• There once was a young king who lived in a castle high upon the hill. It was a well-fortified castle, and though there had not been a war in many a year, it had the double ring of moats, the draw-bridge, the parapets and battlements, the defiant towers, sturdy walls and iron portcullises that would make any enemy despair at the sheer sight of them… if there were any enemies, that was.

    But either the King and his advisors were wise enough to live in peace with their neighbours, or those were too busy making war upon one another, or the whole kingdom lay so remote and isolated that no invading army ever strayed to this place. Be it as it may, the land prospered, and though it looked uninviting from the outside, from the inside, the castle was a place of splendour and beauty, for the king was in love with all things beautiful.

    In his gardens, peacocks strutted on top of the pergolas growing rampant with grapes and roses, looking down onto the gaudily dressed people of the court milling underneath the canopy, plucking pomegranates, apples and oranges from the many trees sweetening the air with their scent just as the season willed it so.

    In his stables, eight white horses would wait to draw his gilded carriage by day, six sorrel horses would munch their oats until they were saddled for the hunt at dawn, and in one box stall strewn with fragrant yellow straw, a stallion black as the midnight sky would wait for the king to mount him when the moon was bright, racing with the nightly wind over fields and meadows as he pleased.

    In the castle proper, a great ballroom with crystal chandeliers and brightly coloured wall hangings would invite the courtiers to dance, and a great hall with a jewelled throne would await the peasants to ask for the justice of the king and his judges.
    Many were the kitchens, kennels, staff-rooms, libraries, bathrooms and bedrooms used by the courtiers and knights, many were the galleries and corridors hung with tapestries and paintings. Every day, people would pass through the corridors and visit the many rooms, for the king shared his riches with the ones close to him. Still, there were many more rooms that lay half forgotten, storing old furniture of bygone fashions and designs, and others that only the king used… like his bedroom, that only he and one of his man-servants ever set foot in, for the king had no wife. And then there was the mirror room.

    During the day, the king would sometimes go in there after he had held judgement, the crown that was just a golden hat that let the rain in perched atop his head and the sceptre that was just a bejewelled and gilded stick in his hand, and so he would pass in front of the many, many mirrors, some so large that they disappeared into the darkness of the high ceiling where even the light of the windows and chandeliers did not reach, some so small that they were not larger than the palm of his hand. Sometimes he would stand and gaze for a long time into one of the mirrors, sometimes he would pass quickly, giving them nary a glance… but whenever he left, the mirrors would whisper among themselves.

    “Here!”, the large, oval mirror with the gilded seashell-ornaments would boast. “Here he stood and looked at me for half an hour straight! He must surely like me best, and see how I shine!”
    “Ah, but yesterday, he looked at me the longest!”, chimed in a narrow silver mirror with a beautiful etching of flowers on its frame.
    “What does it matter how long he stood, it was my glass he gazed the deepest into today, no doubt he was mesmerized by the beautiful design of ivy he saw there!”, said a third, and so they would go on and on, all day long.

    During the night, the king would sometimes come to the mirrors with his candle, after he woke up from a restless sleep and pace the room in his nightgown, the hat where the rain comes in and the gilded stick lying forgotten on the throne, and when he left, the mirrors would whisper again:
    “Oh, how he must have missed us that he got up in the dark of the night to visit us! Surely, he wanted to see for himself that we are safe and sound, and are we not so delicate and fragile? We deserve his care and attention more than anything else in this castle!”
    Those were the words they would say amongst themselves, and so they would tattle and gossip until the king came to see them again.

    Only one mirror would never speak like this. Really, it would never say a word at all. This was the owl’s mirror. The owl’s mirror was not large, nor was it small. It was a plain, rectangular lead-backed pane set in red pine-wood, on top of which sat the carved image of a barn owl, head turned delicately as it was the fashion of owls, thin wooden talons digging into the top of the frame as it perched there. Really, it was not much different from many of the others with similar designs and sizes, but there was one thing that set it apart from all the other mirrors.
    For unlike all the others, the owl’s mirror knew what it was: A mirror. And unlike all the others, it knew that the king only ever saw himself in its depths, and that all the gilt, the etchings and the wondrous shapes the other mirrors sported did not matter to him even a bit. Only his own image he saw when he looked at them, nothing else.

