"For who knows how my love grows?"
"Who knows where the time goes?"
THE TALE OF THE FROZEN PRINCESS~
Once upon a time, in ancient Japan, the Yukinoshita Clan ruled over all.
They were the most powerful family in all the nation. Their armies were the largest and the strongest. Their feared blades slashed through flesh like waves over a cliff-face. And those with armies of their own were just as easily defeated by the flash of gold as the swing of the sword.
For a time, the other great families- the Miuras, the Isshikis, the Hayamas- had all vied with them for control of Japan. No longer. Even the Emperor, powerless against the Clans he was supposed to control, bowed to them without hesitation.
From the outskirts of Kyoto, the Yukinoshita family looked down on their subjects as if from the untouchable peak of Mount Fuji. Their great mansion, mounted on top of a towering hill, could be seen as far as the horizon. It was said that half the men in Kyoto were servants in the house, and half the women too.
The members of the Clan had come to embody their namesake. Both in battle and in court, they were as cold as they were ruthless. Should it help maintain their power, no manipulation and no breaking of honour was beyond them.
At the head of the Clan was Yukinoshita no Michinaga. He was a great warrior; with a bowstring at his fingertips, he could hit the most minute of targets even at full gallop. The other great families cowered from facing him in battle, knowing he could crush them as easily as dawn crushes the night.
At his side was Yukinoshita no Rinshi, a woman notorious for her beauty and the callousness beneath it. The imperial court, a place that Michinaga had no prowess within, was as good as her plaything. More men were killed at the flash of her tongue than at the tip of her husband's arrows.
Together, they brought fear and awe alike to the Yukinoshita family. Never had a single name been so powerful, so respected, and through them Japan was united. The Yukinoshitas knew that fear, above all, was the hinge that held their nation together, like the most beautiful of byobu screens.
They tended to that fear with diligence and care. Nothing else in their world was afforded such tender emotion- not even their daughters. For power had planted a seed of ice in the Yukinoshita veins, and that seed grew until it froze their hearts completely.
When their first daughter was born, the courtiers of the Yukinoshitas rejoiced, but inside they cried, for sakura blossom never falls too far from the tree. They knew she would be raised to be as cold and ruthless as her parents. That it was a daughter was no solace, for it was Yukinoshita no Rinshi they feared the most.
Yukinoshita Haruno-hime, their first princess, was beautiful like her mother, and fierce like her father. Whatever she put her mind to she had a talent for, and she put her mind to everything. Her marriage ceremony was so lavish it lasted almost a week; by the end of it, everyone knew that her husband would be less a husband and more a bug beneath her feet.
But it is Yukinoshita Yukino-hime, the second princess, who is the centre of our tale. She was born two years after her sister, during the worst blizzard in living memory. She emerged into a world that howled with wind, spat with frost, and was moulded by it like steel from a forge.
Not once in the birth did the infant princess cry. As the blizzard roared outside, not a single solitary sound passed her lips. Afterwards, as the mother cradled the babe in her arms, she decided its name would be 'Yukino'.
Just as she had for her first daughter, the mother felt nothing, for the Yukinoshitas had forgotten how to feel. She handed Yukino-hime to a wet nurse, told her to get to work, and then returned to her calligraphy and her courtiers.
Until the age of three, the princess persisted in silence. The wet nurse found the babe unsettling- of course, she was beautiful, prettier than a hoko doll, but she was quieter than one too. Had she not suckled at her breast with a strange elegance, the woman would have thought herself nursing a stillborn.
And when finally the babe did speak, her first word was not of her parents, who looked at her only sparingly, and without a trace of affection. Instead, the first word of the princess was that which had given her a name: Yuki.
It had been snowing the day of her first word, too. Outside the roka passages of the house, the white powder dappled the gardens, and the view of Kyoto from atop the hill was enlivened with that same haunting colourlessness.
The princess sensed the snow was falling. She sensed the chill in the air, and without knowing it she sensed the ice too, but not that which was spreading outside. It was the ice in her chest, growing over her as vines grow over a tree.
She felt something for the first time, and that something was an affinity to the winter- her one true mother.
"Yuki," she said, with perfect clarity, as if she were far older than three years old.
And at last, in Yukino-hime's glistening blue eyes, the wet nurse saw something that resembled life.
With each winter, the princess grew. She grew taller, and more beautiful, but not once in the turn of those seasons did a speck of warmth ignite her soul, which hung around the body limply, pathetically, waiting.
She lived for no reason at all other than her parent's will. Although they cared for the princess only in the way they cared for a silk kimono, she was an idyllic daughter, and therefore pleased them.
She only spoke when spoken too, and replied with the perfect mixture of deference and formality. She was pleasing to look at, but with even less of the humanity which had animated their first daughter, Haruno-hime. And a good thing too, they thought.
Yukinoshita no Michinaga admired her stoicism. Yukinoshita no Rinshi admired her blunt eloquence. But Yukino-hime admired nothing, for in her youth she had no capacity for admiration, or joy, or satisfaction. She breathed, but if anyone except tutors and handmaidens were allowed near, they would have seen how nothing but cold moisture escaped her lungs.
At dawn, when the princess awoke, she would be dressed in the finest garments of any woman in Japan. She would let herself be taught how to write gorgeous calligraphy, how to compose profound poetry, how to play melodies on the koto so heart-rending they summoned tears to all who listened.
The melodies and poetry and calligraphy did little for the princess other than pass the time, but they seemed to please others immensely, so she carried on without complaint.
As is human nature, gossip soon spread among the great Clans of Japan about Yukino-hime, who was even more a thing of fantasy than her sister. The boys her age dreamed of courting her, the married men lusted in private, and the peasants sung bawdy songs of her imagined caress.
Soon, the day arrived when she could no longer be called a child, and with it the inevitable, oft-accompanying word of 'marriage'.
The gossip only intensified. All of a sudden, Yukino-hime was more than a mere woman. It was said that stars rose and fell in the swish of her robes. It was said that she could conjure life with the simple touch of her lips. To touch her would be blasphemy, to defile her an eternal curse. The rumours grew all the more out of proportion, and several began to think 'an eternal curse' would be more than worth that moment of ecstasy.
"Did you hear the news? Today, Yukino-hime sprouted wings and flew over the mansion like a bird!"
"Really? I heard she brought a man back from the dead with a single strum of her koto."
"She is the most beautiful, most wonderful, most perfect princess Japan has ever known!"
So the rumours went, and so the excitement grew. All the while, Yukino-hime continued her days unabated, rising and sleeping again, playing and composing. The ice within her chest consumed her being.
The only moment of the year she felt excited for, the only thing she felt anything for, was the arrival of the snow. If she could bring herself to dislike a season, it would be spring, for it chased away her beloved winter. As others retreated to their homes, Yukino-hime sat up a little straighter, awaiting the cold like a wife awaits the return of her samurai.
It was near the day of the princess' birth, in her sixteenth year, when Yukinoshita no Rinshi decided it was time she was wed. The matriarch of the Clan carried herself over to Yukino-hime's chamber with an effortless dignity; her eyes glinted with the hints of a plan.
