Fairest, p.14
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       Fairest, p.14

         Part #3.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
 
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  Snarling, Channary grabbed Levana’s arm and tugged her forward, nearly pulling Levana’s entire torso into the flames. Levana shrieked and struggled to pull back, but Channary held firm, holding her small hand into the glowing flames of the holograph.

  She felt nothing, of course. Just that same subtle warmth that the fire always released, to make it seem more authentic.

  After a moment, Levana’s heartbeat started to temper itself.

  “See?” said Channary, though Levana wasn’t sure what point she’d just made. She still didn’t want to touch the holograph, and as soon as her sister released her, she pulled her hand back and inched away on the carpet.

  Channary ignored the retreat.

  “Now—watch.” Reaching behind her, Channary produced a book of matches that she must have taken from the altar in the great hall. She had struck one before Levana could begin to question it, and leaned over, pressing the match into the bottom of the holograph.

  There should not have been anything flammable. The hearth should not have caught fire. But it wasn’t long before Levana could see a new brightness among the smoldering logs. The real flame licked and sputtered, and after a while Levana could make out the edges of dried leaves charring and curling. The kindling had been hidden by the holograph before, but as the real fire took hold, its brightness far outshone the illusion.

  Levana’s shoulders knotted. A warning in her head told her to get up and walk away, to go tell someone that Channary was breaking the rules, to leave fast before the fire grew any larger.

  But she didn’t. Channary would only call her a baby again, and if Levana dared to get the crown princess in trouble, Channary would find ways to punish her later.

  She stayed rooted to the carpet, watching the flames grow and grow.

  Once they were almost as big as the holograph, Channary again reached into the little bowl of sand—or maybe it was sugar?—and tossed a pinch into the flames.

  This time they turned blue, crackled and sparked and faded away.

  Levana gasped.

  Channary did it a few more times, growing more daring as her experiment succeeded. Two pinches at a time, now. Here, an entire handful, like little fireworks.

  “Do you want to try?”

  Levana nodded. Pinched the tiny crystals and tossed them into the flames. She laughed as the blue sparklers billowed up toward the top of the enclosure and crashed into the stone wall where there should have been a chimney.

  Rising to her feet, Channary began searching through the nursery, finding anything that might be entertaining to watch burn. A stuffed giraffe that smoked and charred and took a long time to catch flame. An old doll shoe that melted and furled. Wooden game pieces that were slowly scorched beneath their protective glaze.

  But while Levana was entranced by the flames—so very real, with their smell of ashes and the almost painful heat blasting against her face and the smoke that was darkening the wallpaper overhead—she could tell that Channary was growing more anxious with each experiment. Nothing was as enchanting as the simple, elegant blue and orange sparks from the sugar bowl.

  Snip.

  Jerking away, Levana turned just in time to see Channary toss a lock of brown hair into the flames. As the lock curled like springs, blackened, and dissolved, Channary giggled.

  Levana reached for the back of her head, found the chunk that Channary had cut nearly to her scalp. Tears sprung into her eyes.

  She made to scramble to her feet, but Channary was fast, grabbing her skirt in big handfuls. With a pull, Channary yanked Levana back onto the floor. She screamed and crashed to her knees, barely catching herself before her face could hit the floor too.

  Even as Levana tried to roll away, Channary was catching the hem of Levana’s dress between the scissor blades, and the sound of ripping fabric tore at Levana’s eardrums.

  “Stop it!” she screamed. When Channary kept a firm hold on her skirt and the tear escalated all the way to Levana’s thighs, Levana locked her teeth, grabbed up as much of the fabric as she could, and yanked it out of Channary’s grip.

  A large shred of material was torn away and Channary cried out and fell backward into the fire. Shrieking, she quickly pulled herself out of the hearth, her face twisted in pain.

  Levana gaped at her sister, horrified. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Are you all right?”

