Once upon a time, there was a special mirror. It was said to have ears, for it could hear whispers of secrets. It was said to have eyes, for it could see through your reflection and unravel your desires. And it was said to have a mouth, for it could speak the truth.
Half of the kingdom feared the mirror, claiming it was an object of magic. But the king saw it for what it was: an artifice, a way to deceive people through the superstitions. And so he hid the mirror away from sunlight, down to the deepest dungeon of his castle. There, beneath the weight of darkness, the mirror stood powerless.
But five generations afterward, a prince stumbled upon it. For him, the mirror was nothing more than an ancient proof of his people’s foolishness. Looking at its dusty surface, the prince started to wonder how anybody was tricked into believing the mirror wise and true.
But for his friend, the daughter of a duke, the mirror is a thing of wonder, and it would only take the right individual to unspool its secrets. She believed it was her.
The third person in the dungeon, an orphan of war, stood in silence as she observed her friends. A girl of no more than eight, this orphan had always been an outcast, shunned for her lack of beauty. But despite the absence of physical appeal, this girl was rather abundant in flames of bravery and loyalty.
Her name was Helmina, and when she was born, the kingdom laughed, for her parents had been far too lovely to have been cursed with an unsightly child as her. Her form was that of a linden tree, with the clumsy feet of a mermaid who had been given human legs for the first time. Her hair was an entangled mess of earth brown and was always framing her face in a horrid fashion.
The prince, known to the kingdom as Prince August—but was simply Bricks to his family and dear friends—had always been wild and reckless. He hunted imaginary forest monsters all across the palace yard, often colliding into walls—hence his nickname. Being the second-born son, he was expected to be the one to stay at the royal court, and then eventually sit on the throne. His older brother, Prince Bernhard, was already training at the fleet of the kingdom’s army.
“This is the infamous mirror,” claimed Bricks. “People believed it was cursed.”
“Couldn’t’ve fooled me,” answered Helmina. “It looked almost the same as all the other mirrors across the kingdom.”
“Perhaps it is special,” said their other friend. “Perhaps to some, this mirror held truths.”
Her name was Sigrid, a girl as soft as a trickle of water. Helmina knew her since they were four and their friendship had been steady. But unlike Helmina, Sigrid was a belle to the kingdom’s heart. Her hair, a red so thick and pronounced, is a cascading bloodfall from her head over her shoulders. Her pale skin rivals that of porcelain vessels.
The children rose up to the ground level of the palace, an understanding grasping their chests—for they plan to return again, because they thought they had found a haven, away from the world; away from the expectations of the king; away from the reality of beauty; away from the pain of watching your mother fade away after your father’s death.
And so for the next years to come, the castle found the children deep into the dungeons, heads bent together, skin touching, mouths whispering. While Sigrid was the voice of reason, Bricks was the eye for adventure. Sitting before the dirty mirror, the children talked of everything and nothing.
As their bond wound stronger around them, Helmina saw Sigrid as more than a friend, but as a sister in heart and mind, and Bricks as more than a companion but . . . someone else entirely, someone who used to be round and short, but was now a man whose smiles became more charming as the creases on the corner of his eyes.
This tale could have ended here. We could have left Bricks to grow up, study the ways of the kingdom, and choose his bride. We could have slept knowing Sigrid eventually reigned as duchess of the western region and become a woman of her own. We could have been contented that Helmina fell in love with her best friend, found that her identity wasn’t for the townspeople to deduce, and grew up to be a woman of fiery compassion. But alas, the rest of the story needed telling, and you, seeker of truth, are about to bear the dark weight of reality.
One night, before the mirror, sat Bricks, with his arms around Sigrid and Helmina. He was the tallest now, and so he took up the position in the middle of them three.
“You looked troubled,” Helmina noted. “Is something bothering you?”
“It is the arrival of the fleet, isn’t it?” Sigrid answered for the prince.
Helmina sat straighter, for the arrival of the fleet also meant the arrival of Prince Bernhard. She has never met Prince Bernhard but from what she’s heard of circulating stories around the palace, the prince was a miracle of a creature. Strong and intelligent, Prince Bernhard was the quintessential mold of a first-born prince, not to mention his famed physical appearance that was said to melt the coldest of hearts.
It was only logical for Bricks to feel insecure by the homecoming of the prince to which he was constantly compared to.
“They’re arriving tonight,” Bricks whispered.
“You don’t have to feel doubtful of yourself,” assured Sigrid.
“I . . . don’t.” At that moment, the second-born prince might as well be a commoner, with his vulnerability reflected through the mirror.
“Perhaps he wouldn’t weigh his nobility against yours.”
“Sigrid, I don’t fear him for what he is. What I fear is that the kingdom will see that I was not the rightful heir to the throne.”
