LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

The First of Frost, by H.L. Fullerton

crystalline

I saw your work today. My tower room overlooks the gardens. I was petal-gazing—so much prettier than stars!—and I recognized your designs. So appropriate since it’s Longest Night—an anniversary for us, of sorts. Of course this is the only time of year I’m close enough to see your handiwork. You haven’t lost your touch.

They tell stories about you—us. In one, you’re a fairy godmother. All that trouble to make a name for yourself and they’ve stripped you of it. Given you wings and a wand. I did warn you about the Houses. If it helps, my mother doesn’t fare well in their tales either. But we du Lakes are used to that.

Still, Mother isn’t pleased at being relegated to the role of overly ambitious second wife. “I’m a noble first,” she grumbles. I imagine the two of you commiserating, calling them harpies that are digging their claws into your triumphs. You two always enjoyed your tête-à-têtes. What was your expression—panels cut from the same bolt? Such an odd pairing; no wonder you’ve become adversaries in their re-tellings. Yet not one mentions the cold. They should. It was the most important element. It’s cold here today.

Tonight, Ermy—you remember Ermeglia, don’t you? The apprentice who made my veil of clouds? He’ll dress me in fog and shadows for the ball. He hasn’t your talent with snow and ice, but then no one does.

In another tale, you’re a rumpled gnome who spins gold. I credit the House of Forrest with that slander—they leave out the dress. Dead giveaway. Paloma Forrest is steeping jealous that you chose me to wear your creation rather than her darling Hollinda. She doesn’t understand the gown did the choosing.

*

A girl walks into a dress shop…

Mother recognized your genius right off. Even better, you fit our budget. She wanted me to captivate one of the fjord princes. “But not the one with webbed toes, Aurelia. Du Lake is still a proud House.” Longest Night was our only chance at a match. Her vision, your vision. What could I do but hold on and enjoy the ride? The stories paint me a damsel in distress—but truth is, I was just the stone you and Mother skipped across a pond. Neither of you planned on those ripples, did you? You were so focused on the big splash you forgot about the undercurrents.

…and comes out a queen.

But that was no happy ending—just muddled middle. Selzian, it’s forever cold here and night is so vast. I miss summer. I miss swimming. The water. Daylight. I especially miss the sun. Sometimes I sneak away to lie on glaciers just to get warm. You cautioned me about the gown, but did you ever suspect its true danger?

Do you ever think how different things would be if you never saw a snowflake? If you’d stayed in Dunes and spun sand into glass corsets? If Mother had picked another modiste? If you and I never crossed paths?

*

I walked into your shop, trailing Mother. It was my first time in Court; we’re Secluded, partly because it’s our nature, partly because of our role in the Great Flood. Nevermind it was decreed by the King, some felt Father was a little too enthusiastic about his service.

Your showroom brimmed with fabrics, like spring in bloom. Mother thought your colours would bring out my potential. At a Little Nights reception, she’d seen the gown you’d made Hollinda Forrest, all gold and green and orange—how the hues blended when Hollinda waltzed, until it looked like autumn leaves falling all around her. She’d shone like the sun and Mother wanted me to shine, too. “No one wants a corpse for a bride, Aurelia,” she said. “We must warm you up.” She hoped your bold prints would achieve what our seamstresses could not.

I reminded her I looked best underwater, and Mother said we couldn’t entice a connection that way. “Men take forever to fish. No girl can hold her breath that long.” There was no use arguing with her once she’d set a course. Before Father departed, we used to joke that Mother was a grand dam—there was no going around her. “Besides, Aurelia, one must wear clothes when meeting suitors.”

You didn’t blush when you caught the tail end of our conversation. You greeted Mother as if she were old custom. Introduced yourself as Niklaus Selzian of Selzian House Designs. Mother took your measure—she didn’t like an upstart designer tacking House onto his trade—and said, “This is my daughter Aurelia. She needs something fetching for Longest Night. Golden browns, peachy hues—something warm that won’t wash her out.”

