“You’re going to deny her now? After all this time, you’re going to turn hard and cold like she was?” the mighty oak asked without any thread of judgment, watching the rise and fall of the princess’s ragged breath as rolls of thunder began to crash in the distance and droplets of rain fell in soft pitter-patters to the ground. “You’re going to pretend as though she’s something ‘other,’ like a whipping boy that you can pin your transgressions on and escape? You could leave her here to die, knowing that she is as much you as you are her?”
“You’re a liar,” the princess hissed bitterly, and her younger selves recoiled as though they’d been slapped. Her eyes widened in shock when their eyes filled with glassy tears and their small, fragile fingers closed once more over each half of the key.
“It’s not a lie,” the elder of her younger selves insisted quietly, looking as though she were going to be sick. “And unless you accept her the way she is, for what she is–the apex predator that you created to survive in a world that couldn’t protect you from shame, humiliation, and fear–we’ll all disappear.”
Not-Her’s life flew behind the princess’s eyes in a wash of vibrant color and dull, sickly gray.
Not-Her crouching in the corner of the young prince’s room while he bawled in anguish, fury igniting in her face like the flames the dragon king used to set her own face ablaze so many times.
Not-Her comforting the queen as she grew sickly and frail, tormented by the guilt of not being able to protect her children until her heart turned to black ice.
Not-Her finding brief solace in meaningless moments that were gone in flashes of fabric and hastily closed doors.
Not-Her fitting an old, ornate key into a separate compartment of the enchanted cabinet where she found the rotting remnants of a frail, furious heart and careful etchings of a young dragon king isolated and bruised and shamed into nothingness, feeding a growing self-hatred that burned with raging fire.
Not-Her stirring mindless mayhem that would take would-be friends the princess had loved dearly from afar and banish them on white horses into the sunset, never to return.
The battered, broken form of Not-Her whispered something that was consumed by the growing wind and steadily pouring rain, and the trees looked on, saying nothing. Something shiny gleamed on its face–the queen’s mirror mask, the one the princess had traded so long ago to restore the parts of herself that she severed when they became too ugly and weak to protect the ones she loved. She briefly saw her own face reflected in the mask before its mouth moved and shifted.
The princess crouched next to Not-Her and inclined an ear toward its twisted lips.
“Stop it,” the princess demanded, her breath catching in her throat as she fought to keep tears at bay. The coursing rain stained her cheeks anyway, bitter wind whipping her now-tangible hair into her face.
“Ugly. Lazy. Manipulative. Dirty. Disgusting. Annoying. Insecure,” Not-Her continued tonelessly as though reciting a well-worn list, one that it had memorized over years of careful repetition that fueled its nightmarish quest.
“I said STOP IT!” the princess screamed, grabbing Not-Her’s shoulders and shaking them roughly, but the memories only poured more clearly into her head as she maintained contact, and Not-Her gripped one of the princess’s hands with its own, its knuckles slowly turning white.
“I CAN’T!” Not-Her wailed back. Its caustic voice was magnified by the storm, catching on the bitter winds and throwing the same vitriol into the sky that had scarred the princess so deeply for so long. “PETTY. LOUD. DECEITFUL. WASTEFUL. SHAMELESS. RUDE. CHILDISH. CHURLISH. WRONG. RUINED. DAMAGED. BOASTFUL. BROKEN. POWERLESS,” it finished in a muffled, ragged scream, completing the riddle at last. The mirror mask, once bonded to Not-Her’s face to pay the price for the princess’s transgressions until she could no longer recognize herself, melted the way the princess’s own face once had to reveal a horrid, hideous combination of self-pity and self-righteousness.
The younger of her two selves had dissolved into frightened tears and panicked cries. She stuffed her fingers in her ears and screamed like the young prince had when he bore the weight of the princess’s sins, and the elder of her younger selves looked squarely into the princess’s face with eyes much older than she was, her tone quite direct.
“You’re just going to let her keep talking about us like that?”
