Leucosia sighed as she glided to the front desk for the afternoon shift. The holiday season was shaping up to be the worst--the incessant rushing, the constant demands, the haughty entitlement. Flame-haired Teles, the most experienced of the sirens, spent two hours mediating an argument between two lycanthropes who strenuously disagreed about whether to go through with a waxing and pedicure. Last week, the octomaid Manami expelled a leering kappa after he had gotten handsy during a massage. Then, just yesterday, Leucosia herself had gotten the sauna and steam room appointments for separate parties of water elementals and mummies confused, nearly leading to disastrous health scares before Teles stepped in and redirected everyone. Casey Moda, the owner, believed in second chances and all was quickly forgiven, but Leucosia had begun thinking about whether to return to the sea where she grew up. However, she understood that employment at a long-lived, prestigious institution like Vitality was incredibly difficult to attain. She also did not feel right leaving behind several of her siren sisters after just a few months on the job.
Most sirens, charming in looks and demeanor, had guest-facing roles at Vitality. However, not all of them could also sing, play a musical instrument, or perform medicine or alchemy competently. Since Leucosia had the charisma but not any of the desired technical skills, she was typically sent out front as the face of the enterprise. Sighing again, she settled into her seat, her lavender gown pooling around her. She folded her feathered wings behind her back and brushed a strand of long white hair away out of her eyes, trying to put on her best face.
A hamster, standing perhaps twenty centimeters tall and clad in a tiny black-and-white silk robe, sat on Leucosia’s desk, swaying to the cheerful stringed melody being piped into the room. Leucosia wished she could be as relaxed as her little colleague, but it was difficult under the omnipresent view of the enormous gilded mirror looming from the wall behind her. Casey was a pleasant man and openly used it as a two-way communication device to monitor the foyer and chat with staff and customers, but Leucosia, reasonably or not, felt it was more akin to being judged by Minos.
As Leucosia daydreamed of being able to play the lute like her dexterous compatriot Thelxiepia, her bright violet eyes surveyed the waiting room. As it had been for weeks on end, it was filled almost to capacity with a diverse clientele. Several gaunt, ethereal èguǐ from the eastern realms were crowded around Vitality’s enchanted cornucopia, a large horn weaved from bamboo and straw and one of the spa’s most famous relics. With a few whispered phrases from silver-eyed Ligeia, a pile of small, fluffy white buns rolled out of the cornucopia onto the oaken table. Marveling, the èguǐ scooped them into their hands. A trio of proud female strigoi from the west, awaiting canine filing and envenomed lip filler and gloss, conversed in a lyrical tongue in another corner. They periodically pointed at a heavy leather-bound tome encased in glass and displayed on a lacquered wooden stand, another of Vitality’s treasures. A boisterous construction crew, half a dozen stocky dwarves accompanied by a pebble-skinned, web-winged gargoyle, piled into the doorway for their scheduled massage therapy under the powerful arms and hands of a team of potamoi. A group of stiff-armed, green-skinned jiāngshī, elegantly dressed in blue and gold robes and round black hats, jumped inside before the doors could close.
As Leucosia and the hamster began checking in the construction crew, their reverie was shattered by the clamor of clomping hoofbeats and squeaking wheels. The noisy fanfare of trumpets rattled the entire building.
“Quel est ce bruit?” the gargoyle growled, stalking to a window to look outside. “Qui sont tous ces gens? Tant de gens...”
“What is it, Fabrice?” Leucosia asked the hamster.
“There is a great crowd outside,” he replied. “The gargoyle is saying that it appears to be a royal procession.”
Leucosia consulted the appointment book. “I do not see any royalty on today’s calendar. I wonder who it could be.”
“Qui est dehors, monsieur?” Fabrice squeaked loudly, as even more trumpets joined in the racket. Strident voices issued commands to unseen people outside. One of the dwarves joined the gargoyle by the window, cursing.
“Un chariot. Bannières avec des flocons de neige.”
The hamster nodded. “Royals from the Kingdom of Snow have arrived.”
Leucosia was nonplussed. “Kingdom of Snow? Aren’t they from the great valley to the north?”
“Oui, madame. They are from far away.”
The siren shivered ever so slightly, rubbing her ivory skin. Already things were veering off plan. “We have other guests due to arrive soon, but let us see what they want.”
