“Don’t lie to me, Leonide.”
Celeste’s heart-shaped face appeared at the edge of my mirror, plum-colored lips pursed deliciously in a scowl. I lowered the kohl pencil I had been using to line my eyes and frowned at my reflection.
“I haven’t said a word to you, darling.”
“But you’re going to.” She took what passed for a deep breath through the tight lacings of her corset. “I’m going to ask you a question, and you must promise not to lie to me.”
“Must I? You’re being delightfully mysterious.” I set my maquillage aside and turned around in my chair. We were in the tiny dressing room of my suite at Chateau Décembre, putting the final touches on our guises for the Midwinter Masque. Celeste had robed herself as the Medusa, in a gown of pale green velvet that left her white arms bare from the shoulder, her soft black hair held in a mass of ringlets by a combination of emerald ribbons and sugar water. I myself dressed as a femme mousquetaire, in a loose gentleman’s coat over a gown of checkered black and gold that displayed my waist and the curve of my breasts to full advantage. A pasteboard saber and feathered mask, both gifts from Celeste, completed the look.
“Very well.” I took her tiny hands in mine and drew her down until she was kneeling on the floor in front of me. “I promise to answer any question you put to me with complete and honest candor, complete and candid honesty, and honestly candid completeness.”
She glanced up at me, and I was startled to see tears shining on her cheeks. “You’re a Sang d’Hiver, aren’t you?”
My blood ran cold down to the base of my spine. I hadn’t heard my family’s name said aloud in nearly fifteen years. “Yes,” I whispered, looking at the delicate golden lacings of her sandals so that I wouldn’t need to see her eyes.
“Oh!” I could hear her bracelets jangling as the wrung her hands. “Darling...are the stories true?”
“Which ones?” I asked, though I knew full well. “That the Lord of Winter himself comes on Midwinter of the eldest daughter’s twentieth year, to drink her blood and turn her soul into a buttercup?”
“I heard....” Her voice caught in her throat; it was an annoyingly sentimental trait. “I heard it was a white rose.”
“No, love,” I said, brushing my lips across her knuckles. “It isn’t true—at least, it isn’t anymore. Oh, I suppose some great-great-grandmother of mine may have sold her soul to the devil for a cup of hot soup in midwinter, and I suppose he may have developed a taste for my family’s blood....” A shiver rippled through her arms, and I laughed softly. “Besides, I don’t turn twenty until midnight.”
Celeste wasn’t going to let me off that easily; I could feel it in her grip tightening around my fingers. “Pascal said your mother was taken. He said when you were three—”
“When I was three,” I said sharply, “my mother died of influenza. Now please, darling, don’t talk like that. You know how I hate it when you talk nonsense.”
She nodded, dabbed at her nose with a silk handkerchief, and flashed a quick smile. I placed a hand under her chin and raised her head until our eyes met. With enough gentleness to mask my agitation, I covered her tiny lips with mine and began to kiss her.
She responded with the combination of eagerness and trepidation that made her such a wonderful lover, her hands clutching at mine as I twined my fingers into her curls, her lips parting wetly beneath my tongue. She moaned, a low, animal sound in the back of her throat.
I lifted my mouth from hers, just long enough to whisper, “I won’t leave you.”
“Promise.” I kissed her again, a light touch at the corner of her lips. Then I turned back to the mirror to finish my preparations for the Midwinter Bal Masqué.
It was the fifth masquerade I had attended at Chateau Décembre, and I swear Pascal fought to outdo himself each year. The ballroom was decorated as a winter wonderland, with strings of crystal wrapped around the columns and dangling from the chandeliers. Thick folds of white diamond-studded linen hung over the balcony railing, dripping all the way to the floor like a frozen waterfall. In place of the customary ice-sculptures and wax fruits, thousands of beadwork roses served as centerpieces on the massive banquet table.
Like his sister, Pascal had chosen his costume from the Metamorphoses: Orpheus, in a loose cobalt robe that brought out the blue in his eyes just as Celeste’s gown deepened the green. Instead of ribbons, he wore a crown of silk leaves in his black hair.
He greeted us at the foot of the balcony staircase, kissing his sister on the cheek and me on the wrist. “Leonide, love, I’m so pleased to see you’ve brought your own weapons to the ball this time.” He nodded towards the sword at my waist.
“Your grandfather’s suit of armor wasn’t using it, darling, and we all know Yvon was asking for it.” I smiled at the memory. “What about you, Orpheus? Do you plan on playing us a song?”
“Do you see a lyre anywhere?” Pascal gestured broadly, making his golden armlets ring together like bells. “If you’re looking for music, I’m sure Celeste will be happy to sing for you.”
