Yet another chapter. This one's a little longer than before ... woot! Remember, review, my lovelies! Review!
Aerinha: The twist is coming ...Gwa ha ha! AndI'm glad I almost made you cry. That's my goal. Tears are good. Unless, of course, it's supposed to be funny. And yes, you will learn more about the Duchess of 's more than what she seems ...
Fiyero: Um ... I haven't really thought about how Henrich becomes king. I guess he just got a kingdom and then people moved in? Any ideas? I didn't really think about I think if I made thewitchhave some sort of dark past it would make the story way too confusing. Soevil, plain and simple, it is. Glad you approved.;-)
Anyway, read on, my pretties! (And review!)
The sun rose, a slash of pale morning dawn against the darkness of the forest. Slowly, the slash widened until the sun's head was seen peeking over the horizon, morning spreading her rosy fingers across the castle's impenetrable stone.
Inside, life was just beginning to stir. In the kitchens, numerous servants and cooks sleepily prepared the breakfast feast. A suckling pig turned on a spit—tonight's dinner—and fruit lay in huge baskets all across the long wooden tables. The head chef shouted orders to a half-awake serving boy who promptly received a blow across the ear when he didn't move fast enough.
A woman, greying hair pulled into a tight bun, watched the scene with the air of one who had seen it many times before. She neatly sidestepped a young man carrying a teetering tray of rolls and walked over to where the head chef stood, rubbing his temples and murmuring curses in his native language.
"Good morning, Feran," she said. He looked up.
"Ah, Elissa!" he cried, taking her hand. "The queen asks of me an impossible task: to prepare her usual breakfast feast and a massive supper for some prince who is visiting." He spread his hands, the wide sweep of his arms taking in the chaotic scene. "I have not enough workers and not enough time. I need a miracle."
A dark look crossed the maid's face at the mention of the queen.
"The queen does demand many a hard task," Elissa said, "but I'm sure you will do beautifully. Now, I need some food: the queen has sentenced Gwyn to a week of only a slice of bread and water per day."
Feran groaned. "What did Gwyn do this time?"
"Her skirts were wrinkled at last night's party," Elissa replied, her mouth tightening to show her distaste of such a reason for punishment. "Queen Therese was appalled."
Queen Therese had been more than appalled, Elissa thought, remembering the night before. The queen had glided over to where Gwyn sat alone in the corner, watching the whirling couples with sadness on her face. Then she had seen her stepmother, and the sadness was replaced by muted fear.
Elissa had not heard the words exchanged, but she had seen Gwyn protesting, trying to smooth out her skirts, her hands trembling, and she had seen the venom on the queen's face as she found yet another supposed fault of Gwyn's.
But the venom had melted away as a young man stepped forward to claim the queen's hand for the next dance, his eyes speaking of the infatuation all men had for the beautiful queen. The king did not notice it, Elissa thought bitterly. Still, the king did not notice anything anymore. The last ten years had turned him into a shell of a man, whose only thoughts were of state business and his wife.
There was no room in his cold heart for a daughter.
After Feran had sufficiently loaded Elissa with various fruits, meats, and rolls, she carefully hid them under her skirts and left the kitchens. Outside, servants were running about with instructions, looking distressed even though it was only morning. Elissa sighed. Queen Therese had made the last ten years impossible for everyone.
Elissa walked down a long hall lined with various paintings and scenes of the king's numerous hunting parties, as well as many portraits of Her Royal Highness, Queen Therese. Elissa shuddered. She still didn't trust or like the queen, but the necessity of keeping her position at the castle kept her silent against the queen's abuses.
Not a single portrait of the princess could be seen down the long hall—an observation that was common throughout the entire castle.
The maid stopped at a large wooden door and knocked three times.
Elissa pushed open the door and was almost blinded by the sunshine pouring in from the open window, a sharp contrast to the gloomy hall she had just exited. The queen did not like the light, and so every room in the castle (except for the princess's chambers) was dark, the shades drawn.
When Elissa's eyes had sufficiently adjusted to the brightness, she noticed a figure standing on the balcony, clad in a plain blue nightgown.
