Put them all in a room together, and give them each a knife. They’ll hardly notice the change of circumstances. Their tales are nothing but this struggle, and they’re well enough used to being run through.
• • • •
At first it would be chaos. Fragile beauty and a kind heart does you no good here. (Never does; that’s what made it fairy stories, that so many people would help them just for kindness.)
A hundred maidens with no name, or a hundred names but no cunning, would drop to the ground before they could even resign themselves to the knives they were holding, their slender fingers curling tentatively around handles of ivory and silver, a curious glint in their eye just before it’s too late.
All but one of the maids will balk in that first crucial moment. That one’s used to the blade in her hand; she’s gauged its weight a thousand times, standing on bloody feet over the sleeping prince, waiting for courage. It’s a well-made knife, and she’d turn it inward easily. She’d die without a sound, and the mist of seafoam she makes would linger behind her long enough that Snow White has time to take a breath heavy with it before her stepmother’s knife finds her.
Some are left — Rapunzel’s braid is wrapped around her with knife-combs lodged in it, Laili the faithful carries her knife held fast — but for the rest, their hair and their feathers and one sealskin cloak oil the floor. It forces the survivors apart to negotiate the new terrain. It’s difficult; one corner of the room is already lost to ice, where the Snow Queen stands, and no one dares so much as look.
Outside, the animals of the forest and the desert and the shore, and six swans moving like brothers, would throw themselves against the walls until they died.
A clever queen who can think to dispose of the dead — the stepmother of Snow White, perhaps, who knows what’s required to make a corpse useful — might stack some of the bodies for shelter, might scalp what she can and use brooches flashing gold to pin the pelts of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, black hair in front and pale behind her, so thick and sleek that knives would find no purchase.
Snow White’s mother has a stomach that can eat hearts. Snow White’s mother wouldn’t waste her chance.
The second sister of the water-gourds would fight her hardest, but it’s hopeless: She’s so small, and her arms are too weak to carry, and the older sister who would have helped her sits dead by the bank of the river beside the crocodiles that woke her, waiting to draw water for a girl who will never come home.
Scheherazade fares better; hers is a voice that cuts through screaming, and she tells such fine stories about surviving. Those who come near enough are doomed. Even the Polar Bear Queen, whose magic shoes hold her half-forgotten on the ceiling, has to close her ears against it as she keeps her watch on the door.
In the pause between battles, the witches will mutter to themselves to gather strength. (They never join forces, no matter how it might help them; they’re not that kind of witch.) The maidens will put their backs to the wall. The Queens will look from one to the other, smiling tightly and cataloging injuries.
The second attacks are sublime. The first were mercy kills for the long-lashed cows. The women who are left by then would be of tougher stuff than the crumpled islands underfoot; they’ve met sorry ends before, and it’s made them clever and exacting. They won’t settle for losing to an inferior.
So thinks Cinderella’s mother. But she’s met no opposition, so her cruelty’s balloon-thin, and as empty; it’s the sort of thing a Queen can tell. Cinderella’s mother would be set upon as if by dogs.
Suffering Laili, to whom this is last of a long line of terrors, will lose to the Icelandic queen, who drops her lying finery and becomes a troll again, crushing Laili in a single blow. Her last breath is the name of her beloved.
In the melee, Rapunzel might turn quietly and slide her blade between her witch-mother’s ribs. She’s lived a lifetime in the tower and a lifetime in the desert, and has never forgotten who put her there. (The witch-mother doesn’t fight back; she hasn’t forgotten, either.)
Then would come the magic. Against the rules, of course, if there are rules, but you’ve never bothered setting down any. It wouldn’t matter. It always comes to this. These are women used to making do.
Ye Xian’s wise fishbone won’t avail her here; she dies with one gold slipper on. Scheherazade’s voice can be stoppered.
The witch of candyfloss charges Gretel, at the very last, to shield her from the bolt of the old fairy who once cursed some dead girl to fall on a spindle (a piercing they all understood literally until this room, just now). The curse will consume the candyfloss witch in a single breath; she’ll drop to the ground in a clatter of bones, smoldering and smelling of caramel. Gretel goes a moment later, a contender for victory vanishing out of carelessness because she’s staring at what used to be the witch, trying to decide the whys.
There’s no time for whys. Old women get possessive; they regret things. Only the ones who understand unfairness stand a chance of getting out.
The second lull will happen right when it should, according to your charts. The blades are beginning to cause blisters, and by now life is almost over. The panicked melee fades away to standoffs between the tired and the weakened, the bleeding and the dead. The old crone who cursed the Beast falls to Snow White’s mother; the old fairy runs Rapunzel through.
The young ones left are made of horrors. Donkeyskin’s safe from glancing blows, and too wild to gauge when the fighting’s thick. She lasts until the Tsarevna with the firebird coat becomes the wolf, jaws open wider than death — but Donkeyskin’s blade finds the soft, treacherous jaw and slips through the head, a steady blow, a calm one; Donkeyskin is used to those near her becoming monsters.
The Snow Queen long ago made a throne of the corpses Snow White’s mother gathered. The floor around her would be skimmed with ice from her breath, too slick to approach and too cold for sanctuary. She cares for nothing; she’s made to win. The field before her clears — her knife is still pristine.
She wouldn’t see the Polar Bear Queen, who has no fear of cold, until it’s nearly too late. There would be a flurry of snow and a crack of bone, a spray of blood and a knife made of ice; then it would be over.
Snow White’s mother, white skin brocaded with blood, staggering as if in iron shoes, would be the last with a knife in her hand. She would find the corner furthest from Snow White’s body to curl up and die in.
After it’s been quiet for a while, Clever Manka would push aside the bodies piled atop her, and wipe the blood from her face, and set her knife to work on the lock.