I laughed and turned to ask Celeste’s opinion on the matter, but she was gone.
“Now where in the world....”
A silvery laugh sounded across the room, and I looked over to find Celeste standing at the far end of the banquet hall, deep in conversation with the Lord of Winter himself.
I’m not one for omens, but the young man’s costume sent a shiver down my spine. In addition to the black coat, white half-mask, and silver riding quirt that were the distinguishing features of my family’s legendary nemesis, he also carried a white rose in his pocket; a detail that, so far as I knew, was only included in the Sang d’Hivers’ tale. It didn’t help that the young man in question was extraordinarily beautiful, and Celeste clung onto every word he said.
“Who is that?” I asked, lowering my mask to get a better look. His hair and eyes, both the deep brown of a sparrow’s wing, seemed to trap the candlelight and grow darker by it.
“The lovely young man who seems to have attracted my sister’s attention? Who knows?” Pascal shrugged. “I’ve never seen him before. Some new pet of Rosemonde’s, no doubt.” He must have seen the expression on my face then, because his smile softened. “Never fear, Leonide. You know Celeste isn’t the flighty sort....”
“But she has a preference for men—particularly beautiful ones.” I raised my mask again. “No matter. I’d had or could have had every man and woman at your Bal Masqué last year, Pascal. Your wife’s exquisite little jewel will not put a stain on that record.”
“I wish you luck, love.” Another couple appeared in the doorway, and Pascal started off to great them. “But I suggest you practice on Sabine de la Fontaine first. It should give me time to get good and drunk before Rosemonde sees you flirting with her lover and demands I show some husbandly sympathy.”
As it happens, I did practice on lonely Sabine, and got more than a little drunk, before cornering the Lord of Winter in the winter-garden adjoining the ballroom. It was a little past midnight. He leaned against one of the blue marble caryatids near the fountain, fingering the petals of his rose.
I came up behind him and closed my hand around the stem, directly below his fingers. Something sharp dug into the base of my thumb. A thorn, I realized. The rose was genuine, not silk.
I cleared my throat to cover the gasp of pain. “I noticed you not looking at me, my lord.”
The young man’s eyes fixed on my face, his straight, dark brows elegantly raised. I pressed myself against him and forced down a shiver. It may have only been the wine, but it seemed to me that, even through the layers of silk and brocade, I could feel the cold radiating from his flesh.
“Do you not find me pleasing, my lord?” I whispered.
He shrugged out of my embrace and dropped the rose to cup my chin in his hand, turning my face this way and that, as if I were a crystal goblet and he was trying to guess my price. His red lips flowed into a sneer. “You are exquisite,” he replied, and released me with a flick of his wrist.
I would not be lost so easily, I thought, and imagined the feel of that vibrant mouth under mine. His lips would be soft, I decided, like a woman’s, and they would taste like blood and rose petals. “You see someone you prefer,” I said. “Who is it?”
He said nothing, merely looked in through the glass windows to the dance floor. I followed his gaze, expecting to see Pascal’s Rosemonde, and met a most unwelcome surprise.
“Oh!” I forced a laugh. “The Medusa, is it?”
He nodded. “She is a vision,” he said, and the sparkle in his eyes seemed to say he was laughing at me. “Like the first shoot of green at the end of a long, harsh winter.”
“You’ve had too much wine. She is a pet,” I said, “and a Gorgon compared to me. Come now, my lord, I think I understand your kind better than that. You’re not looking for a dog on a leash.”
“Then what am I looking for?”
I raised my mouth to his ear. My breath came out in little white wisps, tangling with the silver strands in his hair. Blessed Tyche, I was drunk. “A wolf on a chain.”
For one blissful moment, I saw nothing but the astonishment in his eyes. And then he kissed me.
It was not like kissing Celeste; it was not like anyone I had ever kissed before. His tongue played across my lips as though I were a taste he half-remembered, and my mouth opened beneath him as though he were a delicacy I longed to devour. We strove against each other, not out of desire or a wish to give pleasure, but out of a desperate hunger for power, a need to make the other ache with wanting.
I drew away first, breathless, and lay my cheek against his shoulder. He clutched my chin and pulled my mouth back up to his. I managed to get my hands around his wrists and push him close against the pillar until we three seemed to meld into one, the cold of our flesh melting into the cold of the marble.
“Leonide,” he whispered, with just the trace of a sneer. “You are exquisite.”
I had not told him my name, and I had not stopped kissing him.
He felt the fear through our embrace; I heard his laughter, high and cold in the back of my skull.
