by Merry Butterfly

Once upon a time, there was a young prince. The prince loved faerie stories- he begged his nursemaid to read to him every night, and as he got older, to teach him how to read. He would spend hours on end in his family's library, tucked away in a corner with ballads, poetry, and whimsical tales. And although he was permitted to read any book that caught his fancy, there was one exception.

There was a book- its leather cover faded, the gold leaf around its edges peeling off in unsightly ways. The book rested on a high shelf, much higher than the little prince could reach, in a wooden box. He had seen it only once before- it had been lying on his father's desk, and was whisked away when the king realized that his young son was watching. He had immediately shoved the tarnished manuscript into a box, taken the box and hidden it away near the very ceiling as if it were something precious, unattainable. And there it stayed. But every so often, the little prince felt his eye drawn to it whenever he was in the library alone. Sometimes the wanting was forgotten when he turned away, and sometimes it lingered, like a hunger, until finally, one day after his ninth birthday, the little prince decided that he was going to have a look, whatever the consequence.

"I am nine years old now." he announced to himself with childish resolve. "Nine years is plenty old enough to see that book." He continued this thought as he piled thick, heavy tomes of law upon one another to form a sort of makeshift staircase. "I will read the book, and then I will tell my father. And then he will see that there was no reason for him to hide it from me!" By now, the staircase was higher than he, and still the little prince built, and then he began to climb, giggling softly to himself with every wary step he took.

As he got higher and higher, the amount of books and maps and various knickknacks began to dwindle like vegetation along a mountain slope.

And the instant he reached the top, he realized his error- the books beneath his feet were too few to bring him to the level of his prize, and there were none within reach for him to add.

Instead, he strained for it with all his might. He brushed it, the cold, dark, hard wood, but he could not quite grasp it… He thrust caution to the wind; raising himself up, up up! on the tips of his toes, his back straight as an arrow, his arms screaming in pain but his will of iron. One little finger curled around the brass handle of the box, and then it was his.

Victorious, the little prince clutched the box to his chest. It was much heavier than he had anticipated, and holding it as closely as he did, he could hear the echo of his own heart beating in that hollow wooden cavern… The descent did not take any thought on his part- all the little prince could think about was the book, this great big secret that he was finally going to find out.

He fiddled with the latch on the box- it wasn't even locked! It yielded so easily, so soundlessly to his curiosity. And there it was- the tarnished leather and gold leaf cover. He opened it and began to read:

By thee most anciente laws set forth in thise kingsdomain by His Highness Verulien II in the twelfth age of the empire's existence, we will abide. In all manners regarding the birthe and inheritance of the king's own we shall say this of, the first-born son of the king shalth be heir to the throne lest…

The little prince frowned. This was the greatest disappointment he had known in his nine years of life: the knowledge that had so long eluded him, this forbidden object that had been the centerpiece of his fancy… was just an ugly, boring old book of law?

He sighed with resignation, and was about to put the book back in the box when a word caught his eye: twin.

lest in the incident of birth there should be a twin of the firstborn.

Twin… He rolled the unfamiliar word over his tongue, relishing the strangeness of it all. Twin. What was a twin? He read further:

Sex is the matter of here. In commoner practice, both children are kept, but according to the laws that His Highness put down in the ninth harvest of the twelfth age, these are the proceedings: should two children be born, one male and one female in one birth, or one female and one female, or one male and one male, this is considered the most hideous of all omens, and in such cases if the grace of the household is to be preserved,

then one must die.

The little prince stared, how he stared, trying to make sense of it all. He knew what it was to die- he had seen criminals, taken to the scaffold to hang, and treacherous nobles, who were at least given the dignity of a swordsman's skill… He knew what it was to die. But why should a child die? Why should anyone permit a child to die? Especially if they should look alike… Were twins children who looked alike? This made no sense. He had been told that he resembled his father, and that his mother resembled her elder sister… But they didn't look alike, not like a reflection in a pond. Or… a mirror.

There was a mirror before him- a heavy mirror resting silently in one corner of the library, and inside the mirror was an image of a little boy, staring at him with a wide-eyed, disconcerted gaze. He looked just like the little prince, but he was just a reflection, wasn't he?

Then one must die…

The prince shut the book tightly. He knew what it was to die. He laid the book to rest, and replaced the lid on the box and he found himself looking at his book stairwell with a strange dread. He knew that he must return the box. He must replace it, and never, ever say a word of it.

"Perhaps…" his thoughts dwindled as he ascended the stairs once more. "Perhaps father was right. Mayhaps nine years old is not enough to read some books. I should wait." He paused, staring up at the empty space which his rejected offering must fill, a space just out of his reach. "Yes," he thought. "I should probably wait."

Should two children be born…

He strained up on his toes, he straightened his back, and he thrust out the box, beckoning the shelf to take it back. Yet he found that he could not reach.

this is considered to be the most hideous of all omens…

He placed the book on a shelf at eye level with him, his muscles suddenly weak, his stomach uneasy. He cursed himself for not bringing another book the second time- he had been so preoccupied with the box… And he did not want to go back such a long way down for another.

The prince decided to try his luck one final time, but as he turned, he caught a glimpse of something, of a movement, of a shadow that slipped away as quickly as it had come. He found his eye drawn to the mirror. The mirror was the same exact mirror it had been not five minutes ago- it still stood in the same corner, tarnished and proud.

But somehow its angle had changed. Just slightly- the little prince knew that it had not been this way before. Now, it did not show the shelves, nor did it show the great window overlooking the plains. Now it showed a white-faced little boy, crouching at the top of a disproportionate mountain of books.

A little boy who looked just like him.

He wanted to know…

He wanted to know…

Had one of him died?

He forced himself to look away from the mirror but the image lingered in his mind. He clasped the box- the horrid box, the unfathomable evil in his hands…

And then he saw a face staring back at him out of the darkness.

The box went flying- it crashed into the floor and broke cleanly into two. The mountain which the young prince had constructed crumbled, but it no longer mattered, because the little body lying beneath the wreckage no longer felt its weight. In one hideous, echoing screech, the little prince was gone from this world. He had realized, for one split second, what it truly was to die.

And there was no one left to tell him of a forgotten queen's standing vanity- of the one dusty little mirror that had peered out at him from the darkness of an otherwise empty shelf.

The End