The clamor died down to a single trumpet playing a long, piercing string of notes. After the tune stopped, the front doors were yanked open by a pair of young men in silvery armor, large snowflake crests engraved on their breastplates. A tall, pale, raven-haired woman in a dark blue top and dress breezed inside, trailing a stream of cold air and flurries. Close behind her was a blonde in a glittery silver corset, miniskirt, and stockings, tottering on sparkling, transparent stiletto heels.
“Is this really the place, Blanca? It’s like my childhood nightmares all over again,” the blonde grumbled. “Cracked stone arches...gothic columns...rotting wooden doors...and that ugly mirror on the wall.” She gestured at the other guests, who were staring and murmuring in a variety of languages. “And it’s even haunted. Wonderful.”
“It does look rather pathetic,” Blanca replied, tossing her hair. “I knew the court was full of idiots. But I’m tired and need a massage, so--”
The dwarf stomped over, raising his brawny arms in irritation. “Could you please keep it down? Your party is making such noise--”
“Hah! Look at this little man,” Blanca snorted, her face crystallizing into a sneer. “You there, don’t you know who you’re talking to?”
“See what those guards are wearing there?” The armored doormen stepped into the room, the doors slamming shut behind them. “Learn your place, dwarf.” The dwarf rolled his eyes, turned around, and rejoined his gargoyle companion.
Leucosia bit her tongue as the visitors made a beeline for her. Vitality, like most establishments in the city-state, was obliged to avoid confrontations with royalty so long as business could still be conducted. Folding her cascading wings behind her dress, the siren stood to welcome the visitors, a beatific smile on her face. “Greetings, my ladies,” she began. “How may--”
“So, this is Vitality? That glorious spa everyone talks about?” Blanca looked around the foyer, her face disdainful. She pulled a shiny red apple out of a hidden pocket in her blouse and chomped on it. A spectral èguǐ, dressed in a thin, loose-fitting white robe, stared longingly at the fruit, her hands drifting to her swollen belly.
“This is indeed Vitality. How may I help you?”
“This place is a hovel. The décor’s just awful.” Blanca wiped juice dripping from her mouth. “But whatever. You have massage services here, yeah?”
“Thank you for your comments,” Leucosia said in her sweetest tone. “As to your question, we do, though all our services are reservation-only.”
“Listen, it’s been a long, tiring day of shopping and sightseeing.” Tossing the half-eaten apple to the side, Blanca leaned forward, her hands propped on the concierge desk. “I’m a royal. I don’t need reservations.”
Leucosia sat down in her armchair, panic nibbling at her insides. Blanca seemed to be almost supernaturally bullheaded; her sirenly charms were not going to work. “I apologize. I did not realize that.” She lowered her gaze, focusing on the thick reservation book open on the desk. “What are your names, please?”
“We’re from the Kingdom of Snow. You couldn’t tell from the guards’ uniforms?” The black-haired woman huffed and pointed to her companion, who was examining her arctic blue nails. “She’s Princess Cindy. I’m Princess Blanca.”
“Thank you. Our rules apply whether the customer is royal or not. Even our own heads of state respect our customs and policies.” The siren leaned forward, delicately flipping through the book’s pages. “It is holiday season, but we should be able to accommodate you, and any and all other guests you wish, within the next two weeks. We can provide upgraded packages--”
“Two weeks? Unacceptable. Even our holidays don’t last forever.” Cindy stepped out of her heels and gingerly walked over to an unoccupied chair, rubbing her feet. “Seriously, they don’t make these shoes for walking. Can someone take care of them?”
“How many masseuses do you have here?” Blanca demanded.
“We have eighteen. All are currently with patrons.”
“How about you?” Blanca squinted. “You work here.”
“I am not a masseuse, my lady--”
“Princess Blanca.” The air around her chilled as her face hardened.
“My apologies, Princess Blanca.” Leucosia paused, watching Blanca’s frigid breath escape her lips and trying to suppress the alarm growing in her chest. “Vitality has many employees, all of whom have varying talents.”
“What are you?”
“I am a siren.”
“A siren?” Blanca sniffed, her upper lip curling. “Isn’t seduction supposed to be your talent?” Leucosia blinked as even the Snow soldiers snickered.
“How difficult could it possibly be to summon some more masseuses?” Cindy called out from her chair.
“Our masseuses are uniquely trained and, ah, and skilled. Their techniques are--have magical restorative effects replicable by no one else. If you want a simple massage, there are other--”
“No, we came here for exactly that--your ‘unique’ massage therapy,” Blanca snapped. “We aren’t interested in some two-bit rub from the local brothel. Now hurry and fetch us two of your ‘trained’ masseuses right now, or I’ll demand to see your lord.”
