Life had felt wrong those last two months. Like I was trapped in a bad dream, but would wake up at any moment to find that my father had survived the accident – or that it hadn’t happened at all. Wake up and find that Jeremy hadn’t dumped me without so much as a word of explanation, or at least that it was all a misunderstanding. I would still be at college, working hard at my business degree … rather than suddenly disinherited and no money to finish my last two semesters.
“Gwen, back to reality. There are tables waiting on you.”
Rosa backed up her verbal jab with a physical jab of her pencil. Under such an attack, I had no choice but to return to my dreadful reality.
No future outside waiting tables at Apple Pancakes, a cheap breakfast café that shouldn’t even been in business at this point. Not that I wasn’t grateful for the job – truly, I was. I just wished that I hadn’t needed it in the first place.
Rosa poked me again, harder this time.
I winced. “Sorry. I just … had another dream last night. About Dad and Jeremy this time.”
Rosa frowned. “Again? Gwen, you need to need to accept that they’re gone now. And they’re not coming back, no matter how much you wish they would. You have to accept that and live in reality.”
I managed a smile, knowing that Rosa was just trying to be helpful in her way. She’d led a difficult life, and that was the mantra that had carried her through an abusive father, a sickly mother, poverty, and more failed relationships than I knew about. I had always admired her for her resilience … but, all the same, I wasn’t her. And she’d never had a perfect life snatched away from her and shattered on the ground in a million pieces. Broken pieces were all she’d ever had.
“Tables. Waiting customers. Now, Gwen.”
I finally shifted my attention to my tables. There was a party of five businessmen who were waiting for me. Perfect. I snatched up an armload of menu and headed over to introduce myself, hand them out, and collect their drink order. As I retreated to fulfill the order, another customer entered, and my heart started racing.
Editha. The root of my every trouble.
What was she doing here?
I forced myself to focus on making the drinks for the businessmen: two coffees, a soda, a sweet tea, and an orange juice. With any luck, Editha would be assigned to one of Rosa’s tables. Not that I wished the woman on anyone – least of all my best friend – but there was too much personal history between us.
Sure, I knew that the accident probably wasn’t her fault, but Father had still left her everything instead of me, and she had promptly kicked me out onto the streets. If Rosa hadn’t let me crash on her couch, and helped me get a job here at Apple Pancakes … I don’t know where I would have been.
I returned with the drinks for my businessmen, and they tried to flirt with me. Such attention usually meant more tips for me, as I had already discovered, so I didn’t discourage it, even if I didn’t have the heart to respond. They were ready, so I took their order, and then headed back to the kitchen to submit it.
On the way, I was relieved to see Editha seated in Rosa’s section, Rosa already waiting on her. Indeed, she was actually treating her civilly, which was more than I could have managed. I honestly considered nominated her for some reward or another.
Editha’s eyes met mine, and a shiver shuddered down my spine. The woman had given me chills from the first time Dad introduced her to me. It was still beyond me what he’d seen in her.
Rosa had accused me of jealousy, when I’d confessed my misgivings to her, but I knew that wasn’t the problem. Yes, I had always been my father’s world, ever since my mother’s death when I was a baby, but I knew that I was moving on in my life. I wanted him to be happy. If Editha had made him happy, I would have welcomed her with open arms.
But she hadn’t made him happy.
Rosa noticed me, and her eyes narrowed in a glare. Quickly, I moved on. There were five businessmen who were waiting eagerly for their food, and I knew that the kitchen wasn’t going to be in any hurry to deliver.
Customers who felt that they’d not received their food in a fair amount of time tended to leave less of a tip. And I needed every cent I could get. Truly, if I ever came back into money, I was never going to give a shoddy tip ever again.
Waitresses put up with a lot, the poor souls.
I was reluctant to return to the dining room, to face Editha again, so I was still standing there, hovering in the doorway as Rosa arrived to deliver her own order to the kitchen. She frowned as she saw me, but said nothing until she’d punched in the order.
“You all right?” she asked.
I just shrugged. “What is she doing here?”
Rosa just rolled her eyes. “Eating brunch. She has a right to eat anywhere she likes, and consider this getting back a little of your inheritance. The money she spends on her food will filter into your paycheck.”
I shrugged again. “I’d prefer to not have to look at her.”
She shook her head again and hurried back to attend to another customer who’d just been seated in her section.
Somehow, I managed to make it through Editha’s visit, though I’m still not sure how. She seemed to linger far longer than any customer had a right to, and she didn’t even eat very much – from what I could tell, anyway, and I certainly wasn’t spying on her.
Okay, maybe I was, a little. I didn’t like the woman.