“Leonide,” he said again, and everything went dark.
I woke in the back of a carriage, my head throbbing like it had been caught beneath the wheels. The pain was only magnified by the loud chattering of my teeth; and even beneath the layers of my gown, coat, and the coach’s wolf-fur blanket, gooseflesh roughened by skin.
I winced as my eyes cracked open, letting in a flood of harsh blue moonlight. The young man sat on the seat across from me. Gone were the white half-mask and silver hair ribbons; instead, dark circles rimmed his eyes, and his hair hung lank and sweat-dampened around his face. I could think of many reasons for his fevered expression, and every one of them made me feel like an ice statue melting to water.
“I’m freezing,” I hissed. Even through my shivering, I could feel my heart flinging itself against my ribs. Blessed Tyche, what was happening to me? Desire mixed with fear like the taste of spices in mulled wine. “Where are we going?”
“You’ll see soon enough. If you don’t know already.” He pursed his lips for a moment, then slipped out of his black brocade coat and lay it across my lap. Some part of my mind was still alive enough to be amazed that he didn’t shiver, though he wore only a thin silk shirt underneath.
A very thin shirt. An appreciative sound rose in the back of my throat, and impossibly, I felt a different sort of warmth stirring the fear in my gut.
He seemed neither pleased nor disturbed at the thought of his willowy, elegant body so clearly on display. The silver riding quirt, which he had worn in a loop at his waist, now dangled from his hand, and he tapped it lightly against his thigh in an impatient gesture.
I cleared my throat and looked away from him, focusing instead on the white landscape flying past the carriage window. “Celeste will notice that I’m missing,” I said, trying not to wonder if it would make any difference. “Pascal will send out a search party. Surely they don’t thing I left willingly—”
“Surely it doesn’t matter what they think, Sang d’Hiver.”
I buried my face in the wolf-skin. Pain that had nothing to do with wine or cold pounded behind my eyes—the deep, hollow pain of nightmares. “It’s true, isn’t it?” I whispered.
“Of course it’s true.”
He laughed softly, snapping the quirt. “Your mother was nothing like you, Leonide. But I have more than one way of earning my prize.”
I winced, raising my head from my hands. Dread of the inevitable made my voice hard. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Who knows?” He shrugged. “We’ll see what the morning brings.”
It was still dark when our carriage stopped, though that meant little; it was, after all, the longest night of the year. The young man—the Lord of Winter, I corrected myself, only half-sneering—helped me down and lead me across a wide, ice-slickened courtyard to a pair of iron-bound doors, like a prisoner escorted to her dungeon. Against my better judgment, I glanced over my shoulder as I crossed the threshold, only to see the carriage rolling away with neither a driver to steer it nor horses to pull it.
Blessed Tyche, let it be the wine! I prayed, knowing full well that the cold had sobered me hours before.
I heard the click of a lock sliding into place behind me and turned to examine my prison. It was a large room, though not nearly the size of the ballroom at Chateau Décembre. The spaciousness and warm furnishings reminded me of a hunting lodge; a mammoth fireplace covered the entire south wall, and the stone floor vanished beneath rugs of wolf and bear skin. Without meaning to, I found myself backing up against the door. The place was a far cry from the ice-glazed dungeons of my imagining, but its heat was like my warmest smiles; it served only to intensify the chill by comparison.
“Welcome,” my captor said, with only the slightest trace of irony. He crossed the room in front of me and knelt on the pile of skins by the hearth, snapping his fingers to start a fire. The light flickered softly across his face.
A memory came unbidden to my mind. That previous autumn, Pascal’s entire household had gone up to Vivien Roux’s hunting lodge and ventured out on a fox hunt in near-blizzard conditions. Celeste and I had stayed behind, alone, and made love on a magnificent bear-skin carpet in front of the fireplace.
My captor had looked up from the fire, his eyes narrowed slyly, as if he knew what I had been thinking. I felt my face flush and looked away.
“So what should I be calling you, my lord?” I asked, my voice as level as I could make it.
“Whatever you like.” I nearly bit through my tongue as I felt his cold hands close over my shoulders. Icy panic fluttered between my breasts, pooled in the small of my back. His fingers began to toy with the leather strap holding my sword. “Athos, perhaps.”
“Athos,” I repeated. In my voice, the name sounded harsh and ungainly.
Meanwhile, Athos’s hands moved down my back, sliding the coat from my shoulders and working at the laces of my overgown. I shrugged out of his grasp, only to jump at the sound of my sword clattering to the floor.
