Mirror on the Wall

So far, so good.  I’m working on formatting the e-book tonight, so everything is on schedule and Mirror on the Wall should be out in e-book soon, with the print version to follow when I get it done.  It’s going to work out to around 70 pages in print, with a few illustrations.  I decided not to experiment with Amazon Select this time, so it will be on Nook and Smashwords and eventually the iBookstore and Kobo.  Here’s the first few pages, roughly what I’ll be putting on my website as the sample.

Mirror on the Wall

by Lisa Anne Nisula

We lied when Father died because we had to. At least that’s what she said. We were sitting at dinner―roast chicken and root vegetables, after leek and potato soup―and the dessert, apple trifle, had just come out.

Father started first, of course. Royalty was served before anyone else. The queen piled cake and berries on my plate, trying to bribe me with sweets for some unknown reason. “Go on, dear, eat up. It’s good.” She licked the cream off the spoon and rolled her eyes like it was the best thing she’d ever tasted.

I didn’t like her, so in the contrary way of a seven-year-old, I took my time before starting my dessert, picking up my spoon and carefully arranging the cream so it covered the plate smoothly before I took a spoonful and studied it, making sure it was exactly one-third cake, one-third fruit, and one-third cream.

And then he collapsed on the table. The guards moved in and, in less than a breath, they had surrounded us. The queen was leaning over Father, feeling his neck. She shook her head.

Samson, the captain of the guard, stepped forward and touched Father’s neck himself, not to contradict the queen, but to confirm it, although the queen seemed mad at him anyway.

“Your Highness, no one entered this room, no hand touched the food. I will speak to the physician, but I was not aware of any sickness.”

The queen, I suppose I should have called her “Stepmother” or “Calida” at least, shook her head. “Poison.” She grabbed a slice of fruit from the plate and flung it at the fire. There was a snap, like a cracker tossed in, then a flare of lime-green light filled the hearth.

“Your Highness?”

“It’s dragonwort. Tasteless and deadly, and favored by those in Cathguard.”

There were gasps, but why anyone would be surprised that Cathguard would want to kill Father surprised me more. I’d been hearing tales of their treachery since I was in the cradle.

One of the guards with more sense than the others grabbed the plates from the table and the spoon from my hand. “Your Majesty is lucky you did not―” but he didn’t finish. He’d seen Queen Calida’s spoon was streaked with cream.

“As I said, dragonwort is favored by those in Cathguard; I felt it prudent to develop a tolerance for it. I tried to convince him, but―”

“So we must find the source. The stairs are guarded.”

“Then we must look to the kitchens. I would hate to think Melba would be capable of . . .”

Accusing the cook loosened my tongue. “I was with her this afternoon. She couldn’t have done it.” I left out that I had helped chop the fruit and layer the cream. The queen didn’t like me spending time in the kitchens.

Captain Samson nodded. “If Princess Snow White can confirm that, then we must look elsewhere.”

“So it would seem.” The queen glared at me, presumably for admitting to being in the kitchens. “We should not let Cathguard know they succeeded. Then they will think we are weak and come to take the throne and throw us all into exile or the darkest of dungeons. This must be kept a secret; you are all ordered to tell no one.”

“As you command. We will move him to the chapel.”

They were ignoring me, so I snuck out between two guards at the kitchen stairs―they both pretended not to notice―and crept down to the kitchens. It was warm there, and bustling now that dinner had been cleared. I found a corner by the fire and sat to think.

“Problems, Snow?”

I didn’t know if “tell no one” included servants or not. They’d find out on their own twice as fast as any spy, but, while I was contrary, I was also a princess, and I wouldn’t betray the kingdom. I huddled back in the corner.

Melba shrugged. “When you’re ready to talk.” She went back to work and let me be miserable. She was used to me and to my moods and doted on me like her faraway daughter ever since a four-year-old princess had been bored and found her way to the room where the cookies came from.

No one came looking for me that evening; everyone was too busy questioning each other. I wasn’t a suspect, so no one was interested in me. I spent the time by the cheery fire, sipping milk tea, shelling peas, and running around the kitchen making a nuisance of myself, although I didn’t know it.

The next morning, the castle was full of guards. Everywhere I looked, there was someone in armor clanking around, talking about Cathguard spies. No one noticed me as I ate my toast and honey. When I’d finished, there was no maid or guard to take me up to the classroom and Master Beaufield. I didn’t need anyone; I was old enough to find my own way there, but it wasn’t normal. I’d made it all the way to the schoolroom door when I started thinking, no one would notice if I didn’t go inside, not right away. Master Beaufield would think I was being kept away for a good reason, and whoever was supposed to bring me―usually it was Lieutenant Conrad or Daisy the drawing room maid―would think someone else had come for me. I liked Master Beaufield well enough, and he taught my favorite doll, Annie, along with me, but it was my first break of freedom and I didn’t want to waste it sitting at lessons. Annie agreed with me, so we ran to the servants’ stairs and made our way to the kitchen.

