He stopped before his chosen bride. Her soul… resounded with him. This one was not merely a choice of which would last longest against Winter's frozen chill, but embraced it. Looking down into her set, resigned face, he did not think she even knew of the soft curls and vines of frost within her own soul.
"Come," he spoke simply. He always started out simply, with the humans; he was never quite sure how they would act or react. Over the centuries, he had seen every possible response, from anger to terror to resignation to calm acceptance, to – once – a joy that had seemed rather peculiar until he had learned of his bride's history. Sometimes, the Maiden learned to love the winter, but few started out with an affinity for it.
She did as he bade her, following him to the coach and climbing inside. A woman with the same jet-black hair, plaited and bound around her head, was weeping very quietly into a handkerchief, held close by a man with a drawn pale face. The King glanced at them, acknowledging their grief, before climbing into the carriage behind the Maiden.
The ride to the Peppermint Palace passed as grimly as usual. She sat silently, hands folded demurely in her lap, watching mildly out the window. Her mien was not the desperation displayed by many to avoid looking at him, nor the curiosity of a small handful, but merely polite interest. The King, wrapped up in his own somber thoughts, paid her scant attention.
He helped her from the coach with his usual courtesy. She looked around in interest, pulling her silver fur closer about her shoulders, her eye following the swooping towers of the Palace rising up to stab at the velvety winter-night sky. He offered his arm, and she lay her hand – pale with cold – lightly on his forearm, allowing him to lead her up the stairs to the wintry palace.
He made certain, at this point, to keep a stock of furs in the human side of his domain, for his very human wives. He reveled in the cold, if he thought of it at all – it was as much a part of him as the flesh he wore in the human world. He was Winter, and Winter was cold. Sometimes, though, he had underestimated his wives' tolerance for the utter lack of warmth that permeated his realm. He was careful to no longer make that mistake.
Now the Maiden ascended to her own room. He would not require her to attend him tonight, so her room had been well-stocked with furs and as much warmth as he could provide. A hot bath and a steaming pot of tea awaited her upstairs.
It was difficult, introducing true warmth to the domain of Winter; so much worked differently here, fire worked differently here. He knew that fire was the primary source of heat for the humans, but the ice-blue flames of his palace consumed with a deeper chill instead of warmth. The veil between realms was thinner, here, at this crossing-place, this Palace that existed in both dimensions at once. It had become second nature, habit without thought, to be careful of his more fragile wives, yet even now he sometimes made mistakes, over or underestimated their capabilities.
His servants – lesser Elementals capable of taking a form akin to that of the humans – had performed well, adapting to the needs of their more delicate Maiden mistresses. He was proud of them, coming to live in a world not their own, taking the shape of the denizens of their new home – even though they were perfectly capable, staying within their own natural form – and adapting to care for human needs. They stayed coolly professional, never growing ill-advisedly attached. They were good at what they did, and they kept the Palace running smoothly.
As he pondered, he wended his way to his imposing throne room, the seat and heart of his power in this dimension. He rarely brought his brides here, too close to the other side, too easy to cross into the other realm. It was not safe, to take humans into the Realm of the Elementals, and despite his reputation in the village as being cruel, he did his best to preserve the lives of his wives as long as he could.
He settled onto his throne, the familiar chill sweeping over him. He vacillated a moment, then stood, striding for the door. It had been too long since he had walked in his home, and tonight he would see how the domain of Winter fared. He would attend his new bride on the morrow.
Trees and shrubs in mint green and pale powder blue dotted the undulating snow drifts. The vulpine creatures of Winter gamboled through the glittering snow, frolicking about their liege's feet, rolling on their backs before darting off again. Small cheerful birds hopped and called to each other. Flakes alighted on their King's hair and shoulders, whispering their secrets to him before reverting back to their liquid state. He leaned down, plucking one of the silver bell flowers, listening to the soft ringing when he gently shook it. Further ahead, frost vines rose and curled over the white-wood fences lining the landscape, pale lavender snow daisies springing up at their feet. He inhaled, relishing the spicy scent of evergreen and faint, delicate aroma of snow.
As he wandered, he carefully selected several more of the flowers of his realm, adding them to the growing nosegay in his hand. They would wither quickly in the human realm, but kept in the Peppermint Palace that bridged the dimensions, they would last as long as any other plucked flower. Perhaps the lady he had brought home this day would like the glimpse of the realm in which she now dwelt.