“What choice do I have?” the princess asked miserably, feeling very annoyed when the elder mirrored an expression back to her that had likely once aggravated the queen.
“You always have a choice,” she said flatly. She held out her hand with half of the key, and the younger held out the other. The princess took the younger self’s half, but the elder’s closed tightly into a fist as the princess’s hand grazed her knuckles.
“But I’m still invisible. I’m powerless,” the princess whined, and the elder rolled her eyes, crouched down, and tucked a lock of the princess’s increasingly wet, bedraggled hair behind her ear as Not-Her took shuddering, wheezing gasps that rattled in her fractured ribcage.
“You’ve always had the power, my dear. You had it all along,” the elder quoted sagely, as the princess wondered when the wisdom of children had so eclipsed that of “adults” like her.
“Do we at least get the red sparkly shoes?”
The elder of her two selves snorted, rubbing Not-Her’s back in small circles as it dissolved into unintelligible whimpers and Not-Her’s right hand broke off with a snap, crumbling to dust that was quickly caked into the dirt.
“Are you going to wait until it’s too late?” the elder asked matter-of-factly, as the trees held their collective breaths and bore witness. “Or are you actually going to take responsibility for her and purge all the poison she’s got lodged in her gut? You can’t keep calling her ‘Not-Her,’ you know. It’s pretty dehumanizing.”
“She isn’t human,” the princess insisted in one final plea. One last denial.
“Then neither are you,” the elder replied, shrugging. “Or me. Or the other younger you. We can’t have it both ways. Of course she’s human. She just hasn’t acted like it; she played the victim until her victims played her. Now she’s played out. She’s done. Are you going to forgive her, or are you just going to keep pretending our whole life never happened?”
Not-Her’s left hand fell to the ground with a soft thud, and the princess realized with some bitterness that she was right. She couldn’t call it “Not-Her” anymore. Not-Her was a stubborn, brash, brazen anti-hero who believed her own inflated hype, and she was everything that the princess despised, banished from herself and enabled into armor like a vindictive, writhing mass of self-pity who got tired of taking the fall and the blame for the emotions the princess didn’t want to admit had consumed her like a black hole, leaving her vacant until she could accept that Not-Her was her after all.
“I’m sorry,” the broken specter wheezed in a frail breath that was quickly stolen by the crash of lightning and howling wind. “I tried.”
“I know,” the princess murmured sadly. “I thought I needed to be stronger to be saved, and that strength looked like you. But I was wrong. I learned. That’s all we can do, right?”
“I don’t want to go,” the specter whimpered, her voice suddenly vulnerable and childlike. “I’m scared. Nobody loves me. Nobody’s going to miss me when I’m gone.”
“I know you don’t want to go,” the princess repeated, finally torn to shreds by this last bitter defeat, this last abject failure, and realized that it was perhaps one of the first true triumphs of her entire life. “And you’re wrong. Sometimes, when I’m too afraid to rule our kingdom one day, I will miss you. And you are loved. I love you. We just never knew what love was until now. I just never thought anyone would love me if they saw this side.”
“I’m so tired,” said the ugly, battered, beautiful specter who sighed into the damp grass as she closed her eyes. “Am I good enough yet?”
“You were always good enough,” the princess said in a hushed voice, giving both halves of the key to the elder of her two younger selves. “I’m just sorry I never knew it. I was so busy searching for a prince to save me like the ones I read about in all of my story books that I didn’t realize I never needed one. I fashioned you into a knight equipped with vengeance, not forgiveness. That was my fault. You can rest now. I’ll take care of us from now on.”
As her delicate specter crumpled and faded away, the princess lifted the veil over the empty space where she’d once cut out her own heart rather than face the pain, humiliation, rage, shame, fear, failure, and remorse that spun inside her like a wheel and threatened to crush what was left of the parts of herself she loved most.
At least, the ones she thought she loved most.
