Ian and the Magic Mirror
by Anta Baku
Part 3 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
When the first week of a new job goes really well, I always worry that week two is going to be something of a letdown. And this job was going about as well as anything could. I was making deals, making money, and making new friends. One of them had even started living in my apartment, though she’s a magical golden harp, and lives in the middle of my dining room table, so it’s not as nice as it sounds.
Harp was between jobs, or at least I hoped she was between jobs. I’d helped her out of the previous one, running weather control equipment for an obnoxiously corporate giant, but her first few days of job search outside of Fairyland hadn’t gone very well. She took to online job hunting pretty well, but whatever your skills are it’s pretty hard to get anywhere in this world without doing an in-person interview. And golden harps aren’t really suited to public transit.
I had introduced her to a couple of connections I knew, and was thinking about who else might need a logistics manager who was seriously Type A but also completely immobile. Some of the things I’d heard about disability bias in hiring were finally making more sense to me.
But at the moment, I had to leave her behind in the apartment and go to work. With internet access for the first time in her life, she wasn’t all that interested in the things I wanted anyway.
Work was another castle, and I was starting to wonder if it was just going to be castles forever in Fairyland. I’d been to two castles the previous week, one bright and shiny and supported by an oppressive social system, and one more utilitarian but floating high in the air. This one was on another model entirely, pointy and dark, on top of a high mountain. I guess if castles are the main significant structure in your entire world, they attract a range of architects. Whatever the opposite of Swedish Modern is, this castle was it. It didn’t look like it had bats, it looked like it made bats, like maybe this was the place that all bats originated.
But a job was a job, and a castle on a high mountain naturally had a huge line-of-sight range across the countryside, making it the ideal location for a cellular node, and therefore where I had to go to negotiate the placement rights. I just had a feeling that the Queen of this castle was going to do whatever she could to get the maximum price the company lets me offer. You look at a castle like that and it’s time to file away any thoughts of a bonus. You just hope you can get it done without losing any limbs, skills, or decades of your life.
Most of the time I don’t wish I could go back to making deals on water towers.
Most of the time.
I told myself not to let architecture scare me. Maybe the people who lived in this castle were nice, pleasant folks who were too busy helping their community to spend time redecorating. Maybe they were castle-flippers who had picked it up cheap and were putting in central heating to make it more appealing to the market. Maybe I shouldn’t get my hopes up like that.
The butler who opened the door for me was a vulture, which you would think would dash all my hopes, but he was an extremely nattily-dressed vulture. You could tell he looked down on my suit, and I couldn’t blame him. His suit had about a hundred more accessories than mine did, and while I didn’t know what most of them were, I could tell they were all exactly to mode and exactly in the proper place. You probably don’t think of vultures as precise. I certainly didn’t think of vultures as precise. But this vulture had the most precise style I’d ever seen. I thought about asking him for his tailor, but fitting me and fitting a vulture seem like very different skills.
He led me up two flights of stairs to his mistress’ dressing room, and as we went up my heart sank. The decor here showed no lack of effort, certainly, as long as what you were trying to do was create an ominous, wicked effect. It was the sort of interior decoration that made the exterior design seem almost superfluous. Whoever decorated it could have turned a Mies van der Rohe house into a very intimidating dungeon.
And on that level, the mistress of the house was not a disappointment. She was tall and thin, with pale skin and dark hair which were both well beyond natural colors, and she was dressed in pure catalog Evil Queen. Between her, and the vulture butler, and the house, I felt like there must be a fashion photographer lurking around somewhere. Surely no one could manage this effect all the time.
Indeed, when I came in, she was studying a mirror, and it took me a moment to realize it wasn’t reflecting her face. She covered it quickly when the vulture announced me, and took a few deep breaths to calm herself. I appreciated the effort, because I had a feeling this job was going to be hard enough without having to navigate an angry client.
But she didn’t take it out on me. She was, if anything, excessively polite. It took quite a while to figure out that, while she wasn’t against the idea of hosting cellular infrastructure, the company didn’t really have anything she wanted. The Gini coefficient in Fairyland is astronomical, and gold that might tempt a hundred Jacks, or build a whole subdivision of mixed-materials pig houses, barely registered here.
We were just about ready to declare an impasse when the vulture butler interrupted us.
“Your ten o’clock appointment is here, Your Highness,” he said. “I’ve put her in the Third Receiving Room.”
“Oh, good,” said the Queen. “Good.” She had a way of saying “good” that made you know, deep inside, that she meant no good at all. It was an impressive effect, but it looked like my time was up, and I wasn’t going to be too sad to give up on this one and go somewhere else. But I was just excusing myself when she found something she wanted from me after all.
“I’ve hired this woman,” she said. “But I don’t trust her. I need someone to follow her and make sure she does what I’m paying her to do. If you do that, I’ll let you have the tower space you want.”
So there I went, down the thematically-appropriate stairs again behind the Queen, into what was apparently the Third Receiving Room, where what I received was a bit of a surprise. My eyes widened a bit when I recognized the woman in question as my friend Angie, but she didn’t acknowledge me in front of the Queen, so I kept quiet about it myself.