It was common for Rinshi to play games with the imperial court. She loved to demonstrate her Clan's power, and could do so through more than just the spilling of blood. The subtle symbolism, the language of authority, was one she spoke fluently. But her plans for Yukino-hime's marriage were hardly subtle.
The mother walked in to find the princess sat motionless, in the seiza position. She was watching the snow tumble down from the cloud covered sky, and with such intensity it seemed as if she were trying to summon it towards her.
The princess turned and bowed in acknowledgement of her mother, who saw the paleness of her skin, the loveliness of her black hair, and most of all, the emptiness of her expression. What a perfect daughter she is.
"Yukino-hime," she said, dismissing the ladies in waiting. "I trust you are well?"
"Very well, Kaa-san."
"And your lessons? Are you learning every day?"
"As much as I can. My tutors tell me they have never read such wonderful verses-"
"How charming," Rinshi said, uninterested. She crossed the tatami and sat beside her daughter. "But why do you stare so aimlessly at the snow, hime? Every year it is the same."
"I like the snow, Kaa-san. Is this objectionable to you? If so, I shall correct my behaviour immediately."
The princess' voice was refrained, and matching Rinshi's in its iciness. But she was only saying what her mother wanted to hear. Her feelings for the winter ran far deeper than family. If need be, she would abandon her blood ties as easily as a nightdress.
"It should be more concerning to you what husbands find objectionable."
"Of course. You have been a princess for sixteen turns of the summer. A princess should be wedded sooner rather than later."
"And who am I to be married to?" Yukino-hime asked, for it made no difference to her and she had resolved to obey her parents in every respect.
"Why, whoever loves you the most, princess. Or whoever expresses their love most persuasively." Rinshi smiled. "You may recall how your sister was married…?"
"Yes. A fitting suitor was found for her, a master of the Miura Clan, and he was offered rights to courtship. They exchanged poetry and gifts, met three times after dark and then were married."
"You may also recall the banquet we held to their love."
She nodded. It had been exceptionally drawn out, with much exorbitant laughter and drunkenness. Yukino-hime had watched it all in silence.
"In consideration to how dearly you are regarded, princess, we have decided your marriage should be an event for the whole land."
"The whole land, Kaa-san?"
"We intend to hold a festival, in honour of your radiance. Every man, woman and child in the land shall be invited, to worship you as they so long to do. And on the last day of the festival, at sunset, we will allow those who love you, of which there are a multitude, to profess their feelings."
"Profess their feelings…?"
"Yes. They will be allowed to do so by any means. Any gift, any token, any show of wealth they desire." At the mention of wealth, Rinshi's lip curled upwards. "And the gift that most touches your heart shall decide the man you marry."
"And whose gift do you wish to most touch my heart, Kaa-san?"
"It is your own heart, Yukino-hime. Not even I can influence its whims," she said, without much conviction. And then, after a moment of silence, "But I highly suspect it will be the gift of Hayama Hayato, the heir to the second Clan of the nation. He has already written to us of his affections."
"So I am to accept the Master Hayama's gift and be his wife?"
"If that is your will, I shall certainly not complain. It is true, I think, that a show of love for you is a show of love for our whole family. The more indulgent the show of love, the better. Wouldn't you agree, Yukino-hime?"
The princess cared little for the standing of the Yukinoshita name or the meaningless pomposity of festivals. To choose anyone but Hayama would be punished severely, that much was clear, and what did it matter whom she arbitrarily belonged to?
So the princess agreed to all of her mother's plans and Yukinoshita no Rinshi stood up once more, satisfied. The matriarch of the Yukinoshitas left with a brusqueness in her step. The festival would be held shortly, and there was much preparation to attend to. She wanted it to be a grand wedding, the grandest of all, and for its luxury to live long in the memory. It would be another reason for the Yukinoshita name to survive; another famous piece of their legacy.
The princess returned to her silent vigil, watching the snow, but she was not quite as peaceful as before. Any interruption to her usually impenetrable calm seemed worthy of thorough examination- why was there a tinge annoyance tugging at her side?
Yukino-hime searched herself and realised it must have been that word her mother had used. The word everyone appeared so irritatingly fond of. Love.
She had heard tell of love for as long as she lived. Her tutors in poetry insisted she use it with astonishing regularity. Her future husband would 'love' her, supposedly. The people of Japan loved her even now, supposedly. It was the irritation of a child excluded from an adult's conversation.
For Yukino-hime had never once felt a speck of love. The feeling that made life worthwhile was as foreign to the princess' dulled heart as a far-off island. And so weak was her heartbeat that she could see no future where things were different, nor why that would be preferable.
The frustration ebbed away, leaving the princess with her only companion: the winter. She closed her eyes and listened to its voice, resolute and still.
"Embrace me," the snow seemed to whisper. "Embrace me, my frozen princess."
She smiled, and another ember of humanity died in her chest.
Heralds were sent to all the remote corners of Japan. They spread the word of the festival, of Yukino-hime's impending marriage, and how every man, servants and noblemen alike, would be permitted to offer their hand.
The land was swept up in a frenzy. Yukino-hime took on even greater a level of the divine, for though anyone with half a head could see their proposals would be in vain, they could not resist such notions of the romantic. Many arranged to attend the festival if only to catch a glimpse of her, and confirm for themselves that such a woman could exist.
It became the collective muse of a nation. People boasted of how far they would travel for the festival, how long they'd spent choosing a gift for the princess, how much of their estate they'd offer for her hand. It seemed to many that Yukino-hime must be heaven on earth, and only dutiful for them to try and obtain such splendour.
The date was chosen as the final week of winter, for that was when she had been born, and her name meant 'the beauty beneath the snow'. Yukinoshita no Rinshi decided the site of the festival would be an open plain not far from Kyoto- from there, the Yukinoshita residence on the hill would be visible, like a house mounted atop a cloud.
And Yukino-hime's suitors arrived in their thousands. They arrived in the height of fashion, in the lowest pits of poverty, with wagons loaded to the brim with gifts, and all of them in such a rush of excitement that the air around them, around the plain, seemed to sizzle. There were wood carvers and bamboo cutters, farmers and artisans, samurai and beautiful wives, and none of them were half as beautiful as the princess. The gentle snowfall carried on in earnest.
There were far more than could possibly be accounted for, and that was exactly as the Yukinoshitas had planned. It was an organised chaos, and all of it, every song and rumble of anticipation, was for the princess.
But Yukino-hime didn't so much as blink. On the first day of the festival, she was escorted down from the hill in a ceremonial carriage, so that none of her suitors could see her in the flesh. Her mother had instructed that she spend the whole week behind a screen, and surrounded by guards, for not to see her would be the greatest enchantment of all.
As her carriage approached the festival, and the visitors realised it must be her, the world exploded into a cacophony of shouts and screams.
"Yukino-hime! It's the princess!"
"Oh, how fair she must be-"
"-I think I saw a flash of her through the scree-"
"-her beauty must be so great it blinds all who look at her!"
