It’s almost time for my midday break when my sister runs up to me, almost tripping in her oversized robe. Adelphie has to catch her breath, but whether it’s because of her excitement or the running I can’t tell. “Have you heard the news?”
A brown and white pigeon alights on her shoulder, carrying a scroll. “The prince is dead!”
“The… wait, what?”
“The prince is dead!”
“Really? When? How do you know?” I reach towards the bird and Adelphie instinctively shrinks away, which hurts. Twenty years and she still doesn’t trust that I can control Assassin’s Gift. I’ve got half a mind to remind her if it wasn’t for my deadly talent, she wouldn’t even work in the palace—Bird-speakers like her come a copper a dozen—but if the prince is really dead, there are more pressing matters at hand.
“So the war is over?”
“I mean, as much as there was still a war at all,” she says, but nods anyway.
The war is over. Huh. The war has been, in theory, going on for forty years, although it basically stopped in all but name ten years ago when the prince lost his allies in the south. And now, with his death, it’s officially all over. Huh. I sit back on my heels a little bit. I thought this occasion would be a little more… momentous. “Does everyone know?”
“Not exactly.” Adelphie goes pink. “I sort of maybe intercepted the scroll because Rumble told me he thought it might be important.”
Rumble must be one of her pigeons. I can’t ever keep all of their names straight. “You know that’s mail fraud, right? It’s definitely against the law.”
Adelphie rolls her eyes. “You’re such a worry wort. Anyway, do you realize what this means?”
“That the war is officially over?”
“Well, yeah, duh, but you know what else it means?”
“I guess not, no.”
“You’re going to kill the princess!”
It’s a few days until anything comes of my sister’s words. I act surprised when my supervisors tell me, in confidence, how the prince was slain near the rocky cliffs of Corundum, how his supporters have fled to the mountains, and I stand quietly next to the count and his family as they officially declare themselves the new royal family of our kingdom. They are met with thunderous applause. It is after the feast, after the raucous celebration in the streets, that the count’s daughter Ederra—Princess Ederra now, I suppose—approaches me.
“Princess Ederra,” I say and I curtsy low and deep to make her laugh.
I’m rewarded with a low giggle. “Stop that, it feels weird.”
“Everything feels weird now that it’s really over.”
“Well, sort of. I mean, the war hasn’t been here in years, so most of it feels the same.” Her hair has started to fall out of the elaborate braided bun she’d worn it in during the festivities and tendrils of her thick black hair threaten to fall in front of her eyes. I tuck my own greasy hair behind my ear self-consciously when she smiles.
“Yeah, but now you guys are actually royals instead of just, you know, de facto royals. You’re a real princess now.”
Ederra fixes me with her tar-black eyes. When she was younger, she was thought to be a Telepath because of that stare, but no. She’s just an intense person. Her real Gift is Temperature Manipulation, which I like to tell myself is why I always blush around her despite the fact that it's dead winter.
“Speaking of princesses,” she says tentatively, and I stifle a sigh. I wish we could have continued to talk outside of my royal duties. “There’s the matter of… of the old princess.”
I know what Ederra wants, but I want her to say it. “Yes?”
“We need you to…” Ederra struggles for tactful words and the air around us gets a little colder. “We need you to… perform a royal execution.”
“Tomorrow.” Ederra bites the inside of her cheek and she looks anywhere but my eyes for once. “At dawn.”
I hate it when things are at dawn. Why do they always make things at dawn when they could be at any other time? “Alright. I’ll be there. Will you be in attendance?”
Ederra glances up and I feel my cheeks go hot. Temperature Manipulation. “Would you like me to be there?”
Yes. Absolutely. Execution has never gotten easier for me, no matter how often I’m made to do it. But, I reason, Ederra might see herself in the old princess. It would be hard to watch someone die for the crime of being born, especially when it’s the same crime Ederra herself is guilty of. I don’t want to do that to her. “No, that’s okay.”
“Alright.” I can’t tell if Ederra looks disappointed or relieved. “You’ll join us for breakfast afterwards though, won’t you?”