“Leonide....” His icy lips pressed against the bare skin of my shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!”
“As you wish.” He shoved me away, hard enough to send me sprawling on the floor. I scrambled back on hands and knees, tangling myself in the thick skirts of my gown. Athos turned and walked out of the room, letting the courtyard door slam behind him in a swirl of snowflakes.
I pulled myself to my feet and stumbled to the nearest wall, nauseous with anger and repugnance, sullied in a way no human lust had ever left me. As I grabbed at the stone for support, I felt something smooth and watery beneath my hand. It was a wall-mirror like the one in my dressing room at the Chateau, surrounded by little tokens hanging from nails and silver ribbons.
With shaking fingers, I lifted the closest one from its hook; a golden thimble, too tiny to fit on even my littlest finger. A scrap of embroidery hung nearby, and a bright scarlet feather from someone’s masquerade. Near the top of the mirror, a gray-eyed woman smiled out of a delicate miniature. My stomach clenched as I recognized my great-aunt Joelle, who had died childless...leaving my grandmother’s daughters to face her curse.
“Blessed Tyche,” I whispered, my eyes flitting across the mementos. Sang d’Hiver, every one of them. I tried not to think of the other women who had stood here before, tainted from his touch, looking on the evidence of their successors hanging about them like so many satchels of grave dust. Disgust boarding on horror crawled up my spine as I glanced over the ghastly inventory.
At the very bottom of the frame, I found what I was looking for.
A golden locket, trimmed with chips of turquoise, glinted dully in the firelight. The lock, I knew, had been broken since before I was born, and I pried the body open with my fingernails. Strands of thin, dark hair curled inside.
I remembered when my mother cut that lock of hair. It was getting on towards the end of autumn—her last full season, and though I hadn’t known it at the time, I think she did—and I had just come in from the garden with a handful of ivory chrysanthemums. Mother lifted me up onto her lap and combed out my hair as I chatted on about the weather, and the flowers, and the thousands of foolish things children talk about. It wasn’t until much, much later that I began to hate myself for wasting my dying mother’s time with such nonsense.
I had pressed my cheek against her chest, listening to the strange rattle of her breath in her lungs, when she took the scissors out of her sewing basket and snipped a few strands from the locks around my face. She twined them up in a silver wire and tucked them away in her locket.
Until the day she died, that locket never left her chest.
“It gets lonely, sometimes.” The sound of Athos’s voice made me jump; I hadn’t heard him come in. He wore his coat again, the black one from the masquerade. Strangely, the heavy shapelessness obscuring his body made him seem more exposed than he had been before. “I thought you might understand that.”
My laugh sounded hollow even to me. “Some of us can’t turn our lovers into roses,” I said. “Some of us don’t want to.”
Athos’s reflection grew in the mirror until he stood directly at my shoulder. I felt the gentle pressure of his hands wrapping around my waist, pulling away the laces they had already loosened.
“I’m not my mother’s daughter,” I said.
He laughed and pulled the sleeves of my bodice down over my shoulders.
“I paid a man to sleep with me once,” I continued, drawing strength from my revulsion as he kissed the back of my neck. “I don’t even like men, and he would have done it anyway. But I wanted him to see what it was like to be the whore for a change.”
Halfway down my shoulder, the kiss turned into a bite. My breath came in a hiss as Athos pulled away. “Why are you telling me this?”
“So you know exactly who you are taking. I’m not a frigid little virgin like Joelle, or a chaste wife like my mother.”
“I know what you are.”
I turned in his arms and clasped my hands behind his neck, pulling him down into a kiss. It was nothing like winter-garden at the Chateau; it was like the kiss Celeste and I had shared in my dressing room, slow and sweet, a parody of the softened passion Athos must have shared with every other Sang d’Hiver maiden. “When we first became lovers,” I murmured, lifting my lips from his, “I let Celeste find me in bed with other women, just to see the look in her eyes. She gave me a ruby earring at the Spring Equinox this year, and the first time we fought afterward, I used it to buy a prostitute in Pont sur Montagnes.”
“You aren’t going to shock me,” Athos said, but I felt his hands stiffen beneath the fabric of my bodice.
“You don’t want me,” I whispered. I pulled away from him, and he made no move to touch me again. “Who would?”
The voice came from the door, along with a gust of snow-dusted air. Celeste stood at the threshold, her hair tangled and loose from its ribbons, her green robe torn and water-stained. She held one hand behind her back, but from the strange bend of her shoulder, I knew it was injured.
“Celeste!” Every question that came into my mind after that was hopelessly stupid, so I settled for the least foolish of the lot. “How in the nine hells did you get here?”