She tapped her foot on the carriage floor, impatiently.
Her parents, after conferring amongst themselves, decided it would be impossible to fit all of the proposals into a single night and that they should spread them out over the course of three. If even that proved insufficient... well, they could always stay longer. The joyous celebrations seemed to hint that no one would mind.
Now one of Yukino-hime's many attendants was a pretty girl named Yuigahama Yui. She was one of the few servants close to the princess' age, chosen for her warm but respectful demeanour. The Yuigahama family had long served the Yukinoshitas in such personal capacities. Her and the princess were often in each other's company.
Yuigahama would change Yukino-hime's robes, bathe her, help her with lessons if ever help was needed. She was beautiful in her own right, with lovely pink hair that charmed many of the men about the Yukinoshita's mansion. And though she was only a servant, and the princess felt no burning need for friendship, Yuigahama felt it was her duty to provide it wherever she could.
It was plain and obvious to her that Yukino-hime, despite the adoration Japan showered upon her, was as lonely as the moon. So lonely was the princess that she didn't realise her own anguish, and that, more so than any melody drawn from a koto, was a song to make grown men cry.
She too was in the ceremonial carriage when the princess arrived at the festival. She glanced at her mistress, hoping that the adulation of the crowd might spare her some momentary scrap of happiness, but the princess' fair features remained stiff and unmoving.
Yukino-hime noticed her servant's attention, and asked, "Is something the matter?"
"N- nothing, hime" she stammered, for though the servant had only good intentions, Yukino-hime was known to be blunt. "... B- but just listen to how the people cheer your name! It must be music to your ears, hime."
"It sounds nothing like music. There is no rhythm, no tune," she replied.
"But it must please you a little, surely?" The servant hesitated, and then ventured, "This may be the grandest festival Japan has ever seen, and all for you…"
"It is a festival in my honour, but not for me. It is for them. They will lie around and drink and dream of marrying me, as mother wishes, and I shall sit behind my screen, as mother wishes. There is no reason for me to be excited."
At this, Yuigahama felt her heart swell with pity, for she thought it desperately sad the princess would be the only one excluded from her own festival.
The servant's pity only grew once the princess was escorted to the banquet. She was placed at the head of the sprawling mass, so that all in attendance could admire her- only they couldn't. The cloth screen, emblazoned with beatific scenes of winter, hid her beauty from the world. The screen was placed on a raised platform, surrounded by guards who stood stoically, spears in hand.
Throughout the day, Yuigahama brought the princess refreshments, selections from the banquet tables, robes to keep her warm from the chill, and each time found her motionless. She stared straight forward at the blank side of the screen, or otherwise at the clouds, where tiny pellets of white drifted aimlessly to the ground.
The pity overwhelmed her. She interpreted the silence as misery rather than detachment, the lack of reaction as dignity rather than inhumanity. She decided that the princess deserved a moment of freedom before losing what little she had.
By the time the sun began to set, and deep orange torchlight glinted off the snow, the servant had a plan in mind. Upon bringing Yukino-hime her meal for the evening, she leant down to the princess' height. The only light behind the screen were two warosoku, flickering gently.
"Hime… If it pleases you, I could see to it you have a moment to enjoy the festival?"
The princess said nothing, staring at her, and she continued in embarrassment, "O- only if it pleases you, of course. It's just that you seemed so lonely, sat here all day… I thought you might-"
"Mother asked me to remain here. The proposal ceremony will begin soon, and I cannot-"
"Oh, f- forgive me, I am not suggesting you miss the proposals, never, hime… but the festivities will continue long after the men are finished for the night. After dark, you could have a few hours to yourself."
"I fail to see how that would be possible."
"Why, it would be quite simple, if you would allow me." She gestured to her robes, those of a servant, and to those of the princess. "The guards are forbidden from coming behind the screen, and cannot see through it. If you were to leave wearing my clothes, and hide your hair, then no one would notice…"
Yukino-hime was about to dismiss the servant, having no desire to partake in the frivolity, when something caught her eye. A snowflake had landed surreptitiously on Yuigahama's pink hair, as if fated to remind her.
Escaping from the Yukinoshita mansion and its constraints had never occurred to her. Such an attempt would have been in vain anyway, for the family's soldiers would only find her again within the day. On the other hand, she had spent years watching the snow, over and over, like the most lustful of courtiers.
The closest she had ever got to it, to truly being at one with the snow, was standing in the courtyards and gardens. She loved the feeling of her bare feet in the cold. She loved standing in the freezing air, letting the bitter winds curl around her frame. The winter had called to her since her first breath, and she would answer its call for anything.
"… You would be willing to do this?"
Yuigahama nodded. "Yes, hime. You can have the whole night, if that's to your liking. I am to bring you asagohan at first light. Return there with food from the festival, and we will trade places again."
Yukino-hime heard the spectral whisper rebounding in her head once more. Embrace me, my frozen princess.
"… I shall do as such. After the proposals have been heard, I will say that I'm thirsty and ask for a drink before resting for the night. Then, you shall take my place."
"Yes, hime," Yuigahama said, nodding. She smiled as warmly as she could at the princess. "I… I hope you will enjoy the festival as much as your guests."
"Oh, I surely will," the princess replied, but the excitement did not reach her voice, and neither did she smile.
Only once the servant was gone did she allow herself a tiny, upward curve of the lip. Soon, she would be closer to her singular love of her life than ever before: the winter.
As the thought crossed her mind, Yukino-hime's skin turned a shade paler in the candlelight.
The proposals to Yukino-hime began at the very moment dusk faded into night. Once the festival lanterns were the only light in the world, the men formed a great line like the body of a dragon, each of them clutching their poetry and gold and precious stones, hoping the gift would make the princess theirs.
The head of this great, winding line was the princess' raised platform. Every suitor looked at the cloth starry-eyed, envisioning the dream of a woman behind it. They may have been disappointed to see Yukino-hime, the object of their fantasies, looking so bored.
Once everything was ready, an official of the Yukinoshita family took to the platform and raised his hand, asking for silence. The line, despite its enormity, answered him almost immediately. Such was the longing for Yukino-hime's beauty that had enveloped the land.
The official straightened his attire, coughed and unraveled an enormous scroll with freshly inscribed ink. The parchment reached all the way to the ground.
"… The most eminent Yukinoshita Clan, the first Clan of the nation, would like to thank you for coming all this way to celebrate the coming of age of Yukino-hime, the second princess of the nation, and the most beautiful princess who has ever lived or ever will live."
Though no one beyond the first dozen in the line could hear, they all nodded. Yukinoshita no Rinshi and Yukinoshita no Michinaga, decked in layers of expensive clothing, watched haughtily from the side of the platform.
The official coughed once more, his hands trembling a little. "Y- your great hosts have promised that anyone who desired Yukino-hime's hand, as is only natural and expected of the most beautiful princess who ever lived or ever will live, will be allowed to offer it. Tonight, the first night of the festival, we have drunk and toasted to her loveliness; now, the time has come for you to state what lies within your heart."
