by James Lecky
"I regret to tell you, your majesty," the Doctor said to the Queen. "That the child has been born ugly."
The Queen, still in the euphoria of certain medicines that the Doctor had prescribed to ease the pain of childbirth said:
"Impossible. Bring him to me."
The elderly medical man did as he had been bid - holding the newborn at arms length, as though his hideousness might be infectious - and laid the child in his mother's arms.
To the Queen's credit, she did not scream when she first saw her son's face, nor did she faint away as the midwife had done. But even she found it impossible not to flinch at his appearance.
"Take him away," she ordered. "Take him away."
Five years passed before she saw him again.
Time had not improved the Prince's appearance and the clothes he wore - a finely tailored suit of blue velvet trimmed with Flanders lace – added to rather than detracted from, his grotesque facial physiognomy. The wing of the castle he inhabited, a gloomy outcrop to the south, was perennially dark, lit by only a single candle in each vast room. The servants were old, blind for the most part, although the Major Domo still possessed some sense of light and shade through eyes that had been all but sealed shut by cataracts.
"Are you well, my son?" the Queen asked, she wore a thick veil, the better to block her vision of the child. "Healthy, I mean, in and of yourself."
"Yes, Mama," the boy said, he swung his chubby little legs over the side of his chair. His condition had not, it seemed, affected his mind. He was as bright and inquisitive child as one could wish, quick to laughter and no more temperamental or cruel than any other boy of his tender years. Loveable, even. If had not been for his face.
"When may I be allowed to go outside?" he said. His intelligence was fierce and even at this age he spoke with the measured tones of the Court.
The Queen raised her veil. And quickly dropped it again.
"Never," she said.
Ten years passed before she saw him again.
The Prince had grown tall for his age, broad-shouldered and straight as a lance. His manners were impeccable, his conversation witty and delightful, the cut of his suits stylish, elegant upon his slender frame.
Yet he remained ugly.
No amount of cosmetics, however artfully applied, could truly improve his face, no careful positioning of his long, black hair disguise it. Masks were tried, of course, but the young man found them uncomfortable. The feeling of enclosure suffocated him, even the finest silk lining irritated his skin, and the wearing of them left him in a black mood for days afterward.
“And my father,” the Prince said. “How is he”
“Melancholy,” the Queen said. “And has been since the death of his first son.”
The Prince smiled. “His first son is not dead.”
“No,” the Queen said. “But he will never know that.” Her eyes were hidden behind dark glasses, the lens black as a forest midnight. “And you will never sit upon the throne, my son, for the very sight of you would be enough to drive men to madness.”
“I know,” the Prince said. “I merely hope that my brother will be a good king when the time comes.”
“As do I.”
She tried to love him, to look beyond his hideous features and into his beautiful soul. She could not. She was not a callous woman, the Queen, nor was she superficial in any way, but it was impossible for her to love her son.
She could respect him, certainly, for he had borne his ugliness with good grace, had lived his life so far in semi-darkness without uttering a word of complaint. Had grown strong and wise where logic dictated he should have embraced cynicism and animosity.
Yet she could not love him.
“I wish you a happy birthday,” she said.
“Thank you, Mama.”
Ten summers and ten winters passed. He grew uglier with each.
Once a year, upon his birthday, the Queen arrived to spend a few hours with her son, although she did so from a sense of duty rather than maternal instinct.
The Prince treasured those days, listening with rapt attention to the news of his Father and brother, to the courtly gossip about Dukes and Earls – who had duelled with whom, which Lady had borne the bastard child of which Lord. He sat in the gloom and watched her, longing for a sweet word or a nod of approval.
She was old now, he realized, her hair – once so thick and dark – had grown white, her rosy skin sallow, lined like the cracked portraits in the Red Hall. Strange to see the change in her from year to year, how weary she had grown.
“War will be upon us soon,” the Queen said. “And I fear it will be terrible.”
“All wars are terrible,” the Prince said.
“That is so. But his will sweep us all away.” She smoothed a crease on her black dress. “And there is nothing we can do to prevent it.”
They sat in silence until the Prince spoke again:
“Thank you for the gift, Mama.”
The year before he had asked her for a mirror and, after twelve months of debate with herself, she had brought him one.
