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Ten years earlier
Flakes fell softly, covering the already frozen castle grounds. When she stuck out her tongue, she could feel the flakes land on it. The little droplets of frozen water had the same name she did: Snow.
Was she named for the snow or was the snow named for her? That's what she wondered. She was a princess, so the weather could have been named after her.
Then again, snow had been around a lot longer than she had. She was only seven.
"What's that smell?" her mother called out, pulling Snow from her thoughts.
Snow flattened herself to the castle garden's wall so she wouldn't be seen and tried to stay quiet.
"Smells delicious and sweet ... Could there be a goose in the garden with me?"
Snow giggled. "Mother, geese don't stay at the castle in the winter! They fly south. Everyone knows that."
"Everyone also knows that if you talk during hide-and-seek, you can be found faster." Her mother rounded a bend and pointed to her. "I've found you!"
Maybe she was biased, but Snow thought her mother was the most wonderful person in the world. Father said she looked just like her, and if that was true, Snow was pleased. Her mother had kind eyes the color of chestnuts and ebony hair, which, today, was pulled back in a loose chignon. She had removed her favorite crown — Mother didn't often wear it during games in the garden, especially in the winter months — but she'd need to place it on her head when they went back inside in a few moments. Her mother had to get ready for the castle's annual masquerade ball. Snow hated that she was too young to attend and had to take her supper in her room with her nursemaid. She so wished she could go to the party. She preferred her mother's company to any- one else's.
"I'm going to get you!" her mother sang, pulling up the fur-trimmed hood on her red velvet cloak. Snow particularly liked the gold buttons on this cloak. She would play with them when she was standing close to her mother during processions through the village streets. It loosened the but- tons and drove their tailor mad, but it made Snow feel safe and warm, like her mother did. She rarely ever wanted to leave her side — except during games of hide-and-seek.
"But you haven't caught me yet!" Snow cried, and she took off through the garden's maze of bushes. Her mother started to laugh.
Snow wasn't sure which way to turn. Every path looked the same. The high, neatly trimmed green hedges blocked all but the view of the gray, snowy sky. Most of the flowers had been pruned for the season, leaving much of the normally beautiful grounds bare and Snow's position in the gardens more visible than usual. If Snow kept weaving around the corners, she knew she would reach the center of the maze and her mother's beloved aviary. The two-story wrought iron dome looked like a giant birdcage. It was her mother's pride and joy and the first thing she had commissioned when she became queen. She'd always had a love of birds. Snow's mother kept several species inside the netted walls, and she patiently explained each bird's nature to Snow in detail. The two had spent countless hours watching the aviary, with Snow naming all of the creatures inside it. Her favorite was Snowball, a small white canary.
As Snow rounded the turn and spotted the dome in front of her, Snowball fluttered to a perch and spotted her, tweeting loudly and giving away Snow's position. That was okay. Sometimes Mother catching her was half the fun.
"Here I come!" called Mother.
Snow giggled even harder, her breath leaving smoky rings in the cold air. She could hear her mother's footsteps growing closer, so she rounded the aviary fast to hide on the opposite side. But she wasn't being careful — her mother always told her to be careful — and she felt herself begin to slip on a patch of ice. Soon Snow was falling, sliding out of control into a rosebush.
"Ouch!" she cried as she pulled herself free of the thorny branch that was pricking through her cloak and into her right hand. Snow saw the blood trickle down her pale white palm and began to cry.
"Snow!" her mother said, drawing down close to her. "Are you okay? Where are you hurt?" She leaned in and Snow's vision began to blur, as if the snow was falling harder now. Even through the haze, Snow could still see her mother's dark eyes peering at her intently. "It's all right, Snow. Everything is going to be all right." She took Snow's injured hand, pulled an embroidered handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed it into the snow, and then pressed it against her daughter's wound. It cooled the burn from the cut. She wrapped the handkerchief tightly around Snow's hand. "There. All better. We can clean you up when we get you inside."
Snow pouted. "I hate roses! They hurt!"
Her mother smiled, her image softening along with the sound of her voice. She seemed so far away. "They can, yes, when you get nicked by a thorn." She plucked a single red rose off the bush. It was petrified from the snow and frozen, but still perfectly preserved and almost crimson in color. Snow peered at it closely. "But you shouldn't be afraid to hold on to something beautiful, even if there are thorns in your path. If you want something, sometimes you have to take risks. And when you do" — she handed Snow the rose — "you reap wonderful rewards."