It always felt good to be home – the energy of his domain caressing him, filling him like a wholesome drink splashing and gurgling into a chalice, the joy of his subjects at seeing him, the crisp snap of the frigid air, the way the very land tugged at something deep in his chest, beckoning to him with an unquenchable longing even as it filled him up to the very brim. It was in Winter that he felt alive, breaking free of the marble prison of the human world, vibrant and vital in a way that he could never be when merely superintending the winter.
A gesture of his free hand, and a snowdrift exploded upwards in a glory of white powder. He laughed aloud in pure exultation, the animals of his realm prancing about and meeting his laughter with grins of their own. A precocious little chickadee landed on his shoulder, scolding fiercely, until he brushed it away and it took to the air. A family of lagomorphs peered out from their hole at the bottom of a fence post, observing their monarch curiously.
He passed from the undulating plain into the woods, inhaling deeply. Here, the scent of firs and pines was stronger, infusing the air. In the treetops, a chorus of chittering greeted him, the busy little tree-dwellers informing their king of all that had transpired in his absence in their own scatterbrained way. Beneath the chattering, lay a deep stillness, a silent gladness, much quieter than the rejoicing above; the trees themselves were happy at the presence of their liege. He lay an affectionate hand on the rough bark of the pine nearest, listening as a faint rustling went through the boughs above. The earthlines themselves reached up, tugging lightly at him, insisting on his attention and a proper greeting.
He knelt, plunging one hand into the snow to the frozen dirt beneath, placing the palm flat and reaching down. The earth sang into response, a deep, low, throbbing hum, resonating within and harmonizing with his heartbeat. He closed his eyes, relishing this, the feeling of his own realm, everything alive and awake in a way Tera just wasn't.
He wandered on, communing with his domain and its denizens, refreshing himself and preparing for the ordeal ahead. Eventually, a tug deep inside bid him turn back, return to his responsibilities in the world of Men. He paused a moment, deeply reluctant, even grieving, before surrendering to his duty. Striding back the way he'd come, he examined the bouquet in his hands to ensure it hadn't wilted.
In the joyful abandon of being in the place he loved best, he'd lost track of how far he'd come. The call of his duty grew ever more insistent, demanding he walk more quickly, that he ignore distractions, that he return to Tera and his responsibilities there. By the time he reached the ornately carved door beside the fence, he was practically running. Pausing only to scoop up a handful of snow to keep the Winter flowers fresh, he shouldered the door open and stepped through.
Once inside his throne room in the Peppermint Palace, he used his elbow to awkwardly pull the door shut, before leaning back against it to open it again. The entrance hall loomed before him, and he strode out into it, glancing about for a servant. A maid saw her master returned and hurried forward to attend to him.
"Fetch a vase," he ordered, gesturing with the hand clutching the flowers. She vanished, reappearing moments later with a delicate crystal vessel held carefully in both hands. He dumped the snow into it, arranging the flowers just so. "Take it the bedchamber of the Maiden," he commanded. The maid dropped a curtsy in acknowledgment before bearing her beautiful burden upstairs.
Unfamiliar but unspeakably lovely flowers were the first sight she saw in the morning, arising and crossing to her dresser to wash. Enchanted, she lightly brushed one of the tiny silver bells with a fingertip, staring in awe as it let out a perfect chime. Pale ferns, more complex than any she'd seen before, lent somber green to a dance of pastels. They were prettier even than the castle that was her new home, and so much more personal.
She had not suspected the Winter King of being a romantic, but there was no one else who could or would have sent her flowers. She smiled, touched by the gesture, and rang the bell again once more before turning to get dressed. If he was going to show her such kindness, she reflected, she would make an effort to return his cordiality. He was under no obligation to make her life here pleasant, and yet he had gone out of his way to do so – it would be churlish to not make an effort to reciprocate.
The King glanced up as his new bride entered the dining room, blinking in surprise at the tentative smile she wore. He returned a neutral nod, puzzled. Normally his brides were still grieving, angry even, but rarely did they smile.
She took a seat a few chairs away from him, hesitantly putting a piece of unfamiliar fruit on her plate. Mustering her courage, she spoke up. "Thank you for the flowers, they're lovely."
He looked at her in surprise, before swallowing his mouthful and answering formally. "You are most welcome, Maiden."
They lapsed back into silence, she intimidated and he distracted. Affairs in his own realm tugged at his mind, occupying his attention, but the part of himself where the bond with Jack Frost should have been laying silent and empty. As he finished his meal, he shook himself from his thoughts, turning his regard to his mortal bride. "Maiden."
She looked up, startled, from where she had been morosely shoving slices of fruit around her plate. Wide eyes the shade of ice chips, framed in gleaming black hair that reflected back the dim glow of the Peppermint Palace, met his own. For a moment she stared as though hypnotized, before asking diffidently, "Yes, my lord?"
