The Glass Queen – Gena Showalter

Hear ye, hear ye! On this day in history, King Philipp Anskelisa of Fleur and Queen Charlotte Charmaine-Anskelisa welcomed their first child into the world. More than anything, the king had longed for a son. Alas. Fate gave him a daughter instead. A sickly one, at that. Princess Ashleigh Charmaine-Anskelisa entered the world as quiet as a mouse, as still as a statue and as blue as a morning sky. The frantic midwife worked to aid the child’s breathing while shouting for mystical healers, who burst into the chamber minutes later only to discover their magic couldn’t fix the child’s malformed heart. While they could heal injuries given after birth, they could not affect the injuries created before it. The infant continued to struggle, on the verge of death. Propped on a bed with a mound of pillows behind her and a feathery blanket draped over her lower half, Charlotte reached out to demand, “Give me my baby.” Though she was weak, tired, and sore, she would not relent in this. “Give her to me now.” Tradition demanded that fathers leave their sickly infants in the Enchantian Forest as an offering to the Empress of the Forest, whoever she happened to be at the time. In return, the empress would bless the parents with another child. A healthy one.

Would Charlotte’s husband expect to trade little Ashleigh? As one of the healers bundled the child in wolf’s fur and passed her back to the queen, the king paced at the foot of the bed, his expression hardening with determination. He would, she realized with growing horror. He really would. “Husband,” Charlotte whispered, cradling her precious darling close to her chest. “You must summon a witch sooner than royal tradition suggests. If Ashleigh is given an infusion of magic, it will work inside her rather than from an outside source, as with the healers. She will recover.” Surely. A stoic Philipp paused long enough to snap, “Don’t be foolish, Charlotte. The babe is going to die.

And this is right. This is good. Clearly you’ve made a cuckold of me. She cannot be mine. My lineage has never—will never—produce a child that is less than perfect.” Hurt encompassed the queen, a denial resounding from deep inside her. “I have never been untrue to you.” Though she’d wanted to be. Philipp might be a handsome man, but he had the personality of a snake. “Ask the royal oracle.

She’ll tell you of my innocence.” He wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter now, anyway. In Fleur, the firstborn is the heir, whether a boy or a girl. This child isn’t worth saving. What if she dies in a week? A month? A year? The infusion of magic would be for nothing. A waste of precious resources.” Charlotte swallowed a sob. “A single minute of time with her is worth everything.” His expression remained impassive.

“Yes, but not all life merits the amount of coins required to pay a witch for a magic infusion. So, I will summon the oracle, after all. If she tells us the child isn’t part of a prophecy or that she’ll bring destruction upon my kingdom, I will give her to the Empress of the Forest, so that we may be blessed with a second child, a true heir, and you will let me do so without protest. If the child is part of a prophecy, if she’s someone who will bring great wealth and power to my kingdom, however, I will let you keep her.” He looked to the midwife. “Go. Fetch her.” The midwife rushed out of the chamber. A barbed lump grew in Charlotte’s throat, nearly crushing her airway. The odds of keeping her precious Ashleigh were becoming slimmer by the second.

The prophecies Philipp had mentioned were also known as “fairy tales,” because they’d been spoken by the oracles, the most powerful of the fairies, centuries ago. Like everything else in the world, these fairy tales came with a blessing and a curse. No matter the story involved, those blessings and curses always arrived in the form of a person. A king or prince. A queen or princess. A servant. A witch. Wealth and happiness usually accompanied select characters, while all others tended to welcome some kind of evil force to a kingdom or become evil themselves. Charlotte rocked her squirming baby and fought for calm. “You will live, my love,” she whispered.

“You must be part of a fairy tale. And just look at you. How could you ever be part of a curse. No, oh, no. You are the blessing.” Philipp was part of a fairy tale, so, why not Ashleigh? A fate the queen had previously hoped to avoid for her child. The tales were mostly symbolic and always offered more questions than answers, leaving everything up to interpretation and imagination until the last battle. There was always a battle. And there was only one reason Philipp had proposed to Charlotte—his own prophecy, “The Little Cinder Girl.” He’d considered himself the marriage-minded prince and Charlotte his perfect Cinder.

