If you haven't read my first entry, Hespera, yet, you can find it here!
Before we begin, I have a confession to make. I really, really don't care for the fairytale Beauty and the Beast. If you take it as strictly allegorical, it doesn't make sense: if Beauty is perfect goodness, then why does she break her word, fail to return, and almost kill the Beast? And if it's not allegory, then it's about an extremely attractive young woman who is so beautiful that she makes those around her look nicer.
I had questions. Why does Beauty's father let her leave? Why does the Beast care so much about the roses? Which is the Beast, and which is the Beauty? And, above all, what causes the Beast to want Beauty so badly?
I wrote Firn and Furan to find these answers.
You may be wondering now what the title means. I didn't make up these words. Rather, I stumbled across them while researching the setting. Firn is a substance somewhere between snow and ice. Furan is a highly volatile liquid with a boiling point close to room temperature.
Fire and ice. Beauty and the Beast.
I hope you enjoy.
“Firn and Furan,” by Allison Ruvidich
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
o one should cry at a baby’s birth. Not even if, as one life slips in, another tiptoes out, closing the door gently behind it.
With this in mind, the king of the northern isles virtuously did not cry, even as the physician’s hands grew dirtier and the sheets whisked out by the maids were soiled. Of course, he never could stand the queen, so this saved him from a few obligatory tears. From his comfortable armchair a safe distance away, he caught the priest’s long, drifting sleeve as he hurried toward the veiled bed.
“Toll the bells, Father,” he said mournfully. “For the loss of our beloved royal jewel.” Nice phrase, that, he thought. Perhaps he could reuse it on a future occasion—
“I haven’t died yet,” the queen said from behind the stifling bed curtain.
“Oh.” He blinked. “Sorry.”
She did not veil her voice with false affection as she had in life when she said, “Get over here.”
He obliged, humoring her. The now-redundant physician, priest, and maids dropped away to a distance socially acceptable for eavesdropping.
“If I were a sappy and romantic fool,” the queen said, “I would tell you not to remarry. But we both know I would be wasting my breath.”
The king let his attention wander to the only window uncovered by heavy drapes, gazing down into the castle gardens. A few graceful, swan-like shapes floated among the flowers, awaiting the newest royal.
“I will say this, though,” the queen said. “By Firn and Furan, if you marry my cousin, I will come back from the grave to haunt you.”
The king jerked his gaze from the beauty in question, who rested among the crocuses-in-the-snow in similarly hued satin.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said, wounded. “She’s already married.”
“And I’m sure you would be heartbroken if her husband didn’t outlive me,” the queen said, but her voice grew weaker. He thought he caught the hint of something about her eyes: a glint of reflected light, maybe, or a shimmer of shadows. But there was nothing there. “That’s not all I have to say.”
The king rolled his eyes. Even on her deathbed she could nag his ear off.
“Make sure the woman you marry has suitably good connections. Raise our sons to be strong kings. Love our daughter, if only because she is replacing me. And—“ She coughed. “And…”
“Yes?” the king asked.
She didn’t speak again. At last he found the courage to look at her still face. Wintry light from the window fell upon her relieved smile.
The priest’s murmured prayer filled the silence as the physician joined the king by the window, a small, blanket-covered burden in his arms.
“Your daughter, my liege.” He knelt.
The king accepted the bundle pensively. He already had two sons. A daughter would do nicely. Deciding, he stooped to gently kiss her brow.
“My blessings, little princess.”
The priest coughed. “I would not dream to correct your majesty, but she is a duchess, sir. Your third-born.”
“No,” the king said. “I owe the little mite. Goodness knows she did me a favor.” He raised an eyebrow at the assembled stares. “Kneel before your princess.”
He swept from the room with the babe in his arms, ignoring their gestures of fealty. His mind raced, knitting plots, stitching together plans. The husband of the queen’s cousin was off in the southern wars. With luck and help, he wouldn’t come back.
In her rooms, the queen rested against her pillows and smiled at the sky. Her eyes were closed.
he winter wind screamed through the forest, dragging its rough fingers through the bare branches. Snowflakes spiraled in mad, rapid flights as the wind threw itself against the earth, scrabbling for a gap that might lead to the heart of summer. But, barely, the earth held, although the ancient trees trembled in fear.