“Such complete non-sense,” Helmina muttered, earning her an amused glance from the prince. “Bricks, you need not to pretend. If the kingdom thinks of doubting your credibility as its future king, then they’re all blind fools.”
“Not us, though,” said Sigrid. “We’ll always be here. I’ll always believe in you.”
That was true until she met Prince Bernhard.
As Helmina descended down the broad staircase, her eyes seek her friends among the crowd. A full two weeks after the arrival of the fleet, three parties had been held. The first one was to welcome the royal son back into the palace. The second was to celebrate the success of the fleet’s missions. The third was, well, a gathering to commemorate the death of the king’s father.
Tonight, it did not look like a memorial for a deceased former king, but a celebration of luxury, led by Prince Bernhard himself, who was in the middle of the ballroom with a pretty girl who swooned at the right moments. Everyone was at their finest gowns and suits, eating as little as possible even though there must be hundreds of dishes to choose from.
And there was Bricks, standing before the wine counter, sipping on a glass. He has the bearing of a prince, but Helmina could see his insecurity eating away at him.
Making a ragged cut through the crowd, Helmina approached him. Bricks greeted her with a warm embrace.
“My dear Helmina.”
“You cannot fool me with that smile, Bricks.”
His eyes glittered in amusement. “I’m not trying to, I swear to my grandfather’s death, which they were apparently honoring tonight.”
Helmina’s eyes swept the place once more. “It doesn’t seem so.”
He winked at her. And as comfortable silence fills their distance, Helmina noticed Bricks’s eyes turned once again to his brother. Tension carved his back taut.
“He has them all already,” he whispered. “Why did he have to take her, too?”
Helmina asked the same question a moment later, when, following his line of sight, she caught Prince Bernhard with none other than her beloved friend, Sigrid. All the disgust on Sigrid’s face two weeks before had vanished, and as she danced with her friend’s older brother with her feet aloft, it was evident that she’s already taken in with him.
At once, Helmina was reminded of Sigrid’s unexplained disappearances, of her flushed excuses, of her recent refusal to come down with them to the dungeons. It was all because she was occupied with someone else, with Prince Bernhard who had nothing for Bricks but taunts and torment.
Helmina turned to Bricks, and, right before her, was an even more painful sight: a man shrouded in jealousy. Bricks were in love with Sigrid.
For nights after the third party, the mirror only reflected two figures. And as time burrowed its roots and grew its thorns, so were the weight of melancholy.
Before Helmina went to the mirror’s room with Bricks, she stayed at her own quarters. She needed to think, to feel the cold breeze on her face, to unspool her perception anew. No, she would not go too far to say that her friend was irredeemable. But Helmina couldn’t think of anything that would help bring her back.
On top of her bedside table was a letter. Helmina haven’t noticed it the first time, but while rummaging the room for a cloak to wear, she happened upon the old paper.
Find me at the Ausgedörrt. I am alive, Kätzchen.
Kitten. Only one person called her that: her father, who died at the War of Parched Lands. But, as far as Helmina knew, a body has never been found. The same went with every other warrior who boldly fought for their kingdom. But was it wrong to hope?
“We wouldn’t know if we don’t try to find him,” said Bricks. The mirror was twinkling at the reflection of the torches overhead. “He might be alive; he might be not.”
“But why reach for me now?”
“Helmina, we are not even certain when that letter was dated. It might have been three springs ago. What I’m sure of is that if your father was alive, he would ‘ve been keen on looking for you.”
“Why not just go home?”
Bricks smiled and touched his forehead to Helmina’s briefly—an affectionate gesture that was once familiar and innocent but now meant something else for Helmina. “My dear, a fallen soldier cannot go home without his honor.”
Helmina nodded, unconvinced but relenting.
“So when do we leave?”
The prince’s question startled her. “Sorry?”
“We should look across Ausgedörrt if we want to find your father,” Bricks said as-a-matter-of-factly.
Helmina stammered. It was one thing to be able to confide this to Bricks, but it was another to know that Bricks would go with her.
“Alright,” she finally said. “Would you want to go now?”
Bricks shook his head, abruptly frustrated. “Unfortunately, my father considered a gathering is in need for our family.”
“Tomorrow, then? There at the stables?”
“At the crack of dawn.”
Before the first sign of light, Helmina was already making her way out of the palace. Her nimble feet adorned in traveling sandals peeked beneath her skirts as she ran on the palace yard, both exhilarated and terrified at the prospect of escaping the eyes of those who whispered hateful melodies about her, of escaping with Bricks. She might not admit it vocally, but Helmina was hoping that Bricks would come to love the peace of being away from the palace, that he would decide to stay with her.
It was too much to ask, but it was never wrong to hope.
Across the land, Helmina went to meet Bricks. But as she entered the stables yard, she could already feel the wrongness that settled at the air like the weight of a long-cold corpse.
