“Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.”
-Anne Sexton, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall…"
"What's that, mother?"
The Queen turned away from the looking glass. Her stepdaughter sat at the tower window, embroidery in her lap, looking at her with a curious expression.
"Just something I used to say when I was a little girl," said the Queen. "A rhyming game. There's a second part to it, but I can never remember how it goes."
She looked at the mirror again, frowning over her reflection. Something didn't look quite right about it. It was then she remembered—with a start—the man still waiting for her. He was the captain of the castle guard, the one whose name she could never remember but who nevertheless was one of the only people allowed into the Queen's private sitting room, here with some report or another. She allowed him to kneel, then took the scroll from him. "What's this?"
"A writ of execution, your majesty," said the captain. The Princess looked startled. The Queen bit her lip.
"A woman in the township has been convicted of witchcraft. I believe she's some manner of peddler."
“They're certain of her guilt?" said the Queen.
"The bishop swears it was a thorough inquiry.” The captain paused. "But the final authority is yours.”
The Queen sighed, then went to her desk and found the royal seal, pressing it into the scroll and handing it back to the captain. The Queen watched him leave. She noted that the Princess watched him too, with an expression the Queen did not entirely approve of. But the captain was a handsome man, and what else could she expect? The Queen sat by the window, opposite her stepdaughter. The Princess lowered her eyes in a gesture of respect. The captain, of course, had been looking at the Princess too, watching the rise and fall of her white breast and the barest flickering of the tongue between her red, red lips. There was nothing so eye-catching as the expanse of pure white flesh over the neckline of the Princesses' favorite dress. It couldn't be helped.
"Do you know," said the Queen, abruptly, "I was sitting at this window the first time I held you in my arms?"
The Princess had no visible reaction.
"Your poor mother was dead, your father was mad with grief, and you were no more than four hours old. I was not yet your mother, but I felt a kind of…stirring. There was a blizzard that nigh and I said, I wish this child should grow to have lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony, and skin as white as—"
The Queen stopped. She bit her lip again.
"Go on?" said the Princess.
"It’s not important.” She had been looking at her reflection in the window glass and, again, was disturbed by the impression that there had been something peculiarly wrong with it. Now she looked at the Princess. Was I ever so beautiful at her age, the Queen wondered? Did the people who looked at me feel what I feel now, looking at her? "We must talk about a serious matter. You're long past the age when we should have had you married."
The Princess sat forward a little.
“Many eligible lords from other provinces desire to pay your court."
"Oh Mother, who?" said the Princess. "Has the Duke of Hammand spoken to you? Or Carrel? Or—"
"But you must never marry," the Queen said. The Princess looked stunned.
"I don't understand?"
"When I die, you’ll become queen. There are no men with strong claims to the throne, so there’ll be no one to challenge your authority. But men don’t like kneeling to a woman. If there was any man around, any man at all, who could replace me, he would have years ago. That’s why I’ve never remarried, and why you can never marry at all. Your husband would be a threat to everything we’ve worked for since the day you were born.”
"But if I marry a good man—" said the Princess.
"There are no good kings," the Queen said. "And there are no good queens."
"You're a good queen!" said the Princess.
"Few think so. In the townships they call me the evil queen, and the ‘wicked stepmother.’"
"They do?" the Princess said, shocked.
"It doesn't matter," said the Queen. "They don’t have to love me so long as they stay loyal to me. They’ll be just as loyal to you, as long as you don’t make the mistake of giving them anyone else to change their allegiance to."
The Princess looked helpless. "But to always be alone…"
"Well, you can have however many lovers you wish. But you have to be discrete," said the Queen. She moved behind her stepdaughter's chair, lacing her arms around her the Princess' neck and cradling her head. "Your enemies will call you a whore if they ever find out. Never seem anything but pure and virginal. As pure January sn—"
A little sigh from the Princess cut her off. The Queen stroked her stepdaughter's cheek. She paused again, and though her outward demeanor did not change, inside her heart was racing. "Of course," she said, "there are many ways to be happy. You are such a beauty, my darling. You are the only thing in the world that matters to me. I've tried my best to love you as your real mother would, for she was my dearest friend. And each year that goes by you grow only more like her."
