by Y. M. Pang
I was the eldest daughter, so I knew I was doomed.
The youngest marries the prince. The youngest saves the kingdom. The youngest is immortalized in song. I told myself I didn’t mind missing those things. I didn’t want princes, or kingdoms, or songs. I was happy being the wicked one.
If only I knew a single story–just one–where the wicked sister won.
The glass garden is my masterpiece, and there’s not a soul in the world I can show it to.
Bending close, I begin cutting feathers into the ugly duckling. He’s smoke-grey and minuscule and awkward, but in glass he’s beautiful. No, that’s not right; that’s the way they see things. He simply looks the way he’s supposed to. Unchanging. Captured in glass, this ugly duckling will never turn into a beautiful swan.
He’s the latest addition. Behind him looms the tower, where an old woman stands. Her hair is snowy white, her beauty faded like ink left in the sun. Beneath the tower a dashing young man rides a rearing stallion. I’d carved for two days non-stop to capture his expression of disbelief and anguish. By the end, my eyes were sore and my hands shaking from handling the delicate glass for so long. It never cut me, of course. I simply feared I’d crush it beneath my frustrated fingers.
It was worth it though. Every time I see the man’s expression, I laugh.
They are all here, my misfit crew. The scarlet-cloaked woman wandering eternally in the forest. The mermaid, tears or rain or seawater streaming down her face as she clutches the knife. And of course the three women, faceless and distinguishable only by their clothing. The one in the back, almost hidden by her companions, will eventually be given a face. I have the perfect one in mind, and there’s no medium more fitting than glass.
I hear footsteps on the stairs–someone walking toward my workroom. Brenda, perhaps?
Seconds later, there’s a knock on the door. “Your Highness,” Brenda calls. “His Majesty bids you to get ready for the showcase.”
“I’ll be right there,” I reply.
I cover my masterpiece and put away my tools. I shoot a final glance at the glass figures before I go. Even now, I marvel at how glass bends to my will, seeming to follow my thoughts rather than my hands. With dyes and a few cutting tools, I can make glass gardens that surpass any master artist’s.
I’m glad I can, because otherwise Father might’ve disowned me.
“She is the most beautiful woman in the realm. Hair like starlight, eyes like sapphires. Her voice will make sirens jealous, and one smile from her will light the world. She is yours, if you can rescue her from the red dragon in his black tower.”
So he rode east, chasing the most beautiful woman he had never seen. He followed words that had already decayed into myth, chasing a dream as fragile as a butterfly’s wings. He should’ve known better. He couldn’t catch a butterfly with his bare hands–not without crushing it.
He rode into the land of beasts. He slayed basilisks, out-riddled sphinxes, and tamed unicorns as he searched for the right tower.
At last he found the red dragon. After a long and hard-fought battle, he plunged his sword through the dragon’s breast, hoping his bride was watching through the window. But as he stepped past the dragon’s carcass, climbed the tower, peered into the room at the top–
If he were lucky, he’d see an old crone. Or maybe she’d be a bag of bones by now. Yes, that would be better for him, to see his dream dead rather than decayed. Of course she couldn’t stay young forever.
Or maybe she was beautiful still, having drank the dragon’s blood to gain immortality. If so, would she forgive the one who slayed him?
Before Letia’s birth, I had known what it was like to have the entirety of my parents’ love. Should I envy or pity my sisters for not having the same privilege?
A parent’s love–like all things in life–is finite. It divides into slices like an orange. It doesn’t matter if you get the bigger piece or the smaller one. No part could rival the whole.
That was what I told myself. And day in and day out, I examined my slice and wondered if I’d gotten the peel.
I sit behind the silk curtains, hands folded on my lap. The herald’s voice booms out, announcing the beginning of the showcase. Doors creak open to release the guests.
I see them through the veil: shadows of court ladies and lords, their silhouettes like ghosts. They wander through my creations, hands stuffed in their pockets, as if to stop some rapacious urge to touch them.
The herald is still yelling something; I’ve no idea what. I focus on the murmurs of the nobles.
“…simply beautiful, she really knows how to–”
“Look at that lovely swan!”
