Mirror, Mirror, in the Pool
by AJ Cunder
On the morning the prince’s envoy would visit the palace, a great, volcanic pimple erupted on my chin. I prodded the lump, frowning in a small silver looking-glass, praying the pustule only appeared larger because of the candlelight. I could hide it with a veil when the prince came. But then he wouldn’t see my beauty. I could wear a scarf. But that would cover my pretty neck.
My fingers itched, and I nearly flung the looking-glass out the window when a horn resounded in the distance. I emptied the pitcher of wine left with my breakfast and ignored the servants in the cold stone corridors with their hollow, “Good morning, Princess” — hoping, for once, that they ignored me too.
A patter of footsteps down the hall sounded like my stepmother, and I paused, hugging the wall, using my looking-glass to peek around the corner. Thankfully, she walked the other way. This was my wing of the castle, but she often prowled these parts, always eavesdropping, asking the servants about me. Always wondering who was prettier.
She couldn’t see me in this state. It would only inflate her ego, convince her that she was the most beautiful. I couldn’t let her believe that. Not even for a moment. I rubbed my chin, ready to squeeze until every ounce of pus erupted, but the horn blasts resonated more loudly. The prince had already entered through the city gate, and I cursed, wondering how best to surpass my stepmother when our guest arrived.
* * *
I leaned against a marble pillar in the throne room while we waited. My stepmother was sitting on the dais, petting her crown. A dim ray of sun cut through the dust, reflected by my mirror, and I flashed the circle of light in my stepmother’s face.
She glowered but otherwise ignored me, and I suppressed a sudden shiver. “Father always kept the fire roaring,” I muttered. Ever since his death, the hearth lay black and cold, filled with charcoal.
“Leave it,” my stepmother commanded as a palace guard put a piece of rotten wood on the stone. “I’m comfortable.”
I was picking at my blemish when a young man burst through the thick doors. He looked about for a moment, eyeing the guards and their swords, keeping a hand on his own. “Greetings.” His iron voice echoed into the vaulted ceiling. “I seek an audience with the queen of this realm.”
I was tempted to say that I was the queen, but my stepmother answered first. “I am she.”
“Then I am pleased, for your beauty surpasses any I have seen. I come from Gorland, the kingdom that neighbors—”
“I know where Gorland lies.” My stepmother rose swiftly. “Our realms have battled for as long as I can remember.”
The prince held up his hands. “I come with a message of peace, not war. My father has heard of your king’s passing and proposes a union of our lands. A marriage—”
“My husband died nearly two years past, and now your father proposes peace? His army must weaken. How has your kingdom fared lately? My ravens tell me your people suffer blight and drought. Is that what brings you here, Prince Rash? Your father knows he cannot take my kingdom by force, so he would take it by ruse instead?”
“You know my name?”
“I know many things.” My stepmother approached our guest, running her finger along his cheek, which had just begun to sprout translucent stubble, his crystal blue eyes unblinking. “I wonder what you might be like beneath your armor. Tender. Vulnerable. Just beginning to transform into a man.” She circled him, her own leather dress tight, more like a warrior than royalty. “Who are you, when stripped of your shell?”
My blood suddenly ran hot, a primal urge tingling in my belly. I thought of the prince’s rose-petal mouth on mine. “And to think,” I said, stepping out from behind the pillar, “that woman was but a miller’s child before she became queen.”
My stepmother whirled to face me, venomous as an adder. “Daughter, it isn’t wise for you to intrude upon matters of state.”
“Your daughter?” the prince asked. “You can’t be separated by more than a few years.”
“She is not truly my mother,” I explained. “And you are right. We aren’t more than seven years apart.”
He stroked his chin, and I made sure to hide my pimple with the looking-glass. “Perhaps, Queen, she could remain. Perhaps I could marry her. It would be fitting, after all, for a prince to marry a princess. And how radiant she is. More radiant than any sunbeam. The fairest maiden, by my honor, in all the kingdom! With hair like jet and skin like alabaster.”
“But surely,” I added, “the queen is second fairest, with hair like coal and eyes like the greenest weeds. Oh mother, look how you blush, such a bloom on your cheeks usually white as bone! You know it’s true.”
“What say you?” The prince stretched out his hand. “Will you marry me, Princess, and unite our kingdoms?”
Heat rushed to my cheeks, and that primal urge surfaced again and made me wonder what he looked like without his armor.
“Pearl-daughter,” my stepmother interceded. To the prince, she insisted, “Leave her out of this. You came for an audience with me, not her.”
“You just want him for yourself,” I said, twirling a lock of my hair. “But I’ll not let you have him. He shall be my husband. I accept the proposal.”
“Your father would object. I object.”
“It is already done.” The prince smiled. “The princess has given her consent before the witness of the court, and we shall be married or your family will become oath-breakers. I must return to my father at once to prepare for the wedding. It will take place before the next full moon.” He looked at me one last time, proud and fierce as a lion, and brushed past the guards, who nearly blocked his way.
A palpable silence crept between my stepmother and me, and I turned my attention back to the looking-glass. “Don’t be jealous, Mother. I’m sure the next prince will want to marry you.”
“The next prince?” my stepmother hissed. “Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“I’ve found a husband, of course. Gorgeous and strong and royal. Isn’t that what matters? Did you truly think I’d marry one of these jesters from our court? I deserve a prince, not a fool.”
“You’ve given him the power to rule my kingdom.”
“Your kingdom? Is that what this is about?” I maneuvered the glass, aiming the sunbeam back at her eyes.
A draft shot through the room, and she stalked to the fireplace. “Leave me,” she said, staring into the charred blackness.
* * *
After supper — I ate in my own chambers, letting my stepmother’s anger cool — I browsed an old medical manual I had snatched from the palace’s visiting physician. It suggested a dab of urine might cure acne. I dumped the rest of the wine from my goblet and was squatting when a knock came at the door.
“Must you come at such a time?” I slammed the goblet and covered my chin with my hand. “Come in!”
“Princess,” my handmaid said, peeking around the door, “news has already spread that you are to be wed!”
“You’ve come to tell me that?”
“He must be very handsome, to have attracted your eye.”
“But certainly not as handsome as you, with your fair skin, and your — oh!” she gasped when I unthinkingly scratched my ear.
“What?” My hand snapped back to my chin.
“Nothing, Princess.” She looked down, fidgeting with her dress.
“I didn’t mean any offense, Princess.”
My room suddenly felt like a furnace, a thousand degrees baking me from the inside. “Get out! Wait. What did you come here for? Certainly not something so idiotic as to tell me I’m going to be married?”
“The queen wishes to see you in her tower.”
“What does she want?” Never before had she summoned me to her most private quarters, the wing of the palace my mother once kept when she was alive. She had died too young for me to remember her, or else I would have taken offense at the usurper who stole the tower for herself.
“She didn’t say, Princess.”
“Get out. And do not speak of—”
“I would never, Princess.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by AJ Cunder