Court of the Mirror Queen
In the town of Floating on 279 Bell Street a house existed that frightened all those who passed it. It had once been a lovely shade of cream with warm shingles on its roof but had faded to a dull gray. A garden that had encircled it became a beast of its own, growing wildly all around and threatening to engulf it and keeping others out. It was a place long forgotten in isolation. The house waited and slept for the day things would begin to change.
Once upon a time, there lived a family there by the name of Sorrel. Mr. And Mrs. Sorrel and little Jane. They spent their days largely free of troubles—lazy boating trips, picnics by the river, and wonderful guests that Mr. Sorrel had met from all over the world.
That was at least a decade ago. The house now sagged like an old man exhausted from his travels. On rainy days, water leaked through making it necessary that all pots and pans be used to save the floors. The garden, neglected, grew wild and thick; turning brown in the summer and ferocious green in the spring.
It was said that the lady of the house, Mrs. Sorrel, went quite mad. Mr. Sorrel, being unable to handle it, abandoned his family and was never to be heard from again in Floating. Aside from the residents of the house, Mrs. Sorrel and her daughter Jane, nobody entered or left.
And because it would be inane to start a story from this place, let us begin at Jane's seventh birthday party, exactly ten years before.
Before Jane's transformation into the miserable creature she was to become, she was a happy little girl with loving parents and a stable home. On this day, she was wearing a new white dress with a pink sash and quite delighted that her friends would be arriving soon. Upon first meeting, she would not be described as a beautiful child. Though she still had the plumpness of youth, it was quite clear that she was never to develop a pleasing silhouette. Her hair, although thick and bright, had the misfortune of refusing any curl. It was often left wild and unadorned, like a clear pond whose beauty was in its simple state. Lively brown eyes peered out from underneath a heavy black fringe cut bluntly at her brow, the only embellishment she would sit long enough for.
Her mother and father were rather unconcerned with their child's appearance, not for neglect, but for indulgence. They apparently delighted in their nymph child while her governess was endlessly frustrated. Miss Applebaum, or rather 'Apple Bum' as Jane called her, was the only reason why Jane could enter into polite society without being too shocking.
It was on this special day that Jane was being especially naughty and mischievous, eluding her governess by doing her best impression of an overactive puppy.
"Jane!" Miss Applebaum leaped and missed at her, "Jane! Sit still!"
"But why do I have to wear anything at all?" Jane responded, dancing away just out of reach in only her slip. Her tiny fists rested on her hips, looking very much like a toy warrior despite her state of undress. So many clothes to wear, and it would only get worse with age. Although her mother never complained, Jane could only stifle her fear of having to wear so many layers and cages on her body. Every time her mother walked, Jane could hear the fabric rustle against the metal, the corset creaking on every turn.
"Jane!" Miss Applebaum looked positively mortified at the thought, "Ladies should not say such things!"
"Well then perhaps I shall not be a lady." Jane danced, grabbing hold
Miss Applebaum looked smug, "I'm afraid that is not a choice you are given."
Stubbornly setting her jaw, Jane refused to believe this. The momentary pause in her movements allowed for Miss Applebaum to capture her in clear victory, the dress fell over Jane's head like a net.
Jane flounced down the stairs, her white dress and sash flying behind her like fluttery wings. Various curios lined the halls in odd shapes and sizes. Jane paid them no mind as she had seen them all her life. Only when her father acquired something new did she think to look. A sharp turn to the right led to the kitchens which Jane entered as she did everything else in the house—with the childish assurance that she would be wanted there no matter what.
The kitchens were always warm, sometimes this was a pleasant thing and on hot days it was not. Today there was a comfortable sense of activity in the air as the warmth mingled with smells of baking cakes and treats. Jane poked around, trying to see beyond the formidably sized cook until she was ushered away. She was not put out for long as the person she found the person she was looking for. He was one of the children of the servants and her friend William Grace.
William looked petulant as his mother attempted to smooth over his unruly dark hair with a wet comb. She fussed over his appearance for as long as she could, keeping him trapped. Jane was reminded of a mother cat who would groom her kitten despite the poor kitten's protests. Upon seeing Jane, William shot a pleading look that begged to get him out of his mother's grasp.
"Hello Mrs. Grace," Jane said, giving her most charming smile. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw William creep away while his mother was distracted.