For her part, looking into the eyes of the King of Winter was like looking into the living heart of the frozen tundra; wild and fierce and piercing and alive. Winter was so often thought of as dead, as sleep and cold forsakenness, but this – this sharp shock, like icy water or a sudden gust of wind, but without the bite – nothing had ever made her blood sing like this. It took all her strength and will to pull herself away from that alluring, untamed call, back to the present and the rather quizzical look he was giving her. Realizing how silly she must seem, sitting there gazing at him blankly, she answered rather hesitantly.
Besides a faint puzzlement, he dismissed her behavior as human timorousness. He simply did not have time for the idiosyncrasies of the women who populated his palace for so brief a time before fading away, only to be replaced immediately. He would be courteous, unfailingly polite, but growing attached was inadvisable for one in his position. "You must begin fulfilling your duty this evening."
She held her head proudly erect, not even flinching – which really did not fit with his estimation of timidity, but he really didn't have time for this. "As you command, my lord," she replied calmly. He nodded once, rising from the table and sweeping from the room.
She waited until the door closed behind the frigid monarch, before reaching up and clutching the neckline of her gown, hyperventilating very quietly.
He brushed a lock of hair from off her face, watching her as she drowsed beside him. One of his most pressing duties fulfilled, the King stole a few moments to study the girl who had been offered as sacrifice to him this year, who would shape and send forth Jack Frost. She had been… compliant, but not with the limpness of terror or passivity of meekness, but proudly, serenely, actively choosing to tryst with him. It was unusual, and intriguing, and for this breath of quiet before responsibility pulled him inexorably back into action, he allowed himself to be diverted, even fascinated. Her breath stirred across his skin, impossibly warm, her chest rising and falling rhythmically beneath the coverlet, her eyelids flickering as she dreamed.
He stared into her face, a deep well of curiosity he ordinarily kept well-covered and deeply buried drifting open. He drank in the sight of her, this young human woman, so like him in form but so very different, alive and vital in a way he could never hope to be. At first glance, at a distance, he could almost be mistaken for one of the race of Men, but so close like this, the differences were stark. The way the blood flowed through her veins, the beating of her heart, the depth of her breath, the dreams weaving through her mind, even that she slept now – he, the monarch of a Season made carnate, never needed such repose.
He reached out tentatively, trailing the very tips of his fingers, feather-light, across her cheek, up across her temple, over her eye, down her nose. His index finger ran across her lower lip, the pressure so faint that he could barely feel her skin. He gazed in wonder at the dark eyelashes laying, long and curled, on her upper cheek. She slept on, her expression astonishingly peaceful, the apparent trust she offered him astounding.
Was she really so certain he'd offer her no harm? He could scarcely believe it; commonly his wives forsook his bed as soon as they possibly could, avoiding the very sight of him. (Long gone were the days when he had been overcome by the urge to defend himself, to cry I'm sorry, I never wanted this, I didn't choose this either you know, I did not want to rip you from your home and family! He had learned to suppress that urge, but he had never quite forgotten it.) To be trusted like this was entirely novel, a delicate, fleeting, precious gift. He was the Winter King; he could not afford to be lonely, but his was a very solitary life.
Gently, tenderly even, he cradled her cheek in his palm. Her lips parted, her eyes drifting open for a moment; the cloudiness in them and the way they slowly re-closed showed that she had not truly woken. He eased his hand away lest he draw her from her repose. Gingerly inching his way from the bed, he attired himself and turned to his work – but before he put pen to paper, he cast a last, searching glance at the Maiden asleep.
She sewed. He sought to find occupation for all the women who dwelt with him, and when he asked for her preferred activity, she confessed to great enjoyment in sewing. He saw to it that she was provided with bolts upon bolts of cloth, thick heavy velvets and velours, in the cool shades of his realm.
She glowed, the first time she wore a dress of her own devising to dinner. A dark blue base, ornamented with lavender and complicated stitchery, it flattered her complexion and figure immensely. Her own pride in her handiwork was palpable, and he indulged her with the faint upward quirk of his mouth that passed as his smile. "You look ravishing, my lady," he said gravely.
Her eyes sparkled, and she looked down at her dress, pleased. "I thank you, my lord. It turned out well, I think."
He inclined his head solemnly in agreement. "It did, yes. But surely you must be hungry now?"
"I am," she confessed, settling into her accustomed place two spots away from him. He studied her; she looked well. Her hair still shone, thick and dark, and her face, though rather pale, was not thin. Her eyes were clear and bright – and she was studying him with the same intensity with which he was examining her. He blinked, and she smiled rather shyly at him. Her voice was hesitantly, lightly teasing. "Shall I be flattered, my lord, that I earned such regard from you?"