It was not a night for the living, and certainly not for travelers. But through the icy corridors that ran beneath the trees, two figures staggered, dragging a third. They were men: one grown, another almost. The snowstorm raced through their scarves and wrappings, pressing itself against their bones. Their faces were inky-dark in the snow, but they paled against the ribbon of red that ran behind them, spilling from the burden they dragged: a dun-brown creature of graceful lines, its fragile limbs outstretched, awkward in death. Its blood melted the snow in an ocean behind them.
“We need to find shelter!” the boy yelled, his voice plucked away by the wind. He pointed to a dark shape against the darker sky, barely visible through the frosted, lashing branches.
But the man shook his head desperately. “That’s where she is,” he shouted back. “We’re not welcome!”
The boy screamed something else, but a flurry of snowflakes battered his words away. He grabbed the dead doe’s legs and dragged her across the snow, gritting his teeth. The man hesitated, then stepped to help, shaking his head, face tight with fear.
They hauled the carcass across banks of snow, glittering diamonds stained to rubies by their passage. Through the curtains of white, the distant shape resolved into a half-timbered manor in the style of the old Viking raiders—once fine but now a hollow ruin, barely breaking the wind’s passing.
“She may not be here, Father,” the boy said. “She’ll be in court for the social season. We only have to stay until the storm breaks!”
Good reasons. Sweet nothings. The wind tore the tears from the man’s face as they carried their burden across the snow.
The boy kept his head grimly down, forcing one foot before the other. One step, then two. Readjust his grip. Ignore the blood freezing on his skin, the nausea coating his tongue. Keep going.
He didn’t look up until the height and breadth of the manor sheltered him from the wind. Then he raised his head and gasped. For a moment he believed he’d died and gone ahead to
Paradise, for he stood among
delphiniums, larkspurs, and honeysuckle, but mainly roses—a garden of roses,
languidly heavy on their graceful stems.
He stood in a garden of summer in the death of winter.
Slowly, he realized what he saw. Not living roses, vibrantly deep-red, glowing with summer’s beauty. The delicate blossoms had frozen to husks, a tiny, gem-like heart haloed with blue. They were as dead as the doe in his hands.
Half-crying, the man said, “This is not for us!” He recoiled from the great mass of the manor, and his hand brushed a frozen stalk. With the tinkling sound of broken glass, the flower tipped to the snow, shattering ice.
They stood, frozen. The man, the boy, the doe.
“You have slain my hind.”
The voice came from behind the boy, and it was colder and more terrible than the wind. Moments passed before he gathered the courage to turn.
A slim shape stood among the dead flowers. The wind passed around it, gathering its pearly dress and cloak into floating layers of white, but it stood unmoving at the heart of the gale.
“You have slain my hind,” the witch whispered. Her dark hair swirled and coiled around her face, but she made no move to restrain it. At first he thought it was a mask that shadowed her features. But the moment passed, and he wondered if he had gone mad from fear.
She was as beautiful as the stories claimed. The boy felt like a lump of coal, small and dark against her wild, snowy landscape.
“Please,” the man said. “You can p-punish me any way you like, but don’t hurt my son. I beg you.”
She was only a princess, if only was something that could be applied to her. But stories whispered that she was a sorceress, a witch—a demon who devoured souls alone in the woods. And in the moon-shadows of a winter’s night, confronted with her fairylike, unfeeling face, the boy was inclined to believe the stories.
“W-we were starving,” he stammered. “We thought—no one hunts in this forest—we didn’t know she was a doe,” he said brokenly. His tears glittered in the starlight
“You’ve slain my hind,” she said. “You’ve shattered my roses. And you’ve come far beyond where wise men cease to tread.”
Her eyes glinted as she watched him. He couldn’t tell what color they were. They didn’t have color. The falling snow leeched all color from her except her hair, and from that it stole the luster so it was grey like ashes.
“Is this your father?” she asked without looking at the man.
“Yes. We’re coalminers. We’re from—“ He closed his teeth before the words could escape. She saw his skin as easily as he saw hers, and she’d know his was black as coal.
