Saturday, 15 June 2019 10:31

Mirror, Mirror, in the Market by Michael M. Jones

Mirror, Mirror, in the Market by Michael M. JonesIn the very modern city of Puxhill, where science and rationality mostly hold sway, an ancient, secret bastion of magic and mystery rests, quietly waiting for its time to come around again. Forgotten, ignored, or simply disbelieved by most people, it’s both haven and temptation for those with the capacity to embrace the unknown. Here, in the Gaslight District, streets change direction, shops come and go, and the night lasts as long as it likes. For those who are truly bold, curious, or desperate, there’s the Midnight Market, which only exists for three nights a month when the moon is at its fullest. In between the vendors hawking charmed shoes and enchanted trinkets, fanciful foods and rare herbs and potions of all sorts, one stall holds nothing but a simple wooden chair in front of a small, ornate mirror mounted on the back wall.

Sometimes—but not always—if the right person sits in the chair and stares into the mirror, they see not their reflection, but something else, a wisp of a face floating in a cloudy void. Questions may be asked, and answers received. There is always a price for truth.

It was near the witching hour around the end of March when a young woman walked into the Midnight Market, every step a wary advance into unfamiliar territory. She huddled in a much-faded blue sweatshirt, features all but hidden by her hood, and she paid the wonders around her little heed, instead making a beeline for the chair and the mirror. Those who noticed her, who realized her destination, followed her with curious looks, conversations pausing momentarily. In a few cases, money exchanged hands as bets were placed on whether the mirror would respond to this one.

 Either ignorant or uncaring of the attention she’d drawn, the young woman gingerly settled onto the edge of the chair, and stared into the mirror’s depths. For several long seconds, it reflected her own dark, haunted eyes, and pallid complexion. Behind her, the marketplace seemed frozen in place. And then…

A face, definitely not her own, shimmered into existence in the void beyond the mirror. “Hello, Nora,” it said. “It’s lovely to see you. Shall we make a bargain?”

Nora startled in her seat. “How do you know who I am?”

The face came closer as if to get a better look at her. Its features resolved into those of a girl barely older than Nora herself, though still cloudy and indistinct, long hair trailing off into misty tendrils. “Is that a question you wish me to answer, Nora? Because every answer will cost you, and I sincerely doubt you can afford that many.”

“I can pay!” Nora exclaimed. She shoved her hands into the front pocket of her sweatshirt, coming up with a crumpled mass of bills, which she thrust towards the mirror before stopping to consider the absurdity of the gesture. Her outstretched arm wavered.

“Surely you don’t think I need money,” laughed the mirror, an eerie echoing sound filled with pity rather than merriment. “Put that away before someone gets ideas. I accept payment in other forms, in secrets and favors, bargains and promises. First, though, let me give us some privacy. My neighbors tend to be nosy.” As Nora, cheeks flaming with embarrassment, shoved the bills back into a pocket, the open walls of the stall grew hazy all about them, blocking out the rest of the world, cutting off both sights and sounds. Outside, the Market resumed business as usual; inside, the girl and the mirror faced each other.

“I’m sorry,” Nora mumbled, looking down at her sneakers, well-worn to the edge of falling apart. “I didn’t think. I…”

“Look at me,” said the mirror. “Pull back your hood. You are safe here. Whether we bargain or not, you will come to no harm with me.”

Nora slowly raised her chin, meeting the mirror’s gaze. She lowered her hood, revealing pinched features, chestnut hair inexpertly cut short and choppy, and of course those dark, haunted eyes. One sleeve slipped down, revealing a glimpse of faded pink scars along her wrist. She immediately tugged it back into place. “Is that better?” she asked, voice catching nervously.

“I ask again, is that a question you want answered? That’s twice, Nora. The third time, I will answer whether you like or not, and be forced to name my own price.” The mirror’s rebuke was gentle, even a little frustrated. “Best you bargain with me for the answers you truly desire.”

“Oh. No. I…” Nora gulped. “I’ll bargain.”

The mirror smiled, though it wasn’t the happiest of expressions. “Of course. Why else would you come to me? Three answers, then, for three favors of my choosing.”

“Three answers for three favors--No, that’s not a question, I didn’t mean it like that. I just—that seems a lot to me. Like, a favor is worth more than an answer.”

“It all depends on how badly you need to know something. However, I’ll clarify for you. I won’t request anything that you might find illegal, immoral, or impossible. Nor will I ask you to murder or steal or risk yourself. Now then, does this sound fair?”