Leucosia glanced at Fabrice, who was brushing dust off his paws. “Monsieur, please explain the situation to Lord Moda and see if any of the masseuses can be made available. And send over any available hamsters now.”
“Bien sûr, Madame Leucosia.” Fabrice hopped off the desk and ran down the hall.
As the Snow caravan waited with increasing impatience, a tall, well-coiffed man in a black opera cloak entered the foyer from the treatment rooms. Leucosia beckoned him to the concierge desk.
“Ah, Lady Leucosia.” The man’s smile revealed glistening canines. “Excellent service. How might we--”
“Excuse you,” Blanca interrupted, placing herself between Leucosia and the strigoi, “but we haven’t been helped yet.”
“Yeah, I’m still waiting for someone to stow these heels before they get shattered,” Cindy chimed in. “Again.”
The man took in the princesses’ scowls and crossed arms. “Surely there would be no object if others proceeded while you wait for a resolution.”
A faint mist began to materialize around Blanca’s grim face as she spoke. “I think not.”
The man’s voice darkened, plunging a couple octaves. “The cold has no effect on me, fetiță,” he sneered. “It would be advisable if you--”
“Please, everyone, there’s no need for confrontation,” Leucosia interjected as the Snow guards’ hands drifted toward the hilts of their blades. Her heart pounding, she again tried to radiate her most calming, serene tones, for herself as much as for the rest of the room. “Settle down, please. Settle down.”
Thankfully, it seemed to work, though the ensuing silence was frigid. Leucosia even thought she saw a few flurries floating in the air, but perhaps it was just a trick of the light. After a very long, very awkward pause, she continued, “Ah, some more staff have come to help.” The siren gestured down the hall, where several uniformed hamsters were scurrying as fast as they could.
One hamster broke off from the group, donning gloves as he hurried toward Cindy’s shoes. The princess twitched and let out a scream, trying to shoo the hamster away with her foot. “Agh! Vermin! Get away from me!”
The hamster squeaked, holding his paws up to his face. “Ma princesse, I work--”
“Disgusting little rat! I don’t care if you can talk. Don’t touch my things.”
“S'il vous plait--”
Leucosia felt her anxiety morph into anger. Belittling a magical animal was completely uncouth. “Pardon, Princess Cindy,” she called out firmly, “but he is a distinguished member of this facility. Please allow him to do his job.”
“Are you serious? Where’s the lord of the establishment?” Cindy jumped up barefoot and hurried to Blanca’s side. “I want to see--”
“I am here.” Everyone in the room turned toward the sound of the voice. Casey Moda’s stooped form stood in front of a small door, disguised in the cabinet of a quietly ticking grandfather clock. His right hand rested on a knobby wooden cane. Behind him stood an elegant, dark-skinned woman with sapphire eyes and long bluish hair that seemed to sway of its own accord.
The proprietor of Vitality shuffled forward, adjusting his right-sided eyepatch with his free hand. His good left eye peered up at Blanca. “I am Casey Moda, the owner of this establishment. I understand you and your companion wish to receive services.”
“About time,” Blanca retorted. “Do you keep everyone standing around like this, or just us?”
“I don’t know, Blanca. Shouldn’t we say something about the rat infestation?” Cindy asked. “It’s a health problem. Look at them scurrying around.” She pointed at another hamster, who was struggling to drag away the apple that Blanca had discarded. One of the èguǐ was hovering over the discarded fruit, her hands clenching and unclenching. “I can’t tell which of them is trying to eat that, but that is filthy.”
“Our ‘rats’ are actually multitalented hamsters, but I suppose you did not come here to discuss that,” Casey said quietly. “All our services are by reservation, and for various reasons we do not normally facilitate walk-in treatments. With that said, you have traveled far and perhaps you...were simply not informed. Thanks to a considerate client, our masseuse, Asterodia, is available and will be glad to work with you.”
Asterodia stepped forward. “Hello.” Her aquamarine robe swished softly as she extended a delicate hand.
Both princesses grimaced. “I--no, no,” Cindy muttered, taking a step back. “We’ll wait.”
“Sorry, is something wrong?” Asterodia’s voice was like the soothing trickle of a shallow waterfall.
“Don’t you have anyone else?” Blanca demanded. “I don’t want her touching me.”
