They laughed at her. In her own castle, even when she wore the crown that gave her power, they laughed. Courtiers wondered how she appeared so vain yet had no mirrors lining the halls. They jeered and crowed at the queen who portrayed herself so boldly yet didn’t have the confidence to look at that boldness.
Not in paintings.
Not in a mirror.
Except for one. It was hidden behind a sheer veil so she never saw her reflection with clarity, and it told her the truth. For so long, Adelaide had felt ugly, inadequate, and not even a crown and throne could change that.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” she murmured in a voice that sounded weak. What more was she, really? Not out there, in her throne room, dining hall or on balconies when addressing a crowd, but in here, alone, where there was nothing but her thoughts to echo back. “Who is the fairest of them all?”
She watched the mirror’s surface as it swirled and smoke poured out of it’s great expanse. Etchings of shards lined the frame in silver, a contrast to the band of gold atop her dark curls. It wasn’t enchanted to flatter her. Long ago, Adelaide had sobbed into her mother’s shoulder and asked why she was so ugly when her sister was an angel in mortal form.
It was on her eighteenth birthday when her mother had returned from a trip and presented her with this mirror.
“It will only ever tell you the truth about yourself, my love,” she murmured, stroking her black hair. That night, Adelaide had asked it who the most beautiful girl in the castle was. The mirror had told her it was a servant girl who worked in the kitchens, who wore rags. Over her fine dresses and status, a servant had been fairer.
Adelaide had broken down and smashed the gift. But it refused to be broken. The mirror knitted back together and spoke once more. “The truth will continue to be told and you will hurt because it is the most honest thing you can rely on.”
Now that smoke poured and tumbled into the stone chamber, surrounding her. Her eyes fluttered closed as the heady scent of the enchantment rose. “You, Queen Adelaide,” the mirror told her. “It is you.”
Adelaide did not believe it.
“Liar,” she hissed but still stared at her hazy reflection. Her hands itched to tear away the veil, to face her appearance without fear. But years of feeling ugly in her own skin had honed that terror into something that wouldn’t be shifted.
“Would you wish me to tell you how it is the stable-girl, her face streaked with dirt and jacket stained with filth?” The mirror taunted and Adelaide screamed. The smoke retreated as if heeding her wrath that built.
No matter what the mirror told her, she hated the answers, but she was addicted to returning and asking.
Her appearance had become an obsession.
Her mother used to tell her she was beautiful.
Her sister used to point out what Adelaide lacked in comparison to her.
Her father used to tell her to be silent like the paintings in the Great Hall. Each time she’d taken a bite of a meal, he’d laughed. “A minute on the lips, Adelaide,” he’d joked, “A lifetime looking like Cook in the kitchens.”
Oh, how she’d despised that cruel old man for his words, for silencing a brilliant personality that had wanted to burst through and shine like her sister did.
Adelaide grasped the clasp of her robe and undid it. She let the material slip over her skin, down past her hips, to pool at her ankles before she stepped out of it.
“Mirror, mirror,” she said again, as she always did. “Who is the fairest of them all?”
“You are, my queen.”
Whatever voice was enchanted to spin these sweet lies laughed darkly. Adelaide did not shy away at the thought of something seeing her, somehow. She held her head high as her mother had taught her and stepped closer. If she reached out, she’d brush the veil. She’d see every single imperfection; she’d see the evidence of her latest meal filling out her waist more than it did last week.
A queen was supposed to be beautiful but there was nothing beautiful about her.
Her sister made sure she didn’t forget that, even now. She was the queen of a land a week’s journey away and yet her taunts haunted Adelaide. Every season she sent a gift: a painting, of herself and her prince, decorated in appropriate colours for what the season held. Recently, it had been a beautiful, snowy painting, her sister a blonde-haired beauty in furs around her neck and wrists. Blue had shimmered over her body, covered up. But Adelaide knew best of all that the body beneath it was just as flawless as her face.
“Mirror, mirror,” she said slowly, just as an idea began forming in her head. “How can I become the most beautiful of them all?”
“You already are, my queen.”
“Beyond this castle,” she snapped. The cold air bit at her exposed skin but she did not reach for her robes. “How can I triumph in my looks?”