"Hello and Happy Birthday, Jane," Mrs. Grace responded, dimpling prettily. She had the same coloring as her son but despite that her eyes sparkled in a way his never could. "William, where are your manners?"
William, according to his mother, had the ability to misplace his manners like any common object. He muttered a sullen, "Happy Birthday," before trying to squirm away. Jane watched in amusement as Mrs. Grace deftly caught his collar and smoothed his hair one last time. He protested loudly but she was so much stronger than he was.
Finally free, the two children raced upstairs. William was not content to stop until he was as far away from his mother as possible. He was dressed in his Sunday best, but already Jane could see that his pristine state would not last. Just outside of the door to the house, William wiped his nose on his sleeve and produced a prettily packaged box his mother had instructed him to give. He looked sheepish and embarrassed at this display of affection, of which he was unused to showing. He held it out to her like it was a weapon. Jane took her time taking it from him, smiling sweetly and unwrapping it with care. Though it was obviously wrapped by his mother, the gift was clearly from the boy. For inside the box, was a watch he had found and repaired.
She had seen him tinker with it before, only he had been so secretive she had no idea what it had been. There was no way that he could buy a proper watch with his pocket money, so he must have gone to the junk shop and bought a broken one instead. It mattered not, for anything that William fixed worked like new. She held it up to the light where the metal glinted in perfection. The steady ticking of the watch told her that its cogs moved in perfect motion.
"Thank you William!" Jane enthused, her cheeks pink with delight.
Young William Grace scuffed an imaginary rock and shrugged in response. He took it from her to show her how to wind it up and care for it, making her promise that she would remember or else the watch would stop. Jane agreed, grinning at his talent with mechanisms. Seemingly satisfied by her answer, he returned it to her. She held it in her hand, the metal warming to her skin and the beat as steady as before. She placed it carefully in the little bag she always carried with her. It was made of dark blue velvet scattered with a pattern of silver stars and it never left her side for it was filled with all her treasures. Adjusting the strap that it hung from across her body Jane patted the lump the watch now formed.
She led William beyond the hedges and out to the garden where colorful ribbons had been hung and treats set out for the guests. The sun was bright and cheery in its blue backgrounds. There were only a few pretty clouds that drifted by.
Immediately, William popped a particularly delectable looking comfit into his mouth when Jane was not looking. The pastel colored confection left a smattering of powdery sugar around his mouth while he surveyed the area. And as Jane adjusted plates she thought out of place, he said, his mouth quite full, "It looks like a fairy party." His expression conveyed some disgust.
"I like fairies," Jane frowned, hitting him lightly for stealing a comfit. The crime had been written onto his face.
"Well it's fine for girls," he condescended and then added, "But the boys are going to hate it." William stuck his chin up with created aloofness.
"There aren't going to be any other boys, stupid."
"You mean I'm going to be surrounded by girls?" he looked a little incredulous, which he could be forgiven for. William had been raised to be quite the little man and was firm in his gender biases.
"What's wrong with that?"
"Well it's going to be boring!"
"It's my party William Grace, not yours."
William pouted and stole another comfit, earning a smack from his hostess.
"Come on, Papa said he would show us something amazing," Jane rolled her brown eyes. She took off running at an impossible speed considering her dress, William following eagerly after her.
Mr. Sorrel was the interesting sort of man that you would at least like to meet once in your lifetime. Though he seemed quite ordinary, his life to that point had been quite an adventure across the world. When he was a young man, he had been apprenticed as a magician quite by accident when he destroyed his future-teacher's workshop with an spell gone awry. His teacher took it in good humor and aside from that its quite simple for a magician to clean things up. The apprentice followed his master in his travels to faraway lands in search of new and exciting magic. And just when Mr. Sorrel had grown quite used to his life, his teacher decided that it was time to return home to rest.
His mentor gone, Mr. Sorrel was quite alone in the world. However due to one last recommendation from his teacher, he was able to gain a teaching position at the Imperial University where he remained for a good long while before meeting Jane's mother. That, I am afraid, is another story.
