Nothing burns like the cold; not summer night bonfires, or muggy spring afternoons, or even the calefaction of autumn―no nothing burns quite like the kiss of winter. A fowl wind gnawed at the sentinels stationed at the alabaster walls of the Winter Court, and despite the fire crackling in the stone hearth of the drawing-room, the space felt cold. From the satin and silk pillows embroidered with tiny stars to the carved writing desk in the corner, Tsaritsa Roksana’s private salon was lined with treasures from across the globe. Tucking a stray silver lock behind her elegantly pointed ears, an ancient Fae queen penned a letter to her son, Tsesarevich Dima, the crowned prince, informing him of his coronation. In the distance, mourning bells rang, and if she listened closely, she could hear the people weeping. Weeping for Tsar Kazimir, their protector, a son of the Mirabella, and above all else―her husband.
A knock sounded at the door, followed by a small voice. “Babushka?"
“Come in,” Roksana said, slipping the letter into a desk drawer.
Emine’s white-blonde curls and round cheeks popped out from behind the door. “Babushka, I can’t sleep. Will you tell me a story?” Emine asked, tears in her eyes.
Her bottom lip quivered at that last word, stories. Roksana felt a twinge in her heart at that. Kazimir loved stories, loved to read them, tell them, watch them at the Royal Theater with her. Taking a handkerchief out of her dress pocket, wiping away the girl's tears with the soft cotton square.
“Of course, sweet rabbit.” Roksana brushed a lock of blonde hair behind her granddaughter’s ear. Standing the two stood, and walked hand in hand, down the hallway, towards her granddaughter’s bed chambers,
Slipping off her lapis fur-lined slippers, Roksana sat in a plush velvet chair next to the bed, “So what story would you like tonight? The Golden Slipper, or The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa, or―or The Armless Maiden?”
“No, no, no.” Emine protested, “Dedushka’s stories are always about princesses, ladies of the court, and queens. It has to have one of those!”
“What about dragons? Did he ever tell you about the Palace of Heaven and Sky?”
Emine shook her head, “Does it have any princesses?”
"Well, of course, and a handsome King. Would you like to hear it?”
Pulling her sapphire robe around her, Roksana twirled the diamond ring around her finger. The stones sparkled like fresh chips of ice in the firelight, and without thinking, Roksana told Emine about Winter’s Promise.
Once upon a time, there lived a Tsarevna named Sigrid, who lived in a castle built over a boiling lake. She was the sixth daughter of the Tzar. She spent most days sitting in her mother’s private salons alongside noblewomen and ladies of the court, learning about foreign dignitaries and protocols. Still, after all, her studies on distant lands, nothing had prepared her for the day she received a letter from Empress Gao. An invitation to stay at the Palace of Heaven and Sky and learn ikebana, the art of flower arrangement.
Overjoyed, Sigrid couldn’t pack fast enough.
Travelling to the place of eternal summer, to a land so far away that it was only known as East, was no small feat, but when the sweeping curved rooftops of the city came into view, she couldn’t deny its splendour. For the Palace of Heaven and Sky was gilded in gold accents, crimson walls, and ivory shingled rooftops, the light rippling off of them like light on water.
When Sigrid arrived, Empress Gao, Daughter of Heaven, waited for Tsarevna Sigrid on the steps of the Jade Palace. Although she was mortal and would have only a few decades on this Earth, the Empress wore her bejewelled fengguan with all the immortal grace and haughty air that any Fae queen would.
Touring the garden, the two women walked arm in arm sunlight flooded the garden, a wide winding river filled with glittering koi fish, blushing louts’ flowers cut through the lush grass. Sigrid made polite chatter with the Empress, noting the tiny lion sculptures and bridges that crisscrossed over sections of the river. People milled about in idle conversion. Sigrid had never seen anything like it.
That night, after dinner with the Empress and her family, Sigrid decided to take a walk through the garden. Moonlit and filled with the sound of crickets, she ran a lazy finger over the liquored bannister of the bridge, leaving a trail of frost in her wake. Her magic had always favoured the ice, the bitter kiss of winter, but in the balmy night air, she felt different.
Thunder roared across the sky, and something sizzled behind her.
Rough hands found their way around her waist, and before she could cry out for a guard, she felt the splash of water against her skin. Her assailant must have vaulted them over the side of the bridge because she was now in the river.
"Sorry about that," a low voice said, "The dragons got out and―well, one of them was about to eat you. They're not used to the smell of Fae."
Sigrid had to squint to see, but sure enough, when she looked upwards, seven wingless serpents with feathers lined bellies flew among the clouds. Six of them were miles above, but one was circling the rooftops of the Jade Palace. Hunting. Oh, gods, it had been hunting for its dinner, and it had nearly snatched her up.
“Thank you,” she spluttered, “my name’s Sigrid.”
"I know," replied, "We just had dinner together. Here give me your hand."
