She glided forward serenely, determined that her face would not betray the wrenching emotions twisting her gut. She heard her mother wail, hushed quickly by her father. It would not do, of course, to anger the Winter King. "My Lord," she murmured as she approached her new husband, and dropped an elegant curtsy.
"Maiden," he responded coldly, and turned away. "Come."
She did not look at her parents as she went, she dared not. As she and the icy monarch approached the waiting carriage, she could hear her mother's sobs begin again. Within her, her heart quailed, and for a moment the mask of glacial calm slipped – her eye twitched, and she bit her lip before forcing her back ramrod straight and her face back under control.
The silent coachman opened the door, the King stepping inside first as befit his station. The servant offered a hand to the sacrificial maiden, offering silent courteous assistance into the vehicle that would carry her to her doom. With a forced lack of hesitation, she placed her palm on his, scarcely able to hide her flinch at the searing cold of his white glove. He lifted her effortlessly up the single step, and then she was inside, seating herself on leather an appropriate somber grey, like slush. Taking a deep breath as the door was shut, she glanced down, brushing away from her face a lock of hair as black as her future. Clinging grimly to her self-control, she lifted her head again to look out the window as the carriage lurched into motion. As they drove away, her mother's bereaved screams echoed through the town square.
The journey was as bleak as a winter midnight. The King did not speak, eyes fastened firmly out the frosted window pane. The sole lantern in the carriage was an unnatural blue, and burned steadily with none of the flickering one would expect from a flame in a moving carriage. Though it was midday when they set out, soon after entering the dark forest the light fell to twilight, dim blue luminescence casting long dark shadows. Barely a minute later, the deciduous forest trees gave way to spindly, leafless branches, the sudden crunch of snow audible beneath the carriage wheels. Cold suffused the carriage, and she shivered, staring in dread out at the forbidding, lifeless forest. The King gave no sign of noticing her, and gloom clenched her heart.
After traveling in silence for she didn't know how long, the leafless trees outside began to be interspersed with, and eventually replaced by, imposing evergreens. The spicy fresh scent cheered her glum heart slightly, and her eyes searched the boughs for cones. Even as they traveled deeper into the heart of the enchanted wood, night fell, and stars began to prick through the sable sky. Abruptly, the King stirred, and she caught her breath, looking around at him.
"We have arrived," he declared without looking at her. She blinked at him before glancing once more out the window – there was nothing visible through the glass, save more trees. Before she could gather courage to speak, however, a dim glow ahead caught her attention. She waited, straining to see, until the carriage went around one final curve – and there before them was a magnificent, crystalline palace.
It was an ethereal sight – all white but with pale colors of blue and green and pink playing like a borealis across the smooth sides. A set of generous steps swept up to an artful double door, flanked by tall cold blue windows rimed with frost. Towers stepped gradually up to the highest spire, right in the middle of the castle, windows up and down the walls, some shining with cool light out into the night. Her new home was the most beautiful edifice she'd ever seen – and the coldest, most terrifying place she could imagine spending the short rest of her life.
"Maiden," the king spoke, and she jumped, turning a wide-eyed gaze on him. He gestured toward the door that she had not even noticed being opened by the footman.
"Oh," she said, flustered, and rose, stepping out of the carriage with the freezing assistance of the servant. Moving forward a few paces so the king could also alight, she looked up at the palace again, both awed and cowed by her new residence.
"The Peppermint Palace," the King spoke from beside her, also looking up at the filigreed towers. There was an odd tone to his voice, one that she couldn't place at all, but she did not ask. Her captor was a forbidding creature, one she would not dare to presume to question. After a few seconds of silence, he glanced down at her with ice-blue eyes as cold as their color. "Come, Maiden."
She bowed her head obediently and fell into step one pace behind him as he ascended the entry stairs. Upon reaching the doors, he lightly laid one hand on each, and both swung soundlessly inward at his touch. Turning to his new bride, he gestured to the dark space within, and she stepped forward hesitantly.
The entry hall was as imposing as the outside of the palace. Stories high, with a winding staircase starting on her right wending an elegant path up along the curved wall, a chandelier of ornately crafted ice dangling high above throwing off the ubiquitous blue light. Straight ahead and to the left, two more massive doors indicating rooms of some importance. The vast space caught her hesitant footsteps, flinging them back dozens upon dozens of times and making it sound as though the Master of the castle returned with an entire harem.
