In The Eye of the Beholder
By Paul Siluch
A woman’s beauty is a subjective concept. One man may find dark hair to be enchanting, while another is swept away by fair tresses on a maiden. A fulsome woman desired by one brother is ignored by the other for the charms of her willowy sister. Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder.
“Where is the Lady Angelique at this moment?” Queen Josephine stood in front of me, absently running a silver comb through her hair. She leaned closer, opening her eyes just a fraction wider as she asked the question. Her green irises glittered like emeralds lit by the fire of her red hair.
“She is walking in the underground passage from the king’s chambers to the royal stables,” I replied.
I have made a rigorous study of the allures of women. Men the world over, for example, prefer longer to shorter hair. A woman’s eyes, whatever their color, should be widely spaced for their greatest appeal. The female shape even has an ideal ratio: four spans of a man’s hand to encircle a woman’s bare waist to six around full hips. Such are the curves that draw every man’s eye, as long as he still has warm blood in his veins. I have known the queen ever since she stole the heart of the king, stopping the breath of the nation when she appeared on his arm.
“I was not aware of such a passage into my husband’s bedroom,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. “It would explain many things.” She looked out the window to her right, over the manicured lawn and the fountain in the distance, and placed a finger on her lips in thought.
Among all men, and I have observed a great many, there is one final feature they all agree upon – consciously or unconsciously – that transforms a woman above all. An aspect that can make a pretty woman beautiful, and a beautiful woman radiant. It is the shape of her lips, their fullness, and the way they draw a man in. When I look upon the queen, as I am bidden to every day, my eye always lingers upon her lips. They are as luscious and full as summer fruit, and they reveal her teeth in luminous perfection when she smiles. As red as the blood-red rose found in the foothills of the southern continent (a place none but I have ever seen), her lips need neither wine nor berry to color them.
“And where is the king now?” she asked sharply, accelerating her brush strokes. Her hair crackled with static, fiery strands floated up as if charged with anger. “I was told he was to hunt after the noon meal.”
“He is resting in his chambers. His horse remains in the stables, neither bridled nor ridden today.”
“Then I shall wait for him in the dining hall,” she said, crossing her arms. “Dinner should be most entertaining this evening.” She reached for the door, indicating our conversation was at an end, then paused. Her mouth opened into a wide smile, spreading up her cheeks before stopping at her eyes. They remained as cold as mid-winter ice.
“Does she compare to me?” she asked, dropping her head then looking up through lashes that veiled her eyes like a young bride. By all facts and features as I measure them, the queen today is the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Of course not,” I told her. I am incapable of lying to her.
“Then why does he…” She stopped in mid-sentence and closed the door quietly. I was left, as always, in the dark with my thoughts.
The babble of conversation and the clatter of eating thrummed off the stone walls, rising and falling as courses were carried in and platters carried out. Torches flickered high above, while tall long mirrors along the walls helped light the room more fully. Smoke blended with the steaming aroma of the fireplace where a skewered carcass of a deer turned, dripping fat that blazed and sizzled in the coals. Knives thunked on the wooden plates of the lower nobles who sat at the far ends of the long U-shaped table. Finer steel tapped pewter plates halfway up the arms, ending with the tinkle of silver on fine china where the king and the queen presided on high, carved chairs. When the din fell, the guests quieter in their fullness and the comfortable haze that had settled in the room, I watched as the queen sat back and turned to one of the ladies halfway down the table.
“Lady Angelique, how was your ride this afternoon?” she asked nonchalantly. The noblewoman was startled as the room hushed and all eyes turned to her.
“Your…your Highness, I was, it was…very…pleasant,” she stammered out. “It is a new horse.”
“I understand that particular breed is very spirited.” The queen smiled without humor. “Some say such animals…can never be tamed.” Lady Angelique blushed and looked down at her plate.
“It was certainly a lovely day for a ride,” Queen Josephine continued, turning to the king on her right. I thought her gaze softened, as though she sought even a single kind word or gesture from him, but her look narrowed when he would not meet her eyes.
“Your Majesty, I understand you were to hunt this afternoon. Did you manage to catch what you set chase upon?”
The king cleared his throat with a growl. “I chose not to hunt this day, my lady. I had matters of state to attend to.” He pursed his lips and raised his chin, as if he intended that to be the end of the topic.
“I walked by your chambers mid-day and I thought I heard laughter. Surely matters of state are not so jovial as that!” She pursued him like a hound playing a fox.
“Lord Mawdsley was in my chambers and, between our deliberations, told me a story in jest. It was nothing, a moment’s pause betwixt hours of work.”
“A jest would be perfect entertainment after such a hearty meal as this! Lord Mawdsley – pray share your joke with our table that we may join in the king’s merriment.”