The Princess smiled, but it was a small, confused smiled. "Thank you, Mother. But what does that have to do with—"
The Queen put the Princesses' hand to her breast. "Do you feel my heart beating? It beats for you. A mother's love is special. It can be all you need, if you let it. Who else in the entire world can love you like I do? Who else has admired your beauty for your entire life? But of course, we are not blood relations. There would be no sin in it. Don't you see how perfect it is? And am I not beautiful too? Can you not love me? Or perhaps you could grow to love me in that way? With time?"
The Princess looked shocked. The Queen panicked and, before anything else could happen, she pressed her lips to her stepdaughter's. She held the trembling kiss for a handful of seconds and then pulled away, giddy with the succulent, decadent thrill of it all. But then she saw the fear in her stepdaughter's eyes; fear, and disgust. The Queen looked away, bowing her head with shame.
"Of course, there are other ways too," she said. The Princess said nothing. The Queen turned back to the mirror. "Go and rest. You've had a long day. There are longer days ahead of you. Yes, we both need rest."
The Princess left her embroidery behind. She did not meet her stepmother's eye as she went. The Queen looked at the mirror, tears stinging. All of a sudden she flew to the door and ran into the corridor, catching up with the Princess just as she was passing the captain of the guard on the stairs.
"Captain!" cried the Queen. "Arrest my daughter."
The Princess whirled around; the captain gaped. The sentries and servants nearby cried out, their jaws slack.
"Your majesty?" said the captain.
The Queen put her hands on her hips. "Lock her in her chambers until I order her freed."
The Princess said nothing. The sentries, their movements slow and their faces ashen, seized on her, though each put only a hand on one of her elbows. The captain regained his composure first.
"What is the charge?”
The Queen pursed her lips. "Treason," she said.
The Queen heard one of the sentries whisper an apology to the Princess. She said nothing, going along meekly, eyes on the floor. The Queen went back to the sitting room and locked herself in. She paced up and down. Would the Princess tell anyone what happened? Would they believe her? The Queen contemplated her mirror again; why was she so drawn to it tonight? She touched the glass, tracing her features in it.
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall," she whispered. “Who's the fairest of them all?"
"The princess is fairest. Fairest by far."
The Queen whirled around. "Who's there?" she said.
"Look here," said the voice again. Was it coming from—? But that was impossible. The Queen faced the looking glass. Her had somehow changed. It was smirking at her. The mirror spoke, with a voice that was vacant and masculine: "The princess is the fairest in all the land," it said. "Her lips as red as blood, her hair as black as ebony, and her skin as white as—"
"You're right," said the Queen. "She is beautiful."
"She's more than beautiful!" said the mirror. "She is beauty itself. But you age. The years lie more heavily on you each day. Why would the fairest girl in all the land ever love an aging matron who will visit the grave before her time?"
"You're right," said the Queen. She chewed her fingernails.
"But if you were to become more beautiful," said the mirror, "become the fairest of them all, then she would not be able to resist you. She would throw herself at your feet."
"There are powers beyond the kin of mortals, but still not entirely beyond your reach," said the mirror.
"I don't know what you mean."
The Queen stopped pacing. Then she ran to the corridor and cried for the sentries again. She didn't bother waiting for one to kneel before barking out, "The execution in the township, is it over yet? Is the witch woman dead?"
"I don’t know, your majesty."
The Queen flew to her desk, unrolling parchment and scratching a quill across it as fast as she could. She set the royal seal on the pardon and handed it, wax still dripping, to the sentry. "Go into town as fast as you can. Bring that woman to the castle, and dally for nothing!"
The man left in such a hurry that he did not salute. The Queen paced some more. Her reflection watched her with a coy smile on its lips. After an hour they brought the prisoner in, an old crone with not a tooth in her head. The witch tried to curtsy, but her knees would not bend and she fell down instead. The Queen sent the sentries away, and the two were alone together.
"So," said the Queen. "Is it true?"
The witch seemed at a loss.
"Is it true that you've had congress with the devil, and that he taught you magic arts?"
"No, your highness," said the witch.
