murmurs Ravenna. “You have a heart that could cry out across all worlds, my queen.” Her fingers rise slowly in the darkness between them, until they rest silver and sharp against the velvets that half-conceal a white, white breast. “I’ve heard it calling since the day you found me.”
She arches over the girl, hand curving—but before she can go any further, Snow White is reaching up to close the distance between them, pressing that fabled mouth to hers and sighing out a fragile breath that Ravenna entirely forgets to steal. Still it fills her throat like a draught of life, spreading through her veins like light finding its way through the cracks of blackest glass.
When Snow White draws back, her eyes are all tender curiosity; steadfast, searching. “I’m glad you heard me,” she says, and her voice is clear and true.
It is a strange thing, to be seen like this, after so many years lived as a blinding deadly sun. What are you, she would ask, if she had words; she would demand answers from this queen as she would from her mirror. But she has no words, in the face of a girl who stands so calm and awed before her beauty, who dares to look upon her fairness as if it means more to her than her ruin.
A claw cleaves deep into Snow White’s gown, tearing until nothing of her breast is hidden beneath its swells of red and threads of gold; still the queen presses closer, devastating in her fearless generosity. When only flesh is left to keep Ravenna from the heart she craves, it beats as if it would leap willingly into her hand.
Ravenna takes no beating heart, that night; yet as fairest blood rises to meet her hands with every touch, as her mouth brings her queen to an arching stillness that is both death and life itself, as Snow White sinks sweetly into the red sea of her ruined gown—it feels almost as though she has.
“Do I have her heart?” she asks her mirror, in the gloom before the first light of the morning.
“Look to your hands, my lady.”
As break of day steals over her chamber, she holds them up to her eyes. Even in the unforgiving grey of dawn, they are pale and pure, as if they have been washed in milk.
Your salvation, it had called Snow White.
Ravenna no longer knows herself in darkness.
She is not dust, she is not bones; she is still golden and fair against the gathering dusk. Her reflection still tells her she is strong enough to rule these shadows—and yet she knows her mirror itself would tell her otherwise.
When she grows tired of being mocked by this beauty that is no longer her crown, this youth that is no longer her blade, she cloaks her skin beneath a mantle of black, and lets her wings take her to her where Snow White lies in all her guarded innocence.
Even in sleep, there is nothing of dormancy about Snow White; beneath soft canopies, she looks no less armoured than she did when she emerged from the smoke of the battlefield. Awakened by the tapping of a beak against her window, she rises with eager wonder, her smock billowing around her as she comes to reach out from the other side of the glass. When Ravenna scatters and flies into the pale arms of the apple tree below, it is not long until her legion of crows’ eyes are watching as Snow White slips down into the courtyard, a loose kirtle of chainmail slung over her thin dress.
There Snow White waits, at the roots of the tree, at the heart of her castle and her kingdom, until Ravenna is revealed to her by bright moonlight.
It is almost like a defeat, almost like a death, letting herself fall to the ground in a shower of shrivelling wings so she can rise a woman once again. Yet when she has hands to claw at the earth, Snow White is kneeling beside her, waiting to take them in her own and smooth away the blackening taint of the magic.
“It was you, that day at the beach,” is all that she says, when Ravenna is a girl of pale gold once more. “It’s as if—as if I’ve always known.”
“And what do you know, Snow White?” Ravenna asks her, in a voice that ought to be sharp with cruel triumph. But that triumph seems so far away, when she is still caught in a neitherworld between flight and flesh, and caught by the unflinching gaze of this girl-queen, who should know nothing of her power, yet who still dares to say—
“That you’re like me.” Then, head bowed as she gathers her courage in both hands, “That I want you to rule beside me.”
“You don’t know what you ask,” Ravenna tells her, words edged with a bitterness that is still far from triumph, even as a smile comes to her, slow and terrible. “Would you like to see how I will rule your kingdom?”
Above them, the bowers of the apple tree begin to quake. If she were queen, Ravenna knows how she would strike it in its heartwood, blight it to its core—but when she thinks of what she would do, if she ruled by Snow White, its fruits do not rot away; a darkness spreads across its flowers, but they do not turn to ash.
Instead, they start to bloom, black and heady in the night air.
“I know what it is to see death claim all I loved, even as it runs from me,” Snow White begins, a gentle strength twitching in her fingertips. “I know that you’ve survived wars untold, even though you keep those losses as your own. I know how my life can seem so bright and unforgiving to me when I close my eyes—but I’ve known no kinder dreams than those where you are there to lie beside me each nightfall. Ravenna—I swore to defend you as one of my own blood, and if you were my queen, I know the land would love you as I do.”
Between the blackened flowers, pale sprigs of newly-grown apple blossom open themselves to the light of the moon.
You shall never again weaken, the mirror had told her; it had promised her worlds without end, if she only took a heart in her hands. Ravenna thinks of the kings who tried to claim her, the knights who she left to the kindnesses of cold hillsides, and how they cursed her beauty with their dying breaths—how fleeting their love, how keen their betrayals. But it is Snow White who kneels before her, saviour and queen and bound to her in blood, and she knows, then, what she will do.
“Then by fairest blood,” she says, voice aching exquisitely under the weight of her words, “it is done.”
When Snow White kisses her, she tastes a light that could turn the stars black.