This story is by Amanita Cynth and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There was a mirror in your room, which was telling of how meek they saw you. Everyone knows the story of the lady in the mirror, after all. The stories vary, warnings and adventures and questions, but some things are always the same. There is the lady in the mirror. How she picks those she appears to is unknown. Who she is is a secret she guards carefully, a name that she never allows to be spoken. What she offers and why it is offered is similarly a mystery; those few that have interacted with her and not vanished are reticent at best. Maybe that is why the stories are so well-known, the mystery appealing to people who want to believe they can solve it. You’re no real exception. Every scrap of information is eagerly devoured, something about the story calling to you like a promise. That doesn’t mean you’re expecting to ever meet her, doesn’t stop the day when you glance at your reflection while dressing and see something off about it, a toothy smile where your own face is impassive. You blink, trying to explain it with the light of the dawn glinting off the silver, but no. The eyes of your reflection meet yours, and then it’s not your reflection anymore but someone completely different as you step back. A woman stands, hands on hips and chin raised arrogantly in a way that highlights how corpse pale her skin is, how her body twists in a way that is unnatural and languid. When you step back in shock the smile that stretches her face reveals sharp, interlocked teeth and squeezes her milky eyes into crescents. Despite these unnerving features her hair is simple, brown and haphazardly cut, and she’s in muted clothes and seemingly barefoot. Nothing about her appearance suggests benevolence; then again, everyone knows the stories of people in the forests, beautiful and beguiling, and dangerous beyond comparison. Besides, there’s only one person it can be. “The lady in the mirror.” You breathe, and teeth are shown again in a satisfied grin. “That’s how most refer to me.” She agrees in your own voice. And maybe it’s because you’ve been thinking about it again, maybe it’s because the fact that she has a name is the only certainty in the tales, but what you find yourself asking is, “Do you have a name?” Some stories claim to know it, the climactic finale to the tense tale, though the name itself varies and is the cause of much discourse. Beholder, say the nannies and nurses, who takes what she likes and leaves what she doesn’t, no matter what the person themselves wants. Beast, warn the bejewelled bards in the vaulted banquet halls, who whispers promises that are only paid for by your life. Bellua, argue the scholars in their huddles, because it is the Latin word for beast and explains why the paupers call her- Bell, rasp the old wives and buskers in the seedy taverns, seen from the corner of the eye and watching for those who cannot watch for themselves. There’s another word you’ve learnt, a quiet one your tutors didn’t want to reach your ears - bias. Everyone takes something different from the ones who vanish into their reflections; the controlling nobility, tired peasantry, suspicious merchants and, most of all, the grieving parents. The truth of her name, then, doesn’t really matter - she is the Lady in the Mirror, and doesn’t need the half-guessing stories others make about her - but it still tugs at you. She let out a short, abrasive bark of laughter. “Yes, given by the person I lived with.” She confirms, and there’s something about the way she says ‘lived with’ that plucks at you. There’s no creature you can think of that she fits, no other stories that parallel hers, none given a name like a gift. You wait for more but she seems happy to silently stand there, watching you watch her, so you take a deep breath, reclaim that step, and watch for the gleam of approval in her eyes. “Why are you here?” “Straight to the chase.” She remarks as she rocks back on her heels, something almost like wistfulness in her voice. “I have something to offer, child. Something simple. You don’t have to accept but this is your one chance to consider it.” “Alright.” You say when she looks to you for- what? Acknowledgement? Whatever the reason, she nods and continues. “Your heart does not yearn like they expect.” The words are blunt but they feel like a knife between the ribs all the same. “Oh, don’t look like that.” She rolls her eyes, even though your reflection is her and so you don’t actually know what your expression was. “While I keep an eye out for all outcasts I especially watch for ones like her. Ones like you.” “What does this matter?” You manage, and her eyebrows rise. “Matter? Well, it doesn’t at all, at least not to me. The line between possession and love is hard for me to grasp, for all that she tried to impart it upon me.” She shrugs. “It can easily be said that I gain nothing from doing this. But I respected her, witnessed her strife, so this seems a good use of my time.” You think that she has just lied without realising. You can read grief in her easily enough whenever she speaks of this woman that is clearly, in one way or another, no longer with her. A part of you thinks it was cruel of whoever she was, to teach someone how to care about other people and then leave them to live out their life alone. Another part of you realises that life isn’t fair, and she might not have had a choice in the matter. “Anyway,” She continues, “The offer is this: I can take you away from here, and to somewhere where you can live as you wish.” And she presses her hand against the surface of the mirror, making it ripple like it’s liquid instead of solid. You stare. This seems to be a fair reaction because she just removes her hand and settles into a mildly uncomfortable looking position, waiting. “Where?” You ask in a daze, earning yourself another flash of teeth. “No, you don’t get to know that unless you agree.” She ticks a finger at you as she speaks. “This is an all or nothing situation, child.” That rankles a little. You like to unearth mysteries where you can, but it’s becoming more and more obvious that there’s only one way to get the answers you want: leave to an unknown fate on the promise of a being that clearly wasn’t born to such benevolence. “I have all the time in the world. Normally, that is. You’re really very curious. That’s fine and all, love it actually, but if we’re going to leave we’ll have to do it soon. Your family are getting curious about what’s taking you so long. You get one more question.” You can feel them lining up behind your teeth: do you miss her and is this your version of loneliness and who are you really doing this for? The first two you don’t actually need to know right now; the last doesn’t actually matter. Whether for her own benefit or to benefit those she offered it to, the end result would be the same. “Are you doing this because you want to, or because she would have wanted to?” You ask, and watch it hit like a physical blow. Her sharp smile was back up again in an instant but you’d seen what she’d looked like before that, wretched and vicious and almost hungry. It’s this that makes you realise that maybe all of the stories of her are right, in their own ways. She’s a feral beast, a beholder of things she could never truly touch or understand, and maybe something that someone, somewhen, saw fit to smile at and offer a name to anyway. “Both.” She says, nonchalant in a way that you’re sure isn’t real. “There’s not much difference, really, not to me. Not when-” Her expression falters for a moment before she smirks again and claps her hands together. It doesn’t matter; you’ve got the answer that you want. “Never mind. I need your answer.” You’ve got responsibilities here, not least of which to your family. There’s talk of marriage arrangements, of the possibilities it can bring, and you know your duty. This shouldn’t be an easy answer but the reality is that it is. You’ve got responsibilities here, yes, but you can almost taste the slow, noxious death of your spirit that awaits you in the next few years. So it shouldn’t be an easy answer, but that doesn’t stop it from coming so easily. “Yes.” You say, holding out your hand, and the lady in the mirror smiles her razor smile as you touch the metal.