The princess looked at the man who knelt on the floor. His hands were held out in supplication; his eyes seemed anguished.
"I thought if I didn't speak the words, that meant I could cause the feeling to disappear," she explained with a graceful wave of her hand. "But it is not so. My anger will not die. For I am angry, yes, angry by how shabbily you treated me. I am a princess, a daughter of kings! My blood will tell. Long have I cast aside my royal heritage but today it is mine; I have made it mine. For you to hurt a daughter of kings is unforgivable, inexcusable. I guarded my tongue lest I tell you of the anger that burned within me. I thought that with time it would become subdued. But that is not the case. I am angered by your cowardice; I will not suffer your excuses."
He bore her words in silence. He knew she was right.
"By rights I ought to ruin you both," she sneered. "But it gives me no pleasure to hurt another. Instead, I have given you a more powerful doom. Your every breath shall be one taken in shame; your sustenance given you ragged around the edges. God Himself did not wish to have His children eat of the bread of shame. That is why He allowed us a way to earn His favor. But you have no such ability. The gift I have given you is the gift of your life and in truth, you are not deserving. Every day you will recognize that fact. Every morsel of food that touches your mouth, every time you look at her, you will realize that this is a gift that I have given you. I! For I have chosen not to take my revenge, not to destroy you utterly. I could; I have that power. More, I have that will. There are times that my blood screams within me to do it. But I do not heed it; I do not listen. Do you want to know why?" She gave a sly, seductive smile. "It is simple. This way, I have you for life. You are always in my debt. You are mine, utterly mine. When you awaken, you will remember I gave you life. When you sleep, you will realize the peace in which you live was a blessing bestowed by me. Should I ever wish it, I could tear it from you in an instant. You are sure of me, but you should not be. I am not predictable, a fickle mortal like the rest of you. I am the fairy queen, daughter of kings!"
Her words shook the palace. The pillars swayed under the onslaught of her voice, terrible in its calm.
"It is the worst thing that can happen to a man, for him to eat of the bread of shame. I am angry with you and I have punished you. You are always mine; everything that you have is mine. I have given you this life, refrained from destroying it, refrained from taking what I could so easily have had. In this way I slake my thirst for your blood. For there is a part of me that feels scorned and hurt, and that is the part that urges me to claw out your eyes. But I shall not give in to such a petty urge. I have a far more valuable gift- it is the knowledge that you must live with, that your every day is mine. I have the power to undo your entire life should I so wish it. You know, after all, that the fairy queens are not merciful? La belle dame sans merci," she laughed.
He was silent. He heard her and did not believe her. Perhaps she thought this was the reason that she had spared him and the woman he had dared to love, the woman who was not her. He knew better. There was a mercy that flowed within her, a kindness she could not admit.
"I am torturing you," she continued. "Perhaps you do not feel it now, but you will. Your every breath is in my hands. I have the power to destroy you, always and entirely. Shall you ever be truly at ease knowing that I have that ability? Bread of shame," she stated again, her face twisting into a wry smile. "Bread of shame, bread of shame. Your every breath shall be taken undeserving. You deserve nothing from me; you hurt me past all endurance. Consider well! A mortal dared hurt the fairy queen. As for your excuses, I care nothing for them. You should have found a way. Or you should have let me go earlier, when first I requested it. You should not have held me hostage, prisoner of your words and your looks when you never intended to honor the implicit promise in your statements. Oh!" she exclaimed airily, "I know you denied that promise. But that was with your lips. Your actions spoke a different story. You gave me cause to hope that you should never have given me. You should have been strong enough to cut me loose. But then, why do I expect a mere mortal to be stronger than a fairy queen?" She laughed at herself. "Perhaps it is because I wish it, because I shall never belong to anyone unless they are stronger, far stronger than I myself am..."
He touched his forehead to the floor, prostrating himself before her. The gesture meant nothing. "Rise," she bade him, and he did. "Listen," she informed him. "I forgive you everything. I forgive you completely. But my forgiveness does not mean I am not angry. It is not the fact that you love her that angers me. It is the fact that you were not stronger than me, to allow me to go my own way and set me free before you would leave me. You owed me that. The majority of your life I give you happily and freely. But there shall be days, and you will not forget them, when I am angry, and on those days you shall remember that you draw your every breath through my grace and through the promise of my silence. I have told her nothing of what passed between us, nor shall she ever know. You shall be haunted by the bread of shame, and in this way will I exact my payment."
Her nostrils flared and she turned away. It was a dismissal. He left in silence.
"There," she spoke to herself. "Are you satisfied? Has the dark part of you had its fill? You have showed him how you rule him, now leave him be! Allow him his happiness."