"I signed the writ of execution that said it’s true, which means you're calling me a liar. That's treason, and it's punishable by death."
The old woman worked her gums and turned her jaundiced eyes from side to side. "What I’m accused of is also punishable by death. It seems your majesty would have me put to death either way."
The Queen leaned in. "Tell me the truth, whatever it is, and you will be freed. I swear on…my daughter's life."
The witch's eyes lit up. Then she smiled with her gums and said, “Then yes, it's true."
"Tell me how."
The witch looked baffled. "All you must do is summon the devil."
"Your majesty," said the witch. “He is here already!"
She pointed at the mirror. The Queen's reflection leered.
"All right. What else?" said the Queen.
"You must abjure God and all forms of divinity. But you must have a witness who is already learned in the Forbidden Arts."
"Will you suffice?"
The witch nodded.
"Very well," said the Queen. "Here, in the eyes of this solemn witness, I renounce my filial bonds to God, and to every god, and to every power except the one in this mirror, provided that this being will furnish me with the power to achieve all of my ends. So help me…no one."
The flames of the lamps in the room blazed, shooting up six inches. Several of the glass chimneys exploded. The old witch squawked and covered her gray head, but the Queen did not react.
"You will have all that you desire," said the mirror. "But there will be a price."
“I’ll pay it.”
"Be careful, your majesty," said the witch. "You are new to the power, and your familiar spirit will try to lead you to its own ends."
"Your further council is not required," said the Queen. She rang for the sentries. "Take this old crone out of the township. And give her gold. And remember, old one, that your pardon is valid only outside the bounds of this castle and the adjoining town. If you ever return, you'll face the noose again."
The sentries were surprised but did not hesitate to obey. Alone again, the Queen returned to the mirror. "What is your price for the beauty that will capture my daughter's heart? What rituals must I perform?"
"No ritual, oh queen," said the mirror. "Merely a favor. In the town below there is a church, and there are many such churches in your kingdom, and priests and friars, and even a bishop. You must cast them out. Pull down the churches, raze their foundations, and outlaw these holy clergy. Do this, and I will make you the most beautiful creature in the world."
"It will be done," said the Queen. She paused. "And my daughter? What should I do with her?"
"Keep her locked up until the task is complete. It will teach her respect, and a new appreciation for you."
And so it was done. The Queen's soldiers evicted the bishop and all his followers, and burnt the churches, and a new law was set down against any prayers or invocations. The dungeons swarmed with prisoners and every one of her royal ministers told the Queen to abandon this mad edict, but she would not budge. A year passed, and the Princess languished in prison. The Queen, as per the mirror's promise, grew more beautiful every day, and though most of her subjects soon hated her with a passion, those who looked on her face could not help but fall under the spell of burning, poisonous lust. One day the Queen stood nude before the mirror, admiring herself.
"Am I really the fairest of them all?" she said. "It seems to me that my daughter is fairer still…"
"That doesn't matter," said the mirror. "She will not be able to resist you now. Send for her."
The Queen rang the captain of the guard, and he entered. She clothed herself only in a light robe and he was unable to take his eyes off of the magnificent smoothness and whiteness of her exposed flesh. She ignored his stares. "I have had a change of heart," said the Queen. "Set my daughter free and bring her to me."
"Yes, your majesty," mumbled the captain. He had a fevered look about him. The Queen reclined on a chaise lounge, admiring the curves of her own calves and thighs. She had always been beautiful, but never had she been vain. Nor was she now, at least in her mind; she coveted not beauty, but what beauty could bring her. The Princess entered; the Queen's heart climbed into her throat. Though her stepdaughter had become wan and dark-eyed in her year of confinement, her loveliness was not diminished. Indeed, her state only added to her essential essence of fragility.
"Oh my daughter," said the Queen. "My dear, dear daughter. How have you weathered these long months?"
"Well enough, Mother," said the Princess. "Though imprisonment runs hard on everyone sooner or later."
"Your prison is more lavish than the homes of some of the richest people in our kingdom," said the Queen.
"Not yours," said the Princess.
The Queen sighed. "You are right, of course. Your arrest was…rash. In truth, I was mad with jealousy. Can a girl your age, who has never loved, understand that? You cannot know the lengths a person will go to achieve the most secret desire of their heart."
