Slumber of the Moon • Tale of the Princess | ch. 6

Chapter Six: Season of a Frozen Paradise {Saison d’un paradis gelé}

The next day, the season changed. It was the only one, other than the eternal summery spring, that existed in the Prince’s realm. Dainty white fluff twirled from gray skies, blanketing the forest and garden and courtyards in a heavy, glittering shroud. No one was allowed outside until it vanished. Meanwhile, the halls frothed with crackling fires, bright colors, and merry viands. But Veranna preferred watching the fluff fall outside her greenhouse.

It was on the first day of the season that the Prince summoned Iren to Court.

“It is unfortunate that you must leave us now. With the coming season, all passages will be blocked. You will not be able to leave. I suggest you depart as soon as possible.”

Iren bowed.

Veranna squeezed her eyes shut. As she had anticipated, there was no pain, only a dull throbbing in the hollow of her chest. It lay like an empty hole, a flower without roots or a spring without water. And there, deeply buried, lay a barbed nettle. Its sting pricked her, and she winced.

“Thanks for thinking of me. This place is a muddle, no question. But I’m staying.”

Veranna’s eyes sprang open; Iren was looking at her.

“You…cannot be serious.” The words seemed to choke the Prince. “You have… There is no place for you here–”

“Yes, there is.” Iren grinned. “Those measly scrolls taught me a good deal more. In the old stories of paradise there was a sworn protector. I claim that title to Princess Veranna. If she’s the way you say, then her protection is paramount. Wouldn’t you say?”

For the first time since Veranna had known him, the Prince was struck silent. His eyes turned pale blue, nearly as white as the falling fluff outside. Then he breathed out slowly and a smile etched itself across his face. Cairod’s eyes flashed.

“So be it. Bear the consequences of your choice.”

Afterwards, Veranna drew Iren aside.

“You shouldn’t have.”

“I know.”

Veranna drew back.

“Then why?”

“It’s the only he’d let me stay. Besides,” Iren smiled softly, “I want to help you. Let me protect you.”

A tangled nest of emotions seethed in Veranna’s chest, terrifying and frantic. Here was someone to help her, but that should not be. There was the Prince; why else would she need another? And yet, Iren spoke so kindly, as if he…

Veranna placed a shaking hand against his arm.

“Always.”

The season passed quietly. The Prince held the usual banquets and balls, festooned with gold and red and white. Ribbons and bells decorated the halls, candles adorned the banquet hall, and fragile orbs with skin like mirrors brightened the ballroom from white roses wreaths. Throughout the palace, a spicy sweet scent waltzed with warm sugary scent, mixed with the aroma of spiced apples and wine. [spices: cinnamon and nutmeg, wine, apples] It was familiar, and Veranna was glad of that.

With Iren’s new status, the swordsman had been housed nearer to her room. He accompanied her now, not as a guest, but as a shadow. The steadfast weight of Iren’s presence grew stronger every day. As it did, the Prince called on her less and less. Most nights, Veranna was left to the greenhouse or the North Wing of the City, always overlooked this season.

At the swordsman’s suggestion, she and Iren moved the birds into the North Wing, kindling fires from the grass in a mysterious technique Iren knew. The large, cold chambers came alive, fireplaces crackling with rowdy, wild flames that danced upon their fuel with the buoyancy of birds. Fire-roasted apples and books from the Library were their special, private treats when the Prince had no need of Veranna. The worry she knew should come, never did, and that pecked at Veranna’s consciousness in the lone dark of her room. Why couldn’t she care? Why was she happy?

Some time after, while Veranna fed seeds to the birds, Iren stood for a long time by the window. He gazed out at the white covered courtyards and gardens and, beyond those, the white veiled forest. He roamed along the width of the window. Icy filigree had sealed it shut.

“Shame we can’t get outside. There’d be more food and drink and décor we could scavenge up, if we could. It might do this place some good.”

“No one is…” Veranna frowned. “No one should leave. It is dangerous.”

“It’s only winter.”

Veranna’s brow furrowed. “What?”

Iren chucked, turning away from the window. Stoking the fire, he roused a baby blaze. The orange sparks danced merrily over the wood.

“You really don’t know much about the world outside?”

Veranna held her hands to the fire. Disturbed by the motion, sparrows and wrens took flight from around her. A few went to nests on the fireplace’s mantle, and others to nests tucked between cushions.