"I shall allow him his happiness," the darkness inside of her responded, "but he should learn to be wary of the fairies. He should not treat them so shabbily; he should honor their requests. I have taught him a lesson he shall not soon forget."
"What is so wrong with the fact that a mortal man fell in love with one of his own kind? She is a beautiful mortal girl. Why don't you leave them in peace?"
"It is not the fact that she is mortal that concerns me. It is the fact that he pledged himself to me and broke the pledge. It is the fact that he should have let me go, not fascinated me with words and dancing sentences that caused me to entwine myself with his destiny. It is true that his words did not mislead me, but his actions, his actions! I have a right to express my anger."
"To express it, yes, but to curse him?"
"I did not curse him. I stated a fact. His every breath shall be an undeserving breath; he owes me his life."
"And does that give you so much pleasure?"
"You know it doesn't!" her better self stated, pain flooding the words. "But I must appease you, I must appease you somehow. Your anger and outrage and what is worse, the fact that you have crumbled all to pieces makes it imperative. You consistently question yourself. Was I not beautiful enough, was I too forward, was I too strong...why must you make everything that is you into a fault? He was the one who could not love a fairy. He was a mortal man who strove for more, and at the very last, he would not reach for it. And it's not as though you would forgo your own immortality."
"Of course not!" she stated imperiously.
"In that case, why not leave what is done as done, and leave all this mourning and anger far behind you?"
"It is impossible," she stated. "It is the way it was done. It is..." she trailed off, unable to find the words. "It is the way I feel like such a fool. A member of my race, a queen at that, ought never to be made to feel like a fool. It is a potent cure for any pretensions she might have. What is left are pieces, pieces of nothingness, and of them I am supposed to recreate myself and make myself strong, powerful, a fairy queen!" She laughed bitterly. "It is impossible."
"It is not impossible," her mind answered. "You are a fairy queen. You have always refused to see it. But it is there. You are radiant, shining, beautiful. What is one mortal more or less? It is you, your essence, that fascinates and charms."
"Lies, all lies," she said despondently. "I could not keep even one thing that was precious to me. I was not radiant or shining or beautiful enough to do that. How can I claim to be a queen?"
"Listen," her other self begged her, urging her away from the path that led to imminent destruction. "If your cloak were to be torn from you, if God Himself were to turn against you, if your own children denied you, you would still be a queen. You were born a queen; you shall always be a queen. You are royal. You are regal. You are beautiful, and whether you feel yourself to be one or not, you are an example. Rise up, don royalty, and walk before the golden scepter."
The ghost of a smile flitted across her face. "You do not know what you are asking of me."
"Of course I know," her sadder self responded. "I never ask anything easy of you. Ignore the ways in which you feel torn to pieces and arise; you shall recreate yourself anew. A chameleon, you are always shifting, changing colors and creating new portraits of yourself. You are always a vision, dynamic, never stagnant. Become someone new, someone whom this mortal has not touched."
"He has changed my very core," she argued.
"Then use it," her other self urged. "Use it and triumph. Dress yourself in silk and leather, don the most beautiful of your ornaments and adorn yourself. Walk into the gloom and pay no attention to anything but your own nobility. You are a daughter of kings, the fairy queen herself. Press onward. For whether you will admit to it or no, there is more than one who exists to be touched by your grace and favored by your smile. You cannot fail them."
"I am worthless," her darker self whispered, and she believed it fully.
"It may be so," she answered herself, "but all that God requires is that you try."
Slowly, painfully, the fairy rose to her feet. She took the diadem of silver frost and lilies-of-the-valley and placed it on her brow. She smiled into the mirror.
"I am better than this," she thought. "I am better than this."
And while it was true that there was a part of her that lusted for him always to know that he lived at her behest and died at her behest, she nullified it, cancelled it out for a moment and smiling, sent him pleasant thoughts of his beloved, the mortal maiden who swirled within his mind. She took the poison from her mind and buried it. Was she angry still? Yes, she was angry. The anger was rooted very deep. But that anger should not hurt the innocent. And in a way, they were all innocents, caught within a fairy tale spun at the beginning of the web of time.
She blew him a kiss; it drifted through her mirror and touched his head. Gone were her terrifying threats and demands regarding the bread of shame. It was as though the conversation had never happened. There was a part of her that needed that; the darkness within her called for his blood. But there was no need for him to know. She blessed him, for it was true that despite everything, she was a fairy queen, and thus did what mortals could not. And so her blessings wreathed around him and granted him peace, and there was no need for him to know of the ugly war that waged within her heart. That was her battle and hers alone.
And so, when she looked into her mirror, she saw a face that was clean, pure, serene. Perhaps it was the face of a worthless woman, as her mind often told her. And then again, perhaps it was the face of a fairy queen.