I. The Queen
The nightmare begins for the Queen on the night of the red-ringed moon. As a rataplan of dwarrow drums beats in the distance, the human-dwarrow war abruptly ends. That is, half of the Queen's mind tells her this; the other half reminds her that though humans and dwarrows have never gotten along, there has never been a war between the two races. There has always been this tense...no, not peace, for all that none of the dwarves—to use the less than flattering term for them—are swinging battle-axes nor are the humans shooting arrows. It's absence of open war, at best.
She doesn't think about the nonexistent war overmuch, for why worry about a war that isn't being fought? Other things trouble her far more. The disappearance of the king, for example. The Queen knows with a certainty as unshakeable as the northern mountains that she never loved her husband and that she has always been far, far too practical to fall in love. She can't even remember if his hair was blond or brown, if his voice was low or high, or if he was gentle or stern. She doubts, though, that he ever loved her.
Despite all this, his absence makes her feel as if one of her legs is missing. Something fundamental that she never imagined that she would have to live without is gone forever—and yet what's missing hurts.
She sends guards and messengers everywhere in the kingdom to find the missing king. She knows what courtiers and commoners alike are whispering—that she longs for vengeance, and that if she ever finds the king, the price of his desertion will be blood, bone and pain.
She doesn't think she would do that to him (though why should she care what happens to a man she never loved?). And I can't hesitate to punish a king who wronged me. I'm a queen alone now. I have to be strong—or what other rulers think of as strong.
She was merciful at first; that was why she let her stepdaughter live. She knows it was foolish, for the girl could become a rival for the throne if she or those around her are sufficiently ambitious...or merely the figurehead of a faction, if she lacks drive. The Queen is certain she does not.
It really would have been wiser to execute her immediately and eliminate a potential threat.
The Queen has not done so because Snow White resembles the daughter she'd
once, a child with hair as black as ebony, skin as white as snow, and lips as red as blood. A beautiful little girl, her heart overflowing with love and kindness. There are times the Queen can almost feel her daughter's tiny, warm hand upon her cheek. When that happens, she has to hold herself as rigid as stone and choke back the grief that burns her heart like acid…at least until she can slip away from the court and its sly, prying eyes, curl up in a chair in her chamber, and splutter out angry, strangled sobs.
What hurts the most is that she cannot remember her daughter's name. What kind of mother can't remember her daughter's name? What was it? Lisa? Maria? Ermellina? Myrsina? Romana? All of them feel almost right, but almost is not enough.
She only knows that Snow White is not her daughter. At times, she even wonders if her stepdaughter has donned her true daughter's hair and coloring to mock her. For she is a witch, of course. The Queen knows that, and is wary of her.
A witch can always sense another witch.
The Queen would be the first to admit that she has not been a practicing witch for long, though she's been studying the tomes and the grimoires in the palace library for what seems like eons. It takes time to learn magic, and even longer when you must be your own teacher. Yet she could swear that she's only been practicing magic since the king vanished, and, according to the calendar, that was only a year ago.
It must have been a very long year. She dimly recalls whispering charms into her nameless daughter's ear from babyhood on and remembers the child lisping them in imitation. This memory makes her shudder; she knows now that demons, like weavers crafting an intricate tapestry, arrange for magic to work. How they must have laughed to hear an innocent infant giggling over hellcharms!
If it happened at all, that is, and wasn't merely a half-remembered nightmare.
She wonders, sometimes, if demons stole away her daughter because of her baby spells. Or perhaps they killed her, slowly and horribly. Some of them would do so eagerly. Which would mean that she was responsible for—
She buries her head in her hands, trying not to dig her nails into her face. No. No. I can't think like that. I can't.
At moments like this—when dark and random thoughts fly, shrieking, about her mind, when every howling horror that lurks in nightmares leaps at her until she can no longer think, when her bones feel filled with ground glass and her heart is less alive than an empty stone—at moments like this, she banishes the courtiers and ambassadors, the jesters and the royal huntsman so that she can speak to the best of her advisors and her closest friend. The one person she can trust.
The magic mirror.
The Queen doesn't actually know when she acquired the mirror. She thinks that it was after
(the king vanished)
(she was cursed with an evil stepdaughter)
(everything started to go wrong)
…well, some time after she became queen. She can't recall if a merchant found it and brought it to her in an attempt to curry favor, if a princeling from a neighboring land sent it as a courting-gift, or if her soldiers seized it from some rebellious dwarrows. She does know, though, that the mirror—a rectangular looking-glass with an intricately carved frame whose top resembles the turreted and domed entrance to a palace, if a palace's windows were inset with three crimson wheels of fortune—is eerily beautiful. She runs a gentle hand over the side of the frame, which is inlaid with moonstones. The moonstones form tiny snowdrops, which are linked to chains of black pearls. The Queen smiles. The woman who made this truly loved her work.
It is her oldest friend, the noblewoman Pratima, who tells her about the mirror and its maker. When Pratima tells her, the Queen feels, somewhat against her will, a stab of jealousy. The greatest scholars in the land haven’t been able to trace the provenance of the mirror…but Pratima knows.
"It is a soul-mirror, Your Majesty."
A soul-mirror. That chills her. She has no desire, now or ever, to see the reflection of her own soul.
"How can a mirror reflect souls?" she demands. "Souls aren't physical."
"The glass does not reflect souls, Your Majesty," Pratima replies with a touch of asperity. "The spirit within it does. It…I suppose you could say that it uses its will to draw an image in the glass, one that only the mirror's owner can see."
Unused to ruling alone, the Queen often feels that her court is swarming not with courtiers and diplomats but with ravens and vultures. The thought of seeing the souls of all in her court is intoxicating. At last she will know whom she can truly trust. At last she will be a queen that men will fear, rather than fling aside.