It always feels strange to eat breakfast so cheerily right after an execution, but I guess I’m lucky the royal family still wants to include me, now that the war is over. “Of course. I’ll be there.” I want to say something specific to her, about how I do anything for her, but her black eyes, like always, stop me in my tracks. “Of course,” I repeat, cursing my fear. “See you tomorrow.”
Bolin wakes me up early—far earlier than I think is necessary.
“There’s still hours until dawn,” I grumble.
My brother shrugs. “So? Get up.”
He busies himself getting ready while I begrudgingly pull on my boots. The royal executioner’s outfit is a heavy black cloak, so I don’t see the point in changing out of my bedclothes. It’s not like anyone is going to see them anyway.
“Why did you get up so early anyway?”
Bolin fastens a hat around his head. “Farming.”
“Farming? It’s winter.”
He shrugs. “I’m loosening the earth, making sure the dirt isn’t frozen over. I don’t know, Jirka just told me to come over before dawn. I don’t ask questions.”
“No, it’s not.”
“I hope you’re at least getting paid well.”
Bolin won’t tell me what his wages are, so I assume I wouldn’t approve. Despite being an Earthshaker, blessed with the power of Earthquakes, my little brother is such a pushover.
“Are you coming to the execution?”
“I’ll try. Is Ederra coming?”
“Probably not. I told her not to. I thought she might find it uncomfortable. But I’m seeing her afterwards, for breakfast.”
Bolin’s eyebrows shoot up. “You two are actually going on a date?”
“No, it’s with the entire royal family.”
Bolin rolls his eyes. “And you think I’m a coward. How long has it been, Rem? Three years? Four?”
“You better get going. I’d walk with you, but I’m going east. I’ll see you at the execution.”
“See you at the execution.”
Despite the heavy black coat, I’m still cold when I step into the night. Its almost pitch black, but fairy lights mark the path, and besides, I’ve walked towards the royal dungeon so many times by now that I could do it in my sleep.
The snow crunches under my shoes and seeps into my socks. Ugh. Why couldn’t the war have ended in a summer month, when the celebration could last days and the warm summer night could be filled with laughter instead of the deathly cold silence that winter brings? At least in summer I can pretend I’m going to a nice job. Now, my heartbeat thrums in my frozen ears, reminding me that soon I will silence one of its own.
And my left foot is soaked. Super. I hate winter.
The guards nod solemnly when they see me and one of them—Eamon, I think—leads me to a section of the dungeon I’ve never been to before. I’ve given up talking to him—most of the royal staff doesn’t want to talk to someone with my abilities. He drops me off with a slight bow (I am, technically, his superior, I suppose) and leaves me in front of a heavy oak door that looks very out of place with the stone walls and floor. I reach into my pocket for my master key and have barely put it in the keyhole when a voice from inside says “It’s unlocked.”
Gently, I press on the door and the voice is right; it swings open with a heavy groan. The inside is far more furbished than I am used to, with a nice little tea table and candles and a real bed instead of a cot. On the bed is a woman, probably around the age of my mother, who smiles at me. She must be the princess, I know, but I wasn’t expecting someone so… normal. Her brown hair, speckled with grey, lies loose around her shoulders instead of in the ornate braids and updos I’m used to with Ederra and her family, and her skin has been sallowed by lack of sunlight. Her smile is warm, though. “Um. Hello.” She looks strangely familiar.
At least she’s not crying. Lots of prisoners cry when they see me. Actually, come to think of it, she might have never seen this uniform before. “Do you… do you know who I am?”
“You’re the royal executioner. I’ve been waiting for you.”
This is not usual formula for these things. “You have? Did they tell you I was coming?”
“No, not exactly. But usually my guards come to visit me a few times a day, and lately nobody has come at all. I figured they must be avoiding me.” She looks down at her feet. “I figured my—that the prince must have died or been killed.”
“Yes. He died valiantly, protecting his troupes.” Small talk with the dying is always terrible. “I’m very sorry.”
“It’s alright.” There’s a crack in her knees as she stands from her bed, and she smooths down her plain cotton dress. It’s going to get cold when we go outside—I wish I had a coat or something I could offer her. “Are we doing this here?”