The Princess' expression remained icy.
"But that's all in the past now," said the Queen. "You are free. Just tell me, my daughter, my darling one, that you will consent to stay here with me, to rule by my side, to be the one and only sovereign of my heart. Please tell me you can love me, truly love me, in every way."
The Queen threw off the robe and displaying the painful beauty of her immaculate body in all its glory. The Princess watched, unblinking…and then she shook her head, once to one side, once to the other.
The Queen frowned. She came face-to-face with her stepdaughter, peering into her eyes, looking for her reflection there but not finding it.
"So cold, my daughter?" said the Queen. " A heart of ice, to match your skin so white?"
"My heart is my own," said the Princess.
The Queen's brow darkened. "So it is."
She summoned the sentries again, but she motioned for the captain to stay while the others took the Princess away. She put her robe back on, then knelt over her desk for a moment before handing him a scroll. "What's this?" said the captain.
"A writ of execution." The captain gasped. The Queen did not notice. "Take her out into the woods. Do it there, out of sight."
The captain swallowed and licked his dry lips. "And how shall I…?"
The Queen turned to the mirror. "Cut out her heart," she said.
The captain trembled as he saluted. When he was gone, the Queen returned to the mirror. "So rash again, my queen?" it said.
“You lied. No matter how beautiful I become she will never love me."
"I didn't say she would love you," said the mirror. "I said she would throw herself at your feet. And she will. You will see."
The Queen’s heart burned like a ball of fire in her chest. She sat by the window, waiting. In time, a storm blew up, burying the land in white. She watched the tiny crystalline flakes collect on her windowsill. Gradually, her rage cooled, and a sliver of doubt lodged in her breast, needling her until, while examining the intricacies of the frost patterned on the windowpane, she realized what she'd ordered. Mortal terror seized her. She ran to the opposite window, the one facing the forest, hoping it was not too late, but then there was the captain, waiting for her at the top of the stairs, looking shaken. My God, thought the Queen, what have I done? She fought to maintain her composure; no matter what, the captain could never be allowed to see her doubt. "Well?" said the Queen.
The captain hesitated. "There is something you must know, my queen…"
The Queen almost collapsed in relief. But no, not in front of the captain; no weakness, not ever. She struck him across the face. "I gave you an order!" she cried. Thanks the gods you didn't carry it out, she thought.
"I was fully prepared to obey you, but when I looked on her, pity seized my heart. How could it not? Would you not feel the same in my position?" The Queen's expression softened, but only a little. "She asked me if she could be permitted time to pray. I had to consent.”
"You know the law.”
"I do. But I couldn’t tell her no. Order my execution, if you wish. I will carry out that order myself." The Queen merely gestured for him to continue. "When she was done, the princess said that she had had a change of heart. She said to use that exact phrase. She said that if I would spare her life and bring her back to the castle and tell you that, all would be well. Further, she says she will wait for you in your most private bedchamber. She said that you would understand what she means.”
The Queen's breath left her body. She began to swoon, but caught herself. She caressed the captain's bruised cheek and then she kissed him, once, very lightly, on the lips. He almost fell over.
"Thank you, captain," said the Queen. "For everything." The Queen went to her bedchamber. Along the way she ordered the sentries out, promising death on whoever disturbed her this night. When she threw open the doors she found the Princess reclining in her bed, her body covered by only a single silken sheet.
She stood, keeping the sheet wrapped across her ample breasts, and then she kneeled at the Queen's feet. The Queen saw the soft line of her stepdaughter's bare back and her black-as-night hair spilling over naked white shoulders. "I've come back to beg your forgiveness. I see now how wrong I was to reject my mother's love. I can only hope that you find it in your heart to accept me back into your graces, even though I am so undeserving."
Tears pricked the Queen’s eyes. "Oh my daughter. My darling one. My heart."