He beckoned to the first in the line. "If you will, step forward."
There was furious jostling, but before long the first man took to the platform. He wore clothes ragged and torn, and the exposed skin was almost blue from the cold, but his eyes glimmered like the festival lanterns.
"Yukino-hime, let me sa-"
"Ah hem," the official interrupted, shortly. "It is customary to bow before a princess."
"Oh, of course!" The man dropped to his knees, prostrating himself before Yukino-hime's screen.
"For the princess' benefit, state your name, your Clan if you belong to one and from whence you hail."
"My name is Miyahara, oh radiant princess. I hail from Kanagawa. I… I am but a humble potter, of no famous Clan, but my love for you is so-"
"And what is your gift for the princess, Miyahara of Kanagawa?" He interrupted again, his voice settling into a business-like tone.
"… My gift is a poem, of my own composition. I hope it will show you the depth of my feelings."
Yukino-hime listened without hearing the poem- a poorly conceived piece that took no notice of metrical structure. Once the suitor had finished, she opened her mouth and said what she had been told to say.
"Thank you for this wonderful gift, Miyahara of Kanagawa. I shall treasure and take it into my heart's consideration."
The suitor and those within earshot of the princess gasped. Her voice, breathy and regal, was everything and more than they had imagined in their daydreams. A ripple of desire spread down the line, even to those who hadn't heard, and their longing to reach the front grew.
Yukino-hime settled into the tedious cycle of waiting for the official to speak, then receiving the gift, then thanking them for it. The pile of sentimental bribes turned into an insurmountable mountain. The night's darkness became total, and as long as twenty.
"Thank you for this wonderful gift… I shall treasure… take it into my heart…" The words became as automatic as a shrine prayer. The colossal line spat out proposal after proposal and name after name, all of which the princess promptly forgot.
The only name she needed to listen out for was that of the Hayama Clan. Yukino-hime guessed that her parents would wait until the final night of proposals, perhaps the very last one, before calling the Hayama heir to the platform. That way, few would forget how the final suitor, at fate's provocation, had captured her affections.
The night of endless proposals went on and on. Such was its numbing repetitiveness that even Yukinoshita no Rinshi, whose design had brought them here, felt her patience waning. Only the momentous longing for the princess kept the suitors on their feet, and awake, and the hope in their hearts burning.
The servant Yuigahama was locked in anticipation, waiting for the moment when they would enact her plan. At last, the moment arrived. After the full moon had long since arisen, the Yukinoshita official called a halt to the proposals for the night, saying the princess needed rest, and time for her heart to deliberate.
Yukino-hime would do no such thing. She may have been the only person at the festival who wasn't tired at all. In fact, she felt wide awake, invigorated, rejuvenated, for the snow had not stopped falling all night.
The line dispersed itself reluctantly. Many stayed exactly where they were, defiant not to lose their place for the next sunset; others retreated to encampments or camp fires, seeking relief from the ice.
The princess wished the exact opposite. Only when an hour had passed, and at least some of the festival had fallen asleep, could her wish be granted.
The princess calmly shuffled forward and, pulling the cloth aside an inch, whispered to the nearest guard. They sat up startled, having been half asleep. Many of the others already were.
"Wh- what is it, hime?" he said, voice hushed. "Should you not be asleep?"
"I'm afraid I cannot sleep for thirst. My tongue is dry and cracked. Ask my servant to fetch me a drink of water."
He glanced around so nervously. "But it's so late, hime-"
"And I shall not sleep at all lest I have a drink. You would not face my parents having allowed me to collapse, would you?"
The guard shuddered at the thought of facing either Yukinoshita no Michinaga or his fearsome wife, and acceded to her wish. He left the platform and called for Yuigahama, who answered the call as if she had not been expecting it.
The servant shuffled to the platform with a cup of water in her hand, keeping her footsteps as quiet as possible. She ducked behind the cloth, and found Yukino-hime looking as close to excited as she had ever been.
"You still wish to see the festival, yes? You have not changed your mind?"
The princess shook her head. "My resolve remains the same."
"Then take my robes…"
They undressed and redressed. Suddenly, the most beautiful princess who ever lived had pink hair instead of black, and a countenance soft instead of unwavering. Yukino-hime hid her long hair beneath the hood of the servant robes, clutching them tightly to her chest.
"I must thank you for this," she said, but in such a way it could have been insincere.
"I live to serve you, hime," she murmured, admiring the fine stately silks on her person.
Yukino-hime left the platform, as lowly and poor as she had ever looked. The festival lanterns, in spite of their fiery efforts, had failed to turn away the snowflakes when they reached the ground. Beyond the festival boundaries, the moonlight was all that paved the way forward, reflecting off the frozen white ground like a spell.
The guards didn't realise what had happened. Yukino-hime, clad in her servant's clothes, walked away from her family's cage and breathed out.
Outside… I'm outside…
It was freezing, so relentlessly cold that her body was at once engulfed in shivers. But the princess only rejoiced. She felt the urge to throw off everything she wore, bury herself in the winter's matting, let herself be frozen until she could never be removed from it.
So the princess stole away from her own festival. Those who were awake paid no attention to what looked like a servant's girl, escaping into the night, into the cold elation of the winter, of freedom. Soon, the smouldering lanterns of the festival were fading into the distance, and the gloom outside their limits encased her.
She broke into a run. It was not elation that prompted it, but all at once her legs were moving of their own volition.
She ran as she had never run before in sixteen turns of the seasons. The princess fled from the festival, from the Yukinoshitas, from any pervading remnant of humanity, and out into the hills around the plain.
Her eyes flickered shut. Nothing but instinct and the silver shimmer of the moon guided her. The undergrowth grew ever thicker, the trees taller, the hills higher. She soon lost her geta shoes, her robes, and the items trailed behind the naked princess with her footprints in the snow.
At last, the winter was in her embrace.
THE FIRST NIGHT~
Yukino-hime would have kept her eyes closed forever had she been allowed. With each stride, the festival dissolved further and further into the distance, and she was lost to some remote shadow of the winter night, some isolated speck of landscape where no one resided.
Her bare feet carried her as fast as they could. Her running was so swift, so graceful; she glided across the star-dappled snow as if it were water, like a swan across a river, but soon exhaustion tethered her back to the ground.
Once her legs had reached their limit, the princess collapsed. She fell face down into the frost, her naked body a shade of bone white, her veins blue, her weak heart racing. Or racing as much as its feebleness permitted.
With her robes gone, the once perfectly maintained black hair bled out onto the ground, each strand tussled and twisted. Years of careful brushing were lost in an instant. Yukino-hime panted, but the exhaustion was only physical. Not a hint of worry or fear burdened her mind.
She turned her head to the side and rested her cheek on the frozen earth. She listened for the tremour of the season, the seductive murmur of the ice, and so receptive was she to their answers that they echoed as loudly as an earthquake.
All alone, in darkness and solitary whiteness, Yukino-hime was totally at peace.
She lay there until patches of her skin turned even paler. Then, she sat up on her knees. A layer of snow encrusted her hair, which unraveled fully was long enough to cover her chest. The princess looked around and took in her surroundings.