But when she speaks of this to Pratima, the other woman merely shakes her head. "No, Your Majesty. This mirror must be empty; I cannot think of any other reason a ruler would let it pass from his realm. No one who could see the souls of his rivals would want it to fall into anyone else's hands."
It irks her that Pratima so glibly and so automatically speaks of a hypothetical ruler as "him." More than that, she feels cheated. It is as if she has discovered a sword out of myth and a horn out of legend…only to find that the horn has been cleft in two and the sword blunted and broken.
But perhaps the people who made the mirror can mend it. Perhaps.
"Who created the mirror?" she asks. "If I found craftsmen who knew the secrets of such a thing, they might be able to awaken the spirit inside it. For surely it is not dead. How could a spirit die?" And she laughs. It is one of the last times she will ever do so.
Gasping, Pratima stumbles away from her. "Not even as a joke!"
It is not like Pratima to be coy; her tongue is sharper, more accurate and far deadlier than most daggers. Besides, the Queen has no thought of jesting, and why would she?
It takes several days before she is able to persuade Pratima to walk with her in the palace gardens. Then she draws Pratima aside to a secluded corner and demands that her friend tell her what troubled her so.
Pratima has no desire to answer, but after many pleas, much cozening, and not a few imperious commands, she does. "Though you will not like it," she warns the Queen. "The truth will cause you nothing but pain, and I fear you will not forgive that."
"Pratima," the Queen replies gently, "you have been my friend since I wed the King. There is nothing I would not forgive."
Her friend simply gazes at her in intermingled doubt and sorrow. But then she answers, and her words pierce the Queen's heart as though she had flung a javelin through it. "You were laughing about souls dying—as if they could not."
An icicle of fear slides down the Queen's spine then. "Of course they cannot! Souls are immortal!"
Pratima shakes her head, her long grey-streaked black braid swinging back and forth like a bell-rope as she does so. "Your Majesty. I beg you—don't make me say any more."
But the Queen insists. She will curse herself for this in the future, for Pratima is right; the truth steals her peace and gives her unending pain.
"I was taught," Pratima says, clenching her fists in her lap, "that such mirrors were crafted by the dwellers of an ancient city that once stood in the East, where the wastelands and wilderness lie now."
The wastelands. Haunts of demons and evil magic for time out of mind, or so the Queen has always heard.
"The city was uncommonly beautiful—"
Of course. Cities and kingdoms are always lovely beyond compare in fairy tales.
"—yet it was small."
"Because of a curse, I suppose."
Pratima frowns. "No. Nothing so simple. There were always more women in the city than men, and children were always rare. The women who ruled the city fought this problem for centuries, yet at last they were defeated by it. And when they knew that time grew short, the last dwellers of the city—all women—crafted these mirrors so that when the last of them was dead, the wisdom and knowledge of the city would not be lost. That would remain because their souls would remain within the mirrors, and they would be able to advise other rulers. Or so my teacher taught me in my youth."
"And how would he know?" the Queen mutters.
"She." Then Pratima glances pointedly at her. "Your people may ignore magical history, but that is not everyone's choice."
The Queen is about to reprimand her for insolence—friend or not, this is no way to speak to one's ruler!—when Pratima continues. "But this mirror is empty."
"Why are you so certain?" Pratima has not had a chance to examine the mirror; the Queen is careful to lock away her treasures in her chambers and elsewhere, lest her predatory couriers steal them away simply because they are rare, glittering and hers.
"Because," Pratima replies, "I have studied magic. You practice it. Yet I have seen it standing in your bedchamber, and so have you—and have you seen anything in it but the reflection of yourself and the room? For I have not."
The Queen shakes her head. "No. Nothing."
Pratima nods her head, as if that's no more than she expected. "Soul-mirrors have a peculiarity; the souls within them are always visible to those who know magic and…and one other sort of person. Yet you and I see nothing. So there is no soul in this mirror. Whether it was always empty or it held a soul once and the soul perished, I don't know."
"You keep speaking of souls dying! And that's not possible!" the Queen snarls, thinking of her lost and nameless daughter, who might well be dead. No. No, I didn't mean to think that. It's not true. Don't let it be true.
Pratima looks her full in the face, then, and the Queen doesn't really know how to read that expression. It will come to her late that night; Pratima's sharp features displayed curdled bitterness and reluctant pity.
And when she speaks, she sounds as if she is quoting someone. "You probably know that all that lives, from the kindest saint to the smallest scrap of pond scum, has a soul."
The Queen knows nothing of the sort; she has always been taught that humans and dwarrows are the only ones so favored. But she nods impatiently, thinking that she will agree that the sky is made of stones if that will speed Pratima's explanation.
"When mortals die—and everything that can die is a mortal—they rise into the sky. Not to your Heaven, though. They simply drift for a day or so, learning about true reality…or so those who have spoken to the recently dead say. But after that, the souls fade away until there is nothing left." And she falls silent.
Which means, thinks the Queen, her mind supplying the sentences that Pratima has not spoken, that if my husband and daughter are dead, I will never see them again. They've been—obliterated. Not in some portion of the afterlife I have to strive to reach. Not damned. Not stolen away to some fairy kingdom. Erased. Forever.
She shoves the idea away as if she is about to choke. "It's a lie, a filthy lie! You couldn't possibly know something like that! You're just trying to frighten me!"
"I'm not lying, Your Majesty," Pratima says with what sounds to the Queen like offensive smugness. "If you don't believe me, examine the books in the palace library. You'll find that it's true—ow!" She stares incredulously at the frenzied, distraught Queen…who has just boxed her ears.
