On March 10, 2021, P.T. Wyant posted at ptwyant.com a Wednesday Words prompt involving a black feather, a magic mirror, and a beggar.
This freebie story for Fairest and Of Cuckoo Clocks and Crystal Coffins was the result…
After kneeling on the floor, gathering grim and dust to her skirts, it took Oriana a moment to see the black feather clinging to them.
A black feather for discontent. This was the sort of nonsense her stepmother didn’t want her talking about, along with treasures at the end of rainbows, or the perfect snow white skin of the king’s daughter.
“Your mother fancied herself a magic user, powerful enough to master the energies of a storm.” The lady had scowled, armed crossed. “Nearly broke your father’s heart. You wouldn’t be thinking of trying to break mine, would you?” She glowered in an almost threatening way at the girl. “It was his dying wish I’d look after you.”
Looking after Oriana involved severe discipline and an attempt to curb any whimsy on her part. Her stepmother needn’t have worried. Oriana had no intention of breaking anyone’s heart. Her own was fixed upon an object of devotion she could never possess.
She reminded the moment she’d been ensnared. Back when her father had been alive, she’d visited the royal palace. Few people got to see the Princess Blanche. Ever since her mother died, she’d been a recluse, hiding away in her tower.
Oriana had snuck into the royal garden, curious about the blood roses the dead queen had grown. It was said she’d pricked her finger while holding the infant princess, staining her lips with blood. The little maid’s mouth has been crimson ever since.
How perfectly monstrous. Oriana was secretly delighted by the legend, secretly delighted by this reclusive royal whom refused to meet with the court, remaining a mystery.
She’d looked up at the tower, only to see a girl her own age. The maiden hadn’t been looking at her. Long, ebon tresses tied with purple ribbons fell over her shoulders, framing a face as pale and perfect as a statue’s. She gazed at the distant sun with a melancholy yearning which struck Oriana in the breast with a pain she’d never felt before.
This had to be the Princess Blanche. Yes, she was indeed a monster. The beauty of her face, the graceful hands touching the window sill, the parted red lips shouldn’t belong to any human girl. It belonged only to statues and paintings, things that could never be touched. Things ordinary human girls like Oriana was unworthy of.
She ran away, returning to her parents, never telling anyone about that moment. She refused to let herself dwell upon this fear, this feeling of unworthiness, yet she could help thinking what would it be like, to kiss those red lips? To touch that pale cheek, run one’s fingers along it? Would the princess’s flesh be as hard as the marble it resembled? Or would it be soft?
She tried to distract herself from her fixation by being playful, laughing as often as possible. Her father thought her a coquette, too flighty for deep thought. As did her stepmother even now. Losing her father left Oriana at her mercy of a surrogate mother with a low opinion of her, determined to put the girl in her charge to some practical use. Perhaps forcing Oriana to do the work of a servant was an attempt to cure her of her flightiness. The Lady Malina was no stranger to housework herself, having come from a merchant family whom married their way into impoverished nobility, something she tried to keep quiet. Appearances were after all everything.
Which was why Oriana was content to keep up the appearance of being flighty. People tended to underestimate the flighty.
Keeping her expression schooled, she plucked the raven from her threadbare gown, carrying to the threshold of her father’s door, stopping in her tracks at the sight of the ragged little man sitting there.
He appeared to be a beggar, wearing a muddy green waistcoat, a tattered coat, and slippers that were worn through. Once his attire had been festive, but the colors were faded, matching the weary wrinkles upon his brow.
“Sweet maiden, can you spare a crust for a poor beggar?” There was a hard glint in the little man’s eyes, a suggestion that if Oriana gave him anything, he’d be back for more.
Her first inclination was to shut the door in his face. Her stepmother had warned Oriana against allowing tramps into her father’s castle. As far as the Lady Malina was concerned, such vagabonds were nothing but trouble. Just as she was convinced nothing good would come of her stepdaughter’s daliance with the Princess Blanche. It wasn’t as if Oriana could marry the girl, bettering Malina’s position at court. Since Oriana’s father passed away, her stepmother had her eye on the widowed king himself. It would hardly do if her stepdaughter was caught with the princess. Again.
Why should I govern my life to please her? Oriana thought with some anger. Blanche and I only attract attention because we’re a striking pair, as fine as any man and woman together. Why should we be regarded with such distaste because we’re both girls. Too much was distasteful to the Lady Malina. It made Oriana question her judgment on all things including vagabonds.
She decided to open the door a little wider, laying a finger upon her lips while meeting the beggar’s bright eye.
“Come around the backway where the ivy gathers,” she whispered. “It’s the entrance to the kitchen. I’ll make you some porridge.”