She flashed a smile at me, but her answer was for Athos. “Not everyone has heard the complete Sang d’Hiver tale, you know. But my grandfather did a lot of talking after papa died.” She took her injured hand from behind her back and opened the fist. A white rose spread its petals, darkened with sticky splotches of blood. “Blood drawn from the thorn of the Lord of Winter’s rose and sprinkled on the snow will flow into a trail to his stronghold. Grandfather said everyone who tried before had their blood freeze before they could get here.” Another smile, this time all in her eyes. “But I have warm blood, my lord.”
“You’ll never take her from me,” Athos said, and whether it was anger or irony that lent an edge to that cool voice, I knew enough to take another step away. “I have waited seventeen years—”
“Then surely you can wait for one more.”
I knew what she was suggesting a second before he did. “No!” I cried. “Celeste, you can’t!”
For the first time in my life, Celeste ignored me.
“I don’t turn twenty for another six days,” she said. “But next Midwinter, I’ll be ready.”
“And what makes you think I’d want you?”
“I can be as cruel as Leonide, in my own way.” She drew herself up, and despite the blood stains on her gown and the tattered hair hanging in her eyes, she looked like an empress. “But my cruelty is subtler. And you yourself said I looked fairer.”
“I’ve plenty of both beauty and subtlety,” Athos said. He crossed the floor to Celeste in three strides and laid one hand against her cheek. “I ask you again, what makes you think I’d want you?”
She turned her face and placed a kiss against his palm. I stifled a snarl and fell back against the wall, drawing a thin line of blood across my wrist from the mirror’s sharp edge. The cold intensified the pain beyond endurance.
“Leonide is the last of her kind,” Celeste said, glancing at me for the first time. Her eyes looked frozen. “If you take her, you will never have another Sang d’Hiver. My brother has children, and Tyche willing, I may have a daughter by next Midwinter. You won’t have to be alone.”
Athos smiled at me, a sharp-edged sneer that sent my limbs quivering. I could not look away. He bent down over Celeste’s tiny body and covered her mouth with his.
“No,” I hissed. I averted my gaze with a physical effort, only to find the reflection of their entwined bodies in the mirror.
The cry that had been building in my chest broke free. I slammed both fists into the glass, pounding the mirror to rubble, driving bits of it deep into my palms until I couldn’t feel the pain. Scarlet blood ran between my fingers, blurring Celeste’s reflection and staining the shards that glistened around me like a thousand blades of ice.
The sleigh lurched through the snow towards the line of red dripping up the horizon. Beside me, Celeste wound the reigns around her wrist and snapped them, urging our horses into a gallop. The poor creatures were exhausted by Celeste’s race from Chateau Decembré, and clearly disquieted by the strange sled of the Lord of Winter. I could sympathize. With its moldings of silver and blue-white, the thing reminded me entirely too much of a suitor’s bridal gift.
“Why did you do it?” It was the seventh time I’d asked her, and still she didn’t answer. I threw the heavy furs off of my lap and grabbed her shoulders, ignoring the pain from my shredded hands. “Damn it, Celeste, tell me!”
“Any bets on if this sleigh will disappear at dawn?” she said lightly, shrugging out of my grasp. “I think gifts of this kind always do, but Grandfather never told me that part of the story.”
“Because no one was ever so fucking stupid as to hand themselves over to the Lord of Winter!”
“Some great-great-grandmother of yours was.” She turned to me with a softness in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. “A cup of hot soup, you said? Aren’t you worth more than that?”
I sighed and rested my head on her shoulder. “Am I?”
“Sweetheart.” She pressed a cold kiss to my forehead, but her breath was warm. “I love you because you are cruel, and capricious, and untamable. I don’t want a dog on a leash.”
I laughed, tilting my head back until her lips met mine. “Do you really think you’ll have a child by next Midwinter?”
I felt her smile against my cheek. “I’m not really the child-bearing sort—and truth be told, neither is Rosemonde. Do you think he’ll give us another year?”
“Maybe.” I laughed again and raised a hand to stroke sweat-damped curls away from her forehead. “Celeste, I’ve been thinking—”
“If you think you’re going to apologize, spare me,” she interrupted. “I love you, Leonide. I’m not like your winter Lord—I don’t want purity and subtlety. If I did...well, I imagine I’d end up just like him.”
“Empty.” She lowered the reins and turned to wrap her arms around me. “I couldn’t live like that, Leonide—passionless, unsatisfied. It’s like being frozen to death.”
After a moment’s hesitation, I returned her embrace. The horses could find their own way home.