I had met Angie a week before, when she was pretending to be a fairy godmother in order to get a particularly pathetic Prince married off before he drove his mother to drink. Like me, she was a human working to expand her business into Fairyland, but Angie was a private investigator. Willing to do just about anything for a nice hourly plus expenses.
I tried not to look too horrified when I found out that this week’s “just about anything” involved tracking down a teenage girl, ripping her heart out, and bringing it back for the Queen to eat. Angie just took it in stride, but I started wondering if maybe all this foofaraw was the Queen trying to look less evil than she actually was.
“Of course I’m not going to do it,” said Angie after the Queen had left and we had made sure we were alone. “But I took on the job and now I have to make it look like I’m doing it.”
“She says she doesn’t trust you,” I said. “She wants me to make sure you really do the job.”
“Well that’s a stroke of luck,” said Angie. “I’ll stop by your place tonight and we’ll work out how we’re going to fool her.”
“So you saw the mirror,” said Angie. She was sitting at my dining room table drinking my beer. I hadn’t exactly invited her, but she showed up anyway, and I couldn’t claim I didn’t think it was important to figure out how to avoid murdering an innocent girl.
“Only long enough to tell that it wasn’t a normal mirror.”
“It’s magic,” said Angie. “You ask it a question and it shows you the answer.”
“That’s why it was showing someone else’s face.”
“That’s the problem. This queen is seriously obsessed with beauty, and she got in the habit of asking the mirror who the most beautiful woman in the land was. It always showed her her own face, and she basically built her self-image entirely from that.”
“But then it started showing her someone else.”
“Exactly. And she thinks that if I cut the girl’s heart out and feed it to her she’ll be the most beautiful forever.”
“And you took the job?”
“I didn’t maybe do enough research ahead of time,” she said.
“Yeah, well. Now I need to figure out a way to make the Queen think I killed the girl without actually doing it. I can get a heart easily enough, but what do I do about the magic mirror?”
“Replace it with a different one?” I said. “One that’s dishonest?”
“You know a lot of magic mirror suppliers?”
“I’ve only been doing this for a week. But I have some contacts, I could ask around.”
“You two are overthinking this,” said Harp.
“Ian,” said Angie, “either this beer is stronger than I thought or your centerpiece just called us stupid.”
“Oh, Harp isn’t my centerpiece,” I said. “I just forgot to introduce you. Harp, this is Angie, she’s a private investigator. Angie, this is Harp, she’s… a harp.”
“I’m an operations logistics specialist,” said Harp.
“And also a harp.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Angie, clearly rolling with it. “Now what is this about us overthinking the problem?”
“Every morning she asks this mirror to tell her who the fairest woman in the land is,” said Harp.
“And it shows her Snow White’s face,” said Angie.
“She never asks it any other questions?” asked Harp.
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t need a magic mirror,” said Harp. “All it has to do is show her her own face whenever she asks.”
So we ended up solving the problem by going to Target. We had to fancy up the mirror a little bit, and make it look older, but Angie has a workshop for that sort of thing. Pretty soon it looked enough like the original we were both pretty sure the Queen wouldn’t notice. On our way back to Fairyland we stopped off at Angie’s butcher and picked up a pig’s heart to serve as the girl’s stunt double. Carrying it around wasn’t especially pleasant.
Getting into the castle wasn’t a problem, as apparently the vulture butler liked us. He had been aloof the previous day, but was completely different now. In fact our biggest problem was that we weren’t able to get rid of him, even for a minute. He didn’t seem to mind much where in the castle we went, but stayed close to us wherever we were, despite our hints that he ought to go about his business. He followed us around like some sort of scavenger waiting for access to dead flesh. Which made sense, really.
It took us a while to realize that the reason we couldn’t shake him wasn’t that he didn’t trust us, or that his mistress had told him not to let us alone for an instant, but that we were carrying around a very smelly pig’s heart. It’s not that we had forgotten the heart, it made itself very conspicuous. But it’s harder to tie the concept of dead organs together with the concept of vultures when the vulture in question is immaculately dressed.
There wasn’t any other way to get rid of him, so we gave him the heart. “Don’t worry about it,” said Angie. “As long as the mirror works I can bring back another heart tomorrow.”
I rather expected him to have a full table setting, somehow, but he just went after the thing directly with his beak. It wasn’t a fast process, as even though he was eating without manners, he still made every effort to keep any of the meat and the blood from getting on his jacket. It was pretty clear he was going to be occupied for a while, so we snuck out and headed for the room with the mirror.
“It’s a good thing that wasn’t the real heart,” I said. “I’d hate to think what would happen if the Queen asked her mirror who the fairest was and it showed her a vulture.”
After that, switching the mirrors out was pretty easy. We made sure not to ask any questions while the real magic mirror was uncovered, just in case, and the Target one fit perfectly into its slot on the wall. From now on the Queen would always be shown her own face when she asked it who the fairest woman in the kingdom was. And also when she asked it anything else. But we figured she’d be satisfied for long enough to pay off both of our agreements.
I let Angie take the mirror home. I’m starting to get too much stuff anyway.
Part 4 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is The Better to See You, Beth.
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