“Strong. Worthy. Smart. Important,” she whispered, and the tears that spilled from her eyes mingled on her cheeks with the rain. She wasn’t afraid anymore. “Healthy. Beautiful. Productive. Empowering. Clean. Worthy.” She still had plenty to account for, but in the past, she was so sure that such a reckoning would ruin her the way she nearly had been as a child–until she realized that she was already destroying herself. “Engaging. Secure. Kind. Assertive. Honest. Frugal. Accepting. Polite. Mature. Unruffled. Curious. Rebuilt. Restored. Humble. Fixable.”
“Powerful,” her elder self finished, taking the younger by the hand and enveloping the princess in a tight hug.
“That’s the spirit, dear,” one of the trees said kindly, and they laughed.
The princess delicately took the compartment that they had fetched from the enchanted wardrobe with both halves of the key fixed tightly in the lock. Her younger selves skipped away from the clearing, laughing. Joyful.
The princess watched them for a moment, pensive. She realized she missed the false self she’d allowed to supplant her for so long as she dwindled away in cowardice, but she was glad to see her go. To find peace.
“Is that the route we’re going, dearie?” another crooned as a chipmunk scampered quickly up its trunk. “Order us around and use us up until our corpses are sucked dry and then move on to the next castle? The next dark forest? It’s a pity this isn’t Transylvania; you’d have more friends of your kind there.”
“I don’t have any friends, and if you don’t help me, I never will. Please help me hide this key,” she pleaded, feeling her specter growing closer as the sun set and the shadows grew long.
“I’ll take it,” a delighted childlike voice piped up, and behind her stood the embodiment of her slightly younger self, twirling in the breeze without a care in the world. “I’ll hide it somewhere safe.”
“No, pick me!” said another, looking up from the picture book she’d been reading beneath a tall oak tree. The child looked identical but even smaller, hunched on the ground as though trying to take up as little space as possible. “I know all the best hiding places.”
The trees fell silent and watchful, and the shadows lengthened ever further into the clearing. A bright, sinister laugh caught in the wind as the shadows coalesced into a her that was her and wasn’t her at the same time. Not-Her flashed an impish smirk, and its lifeless, dull eyes fell from one child to the other.
“Can’t you just go away?” the princess snapped, loathing Not-Her and the slimy, fetid aura which left lingering trails of filth in the devastation that followed its noxious path.
“Oh, darling, once you decided to offer your heart to a stolen child–whichever you choose in the end–you let me out to play and now I’m here to stay.” The sing-song lilt of the Not-Her’s rhyme took on a malicious edge, and it was true–when the princess looked down at the key in her hand, its edges had become translucent, and Not-Her began to solidify.
Not knowing that this choice would cost her sweeping graveyards of friendships that chipped away in small pieces at the soul she’d worked so hard to keep whole, the princess closed her eyes and felt two small hands close over hers. When she opened them, the “stolen children” –eerie echoes of her past selves whose playful laughter remained even after their departure– had taken the key with them.
The wind whispered through leaves that shook on their branches and Not-Her cocked its head to one side as though trying to decipher the words. Already some of the imperfections had smoothed; the raised red bumps vanished from its skin, its face was no longer brittle and broken, the pockets of baby fat she’d loathed had disappeared from its waist, and a dark twinkle shone from its eyes.
“What does that mean?” the princess asked slowly, watching in growing horror as her own skin grew luminous and she could see the dewy grass sharpen behind her rapidly vanishing hands.
“Haven’t you ever heard of irony?” Not-Her asked in an imperious tone, staring down at the princess as she shrank and faded while the sun sank behind the trees into an explosion of golds, pinks, and purples that washed over the sky until they were streaked with falling darkness. “You can’t exist while I’m out walking around, stupid. After all these agonizingly boring years of biding my time and waiting for you to expire on your own, I’ve finally come alive–as was always meant to be–and you’ve dwindled down into so much insignificant nothing. Sucks to suck, don’t it?”
“That’s not what I wanted!” the princess cried, the leeches tightening their enclosure around her throat as the last of her voice came out in a long, keening wail. “This isn’t fair! It isn’t right!”
