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Ice Above the Fire

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In the mountains beyond the steppes worn down by the northern winds, there lies a Queendom. Sheltered by the Great Ices and carved into the crystal slopes of an ancient volcano, it is ruled by the Queen of Ice in a hundred-year reign blessed by the Sky Ladies and the Earth Lords. The Great Ices spoke to her and she took their strength into herself; the mountain in which they lived cared for her and it shaped itself to fit her wishes. She was loved by all and sundry, and she loved all and sundry in return.

 

***

 

The lands beneath her were hard and barren. Frost covered the ground; the trees had lost their leaves. The fires far beneath the stone at her feet were no longer stoked and there was no longer any warmth to hold off the encroaching cold. If nothing was done, the Earth would refuse to yield Her bounties to the people depending on her gifts to feed themselves.

 

"My Queen."

 

She turned to her guard.

 

He held out a fistful of dirt for her; there was frost clinging to the mulch despite the warmth of the hand cradling it. "It's all like this. There's no warmth to be found no matter how far we dig. The farmers say that even within a proper crystal dome, there’s no way to warm the earth enough to grow things for a winter harvest."

 

"How do our stores look?"

 

He named the number. "It's not near enough, My Queen."

 

It wasn't. In fact, it was worse than she had imagined.

 

"I need all the estimates that you can produce for me--what we have, what we will gain if we attempt to heat the crystal domes despite the ice, what we produce in regular years." She looked out over the frosted fields--in other years, this would be the time to pull root vegetables from the earth and begin to store them for the winter. Now, there was nary a straw of grass that was not wilted and brown. "Bring me a bucket of earth as well--from the crystal domes."

 

The guard nodded. "As you wish, My Queen."

 

With a last sweep of her eyes across her barren lands, she made her way back into the palace-city. Foregoing the winding path up to the palace proper, she turned instead into the darker cave systems that led deeper into the mountain side--past the crystal caverns and into the basalt paths that never truly went cold.

 

"Here again?" The voice spoke to her as soon as she crossed the invisible line inside the mountain--on one side, she could still feel the life of her kingdom, on the other there was only the painful heat of the volcano beneath her feet. "You have become a frequent visitor, my Queen of Ice."

 

She ignored the voice, going instead to an alcove carved in a wall. A cushioned seat waited for her there; she curled up, her feet tucked beneath her. Within moments, another person flickered into existence in the seat opposite of her--the owner of the voice.

 

"You say nothing today." The voice was male--but not the body. There was something other about the shape of the person in the cave with her--something that couldn't be described by the male and female of common language. "What bothers you, ice queen?"

 

"I have asked you not to call me that."

 

"Yes. The one thing you have asked of me--a most peculiar wish, at that."

 

Her lips twitched. "You would think so, God of Fire."

 

There was a beat of silence, then the shape laughed--a rusty laugh. "Touché, I believe. Is that how it will be--I do not use your name, you don't use mine?"

 

"If you don't hear my plea, why would I hear yours?" She leaned forward, changing the subject. "You must know what's going on outside of this mountain--why have you withdrawn your heat?"

 

The god shook his head. "I am not involved in your problem. My fire travels beneath the mountain as it has always done. The reason behind your troubles is not fire, but ice."

 

She slumped. "It’s like I thought then. I have failed to push the ice away--it's my lack of strength that has caused this."

 

"No." He leaned over to tilt her head up. His hand burned against her skin, warming her to her very core. "Your strength is as it's always been. The ice has grown stronger."

 

"Stronger?"

 

"There is...something in the mountains." His voice grew distant. "It's beyond what I can see, but--but I believe it's something that isn't quite unlike me that has caused this."

 

"Another god?"

 

"Almost, but not quite." He frowned. "Not to the north, as one might expect, but the east."

 

The east. She had hoped he wouldn't say that--the east was . . . problematic.

 

"Thank you." She knew better than to linger, to invite temptation, so she stood. "I am, as always, grateful for your insight."

 

He caught her wrist as she turned to go. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, attempting to calm her heart. She couldn't be tempted, she mustn't. "Fire god. Don't."

 

"I will help you." His fingers caressed her skin, lit fires in her blood that seemed to set her entire being on fire. "Give me this, and I will raise my fires higher to warm the earth as warm as you could ever wish for."

 

Yes.

 

"No." She made him let her go. "I'm not your domain, fire god."

 

He caught her hand again, but didn't hold it fast. He only slanted his lips over her skin before letting go. "No, you are not. You're my temptation."

 

As you are mine, she wanted to confess, but she knew better.

 

The guard waited for her in the crystal caverns, the bucket of dirt she had requested waiting by his feet. "The farmers added some dirt from each of the crystal domes. I'm not sure if this is what you wanted. The farmers seemed to be, however."