I was so glad when she finally stood to take her ticket to the front, though Rosa had given it to her a full fifteen minutes before. Unfortunately, I had misjudged her motive, because she cornered me first.
Well, cornering isn’t quite the right word for what she did, because politeness kept me from running like the scared animal I was, but she stalked towards me on her four-inch stilettoes, without falling and breaking her neck on them like I secretly hoped that she would.
I wasn’t short, by any means, and I drew myself to my full height now, but she towered over me in those heels. I don’t know why women wear those for every day. Even for special occasions I prefer my shoes to be a bit more conservative.
“It’s good to see you working hard, Gwen,” she said, her voice dripping with fake enthusiasm. “I told you that you could make it just fine in life without your father’s money.”
I leveled my chin as I glared at the woman. “As far as I can tell, you weren’t in any particular need of it, either.” I pushed back the strand of black hair that escaped my ponytail hours ago, though certainly not because I was intimidated by how not a strand of her platinum blonde hair was out of place.
By how there was no soul behind her ice-blue eyes.
Her lip twisted. “I know how to care for it.”
“I bet you do,” I scoff. Editha was a business mogul in her own right, with her fingers in multiple ventures. “But Kingdoms has been in my family for generations, and I’ve been groomed to take over since I was three years old.”
“You apparently didn’t measure up.” Editha shakes her head at me. “Working here has been a good life lesson for you. Truly, I was skeptical when I heard that Hunson had hired you, but you performed beautifully today. I saw little of the spoiled rich girl.”
I bit my tongue and take a deep breath to keep myself from making a snarky response to match hers, but then I frowned. “What does it matter to you if I work here? Do you really feel that you must have your nose in everyone’s business?”
“Oh, I really must,” she answered, her lip twisting. “But, more accurately, I like to have an egg in every basket. I also take careful note of everyone inside my employ.”
My eyes widened as I realized that I worked for Editha – yet another way that she controlled my life – but I refused to let her know that it bothered me and quickly folded my arms over my chest.
“You own this place?” I scoffed. “Now that really sets my mind at ease about you running my father’s company.”
Her lips pursed. She knew that I was making a jab at how Apple Pancakes was failing financially. When a full minute passed before she answered, I continued.
“You have yourself spread too thin. I’ve been working here for nearly a month and this is the first time that I’ve seen you. What I have seen? A kitchen that doesn’t care, waitresses that are frustrated to distraction, and almost no customers. If you can’t invest your time in a business, then it’s a bad idea to invest your money.”
“Are you trying to tell me how to manage my own business?” Editha finally asked, tilting her head to the side as she stared at me.
I shrugged. “Well, it’s the least I can do since you’ve taken control of mine. Besides, I’m only two semesters short of my business degree. I’m not clueless.”
She tilted her head to the side as she regarded me, and I managed to not crumple under her scrutiny.
“Very well,” she finally admitted, in a tone that turned my blood cold. “Perhaps you’re right. And, perhaps, I should give you a means to prove yourself.” She reached into her handbag and produced a card, which she handed to me. “Meet me tomorrow afternoon at my lawyer’s. I am going to make a gift of this place to you.”
And, while I stood there, my mouth hanging open like an idiot, she breezed past me, out of the café.
She was setting me up for failure, I knew this without a doubt. Apple Pancakes was failing, and it wasn’t going to be easy to bring it back from the precipice. Now she would make a scapegoat of me and have yet one more way to break my spirit.
It was win-win for her, all around.
I couldn’t afford to take her offer – but I couldn’t afford not to, either. If I turned this down, I’d look ungrateful and proud, and if I could somehow turn the place around … well, it’d be a start.
I just wished that I could talk to my lawyer. Or, rather, my father’s lawyer. Unfortunately, Williams had gone silent after my father’s death, and I couldn’t know if he’d want to talk to me or not.
Well, I wanted to talk to him. Tomorrow was my day off, and I knew that I’d have time enough to visit Williams’ office before I turned up at the meeting that Editha had arranged.
I slipped the card into my shirt pocket and, suddenly, the room pulsed around me, fading in and out. I fought down a whimper, grabbing a railing that ran beside me. I couldn’t be having another episode. Not right now.
For a moment, I almost gave in. In hindsight, I wish I had, but my determination to cling to sanity was too strong. By the time Rosa sought me out and asked me if anything was wrong, nothing was.
Beyond the usual, but she already knew my sob story, after all.
I didn’t tell her the conversation with my stepmother – or Editha’s offer. It was too soon, and I was still processing the implications.
