"Once upon a time there was a beautiful sorceress who lived in a spiralling tower near a town," Silas started, sitting on the library's check-out desk.
"And they lead the king right to her door." Jonathan finished for him, steering Silas off the desk and onto the stool behind it. Silas flinched at Jonathan's touch like he'd only just realised Jonathan was there. A few seconds passed, Silas looking around him like he wasn't even seeing the room around him. Hell, for all Jonathan knew, he wasn't. It'd explain the twitching at any rate. "I know, I know. Just sit there for a minute, okay? I'll check the mirror."
Silas blinked at him, eyes nearly all pupil. "There were seven mirrors. The king trapped her in them."
Jonathan ran a hand through his hair, suddenly longing for a cigarette. Maybe a carton of them. "That almost sounded like you understood me. You're slipping."
The king swaggered into the sorceress' clearing and found nothing. There was no tower in the woods - certainly not the one he had seen from the town - no refugees, no sorceress. The king ordered his men to search the area, then shouted, "I am here to see the sorceress. I wish to ask her hand in marriage."
The only response was laughter from above and around him, laughter that made the air shake.
The library had a storeroom hidden somewhere in its darkest reaches, filled with ridiculous things that shouldn't have meant anything. Dried roses with thorns sharp enough to draw blood; a dried apple with a bite taken out of it; a pair of red shoes standing in a corner at right angles to a pair of glass slippers; swan feathers; a golden ball; a spindle for god's sake. A bloody spindle and a thousand other things that he'd thought were stupid when he was a kid hearing the stories. Well, he still thought they were stupid, but he knew more about them now.
Silas wouldn't come in here on his own - which was a pain in the arse, because he was the one who could be trusted to find it when Jonathan couldn't. Every time he did, Jonathan could see him curling his hands into fists like he wanted to smash the debris in here to dust.
Jonathan shook his head and swished fabric that had never been meant to be swished away from the one thing he and Silas agreed was trouble.
That night the king left his army stationed around the tower, each soldier clutching a mirrored shield in case the sorceress decided to attack, and returned to the town he had just conquered. When he arrived, seven men were dragged out of the prison and thrown down into the dust at his feet.
"These are the mages?" the king asked, not even looking at them.
The men glared at him and said nothing; the soldier watching over them nodded.
The king smiled at them, eyes hard. "I have a proposition for you."
This is what should have been reflected in the mirror Jonathan uncovered: a dusty, cobwebby room, shelves piled high with clutter, things that had no apparent relevance to anything else in the room. A tall, spare man in the rumpled remains of a suit, streaks of grey in his hair that matched the shadows under his eyes.
This is what was in the mirror: a small, octagonal room, each wall a mirror that wasn't reflecting the chair in the centre of the room. They did reflect the woman that breezed in, although not as she was. None showed a pale, shaking woman in a black silk gown, brown hair escaping the knot it was twisted into as she ripped the crown from her head and threw it to the floor.
("Is that one wearing plate armour?" Jonathan had asked the first time he saw them, closing his eyes and telling himself there would be a perfectly reasonable explanation for that, like he was finally going mad. Silas hadn't been working at the library then, but Jonathan could imagine the very calm, pitying look Silas would've given him while he nodded.)
The next evening, the king returned to the tower and brought the seven mages with him. He turned slowly in the centre of the clearing, arms spread wide. "Let the sorceress mark this well! I have brought her gifts, and I would be most distraught were she to miss them."
There was a long silence, then a woman's voice said, "What have you brought me?"
The first mage stepped forwards, bearing an ornate mirror, which he laid down on the grass and knelt beside. "Mistress, you are the fairest of them all." He hesitated, glancing back towards the king, who simply rested a hand on the hilt of his sword. The mage drew a knife from his belt and slashed open his palm, before pressing the cut to the glass. "The fairest, but no longer a healer."
There was a sharp gasp, like all the forest had drawn in its breath, and the glass began to bubble and seethe around the mage's hand. For a moment, a brown-haired woman could be seen flickering in the clearing near the king, and the same woman stared out of the glass, smiling tiredly and brushing tendrils of her hair out of her face with one arm, leaving blood smeared across her forehead - and then both women were gone. The mage tried to rise, but couldn't draw his hand away from the mirror.