“Could you please explain--” Casey began.
“We expected something contemporary, not some old witch’s secret lair full of vermin and clientele of questionable lineage.” Blanca snarled. “And you treat us with such contempt and make us wait for this?” She dismissively waved a hand at Asterodia.
“Is that right?” Casey asked mildly. “I do apologize if our appearances somehow do not meet your expectations. However, I assure you that if we treated our guests with contempt, Vitality would not have lasted long.”
“It won’t be much longer, that’s for certain, old man.” Blanca turned to her sentries. “Bring my husband, Prince Gentil, inside.”
One of the guards went outside, returning within moments with the prince. He was a brown-haired, square-jawed man, dressed in a fine blue suit with golden epaulets and brown leather riding boots. His eyes searched the crowd, trying to size up the situation.
“Blanca,” the prince finally said, “what is the problem?”
“I need you to spread the word, Guy. This place, Vitality, is unworthy of their name. And this man, Casey Moda, is their disreputable host.” Blanca walked up to her husband, running a finger down his broad chest, her voice dripping with honey. “They’ve treated us so disrespectfully, so rudely, so unprofessionally. All we wanted was a simple massage. Nothing more.”
The prince gave Casey a questioning look. Casey merely crossed his arms over his cane and said nothing, his lined face unreadable. “Is that all, Blanca?” Gentil asked.
“A notice to the local authorities is in order. They have a vermin problem.”
“You see those little rodents scampering about?” She pointed to Fabrice, who had returned to his post on the concierge desk. “Carriers of disease.”
“Is this true?” the prince asked Casey.
“Certainly not.” Casey stepped forward, leaning on his cane. “Our hamsters are professional employees, from a renowned magical family. Unless you have not traveled widely, it seems surprising that you have not heard--never mind. I will procure their employment records upon request.”
“And the unprofessionalism? How do you respond?”
“I explained to the princesses that we do not take walk-in visits, even for royalty. This is a policy that we have had in place for one hundred and seven years. They were, ah, disagreeable to that. Yet, when we ignored our own rule and even found a client willing to adjust his reservation--” Casey gestured at Asterodia with an open hand. “--they still found our offer unacceptable.”
“Those are challenging allegations,” the prince said stiffly, straightening his shoulders. “Do you have evidence?”
“You still do not believe me?” Casey frowned. “Fine. Rather than calling upon all our guests in this room who witnessed this situation, I instead submit mirror evidence.”
“Mirror?” Gentil’s brown eyes widened.
“Certainly,” Casey replied, pointing to the huge mirror behind the concierge desk. “Most people know that device suspended behind Lady Leucosia as a communicator. But it is much more than that. See for yourself.”
Gentil slowly approached the mirror, inspecting its intricate gold-leafed frame. He whispered something under his breath and let his fingertips brush its surface. To his astonishment, tiny golden lights rippled in their wake. “A true magic mirror?” A note of wonder crept into his voice. “You keep such a priceless object out in the public space?”
“It came into the possession of Vitality many decades ago.” Casey eased his way to the frame of the mirror and muttered another incantation. The mirror’s glass surface wavered, and a familiar scene emerged in sharp clarity: Blanca and Cindy entering the Vitality, from the mirror’s vantage point. “Shall we demonstrate for everyone what just transpired before you entered, Prince Gentil?”
Everyone in the room watched, transfixed, as the entire incident began to unspool on the mirror. After some time, Gentil finally exclaimed: “Blanca, did you know they had a magic mirror?”
“It’s lying,” Blanca retorted. “Everyone knows they run on dark magic.”
“Mirrors do not lie! People simply do not often like what they have to say.” Gentil chewed his lip. “Did you not tell me yourself, once upon a time, that the Kingdom of Snow used to possess such a mirror? Two of them?”
“Yeah, and my grandmother got rid of that junk! I don’t know where.” Blanca paused. “You aren’t saying that--”
“Yes, it is,” Casey confirmed. “Having acquired it through a formal auction, its provenance is unquestioned. But respectfully, Princess, magic mirrors are considered infallible reporters of truth by reputable authorities across the world. They cannot lie. I cannot fathom why your kingdom might have wished to relieve itself of owning such a treasure, but as the prince suggested, basic magic mirrors do not present what we want to see, only what was seen.”