The Queen went to her knees. She circling her stepdaughter with her arms, feeling the lines of her figure. The Princess let the sheet drop, and in the dim yellow lamps her naked body was there in all its glory. The Queen dared to kiss those blood-red lips while, just behind them, a warm, wet tongue that darted back and forth in a tantalizing chase. The Princess pulled the Queen onto bed and they tumbled down together, onto the same sheets where the Queen and the Old King once shared so many hours. Their hot mouths pressed together, the Princess' supple fingers combed through her stepmother's hair, long silken strands spilling down and around them.
The Princess removed the Queen's robe and they nestled together, each aware of the parity of their naked bodies, almost but not quite completely alike the other. The Queen looked at her own naked thigh pressed against her stepdaughter's; only the Princess' complexion indicated which belonged to which. It truly was difficult to tell which of them was fairest. Not that it mattered anymore; now that they could truly be together, nothing else mattered. The Queen let her hands explore, roaming across the planes and curves of the body she'd longed for so many nights, alone and cold in this same bed. The Princess sprawled on the cushions, eyes closed, face turned a little, mewling with pleasure as the Queen's fingers slid across her erect nipples.
The Princess' breasts truly were a wonder, as firm and ripe as apples in the orchard, each crowned with the sweetest pink nub. The Queen compared them to her own and then pressed them together as she leaned into her stepdaughter again, kissing her with a lashing tongue while their hips glanced against one another's and legs parted, pressing together with a hint of urgency. The room grew hot and languid with the pooled heat of their naked flesh. So soft, the Queen thought. The mirror had done its work well. Sometimes it seemed that the Queen was making love to a reflection of herself. The thought was jolting, disturbing, and she pushed it away. She buried herself in the Princess' body instead.
Writhing, thrashing, twisting and turning, they tangled around each other in an endless, sinuous knot. The Queen's hands moved lower and the Princess' songlike moans encouraged her. Her lips roamed. The Princess was utterly pliable. Finally the Queen came to the place where her stepdaughter's thighs met, and there was a small thatch of black hair. Yes, even here, hair as black as night; and below, lips as red as blood. Her stepdaughter's sex had never been revealed to anyone before. It was the most intimate of secrets. The Queen felt reverent, as she used to before the church altar, or now when she consulted the mirror. The Queen kissed her, there, once, with a trembling that called to mind their first kiss. Heat blossomed on the spot and the Princess twitched a little. Her beautiful lips parted and allowed a single breathless "Oh!" The Queen flushed. She kissed again, and again the tiny, sweet "Oh!" again, and the Princess indulged in a longer, more gratified sound. Her hands ran over the Queen's shoulders, pressing down. She did not say "Please," perhaps did not even think it, but the plea was implicit.
The Queen kissed her there more fully and the Princess responded by coiling herself up and crying out. The Queen watched and listened, fascinated. Somehow, just as the Princess' beauty burned with a quality almost inhuman, her pleasure seemed beyond the norm as well. The Queen wondered what life must be like for such an angel. Was it even something that ordinary people could understand? She pillowed her head in the Princess' lap, letting her tongue slide up and down, penetrating and drawing out another volley of excited cries, and then the Queen poured herself into the moment and the movement of what she was doing. For the first time she let herself indulge and shut out the thought and memory of everything except the touch, the taste, the feel, and the gratification of what happened now.
The Queen watched the Princess' naked breasts quiver and shake with pleasure until eventually they slowed, and stilled, and she kissed them one at a time, a final consummation. The Queen slept in her stepdaughter's arms, and it seemed that the Princess' figure remained visible even when the Queen's eyes closed, a vision that burned through the expanse of sleep, like a torch in the dark, leading the Queen on to some place she wouldn’t know even when she arrived.
The Queen woke the next morning alone. She looked at the hollow in the sheets left by the Princess' sleeping body and felt a stab of panic. The room just barely held the lingering vestiges of her scent, distinct but fading fast…
She dressed in a hurry, barging into the corridor and waylaying the first servant she found. "Where is my daughter?" The poor serving girl was terrified and unable to speak. "Never mind," said the Queen. She pushed the girl out of the way and found the stable master. "She went out riding this morning,” he said.
"Into the forest, your majesty," said the stable master.
"Can we still catch up to her if we leave now?" The Queen stood at her full height to all but shout into the tall man's face. The stable master looked bewildered.