"Don't you dare tell me that this is true," the Queen pants, as if speech is as difficult as trying to lift an elephant. "Don't you dare say that I can prove it to myself. Don't you dare."
And then she leaves the garden hastily. (But with dignity, she tells herself. Sometimes dignity is all you have, so it's very important.)
And if, by the time she reaches the palace, she is choking on sobs and stumbling through the corridors as if she is fevered or drunk…well, that is still quite dignified for a woman who has just lost her whole world, and all hope besides.
She does examine the books on theology and magical history in the palace library, though of course she takes care that Pratima doesn't know it. She has no intention of giving her former friend one ounce of satisfaction. Not that the Queen thinks that Pratima was precisely pleased to tell her the truth. But Pratima knew how unbearable the truth was, and she told the Queen anyway.
She could have lied. I would have believed a lie.
She thinks that if she could have time to deal with the loss, all would be well, and all would be well, and all manner of things would be well. The universe, however, proves cruelly indifferent to her need to mourn, piling on crisis after crisis, time-consuming tasks, and problems that seem quite petty compared to hers but that everyone insists must be done right now. Day after day, she trudges through her empty existence as queen, hating her advisors, her courtiers and the sheer meaninglessness of everything she is compelled to do. It does not matter. None of it matters. She is wasting her time. Her life. The only life she will ever have. And no one seems to care.
As for her head, it has become a volcano. She can feel rage and hatred and frustration churning within her head, making it throb with fevered fury. There are many days when she feels as if someone has tied a knotted rope about her head and is tightening it inch by implacable inch.
It is all Pratima's fault. She has to be punished for her wickedness. Yet…she has been a friend until now, and that gnaws at the Queen more than all of the foolish minor crises that she is compelled to treat as major ones. If Pratima were a true friend, she would be on her knees, begging for mercy. She would fling herself at the foot of the Queen's throne, beseeching her for the privilege of doing penance. Instead, she is going about as if the two of them have merely had a sudden spat, which should last about as long as a summer storm. This…this arrogance makes the Queen feel sick.
Then one day, she realizes that Pratima can do penance in a way that was useful to the country and to the crown. Pratima will even thank her for it, later.
It takes the Queen a great deal of time to find the artifact she needs to help her friend perform her penance. It is costly beyond measure, for it's immensely powerful, yet there's only one. No one has ever succeeded in making a second, and the Queen cannot command the artisan who made to come to court and craft a second; the woman who made it has been dead since the world was young.
But at last she obtains it: a heart-shaped box of rich black wood with a line of symbols burned into the lid. Every scrap of its surface is oiled and varnished save for those symbols. It is large enough to hold a human heart, too, and feels weirdly warm. The Queen does not like it, finding it unpleasant even to touch…but then, everyone has to make sacrifices, even the Queen.
And after all, this is for everyone's good. She has to remember that.
Of course, she cannot simply use the box once she has it, though that would be more efficient. Sadly, witchcraft is not well-thought-of in this kingdom. While it is occasionally useful to be a queen who is rumored to be a witch, it would be unwise to give her opponents—who are no doubt led by her evil stepdaughter—any proof that the rumors are true. This makes the Queen grind her teeth in frustration; she can manage subtlety, but she has no love for it.
She continues to read the grimoires in the library, hoping for inspiration. The box will convince Pratima to atone for her crimes; it's designed to affect the soul. It's the other details that trouble her.
And she knows she should not be troubled. True queens do not feel guilty for what they must do; they act as they must, without fear or hesitation.
She wonders uneasily if the King left because he was certain she was no true queen—or if he'd return if she could prove him wrong.
So she invites a host of her women—Pratima, naturally, among them— and their spouses (or temporary spouses; the Queen sees no reason that she and her friends should not frolic every bit as much as kings and lords do) to the royal summer palace overlooking the sea. For a time—an all too brief time—the Queen and her ladies play at simplicity, wandering the seashore, sporting in the ocean and sailing to small coves for luncheons and storytelling. Before the week is up, the Queen has sailed on a dozen such small trips; it's almost enough to make her wish that Pratima might have to leave the summer palace for her own homeland before…well, before.
But Pratima stays. Indeed, she seems happy to do so. The Queen takes this as an omen.
And so, before dawn on the day she has planned, she writes two letters, one in a very fair approximation of Pratima's hand, seals them and then conceals them in a secret compartment in her room. She next arranges for a series of small parties with all of her guests. Then, after first swallowing a complex and powerful antidote, she seasons the food and drink of her nobles with a potion that grants dreams about any subject the caster likes, and so vivid that those experiencing them would swear such dreams are real. The Queen sprays a similar potion into the air so that the servants—who, after all, are not invited to the parties—will also be affected. And then she adds a small charm: that everyone will remember seeing her eating, drinking or laughing with this friend or that group, and that no one will recall either Pratima or her absence.
Pratima, who does not like parties (nor who is much liked by anyone at court, save the Queen) dozes off on a white marble bench in one of the more formal gardens the second that she tastes the enchanted food and wine. The Queen, knowing of her friend's loathing for parties and love of flowers, finds her almost immediately. And Pratima does not stir when the Queen touches her to see if she is truly asleep; she does not murmur when the Queen places a heart-sized, heart-shaped box of black wood beside her head and opens it.
She does not even cry out when the Queen pulls a stiletto from a dagged sleeve, casts a shield spell on herself (for blood spatter is hard to explain away) and swiftly cuts her friend's throat.
Blood spurts from the wound. There is so much—on the grass, on the marble bench, on Pratima's face. It's ugly. And there seems to be enough of it to cover the world.
But the Queen…says nothing. She only watches as what looks like smoke made of bright light coils out of the gaping wound and into the ebony box—which slams shut once the last of the bright smoke has entered it.