Melba was at the table, working out the five courses that would be needed for lunch. I sat at a small table near the window and used the discarded turnip leaves and nutshells to make a tea set for us.

Melba came by and put two chipped cups in front of me. “Poor child.” I wondered who she meant since Annie seemed quite comfortable.

“Would Annie like some fried sugar dough?”

Fried sugar dough was a favorite of mine. I nodded.

“Would you like to help make it?” She held out her hand and I went with her to the big table. She lifted me onto the stool and left me with a ball of dough to make shapes from and sugar to dunk them in before I ate them. It was like playing with sugary clay, and no one noticed if a few bits of uncooked dough wound up in my mouth.

When Melba had a free minute from her trout, and turnip soup, and braised quail, she fried my dough masterpieces and set them out with a pitcher of milk for me and Annie to share.

When Annie and I had finished our snack, Melba sent us back upstairs for our delayed lessons. I expected Master Beaufield to be mad, and I practiced excuses all the way to the door, but when I got there, I heard music. I peered around the door and saw Master Beaufield at the piano, sheets of half-written music paper around him. I crept to my seat. Maybe he’d think I’d been there the whole time.

As Master Beaufield grabbed up his pen to write a few notes, he caught sight of me out of the corner of his eye.

“Princess Snow White, um, it seems we’re beginning lessons a little late.” He smiled sheepishly.

I realized he wasn’t mad about missing my morning lessons at all. “We’re almost on time.”

“So we are. Let’s begin then. Proper posture is the foundation of both dance and poise.”

Since Master Beaufield didn’t mind the extra time for his writing, only the queen finding out about it, I snuck back to the kitchen before breakfast the next morning, and most mornings after that. That’s how I found out about the state visit with the king of Cathguard and his son.

That morning, Melba was rushing around the kitchen when I got there. Instead of mixing up the batter for pancakes or seasoning potatoes for frying, she was at the table with two dairymaids. “See if you can get an extra five dozen eggs anywhere. And she wants a custard for dessert. See what you can do. We have a week. How she expects a royal feast in a week, I don’t know.”

I climbed into my chair and helped Melba by adding pepper to the sliced potatoes in the pan. I wasn’t sure how much to add, so I ground a bit more in, twice since the pepper mill was fun to use.

“Then we’ll need milk for all of that. Enough, Snow. I’ll take the pepper.” I handed it over, but Melba didn’t seem to need it for anything. She went to the back door to talk to the gardener. I grabbed the pan and brought it to the fire so she could fry the potatoes.

“I’ve got that.” One of the kitchen maids grabbed the pan from me before I dropped the potatoes into the fire. Melba turned, still discussing how many apples they could count on. I thought she was going to say something to me, but a footman ran down the stairs. “Melba, message for you.”

I followed at Melba’s heels as she went to get the note. She turned and almost fell over me. “Tom, see if you can catch the dairymaids. We won’t need the eggs after all.”

Tom ran for the door.

“Call the huntsman. Tell him we need a deer. And get as many apples as possible from the orchard. Apparently boar and custard aren’t good enough for Cathguard.”

“Cathguard?” I asked.

Melba turned and almost fell into me. “They’re paying a state visit next week. Did you catch them, Tom?”

“Yes, ma’am, but I hope she doesn’t go back to custard. I don’t want to deliver the message if she does.”

I picked up the milk picture and followed Melba back to the table, or so I thought. She stopped at the cupboard to check the supply of herbs and I bumped into her, sloshing milk on the floor. Cora hurried to sop it up.

Melba took the picture. “Snow, honey, maybe you should have breakfast upstairs.” I thought she was getting rid of me until she added, “I’ll make something special for your breakfast, but you don’t want to spoil the surprise. Just until Cathguard leaves.”

I wanted to stay in the kitchen, but the treat sounded almost as good. “All right.”

Melba sent jam tarts just for my breakfast. The queen sneezed as she started on her fried potatoes. She looked around for her glass and noticed me.

“You’ll need a guard to watch you while they’re here. Captain Samson, stay with her.”

I made a face; I didn’t like the burly, bristly man, and I suspected he didn’t like children.