The witch watched him for a while, and somehow, he knew she was thinking intently. Then she snapped her fingers, and the boy jumped.
“The penalty for poaching is death,” she said, “the penalty for trespassing is imprisonment, and those who stray into my garden do not tell the tale.”
“Please,” the man interrupted her, “spare m—“
“I do not want your life,” she said coldly. “Nor do I desire your death. There is only one thing I ask of you.” She held out her hand to the boy. “Your indenture papers, if you please.”
He was too numb for horror. “My indenture papers?”
“Yes, your indenture papers! Your promise of work and fidelity. I assume you have them.”
“I…” He didn’t feel quick-witted enough to lie. “Yes.”
She held out her hand. He fumbled through his threadbare coat, and his fingers closed around the precious parchment. The almost illegible words and the scratched, uncertain young signature. Setting them into her gloved hand felt like selling his soul. It was.
“No!” his Father cried. “You can’t take my son from me!”
The princess rested the parchment on her knee. She drew a fountain pen from her sash, and slashing, curving lines of ink joined the boy’s name.
“If I have learned anything,” she murmured as she wrote, “it is that I can take anything I want.” Her hand rose unconsciously to her face.
One last slash, and the boy felt freedom drift away from him like a coat he hadn’t noticed he’d been wearing. Strange how something so light had warmed him so; he shivered as it fell away.
His Father raised his fists, and the boy could read his mind in the set of his shoulders. The princess raised her chin to meet his gaze. The boy steeled himself for a spell of dreadful power, crackling down like lightning to smite his Father where he stood.
“He’ll work indoors every day,” the princess said. “He’ll have enough to eat. And”—she raised her gloved hand so they could see the dark smudge across it—“he’ll never work in a coal mine again.”
The wind died away, and the snow fell gently, settling around them in silence. It shone against the princess’s hair. She didn’t brush it away.
His Father’s shoulders fell. Gently, he stooped to gather the doe upon his shoulder. He looked at the boy again, then his steps crunched against the snow as he walked from the deathly garden. Leaving the boy alone with the witch.
till the snow flitted from the shadowed cream sky, fluttering through the bare branches, heedless of one boy’s sorrow. It tinkled and scuffed against the window glass, but it wasn’t the sound that woke the boy. It was the beautiful, sheer silence of a winter’s morning when the wind wore itself to sleep.
He lay on a bed softer and lighter than he had ever dreamed, and he did not know where he was. It was not dank, cold, and dark like the mine, or whistling with foul-scented wind like their lodgings. Soft, snowy light fell across him, and he sat up.
A heavy wool blanket fell away. He blinked at a once-elegant guestroom, now in disrepair. Water stains mottled the dark, faded wallpaper, and the curtains sank from the windows, allowing slivers of icy light in. It was frightfully bare: not even dust dared to linger in the corners.
The faint hope that it might’ve been a dream withered away. Almost rigid with misery, the boy contemplated collapsing back into hopeless sleep. But the fire breathing in the hearth had sunk down to coals, and a chill crept into the room. He was cold and hungry in a witch’s house.
He climbed out of the soft bed, shivering until he wrenched his coat on. Silently, he crept into the equally bare hallway in search of the princess.
The hallway twined through the manor in grey silence, past empty sitting rooms and dilapidated stairways that swept to nowhere. The boy had never seen such grandeur as the carved, inlaid walls, the foreign furniture, and the chandeliers of countless crystals. He had never seen anything as sad. It was not dirty, precisely, but neither was it loved or lived in. A chill like death hung over the manor. He could imagine he was the first person to set foot in it in years.
A cloying terror fell upon him. How could he fight a witch? Stories spiraled through his mind, and his panicked mind tore through them, searching out any grain of truth.
He froze as footsteps treaded lightly on the stair, wending toward him. Faint movements stirred the air. He braced himself to face the witch.
“Stay back!” he yelled, covering his face.
The scullery maid screamed and dropped her pail of water as she turned the corner. She staggered back, comical in her horror, water running down the dark carpet to pool at her feet.
“What,” she shouted, “on earth are you doing?”
Her words shattered the silence, and they both broke into motion: he apologizing hastily and running after the bucket, she lifting her plain, threadbare skirts from the puddle.