The Queen picks up the box—which has not a drop of blood on it—and places it in the larger of two purses hanging from her waist. Then, after placing the stiletto next to the body, she opens the smaller of the purses with great care and gently, oh, so gently, shakes what looks like dust or sand over both the weapon and the corpse. It takes time, for they are outdoors and if the smallest breeze blew the Queen's "dust" onto her, it might eat right through the shield spell and devour her alive. But the Queen is careful, and the dust consumes Pratima, the dagger and itself alike.
Then the Queen returns to her room, washes her face and her hands—just to be sure that she's clean of blood and dust—and retrieves the two letters she wrote earlier. One she takes to Pratima's room, where she breaks its seal and then leaves it on a window seat, as if she had just put it down. The one in Pratima's handwriting the Queen places beside the sleeping form of a zealous and well-meaning but not particularly efficient young messenger boy. He is eager enough to please to come up with a detailed story of how Pratima looked and behaved when she gave him this letter for the Queen. Between his own desire to please and the effects of the dream potion, he'll even believe it.
And so it happens. The boy goes into great detail about how anxious Pratima was for the Queen to receive this letter, which, when the Queen reads it (and her ladies and their servants copy it), speaks of dying parents and aging, impoverished sisters in Pratima's homeland, far away. The story is unpleasant in a sufficiently ordinary way; no one wants to think of it too much, for doing so may attract similar ill luck. And no one truly misses Pratima, except the Queen herself; she was too bright, too cynical and perhaps too honest. Her sudden departure only encourages each of the other guests to hope that someone more deserving will take Pratima's place.
The Queen endures all the spite and envy for several more weeks, pretending to mistake it all for wit and good humor. Then another minor crisis erupts, as crises have been doing since the King vanished, and she and her entourage have to return home.
She's glad. She's eager to see Pratima again.
And, once the most recent emergency is over and the latest arrogant and overly ambitious princeling is appeased, she does just that.
She enters a hidden room high in one of the castle's towers; it was probably an alchemist's laboratory, once upon a time, but now it's the place she goes to cast spells and brew potions. It's crowded, filled with books and beakers, candelabras and oil lamps. Mystic symbols are carved into every stone in the ceiling, walls and floor. The hearth burns perpetually with flickering green fire—though the Queen has no clue what it burns, as she has never laid so much as a stick of kindling on it. And there is usually at least one bird in the room; an unkindness of ravens lives nearby and seems to have adopted this room as part of its rookery.
But there are no ravens here today. There's only the Queen, the box containing Pratima's soul, and the mirror, which is standing in the center of the room, looking defiantly elegant. No ritual is required. All the Queen has to do is open the box. And she does so.
Though it has only been a few weeks for the Queen, she knows that for Pratima's soul, it has been far longer. There is no time for souls within that box. The Queen is counting on that.
And it works. Pratima's soul, weeks past the day or two that disembodied souls are generally allotted and desperate to survive, instinctively darts for the one vessel in the room meant to hold a soul but bereft of one—the mirror.
Several minutes pass. Then Pratima—or the image of the aging, homely woman that she once was—appears in the glass.
The Queen smiles with honest delight.
Pratima gazes at herself and her surroundings with horror. "What have you done to me?" she whispers in shock. "What have you done?"
The Queen beams at her. Eerily, she looks like a little girl who has just thought of an exciting new game. "I made you immortal! Aren't you happy? You can give me good advice forever while you atone for saying that souls die, because now I know that you know that's not true. Maybe you can even find my daughter; after all, you're magical now." Her smile becomes a pumpkin grin and she hugs herself for her cleverness. "This is going to be wonderful."
"Where is my body?"
"Oh, that?" The Queen brushes the words away as if swatting a fly. "I destroyed it. You don't need a weak human body anymore; you have a much better one now. This one can't die!"
Pratima stares bleakly at the Queen. "The mirror can't move! It can't breathe! I can't even feel the touch of sun or snow against my skin! And no one else can see me or hear me—unless there are other witches at your court!"
The Queen pouts. This isn't how she imagined everything going. Pratima is supposed to be happy to be immortal—and properly humble that she has been proven incorrect. Not furious. Certainly not speaking as if she—the Queen!—has done something sickeningly wrong.
"If you won't be nice, I'll leave," she tells Pratima in a sullen tone. "I don't have to come here if I don't want to. You can just sit here and stare at the darkness and listen to the ravens for years and years. Maybe when I come back, you'll be in a better mood." And she suits action to word, for she is a queen, after all, and a great one. And great queens keep their promises.
Pratima shrieks, alternately beseeching the Queen not to leave and wailing about what the Queen has done to her. Her voice is loud enough and acidic enough to peel the paint off of Heaven's door. But when the Queen ignores her, locking the door of the hidden room and walking steadily down the corridor to the staircase leading back to the main palace, the shrieks turn to chokes and gasps…the closest a mirror, even an enchanted one, can come to crying.
II. The Mirror
After a week or more of silence and darkness—for she's never sure how long the Queen leaves her alone—Pratima breaks.
The spirit of the mirror breaking. It sounds like a bad joke. But Pratima feels as if something inside her has shattered, thanks to the Queen who trapped her here, and no matter how hard she tries to put herself back together, she still feels as if some grains and slivers of whatever broke are missing and may never be found.
She hates the Queen for this. She hates the Queen even more for not realizing that she's done anything remotely hateful.
She complies with the Queen's wishes, though, despite loathing her. As terrible as her existence now is, Pratima knows that being left alone and unheard in the silence and the dark for endless years—perhaps centuries—would be far worse.
