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if not, winter

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if not, winter

Remember this, when Persephone falls: she was earth’s daughter, and the earth swallowed her.

A girl sprints through the forest on swift and certain feet. Call her Kore, maiden; all other names are incidental.

Perhaps she flees an unwelcome grip and unwanted kiss; perhaps she chases a stag over rocks and tree roots. The chase twists back on itself, an infinite regression of flight. Either way: she is earth’s daughter, and she will not stumble.

*

The field in the first flush of summer was still verdant, not yet golden and dry from the sun’s heat. The wildflowers would soon wilt, so she and her half sister gathered them by the armful; already their fragrance was heavy and ripe.

Her sister bore a golden bow over her back; she called it protection, with a meaningful glance, and was never without it. In childhood, her sister had sworn an oath, and would defend it in blood if necessary. Few enough places were safe for the two of them alone, and she was glad of her sister’s fierceness.

“Perhaps I should learn to shoot,” she said.

Her sister looked her over skeptically. “I don’t think it would suit you. Do you really have a stomach for killing?”

She shrugged. “I suppose not.” Casting another handful of flowers in her basket, she smiled. “I’ll rely on you for that. “

“Let’s have a race,” her sister said, throwing down her basket in irritation; her sister had always preferred forests to the hearth, bows to flowers. It was a different sort of world, and while she didn’t love it for its own sake, the taste of her sister’s freedom was strange but sweet.

She set down her basket carefully. “All right. I’ll need a head start though; I don’t quite have the practice you do,” she said innocently.

Her sister rolled her eyes. “Five seconds. First one to the treeline wins.”

She nodded, taking off across the field, crushing flowers heedlessly underfoot. Even with the head start, her sister quickly outstripped her, laughing fearlessly.

She ran, but out of the corner of her eye she watched for crevices, for cracks in the way of things.

*

When she picked herself up off the cold, hard ground, there was no grip to drag her back down, no soft flesh to kick against. Instead, a cold, hard hand helped her to her feet. She glanced up through her lashes; his face was implacable as stone, shaped and carved by the years. Still, he dropped her hand as suddenly as he had taken it, as if she had burned him. An iron band bound his temples, but besides that he wore no ornament.

On all sides rose sheer cliffs of granite and marble, gleaming ghostly in the dim light. A river ran in a narrow valley between the cliffs; though she had known only sunlight and wildflowers her whole life, she knew better than to wade into that river and expect to be herself on the other side of it. There was nowhere to run, she noted with an odd sense of calm.

But he didn’t reach for her again. Instead, he said in a voice like the grinding of continents, “The living do not trespass here outside their allotted time.”

“You mistake me for a mortal girl, my lord.”

He smirked, as if he knew something she did not. “There was an underworld before men and animals trampled over the earth, and there will be one until the most distant star winks out of existence. Older gods than you have made their slow way here.”

She shivered, though the cold of the place could not touch the summer she carried within her.

“Then I will trespass no longer,” she assured him. She went to move past him--to where, there was no telling--but he blocked her passage.

“I will not abide trespassers and wanderers, but it has been an age since I last had a guest.”

“A guest, or a prisoner?” she asked sharply.

He smiled again, as if amused by her baldness. “I’m not sure. Why don’t you tell me?” He glanced her over again, and she refused to shrink from his gaze. “The guest laws hold the same in this country as in any other. You’ll be safe--or will you have me swear on the river?”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. With quiet steps and bowed head, she followed him along the narrow, stony path, into the cold and the dark.

*

The room he gave her in his palace was of white stone; the walls arched far up into darkness, but when she glanced around the room, the walls caught the light and it seemed almost bright. Two polished mirrors opposed one another, stretching the room to infinite space between them.

He summoned her to the banquet himself, careful not to let even the hem of his sleeve pass her doorway uninvited. She followed him down the twisting hallways to the great hall; it echoed even the softest whisper or the faintest step.

“Is there a queen here, my lord?” she asked as they approached the table.

In answer, he pulled out the chair in the centre of the table; next to it was the high-backed iron throne that could only be his.

She swallowed, but sat with her face composed and her hands steady, as if she had expected such a thing; as if it were her due.

Around the table were the old dead gods and the kindly ones and the spinners; they watched her carefully, but she knew the laws as well as they did. She passed bread and olives and wine, but nothing touched her lips.

He watched her from the corner of his eye, but said nothing. When their fingertips met over a tray of fruit, his eyes widened and he took his hand away quickly. Behind his plate, he pressed his fingers to the cool stone tabletop. Her eyes were wide and innocent, but they observed everything.

*

Time passed, as it did in its own way underground. At each banquet, she passed trays laden with food, and ate nothing. Slowly, she became weak as the cold leached into her bones; she faded from bright summer to pale spring. But still, she burned.

In her mirror, she pinned up her dulling hair; her reflections teemed behind her, burning still.

*

He began to leave gifts for her, set at her stoop like an altar. Asteria sapphires, cabochon emeralds and blood-red rubies, glittering in gold and silver. The treasury of a small country quickly accumulated on her vanity, but beyond stooping to bring them in, she did not touch them.

Without fail, his eyes traced her ears, her wrists, her neck, when she sat down beside him.

After a particularly brilliant diamond necklace, he finally cracked. “Were the gifts not to your liking?”

“They were gifts? I thought you had confused my bedroom with a storeroom.”

He looked amused, the corner of his mouth twisting up ever so slightly. “Since you won’t touch food, I thought I should offer you something. Did you find the jewels wanting?”

“They are rocks, my lord,” she said pertly. “ I am surrounded by rocks; I have no desire to wear them around my neck.” Then, more softly, she added, “A gilded collar is still a collar.”