You ignored Mother’s demands and stared at me. Your eyes were seaweed green. Your hair and suit were black with threads of silver that sparkled as you tilted your head. “You,” you captured my hand, “are the most perfect Deep Winter.” Your skin was warm, gleaming mahogany to my pale birch.

I was captivated. Mother frowned until she saw your sketches. She argued colour choices—she insisted on earth tones; you on white with black, maybe charcoal grey. You draped me in fabric until she agreed you knew colours best, then ironed out petty details like style and trim and price. You promised something extraordinary for Longest Night, something never to be forgotten, and though Mother and I had heard promises aplenty, yours we believed.

*

It started with the shawl. No one remembers it but me. Such details get swept away like unwanted cobwebs for the sake of the story. A frog becomes a prince with one kiss. Ha. That unmarried prince still has webbed fingers and toes—and it took days for him to transform. (We compared tales at last year’s ball when he found me trailing my fingers through the punchbowl as if it were my home pond. His voice still croaks, too.) And as far as the world is concerned, my gown for Longest Night wasn’t the crowning jewel of your collection but a potato sack transformed by magic. Poof. All your hard work, sleepless nights, exquisite skill…undone.

“I made something unique for you,” you said and led us into the back room. It was cool. It had to be. The shawl was made of snow, flakes tatted into a swirling design. More delicate than lace and fringed with beads of smoky hail. Tiny ice crystals glinted like chipped diamonds.

You wore oilskin gloves as you draped it across my shoulders and ushered us outside to see its beauty. “From my Winter Wonder line. It won’t last long in the sun. It tends to melt after a few hours. But,” you said, smiling bright, “it might last longer on you, Lady Aurelia. You run cool. And clothes are only meant to be worn once, true?”

Mother immediately saw its potential. “What else can you spin from snow?”

I wasn’t convinced at first. Of its beauty, yes. But it didn’t feel right. More like a net than a shawl. I kept checking to make sure I wasn’t caught on anything. Mother was beaming and your eyes danced and I—it’s hard to recall what I was. Happy, I suppose. Hopeful. But my memories of then are so brittle. Like ice and hearts, they crack.

You were right. Winter was fleeting. My snow shawl didn’t last past noon, but we created a stir, that shawl and I. You followed Mother and I—at a discreet distance—to check on your creation, bask in its admiration. A fjord prince—one of the non-hopping variety—invited Mother and me for a swim. Mother declined— “The rivers in Court are too murky. Perhaps this spring we might visit your home stream?”

Despite what the storytellers claim, Mother never set her sights on the Royal House. For one, the King of the Night Sky was already married—Queen May—and for another, du Lakes never take second place. In the long and grand history of our House, I was the first to marry someone previously pledged. It’d been a point of House honour and I broke it. Were it not the King…but no one, not even a du Lake, refuses a king. Although I considered it, Selzian; I did. Still waters, small ponds were all I’d ever wanted.

*

A duckling turns into a swan…

Your name was being bandied about even before Longest Night. With Hollinda Forrest in your Bright Autumn wear and I in your Winter Wonder line, Selzian House was mobbed with mothers wanting their daughters to inspire your spring or summer look.

Pride, Selzian. It was pride that made you create that gown. You were showing off—like Father with the Great Flood. Of all the people in Court, Mother and I should’ve recognized looming disaster when we saw it. But oh! Your snow and ice blinded us, too, with its glittering promise. We pictured House du Lake rising from its watery grave. Instead you crushed us with your avalanche. Don’t argue, Selzian. Pointing fingers doesn’t change what happened. It was only fair you suffer, too.

…and steals a king.

*

The stories—the ones you’d hate most—say I lost a glass slipper as I left the King’s palace. That he found it and searched high and low for the woman who rushed off without her shoe. You and I know different. It wasn’t a shoe I lost, was it, Niklaus?

