Mirror, Mirror: 7th Year
Being the Telling of a Tale, the Naming of a Princess, the Death of a King, and the Finding of the Mirrors...
My father’s wife rose up on the platform between these marble statues, these swirling spires, and she stood with all the solidarity of stone and all the grace of a swan. The golden circlet sparkled over her brow. Snowflakes tumbled from the sky. They gathered all around the rim of her crown and frosted her hair.
The people of Eidenhalt cheered, screamed for the woman they once knew as the Duchess of Verre, the woman they now called their queen. I hid behind my father’s knee. My fingers froze inside my gloves. Snow tickled my nose.
“Behold:” the herald announced, “the Queen Vanessa von Eiden!”
With the smallest smile, her chin dropped. In one step with his massive legs my father took his place beside her. The cries of the crowd below doubled in volume. I pressed my hands over my ears. The King’s new bride turned her gaze to him. She smiled. He kept his stony eyes ahead. He waited only a moment before he charged back toward the gates of his castle, of Hochsteheim. Snow kicked up behind him. Trumpets sounded. I stumbled after him.
“Your—” I stammered “your highness!”
Vanessa’s delicate fingers wrapped around my shoulder. I froze. She turned me to her and I gazed up at her, at her frosty blue eyes and thin, mousy blond hair. Her nose was too long and her chin undefined. She wore this expression of calm, though, and she held herself with enough pride she seemed a giant before me. I squeaked.
“Little one,” Vanessa told me in a cool, rich voice, “you are a princess. Stand before your people like your father’s daughter.”
I blinked up at her helplessly. She offered the softest smile. It ghosted across her face and vanished in a flash. Delicately, she urged me back with her, to the edge of the platform, to the crowd dancing before us. I eyed them all with wariness.
“You missed your moment, princess,” she spoke with delicate regret.
Here I stood with the queen, the duchess who hailed from a castle amidst the Dark Forest. I stared out at the crowd and I wanted to cry. I tried to work up the courage to speak, to ask her what she meant.
I made to hide behind her skirt. Her fingers tightened on my shoulder. She held me in place. Her head shook so slightly.
“It could have been the three of us they cheered for, princess.” She turned and led me with her. She walked slowly. Every step came elegant, came small, her toes extending and heel following. “Like a family.” She paused thoughtfully as we entered through the gates and into the castle courtyard. Workers were about it, digging up holes for the young apple trees Vanessa had brought from her home here to Hochsteheim. I couldn’t see how they’d replant them successfully in the winter, but what did I know. “Next time,” she told me, “see that it is.”
She descended over a stone bench by a fountain and folded her hands on her lap. I looked her over hesitantly. She sat so still she could have been a statue carved into the rock.
“I have heard very little of the Princess Beatrix,” the Queen spoke again. I cringed when she uttered my name. “Would you care to enlighten me?”
I stared at her blankly. She gazed back. I felt so cold in all this snow. I mentally calculated how far away my room was and how fast I’d have to run to get there without her catching me. I wondered if I hid in my closet, if I could practice my letters by candlelight and no one would bother me.
Vanessa kept her eyes on me, so steady and patient. Escape wasn’t possible until those eyes were satisfied, I knew it.
“I—” I started. I wrapped my arms around my shoulders. “I don’t know why you’d care.”
“Sit with me, princess,” she ordered, and I pulled myself up on the stone bench beside her. She unclasped the heavy purple cloak from her shoulders and wrapped it around mine. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was still tinged in her warmth and it felt a thousand times welcome in this cold snow.
“When I married the King Kaspar,” she explained calmly, “I married two things beside him. I married Eidenhalt, his kingdom. You are a subject of Eidenhalt, to which I am bound, and therefore you are my concern. Second, I married his family. You, princess, are his daughter, and therefore you are mine too.”
I blinked up at her. “But you didn’t marry me.”
The queen laughed like bells. Snowflakes bounced off her cheeks and swirled around her lips where breath escaped. I could write a song about the way she moved. Could I ever be so spectacular as this Queen from afar? Me, the shy little princess afraid to call her father?
“Princess, when I made my vows, I agreed to be your father’s partner in all things. I agreed to be his wife, I agreed to be Eidenhalt’s queen, and I agreed to be your mother.”
I pulled the cloak tighter around my shoulders. I shook my head. “I don’t have a mother.”
“I can tell,” Vanessa replied shrewdly. “A mother teaches manners. You haven’t once addressed me by my title.”
I paled. The King’s wife laughed again, so daintily.
“My dear, you are snow white with pallor! Do not fear me. I do not judge you. Your father has raised you alone, and, as a king, there are many things he has not the time to teach you. I will show you those things. I will prepare you for your life ahead. Once I have taught you,” she paused, eyeing me sternly, “then I shall judge you.”