He shared the same soft curling copper hair as his daughter although when he was younger and more prone to the periods of hermit habits scholars falls into, it was often cut haphazardly with a pair of blunt shears. However now that he had the time to care, his barber cut it for him most respectably. He wore a pair of thick and round rimmed glasses that were perpetually on his face. In fact, Jane was doubtful as to whether or not she had seen her father without his glasses before and she could certainly not imagine it. To Jane it was a part of him as much as his nose. Behind his glasses lay a kind pair of brown eyes, one slightly higher than the other that gave him an expression of permanent curiosity and wonder. He was often followed by a great hound of unsure pedigree named Dom who lay at his feet like a guardian carpet bag. All in all, an ordinary looking man with extraordinary experiences.
"Papa! Papa!" Jane scrambled into his study, the sash on her dress missing. "Close the door! William is coming!" She giggled loudly as her father hoisted her onto his hip.
"You dirtbug!" William ran in only moments after her, shaking the missing sash in his fisted hand.
Jane stuck out her tongue from her vantage point, "Stinkweed!"
"Children!" Mr. Sorrel interrupted with a cough, "Wouldn't you like to see the surprise?"
The two immediately forgot that they despised each other and nodded with enthusiasm. They crowded around as Mr. Sorrel unlocked a cabinet and produced an intricately carved metal box no bigger than his hand. Most curiously, it was made to look like the head of a fox, its jeweled eyes shining softly in their sockets. The children immediately began to ask questions,
"Why is it so small?"
"What is that, a fox's face?"
"Papa, what does it do?"
Mr. Sorrel held up a finger to make them pause. With a grin, he opened it and much to Jane's horror, the dismembered head of a gray bird stared blankly back at them. Jane screamed and began to cry. William paled next to her, although he remained unnaturally still. Mr. Sorrel looked immensely amused as he was also the type of man who enjoyed tricks and their deceptive effects.
"It's all right Jane, look," Mr. Sorrel began to wind the box with a small silver key.
With the final click, the bird's head began to move, looking with its button-like eyes curiously at its spectators before opening its mouth in song. Too hysterical to notice at first, Jane eventually quieted to listen, hiccupping softly as the bird wove its magic. There was a moment in which she felt her body lift and her surroundings change. Much to her amazement, she found herself without her companions but not alone; she was surrounded by hundreds of what she supposed were the bird's kind in a forest full of light. And the part of her that was Jane for that instant forgot who she was and became one of them. They sang the same song the mechanical bird sang in a glorious chorus of wild sounds. Together, they rose into the sky, breaking free of the green shelter and began towards a destination that they all knew within their souls. The sun grew brighter and brighter until in a flash, the song ended and Jane was back in her father's study. She looked stunned, as did William.
"That was amazing," she breathed at last.
William's silence meant his agreement.
Mr. Sorrel smiled gently, closing the fox's head, making it seem as if it had swallowed the bird, "It's a piece by Edric Claws. Fantastic magician, the most elegant of his kind."
"Who is Mr. Claws, Papa?" Jane looked wonderingly at the apparatus now hiding the bird.
"He disappeared almost a hundred years ago, I am afraid." Mr. Sorrel put the box into Jane's waiting hands, "And his work is getting harder and harder to find, but this is for you Butterfly. Happy birthday."
"Oh Papa!" Jane looked up at her father with adoring eyes. She took this gift as carefully as she had William's and placed it in her velvet bag.
"I've never seen magic like that before," William was frowning hard. "It felt different…nothing my father does would ever last a hundred years."
Jane did not think it to polite to point out that his father did not seem to do much. She did not see his father often, but on the occasions she did it almost seemed to her that he was never in the right state of mind. He was always angry one moment and then sluggishly happy the next.
"Magic was a different beast back then. Around the time Claws disappeared, the Emperor fell into a deep sleep from which he has yet to awaken. There is a powerful enchantment around him that ties up the magical channels."
"Channels…what are those?" William was intent on this subject. "My father sometimes mumbles something about them but I can never figure it out."
Mr. Sorrel seemed surprised at even being asked. He considered it for a moment before answering, "The channels are the ways in which magic runs—" he corrected himself, "ran through this world. Think of them as small streams of magic. Once upon a time, magicians used to be able to tap into them and use them for amazing feats."
His slightly askew eyes became distant as he spoke these words. He thought of the past and the present and how they were so different now. Things had changed so radically that the world he had once known would be odd and foreign to these children.
"Were there a lot of magicians?" William demanded with unexpected intensity.
"There were," Mr. Sorrel nodded, "Powerful ones. A shame they have mostly faded away."
"I told you, my boy, the channels stopped working. The bodily medium which grounded them to this earth and made them useable fell into slumber a century ago."