Nonetheless, the other mages stepped forwards one by one, each bearing a mirror. All agreed she was the fairest, and at their words the air flickered by the king, in the shape of a beautiful brown haired woman, expression fascinated and horrified in equal measure. They couldn't agree on what she was not - she was neither healer nor assassin, lover nor warrior, neither defender nor destroyer, and at each word a shade of the sorceress rose up in the mirror, each one in a different guise.
All but one mage bowed before her, blood making the mirrors ripple and warp. The final mage stood beside his mirror for a long time, hands clenched into fists, until the soldiers behind him drew their swords. Then, and only then, the final mage sank to his knees and let his blood flow into the mirror.
"You are the fairest, my queen, but you are no longer a sorceress."
Her scream of fury could be heard in the next kingdom.
Silas was still sitting where Jonathan had left him, which was - well, it was a first. Silas was usually on his feet by now, stalking around the library like he was looking for someone - someone who wasn't Jonathan.
Silas didn't look up when Jonathan came closer; he was huddled up over the remains of Jonathan's last pack of smokes, which would've been a hanging offence any other day. When he spoke, his voice was dry and scratchy, like he'd been swallowing dust, but it was... Focused. It sounded more like him than it had before. "She was in the mirror, wasn't she?"
Jonathan put a hand on Silas' shoulder and squeezed instead of answering. Silas huffed - Jonathan couldn't have said whether it was a laugh or a groan - and shoved his hair out of his face. "I knew it. It always -" He gestured sharply with his free hand. "It is."
There wasn't anything Jonathan could say to that - he knew it was, he'd been here every time it happened, trying to figure out what he could do to help short of smashing the mirror. Instead, he reached out, ruffled Silas' mat of dark hair until it was all back in his eyes again. He hadn't picked up much useful stuff from the last few times it had happened, but he'd learned he didn't want to see Silas' irises disappearing into his pupils again. "It'll be okay."
Silas snorted. His voice was losing some of the focus again, wandering off into the dreamland; his gaze drifted over to the window. "The king's won – again - and the princess is going to find out, and we're going to have to watch it." The cigarette in his hand was nearly a column of ash; Jonathan plucked it free and started to smoke what was left without thinking. Silas blinked and looked down at his hands, like he'd only realised that he'd been holding something when it wasn't there anymore. "Yeah, sure. Everything'll be fine."
"You want me to look after your daughter," the sorceress said, voice as expressionless as her face. "You think that trapping me is going to make me wish to raise your child as my own."
The king was smiling, tucking one of her arms through his so he could help her up. "Of course not. I think you're going to spend the rest of your life hating me with all the passion you can muster. On the other hand, there is nothing you can do to me, so I doubt that really matters." He patted her hand gently. "You will raise my daughter for me - she needs an elegant creature such as yourself to set her a good example, and you can teach her much."
"You wish for me to be a glorified governess? You took everything I was, so I could do what any other woman of good breeding could have managed?" Her gaze flicked over to the mages; the soldiers were kicking them away from the mirrors, leaving them curled in on themselves like the husks of insects. They had fulfilled their part of the bargain, and the king had fulfilled his: the mages were free. They didn't have enough energy left in them to even move, let alone make use of their freedom, but they had it. "Your logic astounds me."
There was no smile at that; the king laughed and lifted her onto his horse. "No governess could teach my child as you could, milady, nor could she protect her as you will." He swung himself up onto the horse behind her, and let one hand come to rest high on her thigh. "And I would never entertain the idea of marrying a governess."
Silas cleared the table in front of the mirror with a sweep of his arm. Jonathan tried to feel guilty as he watched everything scatter across the floor, but that meant he'd have to feel guilty about the dust that rose up as things bounced away under bookcases too and, well. He couldn't have done it under normal circumstances, so there was no way he could do it while Silas was stalking around the room like he was waiting for something to pick a fight with him.
Jonathan sat on the table with the last of his cigarettes, watching the mirror and trying to keep from catching Silas' eye. The woman in the mirror was settled in her chair, drumming her fingers against her knee and looking at the reflections around her. It was a strange feeling to know that when she looked right at him she was seeing herself - in a different form, perhaps, but still definitely not him and Silas. She kept glancing up at the door as though she heard something outside the room, but no one ca -
The door slammed open soundlessly, and a teenage girl swept in, her face like thunder behind her dark curls.
