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"You're not like any Fairy Godmother I ever heard of," young Kay said, sullenly, his voice echoing in the enormous, and otherwise empty, throne room. He broke the silence and in doing so, created a reminder of how empty the room was. If Kay had taken the time to thinkwhich he did not, because at the moment, the only thing he ever thought about was himselfhe might have wondered why such a room existed here in the Palace of Ever-Winter at all. Aleksia did not hold audiences, nor have a Court. So far as he knew, there were only two living things in this palace: himself and her. So why would she need a huge throne room? Why would she need a throne room at all?
Such thoughts had not once crossed his self-involved mind; at least, not yet.
He did not shout; he was not the type to shout, and certainly there was no need in a room so quiet that even the faintest movement sounded as loud as a deliberate footfall. But his voice, midway between a tenor and a bass, was layered with frustration and anger, and had the distinct edge of a whine to it. It grated on Aleksia's nerves. Kay grated on Aleksia's nerves.
The throne room was austere magnificence itself, as was all of the Palace. Walls that perfectly imitated snow were, in fact, the most pristine of white quartz. Floors that looked like clouded ice were marble. It was an enormous space, exactly like the interior of a pure-white egg. It was full of light, and when she was not keeping the temperature artificially low for the "benefit" of her "guests," it was warm and welcoming.
There were benches all around the circumference, also white, also of marble. Normally, they were softened with cushions of the palest blue velvet, but of course not when Kay was around. It was her intention to keep Kay as physically uncomfortable as possible while creating an illusion of comfort.
It was hard to ignore him; his presence itself would have shouted, even if he had not spoken at all. His black-velvet clothing and sable furs made an inky intrusion in the otherwise pure-white rooma very solid and substantial blot in the midst of light.
Black did not suit him, not even the lush black of velvet and fur that looked so soft it made the hand yearn to touch it; the lack of color, and the contrast of the very pure white of the surroundings, brought out the sallow tones of his skin, and made him look as if he had been sculpted out of raw piecrust. He was the one who insisted on wearing black, though. Presumably, he thought it made him look serious and to be reckoned with. He probably thought it made him look older. Most of her visitors did the same; it was as if there was a kind of unacknowledged uniform for the nonconformist.
She shifted a little, a very little, in her throne. The heavy, buttery silk of her gown, impregnated with warming spells, moved with her, sliding like cream over her arm. She did not immediately reply, letting the silence speak for her and make him uneasy.
Since Aleksia did not need to look at his expression to read his mood, she did not turn her attention away from the five-foot-tall mirror that she was watching with all the intensity of a hawk at a quivering bush hiding a rabbit.
The mirror was an incredible piece of work, both in terms of its craftsmanship and in what it was made of. This was a single flat sheet of ice nearly two inches thick, as clear as a pane of glass except when she wanted it to become reflective. It was held by a four-inch-thick, cloud-colored frame that was also made of ice, severe and plain, the surface so smooth that it seemed to deflect the curious finger. At the moment, the mirror was, indeed, reflecting something, but the reflection was not of herself, nor of Kay, but of another scene entirely. In the crystalline depths of the mirror, a tired-looking young girl was plodding through a forest.
She was, perhaps, sixteen or seventeena woman grown by most standards, though not by Aleksia's. She was blond and blue-eyed, with long golden plaits wrapped over her head like a kind of crown and just showing under the rabbit-fur cap. Her face was round, but not dumpy; she had a sweet expression, a pert nose and a mouth of the sort that made young men want to kiss itfull-lipped and soft and inviting. She was dressed as the more prosperous sort of village-dweller would dress, in a sturdy woolen dirndl in a cheerful red, that belled out around her ankles, a little white apron that had never seen the inside of a kitchen, a matching cloak in a darker red with a hood that could be pulled over the cap. On her feet were stout leather boots, also red, lined with rabbit fur, and mittens that matched her cap. Nothing more could be seen of her clothing beneath the cloak, but it could reasonably be assumed it was of equally good quality. She was burdened with a pack and used a polished wooden staff to help her along the path. And she looked entirely out of place there. It did not seem possible that such a person could be found in the middle of a forest; she belonged in a village square, buying embroidery yarn and gossiping with friends. Her cheeks should have been pink with exertion, but they were pale. Her eyes scanned the forest nervously, and her face showed her fear all too clearly.
The forest through which she was trudging was not the sort inclined to raise the spirits. "Gloomy" was probably the most flattering thing that could be said about it. There was no undergrowth, for the trees that crowded each other on either side of the dirt road blocked out the sun. Those trees were, for the most part, black pine, whose dark branches dripped water and occasionally sap, and dropped needles that carpeted the floor of the forest. Overhead, their branches formed a canopy so thick that not even a scrap of sky was visible. If there were birds, they were high up in the boughs and certainly not visible from the girl's point of view. There were no animals in sight, but one could easily imagine wolves or Bears lurking in the distance, suitably obscured by the closely crowded tree trunks. Even on the hottest of Summer days, this forest would be dank and chill. Now, in the Autumn, with sunset drawing near, it would be bitter under those trees. And it would be so damp that the cold would penetrate even the warmest of cloaks. Small wonder she was bundled up as she was.
There was no sound, though Aleksia could easily have it if she chose. Right now, though, she knew that all she would hear was oppressive silence, overlaid perhaps with the dripping of water onto a thick layer of dead needles, and the girl's soft footsteps, and perhaps the far-off call of a crow or some other bird of ill-omen. Hardly worth the trouble.