“Oh, that’ll be perfect for…”
I have a sudden wish to tear down the veil so they can see the one who crafted it all. Will they cry out when they see my blotchy skin, my misshapen nose? Will my glass gardens still seem beautiful, or would they, by association, become like me–grotesque and unwanted?
It’s just a fantasy. I don’t stick my head out. I’d never do something to endanger my art.
Before long it’s time for questions. The nobles ask and I answer, mechanically. It’s all gobbledygook about inspiration and detail and artistry. Not a single question can I answer honestly. No one asks why I speak through a veil. Perhaps they like the mystery. Perhaps they fear the truth.
One nobleman steps forward. “Your Highness, I’d like to know what inspired this piece.”
I barely glance at what he’s pointing at. Whatever it is, I can’t tell its true story. So I make up something about music, folk tales, and the salmon dish served at dinner one evening. The words taste like glass in my mouth and I spit them out, hoping they’ll land on the nobles, hoping they’ll draw someone’s blood besides my own.
I keep wishing someone would step up and rip the veil aside. But no one does–and I can’t blame them. I’m not the fairest of the fair encased in a glass coffin. I taste of metal and fire, and I’ll make any prince who wakes me regret it.
“You must take this dagger and plunge it into the prince’s heart,” her sisters said. “If you do not do this, you will dissolve into the foams of the sea.”
The mermaid took the dagger and ventured to the prince’s cabin. She found him sleeping, his head resting on the shoulder of his bride. The mermaid’s eyes filled with tears, but her hands were steady. My dear prince, she thought, what a fool I’ve been, to think I could win you over without my voice. A tear ran down her cheek. I’m sorry you have to pay for my foolishness.
She raised the dagger over his chest. I saved your life once. Now I take it back.
There are three endings to this story. In the first, the guards arrived before the murder and the mermaid killed herself to avoid their fury. In the second, the prince woke and they battled on the ship, until the valiant prince triumphed over the wicked mermaid.
But I like the third one best. In this version, the mermaid’s dagger pierced the prince’s heart and she went back to living among her sisters in the sea.
Yet even then I worry for her. I wonder if those same sisters who had given her the dagger would now condemn her for having the gall to use it.
At night I had horrible fantasies. Of sneaking vilweed to my mother so she’d have no more children. Of orchestrating a miscarriage. Of throwing Rachel off the tower because she’d effortlessly stolen the love I’d earned.
But they remained fantasies. I was no more comfortable playing evil stepsister than I was at being fair maiden.
Not yet, at least.
I chip away at the glass. The mermaid’s scales appear from her once-smooth tail. If I work fast, I’ll be able to finish tonight. Then tomorrow I’ll begin applying colour.
What dyes shall I use? The shining turquoise that blends with the sea? The soft gold that sparkles in sunlight? Or perhaps a deep crimson that flashes like a wound upon the waves?
Three scales later, Brenda knocks on the door. “Your Highness?”
I don’t bother disguising the annoyance in my voice. “What is it?”
“I… I would like to remind… I mean, there is a dinner to attend. With the Duke of Wiltby.”
Oh. Him. “I’ll be right there.”
Should I show up in my work clothes, still gripping my tools, stringy hair in disarray? Then surely Wiltby will leave me alone.
I stand and gaze at the empire I’ve built. It spans the workroom, from door to sunlit window. I look at my creations–and at the centre of it all is the garden I can never show anyone.
My empire is made of glass, sharp and fragile. I have enough power to reject Wiltby, but not enough to do so and preserve all this. Father would shatter my world as surely as he shattered my first creation, the first ugly duckling I’d carved.
I tuck my tools away, cover my garden. Perhaps my ugliness alone will be enough to deter Wiltby.
Little Red Riding Hood stood at the edge of the path and gazed into the forest. She had been given the choice a thousand times, and still she didn’t know what to choose. She didn’t want to stay and remain ignorant of what it felt like to chase butterflies, to hear the wind echo her panting breaths, to see a shade of red that was not her own cloak. However, she didn’t want to be stalked by the wolf, eaten, and rescued.
It wasn’t the eating part that bothered her. The rescuing, on the other hand… She didn’t want to owe the hunter her life. She knew a little too well about repayment.