Sigrid allowed herself to be pulled to the riverbank. The man jumped up onto the riverbank first, and Sigrid almost drowned herself in the river because it wasn't just any son of the Empress, but King Zhao, the eldest and most handsome of them all, he wasn’t too much older than her.
"Your majesty, I―I didn't see you there." Pulling herself onto the riverbank, she took a few steps away from him, keeping an eye on the dragons above. "How?"
“My sister, Queen Liao, summoned them, but she forgot that they had an appetite for Fae magic. So I came as soon as I heard.”
“Just in time.”
Soaked through the skin, she was thankful she had worn the emerald green dress instead of the ice blue one her maid had laid out for her.
"Your shaking. Should I take you to a healer?"
"Oh no, that won't be necessary. I'll go back to my rooms and take a bath."
“I could join you.”
A blush slowly began to creep across her face. “Oh.”
“What I meant to say,” the King corrected, “is that I can walk you to your rooms.”
"Well, in that case," she said, wringing out her dress, "lead the way."
Later, after waving the young King goodbye and washing the river out of her hair, she penned a letter to her father. First, informing him that the journey had gone well and that her reception had been warm. Then, pressing a kiss to the letter, she sent it to the Winter Palace, knowing that she would probably get a response in a week or so.
The next few days in the Jade Palace were the highlight of Sigrid’s life. Everything was so new and delicious that she could hardly sleep. Nevertheless, every morning she arose with a smile on her face, laughed unabashedly with the members of the Jade Palace. Her ikebana lessons started at noon and went well past sunset, and after that, she danced well into the night; King Zhou at her side. The two of them on teetering on the cusp of something more. Stealing kisses and long looks from across the room, the two indulged in each other's company shamelessly. His presence was almost as sweet as the flowers, and although no word had come back from her family, she knew one would be coming soon.
Happy beyond reason, Sigrid had fallen in love with the city of eternal summer and was considering extending her month-long stay for a couple of months. Surely, she wouldn't be missed too badly if she stayed a little longer.
During those days, Sigrid could have sworn she had swallowed the sun.
On the night before Summer Solstice, Sigrid lay in her bed staring at the moon. Drenched in sweat and starlight, she had been tossing and turning for hours. Her heart in her throat, she fought the urge to be sick. Pressing her hand to her ribs, fire lanced across her skin. Was she dying? Breathless, she panted; the waves of pain radiated through her every few minutes. Until it stopped, the world holding its breath as power slammed into her.
Ancient magic so old and terrible her vision went white for a moment, and then ice exploded from her fingertips, frost covered the room, and the worst part wasn't the fire in her blood, but the fact that she knew what this meant. Had heard the stories of it as a child because her family, like all other ancient Fae bloodlines, found its might in blood. Passed down through the generations, the transferal of power from one ruler to another only happened from Tsar to Tsar, whether they died or yielded the power themselves, but for it to have come to her could only mean one thing―her family was dead. Weeping, Sigrid vomited into a nearby pot.
Each of them would’ve had to have been murdered if the ancient power had found its way to her; a sixth daughter, the twelfth and last child of Tzar Waldheri. The details of her family's murder would come later, but first, she had to get home.
At daybreak, she went straight to the Empress to thank her for her generous hospitality and apologize for her hasty departure. Her eyes were glassy when Sigrid told her the news, but even in her grief, she instead that she leave the following day, after Summer Solstice. Relenting, she obliged, ordering her handmaidens to start packing up for tomorrow’s journey. They would leave at dawn.
Children giggles and people danced in the golden sun of the Summer Solstice festival. The wind carried the sweet floral scent of the gardens, mixed with spices and cooking meat, but Sigrid didn’t feel any of their warmth or joy. Tossing a nearby stone into the water, she jumped when King Zhou’s breath was hot against the shell of her ear. She had to catch herself before she fell into the river.
“My mother told me about your family. My condolences”
The silence hung heavy between them, Sigrid refusing to look at him, but he held her hand anyway. His skin honeyed and warm to the touch, a stark contrast to her pale pink skin that burned easily.
“Would you like to dance with me?” he asked.
Smiling, she brushed her raven hair away from her red-rimmed eyes, “I would love to dance with you.”
Twirling under the golden sun in the crisp summer breeze, the two royals danced to the beat of booming drums. In her young life, Sigrid had never met any Grand Duke or nobleman that could keep up with her on the dance floor; but sure enough, King Zhou was as light on his feet as she was. His lively eyes were the colour of black tea in the sun, and for those few moments, she lost herself in the music―her last taste of freedom.
In the small hours before dawn, Sigrid left her rooms to take one last look at the gardens. It had rained a few hours ago, and the air still smelt of rain and freshly cut grass. Walking along the gravel path, she memorized every petal and leaf, the feel of the rising sun against her face, and the sound of birds chirping; the world coming alive.
A branch snapped behind her.
