THE PRINCESS OF EV
By Joanna Payne
Foreground illustration by DarkQueen013
Background illustration by Paolo Puggioni
When Langwidere is seven, her uncle chops off her head.
It doesn't kill her, of course. The land of Ev, like Oz, is a fairy country, and little things like being dismembered won't kill someone. But the shock is enough that she stumbles and plops onto the ground, and thinks oh and sort-of marvels at the strange soft bristliness of the grass between her fingers.
A moment later, something whacks onto the stump of her neck, and suddenly sunlight is blazing into her eyes and her uncle's hand is fisted in her hair. "Langwidere?" he asks, eyes wide with panic.
"Yes?" she asks, and then slaps small hands over her too-wide mouth. That wasn't her voice.
Her uncle grins, teeth flashing, and loosens his grip and pats the top of her head. "Good. I wasn't sure." And he steps back and kicks the maid's flailing, headless body into the well.
Langwidere, only through long habit, barely manages to keep a straight face. "I'm sorry for worrying you, Your Majesty." She bobs a quick curtsey, and sways as her balance wobbles. "Might I go lie down, please?" He waves her away, bending to wipe his sword on the grass, and she walks carefully from the garden before bolting into a stumbling, unbalanced run.
The first mirror she finds still manages to shock her into a dead faint.
Her head. It's the maid's.
Three months later, her birthday arrives, and with it comes a brightly-wrapped gift from her uncle. She opens it with the proper care a princess is supposed to show, and nearly screams. It's another head, sloe-eyed and serene over a coil of long red hair.
Her uncle beams. "I thought it would be much more suited to you; a princess shouldn't look like a dog. Go, try it on."
Langwidere gives him a weak smile, then cradles the box close and returns to her suite, to her mirrored dressing room. There are glass-fronted gilt cabinets along one wall, and she opens one and dumps out the fancy hat inside. She can't just throw away someone's head, or lock it away in the dark like in her nightmares - drowning in black water, mud seeping into her ear and eye, sometimes with things brushing against her cheek. She just can't. The hat cabinet will have to do. She can find a velvet stand that won't hurt the head's neck, and keep lights and jewels and nice things inside for it to look at.
Except it'll be for the head she's wearing, not the new one, because her uncle wants her to wear the new one. She hasn't taken off the maid's head more than the once, just to see if it would stick (it didn't), but now she wipes the mirrored shelf clean and puts the maid's head inside.
She can't see to find the new head. Oops. She puts the maid's head back on and fetches the new head, then pauses for a moment before switching.
"I don't look like a dog, do I?" she asks the new head quietly. It doesn't answer, so she peers into the mirror. She'd tried not to look at herself too often these past three months, but the maid had large, dark eyes, and a long broad nose, and a wide mouth that showed just a little bit of tooth unless she pursed her lips. With the ashy brown hair that Langwidere had been keeping in floppy high pigtails... she did look a little like a puppy, she supposed.
No wonder her uncle had gotten her a new head.
"Much better," he says when she returns to breakfast.
Her uncle punches through the glass cabinet when he finds the maid's head is still there, and kicks the head all around her dressing room before storming out. It takes weeks for the head to recover, and Langwidere begins wearing a velvet choker to hide the scars left at the base of the maid's neck.
(She has the glass replaced with all the protective charms she can get someone to make, and the cabinet fitted with a lock and a ruby key. She takes the key with her wherever she goes.)
Langwidere spends the next year switching between the two heads, doing their hair and experimenting with braids and curls. Her maid's head manages to look dreamy instead of puppyish when she crowns it with a braid trailing pastel ribbons, and the redhead's long hair will take curls that won't fall out for a week unless it gets wet.
The redhead sings when Langwidere is relaxed, humming melodies that Langwidere's never heard before, and after a few months the maid joins in with low, haunting harmonies. By her ninth birthday, Langwidere is spending hours in her mirrored room, singing duets with herself.
The new birthday head is a dimpled blonde. ("Red!" her uncle scoffs. "What was I thinking? Girls want to be blonde.") She can't sing, but fills the suite with flowers until her uncle finds out and breaks all the vases in the palace. Dirty flowers stay outside where they belong.
When she's ten, Langwidere's uncle returns from a blissfully long journey with a beautiful head the color of tea. It changes her body to match when she puts it on, and gives her slim fingers an almost itchy compulsion that's finally soothed when she finds a lute in one of the unused galleries of the west wing.
Three more heads come in quick succession over the next year: for her uncle's Silver Jubilee to celebrate twenty-five years under his rule (Langwidere hears a few whispers that it's to celebrate twenty-five years' survival under his rule, but the rumor is quickly hushed. She never hears those servants' voices again; they must've quit); for her eleventh birthday; and for the king's engagement to Princess Bevina of Boboland.
The first, rose-cheeked head brings an aversion to red meat that Langwidere's uncle takes as suitably dainty. The second joins her choir in a high, ringing soprano, strong enough that Langwidere only lets it sing while locked away in its glass-fronted cabinet, lest it drown out her other singers and the lute.
The third head is the most beautiful of all, with shining black hair and eyes bright as diamonds, and the first time Langwidere wears it she tears all her clothes to shreds in a screaming, heartfelt hatred of all the other heads for being stupid enough to not notice that nothing in her wardrobe suits them all.
That head replaces everything with a flowing white dress of the finest silk, and adds the expense to the wedding bills.
More heads and more, and when Langwidere is sixteen she has to begin selecting them for herself, otherwise her uncle will just choose them to his tastes. She adds in violet eyes and green and browns so dark they're almost black, freckles and beauty marks, thick brows and brows so thin and pale as to be nearly invisible; round faces and narrow ones. She hears of an island far in the south of beauties unlike any found in Ev, and from it recieves three dark heads with hair that lays in twisted finger-thick coils or braids threaded with gold or cut close to the scalp. It feels like the finest carpeting under her palm, and she loves these heads for how her dress almost glows against her magically-matching skin, and how they sing with sonorous voices that sound like love might.
At twenty years of age and eighteen heads, the crown prince is born. Langwidere celebrates with the sweetest face she can find, and knits silver baby booties with tiny golden crowns on the toes.
Over the next ten years, the queen has nine more children - requiring a different, gentle face special for each - and Langwidere knits and embroiders trinkets for all of them, and entertains them with lullabies in the evenings. They're all well-behaved, with the crown prince quiet and prone to reading, curled up behind Langwidere's chair where he won't block her view of herself. She loves them all dearly, except when she's wearing her most beautiful head and the toddlers pull her hair, of course.
At thirty heads, Langwidere's uncle sells the queen and children to the Nome King in a fit of pique, and by the end of the week he's drowned himself.
Langwidere is left with a kingdom full of people who hate her but want her to fix all their little problems. Why they're bothering now, when they haven't needed a thing for at least forty years, is beyond her, but a ruler can't go saying they have no idea what to do. So she puts up a sign telling people to go to the wrong door, and goes about her life as usual.
It's rather a relief to see the mighty armies of Oz arrive.
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