Of course, this limits what vengeance she can take. Much as she might want to destroy the Queen, she can't bring herself to give advice that would annihilate the one person that she knows can still see and hear her. (Though she's not quite certain about the Queen's stepdaughter. There are rumors about her knowing magic. Brought up to it from infancy, so the story goes. But there's no proof of this, and the girl avoids both the Queen and the mirror with near-religious devotion.)
Pratima knows that it's weak of her, but she can't face the isolation, the loneliness, the eventual madness that open defiance of the Queen would bring her. She'll have to find another way.
She bides her time. When the Queen has her mirror moved into the throne room or the council chambers, she deliberately gives advice that is not brilliant but is certainly better than the advice coming from most of the court. And she listens to what the Queen says, especially when the Queen has the mirror moved back to her bedchamber, so that they can talk while they are alone. (Or as alone as a queen and an enchanted mirror can be in a palace overflowing with nobles, diplomats, guards and servants.)
In private, or what passes for privacy, the Queen often speaks of…no, not the King, for no one remembers him well, but what she could have done to prevent him from vanishing. As subjects go, it doesn't interest Pratima much. Most of the time, she ignores the Queen's comments. But one day, when the Queen persists in gnawing at the topic like a boarhound with a hambone, Pratima finally snaps out an answer. A bitter answer, perhaps, but an answer.
"I fail to see what you could have done. You don't even know that his disappearance had aught to do with you. Perhaps one of the dwarrows slew him; they're generally armed with axes and picks, aren't they? And many of them are miners, so they're strong. Or maybe he drank too much and fell from his horse. Maybe he fell ill of a fever and lost his memory; I've read of such things happening. He might have been captured by bandits. He could have been turned into one of the stags in the King's Forest, for all we know!"
"Or perhaps he lost interest in me," replies the Queen gloomily. "Perhaps he found me too old or too ugly and left me for someone younger and prettier."
To Pratima, who has never been anything approaching beautiful and who was jealous, even as a living woman, that the Queen was her age and yet looked twenty years younger, such words are like poisoned arrows stabbing her heart. So for once she answers as she honestly thinks, rather than speaking with careful cleverness.
"It would not surprise me if he left you for someone younger and prettier. Oh, not that you are not beautiful, Your Majesty! But those who are beautiful always get what they want in life. They are thought finer, braver, wiser, and more lovable. Everyone wants to befriend them or to court them. It should not be so…but it usually is."
Her image in the looking glass shrugs its shoulders. "And men are fickle…or so I have always been told. Though if you were the most beautiful woman in the world, I daresay that no matter why he truly left, he'd have found some reason for remaining by your side."
The Queen gasps, gazing at the mirror in shock. "That is cruel."
"Truth is rarely kind."
The Queen falls silent then, and Pratima rejoices. Wounding the vanity of her murderer is no great victory and accomplishes nothing of value, but it satisfies a deep hunger and that, at the moment, is reason enough. It would be all too easy to become as hard and cold as her glass prison. Hating the Queen may be folly…but even so, she'll follow that path wherever it leads.
Because mirrors are things. Things don't hate. People do.
Time passes. How much time, Pratima doesn't know. She's certain that less than a year has passed since she told the Queen about soul mirrors, but at the same time, she has dim memories of the Queen's stepdaughter as a child of seven. Now Snow White's sixteen.
But when Pratima raises the issue, the Queen has no clue what she means. Careful questioning tells her that, so far as the Queen is concerned, Snow White has always been the age she is right now.
She wonders if the Queen is the only one who thinks this. So, on the occasions when the mirror is positioned near the royal throne (which is very nearly every day), Pratima listens to the courtiers. She finds that they, too, have taken nine years for less than one—and that the missing years are almost impossible for her to think about, even for a second.
Something is very wrong. And she doubts if it's the Queen's doing.
Then one day the Queen casts a spell, teleporting the mirror to the hidden laboratory. Pratima paces inside the mirror, wondering what wrong she's committed this time. And when the Queen arrives some time later, her words do not reassure Pratima at all. "I believe I have found the spell that you suggested."
"What spell?" Pratima is no witch, and cannot recall a time when she has advised the Queen on magical matters.
"The spell to increase my beauty, of course," the Queen says a trifle testily. Plucking an ornate ivory-and-silver chrismatory from one shelf and a delicate paintbrush with red bristles from another, she kneels on the floor, removes the lid of the chrismatory, dips the brush in, and begins drawing a circle of holy oil on the stained, mica-flecked, dark flagstones. "There seems to be no spell or potion that would do what I want without exacting a hefty price from me, but there is no harm in asking someone else to grant me what I wish, is there?"
"I could not say that," replies Pratima, speaking both in the driest of tones and with the utmost accuracy. "Whom, precisely, are you going to ask?"
While there are numerous demons that can render the Queen as beautiful as the dawn, few allow unalloyed good to come to pass when magic is invoked. And if the Queen is going to summon a demon…well, Pratima has no desire to be here. She has no idea what a demon could do with (or to) a trapped soul, but she has liked little in her present existence and doubts very much if a demon will improve the situation. Nor can she ignore the fact that her present body, if one wishes to call it that, is far, far more fragile than the Queen's.
The Queen looks up at the mirror, smiles joyfully and claps her hands—splattering the floor and herself with oil from her paintbrush as she does so. "You'll see. This is going to be wonderful."
It doesn't take long before the circle is complete. After standing and then carefully setting the chrismatory and the paintbrush on an ancient table just barely within arm's reach, the Queen pulls the skirts of her gown nearly up to her thighs, and meticulously steps out of the circle, leaving it unbroken. Then she lights a twisted taper (made, Pratima recalls, from the fat of a hanged man), opens a grimoire covered with thorns and scales, and begins to read the silver and scarlet letters flickering on the black page before her.