At the time, she had believed him. At Charlotte’s birthing, her parents had chosen not to let an oracle tell her future. Back when her older brother, Challen, had been a crown prince rather than king, he’d been predicted to play a part in “Snow White and the Evil Queen.” The news had quickly spread, and the family of a neighboring kingdom sent an assassin to kill him, just in case he came with a curse. Challen had survived, thank gold, but her parents’ desire to know the future hadn’t. Because they’d never paid an oracle to glimpse Charlotte’s fate, they’d never expected anything to come from her life, all but forgetting her existence. She’d always regretted the lack and wished she’d known…until her marriage to Philipp. During their courtship, the dashing king had promised her a true happily-ever-after. Soon after they’d married, however, she’d learned that her new husband lacked any kind of honor. He couldn’t be the marriage-minded prince, and Charlotte couldn’t be his Cinder.

Tremors racked her so strongly she shook the bed. What if I married…the villain? Philipp’s selfishness knew no bounds. He had everything, but he took more from those who had nothing. He kept multiple mistresses, and he despised anyone with a supernatural ability, even Charlotte at times, because the power he’d acquired as a child had never manifested. His body had rejected the magic, something that only ever happened to a rare few. The lack had always infuriated him. Of course, he liked to blame the witch who’d given him the infusion, rather than himself. But then, Philipp was utter perfection—to Philipp. He cared for his own well-being; everyone else was inferior to him. A fact that terrified her.

As “The Little Cinder Girl” fairy tale promised, the dishonorable characters would not, could not receive a happy ending. They sowed only discord, so, in the end, they reaped only discord. What if Philipp’s terrible fate had spilled over to Ashleigh, cursing her to misery and death? No. No! Charlotte would find a way to save her child. She would pay any price. Hinges squeaked as the oracle entered the chamber, a woman with long dark hair, pale skin, and an eerie air. The moment of truth had arrived… Charlotte’s heart hammered at her ribs as the oracle focused on Princess Ashleigh… Beat. Beat. Beat. The woman shook her head and exited the chamber without ever speaking a word.

But, but… No. No, no, no. Panic swept Charlotte up in an icy cyclone, a hoarse cry leaving her. The worst had happened. The oracle hadn’t seen a future, and Philipp now expected to give her baby to the Empress of the Forest. Unaware of the horrid destiny her father planned for her, Ashleigh wiggled her tiny arms free of the fur and smiled up at her mother, as if to offer comfort. Comfort, from one so close to death, with a slight blue tint still marring her flesh. “Say your goodbyes to the girl,” Philipp commanded without a shred of remorse. “Please. Purchase magic from a witch.

” For the right price, a witch would share a portion of her magic with an infant, imparting a single mystical ability that would manifest at the age of sixteen. The more powerful the witch, the stronger the impartation. While you never knew what ability you’d get, you could select the type of magic you wished to wield. Charlotte’s ability to grow plants with a wave of her hand had come from a witch with power over the four elements. “With every fiber of my being, I believe Ashleigh’s heart will heal if she wields her own magic. At the very least, it’s her best chance of survival.” “Your certainty is misplaced,” Philipp snapped with a shake of his head. He began to pace once again. “If she could be healed, she would be healed by now.” Charlotte bit her tongue to silence a sharp retort.

Calm. Steady. If she began to screech, he would simply take the baby and go. “As I told you before, the magic within us is far more potent than the magic that comes from outside us. Something you do not know firsthand because you’ve never actually wielded your own magic.” Red infused his cheeks. “As I told you, witches demand an exorbitant sum for such a service. Why save a sickly daughter with no future? No, far better for us to leave her in the forest, as fate intended. I will give you another baby. A healthy son.

” “I don’t want another baby,” she cried. “I want this one.” “Why can’t you see the truth? I’m thinking only of our well-being,” he said, using his most cajoling tone as he strode over and knelt beside the bed. “Try to understand. Your brother is heartsick over the death of his queen and eldest son. Everyone agrees King Challen is no longer fit to rule Sevón. Your young nephew cannot take his place—Prince Roth isn’t old enough. No, I am what the kingdom needs. I can lead Sevón in addition to Fleur. If I’m saddled with a sickly child, I will appear weak.