"You shouldn't be here, Your Majesty."
Snow looked up. Her mother's sister and lady-in-waiting, her aunt Ingrid, was staring at them sharply. Almost angrily. Somehow, Snow knew this look well. "You're already late."
Seventeen-year-old Snow awoke with a start, gasping for air as she sat up in bed. "Mother!" she cried out.
But there was no one there to hear her. There never was. Not anymore.
Instead, Snow was greeted by the sound of silence.
As she wiped the sweat from her brow, she wondered: had this been another dream turned nightmare, or was it a true memory? She had them more frequently now. It had been more than ten years since she'd seen her mother's face; sometimes she wasn't sure.
She hardly ever saw Aunt Ingrid these days. No one in the castle did. Her aunt had become all but a recluse, letting very few into her inner circle. Her niece, whom she was begrudgingly raising, was not one of them.
Aunt Ingrid always looked the same in dreams, maybe because on the rare occasion Snow crossed her aunt's path in the castle, she always had on some slight variation of the same gown. Although they were mostly similar in cut, she wore only the most beautifully tailored dresses, with the finest fabric their kingdom could offer, and only in shades of purple. The castle was indeed drafty, which could have been why Aunt Ingrid was never seen without a dark-hued cape that she coiled around her body like a snake. Snow couldn't recall the last time she'd seen her aunt's hair (she couldn't even remember the color) because Ingrid always covered her head with a tight-fitting headdress accentuated by her crown.
Snow, on the other hand, couldn't remember the last time she'd been given something new to wear. Not that she minded that much — who even saw her? — but it would have been nice to have a gown that didn't tug at her arms or end at her calves. She had two dresses she rotated, and both were covered in patches. She'd mended her burgundy skirt, which she had made from old curtains, more times than she could remember. She didn't even have any fabric left over to patch it anymore, so her skirt had become a rainbow of colors with beige and white patches covering the holes where the dress had torn on the stone steps or a rosebush.
Roses. What was the bit about the roses in her dream?
She couldn't remember. The dream was already beginning to fade. All she could picture was her mother's serene face. Maybe it was best to leave the memory alone. She had a lot to do today.
Snow pulled herself out of bed and went to the large window in her room, drawing open the heavy curtains. She'd resisted using the drapes to make a warm cape for herself so far, but if the next winter was as bad as the last one, she might have to resort to it. She let the bright light of day in and looked out at the grounds below.
Summer was in full bloom, giving the aging castle a glow it needed badly. While there was no denying that the castle's exterior had deteriorated in the last ten years, she felt a sense of pride as she looked out at the garden and her mother's beloved aviary. She had pruned the bushes, giving them a neat shape, as well as overturned and weeded the flower beds. Fresh blooms hung from silver canisters on the brick walls, making the garden come alive. It didn't hurt that she'd been slowly cutting back the ivy that threatened to take over the entire castle. She could only reach so high, but at ground level the stone was clearly visible again, even if it did need a good scrubbing. (She'd add that to her list.) She could only imagine how the facade looked outside the castle gates. Her aunt forbade Snow from leaving the castle's grounds. She said it was for Snow's safety, but it made her feel like a prisoner. At least she could still come and go in the gardens as she pleased.
Being in the open air rather than cooped up in this castle was her own personal form of heaven. She wasn't supposed to speak to the few guards her aunt still kept in employment, but at least when she passed another human being on her walk through the castle to the garden each day she didn't feel quite so alone. Her aunt hadn't let her make a public appearance in years (though there rarely were appearances these days, even for Queen Ingrid), and the castle seldom saw visitors. She sometimes wondered if the kingdom even knew there was a princess anymore. But there was no one to ask.
Snow tried to stay busy keeping up the castle. When she had too much time on her hands, she began to think a lot about all she'd lost over the last ten years. Her beloved mother, Queen Katherine, had fallen ill so quickly Snow never had the chance to go to her bedside to say goodbye. Her father had been too distraught to comfort her, instead turning to Aunt Ingrid, whom he soon married. Snow could still hear the whispers about the union, which seemed more like it was done out of necessity than love. She assumed her father had wanted her to have a mother, and Ingrid had appeared to be the next best thing. But she wasn't. Snow noticed her father never again smiled the way he had when her mother was alive.