I fixed my eyes on my snow spattered shoes. If she could teach me to make the world spin around me as it did her, if she could show me how to laugh like bells and move like wind, even if she were to judge me, how could I care? To be taught, to be attended, to ever have her eyes on me--my chilled heart warmed at the thought. I'd heard more words from her highness now than I'd heard from my father in the past year. As much as she terrified me the attention she gave me was something I couldn't bear to lose.
But I would soon lose it, wouldn't I? I wouldn't be the only princess forever.
I hunched up my shoulders. I managed a whisper:
“What happens when you have your own daughters?”
I only heard her speak. I didn’t dare look up. She spoke so calmly, so steadily: “I can have no daughters.”
Now I did turn my eyes to hers. I blinked through the snowflakes gathering in my lashes.
“Can you have sons?” I wondered.
“I may have no sons,” the Queen replied.
I gazed up at her. I blinked back tears. I understood the sadness in her eyes: for as she could have no daughter, I could have no mother. And perhaps, just perhaps, the thought of having one was to her as dear a thought as having anyone was to me.
“If I be your daughter,” I asked her, voice throaty and hoarse, “will you be my mother?”
She met my eyes sternly. “If we are to make a deal, princess, we must define our terms.”
“First, if I am to teach you, you must be a good student. You will hear me, and you will follow my instruction to the best of your abilities.” Her steady voice hypnotized me. I nodded, entranced. “Second,” she continued, “one day you will be queen.” She reached up and flecked away the little teardrops on my cheeks. “So you must be composed. Save your tears, princess. They are rarely appropriate.”
“I cannot cry?” I gasped, clutching my face. I fought to still my tears. I tried to press them back into my eyes, but they only came more forcefully. I panicked. The queen waited while I composed myself. She didn't speak until I'd stalled my sniffeling.
“I do not ask that you never cry, princess; I ask that you choose when to show your tears wisely.” She sat up straighter, folding her hands over her lap once more. “My last condition, princess, is that every day, rain or shine, or snow white as you, you will accompany me outside and you will sit with me here.”
“Why?” I wondered.
“The sky kindles kindness,” Vanessa began. She warned me gravely: “If you lock yourself in stone you become as cold as the rock that surrounds you.”
My hands gripped my arms tighter in a desperate plea to warm them. “But it’s the outside making me cold now,” I shivered.
Her eyes turned stern. “Are you willing to meet these parameters, princess?”
I folded my lips. I pretended to think. I tried to sit a little straighter. I peeled my fingers from my shoulders and felt the chill come even harder. I folded my hands on my lap, just as she folded hers, and I spoke with as much propriety as I could muster: “We may have an accord.”
Her lips curled up in a little smile.
I paused. I hesitated: “But I… I have a condition.”
“Oh?” she wondered coolly.
“Don’t call me Princes Beatrix. Beatrix is an ugly name,” I insisted.
“Then what do you propose I call you?” she queried with all solemnity.
“I liked what you said before,” I put in hopefully. “That I’m Snow White.”
She replied with no pause: “I shall call you Snow White if you call me Mother.”
I smiled up at her, and suddenly her nose didn’t seem too long after all, and her mousy hair sat fine around her face, and even though she still looked icy, I had this feeling deep inside her heart was melting too.
“Mother,” I declared.
She dipped her head down to meet my eyes. Warmth spilled across her face as she graced me with a smile.
I sat by Mother’s side as she broke the seal of another letter. The wax cracked open. She glanced it over, daintily bit her apple, and set it aside. She passed the next letter to me and told me “Read.”
I sounded out the words under my breath. They had these lovely little swirls entwined with each of the letters. I inspected how a J swooshed or a W swirled. I delighted in the tiny birds hidden in the O. Mother cleared her throat and I spoke up. I sounded so stilted but she looked so proud.
“In,” I managed, “infl—inflook—” I squinted: “…influx…”
I turned up to my mother. “What am I reading?” I begged her.
“Tax documents,” she explained.
I let out a long droning sigh. Disapproval flashed in her eyes. I folded my hands in my lap and emulated her stature. I bit my tongue.
“When you are queen,” she told me firmly, “you will have to read these and you will have to understand them.”
“Can’t the King do that for me?”
Mother’s left hand fiddled with her skirt. “Snow White, I have a castle of my own.”
I lit up, perched at the edge of my seat, and awaited her words:
“One I governed on my own for many years. I was a duchess before I was a queen. I inherited—”
These next two words escaped her lips with more reverence than I could emulate, with more wonder than I thought possible from her even tones: “Castle Verre.”
This ghost flashed behind her eyes, this hypnotized glimmer. Chills crawled up my spine. My stomach fluttered. My fingers dug into the cushions. All this before she began her next sentence.
