Mirrors Do Not Make Promises
The evil-queen-to-be looked into the magic mirror and asked: “Am I beautiful?”
The mirror had not been addressed in many years, hanging like an island in the center of the iron chamber. The curtain was gone though. The room smelled of dust. There was light somewhere, oh lords, there was light.
The mirror, a phantom outline on the surface, peered down. A girl stood, hooked nose, thin lips, dark hair the texture of crow’s feathers, and ruddy skin– both too pale and flushed all at once. Teeth like overlapping piano keys and body gangly as a newborn calf. She wore the finest gown of deep purple, heavy and dragging on the dirty floor.
Her chin wobbled. She had a determined set to her gaze, but her cheeks were tear-stained, and eyes as red as daybreak, at least the types of daybreak the mirror could still remember. The mirror tilted her head.
“Am I beautiful?!” the girl repeated and stomped her foot this time, pinpricks of tears spilling out. There was a purpling welt across her right cheek, a bruise forming with a tinted yellow edge. She must be an island as well.
The mirror closed her eyes. She nodded. “You will be. You have been. You are.”
The girl’s eyes went large as entire skies, at least, the type of skies the mirror could still remember. “Promise?” It was a child’s whisper.
“I do not make promises,” the mirror replied, and the girl huffed.
“Fine.” The curtain returned.
“Am I beautiful?”
The evil-queen-to-be was taller now, growing into herself. Her hollow cheeks had rounded, and teeth slowly straightened out through small spells and larger ones. The mirror had felt when she found that little black book, a moldy, stained thing, fleshy and dank. The mirror did not always spread her awareness out into the lives of men, but there was no ignoring the tremor through the air that night.
“Did you hear me?” The girl had returned, on the cusp of forgoing shorter hems and growing into the adult ones.
The mirror hummed. “You again. My girl.”
“You again, my mirror.” The girl sneered. She narrowed her eyes. “Do you even have a name?”
“No.” The mirror responded. “Do you?”
The girl rolled her eyes. “I suppose you do not hear them yelling it through the hallways, Esme! Esme! Foolish, tricky girl.”
“I do not hear them. No.”
The girl blinked several times. “Oh.”
“Esme.” The mirror tried out the name.
“You may call me Lady Esme.” She sniffed loudly and crossed her arms. “I’m nobility.”
“Of course, my lady.” The mirror inclined her head. “Ask your question then.”
The girl considered her for a long moment. “Am I beautiful?”
“Have you not asked before?”
The girl flushed a deep red and glared at her shoes. “You’re just like everyone else.” She twisted in place to leave.
“Of course,” the mirror murmured. “You are beautiful.”
Esme glanced shyly over her shoulder. “Really? You promise?”
“I do not make promises.”
The door slammed, but the curtain did not return.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall,” the young woman sang and skipped. “Who should I poison at the ball?” She carried a flower and small book tucked away at her side. The mirror had watched her fill the book with cramped tiny handwriting, coded through a complex numerology.
It was filled with the secrets of the tomes she unearthed and more she made herself. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” she kept singing. “Who should I poison with my comb?”
“You jest.” The mirror spoke slowly. “But if you must poison one, poison the only son of the Duke of Engles. He plans to bed a scullery maid and will not be easily deterred by no.”
The evil-queen-to-be stopped in place and faced the mirror. Her clever face and clever eyes were cold and sharp. She was older now. “Noted,” she said thoughtfully and plucked at the flower in her hand. She lifted her chin up high, “this will be my first showing.”
“I know.” The mirror replied. “You will dance and make merry. Be careful of the wine, my lady.”
“How do you know so much?” Esme squinted and leaned forward. “What exactly do you know?”
“I know everything reflected in the world of men and more.” The mirror said and watched the light fall across the floor. She still wasn’t facing the window, and how her chest ached for it.
“But how?” Esme insisted.
“I am old,” she stated simply.
Esme rolled her eyes. “Well, I could have guessed that.”
“But ageless. Time cannot touch me, nor can I touch it. But I can peer through its many threads into the greater tapestry.”
Esme tilted her head thoughtfully, mind at work. “So,” she said with a cat-like smirk. “I really will be beautiful.”
“You are. You have been. You will be.”
Esme went blank for a moment before turning in place. “I must prepare for my debut on the market.” She sprouted an edged grin and looked over her shoulder. “And who should I marry there, my mirror?”
The mirror did not blink. “The king.”
Esme’s eyes lost their mischief, she frowned, and closed the door softly.
“They’ll burn me, they’ll burn me!” Esme cried and paced back and forth. She was still wearing a luscious green gown with bell-shaped sleeves. It was torn in places, sullied. “Dammit, they know!’
A roar of voices came from down below. The mirror knew the lady hadn’t meant to face the Duke’s son and win. She hadn’t meant to use her secrets on a whim. But she had.