Lord Mawdsley squirmed in his seat as the collective attention of the great hall turned to him. He looked, I thought, as though the heat of all the flickering candles and of the blazing fireplace at the far end of the room had combined to burn his face red.
“But, your Highness, you see…” he stammered, looking to the king for help. The king lowered his head and directed his most fierce scowl at the pinioned Lord Mawdsley.
“I, er, it was nothing really. A story of no consequence that I cannot remember in the slightest.” He reached for his cup and took a large gulp of wine, taking time to wipe his mouth and then his forehead. “But if your Highness would suffer a delay, I will search the very depths of my mind to try and recall the story, for telling on another evening.”
“Well, then, that is most unfortunate. I had hoped for a tale or a song to end our meal,” said the queen, pushing her chair back. “There is so little happening in the castle that is worth discussing at this time of year.” She stood and offered her arm to the king, indicating his evening was also at an end. A servant raced to pull the heavy chair as the king rose gruffly, extending his arm to her with a frown. She led him from the hushed whispers of the dining hall into the darkness of a side passage.
“I do not like it when…you seek your meals elsewhere,” the queen said firmly, looking away from him. “Your appetite could not be sated when we first wed.”
“Time passes,” he said after a moment of silence. “Tastes change.” He turned his head away from her as well, which is how I know the king and queen are about to speak the truth to one another. “I like my game hot and hardly cooked, so it fights me when I cut into it. The way dinner used to be with a younger queen I once knew.” They came to a junction in the hallway with one passage turning left and the other right.
“Sometimes cooks spend too much time on the appearance of the meal and too little time on how it tastes,” he said over his shoulder as he walked down the passage to the right, “which is why I am forced to eat elsewhere.”
The queen was incensed, moreso at this affair than at any prior indiscretion of the king’s. When she stood before me the next morning, almost close enough to kiss her if I could, I saw the reason. A tiny line at the corner of her eye which, on some women, would be called a mirth line. It could not be mistaken as such on a face that never laughed. From frown or worry, sadness or age, it was the first blemish on her perfect face. She did not ask me the question she always asked each morning, and I was glad of it. I cannot lie to the one I love, and I was not ready to leave her yet. An aging woman can still hold my heart, just as the first days of autumn are my favourite time of each passing year.
I told the queen where Lady Angelique was hiding, of course. The noblewoman was deep in the woods in the small unused charcoal hut of a collier on her family’s estate - a secret place only she and the charcoal-man himself knew about. From the moment on the night of the banquet, Angelique knew she was marked, for the queen brooked no quarter from any that wronged her. Even if the king himself initiated the dalliance, the maiden always paid. When the collier found her dead the next morning, Angelique’s fair face was frozen in surprise at being discovered. He was blamed and hung from a tree without trial, as astonished as she was. The king was in the foulest of moods when he heard, and took it out most viciously on the creatures he hunted.
Josephine opened the cabinet door the next morning. Her hair was uncombed and her gown wrinkled, as though she had rolled in it all night. She closed her eyes and faced me, drawing in a long breath.
“Mirror, mirror,” she began. She had always taken great care to appear before me at her best before today. Such a beautiful girl when I found her, now grown into my lovely queen.
“…on the wall…” None is a better judge of a fair woman’s face than I, for I am cursed to love only the most beautiful. Faces that broke hearts, smiled at children, cried in silence, started wars...faces I would give anything to touch and caress.
“…who is the fairest one of all?” Some called it diabolical, the way she knew everything that happened in her kingdom. The way women who crossed her, and especially young girls just budding into exceptional beauty, ended up dead. From behind the glass, my eyes see every corner of the world, hear every word whispered. When the queen was the fairest in the land, looking at her own face in my silvered surface, I often wept in longing looking back, forever unseen. I was glad to tell her anything she asked, just to gaze upon her longer.
“It is…no longer you.” I said after a moment. “A lass, barely sixteen – just come of age. Hair as black as a raven’s, skin like marble. Her lips, well, I have only seen lips so perfect once before.” Josephine gasped and raised her fingers to her mouth.
“Who is she? Where does she live?” she hissed.
“I can only love the fairest, Josephine – you have always known that. I will tell you her name, but only that. I will protect her from you if I must.”
“The people of her village call her…Snow White, because of her fair skin. Snow White is now the fairest in all the land.”
The queen screamed and threw her heavy silver comb at me with all her might. The cracks spread across my glass like wrinkles on skin, making Josephine’s reflection look old in an instant. It was a sad way to leave her, after so long.
Snow White was brushing her hair and singing when I appeared in her mirror. My heart burst with love, all over again.
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I am unpublished but have taken two science fiction/fantasy courses at Gothan Writers Workshop. I write extensively in the finance industry.
Labels: Paul Siluch