Winter's Palace

They stood in a clearing in a forest. But it was no forest like Lyza had ever seen. The trees—evergreen-like in shape—appeared to be made of a frosted glass. Vines of black stone twisted up their trunks, their finish so polished they appeared to shine as if covered in a layer of water. Around their base, crystal of pale blue and soft pink poked through the powder snow that covered the ground. The crystals glowed, lighting the crystalline forest with an aethereal air.

And far above her head, far above the tips of the glass trees, an inky black sky loomed. Stars adorned that expanse. They shone like jewels on display, far brighter than any star in the sky of the realm of humans.

This was the realm of the Fae. Alien and beautiful. Eerie and cold.

Lyza stole a glance at her sister, Aery. She stood half a step back and to her right, her shoulders hunched. Her chin was buried up to her downturned lower lip in her burgundy scarf. Her soft brown eyes flicked around the clearing. At her sides, her hands twisted at her brown skirt.

Lyza caught one of those hands and gave it a gentle squeeze, willing strength through it. It was as much for herself as for her sister. Just as much something to inspire her own confidence as it was to comfort her sister.

Their guide, a tall man with raven hair laced with silver, had not stopped while the sisters took in their strange surroundings. He, without looking back, continued forward into the glowing forest.

Lyza took one last look over her shoulder, to the empty Gate behind them. Two pillars of white stone marked the boundaries of where the tear in reality had stood, where the Gate opened. But it was closed now, and there was no sign of the snow filled cave from which they had come. Just more of the glass forest as far as the eye could see.

There was no going back.

Whether she wanted to or not, their only option now was to continue and meet the Fairy Queen.

So, she hurried after the Fae man who had first extended his queen’s invitation. Followed him to a palace of white stone and black glass. It stood on the edge of a cliff, shrouded in dense mist. Towers rose into the star filled sky, surrounding a central dome of glass. White light poured out of that dome, like a beacon in the night, cold and clear. It diffused through the fog and glistened off the black cone roofs of its crowning towers.

Enormous gates opened for them as they approached. Opened without verbal orders and without any visible hands. Wordlessly, they entered the Palace of Winter.

They came before a pair of obsidian doors. Only then did their guide stop. The doors were twice his height and each individually were wide enough for three people to walk abreast. Into the stone a great serpent was carved. It snaked its way across both doors, its head adorned in branch-like horns, its maw dressed in flowing whiskers.

The Fae man hesitated a moment before those doors. For the first time since entering this world he looked back at the sisters behind him, his unnatural silver eyes meeting Lyza’s brown.

“If you have any wish to leave this realm again,” he said, “Eat nothing from my lady’s hand. Served yourself from her table is fine. But take anything from her hand, her plate, or her glass and you shall never leave.”

“What?” Lyza asked, but the man had returned his attention to the door before him.

He put a hand to the black stone, and they glided open before him. He strode out into the chamber, a black wind swirling around him with each step.

The chamber was a grand reception hall. A throne stood tall upon a raised dais on the other end of the room. A crowd of humanoid figures stood around the edges, their forms slippery like those of flickering flames or sliding shadows. Above them, a glass dome arced into the heavens. The mist curled around the glass panes outside, allowing for a shifting view of the stars far above.

Their guide bowed low to the figure on the throne, one hand pressed to his chest, the other extended wide to his side.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “I return with your eagerly awaited guests.”

Her Majesty, the Winter Queen, stared down from her throne at her subject and her guests. Her eyes—black where a human’s would be white and silver where a human’s might hold color—swept across the sisters.

She was gorgeous. It wasn’t a subjective beauty. Not a beauty that was dependent on culture or preference. She followed no rules of traditional feminine beauty. No rules of human fashion. But she was gorgeous.

Gorgeous the way a sunset over the ocean is gorgeous. Beautiful the way glaciers under the aura borealis is beautiful. Like the night sky untarnished by city lights or smoke. Like the silhouette of trees through mist. Like untouched snow under the full moon.

She wore robes of shimmering silk. The grey fabric caressed her dark skin, the wide sleeves falling over the arms of her throne. Upon her head, a black crown rested upon her flowing white hair, hair that rolled over her shoulders in waves. From either temple, just before the crown, twin horns swept back from her head, like black branches of some ancient tree.

Their guide rose from his bow, the wind around him settling again. His features had shifted in his bow. As he turned to beckon the sisters forward, his hands had become like a bird’s talons. His hair had transmuted into a plume of bird’s feathers.

His eyes, however, remained the steadfast silver. Lyza found them strangely encouraging as he waved them forward, even as his face held an expressionless mask.

Lyza followed their guide into the room, Aery at her heels. She bowed low as their guide had, Aery curtsied at her side.

“My name is Lyza Fartrell, your Majesty,” Lyza said. She looked up from her bow to her sister, adding, “This is my younger sister, Aery Fartrell.” Lyza kept her eyes respectfully on the floor at the Fairy Queen’s feet even as she rose from her bow. “We thank you for the invitation into your home.”

The queen rose from her throne. She moved with a grace like water yet as fast as the wind. In a moment she stood before the sisters.

She was tall, towering over them. Lyza couldn’t help looking up at the Fae who’d so suddenly stepped so close. But the Fairy Queen wasn’t looking at Lyza. No, she was looking directly into Aery’s eyes.

Her dark hand ran a finger under Aery’s chin. Her dusky lips curled upward in a smile.

Aery’s body stiffened, her eyes wide. But she seemed unable to move. Lyza wanted to help. Even if it would be disrespectful, she wanted to pull her dear sister away from the Fae monarch. But her body ignored the impulse.

The sisters, perhaps the whole court, found themselves frozen in place as the Queen of Winter regarded the gentle face in her hand.

“What do you say,” the queen said, her voice simultaneously as commanding as thunder and as soft as fresh snow, “To being mine?”

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