As I grew older, I started noticing the signs of suspicion. When we visited the Temple of Maion, Mother warned me against witchcraft. When Father saw me talking to any of the young noblemen, he’d always break up the conversation or send a servant to call me away. I’d even gotten two servants to confess that they’d searched my rooms for poisons and love potions on Father’s behalf.
How insulting. I had no interest in bottling love.
When I showed some skill in languages, they immediately stopped my lessons. I wasn’t allowed to outpace my younger sisters.
They blamed everything on me. If the weather turned bad, they accused me of witchcraft. If Letia or Rachel got sick, they suspected me of poison. If I got sick, they said I faked it.
Half the time I was too bemused to be angry. Why did they treat me like the jewel of the palace when I was the only child, yet paint me as the unwanted stepsister after I became the oldest of three? To this day, I have no answer.
The other half of the time, I schemed to give them exactly what they wanted.
I stare at my other self in the mirror. I don’t smash her, but I do long for my kind of glass, the kind that becomes art rather than a bad reflection. I think back to earlier–not the show, but Brenda’s knocking. She’s served me for three years now, and never has she entered my workroom while I was carving or painting. Like the rest, she always waits for me to clean up.
Perhaps they think they’ll open the door and see me swathed in black, chanting incantations of dark magic. Perhaps they’re worried they’ll see me sacrificing snowy doves and draining blood from weeping servant girls, and they’d need to stop me lest they become complicit. Then there would be no more showcases and no more glass gardens, and no more goodwill from the nobles who stand awed by my creations.
Maybe their fears are correct. There is magic in my gardens: I’ve no idea why the glass bends, colours, obeys at my touch. I just know nobody is paying a price for it.
I freeze, my hand still pressed against the mirror, and let out a gasp. My reflection has changed. My other self looks worn, scarred, hardened by burdens I don’t remember experiencing. Perhaps she is the one paying that price.
It’s fine if they think of me as the thirteenth wise woman, spinning her loom in the tower, waiting for Briar Rose to arrive and prick her finger. Better than being the storybook princess. If I fall asleep for a hundred years, there would be no one to wake me. Would any prince brave the thorns to kiss someone like me? I certainly wouldn’t.
There once was an ugly duckling. He was born different from the others: big, grey, and clumsy.
But this ugly duckling never became a beautiful swan. He only grew bigger and more troublesome, from a dirty speck in the pond to a scar on the entire landscape. His mother and sisters and brothers had no idea what to do.
I wish I could say someone came along and loved the ugly duckling regardless of his smoky feathers or unsightly gait, but that would fall into yet another rut–and be a lie besides. All I can say is that the ugly duckling lived his life alone, and maybe found happiness in the swirl of a cloud in the sky, in the glimmer of sunrise on the lake.
When I was nineteen, I decided I’d do whatever I pleased. Since I’d lose anyway, I might as well as lose on my own terms.
So I treated my sisters like servants and my servants like sisters. I told my mother I’d hated her since I became just another daughter. I told my father I was going to steal his throne and leave him a penniless beggar, though I had neither the boundless energy nor the political acumen to do something so taxing.
I wish I could say my rebellion was met with rebuke, scorn, or hatred. Instead, it was ignored. By shaping myself into the antagonist they expected, I had–inadvertently–made myself irrelevant.
The Duke of Wiltby is no knight in shining armour and that suits me just fine. Being the eldest son–well, eldest legitimate son–he recently inherited his title after his father’s death. My father says he’s a good match for me: even-tempered, homely, with no talents save an agreeable nature and a well-meaning heart. Not someone Father would ever hand the throne to, but I have two younger brothers in good health. My father, with his fresh young wife, has nothing to worry about.
Our engagement is finalized. Father wants me out of his hands as soon as possible. He warns me to be good to the Duke–and frowns when I laugh in his face.
What can I do to Wiltby? Smash my glass crown against his head?
Father, I mutter to myself, sitting alone in my workroom, you’ve truly chained me with the one privilege you’ve given. If I go against you, who would allow me to build my glass gardens?
Father blamed me for Mother’s death, but he was quick enough to find a new wife. However I felt about Mother in life, I was loyal to her after death. I demanded that Father remove the new woman. When he didn’t, I finally found my inner wicked witch, my hidden evil stepsister.
