Fairest of All (Part 1)

Once upon a time in Midwinter, there sat a Queen sewing at her ebony windowsill. Snow fell outside, and as she looked at it she pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell on the snow. The Queen wished for a little girl as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the ebony windowsill.  

Sometime later a daughter was born of the king. She was white as snow, red as blood, and black as ebony, and therefore she was called Little Snow-White. Shortly after the child’s birth, the Queen died.  

The king remarried soon after, to a woman known for her beauty and rumored for her arrogance. It was said that she could not stand to be surpassed in beauty.

She had a magic mirror, and stood in front of it every day, looking at herself and saying: 

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, 
Who in this land is fairest of all?
 


To this the mirror answered: 

You, my queen, are fairest of all. 

Then she was satisfied, for she knew the mirror spoke only the truth.  

Snow White grew to be as beautiful as springtime, and at fourteen years old began to surpass even her stepmother.  

One day when the queen asked her mirror: 

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, 
Who in this land is fairest of all? 


It answered: 

You, my queen, are fair; it is true. 
But Snow-White is a thousand times fairer than you. 


The Queen took fright, and whenever she looked at Snow White her heart turned over in her body. Night and day, she knew no peace.  

Our story begins here. 

###

I ran down the stairs on feathered heels, my train and my attendants trailing behind me. The telltale stamping and snorting of horses in the front courtyard signaled to me that Father and the Queen were back from their visit with a neighboring kingdom. It hadn’t been but a fortnight, but with only the company of vacuous noblewomen to keep me company it felt like a year had passed.  

Gaining the ground floor, I rushed past the milling clusters of maids and men-at-arms and into my father’s waiting arms. 

Immediately he swept me off my feet into a hug, crying, “Why, Snow, you’re radiant! Only a short time gone and already you’ve grown twice as lovely.”  

A hand on his arm stilled his jubilation. 

The Queen’s tone was cool when she intoned, “Bertram, you’ve business to attend to. I’m sure we can save the revelry for later.” Her heart-shaped face pressed into a slim smile to soften her chastisement.

Like me, the Queen was red, and white, and black, with an abundance of striking curls. I was told that she came from the same distant land as my mother. She had been my mother’s chief lady-in-waiting, the two of them thick as thieves despite possessing very different temperaments. Whereas my mother was said to have been a wellspring of mirth, her quiet friend was studious and reserved, seen by many to prefer her own company to that of others. Often I heard servants whispering in the halls when they thought themselves out of my hearing—they spoke of magic, of spells and sorcery she’d brought from her far-off birthplace. People called her arrogant and dangerous for her ways. Some even speculated that it was one such spell that felled my mother and bewitched my father into marrying her best friend. That never sat well with me, and if I hadn’t been so keen in keeping myself hidden to hear more gossip I’d have chewed their ears for such a treasonous claim.

But for all that these rumors of evil practice should have kept me fearful of falling prey to the Queen, they simply made me more curious about her. I only had the words of others to help me understand my mother, and it made me wonder if she, too, had engaged in magical practices. 

“Alright, alright,” Father relented, finally putting me down and rustling the ivory coils atop my head. His hand lingered, then swept down to cup my ebony cheek with a thoughtful expression. There was the flicker in his eyes that had appeared of late, and it made me as uncomfortable as all the other times I’d seen it. The only other place I saw that look was when we took a trip to the capital city’s market and arrived in time to watch a livestock auction. 

The clearing of the Queen’s throat made him blink, as if waking up, and he grinned and winked at me before backing off with his hands up.  

“I’m going, woman. Many would think you the king of this nation, not I. Though,” he said, leaning towards me mock-conspiratorially, “the kingdom may be better off if that were true, our enemies sliced to ribbons on her sharp wit.” With a final wink at the Queen, he left, bringing his men along. Suddenly I realized I was now alone with the intimidating woman. 

“How was your trip?” My tone was politely curious; all these years, and I was still afraid to approach her for fear I’d make a fool of myself. There always seemed a wall between us I was incapable of breaching— she was married to my father, but I could never see myself calling her Mother. To be alone with her as I was now was a rare occurrence.  

“Informative. You’ve no doubt learned of international trade policy through your curriculum?” The question was unusual; clearly the Queen had not cast an eye over the material I’d been taught. Even the most generous of learned people would hesitate to call it a curriculum. Shocked, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“No, your Majesty. I’ve been tutored in history and deportment, as well as womanly crafts. I’m not a boy, and therefore I’m not taught anything substantially useful.” I stopped when she gave me a look of surprise, feeling suddenly afraid I’d been impertinent. But shockingly, the Queen smiled. It was quickly stifled by a press of her lips, but not before I’d seen it and felt a weight ease from my shoulders.

“You don’t find it useful to be taught the proper way to darn a stocking?” The Queen’s voice was clinical as ever but I got the feeling she was teasing me ever so lightly. She began to walk now, and I hurried to catch up to her long strides.  