“There is more to a beautiful queen than just what meets the eye,” the mirror answered but the smoke lifted and fell for a moment, as though it sighed. “You must journey beyond this land, to be the fairest in the world. Seek the apple that hangs on the blood-red tree on an island outside your border. It’s nectar will grant you one wish.”
One wish—to wish that she were the most beautiful. To wish her face to be exactly as she wanted it.
“Something festers in you, Queen Adelaide, and it is not pretty.”
But those words only sparked that anger more. She snatched up her garment and clothed herself again.
Once, her mother had told her that a mirror was nothing but tiny pieces of dust and glass, and that she was beauty and stardust and everything pure in the world—that something so small couldn’t hold such power over her. Her mother had told her not to let any mirror destroy what she thought herself worth.
Perhaps that was what festered: that unworthiness. That constant feeling of not being good enough purely because she’d been the youngest and had no right to any sort of glorious future. Adelaide had made her own future. Her appearance was not powerful or anything to behold, so she’d made her name be the only thing that would command. She had married an heir, ascended to the throne, and once he’d died, she had become the queen.
Now her name was a powerful thing.
She spun on her heel and stalked from the room, her mind already mapping out the blood-red tree she’d already heard much of. It grew in her old lands, her sister’s lands. She’d always been so close to it yet never knew.
Now the power was hers, and she would make herself a worthy queen.
A huntsman stopped Adelaide on her urgent journey to the nearest boat. He grinned at her, glancing over her unadorned head and plain robes, and didn’t know she was the queen.
“I have hunted lands further than you can ever know,” he said, “Let me escort you.”
His eyes held a look Adelaide had never seen before. Even without her golden-trim robes that she wore to greet guests and courtiers, he gazed at her like she was worth looking at. Still, she dismissed it.
“The blood-red tree,” she told him, “Do you know where it is?”
The huntsman’s grin grew wider. “I’ve eaten fruits from it many times.”
She gave him a careful look. “And what happened?”
“I wished to be in the land of the most beautiful queen. When I returned to shore after eating an apple from that tree, a boat was sailing to this land.” He shrugged, shifting the bow that was slung around his shoulders. “Another time I wished to have hair that matched the bark of trees to make it easier to hunt in the forest, and I woke with just that.”
Adelaide lifted her chin as if she was disinterested or sceptical. “I want an apple as a gift for my sister. Help me and I’ll convince the queen to make you the leader of her seasonal hunts.”
He smirked, his brown eyes alight with the challenge. “And you’re that close to Her Majesty?”
Boldly, Adelaide stepped forward and let her lips hover close to his ear. “Closer than you think.”
The huntsman laughed deeply and shook his head, stepping away. He held out a hand to her. Gingerly, she let her fingers be dwarfed by his strong, capable hand. “My name is Garrett,” he told her. “It’ll be my pleasure to help you.”
At night-time, it got worse. Even after Garrett had mapped out her body with his touches, Adelaide lay awake, desperate to cover herself. She felt disgusted for seeking his affection so soon. She’d been drawn to his easy smile and conversation all day on the boat, and when he’d offered her wine, her attraction had been heightened.
Earlier, he’d gazed at her like she was the only thing he could see. With no barriers between their skin, he’d looked at her like she was the only thing that burned the world alight. It had been such a powerful gaze and in those moments, Adelaide hadn’t been drunk on only the wine. Garrett’s eyes spoke better than the mirror did. Enchanted or not, she didn’t believe mirrors—but she believed his gaze because she couldn’t see herself in it. She could only see how she looked to him.
Now she laid shuddering, tears salty on her lips. Her head ached with the lack of food she’d endured ever since she’d rid herself of her robe in the mirror room. She’d been offered bread and more but had politely refused, claiming sailing made her nauseous.
She shifted and looked at Garrett’s outline in the dark. She wondered what he’d say if he knew who she was, and how that impacted what they’d done together. She’d heard of the famous huntsman that roved her land and slayed beasts, or put food on the tables of families who couldn’t afford luxury. He was goodness and she believed everything he murmured to her.
