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The Blue-Eyed Witch

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The queen of Naples sits before a casement, watching her gardens and the evening sky. She wears pearls in her white hair, and rubies, and golden rings upon her crabbed, sun-spotted hands. Her skirts spread out around her in great rucks and slants of stiff and crimson silk, sewn all with birds and flowers; fruits and leaves. Below her, children are playing in a labyrinth of close-clipped box. There are flashes of bright blue skirts, whipping round corners, and shouts of laughter; quick footsteps run as if to beat the tide. Beyond the maze, pale marble statues bend and bow upon a colonnade. They stand with cypresses like tall black flames against the grey red-riddled sunset sky. The shutters have not long been opened, and the day's heat is rising still from the warm earth. The air outside the palace wavers with it, like water.

The queen, as is her custom of an evening, has dismissed her ladies to an outer room. Her grandchildren are laughing in the gardens; her son is playing peacemaker, far to the north. She can see him now before her, drinking bad wine and covering his mouth, wincing a little, caught quite clearly in her polished black stone mirror. It is a thing no bigger than her hand, lying before her on the fine patterned carpet covering the table. The queen leans forwards with a creak of stays, watching her son as he nods and turns, and tosses back a jest to his half-seen companions. He moves within the glass like a small flickering fish caught in a child's cupped hands, unknowing as the water drains away. He has his father's smile.

Around the mirror lie, fallen and scattered, precious things. Figures in ivory; medals and Roman coins. Strange snarls and plumes of lead, dropped molten into water: a game children and women play to find the future. A dish of comfits, silvered, and a mermaid's jaw. A branch of coral, red as fresh-bitten lips. A pile of fat books, well-thumbed, bound in Morocco leather stamped with gold.

Outside, women are clapping, calling the children in. Out by the statues, her old councillor walks, beetling three-legged with his knobbly cane, his knotted legs. Plotting, most like; thinking the ugly things for which he is of use. Between her hands, her son within the mirror ripples and dissolves. For just a moment, the queen sees an old man in a great flapping cloak, holding a stick and shouting to the wind. The image twists, and there sits the same man in a study, turning a girl away from his stacks of books. The queen knows just what the old man is saying: sleep now, dear one. Sleep. Behind his shoulder heaves the open sky; the grey-blue sea. Such things are not for thee.

Then there are two children, ragged on the sand: a half-grown boy, a small and curious girl. The boy sucks at a shell; opens his mouth to show the girl a fat whelk squirming on his broad pink tongue. The girl peers seriously and cracks a smile. They'll spend all afternoon skirting the cliffs, climbing on wet black rocks, combing through flabby seaweed-straps for hidden shells. Knocking them loose with stones, and swallowing back their salty slips of flesh.

She'd taught the boy the words for shells, for teeth and tongue, seaweed and elder berries; for hawthorn and skylark and humble obedience. Later, they both learned the words belonging to the court: galliard and orpiment, cantarella; cangianti, changeable fine silk. Long before that, though, they had both learned some old words, almost to the full: hatred and disgust, and lust and fear. What weight it is, to want a precious thing.

The queen lowers her head and swallows, tasting salt for an instant on her tongue. The sea inside the glass comes in; the children shout and climb. She hangs above the black rocks like a gull. Is this what it was like, she thinks - to be a creature made of air, watching them play?

Unwilled, the scenery fades. The queen leans back, a little sad. She is old now, and tired. She does not search the mirror for her husband, who waits for her in his fine marble tomb. She does not even seek the future, although it shivers at the corner of her eye. She has ruled well and wisely; has not bound one spirit to her will, or sought cruel knowledge which would see her damned. Such things as she has taken are but small: a pinch of luck, a glimpse or so, a twist of lead, a pile of books seen backwards past her father's shoulder through a mirror. She always did learn swiftly, when it came to words. Now, her bones ache. The sky outside grows dark; night-blossoming jasmine scents the heavy air. The smell is rich and close. Within the mirror, slowly, something stirs.

A woman's face: not young, not old. The queen takes up her mirror, stares, and frowns.

"What do you do here, stranger?" she enquires. "By what force do you trespass upon my arts?"

"I called you up, Mistress," says the face within the mirror, smiling a wide sharp smile. "Most puissant hag, you who have made streams run backwards to their sources, raised winds, cracked the old viper's jaw; who has called down the moon, and talked together with the slick-skinned dead. Have you not, great lady, done all these things and more? I asked the mirror for you in my time of need, and here you breathe before me."