*

We spent all of Longest Night dressing for the King’s ball. You took my temperature, then you took it again. Testing each patch of skin, rushing outside to stare at the sky, gauging the strength of the sun. But it was Longest Night: the sun was weak; the air cool; a queen would be in attendance… Don’t be coy, Selzian. I’ve worked it out by now. You’d hoped May would see the gown and elevate you to royal designer. The Selzian name raised high. Those sketches you stuffed out of sight—those were ideas for her, weren’t they? You thought they’d earn you your own House. You mustn’t have shared your ambition with Mother; she’d have set you straight. The best you could’ve hoped for was an unattached Lesser Chamber. Queens’ whims aren’t what they ought to be.

*

My first Longest Night’s royal ball. Your assistants wrapped me in burlap to keep my skin from peeling away with the dress at night’s end. I thought it sweet, but now I realize you were more concerned with me melting the dress and ruining your effect than whether I turned icicle.

It was heavy. I hadn’t expected the weight of it. The gown looked so light and sparkly. I wore boots rather than slippers to keep me upright. I took small, sliding steps, afraid a misstep would send me to the ground, unable to rise. “This won’t work. Take it off,” I said. But then you called for a mirror, showed me my reflection and I caved.

I should’ve looked cold—all those shades of white, all that snow and ice. My lips were tinged blue, but the rest of me glowed like moonlight. My dark hair was piled atop my head and sprinkled with tiny sapphires and diamonds—you’d wanted ice, but it kept melting so we settled for jewels. And when I moved…I was blinding. The blue of the ice crystals swirling across the bodice then snaking into my skirts created a sylph-like silhouette, a sensuous ice dragon sliding about my figure.

Mother painted my lips red and I was perfect. Deep Winter come to Court.

*

We had four hours to make an impression, maybe less. You cautioned us the gown wouldn’t hold against the press of warm bodies—or the bite of ice might be too much for my flesh. It took us twenty seconds to capture everyone’s attention. Mother was thrilled.

An hour later, I was ready to leave, sick of smiling despite chattering teeth. Mother and I were making a discreet exit when the King of the Night Sky approached. Fresh from the stars, Cyrrus smelled of ozone and darkness.

We curtseyed. He requested a dance.

Looking down upon my head—but Cyrrus is used to that particular view; he sweeps across his world, looking down on everything, blanketing it with his nightness—the King smiled and said, “You look like a twinkling star. A diamond fallen from the sky.” His accent so thick, I barely parsed the words. I smiled and nodded and tried not to give offence.

I worried the snow stitching might dampen the black of his trousers. But Cyrrus was chillier than me. Your delicate needlework stiffened as we spun. It squeezed the breath from my lungs, forced sluggish blood into my cheeks. Here the stories describe me as enchanting. I suppose I was.

Mostly I remember the freeze seeping into my skin, the blood in my veins congealing to slush—the weight of winter pressing upon me. I bundled my warmth deep, then deeper, afraid to let the slightest heat creep out and ruin the dress. It was a trick I knew from swimming in cold water—to let the water think you were the same temperature as it. That way it mistook you for a fish and left your heat alone. I let the dress mistake me for frozen ground. Turns out it wasn’t the dress that was mistaken. My soul was not a core of an inner fire, but frozen tundra. I’ve wondered, Selzian: when did you first sense the winter inside me? It took me to twelfth night. Water, ice, clouds—just an illusion of borrowed heat; it’s what’s outside that counts. You showed me that.

And then, I showed you.

*

We du Lakes always had a way with water. But until me, none showed a penchant for ice. I guess I should say until you, Selzian. Give credit where credit’s due. After all, you created a gown that killed one queen and birthed another.

You never thanked me for the gift I gave you.