It was an antique, beautiful thing. The frame intricately carved, painstakingly gilded, the glass of ground obsidian polished to an incredible sheen. It was her own, brought from her bedchamber. Now that she had grown old she did not care for the reflection in that glass – too precise, too perfect.
“I will see you again in one year.”
“Good night, Mama.”
He placed the mirror in his own chambers but, for now, dared not look at it.
Six months passed.
He heard the news from his Major Domo, from the over-loud whispers of the elderly servants as they tended to his household.
“War has broken out.”
“Our armies destroyed on the plains.”
“The countryside ravaged, town and villages burned. Dead in their thousands...”
“... in their hundreds of thousands.”
His mother came to him then, a silk scarf across her eyes, her face streaked from weeping.
“Your father is dead. Your brother, dead. Killed in the first battle.”
The Prince wept too, although he had never known them.
“Am I to be King, then?”
“King of what?” the Queen said. “Our land is ruined, our people slaughtered. This castle is all that remains.”
“It will be enough,” he said.
Three days passed.
The invaders drew closer, a vast, unstoppable horde, their banners proud, their march enough to shake the very earth. Half the world had fallen before them, and now they wished the other half.
The Prince watched them from the little glassless window in the highest tower of his quarter.
They moved like ants, blackening the countryside, leaving fire and ruin in their wake. And that very destruction was the thing that propelled them onward; to retreat was to fall into a vast wasteland of their own making.
We are to die, he thought. And the thought, chilling though it was, liberated him. Without further hesitation he left the tower and went to his chambers.
The mirror stood there, draped with black velvet.
His life had been spent without reflection. Oak, rather than glass filled every window pane, his drinking vessels and cutlery were crafted from dulled metal, every reflective surface carefully covered with black paint.
But no man wants to die without seeing his reflection at least once.
He pulled away the velvet and, for the first time, saw he own face.
Yes, there could be no doubt about it, he was hideous.
Hideous enough to drive an unwary mind to madness.
But the Prince was not unwary – he had touched his own face often enough to know every line and contour, each crevice in the skin.
“A face to drive men mad,” he said.
A day passed.
The Prince stood on the battlements and waited.
He wore a plain mask of porcelain lined with red silk. a uniform of grey worsted.
The crown of the realm was upon his head, although he wore it without coronation.
He watched as the horde grew closer, could smell the sour stink of them, hear the clash of their swords, their harsh battlecries. Gongs sounded, firecrackers popped in the air, silk banners, every colour of the spectrum, streamed above them.
Terrified animals ran before their ranks, those not swift enough crushed beneath marching feet, others brought down by spears for the sheer sport of it.
“I am King,” he said. “And though my people may fear me, though they may never look upon my face, they are my people.”
As the first of the invaders drew to within a spear's throw of the castle, the King removed his mask and looked down at them.
“Behold,” he said.
No more than that.
At the sight of him, those in the vanguard turned and fled. Those behind them hacked them down – for the order was No Retreat – but when they saw the King upon the battlements they, too, turned in terror. Into the waiting swords of their comrades.
So the horde destroyed itself, all save a handful of bloodied survivors who wandered away into the wastes.
The Queen died, then the King died of heartbreak.
They built no statues to his memory, hung no portraits, for no artist had ever set eyes upon him. He left nothing behind to mark his passing; except perhaps deep within the glass of an antique mirror that stood in the disused south wing. A sheet of obsidian glass where the shade of his reflection may have remained.
That, and a saying passed down from mother to child. Words of whose origin they are ignorant:
“Behave, or the Ugly Prince come for you.”
James Lecky is a writer and actor from Derry, N. Ireland. His short fiction has appeared in a number of publications both in print and online including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Sorcerous Signals, Arcane, The Phantom Queen Awakes and Emerald Eye.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
For me, the attraction of fantasy is the opportunity to explore new worlds, new societies, even new modes of thinking. A chance to explore how the human condition either changes or remains constant even in the most extreme or bizarre of circumstances. Of course, sometimes the attraction of fantasy is sheer spectacle and extravaganza and I think the best writers manage to hold up a mirror to humanity even in the most colourful and unlikely of landscapes.