It is not very far from the kingdom of Noland to the kingdom of Ix. If you followed the steps of Quavo the minstrel, you would climb the sides of a steep mountain range and go down on the other side and cross a broad and swift river and pick your way through a dark forest. You would then have reached the land of Ix and would find an easy path into the big city. But even before he came to the city he would see the high marble towers of Queen Zixi's magnificent palace, and pause to wonder at its beauty.
Quavo the minstrel had been playing his harp in the city of Nole, and his eyes were sharp, so he had seen many things to gossip and sing about, and therefore he never doubted he would be warmly welcomed by Queen Zixi. He reached the marble palace about dusk one evening and was bidden to the feast which was about to be served.
A long table ran down the length of the lofty hall built in the center of the palace, and this table was covered with gold and silver platters bearing many kinds of meat and fruits and vegetables, while tall, ornamented stands contained sweets and delicacies to tickle the palate. At the head of the table, on a jeweled throne, sat Queen Zixi herself, a vision of radiant beauty and charming grace.
Her hair was yellow as spun gold and her wondrous eyes raven black in hue. Her skin was fair as a lily save where her cheek was faintly tinted with a flush of rose color. There were graybeards at her side this evening who could remember the queen's rare beauty since they were boys; ay, and who had been told by their fathers and grandfathers of Queen Zixi's loveliness when they also were mere children. In fact, no one in Ix had ever heard of the time when the land was not ruled by this same queen, or when she was not in appearance as young and fair as she was today. Which easily proves she was not an ordinary person at all.
And I may as well tell you here that Queen Zixi, despite the fact that she looked to be no more than sixteen, was in reality six hundred and eighty-three years of age and had prolonged her life in this extraordinary way be means of the arts of witchcraft. I do not mean by this that she was an evil person. She had always ruled her kingdom wisely and liberally, and the people of Ix made no manner of complaint against their queen. If there were a war, she led her armies in person, clad in golden mail and helmet; and in years of peace she taught them to sow and reap grain, and to fashion many useful articles of metal, and to build strong and substantial houses. Nor were her taxes ever more than the people could bear.
Yet for all this, Zixi was more feared than loved; for everyone remembered she was a witch and also knew she was six hundreds of years old. So no matter how amiable their queen might be, she was always treated with extreme respect, and folks weighed well their words when they conversed with her. Next the queen, on both sides of the table, sat her most favored nobles and their ladies; farther down were the rich merchants and officers of the army; and at the lower end were servants and members of the household. For this was the custom in the land of Ix.
Quavo the harpist sat near the lower end; and when all had been comfortably fed, the queen called upon him for a song. This was the moment Quavo had eagerly awaited. He took his harp, seated himself in a niche of the wall, and according to the manner of ancient minstrels, he sang of the things he had seen in other lands, thus serving his hearers with the news of the day as well as pleasing them with his music. This is the way he began:
"Of Noland now a tale I'll sing, Where reigns a strangely youthful king --
A boy who has by chance alone Been called to sit upon a throne.
His sister shares his luck, and she The fairies' friend is said to be;
For they did mystic arts invoke And weave for her a magic cloak
Which grants its wearer -- this I'm told -- Gifts more precious far than gold.
She's but to wish, and her desire Quite instantly she will acquire;
And when she lends it to her friends The favor unto them extends.
For one who wears the cloak can fly Like any eagle in the sky,
And one did wish, by sudden freak, His dog be granted power to speak;
And now the beast can talk as well As I, and also read and spell.
And -- "
"Stop!" cried the queen with sudden excitement. "Do you lie, minstrel, or are you speaking the truth?"
Secretly glad that his news was received this eagerly, Quavo continued to twang the harp as he replied in verse:
"Now may I die at break of day If false is any word I say."
"And what is this cloak like, and who owns it?" demanded the queen impetuously.
Sang the minstrel:
"The cloak belongs to Princess Fluff; 'T is woven of some secret stuff
Which makes it gleam with splendor bright That fills beholders with delight."
Thereafter the beautiful Zixi remained lost in thought, her dainty chin resting within the hollow of her hand and her eyes dreamily fixed upon the minstrel. And Quavo, judging that his news had brought him into rare favor, told more and more wonderful tales of the magic cloak, some of which were true, while others were mere inventions of his own; for newsmongers, as everyone knows, were ever unable to stick to facts since the world began.
All the courtiers and officers and servants listened with wide eyes and parted lips to the song, marveling greatly at what they had heard. And when it was finally ended and the evening far spent, Queen Zixi threw a golden chain to the minstrel as a reward and left the hall, attended by her maidens. Throughout the night which followed, she tossed sleeplessly upon her bed thinking of the magic cloak and longing to possess it. And when the morning sun rose over the horizon, she made a solemn vow that she would secure the magic cloak within a year, even if it cost her the half of her kingdom.
Now the reason for this rash vow, showing Zixi's intense desire to possess the cloak, was very peculiar. Although she had been an adept at witchcraft for more than six hundred years and was able to retain her health and remain in appearance young and beautiful, there was one thing her art was unable to deceive, and that one thing was a mirror.
To mortal eyes Zixi was charming and attractive, yet her reflection in a mirror showed to her an ugly old hag, bald of head, wrinkled, with toothless gums and withered, sunken cheeks. For this reason the queen had no mirror of any sort about the palace. Even from her own dressing room the mirror had been banished, and she depended upon her maids and hairdressers to make her look as lovely as possible. She knew she was beautiful in appearance to others; her maids declared it continually, and in all eyes she truly read admiration. But Zixi wanted to admire herself, and that was impossible so long as the cold mirrors showed her reflection to be the old hag others would also have seen had not her arts of witchcraft deceived them.
Everything else a woman and a queen might desire Zixi was able to obtain by her arts. Yet the one thing she could NOT have made her very unhappy. As I have already said, she was not a bad queen. She used her knowledge of sorcery to please her own fancy or to benefit her kingdom, but never to injure anyone else. So she may be forgiven for wanting to see a beautiful girl reflected in a mirror instead of a haggard old woman in her six hundred and eighty-fourth year.
Zixi had given up all hope of ever accomplishing her object until she heard of the magic cloak. The powers of witches are somewhat limited; but she knew that the powers of fairies are boundless. So if the magic cloak could grant any human wish as Quavo's song had told her was the case, she would manage to secure it and would at once wish for a reflection in the mirror of the same features all others beheld -- and then she would become happy and content.