“No, I’m afraid. All royal executions are done in the front gardens, I’ve come to take you there.” She cringes away from the hand I offer her, which I suppose I can’t blame her for.
“That’ll be nice. My mother used to love the gardens, so I’d love to get to see them.”
Usually the prisoners are in shackles, but the princess seems content to follow me and I feel fairly confident I could chase her down anyways. “Wait, what do you mean ‘get to see them’?”
“I never have,” the princess confesses. “My mother always told me stories about how lovely the gardens were though.”
“I thought you grew up in the palace. How have you never seen the gardens?” I have to slow my pace quite a bit for her, but it’s better than her trying to run away.
“I was born in the palace, but I grew up here. My mother and I were taken down into the dungeons when I was two, and I’ve lived here ever since.”
“Oh.” That’s so sad. “I’m sorry. I’m… uh… glad you’ll be able to see them. Although it’s winter right now, all the plants are dead.” Wait, I think we’ve gone down this hall before.
“That’s alright.” The princess doesn’t look bothered by that fact. “What’s your name?”
“My name?” Oh no, we’re definitely lost. “Eremiel.”
“What a pretty name.” She smiles at me. “My name is Thana.”
Princess Thana. Not quite as catchy as Princess Ederra in my opinion, but pretty nonetheless. “Pleased to meet you. I have to tell you, you’re doing remarkably well with this. Far better than those I’ve met so far. You’re not even shackled.”
The princess regards me with unnerving blue eyes. “I have spent the last thirty years waiting for my turn to die. My fear passed on long before I could follow.”
I don’t really know how to take that, but at the very least I’m glad she’s not running away or bawling. I’m so awkward in those types of situations. In any case, I have absolutely no idea how to get out of the dungeon now. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you know what my uniform was if you haven’t left in forty years?”
“They haven’t changed it in thirty. When I was ten, my mother was taken from the dungeons by someone wearing a uniform just like yours. That was the last time I ever saw her, so… the image is pretty permanent in my mind.”
“Oh.” I had honestly forgotten about the old queen. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright. I’m just relieved that when my time came, I got someone else.” Aw, that’s sweet, I’m someone else. “Are you related to him? The Assassin’s Gift is rare.”
“No, actually. It came naturally.”
“Really? How strange. What do your parents do?”
It’s weird to have such a mundane conversation. Maybe she’s in shock. “They’re Animal-speakers, both of them. My sister is too. It’s just me and my little brother who got the recessive Gifts, I guess.”
“Interesting. I’ve got a recessive Gift too. Everyone expected me to have Temper Spikes like my mother and brother.”
I nod. The late princes’ Temper Spike Gift was legendary, and most of the reason the war persisted as long as it did. I’m not disappointed that the princess doesn’t have it though—I really don’t need her bursting into a spire of flame right now. “What is your Gift, if you don’t mind me asking?”
I’m half expecting her to say ‘superspeed’ or something similar and take this ironic opportunity to escape, but instead the princess tells me “I’m a Dreamwarden.”
“You’re a what?”
“A Dreamwarden. It’s a rare Gift. Not as rare as yours, mind you. I walk in dreams. That’s partially why I wasn’t surprised when I saw you. You’ve got quite the nightmares.”
That’s where I know her from then. “You’ve walked in my dreams?”
“I’ve walked in the dreams of everyone in the palace. Have you heard of Queen Alaura?”
“Uh, no?” I think I recognize that bit of wall there—and if I’m right, we are as far away from the dungeon entrance that we possibly could have been. Whoops.
“That’s my great grandmother.” Princess Thana’s pace slows. We haven’t been walking that long—surely she’s not tired. “She was renown throughout the kingdom for knowing every villager in the surrounding town because of her Gift.”
Now that I know where we are, I can get us moving again. “So you inherited it from her?”
“I suppose so. I think my son was one too.”
“You had a son?” We’re almost there now, and once we’re out, it’ll only be five minutes or so until we get to the garden. I hope I haven’t missed dawn… that would be so embarrassing. “I thought you said you lived here your whole life.”
