Once upon a time, there was a young prince who would not marry. In all other ways he was a normal prince, who liked to hunt, to gamble, and to drink with his friends. He was happy and healthy, but when pretty girls flirted with him, he spurned them, and always slept alone. His parents worried, but assured themselves that he simply hadn’t found the right maiden, and when his twenty-first birthday came, they took it upon themselves to arrange the most glamorous ball anyone had ever seen.
Invitations were sent out across the human realms and the fairy realms, to the hot southern deserts and the northern lands of ice, to the kingdom of watery Atlantis to the west and the wild tropical islands to the east. There were princesses tall and short, fat and thin, in every color of humanity. There was a slender Arabian princess with pointed shoes and silken veils, smelling of exotic spices and night-blooming flowers. There was a queenly Ethiope, tall as a cedar with skin that shone like ebony. There was an Earl’s daughter from the frosty north, bundled in furs as white as her hair, and her eyes as blue as ice. They came to the prince’s birthday in all their finery, and all the court remarked that they had never seen so much beauty congregated in one place.
The King and Queen were clever, and they knew how fairy tales worked, so they extended their invitation to the peasantry, sending out couriers to summon all the most beautiful peasant daughters. There was a tall and slender brunette like a dryad, clad all in forest green, and the sound of her laughter was like the wind in the leaves. There was a buxom innkeeper’s daughter with red hair in ringlets, and her eyes twinkled like starlight when she giggled. There was a miller’s daughter, pale as a wraith, with fingers thin as willows.
But the prince rejected them all: too flat, too round, too pale, too swarthy. As the night passed, the King and Queen began to despair. The maidens grew more and more beautiful in the evening torchlight, but none of them were beautiful enough.
“No,” said the prince. “I have dreamed of a woman so beautiful that even the stones stop and stare as she passes. I have seen a maiden so fair that Cupid himself stopped throwing arrows in order that he might spend his time gazing upon her with longing. I have dreamt of the most beautiful woman in the world, and only she is worthy to be my wife. I will marry no maiden but her.”
The court was silent, the girls all stung with rejection, and suddenly no one felt like dancing. The musicians couldn’t keep in tune and at last the King called everything to a stop. “Enough,” he said. “Go home. My son will not be marrying.”
The prince slept, despairing in his heart that he should never find the woman of his dreams. He slept, and in his dreams, the most beautiful woman in the world turned to him and beckoned. Her finger curled like a net, and the prince rose from his bed and followed. He trailed the vision through the great hall, past the preying tapestries of wolves and unicorns, past the staring eyes of the portraits of his ancestors, wise kings and beautiful queens, and down the winding stairs. Past the clanking chains of the dungeons, past the weeping waves of the underground river, to a tiny storage room at the end of the stairs, damp and dusty, where the rats conspired in corners, and instructed the spiders to spin endless nets for their plans. At the center of the room, covered by a fine white satin cloth, was a wooden frame, as high as the prince was tall. The girl had vanished within the room, so he strode forward and seized the white fabric, pulling it aside. It swept to the ground in an explosion of dust, huddling on the floor with the rats.
Underneath was the mirror, crystal clear and flawless, set in the simplest wooden frame. It hummed and shone, leaping to life at the prince’s touch, and the most beautiful maiden in the world smiled at him through a haze of red.
When the sun rose, the prince roused the court, and they rode out in full regalia, across seven green shires to the house of a wealthy cloth merchant. The merchant’s wife brought out her daughters, two beautiful young women, sweet and clever as new-minted pennies. One of them was tall and voluptuous, wearing a gown of sapphire blue and trimmed with ostrich feathers, a silver crown with white feathers cresting her golden hair. The younger was small and slender, wearing a dress of crisp red satin, trimmed with rubies and ermine, and combs of gold and ruby ornamented her waves of chestnut hair.
The prince waved them aside without a pause. “Not these. What other women do you have in your household? I wish to see your maids.”
The merchant’s wife paled with the insult, but obeyed, trotting out a half-dozen peasant lasses, each one more rosy and buxom than the last.
The prince refused them all. “None of these. Is there no one else?”
The merchant’s wife assured him that there was no one, but the prince insisted, and at last the youngest chambermaid reminded her mistress that there was one other girl, the garret maid, busy scrubbing away at the attic. She was brought at once, clad in rags and grime from the attic.
“Yes,” said the prince. “I will marry her.”
The court bundled up the girl like a Christmas roast and took her back to the castle. She was bathed and combed, rubbed and shorn, dressed in cloth of gold and crowned in diamonds, and the king’s own shoemaker shaped a pair of slippers out of glass, the tiniest things anyone had ever seen, for the maiden’s delicate white feet. When they unveiled her, everyone oohed and aahed, and throughout the evening, no one spoke of anything but how beautiful she was, how cunningly shaped, like a doll carved from marble and set with priceless stones for her eyes and lips. The prince danced endlessly with her, with eyes for no one else.
That night, the old king disappeared. He walked out of his bedroom during the night and did not return.
The young prince and his bride were crowned that day, and the queen mother retired to her chambers to mourn. The new king sent servants to the basement, to bring up an old mirror, hung with cobwebs and gnawed by rats. He hung it in the royal chambers, in the young queen’s private study, and he told her the story of how he had found her in the marvelous mirror. Without the mirror, she would never have been anything but an upstairs maid. The mirror chose her out of all the world.
The young queen dutifully took the mirror, too demure to gloat over her good luck. She smiled and thanked him, and sat every day in front of her mirror as the maids brushed her long yellow hair. Day after day she sat there, brushing her hair for hours.
“Mirror mirror,” she whispered. “Mirror mirror.”
Within months, the queen was taken with child, and she was confined to bed. She ordered the servants to move her mirror, so that she could see herself in the glass where she lay in bed, wide-eyed and still. “Mirror, mirror, my mirror,” she whispered. “Give me a daughter. Let my child have lips like rubies, hair like a raven’s wing and skin as white as lilies. Mirror, let my child be a woman. Let me have a daughter even more beautiful than I.”
The queen’s belly waxed like the moon, and the queen’s health waned like a candle, growing sickly and pale with each passing day. She gave birth to a baby girl, with eyes like jet and tiny soft toes like rosebuds.
“Look, my love,” said the king, “you have given birth to a girl as beautiful as the moon.”
The queen did not hear him, and would not look, pushing the child aside and reaching out toward her precious mirror. “My mirror,” she whispered, weakened fingers clutching at the air. “My mirror.”
The queen was interred in the castle cemetery the next day, with a tiny cherub sculpted upon her tombstone. Her portrait was hung in the hall of ancestors, another face in a menagerie of beautiful dead women. The king wept at the funeral and swore he would never marry any woman less beautiful than his dead wife. He locked himself in his room with her wedding veil and her mirror.
Once again the king began to dream.
He slept, and in his dreams, the most beautiful woman in the world turned to him and beckoned. Her finger curled like a shepherd’s crook, and the prince rose from his bed and followed.
Once again he roused the court, three days after his wife’s death, on the very anniversary of his first marriage, and he rode across the mountains that vomit fire, to the hut of a shepherd, where they waited until evening. When evening fell, a maiden strolled barefoot over the hills with her sheep. She was clad in rough homespun, without gems or silks, only a delicate black poppy tucked just behind her ear. She was beautiful, pale as lambswool, her hair red as roses, and she smiled at the king, with lips like ripe cherries.
The court bundled her up like a crystal egg, and took her back to the castle. There she was draped and ribboned, ringed and garlanded, and the king’s draper made a gown of diamonds for her to wear. When they unveiled her, everyone twittered with gossip at the possibility that she might be still more beautiful than the dead queen. On their wedding night, the king danced endlessly with her, gaze never once wandering from her face.
When she was crowned queen, the king gave her the enchanted mirror as a wedding gift. She put it in her chamber, and would sit in front of it for hours, brushing her hair in preparation for her sitting with the court painter. Shortly after, the new queen’s portrait was added to the hall, and everyone remarked on the remarkable likeness, and how surely she was by far the most beautiful of all the portraits in the hall.
The queen basked and smiled, and sat for hours before her mirror, combing her blood-red hair. “Mirror mirror,” she whispered. “Mirror mirror.”
Years passed, and the kingdom prospered, and the king’s love for the queen never faded, as these things often do, for the king was confident in the knowledge that there was no woman in the world more beautiful than his wife. The queen bloomed in her continuing prosperity, and lingered eternally at her mirror, knowing that it was the source of all her happiness. Day after day she sat at the mirror, combing her hair and singing.
One day the queen began to dream. Night after night the dreams haunted her; pale, sickly dreams of a demon girl with skin as pale as a corpse, mouth red with blood. She saw the girl’s portrait in the hall, after her own, and she saw the countess whispering how she was the most beautiful of all. She saw the girl in the court, and when she passed, she heard the courtiers murmur that this maiden was by far the fairest, far more stunning than her stepmother the queen, for it was undeniable that the queen was past her prime and beginning to wither. Even when she awoke, she saw the girl’s face in her mirror, bloody lips smiling as she brushed her long raven hair.
When the young princess returned from a holiday in the country, a wide-eyed child of just seven, the courtiers gasped and gaped, petting her dark hair and begging smiles from her vivid red lips. They told her that she was beautiful, already far fairer than her vain stepmother, the one who sat for hours in her bedroom whispering “Mirror, mirror.”
In the midst of this, the queen entered the court, and the young princess looked over at her with a smile. The queen screamed, and fell into a faint.
Carried to her chambers and revived, the queen demanded of her servants to tell her the identity of the eerily pale child in the throne room.
“Why, that is your step-daughter, your majesty,” said the servants. “Born just days before your majesty’s marriage to the king.”
Calling for her brothers, the queen sent out across a dozen countries, to the far side of the firey mountains, and they came, three young men who had made their fortunes in their adventures. “Come close,” she said to her kin. “In the bond that twines us, from our mother’s blood, I ask that you do one thing for me, one favor that is all I have ever asked.”
They swore it, and she told them of the princess, too pale to be human, and bid them to take her out into the deepest forest and kill her. They took the child into the forest and beat her, bruising her perfect white skin, and she bled as red as her mouth, weeping. They held her and raped her; cut out her tongue, cut off her hands and left her for dead, a bloodless corpse left huddled in the woods. They returned to their sister the queen and kissed her, assuring her that once again she was the fairest in all the land. Then they took their leave and rode out across a dozen countries to seek their fortunes once again.
The queen sat down before the mirror, and saw the girl’s face one last time, smiling even as she vanished into the smoke. The queen sat in front of her mirror and would not be moved, brushing her long red hair for hours, until it came loose in the brush and pooled like blood upon the floor.
Her servants found her in front of the mirror the next day, dead as stone and bald as an egg, with the silver brush still clutched in her withered hand.
“Mirror mirror,” said a chambermaid in jest. No one laughed.
The king wept and mourned and swore he would never marry any woman less beautiful than his dead wife. He locked himself in his room with her wedding veil and her mirror.
There were no dreams. The mirror was misty and gray, silent as the hall of dead queens, and the king paced the halls, unable to sleep. He emerged from his room after a week. In that time, his hair had turned gray, and lines had formed upon his face. He returned to his duties, but he was preoccupied. The mirror was brought, and placed by his throne, so that while he did anything at all in the court, his eyes flicked constantly over to the mirror, the depths within which curled and spun with dark smoke.
The mirror shifted constantly, shapeless and empty, although the ladies of the court would swear that they saw faces within the smoke, terrible twisted faces too tortured to be human. The men laughed at them for their flightiness, making jests at how the eye plays tricks upon the naive female mind, but they too avoided looking into the mirror’s cloudy depths. Years passed in this manner, court and kingdom dwindling, until one day the mirror awoke.
A young countess gazed into the mirror and screamed, fainting dead away upon the floor. When she was revived, she screamed again. “A corpse! I saw the corpse of a girl in that terrible mirror. She is there now.”
“There is nothing,” said the others. “The mirror is empty. You have imagined it.”
“This is not a face in the smoke,” she insisted. “I see her as clearly as I see any of you.”
“Then you are seeing your own reflection.”
“No. That is not me. That girl is no living creature. No human could be as white as snow.”
The king removed the mirror from the throne room, returning it to the privacy of his chambers. Three days later he emerged, and roused the court for a journey. They rode to the heart of the darkest forest, and into a cave, to the very deepest heart of the earth.
There they found a glass coffin, etched with gold, and inside was a maiden, white as the snow on the mountain peak. Her lips were red as drops of blood, vivid against her milk-white skin, and her black hair curled around her shoulders like a shroud. Around the coffin stood a ring of goblins, little men with grotesque faces and painted ears. They scowled at the court’s approach.
“Stop there, son of kings, and state your business.”
The king stepped down from his horse and greeted the leader of the gargoyles. “I have come many miles away from my kingdom, in search of the maiden in that casket. I must have her.”
“She is ours,” said the demons.
“I will pay any price you ask.”
“You do not want her,” said the demons. “She has no hands. They were cut off her, and we have replaced them with hands of silver. She is no good to you.”
“She is the most beautiful woman in all the world,” said the king. “I will have her as my wife.”
“You do not want her,” said the goblins. “She is under a spell, eternal sleep as cold as death, and nothing you do will wake her up.”
“She does not need to be awake to be my wife,” said the king. “Give her to me or I will slay you all where you stand.”
“She is your daughter,” said the smallest of the elves. “You cannot marry your daughter.”
The king drew his sword, and slew every last one of the seven little men.
The court bundled up the casket like a pet lapdog, and took her back to the castle. There the king opened the casket: the maiden slept on, and though her skin was white as the dead and cold to the touch, she was soft as a lily, with no signs of rot, and everyone remarked that she was so lifelike, it was only possible that she was just sleeping. The king married her at once, and detailed a dozen servants to carry her everywhere, so that she could sit next to him on their twin thrones, and dance with him at their wedding.
That night, the king disappeared. When the bedroom was opened the next morning, they found the sleeping queen alone in the bed, with traces of fresh blood still wet upon her lips.
The court was at a loss for what to do. The king was dead, and the queen, who was heir to the throne through both birth and marriage, was still as a corpse and could not be made to stir. They called in the advisors, combed the royal library, and consulted all the laws, but there was nothing to govern the jurisdiction of a comatose princess-queen. So they propped her up in the royal throne and went on as if nothing at all had occurred.
As the weeks passed, it became evident that the queen was with child. Day after day she sat motionless in her great golden throne, and her belly grew larger by the month. Nine months filled without any change but the size of the queen’s waist, until one day the court awoke to find the queen gone. Her throne was spattered with blood, and in the queen’s place was a baby girl, cooing and splashing in her mother’s blood.
The court gathered up the child, washed her and dressed her, and set her neatly upon her mother’s throne, preparing to go on as if nothing at all had occurred.
But then an old woman appeared in the court. She was white and wrinkled with age, but she stood tall and queenly, and her upon her head was a golden crown. It was the old queen, who had lived for years in the North tower, forgotten by all. She had heard of the news of the king’s death and her granddaughter’s sleeping, news which took nine months to reach her, and she had come down from her tower to set matters straight.
“Is that my grand-daughter?” She asked, pointing to the child on the throne. “Give her to me. I will raise her myself.”
The princess grew quickly, and though she was blue-eyed and smiling, she was no great beauty. When she reached her twelfth birthday, the old queen called her to her chambers.
“Listen, my child,” said the queen. “I am grown old, and I am tired of the pains of age. I will not be with you much longer.”
The child wept and clung to her grandmother, for she loved the old woman and was frightened of losing her. The old queen hushed her gently. “Come with me, child. There is something you must understand.”
The queen took her to the hall of portraits, and showed her the face of her mother, her grandmother, and the blood-haired stepmother; all three unfortunate wives of her father the king. “My portrait, too, hangs in this hall. You see that I was once a great beauty. But I was nothing compared to my son’s wives, the three most beautiful women who ever lived. And you, their child, will grow up to be even more beautiful than either of them.”
The child looked, her delicate hand held in the old woman’s withered claw. “I do not want to be beautiful, grandmother,” said the princess.
“You will be beautiful,” said the old queen. “You must.”
The queen took her to the tower, where the magic mirror was kept, and showed her the infamous mirror. “Look, my child. This mirror belonged to your mother, and your grandmother before that. This mirror chose them, out of all the world, for the most beautiful women that have ever lived. The mirror made them queens. It will make you, too, a queen, and when you are of age it will be your mirror, and your portrait will hang in the hall with the others.”
“I do not want the mirror,” wept the child. “I do not want to be beautiful, grandmother. I do not like this mirror. It frightens me.”
“That doesn’t matter. Dry your tears, my child.” The old queen smiled and patted her hand. “Do not worry your head about these matters, not until you are older. You will be beautiful, you must.”
The princess grew taller, but no more beautiful, and though her laugh was delightful and her eyes were bright, they were not dazzling or magnetic. Her hair was a light brown that was too dull to be golden, her complexion was no better than her dressing-maid’s, and her eyes were a most unremarkable shade of hazel. She was sweet to her servants, generous to her subjects and clever in matters of governance, and everyone agreed that she was a delightful girl, but unless she gained some amount of beauty, she would be worthless as a queen, and no prince would ever desire to marry her.
“Surely,” said the court, “she is just late to bloom. Her mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and her grandmother also. When she reaches her sixteenth birthday, she will be beautiful, without a doubt.”
Soon the old queen passed away, and the young princess wept at her funeral, laying a bouquet of pink flowers upon the grave of her beloved great-grandmother. Then she took up the business of ruling a kingdom.
Princes came from far and wide when they heard the news, and peasants as well, youngest sons who were out to make their fortune. Each of them begged an audience with the young queen, offering wealth, magic, or priceless artifacts in return for the queen’s hand in marriage. The girl patiently gave each of them an audience, for she was an open-minded woman who would listen to anyone’s suit, but as soon as they saw her, they drew back in disgust.
“What is this?” said the princes. “Do you seek to mock me? Why am I presented with a peasant girl in the garb of a queen? I wish to see the daughter of the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“I am that daughter,” said the queen. “I am the only queen who rules in this court.”
The princes and peasants scoffed and sneered, either disbelieving her word and believing himself mocked, or openly scorning her for her simplicity. The queen was saddened by their cruelty, but continued ruling alone, for she was a good queen and kind, and her people loved her, plain though she was. They painted her portrait and put it in the hall of her ancestors, and people would pass by the portraits of her mother and grandmother to look at the portrait of the queen. “How gentle she is,” they would say. “How kind are her eyes.”
One night the queen began to dream. Her mother appeared in her dream, and beckoned, finger curling like an invitation, and the queen rose from her bed and followed. She trailed the wraith through the great hall, past the preying tapestries of wolves and unicorns, past the staring eyes of the portraits of his ancestors, wise kings and beautiful queens, and up the winding stairs to the tower, where the rats conspired in corners, and instructed the spiders to spin endless nets for their plans. At the center of the room, covered by a fine white satin cloth, was a wooden frame, as high as the queen was tall. Her mother had vanished within the room, so she strode forward and seized the white fabric, pulling it aside. It swept to the ground in an explosion of dust, cowering on the floor with the rats.
“My daughter,” spoke the mirror, with her mother’s voice. “You have come of age, and I wish to bestow a gift upon you, my only child.” The woman in the mirror smiled and beckoned through a haze of red.
“You are not my mother,” said the queen. “My mother had no tongue and could not speak.”
The woman in the mirror smiled, her hair growing red and hanging in waves around her breasts.
“My child. I will give you the thing every woman desires. I will give you beauty and grace, even more beautiful than your mother before you.”
“I do not wish to be beautiful,” said the queen. “I am content with what I am.”
“You cannot be queen if you are not beautiful,” shrieked the mirror, with the face of a pale woman with yellow hair and the tiniest feet anyone had ever seen. “You are nothing if you are not beautiful!”
“I am the queen,” said the queen, “and my people are happy. I am content with what I have.”
The mirror began to scream and scream, until the queen took a chair and picked it up, hurling it into the magic mirror so that the glass shattered, raining in shards upon the floor. The scream dribbled into a moan, and the empty wooden frame began to bleed. It bled out the red blood of her parents and grandparents, soaking into the priceless silk of the carpet, dying the huddled white satin cover with splotches of red.
The queen set down the chair and walked out of the room, carefully stepping around the growing pool of blood. She returned to her chamber, and along the way she stopped a servant on his way to the kitchens. “There is a broken mirror and a pool of blood in the north tower. Please send someone to have it cleaned up.”