‘I wished to be in the land of the most beautiful queen…’
Adelaide wanted to believe in the apple’s nectar. Her thoughts burned with the need to have the fruit cupped in her palms, to get that wish of orchestrating her own beauty. It couldn’t be a simple ask to be the most beautiful because she knew enough that beauty was subjective. But it couldn’t be so complex that it would exceed only one wish.
As the boat rocked and sailed for the tree that bore the apple that would unlock the happiness in her, Adelaide drifted off to sleep. In her dreams, she had her sister’s face, and nobody laughed at her anymore.
The apple ought to have felt heavier in her hands. Her palms bunched around the small shape, skin everything but elegant. They weren’t queen’s hands because she was never meant to be a queen. Perhaps whatever gods existed above laughed at her for her ugliness and constant imperfections—why should she be special-looking when she was born to be nothing? Was that why her sister had the face of an angel, because she was the eldest, and destined for the crown she wore?
Adelaide bit her lip furiously. She would not make her wish here. Not with Garrett to witness her insecurities if she spoke them aloud. Instead, she pocketed the apple in the folds of her robe and mustered a smile at her huntsman.
“I hope that I can still know you when we return to the queen’s land,” he said softly. That gaze was back and Adelaide recoiled from it now. She wasn’t beautiful just because his eyes said so, just because people used to tell her she was. She didn’t rely on that look as she had the first night. Now, there were only her thoughts to go by because she knew herself best.
Nobody knew her like she knew herself, and Adelaide knew her lack of worth.
Garrett didn’t even know she was the queen.
She gave him a small smile. “Stop looking at me like that.”
“Like I’m some goddess come down to bless you.”
Then his arms were around her waist, his mouth at her ear. “You are.”
He kept murmuring things as such on their journey home but all she saw was her skin, too much of it, too heavy, her robe perhaps feeling tighter? All she saw in her dreams was how people bowed deeper, laughed less, when she wore the face of her sister and Adelaide hungered for it. No more would she feel insignificant and weak. She would feel beautiful and loved.
The darkness crowed in, smothering the voice whispering to her that Garrett looked at her like she already was.
The mirror laughed at her.
“So you have returned with your prize,” the voice said. The veil was drawn back this time and Adelaide forced herself to look at all of her ugly being. Her hips, too wide; her thighs, lacking a slender, beautiful shape; her jawline, non-existent. Everything could be pointed at and hated.
And hate she did.
The glass in her hands was heavy, filled with the apple’s golden nectar, and she smiled truly for the first time in a years. Once, there had been a king and he hadn’t loved her. He hadn’t shown her affection. He’d fallen to her blackmail and trickery to become his queen, and her deceit had withered him to death. He hadn’t been a handsome man; she hadn’t even been worth his glances.
But her sister… Oh, her prince was radiant. What a stunning, powerful couple they made.
Adelaide had not yet sent her letter to Garrett, appointing him Head of the Hunt. But she would. Once she could face him with her new, beautiful face, and have him know she was queen, she’d deliver the letter personally.
She lifted the glass to her lips.
“I wish to eternally bear the appearance of my sister,” Adelaide announced, and drank deeply. As soon as she swallowed the last drop, her body jerked. The glass fell from her hands and smashed, glass scattering over her bare feet. Adelaide gasped and reached out for the mirror’s frame, grounding herself as her wish came true, as her body changed.
But her body never. It never slimmed out as she wished, never grew that inch taller that Adelaide was sure existed. She frowned at her reflection—but then it began.
Her unbound hair began to lift and change. At her roots, black was drowned by a honey-blonde, spreading with such rapid speed that the two colours blurred in her vision. Her hair grew thicker, more luscious, with curls bouncier than her own. She watched her hateful brown eyes turn the bluest of the skies, watched her cheeks flush with a pretty pink. Her lips filled out, losing that natural redness she’d always had. They were pale and subtle yet beautiful.
And when her body gave in from whatever power had worked it’s magic for her, Adelaide collapsed to the floor, laughing to herself. But her body… She was bigger than her sister, she was certain. Perhaps her wish only extended to one part of her.
The stone floor was cool and grounding beneath her bare back. Would her own land love her now? But then fear gripped her suddenly. How could she explain the change? How could she explain how she looked exactly like her sister now?