“Were you planning on saying goodbye?” Zhou asked.
Eyes to the ground, she kept walking. The sound of gravel crunching behind her followed. “I left you a letter on my nightstand.”
"You left me and all nine of my siblings a letter. So forgive me if I don't feel special."
“They all say different things,” she said, a smile tugging at her lips. She spun around to face him. Still dressed in his nightclothes, his hair was mussed, almost as if he had come running―maybe he did.
“You’re going to be Queen soon,” he breathed, closing the distance between them. He held her shaking hands. Overnight an empire had fallen into her lap, and since then, her hands hadn't stopped shaking. It was an effort to keep the ice at bay.
“Tsaritsa,” she corrected, “My title will be Tsaritsa.”
“Tsaritsa then…and why exactly does that bother you?”
"Because where I am from, women don't rule. They support their husbands, bare heirs, and take care of the people and the land.” A sob escaped her lips.
“I don’t see how that’s different from ruling?”
"Well, in our laws, a woman cannot be Tsaritsa without a Tzar, which means my wedding to a Grand Duke will be held the day after I get back. Our coronation the week after.”
Confusion creased Zhou’s brow, “But a man can be a Tzar without a Tsaritsa?”
"Well, that's absurd."
Then, it hit her how different the Fae Kingdoms were from the Kunlun Mountains, where the line of succession was passed down through the women. Empresses that married Kings and chose their successor rather than leaving it to birth order chance.
"Well, that's just how it is." Sigrid brushed her hand over a budding peony, swallowing her tears.
"Then change it. Rewrite the laws."
Tempting, very tempting. "Yes, but then the High Lords would stage a coup, and that would help no one.” Six bells sounded in the distance. Time to go. Sigrid bowed slightly. "It was a please to make your acquaintance, your majesty."
“Sigrid, wait. I’m not an immortal Fae like you, but even after I am gone, you and your descendants will still be welcome to visit.” Zhou snapped the stem off bright, blush pink peony and gently slid it behind her ear. “There will always be a place for you here.”
She leaned into them. “Even if I had eternity with you, that wouldn't be enough, perhaps… perhaps it is best that we part ways now.”
Staring into his dark eyes, she knew they need not exchange dangerous words like I love you.
Grabbing his forearm, she pushed herself up on her toes, pressing a kiss to his cheek. Ignoring the burning in her throat, her eyes, her lips.
"Don't come looking for me… please," she whispered, pulling back to wipe away the stain of frost she had left on his face. The bits of ice falling softly to the ground, “I won’t return―but I will remember you, for an eternity and then some. The ice does not forgive or forget.” Because winter’s promise is not to love but to endure.
Sigrid took one last look at the Kunlun Mountains from her seat by the carriage window, the Tower of Heaven looming high above the Jade Palace. A bejewelled city decked out in finery and flowers; its people kinder, warmer and more lovely than any summer sun. Staring out the window, she watched the sparkling city until it was nothing more than a golden bead against the horizon until night fell and the stars winked to life above.
“Babushka, what happened to Tsarevna Sigrid when she went home.”
“She married a Grand Duke, who became Tzar, and together they had several round-faced children, who looked just like you.” Roksana reached out to grab her granddaughter’s nose, earning a giggle from the small child.
“Do you think she ever saw the King again?”
“No. He was a mortal man remember? He would have died in a blink of her immortal life.”
"Yes, but Babushka, love is supposed to win. Shouldn’t she have gone back to marry him instead? He could have lived with her in the castle over the boiling lake.” Emine pouted, pulling the covers up under her chin.
"No. He couldn’t. She had a duty to her Kingdom and her family to uphold. As you will do when you get older. Descents of the crown must always put the crown first. Doing otherwise would be a mistake.”
Roksana didn't have the heart to tell Emine that the girl from the story never travelled to the East again; she never went back, to see the King or the gardens; or that dangerous, terrible things happened to Princesses who lost themselves in love―blinded themselves with it.
“I think her true love was the King,” Emine whined, a yawn swallowing the end of her sentence, sleep pulling at her eyes.
“Goodnight, sweet rabbit," kissing her granddaughter goodnight.
Standing in front of the fireplace, she reached for the jewellery box on the mantle. Cracking it open, she pulled out a blush pink peony, as bright and fragment as the day it had been picked, all those centuries ago. Enchanted with preservation spells, it did not wilt in the frost-bitten land or wither under her icy touch.
She had never told anyone about the flower and rarely spoke about that summer; she had forbidden herself to reminisce, but tonight felt different. For the first time in a long while, she was alone―free. She had severed―endured―her sentence, and now she was free. Winter’s promise is not to love but to endure, to yield to no one and nothing―and neither did she. Pressing a kiss to the flower, flecks of ice bloomed across the petals. Swallowing hard, her throat burned with unshed tears as she put the flower pack into its box. The memories of that summer solstice clung to the velvet of her bones.