She had collapsed on the bank of a frozen lake. It was quite large, and through the snowfall she could only just make out the other side. Evergreen black pines encircled it like the ranks of an army. The water was kept still by a thick layer of ice.
Not a sound disturbed the quiet of the lake. Yukino-hime listened to it, enjoying the solitude.
It took her a moment to realise that the silence was not limited to the outside world. She glanced downwards at her chest, puzzled. For inside her ribcage, everything had suddenly gone quiet. She noticed it all at once, the same way one might notice the sun had risen.
Yukino-hime's heart had stopped beating. While she lay in the snow, the ice growing over her chest had finally snuffed out the remaining gasps of life. Her heart was frozen solid. Her blood was cold. Her body was dead.
But still the princess lived. She could see and breathe and move her limps, but to all intents and purposes, she was a corpse.
Her whole life, Japan had seen her as the frozen princess, born in the tempestuous throes of a blizzard. Something desirable and yet forever out of reach, like an icicle clinging to the roof of a cavern. To be frozen to death only meant that she was closer to the winter, the only entity which had ever understood her.
Had Yukino-hime ever been alive in the first place, then death would have been the end, as it was for everyone else. But while she had always been living, she had never truly lived. Neither had she loved, or struggled, or grieved, or felt an ache in her heart.
Life and death, to Yukino-hime, were exactly the same.
So the frozen princess rose to her feet, naked as a newborn, and smiled. Having shed many of her mortal ties, Yukino-hime felt she saw the world with a newfound clarity. That the freezing of her heart had laid the path to a higher understanding of things.
But such is the nature of life that the clarity could not last. Fate has never allowed a single person agency over their existence- not even a princess. In that moment, it decided to show her precisely what her frozen heart was missing.
"… You. Spirit of the snow."
The voice surprised her at first. To hear a human being in such a lonely, isolated place, and in the dead of night, was hardly expected.
Yukino-hime turned her head very slowly, and saw a man in rugged garments standing beside her. He held his arms close to his chest in an effort to retain his bodyheat. In his right hand was a fire torch which illuminated them in the gloom. He peered at her with what she imagined was bewilderment, though she could not quite see his face.
They stared at each other for an eternity, the naked princess kneeling in the snow and the man who had discovered her.
When she did not reply, his voice came once more. "Spirit of the snow? Will you not speak?"
The princess' surprise became disappointment. She had been satisfied in her loneliness, and the man's intrusion was not welcome.
"… Hurry along," she said icily, "and leave me to my devices."
With this, she closed her eyes again, hoping that her near meditative state of before would return. But soon, the man spoke a third time.
"My… so you can talk. You sound like flesh and blood, but reason tells me that can't be so…" His gruff voice addressed her directly now. "Should I pray to you, spirit?"
"Why do you name me a spirit?" she said, irritation seeping into her tone.
The man paused. "You are a beautiful woman kneeling naked in the snow. What else could you be?"
Yukino-hime did not dignify this with a response, thinking he must be a simpleton. But the man only took this as further evidence of the contrary.
"Are you an evil spirit?"
"Well? Are you the type who steals a person's soul or guides them back home?"
She sighed scornfully. "It makes little difference."
"Well, it does if I'm to leave this encounter without a soul."
"Alas, I am no spirit. But persist in annoying me and I'll half-wish I was the evil kind."
He blinked. "… You're a person then?"
Yukino-hime went silent one last time, hoping beyond hope that he would leave. Instead, the man took a cautious step closer, coming fully into view.
She perceived him as she might perceive an insect. He had black hair like unruly thistles, repulsively small eyes, and the stench of dead fish from his person told her he must be a fisherman. They were by a lake, after all.
"If you are a person, you're the strangest one I have ever seen. But even now, I can't believe it…"
The princess decided that, if asking him to leave didn't work, then belittling him might.
"You reek of dead fish."
"That I do."
"Your eyes resemble them too."
"… Who would have known snow spirits were so rude?"
She shook her head. "Begone, fisherman, and haunt me no longer."
"Is it not you haunting me, or the lands about this lake? I have lived here many winters, and not once have I seen your kind before."
"At the risk of tedious repetition, I am not a spirit. Nor am I a yuki-onna or a ghoul or a dragon, should that be your next inquiry. Take me for a woman, as that is what I am, and leave."
To call herself a normal 'woman' was not strictly true- the stillness in her chest proved as much- but the princess would feign as much to rid herself of him. But he was stubborn and persistent.
"It must be said, I did not expect this when I left my hearth."
"And why did you leave your hearth, fisherman? What is there to fish in a frozen lake at night?"
"Why, nothing of course. In the warmer seasons the lake teems with life- the catch is plentiful, and leaves enough for a dozen men. In winter, I hunt the few animals that stray this far out, and hope my summer stores outlast the frost." He glanced behind him cautiously. "… A wolf's howl brought me out tonight. Did you not hear it?"
She said nothing, and he continued, "It has woken me the past two nights. Always the same one, always alone. It must be injured, abandoned by its pack. But a wolf is a wolf, and I don't want it staying long."
Yukino-hime noticed the hunting blade at his belt, and realised killing was on his mind. The weapon should have alarmed her, for many a sin has been committed on women in the dark, but she sensed no lust in his voice, nor want of blood. Just curiosity.
"Then chase your wolf, not me."
"How can I, after seeing this vision of the other…" He shook his head in disbelief. "How have you not frozen to death?"
She only glared at him, her blue eyes like chipped sapphires in the torchlight.
The fisherman hesitated for a moment. "… If your word is true, then so be it. You are a woman, but with that high manner of speaking, a lady too. So the truth must be that you have wandered here from the festival- for I have heard they are holding it nearby, squabbling over the princess of some mighty Clan… But this far, and in no one else's company? Did you come here to die?"
He received no response.
"No…? Then where are your clothes?"
All Yukino-hime did was glare at him, as if willing a curse on his descendants. The fisherman exhaled, his breath visible on the cold air, and then held out the torch to the path behind her.
"You have left footprints… so you are a thing of this earth, at least. A woman with some binding to the spirits, but a woman all the same. And I would not sleep easy knowing I left a woman to the winter's mercy."
"It has been kind to me thus far, fisherman."
"But there are dangers in the dark, lady of the snow, and not just wolves. They may not hurt your soul, but your body is real, and they can hurt that."
The fisherman offered her a hand. "I will take you back to the festival. Be this a test of my kindness, I won't fail it."
Yukino-hime snorted. She had no need of a watchful protector, not with the winter sweeping along at her side. In its company, she was empowered, emboldened. She was the frozen princess, at one with her domain; never had that been more true.
But she noticed with an irritated resignation that the moonlight was beginning to fade. She could feel the approaching dawn trembling in each individual snowflake. Those at the festival would soon be awake, and as much as she longed to remain here forever, the princess knew it wasn't to be. Her Clan and her marriage, like the arrival of the sun, was something she could never escape.
She had to return in time to serve asagohan to 'the princess', at which point they would switch places again. And she only vaguely knew the way back to the festival.