William's brows were knitting themselves together, "And that is the Emperor?"
Tilting her head, Jane asked, "If the Emperor is asleep, then who rules the empire?"
"Oh you know, it's much too complicated for a simple person like me to understand. I'm sure the government has its ways of taking care of itself," Mr. Sorrel rumpled his daughter's copper hair.
Having the distinct impression that Mr. Sorrel had deflected her question, Jane was ready to press further when her ears caught the sounds of guests arriving, and immediately changed her priorities.
"They're here!" She pulled on Mr. Sorrel's hand, "Papa we must go see them, and your clock says that it is time for cake!" She pointed impatiently to a rather handsome clock made of crystal standing at his desk, and indeed one hand was pointed at 'cake' although curiously the other was pointed at 'danger'. However it was a silly clock and only pointed to the right things some of the time but it could always be relied on to show the correct moments for cake.
Mr. Sorrel looked to the clock, his gaze lingering on it even as Jane urged him to leave the room, "All right, all right, Butterfly." His voice trailed off, his attention still on the clock.
"I just want some cake," William followed them, his expression hungry and eager despite the prospect of being surrounded by girls.
Back in the garden, Mrs. Sorrel was organizing the children while simultaneously handing gifts to the maid to make a pile into. The girls, seeing Jane, left their chatterings and surrounded her with cries of congratulations and compliments. William looked immensely disgusted to be around so many females having tolerance for very little. Mrs. Sorrel parted through them, Jane's missing sash in hand that she had acquired from Mr. Sorrel.
"I don't know how you managed this, but please do try to keep this on," she laughed, retying the cloth into a respectable bow.
Straightening, she looked to the children, "Now, who would like to play some games?"
And after a rousing bout of Blind Man, Stop-Go, and Singing Chairs, the cake was brought out by the smiling cook. She placed the enormous cake in front of Jane at the head of the table while everyone sang to her. The first slice of cake, dark chocolate underneath its pale butter cream icing, was cut thickly onto a plate and handed to Jane. She immediately dug into it with her fork, savoring the chewy sweetness of the treat.
Jane remembered the weight in her pocket, pulling out the gift her father had given her and showed it to her mother. "Mama, look what Papa found."
The wind picked up suddenly when Mrs. Sorrel leaned to better see what was in Jane's hand. A piece of imperceptible dust flew off the fox's head and into her eye, causing her to flinch.
"Elizabeth?" Mr. Sorrel placed a hand on his wife's shoulder. "What's wrong?"
Mrs. Sorrel blinked rapidly, her eyes watering, "It's nothing. Just something is in it."
"Let me see."
Mr. Sorrel held her face gently and peered with a frown. He seemed to recognize something but did not say a word. He gave her an unconvincing smile, "It's all right." And with that he disappeared back into the house.
Jane looked with confusion at her retreating father, "Mama?"
Her mother hugged Jane, "It's all right dear. You're father is just a very odd person." She laughed and gave her daughter a kiss, but she looked worriedly to where her husband had gone.
Turning her head, Jane saw something even odder than her father in Mrs. Sorrel's left eye. Although her natural color was blue, it seemed to have turned into a deep gold.
Not noticing Jane's growing anxiety, Mrs. Sorrel released her, "I'll go see why your father is acting so." Jane watched her go like a surreal dream, each footstep her mother took seemed loud in her ears. She got the distinct feeling that she was being left behind.
In the midst of all of this, it seemed that Jane's Aunt Hermia had arrived. Hermia was a relative from Mr. Sorrel's side, but it was quite unclear exactly how they were related. Still, she lived rather close by and had a daughter about Jane's age whom they referred to as Jane's cousin for simplicity's sake. It would have been impolite not to invite her.
Hermia looked around for the adults, but only seeing Jane, she made her arrival known to the child, "Jane! Have you missed me darling? Silvia, say hello!"
Silvia, Hermia's only daughter, looked sour in her fashionable green dress. She shifted her head, making the ribbon in her red hair rustle amongst her perfectly formed curls, "Charmed."
"Where are your parents?" Hermia's sharp eyes surveyed the area again, "I suppose they are inside." She said this before Jane could answer, making her wonder why she even asked.
Hermia bustled away, leaving the two girls together. Jane stood there awkwardly until Silvia pointedly said with a bored expression, "You should introduce me since I don't seem to be acquainted with anyone."