The spell the Queen is reciting sounds neither harsh nor guttural. The language flows and ripples like a river…almost like a song. And as it continues, the laboratory…shifts. The gray stone walls ripple, becoming the walls of a pearlescent silk pavilion. The dark flagstones become a soft carpet of onyx. The colorful stains that were on those flagstones become intricate geometric shapes, lions and dragons; the sparkling mica, exquisitely cut jewels. The alchemic and magical equipment look more like strange, crystalline works of art such as the dwarrows might carve. Incense burners, which the Queen has never possessed, appear, and pale smoke begins to rise from them. An antique wooden harp, inlaid with gold and lapis lazuli, begins to play a ballad of both welcome and triumph, seemingly of its own volition.
An empress could be greeted thus and not be dishonored.
And, as the Queen finishes the spell, a tall, winged woman appears in the circle. No flame or smoke or howls from Hell accompany her—she is simply there, looking both flawlessly regal and assured that this is precisely where she wants to be.
She is also flawlessly beautiful—though not at all in the manner favored by the poets and minstrels hereabouts, who (unreasonably, in Pratima's opinion) prefer fair-skinned women with hair of sunlight. This woman is neither pale nor golden-haired. Her skin is a deep, rich mahogany; her hair, a very dark nut-brown. Her wings, which are folded about her from shoulder to ankle and which clothe her better than any garment could, seem to have been crafted from night itself.
Her eyes, which are large, black and expressive, take in the transformed room and the eager look on the Queen's face—and for a moment, she seems amused. It's the look of a woman who has just found her two-year-old daughter playing dress-up, certain that Mama's gown and Grandma's jewels are all it takes to make her a big, big girl. Foolish of the baby, of course, but isn't it adorable that she thinks so?
And then she speaks, and her voice, like everything else about her, is rich and dark and perfect. "I am she whom you call Lilith. What do you wish, Daughter of Eve?"
Hearing the disdain in that epithet, Pratima winces. Lilith. Queen of the Night. Mother of Demons. The first wife of Adam, with no love for her replacement or her replacement's children. And you dared to summon her?
But the Queen apparently does not hear the disdain, nor does she wince. "I wish," she says, "for you to make me the most beautiful woman in the world."
Once again, a look of amusement flickers across Lilith's face. "I cannot."
The Queen glares at her, her eyes coldly furious. "You must. The spell I just spoke binds you; you must do my bidding."
"I cannot," Lilith repeats in a patient tone. "Think, child. I was made to be the equal of Adam unfallen, perfect in every way. To make you the most beautiful woman in the world, I would have to make you more beautiful than me. And even I cannot surpass my own Creator."
The Queen blanches, looking sick and heartbroken. Until now, Pratima had thought of this evening's folly as a matter of casual vanity. Now she sees that the Queen had counted on increased beauty to gain her the respect of her fellow rulers, the esteem of her people and the love of the missing King. Pratima would pity the Queen if she had any pity left.
"Is there anything that you can do?" she wonders, and it is only when Lilith, looking intrigued, turns toward her, that Pratima realizes that she spoke out loud.
Before she has time to panic, Lilith waves a languid hand, freezing the Queen in place. Then, stretching her wings (and Pratima has no idea how her wings fit into this cramped hidden room, as they are large enough to blot out the sky), Lilith steps out of the circle and glides over to the mirror.
"An accursed mirror," she murmurs. "And not, I think, her creation—though your predicament is of her devising. Tell me, how did she trap you?"
One of the blessings and curses of death is knowing exactly how you died, whether you were aware of it at the time or not. So Pratima knows the answer to Lilith's question, and gives it. "She murdered me in my sleep, put my soul in a box and then transferred it to this mirror."
"And you hate her for it."
The bitter truth bursts from Pratima then. "Wouldn't you?"
A long silence follows in which Lilith, thoughtful and grave, gazes at the mirror. Gradually, Pratima realizes how insolent her answer must have sounded to the Mother of All Demons. But she does not apologize.
Then Lilith speaks. "Yes. Yes, I would. Someone once wanted to re-make me into something that reflected and flattered himself, and I found it intolerable. Tell me—what do you want?"
"Before I answer," Pratima says slowly, "I need to know something. Swear by the name of your Creator that what you say will be true."
Lilith seems to grow so tall that her head is scraping the stars. "You dare suggest that I would lie?"
If she's going to die, she'll damned well die telling the truth. "Before you were a demon, you were human. And demon or human, you have many children that you want to protect—not to mention your own life and freedom. If you thought any of those things were threatened, of course you'd lie."
Again, there is a pause, and then Lilith laughs in what seems to be honest pleasure. "She was a fool to kill you. Honesty is too rare. Very well. I swear by the Holy Name that the answer I give to your question shall be true. But no more than that. Lying is one of the greatest skills humans ever invented. If she wants honesty," and Lilith nods at the Queen, "she will have to ask for it—and pay for it, by taking the same risk you did.
"Now. Ask your question."
Pratima does not hesitate. "Did you teach the creators of my prison—or anyone else, human, demon, dwarrow or angel—how to make such mirrors?"
Lilith shakes her head. "No. I know who did, though—Adam's second wife. No, not Eve," she adds, evidently sensing Pratima's puzzlement. "Eve was his third."
"What was her name? And where did she come from?"
"After I left, the Creator was still set on Adam not being alone. So He made another woman—this one to Adam's specifications—and let him watch as He crafted her, bones, nerves, organs, muscles and skin."
She sighs. "That was a mistake. Once he knew all the things operating underneath her pretty skin, Adam was repulsed. He refused to even look at her. And the poor maiden, who had done no wrong and who could do nothing to overcome Adam's loathing, went to the Creator and beseeched Him to let her go, for she would be no further from Paradise outside the garden than she was in it.