“You will inherit Eidenhalt. When you take the throne, you may have a king.” Her tones hardened: “Or you may not. Either way, I will have it said my daughter is as educated and capable as she is beautiful.” She smiled, “So you have your work cut out for you, Snow White. You are very lovely.”
I blinked up at her. All these big words, these long sentences. They swirled around in my head making noise. I still felt my fingers tingling. I spoke softly: “But what about your castle?” I asked her. “Will I inherit Castle Verre?”
“Of course,” she replied calmly. “Like my wealth, like you, like me, it belongs to the King Kaspar. You are his heir.”
“I’ve rarely heard about it before, though,” I stressed.
She laughed, like tinkling bells. “No one has heard of Verre. Once the heart of our world’s greatest kingdom, it is swallowed by the forest. In the hearts of the people it is barely more than a ruin. It is forgotten now.”
I shook my head fiercely. “I won’t forget it. If I hear it, I won’t forget it.”
Her eyes met mine. She seemed to peer through me, beyond me.
“Then perhaps I shall tell you its story, Snow White.” She smiled. “But if I do, it won’t be today.”
She rose to her feet. She swept past me, floating through the courtyard like a cushion of air lay between her feet and the ground below.
I followed her. I followed her throughout the castle, mimicking her steps. She’d send me a cautious glance over her shoulder and I’d shoot one over mine. She made each pace a dance, like an angel too holy to step foot on the humble earth.
In the courtyard one day she did dance. She spun a few steps for me. She twisted and her skirts swung around her like smoke. She floated off the ground to her toes and I could almost hear the music on the edge of my thoughts, coaxing her on. I danced with her. A smile pierced the corner of her lips when she spotted my clumsy steps. She sat me down and showed me how to shape my hands. She walked me through her steps. I toppled to the ground the first time I turned a spin. She looked in my eyes and she smiled. Something about her gaze told me our lesson was taking a pause. Something like pride seemed to show in her face. I wasn’t sure what to expect when she sat beside me.
“Once upon a time,” she whispered as she glided to the ground, “the Queen Vasilisa ruled over a kingdom now overrun by the roots of the Dark Forest. The monsters of the wood feasted on the flesh of her people, on the subjects she swore to protect. When the vines and leaves and roots of the forest expanded into the farmland, and into the cities, and into the homes of her people, she sought aid from another breed of beast. She sought aid from the creatures of stone, the minors in the mountain. She sought aid from the dwarves.”
I gazed up at her. Sure as I saw her face I saw a city torn to bits and a queen with hair flowing in the wind driving a steed toward the mountains in the distance. In my mind’s eye, this Queen Vasilisa looked just like my mother.
“The dwarves were squat, wrinkled, surly creatures, and they lived in the dark. They traded trinkets like glass flowers or crystalline cups with man above. These dwarves watched us through mirrors, magical mirrors that answered to their command, and they formed windows to the world above their dark mines. It was from these mirrors that the queen sought council, and it was by their keepers, the dwarves, that she was turned away.”
“Why did she want the mirrors?” I asked her softly.
Her gaze firmed. “Do not interrupt me, Snow White.” My mother stood. She reached up into the branches above us and plucked an apple from amongst the leaves. She brushed her fingers over its peel. She took a bite and then dropped her gaze to me. “Will you try the dance again?”
“But the Mirrors—”
“Finish the spin,” she replied with a smile. “Then I finish the story.”
So I tried again. And again. And a month later I could spin perfectly. A month later I knew the story well enough to tell it to her.
“So the Queen gifted the dwarves apples in return for their audience,” I spoke in the same hushed tones she used for me, “and in half an hour they each slept soundly, unaware of the poison she soaked in their flesh.”
“The flesh of the dwarves or of the apples?” my mother prodded. My face fell and she smiled, reaching out to brush the side of my cheek: “Don’t fret, Snow White. You tell it well.”
I told it well, perhaps, but how could my mother settle for less than perfection? She was always perfect.
In the library she ghosted through the corridors, collecting books in the crook of her arm with barely a whisper, reading alongside me by pointing out the words and whispering the longer ones I couldn’t sound out. She seemed to know them all. She read me to sleep until I could do the same for her.
She showed me maps, maps of Eidenhalt and maps of the continent, contrasting my kingdom with our neighbors Lestraad and Carlon. A long, elegant finger touched the parchment between three cities toward the east, at Eidenhalt’s border.
“That’s where your father is today,” she told me quietly.
“Do you think he’ll die in the war?” I asked her.
Mother spoke as if I hadn’t. “Once upon a time,” she started again, and her smooth tones swept me away, through the plight of the Queen’s kingdom, to the dwarves’ selfishness, to the poisoned apples. “Vasilisa stole the dwarven mirrors. She had them arranged in a chamber of her castle, Castle Verre, a glimmering beauty of turrets and spires in the shadow of the creatures’ mountain. The Mirrors gave her the guidance she needed to find a man in the forest, a woodcutter’s son with the knowledge to thwart its dangers. She dubbed him her huntsman and together they protected the kingdom they loved.”