*

I couldn’t get warm. Even with the gown in a sodden heap on my floor, a fire blazing high enough to burn the mantel, my body was numbed through. You tried to warm me, first with hands and whispered words then with lips and the rest of you. I woke in the dim of morning, pain searing my flesh. I crawled from bed and into my closet. Saw my skin pebbled with the designs from the gown. Two greenish wavy lines circled my middle, like high-water marks on a beach. Something burned in my chest, a stabbing sensation. I doubled over, clutching and gasping. There amongst your creations, I vomited up a lump of ice. You know, Selzian, by the way it broke in two, I think it might have been my heart.

*

Though no one tells tales of it, my wedding dress was sheer perfection, too. All snow, no ice. A veil of clouds floated about me as snowflakes danced their way across my flesh. The blue of the bridesmaids’ gowns simulated the pale clear sky of a bracing day.

Which was all swallowed by the black waiting for us at the altar. Cloaked by Ermy in brocaded shadows, the King and his men stood an impressive shade of the night sky—not that anyone paid much attention to them with your visions parading down the aisle.

Still, some people recognized Ermy’s work from when they’d required funereal dress for Queen May’s unexpected passing. No one had anticipated her head coming off like that.

They don’t know it, but tonight the Houses will have another loss to mourn. I’m not going back to the stars, Selzian. I’ve had enough of the dark and the cold and the dust—my word, the dust! And the light of the moon makes everything appear sickly and wan. No more. Tonight in Ermy’s sheath of fog and shadow, I’m going to demonstrate the power of a Deep Winter. The House of du Lake has always been impressive. Father destroyed thousands with nothing but water. Imagine what I can do with water and ice.

You know, it occurs to me that maybe the selfish, grasping second wife in the tales is not a jab at Mother but at me.

*

Grey and black are striking on me. I can’t pull off pure white anymore. Time amongst the stars dulls a girl into a woman. It also sharpens icicles into knives. Ermy’s dress is sleek and imposing; makes me appear taller. Shadows frolic at my feet, coil about my ankles.

I have a few small pieces of your collection left. A travelling cloak, a muff, some ornamental pieces. I choose the brooch you salvaged from your Winter Wonder gown and pin it where my heart should be. The effect is stunning. Niklaus, Selzian dear, know that when I wear winter, I think of you.

How could I not, my Chamber of Frost? I take one last look out my window and there you are, clinging to red petals, etching the ivy, creeping across paths. Stitching night to day and autumn to winter, winter to spring. I think how water expands as it freezes. The force of it. That’s what happened when I turned you into the tiny ice crystals you were so fond of and spread you across all of Court. It was an impressive display.

You were an accident. An explosive wish. Who knew I was capable of such a feat? You probably shouldn’t have called Merriglen Hillendale your girl of all seasons. Or exposed me to the whimsy of a king.

But I’ve kept Cyrrus waiting long enough and our guests are arriving. Did you know every living thing is at least half water? Even my husband the King.

I trail my fingers across the back of Ermy’s hand and he explodes into a flurry of snow. Flakes nestle like jewels in my upswept tresses and freeze like diamond stars—just the way you imagined, all those nights ago. Ready, I descend.

*

Issue 11 (Summer 2016)

Story copyright © 2016 by H.L. Fullerton

Artwork copyright © 2016 by Likhain

H.L. Fullerton writes fiction—mostly speculative, occasionally about frost—which is sometimes published in places like AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Daily Science Fiction, Writers of the Future, and Parsec Ink’s Triangulation anthologies.

Likhain (artwork) is a queer Filipina artist who tells stories through calligraphy and ink, watercolour, and poems. Her written work as M Sereno has appeared in Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, and Interfictions, and she has the happy honour of having previously illustrated for Lackington’s as well as creating the ebook cover for Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad. She lives in regional Australia with her partner and two ridiculous Pomeranians, and spends her nights dreaming in the Philippines. Follow her on Twitter @likhain.

 

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This entry was posted on October 25, 2016 by in Stories.
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