Kay, of course, could see none of this. All he saw was Aleksia staring into a mirror that cast no reflection. And ignoring him. He did not in the least appreciate being treated in this way. Aleksia caught his reflection off the ice. The corners of his mouth turned down farther, his eyes narrowed and a crease appeared between his brows. And then he spoiled it all, as his lower lip began to protrude in the start of a pout. For all that he allegedly wanted to be left alone, he hated being ignored. But then, Aleksia knew very well what was actually going on in her guest's mind.
"And you, of course, have such a vast experience of Fairy Godmothers," Aleksia finally answered him, in a voice that dripped with sarcasm the way that the trees in her mirror dripped moisture. Her voice rang crisp in the empty chamberutterly calm, and maddening. At least, she hoped it was maddening. She shifted again, this time for the little pleasure of feeling the silk of her gown slip across her body.
Kay started at the sound of her voice, then glowered. He hated having his "authority" challenged even more than he disliked being ignored. Aleksia would have found it more amusing had she not played this same sort of scene over and over again with other guests in the past and would play it with still more in the future. Still. It was potentially as funny as watching an ill-tempered rabbit challenge a warhorse.
And that was a dangerous stance to take in the hall of one who could have sent him outside to be eaten by an ice-drake by merely snapping her fingers, but he was very young and utterly convinced of his own intelligence, knowledge and immortality. "I" he began.
"Most of your sentences begin with I, and you might find it more profitable to find some other way to begin them," Aleksia continued, still not turning from the mirror. She wished that the next act of the drama she was watching would hurry up. She was regretting deciding to allow Kay to find her todaybut this was the only mirror powerful enough to let her see all she needed to, from so far away, and she hated asking the Brownies to move it. "No one cares about you. You are an unlicked cub, a mere youth, barely out of childhood." She had been longing to say this for days; she might as well do so now. She began to warm to her subject and chose her words with care. "You have no experience worth hearing about, no store of wisdom from reading or studying with wiser men and your personality is repellant. There was but one person who loved you, and you persisted in thrusting her away. Instead, you wanted to be left alone to concentrate on your work. You were, in fact, injudicious enough to wish for just that out loud." She saw him start again, out of the corner of her eye. "So. I have given you that, on condition that you devote yourself to your work and make me wonders. There is a library here. There is a workshop. You only have but to say that you want something, and it appears. Go and make use of these resources, for which older and wiser men than you have pined and languished. And when you find something or make something you think might be worthy of my attention, you may bring it to me, provided I am not otherwise occupied, and provided you begin your sentence with some other word than I ."
Reflected in the surface of the ice, Kay looked utterly, utterly shocked. No one had ever spoken to him like that before. He had been rather too much indulged and made much of by parents who thought he was clever; as a child, he'd had the best schooling and a mother and father who greeted every accomplishment as if he was the only boy in the universe to have achieved such things. And he was very clever, even Aleksia would admit thatbut clever did not compensate for the level of self-absorption he had managed to achieve in seventeen years. When she had appeared before him on the night of the first frostheralded by an out-of-season snowstormin her flying sleigh pulled by four snow-white reindeer, he had taken it as his due that such a creature should offer him her help. He had accepted her invitation, of course. There was never any doubt that would happen. He was too self-centered to consider that it could have been a trap.
And now he had been here for three weeks, seeing nothing and no one but Aleksia herself. She had made her servants and helpers invisible to him, so that he would be unaware how full the Palace really was, and so that he would be unable to talk to anyone. She had made herself unavailable to him as well, making it as clear as possible, without ever actually saying it, that she was far too important to cosset him.
And now, he found himself in the position of having everything he had asked for, and yet being subject to something he had never, in all his life, actually experienced before.
He was alone. There were no parents to praise him, no sweetheart to gaze at him with adoration, no rivals to triumph over or peers to boast to. There were not even any visible servants to question, look down upon or bully. It was just him and his own thoughts, and he was finding that an uncomfortable experience.
He was a prisoner in a cage made of gold and lined with silk, as isolated as any hermit-hunter snowed-in inside a mountain cabin. He took his meals alone, was attended but never contacted in any way, and only glimpsed her briefly, generally at a distance. Day by day, she watched him without his being aware of the fact, and saw it wear on him.
Today she had told the servants to allow him to find the throne room and her in it, rather than confusing his steps as they generally did. This was the result.
He could be redeemedhe would not be here, in the Palace of Ever-Winter, the home of the Ice Fairy, if he was not capable of redemption. The Tradition had made that part clear enough by building such an enormous store of magic about him that, if Aleksia had waited until Winter to fetch him, he would have found his initials written in frost on the windowpane, snowmen having taken on his features when he passed, and the cold having grown so bitter that wildlife would have been found frozen in place. Even so, things had gotten to the point that Ravens had taken to following him, which was a very ominous sign had he but known it. Presumably if Aleksia had done nothing, and no other wicked magician had discovered him and virtually eaten him alive for the sake of that power, he would have gone to the bad all by himself. He was too self-centered and arrogant to have escaped that particular fateand most likely, given his turn of mind, he would have become a Clockwork Artificer, one of those repellant individuals who tried to reduce everything to a matter of gears and levers, and tried to imprison life itself inside metal simulacrums. While not usually dangerous to the public at large the way, say, the average necromancer was, Clockwork Artificers could cause a great deal of unhappinessand in their zeal to recreate life itself, sometimes resorted to murder.