"And so she, too, walked away from Eden. How long she was alone in the wilderness, I don't know, but eventually I found her. And since neither the Creator nor Adam had bothered to name her, I did. I called her Mara."
"I treated Mara as tenderly as I would my own daughter," Lilith continues, while Pratima wonders just how tender that was. "She was a wise and understanding lady, and those of her line—human, dwarrow, elf and otherwise—were and are much like her. But she was also an innocent, for she never fell. Eve ate forbidden fruit and was flung from Eden. I defied God and man and left of my own free choice. But Mara never disobeyed and never rebelled. Do you understand? She never knew right from wrong."
The sheer horror of this breaks in on Pratima. "She—she never realized how such a mirror—"
"—could be used? Oh, no! It was designed to be exactly what it was: a way of preserving wisdom. I'm certain she never thought of someone being forced to inhabit a mirror; I know that she never dreamed anyone would be murdered for this. After all, she was born before murder even existed." Lilith's face grows sorrowful, though whether over the suffering Mara inadvertently caused or Mara's dangerous innocence, Pratima can't be sure. "And I doubt very much if her daughters thought of this, either. As I said, her children were and are much like her."
"And now that I have answered all of your questions," Lilith concludes with just a hint of impatience in her tone, "I have one for you. Well, two, since you still haven't answered the one I asked you earlier—what do you want?"
Lilith chuckles. "Don't lie to me. You were afraid I'd destroy you; you've been accommodating this fool so that she won't harm you any more than she has. Those are the actions of someone who wants to live."
"I do! But…but this isn't living."
"True. And there's something else, isn't there?"
"Yes." Pratima, glaring at the Queen, hates her so much that it's a wonder her mirror's glass doesn't shatter. "Vengeance."
Lilith, fluttering her wings, looks thoughtful. "Well, I can promise you death, a new life or vengeance. I can't tell you which one you'll receive, though. That depends on whether I get what I want. Which leads me to the second question. Is there a woman that your Queen truly detests—preferably a beautiful woman?"
"Oh, yes," Pratima whispers, picturing Snow White.
Lilith's smile makes the sun look dark in comparison. "She will be perfect. Thank you, Pratima." And before Pratima can ask her how she knows her name, Lilith turns from the mirror, walks back to the circle and steps in. Then she lifts a regal hand and the Queen unfreezes.
"As I said, I cannot surpass my own Creator," Lilith says, as if no time has gone by at all…and perhaps, for the Queen, it hasn't. "But there is something I can do. I could hinder the competition. Would you like that?"
The Queen looks hungry at the very thought. But she has enough presence of mind to ask what Pratima suddenly realizes that she did not: "And what price would you ask for this?"
"Normally, I would possess the one who summoned me," Lilith says, as if discussing the price of fruit. "Since you would no doubt like to enjoy what I will do to your rival, that would seem inconvenient. Yet I must receive payment. Eve's children never appreciate what they receive for nothing."
And what will you ask of me? Pratima wonders. But she has little time to speculate, for the Queen is smiling wickedly at Lilith.
"Would it be possible for you to possess the body of my rival? Could you make her frightening and repellent to the faction that now adores her?"
"I believe that I could," Lilith says, and once again, Pratima hears more than a little mockery in the demon's tone. "What is her name?"
"She's my stepdaughter and she's a witch. Her name is Snow White."
III. The Demon
Lilith likes being Snow White.
The girl, of course, does not like Lilith possessing her body. No. That is far too mild. The girl—for she is a girl, barely touching sixteen—loathes it, and is petrified almost to madness both by Lilith herself and by what's happening to her.
Which is not entirely Lilith's will. True, she has discovered that the girl is no more a witch than she is a hyacinth—but there are plenty of books on magic in the palace library, and while Lilith herself has vast magical power, she sees no reason for her host to remain powerless. It will be easier to do magic if the girl can do it, too. Snow White is nearly as terrified by magic and by its thousand-and-one connections to demons as she is by Lilith—but this is not really a matter in which Lilith can allow her to have a say. If Lilith is to leave at some point—and despite the girl not believing her, that is her plan—then she will need magic. Which means that the girl will need magic. So it is, and so it must be.
The other thing that the girl fears and hates is drinking blood.
Lilith mentally tells the girl over and over again that she is not making her do this out of cruelty, but necessity. She has been a sanguinary demon of the night for most of her existence (though why she has long since forgotten), and the need for blood hasn't gone away simply because she's occupying a human body. Indeed, she's trying to be considerate; out of concern for the girl's fragile mental state, she's confined her—well, their—blood-drinking to animals. She hasn't so much as touched any of the humans hereabouts, despite being certain that no one would miss any of the courtiers.
Snow White ignores all the explanations, choosing instead either to defiantly resist (which never works) or to weep desperately in a corner of her mind. Truthfully, Lilith prefers Snow White being stubborn. At least when she's being stubborn, she's still fighting—and that may stand her in good stead afterwards.
Assuming, of course, that she gains what she has coveted for eons. If not, she and Snow White may be together longer than the girl wishes.
Aside from studying magic and forcing the girl to drink blood, however, Lilith lives much as Snow White herself would have. This does not please the Queen; she has hinted (and more than hinted) that Lilith should transform Snow White into a grotesque so that the Queen's own beauty will be all the more evident. Lilith has refused on the grounds that such an act is far, far too obvious.
"Do you want to make a martyr of her?" she snaps at the Queen, during a private meeting in the royal chambers. "Do you want every prince and king in a hundred kingdoms seeking to break the enchantment? I cannot make Snow White unpopular and unloved unless your subjects believe that she is acting of her own free will! "
"I've heard of cases of possession where people were transformed…and they did horrible things…"
"My children are not all subtle," Lilith retorts, crossing Snow White's arms. "I endeavor to be."