More of the silent, marble-white servants approached, bowing to their King and his new bride. "They will show you to your room," he said dismissively, and strode towards the doors at the opposite end of the hall. Turning away, the dejected girl followed a silent woman up the slick stairs. A deep booming thud indicated the King had entered whatever mysterious chamber lay beyond the entry hall, but she could not rouse her curiosity through her gloom. She ascended the stairs after the older woman, along twisting hallways, past hundreds of doors and up countless more staircases, before they arrived at an ornate single door. Still quiet as the first snow of the season, the servant pushed open the door with a small bow.
The Maiden entered the room. It was cold, of course, a heatless blue fire burning in the grate. A four-poster bed of some silvery wood dominated the room, sporting a heavy iridescent lavender comforter nestled among heavy grey curtains. A dresser, chairs, wardrobe, and a chest of drawers of the same wood scattered tastefully throughout the room, with an unobtrusive mirror above the dresser. A pale, powdery blue rug across the cold floor completed the lifeless décor. All in all, it fit the castle very well – pale, and beautiful, and remote, as opposed to the warm cheer of home as possible.
The servant woman bowed her way out, closing the door. The girl sank down to sit on the bed, her face crumpling as she finally allowed herself to lose her composure. Hot, heavy sobs welled up in her chest to roll down her face as scalding tears – the warmest substance in the castle, she was sure. Enfolded by her misery, she sat and cried for she wasn't sure how long.
Slowly though, the tears dried themselves out. She sat in a stupor, staring blankly out the window. Outside, pale stars danced in the black velvet heavens, while the spicy comforting scent of evergreens rose faintly to her domicile. The smell reminded her of home and Christmas, and she slowly blinked awake. Her cheeks felt dry and crusted with tear tracks, and she stirred, looking toward the pitcher of water and large bowl set on the dresser. Standing, she crossed the room, peering at herself in the mirror. Her black hair hung limp, her dark eyes huge in a snow-white face floating spectrally above her dark blue dress and charcoal cloak. Reaching down, she picked up the grey cloth lying beside the washbasin and pitcher, and dipped it into the water, rubbing it across her face. Though the water was cool, it was not icy as she expected, and it smelled faintly of peppermint.
There was a knock on her door, and she turned towards it in surprise. A moment later it opened to admit several servant women bearing a large steaming tub among them, from which wafted a strong smell of wintergreen and peppermint. The servants busied themselves laying out soft garments and towels, while another approached the Maiden herself to assist her in undressing and bathing. Quite unused to this level of luxury, the Maiden hesitated for a moment until the servant began untying the heavy cloak. Startled into action, the young bride quickly unclasped her cloak and let it drop before beginning to undo the ties on her dress.
"Please don't get rid of my clothes," she pleaded, and the women stopped to glance at her and each other.
"They will be kept," her personal maid promised tonelessly, and slightly mollified, the Maiden stepped into the tub. The water was a heavenly warmth in this cold palace, and she sank gratefully down up to her chin. Scented suds floated around, and after a moment of luxuriating in the surprising heat, she began scrubbing off, invigorated by the change in temperature and the bracing aromas. The maid moved forward, washing the girl's hair, strong deft fingers combing through the strands and massaging the scalp.
A second tub of clear water was brought in, and once cleansed, the Maiden moved over to rinse off. A thick plush towel of the ubiquitous silvery-grey was wrapped around her, and she turned toward the bed where lay an elegant dress the color of pine needles and a thin sheer robe of midnight blue. A pair of blue slippers trimmed in pine green completed the ensemble.
The servants busied themselves around the bride, attiring her, gently toweling and arranging her hair, plying her with warm cider. Caught up in the bustle of activity, the girl had no time to reflect on her emotions of earlier. But once the little cavalcade proceeded out the door and, presumably, towards the King's chambers, anxiety took root in the pit of her stomach. Like all of the Winter Maidens, she was a virgin, with little idea what to expect. With each step, the weight of her dread increased until it felt like she'd been eating rocks.
They arrived outside a magnificent door. One of the maids rapped on it sharply, before they all silently dispersed. The door suddenly swung open and there stood His Majesty, looking down at his timid bride. He scanned her dispassionately, before saying stiffly, "You look… well." Standing aside, he indicated for her to enter the room.