The princess rose gracefully to her feet and, ignoring the fisherman's presence, began to trace her footprints backwards. Her black hair followed her like a veil of ink. Snow began to catch underneath her toenails.
It only took her a moment to realise the fisherman was following her. She glared over her shoulder at the orange sphere cast by his torch. He returned her stare, partly determined and partly curious.
"You need not accompany me."
"True enough- I don't need to accompany you. This is my choice."
"If it's lust that drives you-."
"If that was my intention, I wouldn't have waited this long."
"Don't think I haven't noticed you looking, fisherman. "
A small smile appeared at his lip. "I don't deny you are a sight to behold. One doesn't see a woman of your beauty very often… But the snow is rather cold. My knees would freeze over."
She decided that ignoring him would have to do, as dismissing him had failed. The odd pair went quiet. Their footsteps crunched and the torchlight flickered.
As moments turned to minutes, they passed more and more of her discarded robes. Yukino-hime picked up each item, and began to retake the form of a serving girl. The fisherman averted his eyes whenever her womanhood was lit up by the torch fire, though his heart pounded instinctively. He had not seen another person since the landscape froze over.
He coughed. "Those robes… they are expensive. Are you a lady of the court, then?"
Yukino-hime voice was scornful. "You think these robes expensive? They are those of a mere serving girl. Your eyes are not only repulsive but impaired."
He shrugged. "Serving girl, courtier… Whichever is the truth, you live in the court, close to the highest of the nation… What are their names again? The Hayamas?"
"The Hayamas are by no means the highest of the nation. That right is reserved for the Yukinoshita Clan. Truly, solitude has muddled your brain."
The jibes seemed to have no effect. "The last time I checked it was the Hayamas, and the time before that it was the Miuras. Time passes slowly by my lake, lady of the snow, and life continues outside the reaches of the court."
The princess looked over her shoulder at him, incredulous. She wondered how a person could be so ignorant, so oblivious, to the ways of the world.
… But then her incredulity faded. For this was exactly it: he was oblivious of her world, not his own. The life of the court, of the high-born, of the Yukinoshitas. This, a lowly fisherman had no grasp of. His life reached no further than the confines of his frozen lake.
But the same could be said of Yukino-hime. Her own life reached no further than the confines of the palace. Of the Yukinoshitas. Of her impending marriage. It was a life that, in fleeing from tonight, however fleetingly, she had found greater pleasure than ever before. Her heart may have frozen solid, but alone, lying in the snow, she had felt… complete.
What a life it would be to live as this fisherman did, by a lake, the winter at his side.
She felt the urge to ask a question. What is it like, the outside world…? What is it like to be free?
But her pride denied her an answer. She remained quiet; the frozen princess and the fisherman walked on.
Soon, they came to the crest of a hill she half-remembered. From the top, they beheld the festival. The night was losing its grip, wrestling with the dawn for control of the sky. The sight of a hundred encampments in the torchlights, just like the one in the fisherman's hand, was idyllic enough to be an engraver's muse. But to Yukino-hime, it was far from idyllic. It was a prison she had no choice but to return to.
The fisherman's eyes widened. "… My. I heard half the country was coming to the festival, but I thought that was hear-say, not truth… This princess must be fair indeed."
Yukino-hime glanced at him once more, this strange fisherman whom she thought she would never see again, and then began to walk down the hill, leaving him at its crest. She had now fully reassumed the image of her serving girl, waiting behind the screen.
The fisherman watched her go, already searching through his memories for a happening as strange and surreal as this one. "… Farewell, lady of the snow…?"
The princess merely walked on, as silent as her heart.
By the time the sun had risen, the festival was once again teeming with life, with noise, with chatter and excitement. Those who had voiced their feelings to Yukino-hime extolled, waxed lyrical of the dignity of her voice- "Thank you for this wonderful gift… I will treasure and take it into my heart's consideration…"- which only fuelled other's enthusiasm.
"If only the night would come sooner! My love for the princess simply cannot wait-"
"Was she really so enchantin-"
"And so modest too! Men threw their life-savings at her feet, and she praised them all the same…"
Yukino-hime had quickly retaken her place behind the screen from the serving girl, Yuigahama. Just as she did, the princess had looked back at the sparkling frost, a subtle longing in her eyes, and the serving girl had noticed.
"I… I hope you enjoyed your time, hime?"
Embrace me, my frozen princess…
"… Could this feat be repeated, the coming eve?"
That was all the answer Yuigahama Yui needed. She smiled, and agreed to repeat their deception. If the princess could be permitted but a jot of happiness, she was happy to do whatever she could. She served asagohan to Yukino-hime, once again clad in her exuberant robes, the finest silks and fabrics in all of Japan, with a smile on her face.
But the excitement in the air, scarcely satiated by the previous night, reached a new peak at the coming of noon. For this was when the Hayamas, the second highest Clan of the nation, arrived at the festival in Yukino-hime's honour.
At first, they were but a speck emerging from beneath the horizon, far off in the distance. They could have been isolated stragglers whose journey had been harsh, late to the celebrations. But then the specks became an enormous caravan, a grand procession, with finely bred horses, magnificent carriages, opulent and colourful decorations, and it became clear that this was no means a 'late' arrival. This was intentional. They wished to make an impression, and what an impression they made.
Everyone stopped, looked, pointed, gasped. Few had ever seen such wealth or power, hailing from this family of Japan's northernmost region. Only the Yukinoshitas, their hosts themselves, could claim to exceed the Hayamas in their bounteous fortune, the enormous net of their influence.
And attracting the most attention of all, riding at the front of the procession atop a horse as pale as the snowflakes crushed beneath its hooves, was the heir to the Clan. Hayama Hayato. He rode his mare effortlessly and wore clothes fit for an emperor, which flattered his handsome features, his blonde hair and blueish eyes.
Yet despite the power and dignity of his appearance, that which he exuded most was warmth. As the Hayamas' caravan rode into the festival, and the commoners looked his way, he would offer simple but refined smiles, perhaps even wave, effortlessly endearing himself to the commoners.
"Look at him, the heir to the Hayama Clan! He could be a prince-"
"How kind he seems! And how good-looking too-"
"He has come for Yukino-hime! He wishes to offer her his hand!"
From the head of the day's banquet, Yukinoshita no Michinaga and no Rinshi watched with narrowed eyes. The Hayama Clan were their nearest rival; they had anticipated the lateness and extravagance of their arrival, but had agreed to permit it, for if all went as planned, their second princess and the Hayama heir would be married on the last morning of the festival. And this was an arrangement which suited them both.
The serving girl, Yuigahama, peered around the princess' screen, gasping in awe and amazement like all the rest. "My… The great Clans are so powerful! And the Hayama heir…" She looked back at Yukino-hime, beaming. "They are saying he has come for you, hime! Surely this pleases you?"
"He is to be my husband," Yukino-hime intoned, limply.
The serving girl's eyes widened. "Is that so? How wonderful!"