“Why should we? From your appearance when you woke me, it does not seem a kind place.

“Maybe not.”

Iren stared at the flames; the red-gold glow breathed life into the marble.

“But life is not made to be kind. It’s how we use it and what we do, that makes kindness.” A sharp pang of guilt awoke in his heart, its jagged tip drilling down mercilessly. “That’s all we can do.

Veranna stood silent beside him, shifting (her weight).

“What unkindness happened to you? You don’t have to tell me,” she said quickly, “if you aren’t – if you would rather not.”

Iren sighed heavily. The jagged tip, curved like a hook, snagged.

“Thanks. I don’t think… Not yet. When I’m ready.”

Veranna nodded.

“Perhaps you are wiser than I. I shared my shame, my curse, soon after you arrived.”

“No.” Iren’s voice rang deep. “You shared what you know. But not how you feel. I can’t do one without the other.”

Pulling her hands from the fire, Veranna paced to the window, rimed in frost, and back. Her fingers twitched frantically over amethyst [bodice TK].

“Has the Prince told you the tale of the veil?”

“Mm? No. I haven’t spent much time around him.”

“Oh. Yes.” Veranna looked down, cheeks dusky dark. “I… Would you like to hear it?”

A flicker of caution, like the balance of a perfect sword, chimed inside Iren.

“Course I would. But I thought you didn’t think you could.”

“Oh, I can tell you. I can tell things.”

Iren winced.

“I didn’t mean…”

“Oh, no, you are quite right–”

“No I’m not.”

The rest of Veranna’s sentence dried up on her tongue. She blinked. “What? What did you say?”

“I said I wasn’t right. I shouldn’t’ve,” Iren sighed, “I shouldn’t’ve of said it. Or implied it. You don’t have t’tell me anything you don’t want to. Least not til you’re ready, if you do. But wanting to share doesn’t make you…that shouldn’t make anyone bad.” Iren dragged a hand through his hair; the longer strands tangled restlessly. “I’m butchering what I mean. I’m sorry for hurting you. I did, didn’t I?”

Veranna’s gaze shot up and she stared at him with wide, searching, awestruck eyes. She drew two fingers to the side of her throat, and in the firelight, Iren caught a flickering image, overlapping on Veranna: [dark midnight hair and fuchsia-violet eyes, hands coated in colorful sand and she was smiling.] A chill passed through him, crisp as the breath of the first winter, clear and fresh.

“I…I think…I would like to tell you. It might not be right. Only the Prince can tell it right. But I would…I would like to…try. If I may?”

Iren bowed.

“I’d be honored.”

“At the beginning of the world was Paradise. But a demon sought to possess Paradise for himself. In his greed, he tore wounds in Paradise and infected the wounds with his noxious fire, and Paradise began to burn. And all the light and luminosity and goodness of Paradise would have been lost forever, but a kind god caught a seed and grew a Garden of Paradise. Thus, Paradise endured until the maiden keeper of the Garden was led astray and sought to claim the power of the gods and Paradise for herself. Thus, she broke Paradise, and it was then, in his wisdom, that the Prince planted the last sliver of Paradise and wove a veil round it, so none could seize it again. He roams the edge of the veil, keeping out wickedness and keeping Paradise safe. There is no one like him.”

Iren sat quietly when Veranna was done. Suspiciousness prowled his mind, and he could not forget the wolf that had led him to her, nor the scrolls he had read. His skin crawled, remembering the fountain, sharp as living knives, and the garden, manufactured as a mask. Yet Veranna believed the story, and who was he to claim it wrong?

“Do you know where the sliver is?”

“Oh, no. The Prince has never told anyone.”

“Yeah, I thought as much. Makes sense.”

“Then you see why everyone is so grateful to him.”

“I…guess. But why’s it got to be locked up?”

“Paradise is not locked up! It is protected. You, of all people, should know the difference.”

“Hm.” The fire crackled in the fireplace. “Have you ever looked for any of these memories in the Library?”

“Oh!” Veranna touched two fingers to her lips. “I never…I never thought to look.” Titling her head, she asked, “Have you heard a different tale about Paradise?”

“A bit. But there wasn’t a demon. Or a garden. Just the Moon’s daughter.”

Veranna froze. Her eyes went wide, and her jaw slack. Her hands fell limp into her lap.

“Veranna? Veranna!”

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