Gentil’s face darkened as the mirror showed the princesses accosting the man in the opera cloak and disparaging the Vitality hamster. “Both of you--this is--you have to be better than this. It is an embarrassment to our kingdom--”
“What?” Blanca shouted. “I’m an embarrassment? They denied me--they denied us! They have no right--”
“Of course, the mirror’s ‘true seeing’ ability is a rather utilitarian function,” Casey said as the royals argued. “With the right spell, this particular mirror can reveal the inner appearances of those captured within its gaze. I certainly could do so if you wish, Prince Gentil.”
“No! No, that is quite enough, Lord Moda.” Gentil spun on his heel. “We are leaving, Blanca and Cindy. You have drawn too much attention. News will spread. I will have to explain this back home.”
“Let’s just go, Blanca,” Cindy said, nervously eyeing the mirror. She hurriedly slipped her glass heels back on. “I don’t think Guy needs to see any more of--”
“Of course you’re taking his side,” Blanca shot back, grabbing the prince’s elbow as they filed out of the foyer. “Backstabbing skank. Why did I decide to let you into our court again? So you can get close to my man? Is that why you turned down the duke’s proposal last month?”
“No, don’t say that!” Cindy sniffed, her lower lip quivering, as she trailed the others outside. “I didn’t mean--” The two Snow sentries were the last to leave, wordlessly closing the doors shut behind them.
There was an uneasy silence. Leucosia was the first to recover, summoning the male strigoi who was trying to pay for services earlier. Eventually, conversations resumed around the foyer. The antics of the Snow princesses were mocked, then forgotten.
Many hours later, as the moon glowed bright in the night sky, Vitality finally began closing for the evening. One of the last to leave, Casey passed through the foyer on his way out. He stopped by the front desk, noticing Leucosia staring silently up at the magic mirror, arms crossed, wings wrapped around her waist, a morose expression on her face.
“Are you well?” Casey asked.
Leucosia turned toward the speaker. “Thank you for asking. Yes, I am fine.”
“Lady Leucosia, I realize these last few weeks have been particularly stressful, especially as you are also the newest member of our institution.”
“I am simply glad to be done with the whole affair.”
“Indeed.” Casey regarded Leucosia for a long while before continuing. “It does get better. In time you will acclimate. The vagaries of some of our clientele will become tolerable.”
“Vagaries? Threats are not whimsical, Lord Moda.”
“True. But royalty frequently run by their own rules, and we often are forced to negotiate a delicate balance if we are to maintain our presence as a cultural hub.”
Leucosia was silent for a while. “I understand. With that said, I doubt I can last much longer simply managing appointments and transactions, especially if the peculiarities of any given client threaten to transform into outright hostilities. Even a siren cannot overcome such volatility.”
“What would you like to do?”
Leucosia paused. “Do I have a choice?”
Casey simply opened his hands, palms up.
Leucosia pointed at the mirror. “How many people knew this was a magic mirror?”
“Not many, but I have no doubt the court of Snow will spread the word. One way or another.”
“I noticed many of our clients were highly engaged with the cornucopia and grimoire out here. It seems to me that one course of action might be to find a therapeutic use for the mirror as well.”
Casey leaned on his staff, deep in thought. “Magic mirrors excel at repeating and reflecting people’s words and thoughts back at them. Perhaps we can use ours to help people deliberately talk about what is inside them? Talk therapy?” He paused. “That was an excellent idea, Lady Leucosia.”
“Talking to people is in my nature. It would be wonderful to simply have pleasant, or at least deep and meaningful, conversation. Not this charged atmosphere, full of tension.”
“Not every day will be like today.”
“One day is enough. My skill set could be better utilized.”
“Fair. Then perhaps you could be the first person to work with the mirror? You have not only a siren’s charm, but clearly an aptitude for conflict de-escalation.”
“I am not signing up for more of today’s aggressions, Lord Moda.”
“My apologies, that is not what I meant. I merely ask you to help train our mirror it to do more than reflect what it beholds. Empathize? Enlighten?” Casey nodded to himself. “Let us speak more of this tomorrow. Please lock up when you leave. Good night.”
“Good night, Lord Moda.”
Cane tapping, the owner of Vitality departed the spa, the door thudding behind him. Leucosia turned back to the mirror after he was gone, peering closely at her reflection. Beyond her wan appearance, there was nothing else to see; deactivated by Casey before he left, the mirror was nothing more than a featureless pane of glass.
“A magic mirror that talks to people and helps them work through their thoughts and emotions?” Leucosia wondered. “For the clients or for us?”