"It’s been hours," he said. "The Princess often went for a morning ride in the days before her incarceration. Doubtless she missed the practice."
The Queen said nothing, returning to her private chambers and refusing visitors all day. She even covered the mirror. She sat by the window, waiting for her stepdaughter's party to return and certain that it would not. When night fell, she knew she was right. "I'll search every rock and tree in the kingdom for her," she said.
"You will not succeed," the mirror said. "You have been betrayed. Now she is under the protection of fairy creatures from the woods, the clever little men who dwell under the ground and are known as the dweorg, or the dvergr. They are seven in number, a most auspicious charm among their kind, one that will make it all but impossible to find her."
The Queen sagged. "Then all is lost."
"It may be in my power to undo the seven charms, eventually. But first you will have to deal with the war."
The Queen started. "War?"
"Don't you realize what she'll do?" said the mirror. "You yourself gave her the plan: She will marry an eligible lord from a neighboring kingdom, and then he will use the marriage to drive you from the throne. Likely she will go to Hammand as soon as she is able."
The Queen fretted. "How will I weather it?" she said. "I kept the army small so that they could not threaten my position."
"We will attack first," said the mirror, "and head off their invasion. Begin mobilizing now. Draft every able-bodied citizen, seize the bulk of their property, command your castle guards to begin training the militia and imprison anyone who defies the order. Within a year we can be ready."
The Queen chewed her nails. "And my daughter?"
"In time, I will bring her to you," said the mirror. "This war will swell my power. Do this for me, and she will be yours forever."
It was done. For a year and a day they made ready for war, columns of grim-faced conscripts marching through towns and villages to the music of blacksmith's hammers ringing. Even those people who had once defended their ruler called her the evil queen, and the stories of her darks powers spread. When the year was out the invasion force was ready, but it seemed that the Princess never appeared to Hammand, never married, never tried to stage the predicted coup. The Queen was almost disappointed. Of course, she launched the invasion anyway. She saw no reason not to. But her stepdaughter remained hidden. On the eve of the war the mirror promised to deliver the Princess home, and the Queen spent that day walking the highest towers and battlements of the castle, watching the horizon in all directions.
After sunset she saw a procession of torches making its way from the township. She ordered the gates opened and the multitude brought in, racing to the courtyard to meet them. The captain of the guard waited for her there. He was no longer the man he used to be; mad with love for her beauty, he'd hung himself from the battlements six months prior, but lived. The rope mark on his neck would take the rest of his life to fade. "Your majesty," he said, voice still a bit garbled. "These pilgrims come with a gift for you."
"Who are they? Why have they come? Is it…?”
"The Princess," said the captain, with a nod. The Queen almost leapt for joy.
"Is she here? Is my daughter—"
"Dead. Your majesty."
The Queen froze. The words were impossible. They could not mean…?
A ragged mob of peasants waited in the courtyard, bearing their precious cargo on log rollers they'd spent all afternoon making. It was a casket of purest crystal, panes as clear as glass but as strong as steel, built by the seven dweorg and delivered to the village that morning. Inside, dressed in whitest lace, with a bouquet of white lilies in her hands, was the Princess. So perfectly preserved was she by the fairy magic of the crystal casket that one expected her breast to rise and fall with the quiet breath of a sleeper.
But of course, it did not.
The crowd parted for the Queen. They failed to kneel to her, but she did not notice. There was something lodged in her throat, and she swallowed hard around it. "How?" she said.
"An old woman fed her a poisoned apple," said the captain. "She confessed the whole story to us. It seems you pardoned her execution years ago, so when she heard the princess had betrayed you and turned fugitive she decided to repay you by taking revenge.”
The Queen gasped. A tear squeezed from the corner of her eye. Her heart shriveled. She turned and left. The assembled villagers stirred in her absence. The captain caught her just inside the gate. “We can't keep it here,” he said. “The people are already treating it as a shrine, a holy thing."
"I don't care," said the Queen.
"You don't understand what's happening. The people believe that you murdered the princess."
"What?" The Queen turned on him.
"Rumor holds that you disguised yourself as the old witch and framed her for the deed."