"Oh," Jane blushed. Of course she should introduce Silvia, they were related after all. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed William sulking amongst the girls. Dragging him to Silvia, she presented him quickly, "This is William. He's a friend."
"Ah," Silvia batted her eyelashes, "Charmed." Jane suspected that Silvia meant this word much more nicely than when she had said it to her.
William seemed to have frozen, blankly staring at Silvia with wide eyes. And then slowly, as if a fire had been lit on the bottoms of his feet and had taken time to reach his face, he turned a dark shade of red. He began to stammer as Silvia stared back at him with a serious regret of their meeting.
The more he spoke, the more Silvia felt this way and the more she looked as if she wanted to escape, the more he spoke to cover his embarrassment. It was a vicious cycle that Jane felt was her duty to stop as his friend.
"Silvia needs to meet some of the other guests too, William," she interrupted.
"Of course," William nodded vigorously before turning his tail and running off.
Silvia cast a sidelong glance of disdain, "Who was that boy?"
"He's my friend," Jane bit out, strongly emphasizing her words. She quickly pushed Silvia into a group of girls, introducing her in one breath before following William.
She found him around the corner of the house, climbing their favorite tree. She looked dubiously at the trunk and then to her dress, finding herself torn between going after him and keeping her dress clean. She compromised, taking off the sash and dress to climb in her underclothes. Nobody was going to look for them and William had seen her in far less when they went to the creek.
"William!" she called to him, "Wait!"
He looked at her, jaw set, "What do you want?"
"Why were you acting so stupid in front of Silvia?"
"I don't know, all right?" he responded savagely.
Jane had nearly reached him when she smiled a little, "You don't fancy her, do you?"
William turned red again before fuming out, "Of course not! Why would I like some silly girl?"
"You're the silly one."
"You better shut your mouth before a beetle flies in."
"I'm pretty certain a beetle flew down yours."
"Jelly—" Jane stopped to see Silvia staring quite primly up at them. The other girl looked pointed at Jane's discarded clothes before turning again to her.
"This is really quite unladylike," Silvia commented, widening her dark blue eyes with false shock.
Jane blushed, scrambling to get down. She pulled on her clothes again and sheepishly held her sash, being unable to put it back on without help. William remained in the tree purposefully not looking down on them.
"In front of a boy too," Silvia giggled, "Really, Jane."
"William isn't really like a boy," Jane defended herself hotly.
"Hey!" he was upon them quicker than Jane realized. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"I just mean that you're different from other boys."
"Different as in what?" he demanded, rolling back his pants leg to reveal the metal leg his father had constructed, "Like this?"
"No! I didn't mean like that! I meant—"
"I'm going home."
"Wait! William!" Jane grabbed his arm, only to be shrugged off.
Jane tripped and fell face down. Her nose throbbed as she found herself unable to call out to William again. Silvia watched him go with mild interest.
After a moment's silence, she finally asked, "What is wrong with that boy's leg?"
Jane did not answer, sitting there in the dirt path. She picked herself up and left Silvia standing there. She did not care if it was rude or impolite. She did not even care that the other girls stopped their games to stare at her bedraggled form as she reappeared in the garden. And as she approached the door, she could hear Silvia lightly explaining what a clumsy oaf Jane was and how she had stupidly offended the William boy. Jane felt tears in her eyes, but she refused to turn around and face them. Instead, she ran into the house to lock herself in the linen closet.
It was stupid of her to call William different. The part of his leg from his knee down had been lost in a fire caused by his father's experiments gone awry. He had been young and the leg had been replaced with a brilliant design, but William still held the wound fresh on his heart. He had always hated being called different, but what she had meant was that William was someone like family. Someone who was comfortable enough to prance around in underclothes with because it was not embarrassing at all. Someone who never made Jane feel like a fool.
Jane did not know how long she had been inside the closet. She looked up sleepily at her father, who had been gently carrying her to her room. Her mind was foggy, slow, and it almost seemed that this was a continuation of her dream. Then she saw something that did not occur to her as odd. From the corner of her eye, she noticed a fox, finely dressed as a gentleman enter her mother's room. She giggled at the sight, burrowing into her father's warm arms and fell asleep once more.
While she slept, the world as she knew it began to shift. It would never again be the same.
Author's Note: I'm going to try and keep a regular update schedule on this one.