The princess felt no need to peek around the screen, to catch a glimpse of the man she was to wed. He did not concern her. She knew the rumours spreading around the festival of his warmth and kindness, so unlike one of the aristocracy, would prove to be false. A facade. Something that would bend at the slightest pressure, like the blade of a poorly crafted katana.
The only thought which crossed her mind was of the night to come, when she would once again fly free through the winter night, glide across the blankets of white coating the earth, and all the pretensions of the festival, of her life as Yukino-hime, would be forgotten. She would no longer be Yukino-hime, of Japan. She would be the lady of the snow.
And so she wiled away the dull hours behind her screen, at the head of the banquet, served food and drink by her serving girl, listening absently to the ribaldry on the tables below. The sun was hidden behind a mask of grey clouds, so the snow did not melt. Rather, it deepened as evening came, falling once again from this grey mask.
At dusk, the proposals resumed. The great line of bachelors, snaking up to Yukino-hime's screen, was reformed, with the heads of the Yukinoshita Clan observing to the side. Only this time, on the second night of the festival, they did not watch alone. They were joined by the heads of the Hayama Clan too.
The Hayama heir did not join the great line. He sat with the elders of his family, drinking sake and pecking at shrimp with the air of a sacred ritual. It was just as Yukino-hime suspected; her prospective husband would only propose on the third and final night of the festival. Perhaps he would be the very last to take the stage. It would not surprise her.
She wondered how often his eyes moved to her screen, to the silhouette of her outline through the bamboo frame. She wondered if he cared that they'd never laid eyes on each other, or if he was as indifferent as she was, only fulfilling the wishes of her Clan.
Yukino-hime closed her eyes, and whispered to the winter in her mind. Only a little longer now, till I'm in your arms again…
"I am Master Sizuki, of Wakayama. I bring you this pearl, which my great-grandfather brought back from his time as a ship's hand, and which has remained in our possession ever since…"
"Thank you for this wonderful gift, Master Sizuki. I will treasure and take it into my heart's consideration…"
THE SECOND NIGHT~
My frozen princess, my daughter… I see you have returned…
The winter's call, its song, could be heard by all those who cared to listen, a melody in every fleck of snow, in every rush of night wind. But half way through the second night, when the proposals were over, and most of the festival were sleep, and Yukino-hime and Yuigahama Yui had switched places again, only the princess could hear it. This enchanting song of the season.
She sang it back, its rhythms and intricacies reverberating in her frozen heart, her blue blood, as she ran up the hill, leaving footprints in the snow behind. Yes, I have returned… We can embrace each other once more…
And embrace they did. The frozen princess breathed in the icy air, pulled it into her lungs, into every fibre of her being. She fell and rolled through the snow, letting it envelop her skin. She disturbed the branches of trees, so that the frost which covered them fluttered onto her scalp, covering her hair instead. She danced with the snowflakes, with the moonlight, and they danced with her in return, for they were connected, the winter and the frozen princess, like strands of rope bound together.
Their dance carried the princess back towards the frozen lake, though she did not notice. For fate was not done with Yukino-hime just yet. It still had things to teach her. About life. About love.
She buried her pale slender body, freed of its human clothing, in a snowdrift near the bank of the lank, and tuned her ears to the throbbing of the frozen earth. She paid no attention, no heed, to her surroundings.
And what a mistake this was. Yukino-hime did notice the wolf until it was almost on top of her.
The wolf was weak and weary. Its dark grey fur, at home in the darkness of the night, stark against the whiteness, was matted and thin. Through the pelt, one could see the jutting of ribs, the way its flesh clung to the bone like leeches, as if sucking at the sustenance of its own body. And it was hungry. Desperately, desperately hungry.
The animal had been abandoned by its pack. A great blizzard had struck while the pack was hunting, and attempting to return to their cave, this lone wolf had injured itself, and fallen behind. The injury had healed, but the pack had moved on. It returned to the cave and found it empty, the scent of fellow wolves fading. Starving for food, it had arrived at the lake two sunsets ago. It would die soon, if it didn't eat.
The wolf did not smell Yukino-hime, for the princess had no scent. It did not hear Yukino-hime either. But it saw her, lying there in the snow-drift, as it had stalked the banks of the frozen lake, slobbering, salivating, lonely. It sensed that the princess was no normal prey. No normal human. But the hunger in its belly, that callous and violent drumbeat, insisted it attack. Insisted it survive.
The wolf growled. It lumbered forward. It bared its teeth, its tapered fangs, and the drumbeat of its hunger became a crescendo, a bloody symphony.
It was the panting of the beast which alerted Yukino-hime to its presence. She turned over in the snow-drift, and there it was, looming over her. A strand of the wolf's drool landed on her arm.
She looked at it in vague surprise, but without much alarm. The princess knew her life was in imminent danger, but she did not scream, nor move at all, in the gaze of the starving predator. Her passivity was that of a woman who knew life and death, to her, were not truly life and death. Her heart had already ceased to beat. The wolf could only hurt her body; the lifeless vessel of humanity which reined her to the mortal world.
She did not know what would come afterwards, if this wolf preyed upon her, tore the cold flesh from her lithe, feminine frame, left her a skeleton in the snow. But she knew the winter would protect her. She was the frozen princess. Perhaps she would simply float away on the wind, or dissolve into the snowdrift, her body's grave.
The wolf did not deny its hunger. It bent down, and bit into Yukino-hime's arm.
Blood splashed onto the snow.
But it was not the blue blood of the princess. It was the scarlet blood of the wolf.
A hunting knife had been sunk into its neck. The wolf recoiled in shock, and howled in agony. But it was weak and weary. It had little strength to struggle. It released Yukino-hime from its jaws. And the knife had cut deep. Soon, it was twisted. Twisted further. More blood spilled onto the snowdrift, onto the princess below. The wolf sank down. The life was already fading from the beast's eyes. The fisherman stood over it. He breathed deeply, adrenaline coursing through his veins.
He withdrew the hunting knife, then buried it again into the beast's throat, ensuring the deed was done. The wolf died still hungry.
The fisherman continued to exhale, his breath freezing as soon as it emerged. He had heard the wolf's howl for a third night running, and left his cabin by the lake in hopes of killing it. Those hopes had been realised; they should have been realised the previous night, but one of the strangest encounters of his life had intervened.
He had seen paw prints of the beast in the snow and tracked them, quietly, stealthily. Now, removing his bloodied knife from the throat of the beast, wiping its excesses on the crystal powder, he dashed to Yukino-hime's side. He knelt down; the bite marks in her arm, the punctures of her skin, were deep. She bled, but far too lightly, and the colour was blue, visible even in the darkness.
"Lady of the snow," the fisherman rasped. "Are you alright?"
The princess glanced at her arm, the pain tangible, but dulled, as if it was inflicted upon her in a past life. The reek of dead fish once again pervaded her nostrils, as much a perversion to her of the winter night, its wondrous lack of scent, as the blood dirtying the snowdrift.
"… Less so, for your presence."
His grotesque eyes widened. "The wolf would have mauled you to death!"