  It was clear that Channary was not all right. Her lips were snarling, her gaze darkened with a fury Levana had never seen—and she had seen her sister’s anger many, many times. She shrank back, her fists still gripping her skirt.

  “I’m sorry,” she stammered again.

  Ignoring her, Channary reached a trembling hand for the back of her shoulder, and turned so that Levana could see her back. It had happened so quickly. The top part of her dress was charred, but nothing had caught fire. What Levana could see of her sister’s neck was bright red and there were already small blisters forming above the dress’s neckline.

  “I’ll call for the doctor,” said Levana, climbing to her feet. “You should get water … or ice, or…”

  “I was trying to save you.”

  Levana paused. Tears of pain were glistening in her sister’s eyes, but they were overshadowed by the crazed look, glowing with fury. “What?”

  “Remember, baby sister? Remember how I came in here and found you playing with a real fire in the fireplace? Remember how you fell in, thinking it wouldn’t hurt you, just like the holograph? Remember how I got burned while trying to rescue you?”

  Blinking, Levana tried to take a step back, but her feet were rooted to the carpet. Not from fear or uncertainty—Channary was controlling her limbs now. She was too young, too weak to get away.

  Horror crept down her spine, covering her skin in gooseflesh.

  “S-sister,” she stammered. “We should put ice on your burns. Before … before they get any worse.”

  But Channary’s expression was changing again. The fury was contorting into something cruel and sadistic, hungry and curious.

  “Come here, baby sister,” she whispered, and despite the terror twisting inside Levana’s stomach, her feet obeyed. “I want to show you something.”

  * * *

  Levana couldn’t stop crying, no matter how hard she tried. The sobs were merciless and painful, coming so fast she felt faint from an inability to breathe as her lungs convulsed. She crumpled over her knees, rocking and trembling. She wanted to stop crying. So badly she wanted to stop crying, in no small part because she knew that Evret, in his own private chambers down the hall, could probably hear her. And at first she’d dreamed that he would take pity on her, that the sound of her tears would soften his heart and bring him to her side. That he would comfort her and hold her and finally, finally realize that he’d loved her all along.

  But she’d been crying long enough now, with no sign of her husband, to know that it wasn’t going to happen. Just one more fantasy that wouldn’t come true. Just one more lie she’d constructed for herself to escape into, never realizing she was welding the bars of her own cage.

  Finally, the tears began to slow, the pain began to dull.

  When she could breathe again, and thought she could stand without collapsing, she took hold of a bedpost and hauled herself to her feet. Her legs were weak, but they held. Without the strength to reinstate her glamour, she tore off one of the sheer drapes that hung from the bed’s canopy and draped it over her head. She would look like a ghost wandering the palace halls, but that was fine. She felt like a ghost. No more than a figment of a girl.

  Hugging the makeshift veil around her body, she stumbled out of her bedroom. Two guards were posted outside the royal chambers, at silent attention as she emerged. If they were surprised at the fabric draped over her head, their expressions gave nothing away, and they fell into a march at a respectful distance behind her.

  Despite the care she took to conceal herself, she passed no one else as she wandered through the palace. Even the servants were aslee
p this late at night.

  She didn’t know where she was going until, minutes later, she found herself standing outside her sister’s bedroom, or what had been her sister’s bedroom during her short reign as queen, nearly eight years ago. Levana could have taken these chambers as her own—larger and more lavish than the room she was currently in—but at the time she’d enjoyed the quaintness of her rooms shared with Evret and Winter. She’d liked the idea that she was a queen who did not need riches and luxuries, only the love of her family to surround her.

  She wondered if the people of the court had been laughing behind her back all this time. Was she the only one who had never recognized just how false her marriage, her family, really was?

  Leaving the guards in the hall, she opened her sister’s door. It wasn’t locked, and at first Levana expected to find it emptied of anything of value. Surely the servants knew that she never came here, that they could have their pick of all the fine treasures inside.