Esme tore at her hair. “This is it! They’ll tie me to the post for sure.”
“Sneak past the gathered mob, take the body down to the pond,” the mirror instructed without inflection. “Color his beard with blue paste and say it was the lady of the lake.”
“What?” Esme turned and searched the mirror’s face.
“Slay the lady with a sword, it will be easy, she is old. Call the king and tell him of how you were forced to take up arms.” The mirror continued. “Blame the magic of the hour on the water lady’s powers.”
Esme’s eyes were huge again, like skies, like a child. “You mean,” she whispered, stilled. “But where will I get a sword? How will I hide what I have done?”
“You know the answer, I’ve spoken true. Do not hesitate,” the mirror growled. “Go!”
The new queen carried the mirror under her arm. It was wrapped carefully in sheets and twine, held close to her body at an awkward angle. Esme threatened any servant that drew too close: No, I don't want help. I’ll be carrying this one myself. Don’t handle it, don’t breathe on it, don’t look. Gone with you!
The trip was long and jarring. The carriage rattled. The heat sweltered. The queen loosened the twine now and then, pressing a single finger to the glass. “We’re close,” she murmured with reverence. She hid her small books better now. “We’ve done it.”
The palace trumpets bellowed on the third day and Esme gasped. The mirror strained to see.
“Do you hear that?” Esme’s fingers lingered warmly across the glass. “For us.”
The mirror exhaled slowly. “Can you put me by a window?” She ventured slowly. “High up. Where I can see the sky.”
“Of course.” Esme responded. “Anything, anything at all.”
The queen’s tower was the tallest in the castle. She bargained for it with words and favors the mirror did not pry into. It had windows, left and right and behind. Enormous bays with shutters pushed open and birds that landed on the sills, curiously.
The mirror considered sending messages, but there was no one left who knew her. No one left to break the glass and return her to any sort of life. Besides, it had been so long, she wasn’t sure she remembered how.
And there was the sky.
The queen visited her daily, brought her scandalous gossip, brought her political news. She was laughing now, and golden. No one slapped her within these walls, no one commented on her hooked nose or hair that wouldn’t smooth.
The mirror studied her. “You are becoming beautiful, my lady, as you have always been.”
“Ah, but no promises?” The queen joked and plopped a grape in her mouth. She was always peeling oranges, biting into apples, and sampling fresh fruits now.
The mirror smiled. “Exactly.” There was a bitterness there. “No promises.”
Thunder struck the earth and rain battered against the windowpanes. The mirror did not sleep, and storms reminded her of why she never wished to. She was humming an old and lovely song when footsteps pounded down the hall.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall!” Esme burst into the room, chest heaving, eyes wild. “Mirror, oh God, oh God … What is wrong with me?”
Her cheeks were ruddy and hair in disarray. She was panting and clutching at her chest as if to wrench her own heart out of it. Her eyes were sunken, and lips colored a bright and brilliant shade of blood.
The mirror bowed her head. “It’s been a while, my liege.”
The queen reached forward with trembling fingers. “They haven’t let me visit.” Her lips curled back. “They are whispering.”
The mirror hummed. “I can hear them. Many wicked things.”
The queen closed her eyes. “Tell me.” She said in a pained rush. “Why does my belly not swell?” She swirled around. “Why am I barren?”
The mirror stared at her impassively. “You will know children.”
The queen exhaled and stared down at the floor. Then she tensed again, every nerve in her body taught and singing. “Will they be of my body?” She always was too clever. “Will I bear them?”
“She will be beautiful.” The mirror replied. “This princess.”
The queen covered her face and shook with a violent silent laugh. “I see. And will I hurt her?” She tossed her head back. “Or will they kill me before I can?”
The mirror’s brow creased. Something pulsed inside her that hadn’t since she knew the taste of berries and the sound of leaves crunching underfoot.
“There is a way,” she said steadily. “Become what you are meant to be and give up everything.”
The queen shook her head vigorously. “No … No! Just tell me how to become with child.”
“There is no way.” The mirror stated. “You are magic, my queen.”
“Demon! Wicked, traitorous thing!” Esme flew at her, fists balled, face twisted. She meant to break her. She meant to shatter the mirror to pieces small enough to swallow.
She stopped at the last second, staring deeply into the mirror’s eyes– the last of her past self, blue and golden as her people were. “Mirror.” She collapsed against the surface and folded into herself. “Am I beautiful?”
“Always.” The mirror pressed a hand to her cage. “Always, my lady.”
Esme wept and sagged and did not stand again until the dawn fanned its long fingertips across the land. The queen wiped her face clean then, got out her small book, and started scribbling.