“You’re pathetic,” Not-Her sneered, finally sauntering over with a spring in its sprightly step, tucking the princess’s hair behind her ears and preening its own shining locks with long, polished, perfect nails. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you to read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line, moron? All those years of reading and not an ounce of common sense, even after all those sycophantic nobles went prattling on about how you had so much ‘potential’ and ‘promise.’ What a waste. You would have ended up a failure anyway if it weren’t for me. And the best part?”
Not-Her got even closer as the princess had nearly disappeared, bending over and leaning in close as if to share a priceless secret. “Nobody will even know you’re gone.”
The princess clutched the cavity where her heart used to be, her fingers skimming over the infinite infinitesimal gashes that scarred her nearly transparent flesh. Her mouth opened in a silent scream, and Not-Her threw back its head and laughed hysterically as though it were the funniest joke it had ever heard, sashaying out of the clearing without a backwards glance and, if the princess wasn’t mistaken, with a raised middle finger.
“You know, dear,” one of the trees murmured, shifting uncomfortably, “she didn’t tell the whole truth. It’s not like you’ll be gone forever. You’ll still watch like a silent passenger–as she did for so many years, fed on a steady diet of selfishness, recklessness, insecurity, instability, and rage–and there’s still a chance you can take her place.”
“How?” the princess mouthed in a final frantic plea as her two younger selves peered around one of the trunks on opposite sides, the younger looking at her with something akin to confusion blossoming over her face as the elder’s was a mask of pity, eyes brimming with unshed tears.
“Well, that’s the hard part, you see. You’ll have to watch everything she does with your eyes wide open, and one day, when you’re strong enough again to withstand your own erasure and confront the truth, you’ll have to hold yourself accountable for her transgressions. She was born from you, you know,” it finished reproachfully, as though this was obvious information that the princess should have already known.
And perhaps she had.
She just hadn’t wanted to believe it.
Her elder younger self walked over and took the princess’s vanishing face in her small, unblemished hands. “I forgive you,” she whispered, as the last of the princess faded against the inky expanse of sky that glittered with stars. “It was selfish and mean, choosing to hide. Locking up the last part of you because you were too scared to face her alone in the darkness. But you were only trying to protect us. You didn’t know. And if you hadn’t, she would have poisoned us with resentment and bitterness and numbness, and then we really would have been gone. This way, we just kind of… fade. Until you can defeat her.”
It would be many years before the princess would finally be ready to fight back. Just as she grew stronger by forcing herself to watch and suffer the humiliations that Not-Her concocted with arrogant glee, Not-Her did also by forcing herself to forget that the princess had ever existed through sheer force of will.
Not-Her led many would-be princes into bogs that would trap them like quicksand, basking in the praise of the dragon king and the queen as trophy cases piled with achievements that looked solid but felt hollow. Not-Her proved shamelessly insatiable, gobbling friendships like chicken wings and picking its teeth with the bones, filling endless trophies with the excuses for its behavior until it needed to earn more just to make space for the deflections and denials that stacked until they flowed onto the floor.
All the while, the princess watched, and over time, she tried to suspend her judgment. She rationalized the devastation that Not-Her created, gaslighting herself before she realized that a single match could send her up in a raging inferno.
She pined for each prince to save her, lamenting their slow, confused descent into the marshes in horror–one after another.
Surely one of them would see through Not-Her. Surely one of them would be strong enough to stand up to Not-Her, though the princess watched in a bizarre, sadistic commiseration as some of the princes turned out to be Not-Hims in disguise, twisting Not-Her’s own game around on her. The princess soon learned to spot them long before Not-Her, wishing she were a poltergeist who could shake sense into Not-Her and lock it back into nothingness.
She hated Not-Her.
She wanted nothing to do with Not-Her.
She was ashamed of Not-Her.
She, like ghosts around her who rose from the graves of friendships gone awry to watch the mindless devastation, harshly judged every move that Not-Her made until Not-Her stumbled into the clearing one day with arms bent at impossible angles, neck hanging awkwardly limp with its head twisted the wrong way, and once-proud eyes that had glittered with cold, calculating malice now cast down in humiliation and defeat.