"I think it's starting."
"What do you mean she's not my mother?"
The servant girls jumped when she came out of her bedroom, only years of practice saving them from dropping the washing they were clutching. They shared panicked looks, then shook their heads.
"I heard you saying she wasn't my mother, and that you believe my father used - used base trickery to wed her. Explain yourselves."
The girls - and they could only be the princess' own age, but they looked so much older, so much more tired - bowed their heads. "It - it's only rumours, your highness. Not worth taking seriously. Just something some of the old ones were talking about - how the king's first wife died around this time, 'bout fifteen years ago."
"She died in childbirth," the princess said quietly. "That is what people have been saying." They'd been saying much, these past few years - or they'd been saying it all along and she simply never noticed. She'd heard the story of the king's first wife before, and the stories of the king who carried off a sorceress to be his wife, but she had never made any connection. It - would not be true. No matter how much sense it made in retrospect, it would not be true. "They say she died in childbirth, and the king coerced my mother a few months afterwards."
"It's only what we've 'eard, yer highness. Like Lucy said, it's nowt to take seriously - I mean, can ye imagine the king actually getting mages in so he could carry someone off? It's jist -"
"I'm sure it is," the princess said quietly. "Please tell the queen that I will be visiting her this evening. We have much to talk about."
Silas stood behind Jonathan, gripping the edge of the table on either side of him hard enough that his knuckles were white. Jonathan covered one of Silas' hands with his own, watching as the girl strode around the room in the mirror. The woman had leapt up and tried to hug her when she came in, but the girl had backed off, skittish as an animal. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but the girl appeared to be talking quickly, hands clasped before her and a frown on her white face. The woman's face was as blank as a waxwork, eyes closed. As the girl spoke, the woman rose from her chair and started to pace around the room, sinking her hands into her hair.
Finally, the girl stopped, and the woman turned to face her - to face the mirror. Jonathan had got pretty good at lip reading this part over the years - she always said the same thing, and what he didn't get, Silas did.
Yes. Of course it’s true. Didn't you know?
The woman kept talking, advancing on the girl with every word, but she was talking too fast for him to read anything. Her smile was dizzy and bright, like she was about to start yelling Finally at the top of her lungs. Finally she could - he wasn't sure what, but it made her sway across the room like she was drunk, made her curl one hand around the back of the girl's neck and pull her in close. He could see the woman press her mouth to the girl's ear and whisper something -
This is what the daughter told her mother: stories she had heard, linking her mother to a certain kidnapped sorceress. That she had heard the king was not the kind father she had believed. That she was sorry, but she needed to know if it was true.
This is what the mother told her daughter: the stories were true, and always had been. That it was true that the powers that had been hers were caught up in the mirrors in this room. That, once she had found a way release her magic, she was going to kill her husband and eat his heart.
It was the girl's turn to look like a waxwork now; she stared into the space over the woman's shoulder without blinking - and then she cried out and shoved the woman away, hard enough to knock her to the floor. The woman lay where she had landed, laughing to herself.
Silas gripped his shoulder suddenly, nearly making Jonathan jump off the desk in surprise. "Don't break the mirrors," he breathed, eyes on the mirror. "Not this time, don't do it please don't do it -"
The girl was backing away from the woman on the floor slowly, hands over her mouth. This was it - if anything was going to be different, this would be the point.
The girl bumped into the chair the woman had been sitting in, and he could almost see the idea sprouting in her mind. Silas's short nails were digging into his shoulders, his voice a soft chant of "No no no no no no -" in his ear. Jonathan found himself clutching Silas' other hand in a death grip, willing her to listen.
Instead, she grabbed the chair and slammed it into the nearest mirror.
The glass shattered soundlessly, the pieces clinging to their place in the frame. A figure in plate armour flickered across the broken glass, and was gone. The girl either didn't notice, or noticed and thought she was doing the right thing - she swung the chair again at a different mirror, then another, then another -
Silas hid his face in Jonathan's shoulder, and Jonathan fumbled back until he could rest a hand on Silas' head.