  But as Levana stepped into the room and the lights flickered on, casting the room in a serene glow, it was exactly as she remembered it, even the very faint scent of her sister’s perfume. It was like walking into a museum, every piece encapsulated in time. Her sister’s hairbrush on the vanity, though the tines had been carefully picked clean. The unruffled bedcovers. There was even the little basinet with its cream-colored velvets and filigree of a tiny coronet on top, where baby Selene had slept, unbeknownst even to Levana. She’d assumed that the child stayed with a wet nurse or nanny during that first year, not in her mother’s own chambers.

  It occurred to her, staring at that tiny, beautiful little bed, sweet and innocent and harmless, that she probably should have felt something. Remorse. Guilt. Horror at what she’d done all those years ago.

  But there was nothing. She felt nothing but the breaking of her own heart inside her chest.

  Tearing her gaze away, she spotted what she’d come for. Her sister’s mirror.

  It stood in the far corner, its glass cast in shadows. It was taller than Levana, framed in silver that was tarnished with age. The metal had been crafted into elaborate scrolls with a prominent crown centered at the top. On the sides, silver flowers and thorny branches entwined around the frame, looking as though they were growing out from behind the mirror, like they would someday engulf it entirely.

  Levana had stood before a mirror only once since she was six years old. Since Channary had forced her into that fireplace—first her hand, then her arm, then the entire left side of her face. Offering no mercy. Channary didn’t even have to touch her. Under the grip of Channary’s mind control, Levana had been powerless to fight back, to run away, to pull herself from the flames.

  Only when her screaming had brought a couple of servants running into the nursery did Channary let her go and told them all that she’d been trying to help her sister. Her stupid, curious baby sister.

  Her ugly, deformed, scarred baby sister.

  The mirror had belonged to their mother, and Levana had only faint memories of watching Queen Jannali primp in front of it before some gala or another, on those rare occasions when she wasn’t annoyed with the presence of her own offspring. For the most part Levana remembered her mother as her glamour had been. Pale as a corpse with platinum hair and those severe violet eyes that seemed to make the rest of her fade away. But when she sat in front of this mirror, Jannali had been as she was underneath. As she was really. And she looked a lot like Channary, with naturally tanned skin and shiny brown hair. She’d been pretty. Perhaps even prettier than she was with the glamour—though not as striking. Not as regal.

  Levana could recall being very, very young and having nightmares about her mother and the court and how everyone around her had two faces.

  Channary claimed the mirror almost immediately following the assassinations, and Levana hadn’t seen it since. Which was fine with her. She hated mirrors. Hated their reflections, their truths. Hated how she seemed to be the only one who hated them as much as she did, even when everyone in the entire court walked around with glamours every bit as fake as her own.

  Now Levana braced herself and strolled toward the standing monstrosity. Her reflection came into view, draped with the sheer white cloth, and she was surprised to find that she didn’t look so much like a ghost. Rather, she looked like a second-era bride. Endless happiness could be concealed beneath this veil. Boundless joy. So many dreams fulfilled.

  Gripping the edges of the drape, she lifted it over her head.

  She grimaced, flinching away from her reflection. It took her a moment to gather her courage again before she could face it, and even then she kept her face partly turned away, so that she could quickly turn back if the sight became too painful.

  It was worse than she’d remembered, but then, she’d spent many, many years refusing to remember.

  Her left eye was permanently sealed shut, and the scarred tissue on that side of her face was formed of ridges and grooves. Half of her face was paralyzed from the incident, and great chunks of hair would never grow back. The scars continued down her neck and shoulder, half of her chest and upper ribs, all the way down to her hand.

  The doctors had done what they could at the time. They saved her life, at least. They told her that, when she was older, she would have options. A series of skin-grafting surgeries could gradually replace the ruined flesh. Hair transplants. Modified bone structure. They had even said that they could find a new, working eye for her. Finding a perfect match would be difficult but they would scour the entire country for a suitable donor, and surely, no one would dare refuse a request from their princess should she ask. Even their own eye.