Nora paused, clearly lost in thought as she weighed her options. The mirror waited impassively, her features fuzzing in and out of clarity as with the tides. At last, Nora nodded. “It does,” she murmured.

“So be it. Please place your hand on my surface.”

Nora did so, palm splayed against the mirror’s glass, which was oddly warm to the touch. Eldritch energies surged, crackling around her hand for a split second, and she yanked it back with a muffled yelp.

“The bargain is sealed. Ask your first question. But be wise about it.” The mirror offered Nora a smile to take the sting out of her warning. 

“I… Oh.” Nora stared at the mirror as though trying to gather suddenly-scattered thoughts. “Okay. So.” She sucked in her breath, held it, and when she released it, words tumbled forth like a landslide. “I’m totally broken inside. Like, I don’t know who I am or who I’m meant to be or why I’m me, if that makes sense, which it doesn’t to me. Some days I can’t even think of getting out of bed because I can’t bear to face myself in the mirror, which is ironic I guess since here I am talking to a mirror and anyway, I can’t even face the world. And sometimes I don’t even want to be me. My family doesn’t understand, my teachers think I’m just going through a phase, my friends are all wrapped up in their own problems, and I’m so tired of it all and so confused.” She ended on a hopeless sob, the confession tearing itself free like it had been trapped for a very long time indeed.

The mirror listened, her features sympathetic as she drifted as close to the surface as possible. When Nora ran out of breath, she asked, “So why did you come to me?”

“I grew desperate after--well, I tried, and it didn’t work--and when I recovered, I started looking for other solutions. Like… magic, maybe. I heard rumors. I asked questions. Finally, some people--they understood. They said--they sent me here because you know everything. How can I be fixed?” Nora unconsciously rubbed the scars on her wrists as she finished, clearly unaware that she was hugging herself in frantic anticipation.

“Ah.” The mirror sighed, her gaze momentarily downcast. “That’s a question much harder than ‘how do I reach the castle east of the sun, west of the moon?’ or ‘who’s the fairest of them all?’ The answer is complicated. I doubt you’ll like it.”

“But you have to know!” Nora leaned forward, eyes blazing with a desperate intensity.

“And I do. As per our deal, here is your answer.” And the mirror whispered words meant only for Nora’s ears, forcing her to listen intently. As she spoke, Nora’s expression went from desperate to doubtful to denial.

“But… that’s not what I wanted. I thought you’d know some sort of spell or charm or potion that would fix everything!” she exclaimed, leaping to her feet with such force, the chair fell over backwards. “This is bullshit!”

“Not everything can be, or should be, fixed by magic, Nora,” said the mirror sadly. “If you thought my prices were bad, you don’t want to know the cost of what you want… or how it would ultimately destroy you.”

“You’re no help at all!” wailed Nora, turning to leave.

“Our bargain remains in effect. You still have two more questions.”

“Keep them!”

“I regret to say I can’t,” said the mirror. “And even if you leave here, our session continues. I’ll answer the very next two questions you ask, no matter what. You’ll ask the time or when the next bus arrives, or can you get extra mayo on your sandwich, and I’ll reply, and you’d still owe me payment. Our bargain links us, you see.”

“Mayo is disgusting,” Nora said, almost automatically, before whirling to glare at the mirror. “This isn’t fair!”

“I know. Magic isn’t fair. Ask me how I wound up in the mirror sometime,” came the surprisingly bitter response. “I didn’t understand the cost, and it proved quite expensive indeed.”

Nora paused, for the first time actually seeing the face within the mirror, actually looking at her. With slow, deliberate movements, she righted the chair, and sat down in it once again. “Okay,” she said. “How did you become a magic mirror?”

The mirror blinked. The face within tilted quizzically. “You do know that’s one of your three questions, right? And after this, you only have one left?”

Nora nodded emphatically. “I know. I’m sure. I want to know.”

“Ah. Do you realize, no one has ever spent a question on that before?” The mirror smiled ruefully. “Once upon a time, when I was still just a girl named Sophia, I was apprenticed to a prominent sorceress, who possessed one of the greatest arcane libraries in the world. I dusted her books and watered her plants and fed her pets and she introduced me to a world of mysticism and enchantment. But there was one book I was forbidden to touch, the one which supposedly held her darkest secrets and hidden wisdom. The one passed down from master to apprentice throughout the years.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. I was young and foolish, then. Impatient, ever-curious, I snuck into the library one night and… through my own carelessness, I was caught. So my mistress cursed me. As I sought knowledge, so I’d know everything, but only in the service of others, until such time as I was freed. Of course, I couldn’t just tell anyone how to break the curse.” The mirror laughed softly, shaking her head with centuries’ worth of regret. “I don’t think she expected me to remain in here so long. After passing through numerous hands, some good, many less so, I built up a sizable bank of favors over the years, enough to ensure my own safety and self-sufficiency here in the Midnight Market, where I choose my own clients.” Dark depths in her eyes spoke untold volumes about the years she didn’t speak of, the owners she no longer served.