“I’m sure it may be useful one day, if there are no servants around. But there is so much I don’t know about the world! I am my own person, and I have thoughts as well as feelings. Shouldn’t I be allowed to learn the things I want to, even if they aren’t women’s things? Oh, goose feathers, I’m a princess, aren’t I? That must count for something. I don’t want my life to be devoted to nothing but marriage and childbirth.”  

When she didn’t respond, I thought I’d gone too far. But when I looked up from my slippers I realized she’d led us to the royal portrait gallery. It was a shortcut to the royal wing of the castle, but one I rarely took out of a dislike at being peered at by my ashen royal bloodline. Even though the way I took to get to my chambers was nearly twice the distance, at least the walls didn’t have eyes.

We made our way through the gallery, the pale faces of my father’s ancestors staring down at me. I clasped my chestnut-colored hands into the folds of my skirt, feeling the full weight of the ghostly portraits. Instinctively I drew closer to the Queen, whose smooth, dark face looked severe enough to battle the specters of my ancestry. Together we walked with backs straight as a battle standard against a stiff wind. She spoke only when we’d made it into the next passage, picking up the conversation as though no time had passed. 

“You’re beautiful, good, and loved by all, young one. That alone makes you the perfect image of a princess, and a suitable object for admiration of any worthy man.” There was an emotion under her words I couldn’t place. It was almost as though she was hiding something behind them. It made my head hurt, and I wished for the comfort of the stables, the sweet oat breath of the horses. Their conversation was much easier to follow. If only I could be like the Queen, a strategic genius and diplomat, able to say one thing and mean three.

“I wish I could be more like you,” I blurted, cheeks burning. “You know so much, everyone says so. People say I’m beautiful, yes, but beauty isn’t listened to. When I rule this kingdom I want to know how to take care of it as you and Father have done. You have beauty, yes, but also power, knowledge, and magic mirrors, and—” At the word “mirror,” the Queen stopped suddenly and stared at me, nostrils flaring. Fear and anger battled in her eyes. I nearly took a step back.  

“Who has been telling of mirrors to you?” Her voice was quiet and dangerous.  

“I-I don’t know, the servants all say so. They whisper of a magic mirror you speak to, that speaks back. They say it has to do with the things you were taught in Mother’s and your homeland. People have spread rumors that your power is why my father married you after my mother. I-I’ve never believed that last part, though, I swear!” Her expression scared me in its intensity. She looked like she was going to hit me. Then just as quickly as it had arrived, her anger abated, and she sighed.  

“People like to tell lies about those different from them. If you believe in rumors, you give power to those lies and the true story is forgotten. I know you’re not stupid, but if you keep listening to these nonsensical rumblings then you risk becoming so.” I hung my head in shame, cheeks burning.  

“Now, I must go,” she continued. “I have a meeting with our game warden to discuss the season’s hunt. Try to stay out of the king’s way until supper tonight.” With that, she was gone. I stood in the middle of the hall, curiosity for the truth battling with embarrassment at being caught falling for rumors.  

### 

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Long was the time I lay in bed, staring up at the canopy and letting my mind wander. My father had announced at supper that I was to wed the eldest prince of the royal family they’d just returned from visiting. Though I wouldn’t be expected to marry him for two years at least, I would be sent to live in his household within a few months to familiarize myself with their ways. Again my father had given me that expression, as if I was a piece of meat being appraised before it is cut up and sold to the appropriate buyer. 

My attendants had lied to me all throughout childhood. There had been no intention of allowing me to inherit the throne; my destiny was to be an exquisite bargaining chip. I had never even met this prince, nor he I. Apparently, he’d seen my portrait and deemed me a suitable wife from the beauty captured by the artist. Paint could not convey personality, nor aspirations, but apparently that did not seem to matter.  

After a long and heated discussion that culminated in Father advising me to know my place, I flushed and told him that my place was to rule this kingdom, then suggested that he consider doing the same for once. For that, Father struck me. It was the first time he’d done so, but I wondered whether it would be the last. 

I was escorted to my chambers that night in angry tears. My stepmother, meanwhile, had remained silent. It was stupid of me, perhaps, but somehow I’d expected her to come to my aid, especially after I’d poured my feelings out to her earlier that day. I supposed things never changed. That wall was still up between us, and she would sell her friend’s daughter away for the prosperity of her kingdom. 

Darker and darker my thoughts became until finally I sighed and threw back the bedclothes in a fit. Sleep would not come tonight. Rather than ringing an attendant and ruining their sleep as well, I shrugged a heavy robe over my nightdress and lit a candle before leaving my chambers and wandering the halls, wondering if there were any sneaky bats or sleepless mice to keep me company. Animals were surely far better than people. They were honest, helpful if you asked them, and gave excellent advice for those who knew how to listen. Not many creatures lived here in the castle, aside from some pretty nasty ones of the human sort, but sometimes I got lucky. Heavens knew I needed company tonight more than ever.

