Winter is a strange time.
Her mother had made this clear to her. “Winter is a strange time,” she had said to her as she brushed her long dark hair straight. “It freezes your wings, freezes hearts. Your father disappeared in winter.”
This was true. Her father had disappeared in winter. But, she thought as her mother weaved a white Christmas rose into her hair, this was likely less to do with winter and more to do with him. It was well known that her father had worked for the prince, in a capability that she wasn’t allowed to know about. (Officially. She didn’t know about it officially, but in reality did anyway, which was why she had been punished.) It was also well known that he preferred his conquests to his wife. There were two possible reasons for his leaving: either he was… disappeared – yes, disappeared, that covered it well enough – by the prince, in which case it would be best not to think too much about it, lest the prince take more from her than he already had; or he had disappeared himself to the arms of one of his numerous mistresses, in which case it was farewell to a perfectly rotten apple.
Still, her mother was most certainly right about the wings. They turned from purest magic to purest ice, or at least it felt that way. Still gossamer, but more fragile, more brittle; cold wings meant even the hardiest of the queen’s soldiers struggled to fly. If it weren’t for the red-breasted robins that flew just close enough to the Veil for the stable boys in full crimson and gold regalia to jump aboard and harness them, there’d be no way for them to get about at all.
Her robin was housed in the manor’s stable. She nodded to the servants she passed as she walked there. Wingless, most of them: ex-prisoners. That was the usual punishment for the Fae. A visible sign of shame, obvious enough that most people shunned them. But her mother was an eccentric and employed mainly the Wingless. They weren’t so bad.
Miranda, her Wingless maidservant, curtsied to her. She nodded to her. In a few days, she would swap places with her for the festival. All the families in the kingdom would switch with their servants. It was good fun. The servants were never strict on the families; those with cruel masters didn’t dare to, those with kind masters didn’t wish to. It was a strange time, and completely improper, but winter is a strange time, so the kingdom ignored this.
She reached her bird and nuzzled its beak, smoothed the nut-brown feathers on its neck. Black beads sat deep in its face and watched her impassively. Her saddle hung on a hook nailed to a peeling-black beam on the off-white wall. It was maroon leather, made for her by her father’s father when she was born and embossed with her family’s coat of arms: two birds flying into the distance, surrounded by prickly holly leaves and the blood-red berries that bloomed with them. Far too recogniseable. She smeared a clump of mud over it and then wiped her hands delicately on an old towel.
She barely had to think about it as she tightened the straps of the saddle around her bird’s middle. She was well practiced, now. A few decades of practice was enough for anyone, even for a Fae as young as herself. And she was young. Not yet three centuries. Almost certainly too young to have been presented to the Court, as she had been just a decade ago. Most mothers didn’t let their daughters fly out alone before they’d seen their six-hundredth birthday.
Then again, most mother’s had more to fear than her own. She was betrothed to a member of the gentry – she forgot which one, knowing only that he was older and richer than she, and would claim her when she came of age – and this offered her protection. Very few would risk damaging the property of one so high up in Court.
(This, of course, excluded the prince. He damaged whatever he pleased, with little thought to the consequences.)
With the saddle properly secured, she took a moment to prepare herself. Her wings she wrapped in layers of clean muslin to give some protection from the biting wind and the snow that landed on trees and Fae like icing sugar on honey cakes. She switched her long flowing skirt for tighter, warmer leggings and shoved her scarf into the saddle bag, wary of it flying around and into her face or, worse, being distinctive enough that someone curious, someone dangerous, might recognise her and follow her.
Who knew who might follow her. Winter is a strange time.
The frail wooden bones that stretched over the sky and tangled together were poor cover when not blooming with lush green leaves, but this was not so much of a hardship as one might suppose. It didn’t stop others from her, but that meant she saw any who might follow her from miles away.
No one tried to follow her today. It was far too cold. She knew this; despite the strips of muslin she could feel her wings trembling. Only someone truly mad would go out into the world today. Wonderfully, even the patrols were taking shelter.
She encountered no one.
It was close to the edge of the Veil when she finally landed and dismounted. The world shimmered, rippled like a pond disturbed by a stone as she reached a hand over the boundary. She remained there a moment until another grasped her tightly. Then she grinned, even as it hurt, and tugged as hard as she could until they came through. A Mortal. Her Mortal, actually. Hers, and hers alone.
They frowned at her and took a step forward, running a finger over her lips, counting each one of the silver threads that the prince had sewed in personally, lest she let slip something that she should not. She shrugged sadly and they opened their mouth as if to say something before they changed their mind. They said something else instead: “You should come with me. Away from here.”
She hesitated. Froze like a statue as the icicles on the trees watched on. She should say no. Should shake her head and back away – run away, all the way home. But…
Winter is a strange time.
They held out their hand.