"I was checking your health," he explained seriously.
"Oh?" She served herself from the bowl of winter fruits, voice light and polite, barely showing the slight strain that had entered her shoulders at his words.
"You are doing well," he assured her. "It has only been three years; there is not usually fading so soon. I was just checking."
She nodded carelessly, attempting to appear unconcerned, but her posture remained tense, betraying her. He decided a change of subject was in order. "So, now that you have finished this lovely gown, what will your next project be?"
Her whole face lit up. "I was thinking a cornflower velvet with a powder blue Bautiste wrap, maybe studded with clear gems to simulate the glitter of snow…" He nodded attentively as she outlined her ideas.
She loved the flowers of the Winter realm that he brought her, so he made a habit of bringing back a bouquet every time he visited home. As Winter flowers gave way to Winter berries, he brought back twigs and sprigs interspersed with greenery for her vases. Her room, his room, and the dining hall each always had at least one arrangement in them.
This Midwinter's morning, he was hurrying back to the Peppermint Palace, his hands overflowing with Winter flowers and boughs. The whole castle would be festooned with the flora of his realm in celebration of this day, but he wanted to be back before breakfast, ready to greet his Maiden with the flowers he had chosen especially for her. He wondered which dress she would wear today; the forest green velvet that looked so striking on her had appeared yesterday, but it was likely she'd wear something white and festive this day.
He slipped through the doors into his throne room, closing them behind him and switching dimensions back into the Palace on Tera before exiting once more. His Maiden was just descending the stairs, and he smiled to see her. As he had expected, she was clothed in white, with the palest hints of mint green glinting in the chiffon cape fluttering down her back. The dress itself was almost severely plain, adorned only by an intricate silver filigree belt with a wrought snowflake in the very center that glittered as it caught the light.
He held his offering up to her as she descended, and her face lit up. She did not run down the stairs and fling herself into his arms, but her step quickened, and she lifted the flowers from his hands to stand on tiptoes and press a gentle kiss to his lips. Her breath ghosted warm across his face with her whisper. "Thank you, they're beautiful."
He slipped an arm around her waist and leaned down to steal another kiss in answer. Straightening up, he took the flowers back, arranging them in her hair like a diadem. "You look lovely, my dear."
She dropped a small curtsy, eyes bright and teasing. "Why thank you, my lord. I try."
"Yech." Jack Frost, standing before the great front doors, gave them a disgusted look. "Stop with the kissing and let's eat."
She laughed and took the King's proffered arm. "Very well, Jack." Together, they stepped through into the frosted-white dining hall.
He ran his fingers through her long silver hair. She leaned back against him, humming happily at the sensation. It had not escaped either of their attention that she had been more tired this year, more lethargic, content often to sit still and ponder or watch her surroundings. Her latest project lay, half-finished, on her lap; he did not know sewing well but he couldn't see that she had made any progress from the previous day.
She turned her head towards him, and he obligingly pressed a light kiss to her temple. A slight smile crossed her face before she opened her eyes and looked down at the dress in her lap, her voice contemplative and only a touch wistful. "I will not get the chance to wear this one, will I."
His hand stilled in her hair; so she knew it too. The ache in his chest echoed in his voice. "No. I don't think you will."
She sighed. "A pity. I would have liked to have had longer with you. But it cannot be helped."
"No, it cannot. Trust me, I wish it could – I would do anything to break this cycle."
She nodded rather absently. They'd never discussed it, but she was insightful; she must have figured out that he was helpless to preserve his wives' lives. He had tried, at first, but results had ranged from unsuccessful to dreadful, and he had stopped when the horror had overtaken that of watching first one young woman after another fade to nothing before his very eyes while knowing he was the cause. Now he contented himself with making their lives as pleasant as was within his power while remaining unattached – still met with varying degrees of success.
He went back to carding her hair with his fingers. She closed her eyes again, resting against him contentedly. This was her last year, and they both knew it; they both would make the best of it.
Her fingers were limp and pale in his. Her eyes were closed as they had been since the previous morning. As he watched, the slow rise and fall of her chest grew ever shallower, longer pauses between each half-cycle. He closed his hand more tightly over hers, reaching out with the other one to brush her hair back. He was rewarded with the slightest pressure from her hand, before she released a long silent sigh. Clenching, millennia-old sorrow filled his eyes as he watched her body dissolve into a fine silver mist. He closed his hand into a loose fist, sighed deeply, and rose and left the room.