"Nevertheless, it is what they believe. The people are restless and angry. They have been for some time. They have just been waiting for an excuse like this."
"It doesn't matter," said the Queen. "My daughter's heart has stopped. If mine does too, I will scarcely notice."
The mirror was waiting for her. The Queen picked up a silver candlestick from the bureau and raised it over her head. "You lied to me again," she said.
"Not entirely," said the mirror. "I promised that the Princess would be yours forever. Is she not?"
The Queen let the candlestick fly and the mirror shattered to pieces. But beyond the now-empty frame she saw a great void, as if the mirror were a window into an impossible abyss, and her reflection was still there, standing on the opposite side, a flesh and blood double. It stepped into the room, birthed into this world. The Queen backed away, stunned, frightened. The Other Queen smiled, pitiless, stretching its arms above its head now that it was free.
"Perhaps you would like to bring her back?" said the Other. "It is within my power."
"Your power never gives me anything without finding some way to rob me of it," said the Queen, backing further away from the doppelganger.
"But what more can I take?" said the Other. "Is there any fate worse than this? And won't everything you've done up till now be for nothing if she stays dead?"
The Queen hesitated. "What price do you ask now?"
The Other assumed an unreadable expression. "You," is all it said.
The two stood face to face; it was so strange for the Queen to see herself, but not herself, identical in so many ways, and yet, not. The Other touched the Queen's cheek (so cold, those hands, like glass) and kissed her. It felt not like a kiss at all. Then the Other all but threw her to the floor. The Queen landed hard, shocked. The Other disrobed, revealing that its entire body was the perfect reflection of hers, though of course backward, in the manner of a mirror. Naked to the waist, the Other crouched over her. The Queen's pulse raced. "What's the point of this?" she said.
"Must there be one?"
"Don't play games."
"Maybe I just want you to love yourself?"
The Other climbed on top of the Queen and held her in place, though the Queen did not struggle. The Other's lips were cold and hard, but she didn't mind. What did it matter anyway? Shards of glittering mirror glass littered the floor around her. The irises of the Other's eyes seemed broken as well. Its hands felt like vices, mauling her body, stripping her clothes away, tearing and pawing, but the force it used was gratifying. She closed her eyes, relishing the rough touch on her soft flesh. Yes, why not this?
Once it had stripped her the Other forced the Queen's legs open. It ran its cold hands down her thighs and touched her. There was no joy in that touch, for the Other was empty of anything resembling delectation, but there was elation, and relief, alien though it was. The Other stripped the remainder of its own garments and stood over her, legs apart over her body, and that's when the Queen saw it: the Other was her double in every way except for one: a cruel, swollen cock dangled between its legs. It stroked itself, as if verifying for itself that it was really there, and then it crouched over her again, taking her face in its hand, squeezing her cheeks and directing her vision to its eyes as it prepared to force its way into her. Just breathe, the Queen told herself. Just breathe and remember—
The rest of her thought was cut off by the stabbing sensation below. It was not pain, exactly. It was closer to the feeling of being smothered. The Other's icy member slid all the way in. The Queen sobbed, as she had her first time, but just like the first time, it was good too. The Queen's body shook with the force of the Other's violent movements. She cried out, something between a gasp and a moan. The sound of her own voice horrified her. This went on and on. Before long the Queen's head was pounding and her vision swam, eyes rolling in her head and lips twitching, as if she were drunk or sick or suffering a seizure.
A hazy film came over the world. Now and then the Other would strike her, not in any effort to hurt her but to make sure she remained conscious. She stayed on the delirious, half-conscious verge of either death or insanity. The entire time the Other continued its joyless, relentless assault, machine-like, uncaring, incapable of being pleased. Its body was a function, nothing more. Not so for the Queen; her body ached in a way that was distinctly sinful. Once, it stopped, and the Queen thought perhaps the whole thing was over, but it didn't let her rest long, turning her over so that she had to fight to hold her head up and avoid cutting her face on the broken glass. The Other entered her from behind and a feeling like fire ran up from the base of her spine. She saw her face reflected over and over again in the broken glass, and behind her, her other face, her Other's face. In a moment of mortal horror she realized she could barely tell them apart.