"What if I do? What if I have?" The queen shakes her head and makes to set the mirror down. "You have a foul tongue in your head, you foolish girl. Now, get you gone. In times to come, see you use finer manners to your betters."

"Wait!" The woman in the mirror stretches out her hand, as if she could climb through the glassy stone and find herself in Naples with the queen. "I beg you, gracious lady. By your mercy, Mistress, I must have your aid. They come for me," she says, her voice rising, "and, great lady, know I am with child."

The queen raises an eyebrow. "Tell them so, then," she says. "Most people will be tender-hearted for a babe."

"That, much, I know. My lady, I should say," the woman says, somewhat in haste. "I asked the mirror for your council so I might shift their minds, not their soft hearts. I wish to use these frightened men to make me queen. To take me to a place where I alone may rule." She grows confiding, lowering her voice, her eyes. "It is not much I ask for, lady of the mirror. A craggy rock or else a sea-strung island, Mistress. A place to be alone, and ply my arts."

The queen stares down, silent, at her black stone mirror. Around her in the night the air is sweet; the court is still. Her children prosper; her grandchildren sleep. Her land is fat and rich, her hot fields heavy with great bruise-dark grapes; her harbours full of ships; her seas with fish. The times are high, in Naples and in far-distant Milan. Her talk right now, she understands, is with the slick-voiced dead. "Thy name is Sycorax," she tells the mirror. "I know thee now."

The woman bobs and smiles. "That's me, your grace, your highness, what you will," she says. "I will do you great service, for this little thing. I do so swear it." She looks over her shoulder. "Only, speak quickly, I entreat you."

The queen smooths down her skirts. Outside, a figure moves, lopsided, by the statues, shouldering his way against the blue-dark night. Spinning brave plans against her throne; kept close for all those times he has brought enemies before her, their plots revealed, as helpless at her feet as an unshelled whelk upon his tongue. Her creature now, his mouth still crammed full to bursting with her words. Keeping her peace. It is no more, she knows, than he deserves. He is a thing made foully, who has done foul work.

The statues twist and turn against the stars like seaweed with the tide; the palace creaks and cools. Briefly the queen considers things invisible and shapes of air, small singing voices and a pine tree, cleft in two. A small boy, mouthing new words like stones. A girl standing before a ship, brushing dry sand from off a black stone mirror. She thinks of her old father, lonely, hungry, no creature all around him but a babe in arms. Would all his arts have helped him then? Could he have weathered hardships, without subjects? Dear one. Such things are not for thee.

"I will do whatsoever you require, my lady," says Sycorax again. "I pray you, speak. Give me a charm for safety, if not a path to some new land."

"I will do both, my girl," says the old queen. "I know thee, Sycorax, sweet-voiced and cruel. Only," she says, "do thou one thing for me."

"I'll do't," says Sycorax. "What's your will?"

"Nothing but to set a charm upon thy mirror," says the queen. "Take it along with thee. Let it be found next after thy death by some certain young girl."

"After my death," says Sycorax. She quirks her lips and shrugs, and tries to smile. "I see. A little thing enough. What girl is this?"

"Call her Miranda," says the queen. "Use that name for thy charm."

Sycorax bows her head; murmurs the name. "Miranda," she says, quiet and low. "A pretty name."

"Let her find out the mirror," says the queen, "after she falls in love; before she leaves the island, shall we say."

"The mirror," Sycorax says, a little mulishly, "is mine."

"And shall be till thy death," the queen agrees. "Now, listen," she says, "and I'll tell thee of an island."

Some small time later, the stars have shifted in the wide black sky. The mirror by the casement catches them, where it lies empty and still, a curiosity upon the crowded table. In time, its doubled stars pass on across its face, and slip away. The queen leans back: she has kept things on their appointed path. Filled the right mouths with words. Bound no sad spirit; used no magic so cruel that it will bring her low, like Sycorax. There is no need for her to walk out through her gardens, past her maze, her statues. There is no need for her to let her mirror fall into the rolling waters of the starlit sea. Not yet, in any case. She has learned from her father; brought on herself some little fear and struggle, and much glory.

Her hands in their gold rings are quite, quite clean: she seems to see them, as she lets her eyes fall closed, moving before her through some deep clear water. She hears sea-voices, singing out her name, and smiles. A little wry, that smile, unseen in the dark night.

A word moves on her tongue, a soft thing tasting, still, of salt.