“I did. I had my children here. It was years and years ago. My youngest would have been… a year or two older than you, maybe? But my son was my oldest, and I got to keep him the longest—I had him for two weeks before his father took him away. I could have sworn he was appearing in dreams by the looks the guards would give him.”
“His father?” We’re almost there.
“One of the guards. My girls had the same father, and he took them away. Probably better that way.”
The question of what happened to them is on the tip of my tongue, but I stop myself from asking. Best case scenario, she doesn’t know.
Finally, we find the opening to the dungeon and I lead the old princess into the open air. Two more guards silently flank us as we walk away from the dungeon. “Sorry it’s so cold out. You can borrow my boots, if you like.”
The princess is silent—her fate must have finally sunk in.
“If only the war had ended in summer,” I say, half joking. “You could’ve seen the flowers. I wish I could have given you a better last day. A prettier one.”
Princess Thana does not reply, so I turn to her and find that she’s crying. I suppose I can’t blame her—I am her executioner, after all. She bends, putting her hands on her knees to aid her atrophied legs, and kneels in the snow, letting it melt in her hands.
“Snow,” she says, not looking up, and I can’t tell if it’s a question or just a comment.
“I’ve never seen snow. I knew what it was, of course, but I’d never before…” The old princess makes it back up to her feet.
“Like I said, I’m sorry it could be summer so it’d be pretty out.”
“What are you talking about?” Princess Thana stands up straight, looking out towards the palace at the vast field of snow, and for a second her face is ageless and she is a child again, a child who has never seen snow or winter or made a snowman or hit her brother in the face with a snowball. “This place… this place is wonderful.”
Although I've always hated winter and we’re already late, I relent a little bit. “If you think that’s great, just wait a moment.”
The princess turns to me. “Why? What’s happening in a moment?”
I point to the east, where dawn has started to paint the horizon in shades of pink and purple, casting hues onto the driven snow.
“You’re already late,” one of the guards whispers in my ear, and I know that. But watching the old princess revel in winter’s beauty, I can’t bear to move her any faster.
When she turns to me again, her face is soaked in tears. “Thank you,” she says, as if I had painted the sky myself. “I never… I never got to see winter before, except in dreams. It’s a miracle, isn’t it? Isn’t it all? I waited forty years for this sight.” Without warning, she grabs my hands. “Don’t wait. Don’t you wait. You are young and you are free. Live well, live broadly, live for moments like these. Live, my dear.”
Her death is uneventful. I tell her to close her eyes, and she obliges. I lay my hand on her heart and then its over. I announce her name to the king, and her body is taken from the frozen garden. I stay though, longer than everyone else, long enough to miss breakfast and soak my socks a second time.
“Where were you? You said you’d come to breakfast.” Ederra’s voice doesn’t startle me. “Was this one harder for you?”
“No, it’s not that,” I say, although it definitely was. “I guess I just… I never noticed how beautiful the garden is in the winter.”
“You hate the winter.”
That was true but because of the old princess, I felt as if I was seeing it for the first time. Ederra too. “Hey, do you want to have a picnic with me? For lunch? Out here?”
Ederra’s eyes open wide in shock and the snow under her feet melts. “What?”
“You and me. Together, out here. In the garden.”
“I would—what brought this on—I—”
“It just seemed like the right moment.” I reach out my hand towards her and she doesn’t shrink away. “It’s such a beautiful winter day—I don’t know if we’ll ever see another. Better take advantage of this winter, shouldn’t we?”
She takes my hand, and I’m twenty years old, but this is the first winter I’ve ever seen.
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Wow. This was a truly touching story. I had to read until the end. Very well written.
I really like the feel of this story being a part of a bigger universe, although it does make it confusing at first. I enjoy how you took a pretty simple prompt and made it really complex. The double meaning of both the princess and the main character experiencing their first winters, in different ways, is brilliant. I would say that the exposition is a little bit long, but it did pay off in the long run to introduce the complicated story :)
Thank you so much! Yeah, exposition is my weakness-- learning to be concise in writing is one of my goals!