In the moonlight, the first thing she saw was the apple, marked by a bite. Beside the fruit was Bricks, gasping on empty air, clawing on his throat as if he wanted to remove something from it.
“Bricks!” Helmina screamed, running towards her friend.
She gently grabbed his torso, slinging one of his arms across her shoulders. They started a path toward the palace. Helmina was a strong woman. But Bricks was not little; he was broad and tall and filled with enough strength to carry an adult deer; Helmina was bearing half of his weight.
“Not to the palace,” Bricks croaked out.
“We need to get you to the infirmary!” Panic was gripping Helmina’s heart tightly.
“No, Helmina.” His steps were faltering, his legs giving out under him like stalks of swamp saplings. “Sigrid gave me the poisoned apple.”
“Sigrid knew. She knew our plan. Bernhard . . .” Bricks coughed blood, making scarlet drips across the plains. His grasp on Helmina was getting weaker.
“Bricks, do not speak. Do you hear me? I will get you to safety.”
“Listen to me, Helmina—”
“Bernhard wanted the throne. He wanted to be king.” Skin pale, clammy to the touch, Bricks continued. “He knew he had to get me out of his way.”
“Sigrid would be his queen.”
Bricks crumpled to the floor, unable to further traverse the remaining distance to the nearest help. His whole body convulsed, pleading to Helmina to listen to him.
“I am listening, I am,” said Helmina in between sobs.
“Do not go back,” Bricks rasped. “They will kill you.”
“I will not. I promise. Just live, please.”
But it was clear to both of them that Bricks was dying, as clear as the brightness of the sun that was threatening to show itself among the clouds.
“One more thing,” he said. He pulled on Helmina’s arm, desperate. “It has always been you.”
The words crashed over Helmina like a breath of winter air, but before she could utter anything, Bricks was speaking again.
“Always had been, my dear Helmina. Every single day. I loved you since we were ten summers old, since you climbed up that willow tree to hold my kite up. My heart had always been yours.”
All this time, Helmina had known. She’s known the truth, but somehow the impossibility of it to become reality had dimmed her reasoning.
“We can still save you, Bricks,” Helmina said, attempting to pull her friend—her lover—into his feet. “Please.”
Bricks only shook his head, tears finally trickling from his eyes. “I wish we had more time.”
He drew his last breath, and then there was nothing else.
The first thing to come was heartbreak. She was a woman of agony. In between the space of a gasp and a scream, there was the emptiness in the air and a splatter of blood on the ground. And when her throat had been sore and her tears had been buried, she slumped on the earth, holding the body of the once restless, once spirited prince.
“Are you done?”
Helmina looked up to see Bernhard. His posture was so assured that it set embers of fury in Helmina’s body. How could this murderer stand there so casually after killing his brother?
“What did you do?”
Bernhard snorted. “Reclaimed my throne, that’s what.”
“It was never yours!” Helmina gasped.
“It is mine now. At least after my father’s reign.”
“No one would believe you,” said Helmina. “I am a witness to your crime.”
“Are you, though?” another voice spoke behind Helmina, and she did not have to turn to see who it was. Sigrid.
“It’s my word against yours,” said Bernhard.
And Helmina understood: it was not a harried plan, but a careful one. She was tricked, and so was Bricks. They have been pawns, unwittingly thrown into a viper pit they were trying to escape.
“Sigrid,” she said, turning to her former friend. “Tell them the truth. Do it for Bricks.”
But Sigrid had already joined Bernhard, encircling his waist with her splendid arm. “I’ll give you the time to run away.”
“In a few moments’ time, the guards will seize you and bring you to the court for the murder of the king’s second-born son”—Sigrid shrugged—“I suggest you flee now.”
Helmina shook her head. “Let me bury him, at least.”
“Leave the body, Helmina.”
And so she left, disappearing into the trees.
Lost and starved, Helmina found Ausgedörrt four days later, and, unsurprisingly, her father was not there. What she found was a city of mediocre living, with houses tall and pretty made of wood. But the doctors there were of excellent skills, and so Helmina was driven into obsession. She emerged, every day, into the eyes of the townspeople a changed person. The woman who first came into them months ago was nowhere to be seen. Gone were the form of an afflicted body, the ludicrous voice, and the dreary brown hair.
The year found Helmina completely unrecognizable.
As all those things happened, Bernhard became king. He married Sigrid, and they were both crowned beneath the silver arches of a new palace. It was said that they painted a picture of quite a perfect couple, but Helmina knew better. And when she heard that Sigrid gave birth to a baby girl, with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony, she knew it was time to get back to the kingdom.
So Helmina returned, and she was on a path of destruction and rage, with nothing to stop her. She would feed these liars and monsters an apple even more poisonous than the one her true love choked on. They would not be able to utter another word before they die.
But first, she has to retrieve something of hers, something she didn’t have a chance to take hold of the last time she left this place: the mirror on the wall.