His eyes glinted in the flickering light. He extended an olive to her in the palm of his hand. “Perhaps my lady would find this a better gift.”

She laughed then, a small, bright sound in the cavernous hall. “My lord, you play me false.” But she laid a hand on his wrist to acknowledge the hit. His throat jumped at the contact, but otherwise he made no sign. He held himself still, as if her fingertips pinned him to the table.

When she released him, he let out a sigh, so soft as to be nearly inaudible. Where she had touched him, his skin was bright and inflamed. Another minute, she thought, and she would have blistered him.

*

For the next three days, as days were measured, there were no gifts and no meals.

On the first day, she wandered the twisting underground paths, until she crossed the river and came to the great plain. The spirits there shouted when they saw her: that they would make her a prize in their games, honoured among the heroes. She turned away in a whirl of skirts, back to the dark paths and the rushing river that seemed suddenly welcoming.

On the second day, she crossed the river again and came to the sunless field of nodding asphodel. The flowers tickled her bare feet as she walked among the blooms. None of the souls there dared to look at her, and she smiled to herself as she made her slow way through the field.

On the third day, she followed the river up through the valley, along narrow stony paths, up to where the breeze was scented with grass and loam. There she waited, at the very mouth of the river. To cross it would make her a fugitive and a desecrator; so she sat on a rock slippery with spume, just within the bounds of the permissible.

The souls that entered she halted before they could taste the waters of forgetfulness. They told stories of the sun and stars, of harvests and festivals and burnt offerings they’d only half-believed. But they told stories too of hardship, of the ground grown cold and of famine, of wars over wheat instead of gold or women and of offerings they had no choice to believe in because they no longer worked.

When she lifted water to them in her cupped palms, they fell to their knees and called her blessed and merciful.

At the sound of splashing footsteps, she rose; he came down the river, treading carefully along its bank.

“Have I caught you at my gate?” he asked when he came to her, casting off the heavy hood that shielded his face.

She smiled sweetly. “You have, but not beyond it.” It seemed for a moment that his dark eyes twinkled, but he turned away from her to move farther down the river, and she followed. “Where did you go?” she asked.

“Abroad.” He turned back to look at her. “The world has grown cold and cruel without you.”

“It has changed little, then,”

His face was impossible to read in the half light.

After dinner, when she was unpinning her hair, a faint knock at the doorway drew her away from her reflection. He stood in the doorway, just outside the small circle in the whole of the world that she called her own.

“If I allow you in, you won’t easily leave again, will you?” she said to him over her shoulder.

“I could say the same of you.”

“It seems we understand each other. That seems favourable; come in.”

He hesitated a moment in the doorway, as if he was weighing a grave decision. But he crossed the threshold on silent feet and came to stand behind her. She didn’t bother to rise; instead she looked up at him with wide eyes.

From his pocket, he drew a glint of gold; when he handed it to her, she saw it was a necklace. But instead of the sparkling gems of his own kingdom, the fine chain bore three iridescent round pearls, gleaming softly.

“Since the jewels of my kingdom didn’t please you, I sought these from the distant reaches of my brother’s.”

She granted him a brilliant smile. “They are lovely. Will you fasten them on for me, so I can see how they look?”

He nodded slightly, taking the necklace back and drawing it around her neck. He had no choice but to touch her, his fingers brushing over the back of her neck as he fastened the clasp. But when he was done his touch lingered on her skin. Their eyes met in the mirror, his dark and hers a brilliant green.

“Lovely,” she murmured.

“That you are.” She flushed at his boldness, the roses of her youth blooming in her cheeks even now.

She rose and turned to face him; he was more than a head taller than her, but she alone in the whole of the world was not afraid of him, and they both knew it. Only the space of a breath separated their bodies, but he would not retreat from her.

He had dropped his hand; she took it in hers and raised it to her lips, pressing a kiss to his palm. “Do you think so? Even so diminished?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation.

“Prove it.”

As if she compelled him, he bent his head to kiss her, his mouth cool against her heat.

When she pressed her naked body against his, he hissed at the contact; when he finally sank into her, she felt her maidenhead tear, but he was the one who cried out in pain. Still, his kisses tasted faintly of devotion, and she shuddered underneath him in pleasure.

Afterwards, she let him disentangle himself from her. He had left bruises the span of his hands over her hips, but they mirrored the raw imprints of her bones on his palms.

“I will make you my queen,” he murmured into her shoulder; she repeated it with just enough lilt to make it sound like a question.

On the floor, there was a glint of red.

“But they will bear you back, whether you will or no,” he said to her as she reached for it. It was a slice of pomegranate, with a few seeds still stuck to the rind.

“I’m surprised it’s taken this long,” she replied as she settled back in the bed. She dug out the arils; two burst on her fingers, but six remained. His eyes widened as she ate them, and she smiled, her lips stained by the juice.

The chill leached out of the room as her skin cooled; the bright shard of summer she carried within her retreated like a sleeping seed. Tentatively, he reached for her; she was still too warm for his raw skin, but she hooked a leg over his and drew him close anyway.

“You won’t easily be rid of me now.”

*

When she left, he set an iron circlet on her head; It was heavy with the weight of kept vows. Six black diamonds gleamed within it. In a certain light, she knew, they would shine the colour of old blood.

He kissed her goodbye with the promise of future kisses: when she returns ablaze with sunlight, he will reach for her without hesitation.

The sunlight struck her face like a blow, but she would not recoil from it. Her mother embraced her, weeping openly; she called the crown ugly and threatening, but her daughter refused to remove it, citing the terms of a law neither of them could change.

She raced her sister across the fields of wildflowers, without fear: she had outstripped them all.