I looked into the water with a sigh, feeling the chill of the water soaking into my shift. The water adhered the fabric to my skin revealingly, though the ripples on the water distorted my form. I crouched closer to look at my shape in the water. It was artistic, nature. This art was the highest and purest kind, born from the interaction of natural principles. Below my reflection fish swam, venturing closer with my stillness.
And then there were the wings.
The reflected wings were the mark of our royal family. There was no questioning who was and was not a Cealiusan. No hiding your bastards, and no denying your heritage. I looked through the water to the fish, and in the reflection, ‘my’ wings adjusted. I knew it was to shade the water to see the fish. I slapped the water and fish burst away in all directions, the disturbed water ruining the image of my wings.
I rose, my good mood spoiled, and walked to the edge of the lake. The walls rose around me on all sides, windowless. They shut out the sun in my private garden, and as I peeled off the shift, the shade raised goosebumps all over my body. I went inside and grabbed a towel from the bathing chambers to dry myself.
“You wouldn’t be so cold if you used the hot water in the bath.”
I looked at Tyla, the young serving girl assigned to me. She was clumsy sometimes, but I forbade anybody from having her replaced. She was young, awkward, at times even impertinent. But she had a good, honest heart. It must have been her upbringing on her farm – you didn’t find things like that in girls raised to the court. I intended to nurture it. She to armor her heart, but honesty and goodness could be armor, too. I just had to teach her to use it, before someone injured her too badly to try.
“It’s a little square box with water in it. It’s boring.”
I knew I was being unfair. The bath was probably a six or eight steps to a side, with beautiful artwork on the tile, and fountains at each corner, each one complex and artful. But none of it made a dent in the natural beauty of the rocky pool in my courtyard garden, regardless of how artificial and cultured the gardening was.
“You’ll make yourself sick, one day.”
“Tyla, I know you worry, but you won’t deny me my garden.”
She came close, and I stood before the mirror, spreading my arms. My reflection spread her arms and folded her wings. Tyla dressed me, seeing to the complexities of a royal dress; buttons and ties and ribbons and stays. In the reflection, she also saw to fitting the wings through gaps in a dress, fastening the dress around the base of those wings.
I fretted over what I saw again. It wasn’t just an illusion. Things changed in the mirror. Clothes changed, people’s actions changed. People would step out of the way of the wings when they did not move in life. It always closely matched life, though. It was as if the world in the mirror was another world, and every person had their own life, and only my mirror personality was any different from who they were here. I wondered if she saw herself, wingless, in the mirror. I wonder what she thought about it. Here, it was seen as a mark of divinity. She would have that mark on her back, but it would not exist in a mirror. Did she wonder if her right to rule was an illusion, as I did? If she were like me, she would have to.
“There. You’re beautiful today, Leila.” I smiled. I knew she didn’t tell white lies. I looked at her in the mirror as she took the towel from around my hair, rubbing and drying it, then brushing it out.
“Tyla . . . do you ever wonder why my family deserves the wings?”
She shook her head fiercely. “No! I know you. Of course, you deserve them. I don’t know your family well, but you deserve them. Just that you question it, proves it.”
I watched her as she brushed the tangles loose, surprised at her fervor. Then I smiled. She made too much sense for me to dismiss her words out of hand. Anybody else would have just vomited praise on my shoes until I dismissed them. I turned quickly, and hugged her close. “Don’t change. I need a friend like you. One day I’ll rule these people, and I’ll need you all the more. Be my rock, someone I can trust. I’ll protect you forever, Tyla.”
She looked up at me, her eyes wide. I had long since given her leave to address me by name, but I hadn’t used the word ‘friend’ before. But to my surprise, there was hurt in her eyes. “Of course . . . Leila, of course. Nobody’s looked out for me like you have. How could you think I wouldn’t be there for you?”
I caressed her hair, and sighed. “The court is a complicated place. There is little someone like me can count on. You are remarkable, that way. Don’t let this place change you, Tyla. I will protect you. Your honesty will keep you safe. Remember that, if things ever seem too complicated to do the right thing.”
She pressed back against my chest and hugged me. “Okay.” Then she pressed back, and turned me back to the mirror, to face myself and my wings. “Now sit still! I have to finish your hair.”
I smiled, watching her work over my shoulder, and relaxed. My mirror image dipped her wing so that she – I – could see. There was at least one small part of the future that I knew I could trust. It might be the only rock left in my future. But her purity was a potent thing. It would be enough.