But while the Queen gives in, she is less than pleased. She had envisioned demonic wrath being rained down on her stepdaughter's head—or, rather, her daughter's, though the Queen doesn't know that—for numerous crimes…most of which are imaginary, though the Queen doesn't know that, either. At times, she seems to forget that Snow White is possessed. And she tries repeatedly to inveigle "Snow White" to come to the throne room and stand before her enchanted mirror, so that Pratima will show her "Snow's" soul.
In this, Lilith and Snow White are in complete accord; they both refuse. Snow White fears the mirror as much as she does the Queen or Lilith. Lilith knows better than to stand before it, at least while anyone else is watching. There would be no advantage to showing her true self to the Queen. Indeed, she's not certain whether the woman's tottering sanity could bear that much reality.
But, on occasion, after cloaking her host in a "notice-me-not" spell, Lilith does slip into the throne room and position herself somewhere in the room where she can see the reflections of the mirror but where the mirror cannot reflect Snow White's body. And she sees many interesting things in those reflections, not the least of which is the Queen herself.
The Queen's reflection is delicately beautiful; Lilith suspects that Pratima is carefully concealing details that would make the image less than palatable. It would not surprise her. Conjurers have known for millennia that mirrors can and do lie. But when she studies it carefully, she sees several details that show all is not well. The Queen's reflection is small, stiff and unmoving, resembling an ivory pawn more than a woman. Somewhere near her, too, there is always a clock—an hourglass, a sundial or a clepsydra—that never quite keeps the right time. And whatever the Queen wears in reality, her reflection's gowns are always embroidered with dahlias—a flower that represents betrayal, instability, dishonesty and death.
Most of the reflections, though, are not nearly so subtly wrong. The servants have the sense to shun the mirror if at all possible, while many of the courtiers are little more than sheep. None of them are potentially useful.
But then Lilith sees the reflection of the royal huntsman.
The true huntsman is handsome enough, though no longer young, and his eyes follow the Queen worshipfully wherever she is and whatever she does. But his reflection is the opposite: a hunchback, stooped as if bearing a crushing burden. And the hunchback does not gaze at her worshipfully; no, he smirks at her with greedy lust.
In this time and place, hunchbacks are often outsiders. And this particular one burns for someone—or something—he cannot have.
Oh, yes. The huntsman could be very helpful.
Now that she has a potential ally (and one who, unlike the unfortunate mirror, can actually move through the real world), Lilith starts acting on her plans. She contacts a clan of the dwarrows in the northern mountains, persuading them to help the poor, innocent princess escape her mad, cruel stepmother—and then enticing them even more once they learn, as she intended them to, that she is anything but the princess. She forces Snow White to ask the dwarrows to build her a coffin and fill it with dirt from the palace grounds. (Pointless, as Lilith requires neither coffin nor native soil to rest, but the rumors may keep people from following her.)
She convinces one of the dwarrows, a juggler called Happy Blue, to come to the palace. "There is a task only you can perform," she tells him. "And I know you have the heart for it."
And she watches the Queen carefully. For by now the Queen has forgotten that Snow White is possessed because of a bargain she made; she seems to have forgotten that Lilith is even present. Only her unreasoning hatred of her daughter and her need to be supremely beautiful remain—and while Lilith herself is ancient and immortal, her host is neither.
There is altogether too much madness and mystery in this kingdom. Too much is casually forgotten and cast aside. She has thoroughly tarnished Snow White's reputation; now it is time to go.
But not to retreat. Oh, no. The safest way is to give the Queen what she wants: proof of her daughter's death. No one looks for dead princesses. And if the Queen is going to ask for proof, she had best think that it's all her idea.
The wretched Pratima—still longing for death, vengeance or both—obliges Lilith by concocting a hypothetical tale of trickery, stabbing in the greenwood, and a certain heart-shaped, ebony box designed for soul magic. "I'm sure I can convince her, if I just make a suggestion here and there. I doubt if she'll even realize that it’s the same method she used before."
"Good," Lilith says with relief. "Only—do not suggest anything until two nights from now. There are one or two details I must deal with before then."
Happy Blue will be here, then. There are, after all, few enough harts in the royal forest these days. She may as well provide one.
Now there's only one thing left to do: appeal to the royal huntsman. She could have bribed him, seduced him or coerced him long before this—but she prefers that he aid her willingly. People do so much more when they do so freely. And there are any number of ways that he could be not only useful, but important.
Dangerous, too. But that's part of the game. Besides, he's heard all of the rumors about Snow White, the vampiric witch…and yet he still seems willing to trust her. Lilith would like to know why.
She finds him near the stables, quite alone. Wasting no time, she catches him by his sleeve.
"Huntsman," she says, gazing at him imploringly, "I need your help. I…I believe my stepmother is planning to murder me, and I don't think there's much time left. I have friends and allies elsewhere, but I'll never get through the forest alone, especially in winter. Could you—would you—guide me to safety?"
She could ask more of him, but that seems unwise. As with the Queen, it's better to let him come to certain conclusions himself. And in any case, she's not going to let him decide which hart (or heart) to sacrifice.
For a moment she can see all the dark thoughts of bloody treason flickering in his eyes…and treason is what she's asking him to commit, and no mistake. A wise man in a land ruled by an unstable Queen wouldn't consider this for a minute.
But then he looks her full in the face, and even before he nods, she knows she's won. For in his eyes, she sees the reflection of her host: a pale maiden cloaked in winter-white wool, as pure and sinless as the snow.