  But there would always be scars, no matter how faint, and at the time, the idea of accepting such transplants had disgusted her. Someone else’s eye. Someone else’s hair. Skin transplanted from the back of her thigh onto her own face. At the time, it had seemed easier to develop her glamour and pretend that nothing was wrong underneath it at all.

  By now, so many had forgotten what she truly looked like she wouldn’t even consider having the surgeries. She couldn’t stand to think of those surgeons hovering over her unconscious, grotesque body, analyzing the best way to disguise her hideousness.

  No. Her glamour worked. Her glamour was the reality now, no matter what Evret thought. No matter what anyone thought.

  She was the fairest queen Luna had ever known.

  Grabbing for the sheer drape, she pulled the veil back over her head, encapsulating herself. Her heart was stampeding now, her pulse drumming against her ears.

  With an enraged scream, she reached for the silver hairbrush on the vanity and hurled it as hard as she could at the mirror.

  A spiderweb of cracks burst across the glass, spindling toward the silver frame. A hundred veiled strangers looked back at her. She screamed again and grabbed for anything in reach—a vase, a perfume bottle, a jewelry box—throwing them all at the mirror, watching as pieces of glass splintered and shattered, broken slivers crashing to the floor. Finally she picked up the small chair beside the vanity, cushioned in white velvet.

  With that final crash, the mirror was destroyed, shards of glass scattering halfway across the bedroom.

  The guards burst through the door. “Your Majesty! Is everything all right?”

  Panting, Levana threw the chair aside and crumpled to her knees, ignoring the piece of glass that cut into her shin. Trembling, she adjusted the veil over her head, making sure she was fully hidden.

  “Your Majesty?”

  “Don’t come any closer!” she yelled, holding out her hand.

  The guards paused.

  “I want—” Nearly choking on the words, she scrubbed the tears from her face. It was a struggle to compose herself, but her voice was firm when she spoke again. “I want all the mirrors in the palace destroyed. Every one of them. Check the servants’ quarters, the washrooms, everywhere. Check the entire city! Destroy them and throw their shattered pieces into the lake where I will never have to
look at them again!”

  After a long silence, one of the guards murmured, “My Queen.”

  She could not tell if his words were to say that it would be done, or that she was talking like a madwoman.

  She didn’t care.

  “Once all of the mirrors are destroyed, I want to commission special glass for the palace, to replace all of the windows, and every glass surface. Glass that holds no reflection. None at all.”

  “Is that possible, My Queen?”

  Exhaling slowly, Levana grabbed for the edge of the vanity and pulled herself to her feet as gracefully as she could. She adjusted the veil again before turning to face the guards. “If it is not, then we will all live in a palace without any glass at all.”

  * * *

  “Yes. Yes. This will work. I’m pleased.”

  The technician bowed, his face contorted with obvious relief, but Levana was already ignoring him, her attention captured by the special screen she’d commissioned to be installed into the silver frame of her sister’s mirror. The destroyed glass had been thrown into the lake with all the rest of it.

  She drew a finger across the screen, testing its functionality. Most of the entertainment on Luna was broadcast through the holograph nodes or on the enormous screens set into the walls of the domes themselves. But comms and video feeds from Earth didn’t always translate to the holographs, so her newly commissioned netscreen was more akin to Earthen technology. It was as useful as it was beautiful. She would need it for the surveillance she hoped to conduct on the people of the outer sectors. For her discussions with the Commonwealth emperor. For the newsfeeds she would be monitoring, closely, once her army was unleashed.

  A good queen was a well-informed queen.

  She paused when one of the Earthen newsfeeds showed the royal family of the Eastern Commonwealth. Emperor Rikan standing alone at the podium with his country’s flag like a sunrise behind him. The young prince stood beside a sour-faced political adviser, his eyes downcast. He was a string bean of a child, not much older than Winter. But it was his father, expression equally miserable, that held Levana’s attention.

 
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