Perhaps that was the true reason her father had run off only a few months later: he'd had a broken heart. At least, that's what she told herself. It was too hard to believe what Aunt Ingrid told everyone — that her father had lost his mind. Aunt Ingrid said that without Katherine around to help him govern the kingdom, King Georg had become overcome with grief. Snow once heard her aunt tell the court that Georg spoke to Katherine as if she were still alive, frightening guards, servants, and even his own daughter. But Snow didn't remember him doing that.
Her last memory of her father was in the aviary. She had snuck out there to take care of her mother's birds. Sensing someone's presence, she'd turned around to find the king watching her with tears in his eyes.
"You remind me so much of your mother," he'd said hoarsely. He reached out and gently stroked her hair. "I'm so sorry she isn't here to see you grow up."
"It's not your fault, Papa," Snow had said, and this only made him cry harder. He knelt down, grasping her shoulders and looking her in the eye.
"Don't make the same mistakes I did, Snow," he said. "Don't be fooled by love. It only comes once. Trust your instincts. Trust your people. Trust what you've learned from your mother, most of all. Let her spirit guide you when you rule." He cupped her face in his hands. "You will make a remarkable queen someday. Don't let anyone make you lose your way."
"I won't, Papa," she remembered saying, but his words had frightened her. They felt like goodbye.
The next morning, he was gone.
She hadn't realized it at first. It wasn't until she got dressed and headed to her father's chambers to have breakfast with him as they always did that she heard people talking about the king's sudden disappearance. Queen Ingrid — recently coronated — had been pulled into "urgent business" and hadn't found Snow to tell her herself. Instead, Snow had heard the news from two gossiping guards.
"Queen says he's a madman. That we're better off without him. Hasn't been the same since Queen Katherine died," one said. "What king runs off and abandons his daughter?"
"What king abandons his own people?" the other replied.
Snow didn't know the answer to that. All she knew was that she'd never felt more alone. After Father had gone, Aunt Ingrid seemed to disappear, too. The new queen didn't have time to have breakfast with Snow, let alone study birds in the aviary. She was too busy meeting with her newly appointed court, a group of people Snow had never seen before. Everyone her father had worked with had been dismissed, and the smaller staff of advisors had been handpicked by Ingrid. Even so, Snow heard the whispers about her aunt's new nickname: the "Evil Queen," they called her, when she wasn't within earshot. Other than meeting with them, the queen rarely took appointments or met with visiting royals. After a couple of years, her aunt stopped letting anyone new into the castle. The rumor was that she was fearful of traitors, which seemed to prove true when most of the staff were dismissed except for a select few.
A vain woman, Queen Ingrid couldn't do without her personal tailor, Margaret; the ever-present guards; or a small group of cooks; but she certainly didn't hire anyone to care for Snow. Instead, Snow had raised herself, growing up mostly alone in her big, empty room that reminded her of a tomb. Being alone with her thoughts could have driven her mad. But she kept her mind busy by making mental lists of things to do to get her through each day.
Today was no exception. Turning away from the window, Snow removed her dressing gown, then washed up at her water basin, which she had filled at the wishing well the day before. She put on her gown with the patched-up tan skirt and smoothed out the creases on her white-and-brown blouse that almost matched. She slipped into her clogs, which she had recently cleaned. Looking in her freshly shined mirror — she'd tidied up her room yesterday, as she did every week — she put on the blue headband she'd made from scraps her aunt's tailor had left for garbage. Satisfied, Snow went to her wardrobe.
It was almost bare. The few dresses hanging on the rack she had outgrown years before, but she kept them both for sentimental reasons and in case she ever needed to use the fabric for patches or material. She hated the thought of cutting up her history — there was her seventh birthday dress, and the gown she'd worn to a meeting with her father and the visiting king of Prunham — though sometimes it was necessary. For now, the dresses served as reminders of a different life, as well as a wonderful hiding spot. Snow pulled back her birthday dress and glanced at the portrait hidden behind it.
Her mother's and father's faces stared back at her. So did a younger version of her own. The portrait had been commissioned right before her mother had taken ill. It had been the family's first time sitting for an official painting since Snow was a baby. It had hung in the castle barely more than a few weeks before the king had ordered it taken down. Her aunt claimed he'd done so because it was too painful for him to see the former queen's face every day, but Snow felt differently. Any chance she had to see her parents she took.
Morning, Mother. Morning, Father.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mirror, Mirror"
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Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
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