Mother stopped there. She didn’t finish the story, for the ending was darker than the blissful passage she gave me now. She left me dreaming of happily ever after.
We walked together in the courtyard when I asked about her father. I should have known better. If a woman inherits a castle it’s because she has no family left. Her left hand fiddled with her skirt. I reached out and took it in mine. She had a delicate grip, and it was half my effort to keep my fingers from slipping through hers. She gazed down at me with the smallest crinkle in her brow. Unshed tears gathered, sparkling in her eyes. I squeezed her hand and she kissed me over my dark black hair.
On our bench the next day I sang an old folk song for her. She listened politely, hands folded over her lap. I waded through the notes, dragged through them patiently, almost drowned in them. I finished gleeful, flushed, and proud.
“Don’t sing for the court,” she warned me. “Your voice is too deep, too coarse for the choir or the symphony.” She watched my face fall and cut me off with a gentle laugh, pure like bells. “Sing for me all you like, Snow White,” she assured me. “I like the sound.” She bent closer, smiling conspiratorially, “but keep it between us. Will you sing me a song about Verre?”
“Go on, then,” she prodded, folding her arms elegantly. She sat like an ancient, marble statue, this picturesque visage of poise. I couldn’t just mumble a ditty for her, for my perfect mother. I had to measure up.
I shook my head vivaciously.
“Why ever not?”
“We shall return here in three days,” I declared, “and then I shall sing for you once more.”
Mother’s eyes sparkled. She smiled, and in the corners of her lips I saw pride.
I stayed up all night writing out the words. I used a dictionary to check my spelling as I wrote for the first two verses, but it became so tiresome I quickly abandoned the idea. For the time being, all that mattered was that I could read my scribbles.
I vowed to burn my shamefully misspelled and poorly drawn first draft before Mother ever knew it existed.
She watched me, sitting erect, plain features arranged in a mask of calm, impossible to read, as I began my song those three days later. I sang through the first verse, and my voice shook, my eyes on my lap, at my hands. I dared peek up at her as I began the second verse, at her unreadable face. I squared my shoulders. I gathered my courage. By the third I had all the presence and grace she had taught me in my posture, and all her strength carried my voice through the words.
“And ten years long, Verre knew no wrong
In peace forgot the ways of war
The dwarves they came, their right to claim,
Brought death to Castle’s door.”
I sang the third verse straight into her eyes, those cool blue eyes. She waited so patiently for me to start the fourth. I sang how the dwarves slew Vasilisa’s loyal huntsman. I sang how they hunted her down, tore through her castle. I sang of her hiding place, in the secret chamber of the mirrors, of the seven days and nights the dwarves spent seeking her whereabouts in vain.
“Brothers, to hell with it all,” I sang, “the castle may fall
If we search every hidden door.
If the walls break down, if Verre’s burnt to the ground,
Our Mirrors are lost forevermore.”
I sang the last two lines thrice more, softer and softer. Mother sat still when my voice faded away. I dropped my gaze to my lap. I felt her hand settle over my shoulder, light as the breath of the wind. I met her eyes.
“Our mirrors are still hidden,” she whispered. She looked down at me when she spoke, face creasing with the familiar little wrinkles that made up her smile. “But one day, the heir of the Queen will return to her castle. The daughter of her daughter of her daughter of her daughter will find their chamber. She will unseal it. She will unveil its secrets and honor her birthright.”
“That’s you,” I smiled.
Mother blinked. One tear trailed down her cheek. She shook her head.
“No.” She spoke barely above a breath: “You. My daughter in all but blood.”
The next day in the shadow of her trees my mother pricked her finger with a silver needle. “It is a dwarven custom,” she explained, “for when another joins a family that was not theirs before. They share blood with the children inherited, to truly become their kin. I do so now with you, Snow White.”
She pricked my finger, and pressed it gently to hers.
“I swear to be your mother eternally,” she intoned, eyes boring into mine. “I will be yours as if you were my own – and you shall be so. Speak, my love, Snow White. Use my words.”
My throat closed. I struggled to find the strength to speak. I wanted to sound as regal as she.
“I swear to be your daughter eternally.” There, I thought then, that was a fine start. “I will be yours as if you were my own,” I grew stronger, spine stretching, voice deepening, “and you shall be so.”
A flicker of pride flowed through me. Approval did not fall to my mother’s face and I grew worried. “…Is that it?”
“Yes,” she answered at last. She finally smiled.
The sunlight glowed warm over us. I felt brave:
“I love you,” I said, for the very first time.
“My little Snow White,” she replied so softly, voice rich and lovely, “I love you.”