    And the owl’s mirror did know one more thing, and this it also kept to itself: It knew that whatever the king was searching for, whatever it was that made him pace his many many mirrors and gaze at his own reflection, night or day, the Owl’s mirror could not show him, and neither could the others. And it saw that every day the young king passed in front of the mirrors, not finding what he was looking for, he would become a little sadder, and the crease between his brows would grow ever deeper. So the owl’s mirror grew sad, too, and the sadder it was, the more cloudy its pane would become, until one day, the servant who cleaned all the mirrors once a week could not make it clear with his leather rag and polish, no matter how hard he rubbed it.

    “Ah, such a pity, the mirror has gone bad!”, he said, took it off its hanger, replaced it with another mirror and then threw the cloudy one out of the broad window that sat high above the castle’s garbage pile. It landed there on a heap of straw and broken wood, and, by some small miracle of the kind that happens to little things, the frame did not break, even as the glass pane cracked and a cascade of shards rained from the broken mirror, down, down, spilling onto the cobbles of the street below.
    There they lay, and the day became night and the night became early morning when a farmer passed by with his flock of geese and saw the shards shimmering in the morning light.
    “Oh,” he thought to himself, “Those would make a mighty fine addition to the old scarecrow in my garden!”, and so he picked them up, one by one, to set on a string dangling from the arms of a straw puppet. Whether they really scared all the crows and magpies away or whether those birds just came and collected the still-shiny baubles for their nests, one never knew, but it is also not important in the great scheme of things.
    The important thing was that one shard remained in the frame, only a very small one, hardly visible, but large enough to catch the light and reflect it into the eye of a hapless painter, just as he contemplated to fling himself from the wall of the castle to end his miserable life.

    For you see, the desperate artist had been commissioned by the king’s most trusted advisor to paint a portrait for the king’s upcoming jubilee marking the fifth year of his ascension to the throne, and while he had made good progress with that, he somehow had managed to lose all the money the advisor who was also the master of the treasury had entrusted to him to get a fitting frame for the portrait he was to make. Whether it was by his own carelessness that it got stolen, whether he had lost it in some foolish bet or game of cards or whether he had to spend it to get the medicine for his sick child was not important, the gold was gone, and he had no way to ever get it back.

    And just then, when he wanted to make that final step into empty air, almost feeling the rush of wind already that came with the plunge to the unforgiving earth down below, he saw the glint of the shard, and his gaze caught on something lying on top of the pile of rubble nearby.
    Could it be? Yes, the thing looked just like… he dared not hope, but still, the painter ran down the stairs from the parapet, scrambled down to the bottom of the pile, them climbed it, causing the one or other avalanche of rubbish and knick-knack until he arrived at the top, panting, and held what was left of the owl’s mirror in his hands.

    “I am saved! Thank God I am saved!”, he shouted, exited, for even though the frame was only made of plain pine-wood, it was still beautiful, and it would fit a portrait of a king. So happy was he, that when he came home with his precious load, he finished the portrait of the king right away. And maybe because he was so happy, maybe because he pushed and drew his brush with more zeal and verve than usual, maybe just by sheer chance alone, in the end, he managed to paint him in a way that made the advisor cry out with surprise and appreciation as he saw the finished picture in its pine-wood frame, and he shook the painter’s hand so vigorously that it hurt, at least until the latter found a hefty purse full of gold in it. The happy advisor carried the portrait to the castle, and the next day, it was unveiled with much pomp and circumstance at the jubilee, and everybody admired it and said that it was the most beautiful portrait of the king that had ever been painted.

    The king was puzzled by this, and much later, when everybody else had gone, and he had toured his mirror-room again and locked it behind him, he sat down on his throne with the portrait in his lap and looked at it. He examined it closely for a long time, but still, he could not figure out what was so different about this portrait that everybody was praising it so… had he not many other pictures of himself made over all the years? And did they not all look more or less the same?
    Brooding, his hands gripped the frame harder, and it was then that the leftover shard of what once had been the owl’s mirror cut into his finger. With a curse, he popped the bleeding digit into his mouth, and at that very moment, his gaze caught on the lips of his painted counterpart, and finally, he saw the smile lingering there. And it was then that his own lips, though long unused to the movement, twisted into the mirror image of that smile around the finger in his mouth, just as if he had finally tasted something sweet after years and years of hunger.