“I’m so sorry!” he cried, picking up the bucket. “I thought—the witch—I’m trying to find the prin—“ It was strange how thoroughly company alleviated his awful terror, and he felt foolish as he clutched the bucket for reassurance.
“You idiot!” the scullery maid said, as a scarlet blush suffused her features. “I am the princess!”
“What?” He gaped at her. The scullery maid was pretty, albeit flushed and wet. But she wore a dress like the flower-sellers in the city, and she was red to the roots of her hair.
Still… there was something about her face….
“Are you sure?” he said suspiciously, comparing the icy lady to the flustered maid.
“You’re going to have to take my word for it.” She gave up trying to dry her skirts and accepted sodden misery.
The boy had never experienced awkwardness like this. He stood before his loathsome kidnapper, who turned out to be quite pretty and young and not evil like he had expected, and he couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
At last, one word broke from his lips. “Why?”
“Exactly what I wanted to ask,” the princess grumbled. “It’ll be a miracle if I don’t catch a chill.”
“No. I mean—why did you take me?”
She watched him with wide eyes, her mouth open. They stared at each other, the boy and the princess, and she hesitated.
Then, from the depths of the house, a deep chime trembled. Once, then twice. The boy counted beneath his breath until it reached twelve and clanked to a stop.
“Firn and Furan!” the princess exclaimed. “I’m going to be late!” She scurried down the hallway; startled, the boy ran after her, his loping stride easily matching her short, breathless one. “Do you know how to serve tea?”
“No,” the boy gasped as she wrenched open the door to the scullery.
“You’ll have to learn, then,” she said, white-faced. “The king is here.”
The princess had always had the power to make the king uncomfortable, as much as he disliked it. For one thing, she served tea in the scullery. Who serves tea in the scullery? he thought, sipping obligingly from the delicate porcelain cup as he pretended that was the only reason for his discomfort.
He helped himself to more tea, watching the granules and dollops of sugar dissolve in the murky liquid. If there was cream hidden somewhere in the depths of the empty kitchen, she did not offer it to him.
“You ought to get new servants,” he said, sipping his tea, dissatisfied. He was hard-pressed to remember the last time he’d prepared his own tea; his valet handled it now, and the king was irked to realize that he, the sovereign majesty, couldn’t do it as well. The valet was a wizard with tea.
“I find my servants perfectly adequate,” the princess said composedly, in a statement both frostily, scrupulously polite and also completely non-indicative of any opinion. It neatly avoided the king’s real question, which was that she did have servants, truly? In his rare visits over the years, he’d never seen a soul in the half-abandoned manor but his daughter. If he hadn’t personally witnessed the event, he might be inclined to believe that she truly had cut herself free from her mother’s womb, as the stories went.
“Ah. That’s good… Um, how are you?”
“Acceptably well, sir,” she said. “And yourself? You appear in tolerable health.”
“Ah. Yes. Tolerable.” His royal daughter of marriageable age lived alone in the woods. She was clearly as mad as her mother, which was a crying shame, because she was also beautiful like the sunset that filled the lake, or the curved, sharp angle of a snowflake. A man could drown in beauty like that. Perhaps that was why she discomfited him.
Perhaps she hated him. That would explain many things.
He searched around for some conversation and said, “How’s the hunting in these woods? Must be good.”
The princess’s expression crystallized into burning angles so hot that they nearly scalded him. She had inherited her mother’s temper but his fair skin, so livid, dusky pink rose in her cheeks.
The moment whooshed around him like a cold breath of wind, pinning him to his chair. He felt a strange, terrible foreboding like someone had walked across his grave, or he’d seen somebody dig it.
The princess said stiffly, “I do not permit my forests to be hunted.”
The moment released the king. Weakly, he said, “Absolutely not. I wouldn’t dream of it.” His teacup rattled when he set it down on the saucer. If the king was honest with himself, he knew why he was afraid of the princess. She didn’t care, not at all. You barely had to push her to push her too far.
“Boy,” the princess called. “Please bring in the sandwiches.”
The king’s mouth fell open when a boy scuttled into the scullery, clasping a silver platter of treats before him. He had skin like fine, dark coffee as was fashionable for pageboys, and he wore an elegant silk waistcoat over a raggedy shirt. He didn’t meet the king’s eyes as he offered him sandwiches.