Creeping shyly inside, she peeked around. His room was similar to hers, with wood of the same type and similar furniture. The main differences were slightly more ornate carving on the chairs, a larger bed, and bookcase and desk in one corner. The coverpane on the bed had been flipped back in a manner intended to be inviting, but the Maiden could not find herself allured.
The King closed the door and crossed to the desk, tidying up a pile of correspondence on it before turning to her. His face was uninterested but not unkind as his cold blue eyes studied her. Finally he gave a near-imperceptible sigh and spoke. "Are you ready, Maiden?"
At this reminder of her duty, the girl forced her stiff composure back into being. "Indeed, sir, I shall do my duty," she replied firmly. Completely hiding her misgivings, she sank onto the bed as the Elemental monarch approached.
• • •
It was an exhausting ordeal, as much mentally and emotionally as physically. Immediately after, she dropped off to sleep, too wearied and sad to force herself to remain awake. The King rose, crossing from the window and staring bleakly out on his cold realm. His life had become pure habit, rarely broken by brief periods of romance and passion. But that his duty was habit did not make it any less of a weight to bear, nor did the continued death of his wives after such short times weigh less heavily on him.
He turned, glancing dismally at the young woman fast asleep on his bed, and moved over to his desk to resume his correspondence.
• • •
Her life in the castle soon settled into a rhythm. She would spend hours poring over books in the library or sewing her own dresses. There wasn't much to do in the austere palace, but pride and boredom kept her from sitting idle. The King had little to do with her, taking meals together and the required trysts but exerting no more effort to spend time with her. With nothing to do in the palace itself, she began to look outside for her entertainment.
The horses, it turned out, were more or less normal horses – always happy to have visitors, provided those visitors introduced themselves with treats. The Maiden was happy to oblige, filling her pockets with such rareties as snow-apples and what she thought must be sugar lumps. The horses nickered, breath huffing as they searched her hands for the last traces of whatever offerings she brought to them.
The King was not as unaware of her activities as she had supposed. While not desiring to spend time with his wife better applied elsewhere, he felt it behooved him to be aware of all that transpired within his domicile. He had observed her going out to the stables daily, and now, watching as she again slipped inside the other structure, pondered the possibility of getting a pet for her. Not a long-lived one, he thought, for there was no saying that the next girl would be fond of it: and then, a truly novel idea struck him. He stilled, eyes brightening in thought and something near wonder at the strangeness of it. After considerable consideration, unable to think of any strong objection, he gave a nod of decision and one of his brief rare smiles flitted across his face.
• • •
"I acquired something for your entertainment, my dear," he said nonchalantly at dinner, about a week later. His retiring bride looked up enquiringly as he continued. "A creature of my own realm, in fact – sentient, but unable to speak a language you would recognize, or even hear," he added thoughtfully. "They will do for you somewhere between a pet and a… friend."
"My lord!" she uttered, deeply surprised, rather moved, and more than a bit unsure. "I – I thank you with my entire being, but my lord? I do not know that I will be able to care for this, er, creature, very well," she said hesitantly.
"That is of no concern," he dismissed, "it is of my realm as is this palace and the surrounding lands, so it will be well able to care for its own needs when not accompanying you."
She looked at him in silence for a minute, her eyes wider than usual and her face oddly blank. He raised a querying eyebrow. "You have questions?"
"It's just… I always thought you to be the King of Winter," she said quietly. "I did not realize you actually had a – land? a realm? – besides the season. Or that it was of another world," she added as an afterthought.
"A reasonable enough assumption," he replied, surprisingly personable. "I do indeed have a realm besides 'the season,' as you term it – indeed, Jack Frost holds more direct control over the season in this world than I do. In the other World, what you consider to be abstract concepts are more solid, and Winter and a realm are the same thing. It is the same with all the seasons," he expanded magnanimously, foreseeing further questions in this vein. "Other natures that are here more abstracts than absolutes, are indeed more tangible there – for instance, there are also the realms of Light, and of Shadow, and of Darkness."
"Oh," she said in a small voice, considerably surprised and rather discomfited.
Sensing her discomfort, he reassured her. "It is not easy to move between the worlds; indeed, only the monarchs and those that we permit may do so freely. Whatever fairy tales humans are in the habit of telling, the monarchs of Shadow and of Darkness are no more intrinsically what you would term 'evil' than I am – though doubtless, humans see me as cruel," he said dispassionately.