There was only a handful more customers throughout the duration of my shift, and I wasted no time in retreating from the store to my car – my car that was fully paid for and in my name. While I could have sold it, giving me the money I needed to survive and saving on gas, it was good to have something that Editha had been unable to touch. Besides, it was built for economy, not luxury – frugality despite privilege was a lesson that my father had always sought to impress on me.
I returned to my apartment – my home of less than a week. It’d been a miracle – shockingly low rent and fully furnished. I was so glad to not have to crash on Rosa’s couch anymore. She’d been happy to have me, but I’ve never liked to depend on anyone.
Tossing my purse and wad of one-dollar bills onto the table, I withdrew Editha’s card from my pocket again. What was her game? Could I possibly hope to beat her at it? Did I even have a choice?
The wad of one-dollar bills said I didn’t have one. My tips from working as a waitress at Apple Pancakes was never going to be enough for me to live on, even if I kept my expenses as low as I could.
Honestly, how did Rosa do it?
Throwing down the card, I stalked into my bedroom to change out of my uniform.
That plan, however, went out of my head when I found an unfamiliar piece of furniture standing at the foot of my bed. A narrow wooden chest of drawers, nearly as tall as I was and beautifully carved.
Had my landlord off-loaded it on me? Why?
There was a wax-sealed envelope lying on the top. Wax! I snatched it off, noted that it bore no name or address, and tore it open, hoping that it would provide some sort of answer.
However, the letter it contained, handwritten in strong calligraphy, only contained more confusion.
Start at the bottom and have courage, my love. Reclaim what is yours, and do not give up hope. You can overcome. All will make sense in time.
I liked the sound of “reclaiming what was mine,” but, truly, what was mine? Father had left everything to Editha legally. I’d asked Williams. There was nothing he could do about it.
My love? My heart went immediately to Jeremy. It was his penchant for random romantic gestures that had kept me in love through all of the six years that we’d been together – but was even this in line with him?
Besides, he’d dumped me. It was easier for me to believe that I could regain Kingdoms from Editha than it was to believe that Jeremy would come back. That was something I dared not let myself hope.
And he didn’t even know where I lived.
Still, the instructions said to “start at the bottom,” and I could only assume that this meant the bottom drawer. There were seven drawers – which struck me as a very odd number in more ways than one – all very flat. Seriously, who needed that many drawers in one piece of furniture?
I slid that bottom drawer open, and found it empty, and not even as deep as I’d expected it to be – for it was filled with red velvet like a jewelry case. There was an indentation shaped to cradle a key, but no key.
Frowning, I shut the drawer and opened the next. This one was also lined with red velvet – and it actually cradled its treasure. A hand mirror - and a nice one, too, with its handle and frame made of shiny black metal, and I suspected that the mirror itself was made of actual silver, instead of aluminum. Handy if I ever had to identify a vampire – but that was unlikely, so I dismissed the thought almost immediately.
But not before I wondered if Editha was one. She’d make a great vampire.
The mirror’s surface swirled as I stared at it, but I didn’t notice this at first, so absorbed was I in my thoughts. When I did notice, I thought it my imagination.
But it was not.
The shift happened so quickly, so violently, that I was unable to cling to my reality, as I had the last several weeks since that first episode, just hours after my father’s will was read, just minutes before Editha kicked me out of the house.
The world swirled around me, collapsing into nothing. And then the nothingness dissolved and I was not myself, but yet I was.
You’re here, I thought, and then wondered why I did. There was no one in this place but myself.
This place? I started to my feet to examine my surroundings, but instead nearly tripped on yards and yards of heavy fabric. Just what was I wearing?
Fortunately, my surroundings proved very convenient for examining my apparel. I was surrounded on all six sides by mirror. Every inch of wall, ceiling, and floor showed my face, eyes staring back at me wherever I turned.
Lifting my skirts to avoid treading on them, I stepped forward, and a thousand of my reflections did the same.
“Talk about me, myself, and I,” I whispered, desperate to hear a human voice.
I was trapped inside the mirror.
Somehow, that didn’t terrify me. I’d been in this mirror for so long, terror had long-since given way to despair – and now I was here, and I would find the way out of this prison.
What was terrifying was how my thoughts weren’t making any sense. And how I was wrapped in a dress that looked like it’d come straight out of a history book. It was gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but that skirt…
It filled the room. I stood in a veritable ocean of red brocade, buried under a mountain of petticoats. Was I wearing a corset?
I was wearing a corset.
Now, I did like the effect it had on my waist, and it wasn’t cinched to the point of suffocation, but, still, a corset!