I tried to kill the woman. Not with poison–no, that just stinks of yet another role for me to play. Instead, one autumn night, something miraculous happened.
I was glaring at the woman’s face across the dinner table, at her sharp eyes and smug smile. Hate roiled inside my stomach. My hand moved, curling so tightly around my wine glass that my fingers turned white as washed bone.
I felt the glass give beneath my grip. Instead of breaking, it flowed, becoming shapeless as water and malleable as clay. While my mind reeled in shock, my fingers moved on their own. I flattened the glass into a long, narrow strip. I pinched the edges and they turned blade-sharp. I closed a fist around one end and it rolled into a handle that matched the contours of my hand.
I had myself a knife of glass, and I immediately tried to stab my stepmother with it.
Unfortunately, the guards stopped me. Father was baffled, frightened, furious. See that scar on my face? You think I got that shaping glass? Glass never hurts me.
Only Father does.
After that, I left. No one tried to stop me. Father didn’t search for me. He was probably as glad to be rid of me as I was to be gone.
I know what you’re thinking. What a horrible, unreasonable, failed murderess I am.
You can blame it on living too long without siblings, on knowing undivided parental love before it was torn away. You can blame it on wanting to avoid the curse of the eldest child, and in doing so, bringing said curse to life. You can blame it on finding the one thing I have–the glass–too late.
Whatever the reason: here I stand, every bit the defeated villainess the stories said I’d be.
I wake up late for my own wedding, because I stayed up last night putting the finishing touches on my glass garden. The mermaid’s tail is bright scarlet edged with gold. The ugly duckling floats alone in his pond–at least he has no one to bother him. I’d tried to finish the three faceless ladies, but ever since the engagement, the idea left me. I can’t remember the face I wanted to give the one in the back. I have no choice but to leave them all faceless.
A dozen servants bustle around trying to get me ready on time. I long to have Brenda back, but she was deemed too lowly, too improper, too closely connected with my work.
I move through my wedding with the precision and enthusiasm of a puppet. My veil is on the whole time; Father couldn’t risk the nobles seeing me. Wiltby is beaming and waving at everyone. I don’t know why he’s so happy. He’s going to be stuck with me until one of us dies, and I know from experience that it’s not the happiest arrangement. Of course, he agreed for his family’s prestige and his own advancement. As I agreed for the livelihood of my gardens. The art of court politics and the art of glass are not so different.
As the wedding feast and the dancing begin, I see my whole life spreading before me. It’s inescapable: reflected in every wine glass, glinting from every gem facet, tinted in every stained-glass window.
I will spend my life with Wiltby, bear him children, watch my brothers inherit the throne and my sisters marry princes and save kingdoms and win serenades–while I stay behind my veil. Should I venture out, it will be as the wicked witch, and then I’d lose everything.
Every day, I wonder if I can endure that loss. And the answer is always no.
The face I present to the world shall be my glass garden, the most beautiful part of me. Perhaps, long years down the road, I will display my masterpiece. Perhaps they’d speak of me in the ages to come: the ugly princess who created beautiful art. It’s not so bad. I’ll be as happy as I can be. Certainly happier than the evil queen in her coffin of quicksand.
Yet sometimes I’ll look in the mirror and see another me on the other side. A madwoman in rags with a half-burned face, eternally wandering through the gardens she never knew she could shape.
And I’ll wonder if she could’ve carved a face for the third faceless woman.
About the Author
Y.M. Pang spent her childhood pacing around her grandfather’s bedroom, telling him stories of magic, swords, and bears. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Book Smugglers Publishing, and two other EA podcasts: Escape Pod and PodCastle. She dabbles in photography and often contemplates the merits of hermitism. Despite this, you can find her online at www.ympang.com or on Twitter as @YMPangWriter.
About the Narrator
Alexandra Rowland is the author of A CONSPIRACY OF TRUTHS (2018) and A CHOIR OF LIES (forthcoming, September 2019) and, occasionally, a bespoke seamstress under the stern supervision of their feline quality control manager. They hold a degree in world literature, mythology, and folklore from Truman State University, and they are one of three hosts of the Hugo Award-nominated podcast, Be the Serpent. Find them at www.alexandrarowland.net, on Twitter as @_alexrowland, or wandering the woods of western Massachusetts.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.