"Oh no!" she interjected hastily. "Not cruel – but outside of human understanding, certainly," she finished more quietly, thoughtful.
He flicked a nod of agreement to this and continued. "Nor can any spirit cross completely freely, but must move through pre-set thinnings in the veil between worlds – portals," he explained, seeing the look of lost confusion on her face. "You'd probably know them as portals, although more precisely they are locations that overlap both worlds. This Palace is one such, although as a human, you need not fear accidentally ending up in the wrong world," he added kindly.
"That… is a relief," she said unsteadily, even more pale than usual. The King supposed, looking her over, that it was time for a change in subject.
"Come, Maiden," he said kindly, standing up from the table. "Let me present to you your new companion."
Apprehension and curiosity warring within her, she followed him out to the hall only to stop short, gasping, at the site of a mint-tinted white creature, beautifully elegant and delicately dainty, sitting neatly upright at the foot of the stairs, bushy tail swept around its tiny paws. Its ears were long, curled and pointed with an odd sphere at the tip, with dark blue edging the fur and suffusing the sphere. Its eyes were of a deep mint green and as penetrating as those of its monarch, and it studied the young woman frankly. She stared back, entranced and slightly awed.
"Its name is… Vulpa, or so it wishes to be called in this world," the King said, before turning to regard the snow creature steadily. It rose to its feet, only to lay down its forelegs and head in what was unmistakably a bow. He nodded regally back and continued to his wife, "Vulpa says not to worry that you cannot hear it; it shall contrive to communicate with you well enough. They also say that you are very pretty," he added, sounding just faintly surprised.
Seized by a sudden whimsy, she dropped a curtsy to the snow realm fox. "I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Vulpa, and thank you very much for the compliment. You are quite stunning yourself, I have never seen your like!"
"You would not," the King agreed diffidently. "The creatures from the other realms are only passingly like the beasts here on Tera."
She cast him a questioning glance. "Tera, my lord?"
"The name of this world in the other," he explained briefly, then turned a stern look on Vulpa, who bowed again, lowering its handsome head and closing its eyes. "Very well," he spoke aloud. "I trust you both will manage to amuse each other."
The Maiden turned, bestowing on her husband a much deeper curtsy. "You have all my gratitude, my lord," she said emphatically.
He gave her a nod to rival his one earlier to his own subject. "You are very welcome, Maiden," he returned properly, then, done with civilities, vanished down the hall to the other massive doors – his throne room, and the seat of his power, she had since learned.
With the King gone, the girl and the ethereal creature regarded one another uncertainly. Then Vulpa leapt up with a swish of its tail and, flicking its ears, encouraged the young lady out the front door to play.
• • •
With her mind eased by her frolicsome companion, the Maiden had noticed less the time passing. The King was not so inattentive, and found himself frowning at his bride's hair one morning, observing it to have turned as silver as first frost. She had been with him but four years, somewhat less than the usual. He feared, nonetheless, that this might be her last Birthing: she seemed too frail to go on for another year. Vulpa, too, was worried, hovering constantly by the Maiden and nosing often at her hand. A speaking glance from the snow-fox left him in no doubt of its thoughts on the state of affairs, and he sighed: this was why it was inadvisable to mix the worlds – however happy a brief time might be, the ordinary of each side could never fully understand the other, or the burdens born by those who lived on the border between the two.
The Maiden herself, although she said nothing, suspected too that her time was coming. She was cold all the time now – not cold, precisely, but as though numb inside. Nothing touched her quite the way it should, and the world had slowly faded to be even paler than before. She accepted her impending death complacently; she had enjoyed Vulpa's company but continued to deplore her life and duties here on the edge of Winter-realm.
The birthing itself was oddly easy. Closing her eyes, she sighed, too softly to be heard. A great feeling of relief swept over her – though it meant doom for some other poor girl, she herself was at last freed. With a joy she had not felt in years, she relinquished her spirit.
The King turned from the door just in time to see his wife let out her final breath before her body collapsed into a pile of snow on the counterpane. His shoulders dropped slightly but his eyes were steady – he had his duties to attend to, and Vulpa to dismiss, before he went to take another bride next year. No matter the cost, winter must go on.