 

They had figured out what she must do, she realized. "Give them my thanks." She took the bucket, ignoring the aghast expression on her guard's face. "Leave me."

 

She took the bucket to her living quarters and put it by the fire. Then she threw off her crown, dropped her heavy robes and stepped out of her crystal-studded slippers.

 

"Well then," she told the bucket, "let's see what you and I can do."

 

She sat down cross-legged in front of it and dug first her fingers, then her hands and arms into the bucket. She closed her eyes; pulled at the connection the earth had with the place it had been taken from, delineated the edges of her kingdom. The fire god had been right, the eastern border was the coldest by far and . . . something waited beyond the border.

 

"You can't have us."

 

For a moment, she didn't realize that she had said this out loud. Then laughter began to echo in her mind, an answer--and a challenge.

 

In response, she called upon all that she was and pushed against that strange vicious cold that strove against her. The being--whatever it was--stumbled back at her power. When she followed up by pulling, it had nothing that it could put against her. The ice seeped into her mind, into her body, into her heart and soul. She took it from the earth, buried it in herself, and opened the channels from the surface down to the fires that had been closed off.

 

Her lungs ached. She couldn't feel her fingers.

 

"My Queen!"

 

She opened her eyes--and there was something between her in the world.

 

"Quick! Find something to break—to break the ice with! Hurry!"

 

A moment later, there was pain--incredible, endless pain--as feeling returned to her skin, to her fingers, to her face. She wanted to scream, but her mouth didn't move.

 

"Don't try to talk, My Queen."

 

She managed to nod--then everything went black.

 

The fire god waited for her in her dreams. Even there, resting within darkness, she was cold, and when he offered her his open arms, she stepped inside them to let him warm her--surely, here in her dreams, that would be allowed.

 

"You are far too strong, ice queen." His breath seemed hotter than usual--almost painfully so.

 

She turned her face into his throat, warmed her chilled nose in his hair. "I should be stronger."

 

"You're strong enough."

 

He pulled away to search her eyes; she simply held on to him, dug her hands into his sumptuous robes. "You're still cold."

 

"You're warming me." His smile made her heart flutter--warmed her down to her toes.

 

He leaned in, touched his nose to hers. "Let me make you warmer."

 

"Only here," she managed, busy finding the laces of his robes with her fingers.

 

"Only here." He closed the distance between them; his robes fell away as her fingers did their work.

 

She let him pull her down; let him undress her like she had undressed him. This was a dream, a place in between. They could have this; surely they could have this--

 

She let herself get lost.

 

When she opened her eyes it was to see her own ceiling, carved into fanciful swirls and figures. The fires were stoked high; she could feel the heat beat against her skin. She turned her head--the royal physician sat asleep by her side. From his chalk-like complexion and the bags under his eyes, it seemed that he had been by her side for a long time.

 

It was easy to slip out of her bed and take the robe that she had discarded--how long ago had it been? She realized she didn't know.

 

The royal physician stirred at her movements and opened his eyes. "My Queen!" He jumped to his feet. "You're awake!"

 

"I am." She wrapped her hair into a braid--it would take more time than she'd like to contemplate to comb out the crow's nest that had once been a complicated arrangement. "Tell me--did it work?"

 

The physician blinked. "Did what work?"

 

She counted three of her heartbeats. "Did the ice recede?"

 

"Oh! Ah, yes, My Queen! The farmers said it was quite remarkable--almost as if it had never been there in the first place."

 

"Good." She turned her back to him, not able to let him see the sheer relief on her face. It had worked--her gamble had worked. "Please, go to let my council know that I want to meet them at--what time is it?"

 

"Near sunrise, My Queen."

 

"At sunrise then. And ask my guards to send my maids--I need a bath."

 

The man scurried out of her rooms. Her knees gave out--she tried to catch herself but the furniture was too far away. A warm arm slid around her waist and eased her to the floor. When she turned her head, however, there was no one there, though there was a faint scent of sulfur in the air.

 

"Thank you, God of Fire." She closed her eyes, summoned the memory of his lips as they had slid over her knuckles. It was as far as they had ever gone in the physical world and she found that to her heart, it meant more than any intimacies taken in dreams.

 

A set of fingers nudged her chin up, heat slid over her lips. "You're welcome, Queen of Ice."

 

***

 

Beneath the mountain, beyond the crystal caves inhabited by the Ice Queen's people, there is a god. He rules over the flames beneath the ground, governs magic and stone and knows more than other gods have forgotten. His mountain gives the Ice People shelter and his power lends them protection. He is in love with the Ice Queen but just as fire and ice cannot exist without fire melting the ice, a Fire God cannot love an Ice Queen without quenching the very powers that make her Queen. It's said that the Ice Queen nevertheless loves him in return but that she will also never yield to him.

 

Fire and Ice. An impossible union. And yet--

 

And yet.