The king accepted one of thinly delicate ham slices, inordinately pleased that his daughter had a page now. Although she lived alone with said boy—
“Thank you, young man,” he said graciously, wondering who had made the sandwiches.
The princess sighed when the king left the kitchen. She bowed her head over the table for a moment, then gathered up the dishes.
“Um,” the boy said. “I should probably do that.”
“Probably,” the princess tossed over her shoulder, setting them in the sink. “But don’t worry. I’ve done them for years.”
“But…” The boy searched the kitchen, puzzled. “Your servants should do this.”
“I don’t have any.”
“You don’t-- but you’re a—“
“A princess,” she said calmly. “Despite what everyone else in the northern isles seems to believe, I do realize that. Is it your business that I choose to lead a different lifestyle than most princesses?”
She bent over the dishes, and for the first time he realized that her hands were not fine and white like noble hands. They were red and rough, though still not as bad as his.
“They say you’re a witch,” the boy said.
Her industrious hands stilled. “I know.”
“Why? You could have anything you want.”
“If you think that, you don’t know me,” she said. A smile lifted one dimpled cheek as she turned back to work. “I am the only woman in this country to own property. If I married like an ordinary princess, I would have to give that up.” Briskly, she dried the cups and saucers. “Besides, I like being alone.”
“No one likes being alone.”
“Then we’re at an impasse.” She smiled at him, then sighed when he didn’t grin back. “Come into the sitting room for tea.”
She fixed another tray, and the boy followed her numbly into the sitting room. Although smaller than the other rooms, it was cozy with plush sofas and chaise lounges and polished, dark-wood shelves filled with drinking horns and spear tips and books.
“Come have some tea,” the princess said. “I entertain my rare guests in the library. It’s the nicest room, and close to the kitchen besides. When tea is served, you’ll stand just so. And then you’ll… warm… the kettle.” She frowned. “Boy?”
The boy stared in horror at the merry flames crackling like Christmas in the hearth.
“What is it?” she asked, unnerved.
“Someone died here,” he whispered.
The color drained from her face like light from the evening sky. “How—i-it was an accident,” she stammered. “It has to be cleaned every year. Th-they sent a little girl up. They made her take off her clothes and climb up the chimney. It’s broad and straight—she should’ve been fine. But ash fell down… she couldn’t breathe, and—“ Her saucer rattled from her shaking hands, and she put it down. “It shouldn’t have happened.”
They stood in silence. The fire popped cheerfully.
“How did you know?” she asked.
Wordlessly, he pointed to the patched bricks, where they had pulled out the small, bent body.
“I don’t have them cleaned anymore,” the princess said as she poured another cup of tea. Without asking, she added both cream and sugar liberally. “I know I should, but I—I can’t bring myself to risk that again.”
“It’s important to keep them clean,” the boy said dully. “Otherwise it can catch fire on the inside.” He pressed a palm to the bricks. “Yours might be burning. It feels warm.”
“Well,” the princess said, “I suppose I can have someone out t—no, don’t—oh, my goodness, please tell me you—stop.”
“It should be easy enough,” he muttered, taking off his jacket. “Straight, broad. Once upon a time, I dreamt of chimneys like this. The fire will die down in a few hours. If we bank it—half a day at most—“
“Boy,” the princess said. He stared motionlessly at the flames. “Boy,” she repeated. Her dress rustled as she knelt beside him. “Look at me.”
She cupped his face in her hand, and the delicate muscles of his face fluttered unwillingly, rebelling at her touch.
“For as long as you are my page, you will have great freedom. More, I think, than coalminers do. You will bear my keys and serve me well. But there is one thing I must insist on.”
“Yes?” he whispered.
“Do not go up that chimney,” the stern, icy lady said. She turned back to her tea tray gracefully, but her hands froze at his quiet murmur. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said,” he repeated, “that some things are worth it. Even if they burn you.”
She stared at him. Then she smiled, a wide, oddly unpleasant smile he hadn’t seen on her before.
“I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree, then,” she said, beckoning him to his cup of tea.