• • • •
You’ve run this out a dozen times. Four dozen. A hundred.
What will never happen in the white room where you’ve locked them all in:
They line up and make chisels of their knives, and carve the wall away to nothing, and the birds and deer and swans flood the empty space they leave behind.
• • • •
At first it would be chaos — the maidens forming a circle facing out, shoulders hunched and trailing sleeves tangling wherever they meet — but they’ll fill the room, and even unskilled, it’s harder to outwit a blade that has a neighbor. Inside the circle, Second Sister’s thin hand trembles under the weight of her knife, and the Armless Maiden watches and waits.
It stymies the women less used to kindness. The Queens and the witches — all but one — will withdraw to corners in wary knots, to determine how best to break the line.
A mistake, to give dangerous women enough time for strategy. Goodness is only stronger than a curse if you give it time enough and then expose it to the light. In this room, where a blade stops any mercy from spreading, one by one the maids lose their grips on their knives.
The Polar Bear Queen dies early. She’ll look at the Armless Maiden braced in front of Second Sister, and step in; her knife finds the old fairy’s heart just as the curse roasts her whole.
The circle shrinks, corpses ringed like planets around a dying star. The Mermaid’s familiar with a knife, and Clever Manka the shepherd’s daughter knows how to slice open a beast, but none of them will last long. Sooner or later they’ll hesitate.
It hardly matters when the Queens and the witches turn on each other after the maidens are all gone. Their numbers are so low, their bones so weary and their blades so sharp, that it’s soon over. Only Snow White’s mother is left. She’s harvested knives from the maidens’ graves; she’s surprised more than one witch with a blade as if from nowhere. She wouldn’t miss her chance.
But the Snow Queen, who has an eye for those with shards of glass where hearts should be, will say, “It’s been a long fight. Come into my arms, my Queen, that I may embrace you.”
It’s a trap, of course — that Queen invented traps, there’s a basket of ribbons and a smooth red apple still sitting on the bureau back home — but Snow White’s mother is weary with battle and sick of life, and she’s missed embraces. She’ll go to the Snow Queen’s side without complaint, sit in the frost at her feet, tilt up her face for the kiss.
She’ll turn to ice in a single sigh, a winter lake covering over, and become a carving as cold as suits her. When the Snow Queen pulls away, there’s the sound of shattering glass, though nothing is wrong with the statue; a heart breaking, maybe.
• • • •
You tried single combat, a long time ago, but it never took. Two women armed with knives, if they have any kindness at all, will wait it out. Even starved, they’d cut their own arms for flesh before they’d try a stranger’s. It took them so long to die that way; the crowd fights are a mercy, even if they don’t know it.
The only thing that came from those sessions — brackets like a jousting tournament sitting empty on your clipboard as you waited for someone to pick up the blade and fight — was that you could pinpoint the ones who held their knives the longest. Some let it fall from their hands as if a nightmare placed it there, but once they were armed, some — not always the ones you thought, Beauty and Rapunzel surprised you — curled their fingers in tight and never let go, not even as their knuckles swelled.
Sometimes the assistants laid bets, but gambling isn’t permitted, and you closed the pool when there was only a few hundred dollars and a board with the Snow Queen favored at odds of a hundred to one.
It was a failed experiment, but not a waste. It afforded you the best template to continue, so that was something, and you came away knowing which of them held on longest in a place with no escape.
• • • •
You begin. You begin. You begin.
There’s no world in which the ending satisfies. There’s no world in which the fish or the birds or the head of a horse can give wise enough advice; advice is magic, advice is power, but those who would give it to you are never near enough when you’re facing down a blade.
Every time the Beauty wraps her hand around her knife, she glances down at the hilt, with the rose her father brought her carved into it, and the light of battle reaches her eyes just before someone cuts her open from behind. The Mermaid is always a spray of foam by then; some carry their deaths inside them.
The Tsarevna (the wolf, in the skin of a woman) fears nothing, though she never lives. A wolf is built for war. Donkeyskin bites, after the knife’s lost; she dies with blood in her teeth.
The old fairy hates it all. She’d cursed an infant once in anger, but only out of suffering a great slight, and she had even called forth the briars to keep the beasts and princes from the door. She fights because she would rather fight than die, but she always thinks, Injustice, just before her breath is gone.
Every time Rapunzel drops, the long golden braid so heavy it sounds like a second body falling, her witch-mother screams. It’s not the disadvantage it could be; the others don’t know the sound of a mother mourning.
Eventually, someone whose heart is deaf to hopeful stories will slice the throat of Scheherazade.
Ye Xian has pierced throats with her fishbone, but desperation’s always made her careless (losing a shoe, stealing it back) and sooner or later it shatters.
Sister falls with a rattling breath that sounds like an animal dying, her head lolling toward the door as if Brother’s antlers are breaking through to rescue her.
Nameless and hundreds are the maidens who think, to the last, I will be saved. The queens and witches all know better. Rescues are rare, and none were ever meant for them. They live by the advantage of the blade.
Perhaps, once, the Polar Bear Queen might call out in her home tongue, and the troll-wife will look up in surprise; between motions Laili’s knife will glint in the light, and the troll-wife will splinter into granite, and things will change.
Then brave Laili will raise Second Sister and the kindhearted maidens from the dead, the blood on the tip of her finger sealing shut their gaping throats. Then Clever Manka and the Polar Bear Queen and all the lovely risen girls will sit on the floor, away from the corpses. They will lay down their knives. They are waiting there still.
• • • •
What never happens in the white room where you’ve put them all:
They stand back and let Clever Manka puzzle the door open, and go hunting for the ones who locked them in.
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