“Oh, how are the mighty fallen,” the princess murmured to herself, tracing the skin around her own face that had somehow healed into something less brittle, something that didn’t flake into oblivion at the slightest breath of wind. Not-Her shuffled awkwardly to face away from the princess in order to look exactly where the princess was standing, its bloated head swollen under the weight of its poisonous pride. Not-Her had come into its own scales at last, and cheap copies of the dragon king’s that had once terrified the princess into submission littered its fragile skin like scattered tiles.
“Are you happy?” Not-Her wailed, its face caked with snot and crocodile tears that the princess didn’t buy for a moment. “Is this what you wanted when you tried to escape all those years ago?”
“All the education in the world didn’t teach you a damn thing,” the princess muttered, staring down at her hands in surprise as the delighted laughter of children rang like bells through the trees. Their last conversation rose to the surface of her memory, and she snorted. “Irony, indeed. You’ve been free for years, yet all you have to show for it is boundless intelligence and not an ounce of common sense.”
“Please,” Not-Her begged, and something in its empty eyes shifted. Remorse bled in dark rivulets from its pores, and if the princess wasn’t mistaken, it truly appeared to be…
“Please don’t let it kill me. It hurts. It hurts, and I don’t want this. I want it to stop. I want it to end. I can’t take it anymore,” Not-Her sobbed, and when its form collapsed unceremoniously into a misshapen heap on the ground, the princess nudged it with her foot and sneered.
“All high and mighty now, are we?” one of the trees twittered, observing shrewdly as the Not-Her faded slowly and the princess gazed down in disgust, wearing her years of silent observation like a mantle across her shoulders.
“What do you mean?” the princess snapped. “This… This thing has eaten over half of my life and left me for dead. It’s torched bridges, been reckless with hearts–including its own–and now it wants me to pity it on the same grass where it tricked me into sacrificing myself into nothingness.”
“Yes, dear, but you made the choice,” another tree reminded her gently. “No one forced you to the clearing. No one else ripped out your heart and hid it where not even you could find it so it’s never broken. You did all of that.”
“Don’t give me that self-righteous–” the princess began, but she gasped in horror as the outlines of her own hands began to fade once more and Not-Her became faintly opaque.
Silently, her younger selves approached from between two of the trees with the two halves of the single key she’d given them so long ago clutched tightly in their small, mighty fists.
Once upon a time, a beautiful princess lived with a king who could transform into a fearsome dragon and a queen who appeared solid by day but turned spectral by night.
As the dragon king set fire to curtains, entire rooms, and everything that dared to defy his iron will, the queen wandered her lonely halls, forever seeking the king who had arrived on a white horse to ask her father for her hand in marriage–the king with whom she had fallen in love.
Occasionally, she shielded the beautiful princess or her son, the strong prince, from the scorching heat of the dragon king’s poisonous flames. The princess and prince felt terribly guilty for leaving their mother while she begged and bargained and cajoled the dragon king, pleading for his mercy upon their children. Sometimes, he relented. Other times left the prince and the princess locked in their respective rooms, terrified and painfully alone as they covered their heads with pillows to drown out the loud crashes and deadly roars that filtered through the castle, reverberating off of the walls and amplifying the dragon king’s rage to terrible heights.
The princess could never understand the depths of the dragon king’s fury, and her mind folded in on itself to create labyrinths of fantasies, often dreams of faraway lands with handsome princes who never turned into dragon kings, because they would save her and take her to a place she would immediately know as “home” even if it wasn’t a castle. She would become a troll and live under a bridge before she would ever stay forever trapped in this gilded cage.
Oftentimes the princess wondered what had changed the king into a dragon, whether a magic spell or a bad potato or something she had yet to understand. Did all kings become dragons? Was the queen searching the castle for something that would break the spell so she could be reunited with the man she loved? The princess asked the queen why she had searched so long up and down the castle halls, and what exactly she had been searching for.
“The king,” the queen replied, looking up from her needlepoint.