She shut the door quickly and hurried away.
The beggar appeared at the kitchen door, carrying a large square package flat enough to be a painting.
“Many thanks, sweet maiden, many thanks.” He collapsed onto the kitchen stool near the hearth, stretching out his spindly legs. Faded yellow stockings clung to them. “I’m trying to find a home for the vain bauble I’m lugging around, but it’s fastidious about the company it keeps, yes, it is.”
“A vain bauble that’s fastidious about its home?” Oriana was intrigued, but kept her tone playful, scooping a generous portion of porridge from the cauldron. “It sounds almost like something enchanted.”
“Oh ho, you’re a crafty one, you are!” He sat up abruptly and reached out to grab the bowl. “What I carry is indeed enchanted, a magic mirror, no less.” He drank down the contents in his dish with a noisy slurp. “It has exacting tastes, desiring a maiden of surpassing magical potential whom could be the fairest of them all.”
“The fairest of them all?” An image of Princesss Blanche’s snow-white skin, sapphire blue eyes framed by lashes as ebon as her hair came to mind. “Isn’t that a matter of taste in itself?”
“Oh, indeed, my crafty maid, quite!” He chortled into his empty bowl, setting it upon the table. “Ah, but this mirror can transform whomever looks within into the ideal she wishes to see. It will make its owner the fairest of them all, fair enough to stand tall among even those she feels unworthy of. You might say it gives confidence to its chosen, yes, it does.”
“Confidence to its chosen.” Oriana was unaware she’d repeated the words. She imagined gathering all the light of the sun into her body, making herself luminous, worthy of her name. Making the lovely princess turn to look at her, enslaved by her beauty as Oriana had been enslaved by Blanche’s at a glance.
“I can see such confidence appeals to you, my crafty one.” The little man leaped down from her seat, eyeing her from head to toe. “I might be willing to give you this mirror, my dear. See if it takes to you, for a price.”
“And what price would this be?” Oriana arched her brow. This might well be a trick about to be played upon her by a vagabond. If so, he’d chosen the wrong girl. Whatever wealth Oriana might have possessed belonged to her stepmother. Her father had left everything to her. Perhaps he expected her to steal one of the Lady Malina’s jewels and give it to him. She couldn’t help smirking a little at the very thought.
“Oh, how you smile, my dear! Do you think I mean to rob you?” The little man spun around in a circle. For a moment he seemed less dusty, less threadbare. Golden sparkles clung to his clothing, his toes. “No, all I ask is that you give me a cottage which lies in the Forest of Tears once you become queen.”
This made Oriana throw back her head and laugh out loud. “Is that all? Now you claim this mirror has the power to make me queen?”
“Oh, aye, it can give you beauty so spellbinding the king won’t be able look away!” The little man nodded with vigorous energy. “He’ll have to have you and no one else. Just as you have to have the Princess Blanche and no one else.”
The laughter died on her lips. Oriana stared at this impertient stranger who’d uttered the secret she’d never dared, a secret which could ruin her. “You presume a great deal, little man.”
“Oh, how fierce you get! Quite a queen you’d make, yes, you would!” The little man tapped his long nose. “An impoverished noblewoman can’t marry a princess, but a queen can do what she like, eh? A queen would be in a position to get very close to the princess and no one could say anything about it, could they?”
“By marrying her father?” The notion was twisted, but many considered a maiden desiring another maiden to be twisted. Perhaps it was time to embrace the twisted. “I have no wish to wed the king.”
“Ah, well, perhaps the mirror can give you beauty enough to catch the eye of the princess you desire.” The little man winked again. “Hang it in your bedchamber. Keep it safe and hidden, sneaking glances when you get the chance. Just see what happens. See what you change into.”
See what change into. The words sent a thrill of excitement through Oriana.
“All right.” She gazed at the flat package. “I accept this mirror. If I do become queen, I’ll do as you ask. I’m not promising, however, that I will become queen. Is this acceptable?”
“O ho, quite acceptable, more than acceptable, it’s quite amusing!” The little man chuckled again and picked up the package, thrusting it at her. “Just wait and see, my dear. Gaze in that mirror and you’ll see the very beauty of the dawn you’re named for. Your princess will see the same.”
Oriana chuckled, not believing a word of this. Refusing to let herself believe a word of it, or to let herself feel her heart starting to beat a little faster.
As if this mirror could give her beauty equal to Princess Blanche’s. Beauty powerful enough to ensnare her.
Like the little man said, the thought was amusing in its seductiveness. She would laugh her out of it if she let herself take it too seriously.
She wasn’t going to change that much.