Fairest Page 1

Mirror, mirror, on the wall.

Who is the Fairest of them all?

She was lying on a burning pyre, hot coals beneath her back. White sparks floated in her vision but the mercy of unconsciousness wouldn’t come. Her throat was hoarse from screaming. The smell of her own burning flesh invaded her nostrils. Smoke stung her eyes. Blisters burbled across her skin, and entire swaths of flesh peeled away, revealing raw tissue underneath.

The pain was relentless, the agony never ending. She pleaded for death, but it never came.

She reached out with her good hand, trying to drag her body from the fire, but the bed of coals crushed and collapsed under her weight, burying her, dragging her deeper into the embers and the smoke.

Through the haze she caught a glimpse of kind eyes. A warm smile. A finger curled toward her. Come here, baby sister …

Levana gasped and jolted upward, limbs tangled in heavy blankets. Her sheets were damp and cold from her sweat, but her skin was still burning hot from the dream. Her throat felt scratched raw. She struggled to swallow, but her saliva tasted like smoke and made her cringe. She sat in the faint morning light shuddering, trying to will away the nightmare. The same nightmare that had plagued her for too many years, that she could never seem to escape.

She rubbed her hands repeatedly over her arms and sides until she was certain the fire wasn’t real. She was not burning alive. She was safe and alone in her chambers.

With a trembling breath, she scooted to the other side of the mattress, away from the sweat-stained sheets, and lay back down. Afraid to close her eyes, she stared up at the canopy and practiced her slow breathing until her heartbeat steadied.

She tried to distract herself by planning who she would be that day.

A thousand possibilities floated before her. She would be beautiful, but there were many types of beauty. Skin tone, hair texture, the shape of one’s eyes, the length of a neck, a well-placed freckle, a certain grace in the way one walked.

Levana knew a great deal about beauty, just as she knew a great deal about ugliness.

Then she remembered that today was the funeral.

She groaned at the thought. How exhausting it would be to hold a glamour all day long, in front of so many. She didn’t want to go, but she would have no choice.

It was an inconvenient day for her focus to be shaken by nightmares. Perhaps it would be best to choose something familiar.

As the dream receded into her subconscious, Levana toyed with the idea of being her mother that day. Not as Queen Jannali had been when she died, but perhaps as a fifteen-year-old version of her. It would be a sort of homage to attend the funeral wearing her mother’s cheekbones and the vivid violet eyes that everyone knew were glamour-made, though no one would have dared say so aloud.

She spent a few minutes imagining what her mother might have looked like at her age, and she let the glamour settle over her. Moon-blonde hair sleekly pulled into a low knot. Skin as pale as a sheet of ice. A little shorter than she would become full grown. Pale pink lips, so as not to detract from the vibrancy of those eyes.

It calmed her, sinking into the glamour. But no sooner had she tested the look than she felt the wrongness of it.

She did not want to go to her parents’ funeral in the garb of a girl-now-dead.

A tap fluttered at the door, interrupting her thoughts.

Levana sighed, and quickly fell into another costume that she’d dreamed up days before. Olive skin, a graceful slope to her nose, and raven-black hair cut adorably short. She shifted through a few eye colors before landing on a striking gray-blue, topped off with smoldering black lashes.

Before she could second-guess herself, she embedded a silver jewel into the flesh beneath her right eye.

A teardrop. To prove that she was in mourning.

“Come in,” she called, opening her eyes.

A servant entered carrying a breakfast tray. The girl curtsied in the doorway, not lifting her gaze from the floor—which rendered Levana’s glamour unnecessary—before approaching the bed.

“Good morning, Your Highness.”

Sitting up, Levana allowed the servant to set the tray across her lap and tuck a cloth napkin around her. The servant poured jasmine tea into a hand-painted porcelain cup that had been imported from Earth several generations ago, and garnished it with two small mint leaves and a drizzle of honey. Levana said nothing as the servant uncovered a tray of tiny cream-filled pastries, so that Levana could see what they looked like whole, before using a silver knife to saw them into even tinier bite-size pieces. While the servant worked, Levana eyed the dish of bright-colored fruits: a soft-fuzzed peach set into a halo of black and red berries, all dusted with powdered sugar.

“Is there anything else I can bring for you, Your Highness?”

“No, that will be all. But send the other one up in twenty minutes to prepare my mourning dress.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” she answered, although they both knew there was no other one. Every servant in the palace was the other one. It didn’t matter to Levana who the girl sent up, so long as whoever it was could properly stitch her into the sleek gray gown the seamstress had delivered the day before. Levana didn’t want to bother with glamouring her dress today in addition to her face, not with so many other thoughts in her head.

With another curtsy, the servant ducked out of the room, leaving Levana to stare down at her breakfast tray. Only now did she realize how very un-hungry she was. There was an ache in her stomach, perhaps left over from the horrible dream. Or she supposed it could have been sadness, but that was doubtful.

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