Adelaide found that the longer she thought on it, the less she cared. Eventually, she stood once more.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” she murmured, “Who is the fairest woman in the world?”
The smoke poured, thicker and thicker, building in the small, circular chamber locked away floors’ beneath courtiers and her throne room. It whispered incoherent things, searching for the fairest, winding around her skin, brushing against her hips and torso as it swirled.
But the image the mirror produced was not her. It wasn’t even her sister’s face.
“There is a girl who has come of age in court,” the mirror told her. “And she prevails in her beauty.”
Deep in her chest, Adelaide’s heart broke. Her own court. Who was she? She took in the dark, thick waves, the bright-red lips, and for a moment Adelaide couldn’t be sure that this wasn’t a trick. The girl looked exactly as she had on her eighteenth birthday. But no, her frame was too slight, too small, to be her.
It wasn’t just the face of the girl who prevailed, but the arms she stood in. Garrett held her, looking down at her as he had with Adelaide on the boat.
“Mirror, mirror,” she snarled, “Who is the second fairest in the world?”
Finally, the mirror showed her. Her sister’s face in this cold, stone room where her hatred and anger built. She’d worked for this. She’d endured years of her own hate and fallen under the power of mirrors. And now…
Now this new girl thought she could sweep in and take that all from her.
She clothed herself and stormed from her room, ignoring the dark laugh of her truth-telling mirror.
She played along for a long time. Garrett accepted her offer of becoming Head of the Hunt, and she used that. She watched him for two seasons both in person and through her mirror. She watched as he missed the girl he’d sailed with and so found comfort in someone who resembled her.
Nobody picked up on the queen’s change of face. They laughed less; they included her in things and respected her a lot more, but never asked what had happened. Perhaps with the wish came a lack of questions as to why it had been granted.
It was only when that raven-haired girl came to Queen Adelaide, curtsied deeply, and asked to be wed to the huntsman, that everything changed. Adelaide’s fingers tightened on her throne. They wanted to marry each other?
A plan pieced together in her mind, forged by hate and wanting to be the best after never feeling good enough. Adelaide drew a nail down her own cheek in thought, smiling widely at her.
“You have my blessing,” she said.
For the beginning of autumn was tomorrow, and so Garrett was preparing to hunt. Perhaps this time they wouldn’t hunt food or beasts.
“Your Majesty, she is—”
“Your new hunt,” Adelaide cut him off. “And you shall be replaced if you do not accept this. Do you really want to lose this title, be shamed from my court, and forced to find another place to live?”
Why didn’t he know it was her? How could he not hear her voice and understand? Did he not look into her eyes and know they’d shared touches and glances that had been an anchor to Adelaide?
Of course not. She had changed everything about herself for beauty. And now she was unrecognisable to the only one who had ever told her the truth. But she didn’t want to be beautiful to one man. She wanted to be beautiful to herself.
And she was.
With each painting that came from her sister’s lands, Adelaide admired the face she now wore too. Suitors had come to ask for courtship and she’d declined. She didn’t want anyone at her side; she wanted power alone because she’d fought for it. All she wanted was the knowledge that people wanted her.
When Garrett said nothing, Adelaide lifted a hand to press against his cheek. Could he not feel the same touch of the same hands? If he held her close, would he know the unchanged shape of her body?
“You wanted to live in the land of the most beautiful queen,” she whispered. “You would really lose that over one girl when the other is waiting for you?”
Garrett jerked back, frowning. “I have only ever revealed that piece of information to—” Then he began searching her face. But Adelaide had already turned, was already walking away.
“You will hunt her and bring me her heart,” Adelaide ordered, her voice cold and unforgiving. “And then we shall see what you think you know about me.”
That night, Adelaide cried for the first time in almost a year. She pressed her face into her pillow and cried like she used to into her mother’s shoulder. Garrett had grown to feel for her on their journey and she’d changed herself. But it was worth it; it had to be.
Adelaide had consumed the girl’s heart herself that evening, twistedly hoping that it would give back that affection she’d stolen from her huntsman. When she’d asked her mirror who the fairest woman in the world was, it showed Adelaide herself.
And for the first time in many, many years, she believed it.