Lieutenant Conrad interrupted. “Your Highness, you’re too valuable to the realm. You should have the most experienced guards. I’ll watch the princess.”

I ran to Conrad and stood near him. I didn’t like having any guard in the castle―it meant I couldn’t visit the kitchen, or the garden, or sit in the old nursery where I had outgrown all of the toys―but Conrad was much friendlier. He could even be persuaded to join in a game of marbles or catch.

“Very well. Now, I’d like to change them to the silver suite, I think.”

On the day of the big visit, I was awakened early to bathe and be dressed by one of the queen’s maids who I only saw before state events. I had been hoping for a nice pink dress, or blue, or red, or anything pretty and not mourning black, but I was buttoned into a new black-wool dress and strapped into a new pair of shiny black shoes. I hadn’t been fitted for new shoes, so they must have used old measurements, and I had grown. My hair was brushed almost out of my scalp and tied back. As the maid was curling the ends of my hair, the queen came in and stood behind us, staring at me in the mirror.

“Snow White, do you remember what you’ll say the first time they ask where your father is?”

I gave the answer I’d rehearsed, “He’s busy with important work.”

“Very good. And if they ask when you saw him last?”

“Before I went to bed.”

“And what will you say about their attempt on his life?”

“Nothing at all.”

“Very good. Now the second time they ask you where he is . . .”

By the time Conrad came to bring me to the entrance hall, we had gone through all of my answers for eight sets of questions on Father’s absence. After that, she trusted me to mix up my responses. As Conrad led me out I could see myself in the mirror with my black dress and smoothed-out hair: the very image of a serious young princess, dutiful and quiet, and terribly uncomfortable.

We assembled in the front hall. Queen Calida greeted King Mathius formally, while I stood in her shadow. “King Stormblade is sorry he could not meet with you, but His Highness had . . . more pressing matters to attend to.”

Even I could hear the contempt in her tone. I wondered why I had to be polite if she could get away with that.

“If you would join me in the dining hall, I have arranged for some lunch.”

I saw Prince Alexander scratch at his neck. King Mathius tapped the back of the prince’s hand and he stopped. The king pulled off his riding gloves and looked for someplace to put them. No one stepped forward to take them, so he had to carry the dusty things with him into the dining hall.

We all sat around the table. With only four of us, it seemed huge. The prince was seated across from me. He was only a little older than I was. Another day, I might have invited him to see the frogs in the well, or the apple trees behind the kitchen, or maybe even offered to sneak him some fried sugar dough (not telling him how easy it was for me to get, of course) but I wasn’t feeling friendly. I was stuck wearing a scratchy black dress, and pinching black shoes that squeaked if I stepped wrong, and my face felt stretched from the tight knot my hair was in, and I think the curling iron had burned the top of my head—all for meeting these people. And I was pretty sure it was their fault I had Conrad following me around now.

I sat on my chair and stared at the tablecloth, giving one-word answers when King Mathius spoke to me directly and thumping my heel against the chair leg. I wanted to ask why he was called “King” like Father, but that would have meant I was showing an interest.

I perked up a bit when the tea came out, until I saw what it was: bread-and-butter sandwiches and celery sticks. I was prepared to blame the visitors for that too, but the prince looked as disappointed as I felt, and the king was glaring at the food like he wanted to punish it, but he was too polite to do that in public. Only the queen seemed pleased.

King Mathius tried conversation again. “Princess Snow White, what are you studying with your governess?”

I just stared at my hands.

The queen put a plate in front of me. “Now Princess, be polite. Answer the man.”

I sat there looking at the austere tea. How could she tell me to be polite when she was being so rude? “It’s all your fault. I wish you’d never come.”

The queen stared at me with that sugar-sweet smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “What in the world do you mean, child?”

“I wish you’d never come. Then Father would be here and we’d have cake with tea.”

The queen laughed in her condescending way. “Poor child,” she said more to King Mathius than to me. “Go down to the kitchen and see if Cook can find you some sugar cake. Tell her I sent you.”

The prince looked jealous as I scrambled out of my chair, but I didn’t invite him to join me. As I left the room, I heard the queen say, “You must forgive her, she doesn’t understand what she says,” and the buzz of agreeing voices.

Melba hadn’t made any sweet for tea, but when she heard the queen’s message, she pulled the bowls out again.

“How would you like to help me make a nice apple cake?”

I climbed up on the high kitchen stool and helped her measure and mix. Then I sat at the scrubbed wooden table and ate three pieces of cake, far more than I would have been allowed upstairs.

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my web page is www.lisaannenisula.com copyright 2010, 2011 Lisa Anne Nisula
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