To crown the look, my bodice and shoes were encrusted in rubies and diamonds, and those same jewels dripped from my ears, neck and wrists. I’d never worn so much jewelry in my life, and I’d been a rich kid.
At least my face was my own. Well, under the cosmetics, I assumed. My already-pale skin was powered as white as paper, and my lips were painted red. I had to confess, it wasn’t a bad look for me. Just an impractical one that reminded me of the goth stage that I’d gone through as a young teen.
I looked like a princess. Or a queen.
I was a princess.
I should be a queen.
Somehow, that thought had clicked my fractured mind together and made peace of my warring memories. True, I still didn’t understand how my consciousness had shifted to such a different version of myself, but it had. And this hadn’t been the first time – not for Princess Bianca of the Triaga Kingdom.
That was my name here.
My stepmother had trapped me in the Mirror of Sight – at the very hour that she had kicked me from my father’s house as Gwen. This mirror should have been the emblem of my reign, but instead it became my prison on the day of my coronation. I hadn’t even thought it possible for a person to live within this mirror.
It shouldn’t be possible. My presence here was straining it, forcing it to use every ounce of its magic to keep me alive. How much longer could it last? What would happen when I drained it?
I had to escape.
But, of course, I’d known that from the moment I’d found myself here. Knowing a necessity doesn’t equal fulfilling it. My stepmother held the mirror firmly in her power, and there was nothing I could do about it from within.
That was why it was good that I was here.
I, as in the version of me that was not Princess Bianca of the Triaga kingdom. I apologize if this is a bit confusing. I wasn’t quite making sense of it myself, at the time.
What I did understand was that Gwen now held the mirror in her realm, and I hoped that this would sway the balance of power to my favor. Taking another step forward, I pressed my hands against those of my nearest reflection. The mirror’s surface rippled. I smiled. The mirror had not responded to me since I’d been trapped in it.
“Show me Alditha, my stepmother,” I ordered, choosing to test the waters of my control before I plunged in.
The surfaced rippled again, and my reflection disappeared entirely, replaced by a view of the court, Alditha sitting on my throne, wearing my crown. I noticed, however, that she was in no way as bedecked and bedazzled as I was.
She wasn’t dressed for her coronation. Had I really thought that Bianca dressed like this every day? That was ridiculous!
A tense air hung over the court. No one laughed or smiled, as had been the norm under my father’s rule. My stepmother governed with a rod of iron.
The mirror hung on the wall behind her, looming over the court in its largeness. Its surface was clouded, not clear as it should be. No doubt because I was inside.
I frowned. I’d hoped to make my escape when she was away, but I also dared not risk any delay. It would occur in the public eye, and I would settle for that.
“Mirror, Mirror, set me free.”
I pushed, with every ounce of my strength, and fell into nothingness.
And landed in the middle of court.
After disentangling myself from my skirts, again, taking my time to preserve my dignity, I surveyed the crowd, all staring at me with mouths agape.
“I apologize for my tardiness and regret that I missed my own coronation,” I stated. “But,” and I swept my gaze straight to Alditha, who glowered at me in annoyed disgust. “I was detained.”
“Oh, were you?” she asked, somehow able keep control of herself and act all sickly-sweet. “For eight whole weeks?”
“I’m afraid so,” I answered. “And how many of those weeks passed before you took my crown for yourself? Did you even wait one?”
It felt so good to finally have the upper hand against this woman. We could both hear the crowd’s murmuring. I was their true princess – true queen. They would sway in my favor.
Her lip twisted in a sneer – as she clearly didn’t realize yet that she was beaten, or else refused to admit it. “I had to give the kingdom stability, after all.”
“Oh?” I took a step forward. “And is that also why you thought it necessary to trap me in the Mirror of Sight? I fail to see how that possibly brought stability to Triaga.”
The crowd’s murmuring grew louder, and featured a large number of gasps. My stepmother said not a word. She had no defense. Not even her ivory gown could lend her any innocence in the eyes of the people.
“Mirror, show us what Aditha did on the morning when I should have been crowned queen,” I ordered.
As The Mirror’s now-clear surface swirled to show Alditha shoving me into its depths, I focused again on my stepmother to find her still smiling.
“You think that’s all it takes to win, Bianca?” she asked. Her voice was so quiet that I should not have heard it over the crowd, and yet I did. She stepped down from the throne. “Very well, I shall let you enjoy your game of victory.”
Without a fight, she removed the crown from her head and placed it in my hands.
“It’s over, Alditha,” I hissed, tightening my hands around it, lest she try to take it back.
“Over?” She shook her head. “It’s barely begun, child. And when you are dead, the people will welcome me back.”
With that, she vanished.