A fierce bellowing voice sounded from elsewhere in the castle. The shadows stretched into steeples along the floor as the sun sank below the horizon, and it was clear that the dragon king had transformed.
“But he’s right there,” she said, her brows furrowed in confusion.
“That isn’t the king,” the queen corrected gently, for she still believed the dragon king and the king she’d fallen in love with to be two separate forms.
“Why is he always so mad?” the princess asked, for the dragon king and the king looked no different in her eyes.
“He has a castle and no mighty hoard to fill it,” the queen responded, as if this explained everything. Most of the time, the queen showed a quiet strength that rarely manifested from under the docile, pleasant demeanor that propped up the corners of her lips each day as though on stilts that were a shade too tall.
The queen dropped her meek illusion only when the dragon king’s flame curled in sharp tendrils around the princess and prince’s bare little feet when they ran across the castle as children do. When his flames contaminated their flesh so that all his children could feel were swords that sliced with white hot fire on the soles of their feet wherever they walked, he asked if they’d learned their lesson.
For her part, the princess certainly had. Playing tag with the young prince had only ended in pain–much like many interactions she’d had with the dragon king–so it seemed clear that he was to be avoided, for any attempt at connection or solidarity with him only ended miserably.
Yet the more the queen protested, the more ferociously the dragon king raged. On one cloudy day, the princess met great misfortune when she happened to be in the line of fire between the king and the queen, failing to dodge the vitriol spewing from his cavernous jaws in a torrent of fury. The princess’s beautiful face melted like she had just bobbed for apples in a vat full of acid, revealing the slick muscle and sinew beneath, and the agony she felt as she lay screaming seemed only to intensify when the dragon king banished her to her room for failing to forgive him when he told her that she was still beautiful.
Regardless of the princess’s feelings, once she was out of sight, the dragon king felt satisfied, power-drunk on the wine that he and the queen guzzled by the barrel each night, which never seemed to run empty even as the dragon king’s fields went barren and grapes died on the vine. The wine had an astonishing effect–with each glass, the queen grew more weak, complacent, and cold; she hated how it affected her, but after years of isolation she no longer felt that she had the right or the resources–nor the family or friends–to abscond from the castle with her children unscathed. She tried desperately to soothe and placate her terrified children as the dragon king grew portly and more cruel.
The princess’s face had finally started to heal and smooth over charred bits of flesh, but it seemed harder than the face she’d had before. Thinner. Thin to the point where no matter how her face moved its muscles or froze them, the muscle fibers lay practically translucent beneath, and her expression was never meek enough. No matter how much life and joy she bled from her “tone” with leeches that remained to feast on her trachea long after her swift departure from childhood, it was never flat enough.
The princess, who loved to read, met friends within the pages of her precious books; the only children she ever saw in the castle vanished in a puff of stale smoke when they caught her running after them, her throat hoarse from begging desperately to play as her brittle, raw face peeled into forgotten flakes of skin that would one day blanket her entire bedroom. If she ever caught them, she had no idea what to do with them, so as she had seen done countless times before, she used and discarded them like broken dolls.
Of course, they didn’t come back, but the princess didn’t know why. Hadn’t she been a good sport? Hadn’t she let them play with her brand-new toys?
It was around this time that her shadow detached itself to become a malicious, ghostly figure with lank hair and a permanent smirk of mischief; its owner was weak and positively reeked of self-loathing and fear, which it feasted on at every opportunity in the corner of the princess’s vision before her head whipped around to find nothing there.
The dragon king, in his wisdom (meaning, after his dukes had conspired to force his abdication), decided that it was time to leave the barren fields and broken dreams behind for greener pastures. While they packed up their belongings, the princess skirted the castle’s perimeter to avoid her malignant specter and noticed vast lines of cemetery plots along the sides of the castle that she’d never seen before. Her tired, tattered fingers traced the letters on the headstones, and there she found the names of the children she’d frantically run after in hopes of being their friend.