All the while, the woman sat on the floor, laughing and laughing, looking more - more solid as each mirror shattered. The girl worked her way through the room, shattering each mirror until she reached the one closest to the woman - the one Silas and Jonathan were watching through. He could see her hesitate, chair raised like she thought the woman would attack her.
There was a pause - the woman might have said something, but he wouldn't have been able to tell what. Then the girl threw the chair and ran.
Jonathan threw an arm up as cracks exploded through the mirror. He didn't need to - the glass stayed in the frame, like it had in all the other mirrors in that room. No reflection flickered over this one though, or if it did he was on the wrong side to see it. Instead, he watched through the broken glass as the woman dragged herself to her feet, grinding the glass to dust as she moved.
Through the cracks, he could hear the woman breathing hard, laughter escaping her in wheezes. He could hear the glass crunching beneath her feet. He could hear Silas muffling his hiccupping breaths against his shoulder, and that was what got him moving.
Jonathan leapt up from the table, nearly dragging Silas to the ground with him, and grabbed blindly for the mirror's cover. The woman stopped in front of the mirror, smiling at her reflection. Or hell, she could've been smiling at them.
Who's the fairest now? the woman asked, hands on her hips. Her hair was straggling into her face, and she was swaying where she stood. Who is the fairest now?
"Not you," Jonathan whispered and threw the cloth up over the mirror.
There are always a hundred ways the tale could end.
The mages could have refused the bargain the king offered them. The princess could have left her rooms a little earlier and missed the serving girls' gossip altogether. The princess could have gone to her father instead of her mother. When the queen leapt from her chair, she could have knocked it back a few more inches, and the princess' attention could never have been called to it. The princess could have fled the room without ever touching the mirrors.
The queen could have told the truth - that she was going to kill the king at the first opportunity, and make her step-daughter the finest ruler the kingdom ever had. Or she could have looked her daughter in the eye and told her that the stories were lies.
The story hadn't ended in any of those ways, though, and so it would repeat itself in the mirror until it did.
"You okay?" Jonathan asked, slumping down onto the desk. His hands were shaking. His whole body was shaking for that matter, but his hands were the main problem - he couldn't get his cigarettes out. Silas looked at the cloth-covered mirror for a long moment - a hell of a lot longer than Jonathan liked if he was being honest - then nodded slowly.
"I. I think so." Silas reached out and took the pack of cigarettes off him. "Then again, you probably think that went okay, so your definition is a lot different to mine." He knocked a cigarette out of the pack and offered it to Jonathan, hands shaking a hell of a lot less than Jonathan's own. "What about you?"
Jonathan snorted, nearly blowing out the match Silas was lighting. "Oh, I'm just fantastic. I'll feel a hell of a lot better once I've smashed that mirror, though."
Silas smiled faintly and leaned his head against Jonathan's shoulder. "I bet breaking a magic mirror's worth about seventy years of bad luck."
"I'll take my chances."
But he didn't move to get up from the table. He draped an arm around Silas' skinny shoulders, and smoked his cigarette, and Silas closed his eyes and didn't seem to be in any hurry to move.
He never did break the mirror.
"Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" the king asked as he walked into his queen's room. He rested his hands against her waist and tugged her back so he could kiss her cheek, and the queen permitted it. She had arranged for a table to be brought into her room, although a table that fit comfortably into an octagonal room was hard to find. It was a marvellous place to work, however, especially when she wanted to check on the look of her potions and such without moving.
"Oh, I should think that would be obvious, sire," the queen said, smiling down at her work. "After all, no one would think to accuse you of being fair."
The king laughed and kissed her again. "So cruel, my lady! Always so cold to your poor, defenceless husband."
"Oh, naturally. Didn't you say you were going hunting today?"
The king nodded, looking at their reflection in the mirror. The queen had finally stopped wearing mourning black; lately she had taken to dressing in gold, and he had to admit the change pleased him. Almost as much as the low neckline of her dress pleased him, in fact. "We'll be in the west woods all day. If you wish to come with us, milady...?"
"I thank you, but no. Hunting isn't my idea of fun. Too much energy wasted when I could wait for the prey to come to me." Her reflection smiled at him, looking at him from under its eyelashes. "I'll arrange a meal for you to take with you. You'll need to keep your strength up."
The king expressed his gratitude by marking her throat, and the queen reached for the bowl of red liquid she had been soaking the apples in.