My enemies will feel confident enough to strike at long last. Our enemies. Do you wish to raise a child in a time of great war? Of course not. What good mother would? My way is best, my sweet. Trust me in this. Why tax your tired mind further?” Reeling. So many insults, so many wrongs, all to make her feel foolish for refusing to back down. “My brother won’t allow you to rule his kingdom.” At sixteen, Challen had manifested battle magic. No one could defeat him now.

“If you try, he’ll kill you and raze all of Fleur in retaliation.” She only wished she exaggerated. Philipp traced his tongue over his teeth. “There is always a way. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day. It is a duty I cannot eschew. The needs and wants of many must come before the needs and wants of one.” Why did his needs and wants always count as the majority, then? Heart beating with more force, Charlotte searched for a response that would both appease him and change his mind. Her daughter’s very life was at stake. Finally she settled on, “Please, Philipp.

Please summon a witch. Please give our daughter a chance to live. Just one chance. If you do, I’ll… I’ll…help you defeat Challen.” A desperate lie or a desperate truth? She wasn’t sure. She hardly knew her brother, but family was family. On the other hand, she’d meant what she’d said; she would do anything to save her daughter. A muscle jumped in her husband’s jaw, a sign his volatile temper neared eruption. “The matter is closed. I’ll hear no more arguments about the baby.

Say your goodbyes.” Charlotte swallowed a whimper. “Summon another oracle, then.” The muscle jumped faster. He sighed. “Why would I bother?” Thinking fast, she said, “Because the royal oracle was a gift from Challen. She probably sensed your aspirations to rule Sevón.” Yes, yes. A play on Philipp’s greed. “What if she kept Ashleigh’s prophecy to herself to prevent our daughter from one day aiding your military successes?” Or your defeat… “Now you are being ridiculous.

Oracles cannot lie.” And yet, he pursed his lips, as if he was considering her words. Not exactly bright, Husband? “The oracle remained silent. She didn’t lie, but she might not have admitted the truth, either.” He narrowed his eyes, the gears in his mind churning at a faster speed. Desperate, Charlotte pressed her advantage. “Will you risk your future on the silence of a single oracle? Why not find an unbiased one, just to be sure?” This time, he nodded. “Very well. I will return shortly. If this oracle doesn’t see a fairy tale in the babe’s future, she goes to the forest with no more argument from you.

Agree. Now.” What else could she do? “I… I agree.” After giving her another stiff nod, he stalked out the door. The second his footsteps faded, Charlotte told the room’s other occupants, “Leave me. I wish to be alone with my baby. And close the door behind you. I’m not to be disturbed.” As the midwife and healers scurried out, shutting the door as ordered, she shifted Ashleigh in her arms, resting the now-sleeping baby’s cheek upon her shoulder. Ignoring her aches and pains, she worked her legs over the side of the bed and lumbered to her feet, unsteady but determined.

With the first step, dizziness struck, and she almost toppled. Concern for her child kept her upright. Deep breath. She remained in place, giving her head time to clear. But all the while, her breasts leaked, wetting her nightgown, and a warm trickle of liquid ran down her legs. Blood? She didn’t care. Hurry. No telling when Philipp would return. With no money of her own, Charlotte had to find a witch as desperate as she was, someone willing to accept little in exchange for a great infusion of power. And she knew just where to look… Using a hidden passageway she’d discovered when Philipp snuck out of their room one night, Charlotte made her way down, down, down.

The farther she went, the colder the air became. By the time she reached the royal dungeon, she was shivering and her teeth were chattering, goose bumps rising on her limbs. What a horrid place. Crumbling walls lit by the occasional torch. Webs in every corner, insects unable to escape. The pitter-patter of rats accompanied a constant drip of water. This was where Philipp liked to lock away anyone who had wronged him. How many times had he bragged about the powerful witch he’d defeated in battle years ago? What had the witch done wrong? Think, think. Murder? Theft? Had she merely insulted the king’s unending pride, like so many others? Though Charlotte racked her brain, the answer remained at bay. Did the woman’s crime really matter? If the witch agreed to share her magic with Ashleigh, Charlotte would agree to set her free, regardless of her past actions.