The boy found himself trembling.
“How long were you a chimney sweep?”
Reluctantly, he said, “Not for long. We needed money, so I apprenticed to a master sweep. Father and I—we didn’t realize how dangerous it was. Suffocation, burns… most sweeps have deformed limbs from cramped chimneys. If they survive long enough to outgrow chimneys, they usually die from soot’s wart.” The flashing tongues of flame gleamed in his eyes. “In the years I was there, half the apprentices died.”
“So you became a coal miner,” the princess said lightly. “Why?”
“Because Father and I could do it together,” the boy explained. “If you move into a workhouse, you forfeit your right to a family. And I didn’t want to leave Father.” He sighed. “I am a lesser citizen in a kingdom that devours coal. From my earliest days I was consigned to its ashes and crumbs. It forced me up chimneys and into tunnels colder than the ninth circle into despair so dark and complete that my mother would’ve wept if she weren’t already dead.” His smile was light and graceful, like the curve of a snowbird’s wings.
“I didn’t like my finishing school,” the princess said. “The king doesn’t care about me.” Her smile was wry. “I believe you are making me seem shallow.”
“That’s easy for me to say,” the boy said. “I have what you don’t.”
“And that is?”
He didn’t answer, and the princess gazed into her tea as though she could read the leaves. Then, decisively, she set the cup back on the tray and said, “We must hurry to finish the morning chores before luncheon.”
“Chores,” the boy said blankly. “We have—wait!” He hurried in her wake as she strode to the kitchen bearing the tea tray.
“Yes, chores,” the princess chastised, dumping the tray into the sink. “Honestly, I’m the princess here. You think I’d be less accustomed to the idea than you.”
“But what do we have to do?” he said, bewildered.
“The house doesn’t run itself, does it? It needs firewood, cleaning, cooking. So I do it.” She paused dubiously. “I don’t think I do it very well.”
“I didn’t know houses need so much work!”
“They don’t all. Just the great houses.” Her hands stilled. “I think that might be why I—I employed you. I need help with the work. It’s growing rather a lot for me.”
The boy was horrified when she plopped him before the sink, up to his elbows in hot, sudsy water.
“This is women’s work!” he said indignantly while she swilled lemon-scented water across the tile, raking it into the drain with a brush.
“How foolish I feel!” she said acidly. “I always thought that women’s work was having good manners, marrying well, and having babies. I have to readjust my life views now.” She cast him a dour glance. “Have you by chance voiced this view to your mother?”
“No,” the boy said. “I don’t have a mother.”
She glanced away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s all right,” the boy said, curious at her sympathy. “You don’t have one either.”
Her lips thinned as she stared down at her hands. “Sometimes I forget that people know all about me even though I’ve never met them. You’re right: I never had a mother. Maybe that’s why I don’t know how to be a proper lady.” She hesitated. “But… I’ve always wondered what it’s like.”
“I wouldn’t have minded a mother,” the boy said. “But it was only ever Father and me.”
“You’re lucky,” the princess said, her eyes shadowing. “It was only ever me.”
She smiled. It was light, sweet, tart, and utterly false, and it made the boy ill. “The king sent more supplies. Fetch the crowbar from the shed, will you?”
The crates were in the pantry. Delicately, the princess forced the lid from the crate with the crowbar.
“It would be awkward if his only legitimate daughter starved to death in the wilderness, so he sends me treats every now and then,” the princess said. “Let’s see—there! Goodies! Chocolate, fudge—he’s not practical—jarred mince, relishes, smoked herring, dried eel, pickled shark, cured haddock and lamb—he sent the decent preserves this time!” Thoughtfully, she wrapped her hand in her skirt and twisted off the lid, sampling the jam liberally. “This should keep us nicely. Oh, and he sent more books!”
“You like books?” the boy asked, curiously amused by the thought.
She blushed. “Yes, I do,” she said defensively. “Any more questions? Ask away,” she said, but he could tell he’d lost her to the books.
“One question,” the boy said. “About… a mask. Last night. Did you wear one?”
She looked up from the book. Her eyes were wide and colorless, the faintest hint of fear stretching her mouth.
“What mask do you mean?” she asked. “I didn’t wear one.”