Now she pushed herself back against the violation. Now she welcomed it. She threw her head back, admiring the sinewy strength of her Other body. She lost herself in the hundreds and hundreds of reflected images of herself, and herself, and herself, over and over and over again. There was a cut just above her lip, and blood filled her mouth. She saw the bloody O of her lips in the broken mirror and thought: Oh yes, lips as red as blood. Oh yes.
When it was over, the Other seemed to have lost something of its tangibility. She was disappointed; she would have hoped she had more substance than that. The Queen cleaned and dressed herself. She felt vacant. She kicked the broken glass with her bare foot. "What now?" she said.
"The relief to the curse that laid your daughter low is simple," said the Other. "All she requires is true love's first kiss."
The Queen prepared to go.
"Wait," said the Other. "The kiss must come not from one who loves her, but from one she loves in return."
The Queen bit her fingers. "There is no such person," she said.
"Not yet, perhaps," said the Other. It gathered up the scattered shards of broken mirror and they melted together into a strange, crystalline mass while the Queen watched, confused. "For years you have spoken your heart's desire into this glass and nursed your sinful lust for your daughter before its face. The essence of your heart is here, in the very glass itself, and I will grant it a figure and form pleasing to the princess' eyes."
The mass of liquid glass took on a human shape, and then somehow it became solid and real. Before the Queen was an androgynous thing, a masculine figure invested with the Queen's own beauty, but cold-eyed and smiling like an idiot. It was a dull puppet, moving at the Other's command, but it appeared alive in every way. The Queen looked at the bizarre creation with a mix of awe and disgust. It was awful, but she knew in her heart that it was the perfect snare for her stepdaughter. "Shall I send your daughter her charming prince?" said the Other.
The Queen nodded her assent and the toy prince left on his mission, a blank automaton obeying the will of whatever inhuman power inhabited it. The frame of the mirror was empty now, no longer a window to the void, and the Other seemed to have gone, though the Queen suspected that the better part of its dark self went with the “prince.” There was nothing to do now but wait. An hour later the captain arrived, looking shaken and amazed. He stammered out: "Your daughter!"
The Queen nodded. "Is she…?"
"Alive!" said the captain. "A miracle. The people are calling her a goddess."
"And so she is," said the Queen, rising. "Take me to her."
"But your majesty, you don't understand —"
"Take me to her."
The captain opened his mouth to protest again but a look from the Queen silenced him. "Very well. She is in the great hall."
The masses of villagers were in the hall as well, forming a closed circle. They did not part for the Queen, and somewhere in her mind she registered outrage that these filthy, unkempt people should be so presumptuous, but most of her ignored them and simply pushed through. The captain stayed by her side all the way. There, waiting for her, was her stepdaughter. The Princess' beauty blinded the Queen; she had grown up in the missing year, becoming more fully herself. Her eyes were two bright blue shards of ice to match the wintry tones of her complexion, and her oh-so red lips were frozen in a coy half smile while her black-as-night hair coiled on top of her head like some lustrous snake. The puppet prince stood by her side. The Queen almost kneeled. Her heart was ready to burst.
It was a moment before she realized something was wrong: the Princess sat on the Queen's own throne, and on her fair brow rested a crown. She became aware of the closeness of the mob, and for the first time noticed that they carried heavy instruments and sharp-edged farm tools. The Princess, in her royal splendor, looked at the Queen with a face devoid of life or emotion, as blank-eyed and pitiless as her prince. The air around her was as cold as a January morning. One could scarcely believe her heart beat. "What is this?" said the Queen. "What's going on?"
The Princess didn't answer. The Queen took two steps up to the throne—her throne—but the toy prince blocked her path.
"What is this?" she said again, turning on the crowd. The villagers stared at her with hateful expressions. They clutched their weapons and instruments in dirty, calloused hangs. The Queen began to tremble. The captain put a scroll in her hand. Tears blurred her vision, but she saw the royal seal pressed into fresh wax at the bottom, though she had no handed down no declarations today.
"What is this?" she said for the last time. The captain sighed and looked away, overcome with some emotion she could not place. The Queen waited for an answer. It was the Princess who finally spoke: