The queen did love her magic mirror, just as the rumors claimed.
He pointed out all her mistakes. He helped her weigh political decisions, envisioning every consequence or potential benefit. Together, back-to-back with the enchanted glass barrier between them, they sorted through her throne-seeking suitors—ruling out those solely obsessed with beauty, or bogged down by bad families, or otherwise bothersome in ways that blossomed to disasters within the mirror’s future-sight. And when the two of them decided no other suitor was suitable, the mirror reflected back all the queen’s best qualities and shaped them into a child within her womb.
But the queen’s love for her mirror was not a blind one.
She folded her hands over her stomach, flushed and giddy from the magic, yet apprehensive. “What price must I pay?”
“No price,” said her mirror. “Not from me. The child is a gift, and I ask for nothing.”
“A gift,” the queen repeated, only more guarded. “But I wasn’t asking for just your price.”
In all the generations of royalty who’d occupied the Palace of the Mirror and consulted the sorcerers beyond the glass, the mirror men had never bestowed a gift without some expectation of return. They favored tricky deals and driving hard bargains, and the queen’s mirror had been their spokesman since long-ago days before they crafted the mirror itself, when a stone fortress was still shelter enough for them. He was the best of the sorcerers—the guardian of the looking glass gate. He was not meant to give away magic hand over fist, channeling so much of it through his own being—more than the others had freely offered up.
“What will they ask of me?” the queen asked gently, and her mirror looked away.
“The spell required more power than I anticipated,” he said. “For the highest kind of working, they’ll expect the usual highest price.”
“A royal’s firstborn child,” the queen said. Thorns sprouted in her tone, despite herself. “This was not among the possible outcomes you showed me.”
“Would it have stopped you?” he asked.
No. She’d have asked for the child no matter the cost. But it complicated matters, and she moved to the other side of the bed, farthest from where the mirror hung.
She was old enough to remember the last high price. Her older brother, traded away in exchange for crops that would grow through winter, sustaining the kingdom until its famine ended. She remembered him stepping out of the mirror once every few years, at odd hours, and ordering the palace staff about—a tyrant. He’d been the firstborn prince, after all. Then he would leave the palace, and return days or weeks later with powerful relics stowed in his bag, couriering them for the mirror men as bartered firstborns had done for ages. Until, eventually, like every other courier, he’d died.
All the stories agreed: traded firstborns inevitably grew cruel, but they never grew old.
“If they’ll want her, then what was this for?” the queen asked, hands forming fists.
“They’ll never succeed at taking her,” her mirror said. “Even if they strike me down and replace me as guardian, they can’t pass through the glass—not anymore.”
When the sorcerers walled up their magic behind mirrors, they’d walled up themselves with it, forsaking the world and their stone palace in favor of a stranger fortress. Though they watched through every mirror, they could not walk beyond the glass—couldn’t even hear or speak into the world apart from through the lone gate.
“Hide our daughter from their sight, as best you can,” the queen’s mirror whispered. “Make plans beyond this room, where none of us will hear. They’ll watch for her after the birth, as they watch you even now, but I promise you, they won’t be able to lay a hand on her.”
“Yes. Alright.” The queen rubbed her temples. “I’ll keep our child from all the mirrors. Her own reflection will remain a stranger to her.”
The mirror had often pointed out the queen’s stubbornness as a flaw, but now he thought it was among the fairest of her qualities.
“After the birth,” he agreed. “For now, don’t leave this mirror’s sight.”
“So the magic will hold?” the queen asked.
Her mirror flushed a delicate pink. “And so I can watch her forming.”
The queen nodded. She moved nearer to the mirror’s surface. Afterall, the child was as much his as it was hers.
* * *
The queen remained by the mirror’s side for the entirety of her pregnancy. Because of that, a perfectly normal birth still suffered under persistent rumors. Everyone laughed that the child must’ve come out backward, and probably vain.
Everyone laughed, except the princess herself as she grew older.
“I can’t be backwards!” The child’s wail became familiar throughout the palace halls. “People look the same both-ways.”
But she was left-handed, and her mother’s exact freckles were dashed across her cheeks in reverse. She read backwards faster than forwards, even aloud, and her feet always went wrong in dancing lessons, carrying her in directions that completely opposed her teacher’s instructions. Though of course—when abandoned to feel out her own footing—she could mirror his movements beautifully.
The princess also behaved a bit backwardly, always dangling upside-down from tree limbs or conversing with the lowest servants like they were her very own siblings. But these odd strokes only made everyone love the princess, even more than they loved their queen.
They teased her anyway, relentlessly, a very specific purpose to their prodding. A mandate passed along in whispers and rumors, ever since the queen gave birth and removed every mirror from the palace rooms. Plagued by the tall tales surrounding her birth, the princess quickly developed a strong aversion to mirrors.
Not all reflections could be avoided. There were the palace’s reflecting pools, which the queen regretted but couldn’t bear to remove—not after all her grandmother’s efforts to construct them. There was the gleaming of guards’ armor—many soldiers obstinately hovering at the princess’s side, convinced the mirror men could be beaten back by simple blades. There was glass, there was polished marble, there was faceted jewelry on the necks of gaudy guests. Some of these things were avoidable. Most weren’t.
But these only offered the mirror men glimpses of their promised princess. Fragments and flickers, enough to heighten their desire, but not enough for them to act on it.
As long as the princess stayed out of her mother’s bedroom, where the magic mirror hung, all would be well.
But one day, the princess sat down to read beside a reflecting pool. A chapter into the text, she noticed thin frost settling across the still water’s surface. Not in a wave so much as a bloom—a puff, like breath fogging a winter window. Just as the princess shot to her feet, letters formed, as if drawn by invisible fingers.
The words were backwards. The princess read them in an instant, before the guards idling nearby even noticed her standing.
We can show you your father.
The princess stilled. She knew the circumstances around her birth—how the queen never strayed from her magic mirror for purposes she refused to reveal—but what came before, the other half of the backwards girl’s whole, was still a mystery to the princess.
As the guards rushed over—ready to attack whatever disturbed her—the words vanished. Others appeared in their place.
Come to your mother’s magic mirror.
The princess tossed her head, banishing all her curiosity. She’d been warned how the mirror men liked to play tricks, especially on firstborn royals. If they’d had a hand in her more eccentric qualities—as she’d long suspected—then she’d had quite enough of them.
Much as she wondered who her father was, she didn’t care enough to become gullible. And she’d already resolved to rule without the mirror’s counsel—the first such monarch in many generations.
She enunciated her next words at the foggy water so clearly that anyone would know them by sight, if not by hearing: “No. Never.”
The frost cloud vanished, her reflection reappearing, only—
The princess screamed, and fear rippled through the palace in the hearts of all who heard.
The queen hoisted her skirts above her knees and hurtled down hallways toward the garden, swearing under her breath. “Those damn reflecting pools—”
She was not the first to reach her daughter, but everyone cleared a path for their queen. The princess—sun-browned and perfect as ever—trembled in the arms of one flustered guard, sobbing with her face turned away from his gleaming armor.
Her reflection in the metal—and in the water, too—was of a monster. A ghoulish, fang-toothed beast, with tears dappling the collar of its dress.
* * *
The queen sat on her bedroom floor, back pressed against the subdued mirror.
“They’re impatient for a child who can pass through the mirror unharmed,” he said, words scarcely audible through the thick, black curtain his queen had hung across the glass. “So much of their magic expended, with no return…but I didn’t know they would spend more power casting illusions like that. They don’t trust me anymore.”
“I should send her away,” the queen said, lips trembling.
Her mirror spoke hollowly. “Please don’t.”
They sat in silence, though words and music had always been the best things between them—the only things they had to themselves. They always felt eyes watching, but that night the mirror men’s combined gaze held a sharper edge, the sensation cutting every line of conversation short.
“Is she beautiful?” the mirror asked finally. “As beautiful as you?”
The queen scoffed. Then pressed her palm flat against the glass. It warmed under his touch on the other side. For a few moments, their skin met. Lingered. Then the world beyond the looking glass pained the queen’s lover, and he drew his hand back, hissing in pain through his teeth.
“You could look at her through the reflections,” the queen said slowly. “The way all the other mirror men do.”
“No,” her mirror said. “I’m afraid to see her. Afraid I’d let them bring her here, just as they desire.”
The queen wanted to protest, but both of them knew the truth: he’d gone with the other thousand sorcerers when they chose to hoard their power in a place beyond anyone’s reach. He’d been the thousand and first of them—the one who sat down at the doorway and promised to keep out any thieves, conquerors, or desperate beggars seeking spells.
“I should smash you,” the queen said, her voice breaking.
The mirror said nothing at first. Then, timorously, “I’m not sure you could, my love.”
She sprang to her feet and kicked the mirror’s center with her full weight focused through her heel.
The glass did not shatter.
She beat at the mirror until she was breathless, until she was sobbing, until she somehow stumbled into sleep, curled at the mirror’s base. The mirror whispered soft and pretty things, and played the pipes she’d always loved to listen to.
The glass remained whole.
And the thousand pairs of eyes watched on.
* * *
Everyone told the princess half-truths.
The monsters constantly looming in her reflections were a trick played by the mirror men, who were cross at her mother, the queen. A deal gone wrong—sour politics the princess didn’t have to concern herself with until she was older.
For her part, the princess said nothing of the mirror men’s offer to reveal her father’s identity. She remembered long-ago talk of sending her away—whispers of towers with nothing that gleamed or shone—and she didn’t want to leave her mother’s side, or her home.
In consequence, the princess’s aversion to mirrors turned to loathing. And the mirror she hated most was the one in the queen’s bedroom, which led to the mirror men’s stronghold.
Everyone took some solace in that, knowing the backwards girl wouldn’t stumble onto her own doom as a result of simple curiosity.
But the queen remained uneasy, knowing her daughter might reverse her position if she ever learned the whole truth of the deal that brought her into being. If she ever learned just how much of the queen’s mirror went into making the backwards princess.
He was the best of the mirror men, the guardian between worlds, and the greatest traitor to those who lived on the other side of the looking glass. By the loosest definitions in either world, he was most certainly the princess’s father.
And the queen knew the lure of realizing family lay beyond the mirror’s surface. She remembered creeping down hallways at midnight, desperate for a glimpse of the brother traded for the kingdom’s wellbeing, even after she’d learned of his vicious nature.
So all through the princess’s childhood, the queen held her silence. She swore her servants to secrecy. She warped the truth as needed, seeding a dozen new rumors through the kingdom to grow over the singular truth.
The princess collected all these seeds, turning various theories round and round in her head, determined to figure out her parentage without the help of any crooked, scheming sorcerers. It wasn’t a mystery she considered every day. But it was the question she returned to in quiet moments, on occasional sleepless nights, or during the hours she spent memorizing the lineage of her family. There was a rhythm to the string of names and stations, and the absence before the princess’s own name felt glaring and wrong in her mouth. As wrong as the somewhat truncated details of former firstborns sent beyond the mirror.
One day in the garden—far from the reflecting pools—the princess saw two servants walking, the older instructing the younger. Their heads held the tilt of gossipers, and the senior maid had become a loud talker since her hearing began to go.
The princess didn’t often witness the arrival and instruction of new servants. By the time she met them, they’d always been made quieter and more careful than they might’ve otherwise been—the same way the princess received meals with every sharp bone plucked out, or wooden playthings with all the splinters sanded off.
The princess sprinted across a flowerbed and through a line of tall, shaped shrubs in order to get ahead of the pair, and then she climbed the tall, shady tree where people always lingered on the path.
It was a hot day, and the two gossipers lingered a long time. The princess listened through half an hour of serving etiquette, the proper way to fold sheets, and how best to address a princess who constantly ignored rules of decorum.
Then, finally, she overheard an innocent slip.
“And don’t ask after the princess’s sire,” the senior maid said, hand cupped around her too-loud murmur.
“Is it something very scandalous?” the younger asked, a softer whisper.
The princess strained her ears, willing the tree’s leaves to stop rustling, willing her tiring fingers to hold firm just a little longer.
The senior maid raised her shoulders, hands spread in bemusement. “Well we all know it’s the mirror itself, but no one’s very sure how it was done, and anyway, it’s an impolite topic.”
White rage knifed through the princess.
How it was done.
She could guess how the monsters in the mirror had done it. Tricks and traps and hurting—
Her grip slipped from the smooth-barked branches, and she landed in a crumpled heap at the servants’ feet.
“Princess!” The servants fussed over her, the scratches on her palms, the bloody bump on the back of her head, but the backwards girl waved them off.
“I want to see my mother,” she said, shaking.
“Of course you do.” The newer of the servants took the girl by the hand, rushing her down hallways as the senior maid went to find her majesty.
The princess shook her hand free as she entered the queen’s extravagant rooms, and spoke coldly. “You’re dismissed.”
“I don’t think—”
She rounded on the young maid, as if it was something she did all the time. “Your princess is dismissing you.”
The maid flinched. She glanced at the curtain separating the queen’s parlor from her bedroom. She must have already been told, as all the servants were, that the princess was not to be left alone in her mother’s room.
The princess grimaced. “I’m sorry. My head hurts. Fetch a healer while I wait for Mother?”
“Of course.” The maid flinched again. “My lady.”
The backwards princess straightened her skirts. She searched the room for a weapon by the light of the windows overlooking the gardens, and settled on a small, heavy statuette of polished black stone.
She whipped back the curtain like she’d done it a hundred times. And she stepped into the queen’s bedroom.
The mirror was still half-draped in black curtains, but the sound of pipes drifted from one exposed corner—a song the princess had heard her mother humming.
It stopped suddenly as the princess’s shoe tapped on the tile floor.
“Dear?” the queen’s mirror asked. Uncertain. Because it didn’t sound like the queen’s footfalls, but who else would approach the mirror she always cleaned with her own regal hands?
That word, Dear, stopped the princess. It did not sound like a snare, or some kind of noose binding her mother’s neck.
She took hold of the curtain just as the queen and the senior maid arrived at the parlor door.
She threw off the black fabric just as the queen cried out.
The backwards princess and the queen’s mirror stared at each other, still as portraits, each of them seeing the similarities, the differences, the links reversed and traversed between them.
The princess dropped the stone statue, breathing hard enough to fog the glass.
“Hello, Father,” she said.
Two thousand eyes of a thousand mirror men fixed on the girl they’d been promised, and they all surged forward, fingers passing through the glass and brushing the princess’s wrist.
The queen ran forward, arms outstretched.
And the queen’s mirror—the princess’s father by anyone’s definition—balled up his fist and slammed it knuckles-first into the other side of the glass, cracking it into a thousand and one falling shards.