A promise she had the means to ensure. As a child, her father the king had beaten his two sons for any wrongdoing. Charlotte, however, he’d locked in small, dark spaces, a nightmare come to life. One day, her mother had secretly bought her a magic key able to open any lock. A key she still carried around her neck, just in case. Charlotte readjusted Ashleigh to carefully cover her face with the wolf’s fur. Nerves on edge, she shuffled along a wide corridor. The scent of mold, waste, and decay hit faintly at first but soon grew overpowering, creating a fetid stench that stung her nostrils and watered her eyes. Down here, there was no hint of the bright sunshine and sweet perfume of rose that permeated the rest of the kingdom. A strange clack, clack, clack registered.

A chorus of pained moans followed, becoming louder and louder only to quiet when she turned a corner and came upon the occupied cells. Haggard, emaciated prisoners hobbled to the bars. Pleas rang out next. “Help me.” “Please, ma’am. Please.” “Spare a drop of water.” Though her heart squeezed, she kept her gaze straight ahead. There, at the end of the corridor, loomed a wall of bars and a witch who looked exactly as Philipp had described her every time he’d recounted the tale of their war. Even with matted blond hair and dirt-smeared skin, even with a tattered rag that hung on her tooslender frame, the witch with ice-blue eyes possessed an undeniable beauty and grace.

For some reason, Philipp and his guards hadn’t removed her only piece of jewelry before locking her away. A metal ring with a rose etched in the center. “Well, well, well,” the witch said. “Could it be the high-and-mighty Queen Charlotte in her expensive nightgown? Bards sing tales of your great beauty. The dark-haired enchantress soon to give birth. Well, who has just given birth, it appears. Are you here to honor your husband’s prisoners with your exalted presence? To introduce us to the new princess, perhaps?” Charlotte stopped a few feet away and exhaled. Mist wafted in her face. “I am Queen Charlotte, yes. What’s your name?” The witch blinked, as if surprised and a little miffed by her ignorance.

“Most know me as Melvina, but I prefer Leonora.” Why would she wish to be called Leonora, a name associated with one of the oldest and most notorious cautionary tales in all of Enchantia? “What crime did you commit against my husband?” Not having grown up in Fleur, Charlotte wasn’t very familiar with the local legends and histories. At least she sensed no hint of evil from the witch. “You mean your husband needs a reason to incarcerate innocent people?” Leonora replied airily. No. No, he didn’t. This witch could be a good person who’d met a bad end. Or a bad person with a just end. Did Charlotte’s plan have risks? Yes. Many.

Would those risks deter her? No. “If you grant my daughter a magical ability, I will give you what you—” “Let me guess,” Leonora interjected with a wry tone. “You’ll set me free.” She patted her daughter’s back and explained, “According to the healers, Ashleigh’s heart is malformed, her body fragile. To survive, she needs an infusion of power from a witch.” “Don’t we all?” Gaze unwavering, Leonora canted her head and peered at Charlotte. “This world is cruel. Perhaps she’s better off not surviving, hmm?” Rearing back, Charlotte snapped, “Everyone deserves a chance.” “Are you sure? There’s a breadcrumb trail of heartache and misery, and it leads to what my life used to be. Betrayal.

War. Pain. Greed. This is the future you want for a sickly child?” “You mention nothing of love, joy, merriment, and pleasure.” Leonora pursed cracked lips. “Oh, but I did imply those things. They are what led to the others, after all. And yet, you’ve convinced me. I will help you. After you free me, of course.

These bars are magically enhanced to stop me from using my powers.” Charlotte rocked from one bare foot to another. Is she manipulating me as I manipulated Philipp? Maybe. Probably. Again, did it really matter? How many hours—minutes—until Ashleigh’s heart forever stopped? Must proceed. No other choice. “I will do it. I will set you free first,” Charlotte said, raising her chin. No reason to demand a vow. The witch either would or wouldn’t keep her word, and a vow wouldn’t change her mind one way or the other.

Leonora stiffened, as if she dare not hope. “You’ll need the key to the cell. Your husband carries it, and he never parts with it.”

.

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