The mirror listened. The birds whispered to her and she pushed her own senses out into a vast ocean of things. She heard of how the people glared and told their tales: a woman who made milk curdle. A woman who studied devilry and brought the fires and the rain. A woman who did not feel love or pain. Beautiful, too beautiful, and vain.
The mirror listened. She inserted herself back into the world of men.
Her birds planted poison in the cups of guards, all those would-be assassins. She sent rumors of worse things if the cooks dared consider putting glass into her meals. The mirror did not let the bishops speak of ordaining a royal separation, she did not let the people bring their torches or their manacles.
Esme visited more in those years. She sat beneath the mirror and asked her questions about life, the earth, and everything. A hungry creature, never satisfied, and attracted to the darkest things. She asked of monsters, storms, defying death, she asked of how to break prisons and escape any form of cage.
She wrote every word the mirror said down, and then added on her own. The questions only kept coming.
“Are you good, mirror?” Esme asked one day, huddled on the floor and far too thin. The King was off securing his heir, a daughter from a previous wife. The disgraced first queen had graciously bowed into the night in the wake of a scandal. She had no stomach for public hatred and they were allowed to retreat to the countryside. The king thought nothing of the loss then. Of course, he realized, too late, that no son would appear and went to fetch his only non-bastard child. Esme remained, scribbling.
“What do you say, my mirror, are you good?”
“I do not think so, no.” The mirror replied slowly. “I am being,” she searched for the word, “punished? I was put here on purpose.”
“Why?” The queen’s brow furrowed.
The mirror shrugged in her way. “I was troublesome.” She admitted, finding herself strangely self-conscious after all this time.
Esme snorted. “Good.” She turned the page of her book. “I would not have you any other way. Can you imagine? I’d be so alone in this world if you were good.”
The mirror smiled and later that night she sent birds to pluck out the eyes of local soldiers who came to kill her queen with poison daggers.
The story goes as it always does, the threads of the tapestry coming together with the princess and the apple. The weak hunter and the beauty with her heart still beating. A terrible sleep, a glass coffin, a kiss. Of course, it always goes differently then the way people write it down. A tapestry has many ways to catch the light.
The queen came to the mirror at last, crawling on her knees and whimpering. She smelled of smoke. “Can we leave now?” She begged. “Is it over?”
“It never ends.” The mirror said without feeling. “I know that much.”
Esme looked up with her bright shining eyes and a lightning burn across her cheek. She touched the mark lightly, unseeing. “I am not beautiful.”
The mirror reached for her, pressing her hand flat against her cage. “I would have you believe otherwise, my queen,” she croaked. “I would make promises.”
Esme staggered forward. She placed her palm against the mirror in turn. Their hands overlaid like kissing shadows. Fingertips aligned with no hint of warmth or skin. “I love books you know. And ugly things. I am crooked, cruel, and I have done so many things I am not proud of. Things I cannot take back.”
“Good.” The mirror returned forcefully. “I would hate to be alone.”
Esme took out a flask and it smelled of copper.
She always was too clever. The queen murmured secret words, pouring blood against the surface and burning it away like mist. The creature within drew long hard breaths as time rushed back in, inch by inch, plunging its fingers into her reanimating flesh. She pushed forward like a drowning sailor through tar-black waters.
“Is it enough? Please, let it be enough. I’ve done it. I’ve given up everything.” Esme reached and reached, pouring blood and pressing toward her. “Can you come out yet?”
In many ways, she did not expect anything, she did not expect it to work—much as you don’t expect an eclipse as surely the sun was permanent.
The hot spill of tears was the first shock. Who could be making her face wet like that? Who was making those terrible noises? The second was the evil queen’s hand, quick and warm and real. She couldn’t imagine anything more solid; the universe couldn’t possibly create something like that or surely the residents would do nothing all day but hold each other.
The third shock was the edgeless loveliness of her mouth.
The mirror knew infinity, it was flat and lifeless and empty. It was all she knew within that cage, oh but this, this was the sky. The salt and tears mixed with that brilliant rush of soft lips against soft skin. The mirror shuddered. She tucked them together and felt a pattering heartbeat against her own.
“Can I ask you questions now?” She, the Sylph, her, she rasped as Esme tangled them together, the ends of shredded threads forming knots. The Sylph looked into her eyes. “Can I make you promises?”
Esme laughed dryly, broken. “What answers could I possibly give you? I know so very little.” The queen peppered kisses on her cheeks. “But I am yours to command, anything you wish.”
“Take me away.” The mirror pleaded. The evil queen kissed the Sylph’s palm and pulled her away.
“As you wish. Anywhere.”
The Sylph never saw that room again, she never saw that tower, or the castle or the princess now turned ruler, but she saw the sky, unfolding and unfailing. In the woods beyond the lands of men, they took out rings beneath that sky, and made promises.
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