It wasn’t until then that she realized her new face had betrayed her to keep her safe the way the dragon king hadn’t and never could, closing her eyelids to the blazing flames that devoured her would-be friends, opening when only wisps of smoke remained, and looking past the ashes scattered across the floor. The dragon king, who left to wreak devastation elsewhere in the castle, didn’t spare a glance back as the princess sifted through the ashes and wondered if this was what it meant to have friends.
After all, she hadn’t had any that weren’t lining the shelves of her library, and from those pages spilled timeless tales of eternal friendship and true love–but none of the illustrations she found had a face like hers, cracked and scaled more each time the dragon king’s fierce flames consumed each brittle face that replaced the one before, and when they began to break too easily, the queen surreptitiously showed her the wardrobe of faces she used to hide from the dragon king–maids, crones, peasants, and her personal favorite: broken mirrors.
“But how do they survive the fire?” the princess asked the queen, reaching out to skim her fingers along the smooth glass.
“They don’t,” the queen replied simply. “That’s why he likes them the most. They’re enchanted to show him a false self, and when he tires of each one, I commission another before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?” the princess wondered aloud, but the queen said nothing further on the matter, and the shadows in the corner grew darker and longer.
The new castle made no difference. Eager to escape the dragon king’s wrath, the princess would often blame her transgressions on the young prince, stuffing her ears to block the shrill screams and sobs that echoed down the expansive halls.
She was too afraid to find and comfort him, but her left hand said it knew the way, so she chopped it off and bit into her pillows to muffle her own shrieks. Into the roaring fireplace it went, and she trembled on the floor of her room and felt like a coward.
Her right hand told her to pick up a sword and vanquish the dragon king, so off it went to join its twin in the fire. After they’d roasted to ashes, she carefully gathered their remains with what was left of her bleeding stubs and piled them in an enchanted cabinet that restored whatever was hidden within it–but at a very steep price.
Having no allowance of her own, the princess stole one of the broken mirror faces from the queen’s wardrobe and offered it as payment. The cabinet accepted it gladly, and she now had both of her hands back, so everything was all better now. Surely the queen wouldn’t notice that one face had gone missing.
Over time, the dragon king’s powers only grew in proportion to his rage. Each time he demanded to know what was “wrong with her” when she dropped and shattered a glass or spilled milk on the floor, the sharp sting of an invisible slap met her face, even if the king was nowhere near her.
After years of reading books and faces, she pondered the question and thought perhaps it was a riddle. Maybe the pain would stop and the dragon king would vanish in a blaze of glory if she could only fit the right words into the right order, so she set to work on lists of permutations, crossing off each one when the words had no effect on the dragon king and posting it to her bedroom wall to remind her of the failure until her walls were covered in stacks of hastily scribbled-on pages.
As she wrote each word on each page, many hundreds of possibilities presenting themselves as new words joined the fray, each word sliced into the flesh over her heart and left slivers no bigger than papercuts. Why wasn’t it working? Why wasn’t she good enough yet?
“Even I don’t want to be near you,” her detached specter whispered into her dreams, carving more deeply into her heart with each word. “Who would? You’re foul, you’re evil, and you’ll never be enough. Never.”
Desperate, the princess made one last effort to save herself from complete self-destruction, knowing that her path was headed nowhere fast. The gashes on her chest oozed thickly with fresh blood, and her eyes met those of her specter’s as she defiantly ripped her still-beating heart from her chest with hardly a sound and ran to the enchanted cabinet before it could follow, stuffing it into a locked compartment in the back of the cabinet that she’d found once while attempting to find a place to hide from the dragon king. Quickly, she locked the compartment and pocketed the only key.
As beads of sweat collected across her brow, the princess sneaked from her castle window using a makeshift rope fashioned from bed sheets and sprinted to a clearing of trees that stretched their branches skyward and shuddered at her sudden arrival.
“Ohhh, look, it’s the young lady who loves trees,” one of the trees simpered sarcastically, shaking its leaves. “You can tell by all the dead ones she keeps locked away in that castle, bound like captives.”
“Please,” the princess begged frantically, “You have to help me. I don’t have much time.”