"Gwyneira!" she gasped. "You come back from the balcony this minute and clothe yourself! 'Tis hardly decent to be seen in only a nightgown."
Gwyn laughed, but obeyed, leaving the French doors open behind her to let in the cool early morning breeze.
"'Tis too early," she said, disappearing behind the changing curtains. "There is no one out to see me."
Elissa drew the food out from her skirts and began setting it neatly on the side table. "Prince Ignatius arrived this morning, Gwyn. He might have seen you."
"Prince Ignatius is a pompous pig."
A pompous pig whose eyes—and hands—wandered too much,Elissa thought. She disliked him almost as much as she disliked the queen.
The maid straightened and wiped her hands on her apron, gazing out at the forest that stood hardly one hundred yards from the princess's balcony. As she watched, she saw something move through the trees on the edge of the forest. The darkness hid its identity, but Elissa had the uncomfortable feeling that it was watching the balcony ... the balcony where the princess had been standing just moments before. A strange shiver crept down her spine, and she stood to close the doors.
"I brought you some food, Gwyn," Elissa said as she latched the French doors. The darkness had ceased to move, but she had a nagging feeling that it was still watching the closed doors.
"Oh, thank you, Elissa!"
Gwyn emerged wearing a simple jade gown that had none of the frills and accessories her stepmother insisted on wearing. It was a sensible dress that perfectly matched Gwyn's emerald eyes. As Elissa watched the princess eating, she realized just how lovely Gwyn had become. Perhaps that was why the queen hated the princess so much, Elissa thought.
"Please tell Feran it was delicious," Gwyn said. "And thank you, Elissa."
"Well, I won't have you starving to death on my watch," the maid said, helping Gwyn tidy up the room so as not to leave any trace of food in case the queen decided to pay a visit. She had been known to do that.
Elissa began brushing the princess's dark brown hair, pulling it back into a soft braid. As she braided, she saw the princess's eyes lift to the French doors and watched Gwyn's reflection frown.
"Is something the matter, Gwyn?" Elissa asked. The princess shook her head, almost as if to clear her mind.
"No, I just thought I saw something move by the window," she said, then smiled. "Ridiculous, isn't it? I suppose the queen has made me jumpy ..."
But Elissa saw the unease in Gwyn's eyes and knew that Gwyn had indeed seen something.
Outside, a small hand mirror hovered in midair a moment longer before slipping away to an open window high above the princess's.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?
Therese sat before a full-length mirror, brushing her long blonde hair the usual one hundred strokes and humming quietly to herself. To anyone who entered her chamber, it would have looked as if she were merely preening herself and murmuring vain, empty questions to her reflection.
But had they looked closer, they would have seen the lovely reflection fade away and the glass become gradually more opaque until it was as dark as the forest outside Therese's window.
And then, from the depths of the mirror, came a voice older than the winds:
"Thou, O Queen, art the fairest in the land."
Therese smiled into the mirror that was no longer a mirror. She began to braid her hair, satisfied with the mirror's answer.
But the mirror wasn't done yet. The queen had scarcely started braiding her hair when it spoke again.
"Thy beauty, O Queen, may be praised. But there is one whose beauty may yet rival thine."
The smirk slipped quickly from the queen's face, and she leapt to her feet, throwing down the brush with such force that it broke neatly in two and lay forgotten on the floor.
"How can that be?" she demanded of the mirror. "Who is this supposed beauty?" She lifted a hand mirror and gazed into her reflection. "Find the girl," she ordered. The mirror trembled and then darted out the queen's one open window.
Therese waited a moment longer and then the full length mirror began shimmering and shifting, and suddenly an image appeared in the dark glass: a girl sitting on a wooden chair, an older woman with greying hair braiding the girl's hair. Therese leaned in toward the mirror, her blue eyes dark with hatred, as she waited to see who this girl was.
The image focused. Therese let out a soft cry and fell into her chair, trembling with loathing that shook her entire body. The girl's image vanished, and the mirror once again became a mirror, reflecting the queen's eyes—eyes that held the perfect malice that only manifests itself in those that are truly evil.
"Gwyn," she murmured.