Nora frowned in sympathy. She unthinkingly reached out to rest a hand on the mirror’s wrought-gold edges. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “How can you be freed?”

“That was your third and final question,” the mirror said, clearly startled. That expression shifted to a mixture of sorrow and apprehension as she drifted close to Nora’s hand.  “I can tell you… but you’ll still owe me payment.”

“Of course,” said Nora. “I made the bargain.”

“I can regain my freedom if someone asks me to leave the mirror,” was the simple reply. “So very simple. But you can see why, even if they knew this, no one would want to squander a precious question on something which didn’t benefit them. Who’d want to spoil a perfectly good, all-knowing object of power?”

Nora blinked at the mirror. “That… that seems easy. How—” She caught herself in mid-question and tried again. “I can’t believe that’s all it takes.”

“Sometimes,” the mirror said, “the easiest solutions are the cruelest.” She sighed. “Go away, Nora. Please. I’ll let you know when I decide to call in your favors.” A long pause, and the face drifted far from the surface until she was barely an outline. “Thank you for your interest. It was nice talking to you. Remember what I said. Also, know this and take it to your heart. You are not broken beyond repair. You are strong and beautiful. The world deserves you.”

“Wait,” Nora insisted, standing to grip the mirror’s edges with both hands. “Please. I want to make another bargain, if that’s not against the rules.”

The girl within the mirror drifted closer again. “It’s not. It’s just… no one ever does.”

“Well I do. One question for one favor. I think that sounds fair.”

There was a desperate hope as the mirror replied. “Yes. It is.”

Nora all but slammed her palm against the glass. “Make the bargain, then!” And when the magic jolted through her again, this time she held fast.

“Done!”

“Will you please leave the mirror and come with me?” Nora asked without hesitation.

Yes!” A hand reached through the mirror’s glass, grasping Nora’s, and together they pushed-pulled. Slowly at first, then quicker, a young woman emerged, bit by bit. With both hands, Nora yanked her the final distance until suddenly, she was free and both girls tumbled to the floor of the stall in a heap, Nora’s modern jeans and sweatshirt contrasting Sophia’s old-fashioned dress.

With a burst of nervous laughter and relief, the two picked themselves up, breaking apart to awkwardly regard one another. Sophia was shorter and curvier than Nora, with bright blue eyes and long blonde braids, and a look of utter delight. “I haven’t felt the outside world in centuries!” she exclaimed. “The air is disgusting, and I love it!”

Nora giggled despite herself. “I suspect you’re in for a lot of surprises, then.”

Sophia stretched and wriggled, like a cat waking from a long sleep. “You really don’t appreciate a body until you lose it.”

Nora, who’d just about forgotten her own despair, her own uncomfortable relationship with her body, nodded slowly. “I… yeah.” She was interrupted as Sophia hugged her, fiercely.

“I’m free! Dear spirits, I’m free! Nora, you’re amazing!”

Nora blushed and tried to extricate herself. Sophia released her with mumbled apologies. Nora waved it off. “I… so… I guess I still owe you those favors. Do you need to know how to find me?”

“I was thinking,” said Sophia, “that we could discuss the details while you pay back the first one.”

“Already?” Nora’s expression tightened with fresh worry. “Oh god, I forgot, I didn’t think if questions were safe now.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m no longer bound that way. Okay, so I don’t know everything about everything anymore either, but it’s worth it.”

Nora exhaled. “Oh good. So, um… that first favor?”

The former mirror beamed. “Buy me breakfast. I haven’t had real food in forever.”

“Fair enough,” Nora laughed.

Sophia waved a hand, and the hazy walls around the stall fell away, revealing the hustle and bustle of the Midnight Market beyond. As the two girls walked away, the empty mirror remained, reflecting first their backs, and then nothing at all as they passed beyond its sight, and into the welcoming night.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Michael M. Jones lives in southwest Virginia with too many books, just enough cats, and a wife who answers questions with more questions. His stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including F is for Fairy, Constellary Tales, and Enchanted Conversation. He is the editor of several anthologies, including Scheherazade's Facade and Schoolbooks & Sorcery. For more, visit him on Twitter as @oneminutemonkey or at www.michaelmjones.com

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