At a casement I stopped and looked out at the night. A light was on at the top of a nearby tower, and as I gazed at it, I recalled that this was the tower where the Queen had her chambers. It took only a second for me to decide on my next course: I would go up and politely ask to disturb her nightly wakefulness with my own sleepless presence.  

The Queen opened the door seconds after I knocked, a scowl on her face and no doubt a reprimand on her tongue for whatever servant dared to disturb her. Once she saw it was me, her brow furrowed.  

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” I began, gripping my candle in both hands, “I was taking a stroll and saw your chambers aglow, and…” Trailing off, I bit my lip, unsure of how to voice my thoughts in a proper manner. Luckily, it seemed she, too, desired company, for she opened her door wider and stepped aside. 

“Please, come in. I was just in the middle of scrying for enemies.” At my shocked expression she actually laughed. “I jest. Remember what we discussed about believing rumors?” 

I stepped across the threshold at her request and stood staring round the chamber. I’d never had a chance to see the interior of her rooms, and they did not disappoint: innumerable books lined the walls, sheaves of parchment piled up on any available surface, and a writing desk against the wall held a priceless globe and all sorts of other instruments.  

“Amazing,” I breathed without realizing it. The Queen laughed again.  

Now that I turned my attention back to her, she was amazing too. She looked so young at that moment, without the queenly garments and coiffure. With her white hair loosely plaited, dusky fingers stained with ink, and a smile on her glowing face, it made me wonder how old she actually was. I’d always noticed that she was significantly younger than my father, but her comportment always made her seem older than her years. My mother had been of a similar age; it made me wonder how young she must have been when she’d given birth to me. She had to have been around my age, if not—this was unsettling to think about—younger than I. The thought had never occurred to me.  

“Welcome to my domain. I apologize if my quarters are rather messy; I don’t let servants in to clean often.” Her demeanor was much warmer than I was used to, perhaps because she was in her element. When I began poking around, she went to her desk and sat down, picking up a quill and beginning to write. I suspected I’d interrupted whatever it was she scribed. A sudden urge welled up in me to ask why she hadn’t rushed to my defense at supper. But just as suddenly I quelled it; this was my own battle to fight, and she had no duty to get involved. If my mother had already given birth to me and been married at this age, I could at the very least deal with my own dilemma.  

“I don’t mind. The mess is a wonderful change. Sometimes it is rather unsettling to live in a place that is so clean it looks as though no one lives there.” I began to explore the room while she worked, poking my face into several nooks and crannies that held strange organic things in jars and tiny insects pinned to boards. My attention finally fell on a luxurious velvet curtain that draped over part of the wall. I suspected this concealed the mirror the Queen was said to scry into. The rumors said that she spoke to it, asked it questions, and more times than not it answered her. One particularly terrified maid said she’d even seen the outline of a man’s ghostly face in the glass. I glanced back and made sure the Queen was still intent on her writing. Then, as quietly as I could, I tugged at the cord to part the curtain. Then I stepped back to gaze into the huge oval mirror set into the wall.  

My reflection stared back at me within some of the clearest, smoothest glass I’d ever seen. This mirror must have cost quite a fortune, for there were no bubbles or warping across its dimensions. Bright eyes, red lips, pale hair and dark skin lay on the surface of the glass. That was what people saw when they looked at me. This mirror was not magic, it merely showed me what I already knew.  

In the reflection I could see the Queen glance up, then come over and stop just behind my shoulder. Softly, almost motherly, her slender hands reached up and smoothed my hair back from my face where it had come loose from its restraining plait. Our reflections stood together like this for a time; then, she spoke. 

“Beauty can get you much in this world. But it can also destroy you. My friend, your mother, was the fairest in the land, even for her youth. Maybe especially for her youth. Your father saw that and coveted it. Her beauty proved her downfall, because she was not strong enough to withstand all that came with it.  

“Our homeland across the ocean was warm and beautiful, with smells and sounds that would make you ache with feeling. Here, we two are the only proof of that beauty. The Queen dearly hoped her child would be blood-red, snow-white, ebony-black to carry on the heritage she coveted; she was gone too soon. I became the fairest in the land after her, and have tried to ensure that I will remain so to prevent another girl from being preyed upon like my dear friend was. 
“Snow White, I have never been a mother to you. But I feel now is the time to help you avoid the same fate that has befallen many beautiful girls before us. I have spoken to those who work in the shadows, and they have agreed to help you escape this life of royal chattel if you so choose. But if you agree, you must leave tonight and agree never to return.

“There will be no marriage to a distant, faceless prince whom you do not love. However, you may never see your father again, and you will no longer be royalty.” Here she smiled sadly. “Your darning skills could come in handy.”  

I was speechless for a time; my mind raced too fast for me to comprehend. Finally, I straightened my shoulders, lifted my head on its long neck that until now I’d never realized was remarkably like the Queen’s, and simply said, “What must we do?” 

Again, the Queen smiled, pressing her fingertips over my heart and staring intently back at me from our reflection. “We must kill Princess Snow White.” 

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