The fisherman had not forgotten a word, a moment, of their encounter last night. He recalled how she had lain in the snow, naked, and felt not a jot of the icy chill. He recalled how she had walked back to the festival in the same state. A woman with some binding to the spirits, but a woman all the same.
"… I see you haunt me still, lady of the snow."
"It is you who haunt me, fisherman."
The fisherman shook his head, not pretending to understand her fully, what she spoke of, how she could possibly be living. He searched around them for a piece of clothing, saw her neglected robe some ten paces away, and returned with it, wrapping the princess inside it. She tried to resist, but her body had no strength left.
"You cannot return to the festival like this, lady of the snow… I will take you to my cabin."
Yukino-hime glared at him, but she could not resist. And to do so, regain some of her strength, would be the only way she might return to the festival by sunrise. So she relented, went limp in his red-hot human arms, and allowed him to carry her.
Unaware of it, the lowest of the land cradled the highest in his grasp. He gasped at the absence of body heat; she was as cold in his hands as the snowballs he had thrown in his youth. Slowly, half bewildered and half enchanted, the fisherman began to carry her back to his hearth.
The ice of the frozen lake was several feet deep, and solid as stone. One could walk across it without danger, and he chose to do so that night, for his cabin lay on the other side of the lake.
The fisherman's footsteps crunched on the surface of the frozen lake. Yukino-hime's eyes fluttered shut, distracted by the whispers of the ice. It was speaking to her… It spoke of how glad it was, to hold the life of the lake in perfect stillness… How sad it would be when the spring and summer returned, allowing the water to flow once more…
"… Save me…"
Yukino-hime's eyes snapped open.
… There was a voice. A human voice, amidst the whispers of the ice. She could hear it, somewhere underneath the feet of the fisherman as he paced, beneath the surface of the frozen lake… What was a human voice doing there, in those icy depths, where it didn't belong?
The fisherman noticed, the way her eyes snapped open. "What is it, lady of the snow…?"
The princess strained, listening closely for the human voice. … Save me… Save me…
But she heard it only twice more, before the sound faded, the voice died, as the fisherman continued to carry her across the lake. Had she imagined it? Was it a product of the weakness of her body, playing tricks on her mind?
… The frozen princess did not reply, so the fisherman walked on.
Soon, they reached the other side of the lake, stepping off the ice, onto the opposite bank. Here, a great cliff-face stood, standing tall overhead, as imposing as a mountain, but only half as tall. In the warmer seasons, a beatific waterfall cascaded from its peak, down into a pool at the very bottom, which then flowed into the lake itself. In the coldest of seasons, the waterfall was nothing but a pillar of ice, curving and winding to the top.
To the right of this pillar, underneath the cliff-face, was a log-cabin which had stood there for generations. Those generations belonged to the family of the fisherman, who had settled there a dozen upon dozen seasons prior, and remained there ever since. The fisherman's father had taught him everything he knew, and the fisherman intended to teach the same to his son, one day.
Yukino-hime looked at the cabin as they approached. It was far from the palace of the Yukinoshitas, watching over the city of Kyoto.
Inside the cabin, there was only one room. At the centre lay the fisherman's irori, his sunken hearth, which was burning itself out, reduced to but a few choking, wheezing sparks. Two beds lay on either side of the hearth, low to the floor, with animal skins for covering. On the walls hung fishing lines, hunting traps, wires, hooks. Within, the scent which surrounded and overpowered the fisherman was intensified.
The princess wrinkled her nostrils. Amidst the smell of dead fish and the smoky remnants of the irori fire, Yukino-hime could not have been more out of place.
The fisherman carefully lay the frozen princess by the irori, but she used what little strength remained to shrink from the hissing embers.
"… You may be the lady of the snow, but your body is frail-" He began, before being interrupted.
"I need no heat, fisherman. Only the cold."
He opened his mouth to protest, but decided against it. Instead, he tended to the irori, adding fresh wood to the embers, nursing the flickering bursts of orange and yellow back to health and fullness. The task occupied him for awhile; the frozen princess pursed her dark lips, observing him and all his rough, calloused humanity. She was aghast at how her dance had been cut short- her dance with the winter night. Instead, she had to spend time in a warm cabin. With company.
Once the hearth was alive with flame once more, and the firelight leapt and pranced over the wooden walls, the fisherman sat beside her. He reached out, hoping to inspect her injured arm. The princess withdrew, eyes hard, unapproachable.
"I only wish for you to be safe."
"How touching, when I was already-"
"The wolf would have torn you apart. Insult me if you must, but don't deny the truth."
"May I look, at least?"
The princess cast her gaze aside, and showed him her arm. It was still bound in bloodied fabric, as the fisherman had left it, but miraculously the wound, the permutations of punctured skin, were already healing. A line of snowflakes had appeared from thin air, and aligned themselves along the edges of the wound, as if they had been placed there with the care of an ikebana display.
The fisherman stared at the arm in disbelief, and shook his head. "… You are truly not of this world, are you?"
Yukino-hime kept her mouth shut, but she longed for the fisherman's assertion to be wholly correct. But it wasn't. Whether she liked it or not, the frozen princess had only shed some of her mortal ties when her heart ceased to beat. The others persisted. They were patient. They would show themselves soon.
Silence fell in the cabin. The fisherman stayed sat near the princess, watching her, contemplating her, this woman of such extraordinary beauty and nature who had disturbed his winter solitude. Yukino-hime found herself looking around the cabin. Her eyes landed on the second bed.
She noticed how it seemed to be abandoned. She could sense it was cold; that body heat hadn't graced its sheets in many a sunrise. But the musty smells of life hung stubbornly behind, and around it, one could see possessions which did not belong to the fisherman. An old, tattered doll from some forgotten childhood. The ragged clothes of a woman.
"You live alone here, do you not?" The princess heard herself ask.
The fisherman blinked. "… Yes, lady of the snow."
"But you didn't always."
At once, something changed. Where once the cabin had been quiet and calm, lent character only by the irori fire, suddenly the mood became oppressive, heavy, permeated. The fisherman's tongue caught in his mouth. From within his being, his soul, such an explosion of emotion rendered him incapable of speech.
The frozen princess watched, baffled, as the full bewitching spectrum of human feeling filled the air. She felt the need to withdraw, not from the irori this time, but something more hot, chaotic, untamed, than the flames of the hearth.
The fisherman inhaled raggedly. "… No. I didn't always."
He didn't elaborate, and the frozen princess stared at him. She knew not the names of the feelings written over the fisherman's face. She knew not the name of grief, of longing, of regret, of heartache. Of love. She had heard of these things, but only in the way she had heard of famine, or plague, or hunger.
Love and grief had never once penetrated the walls of the Yukinoshita's palace. The walls that enclosed her.
"… I used to live here with… with…" The fisherman closed his eyes, as the words fought to emerge. "… With my sister."
Yukino-hime did not understand. "And she left?" Was her blunt inquiry.
The fisherman almost choked. He stood up, hand gripping at his chest. "… No. Not left… She… She died…"
"When did she die?"
"… This year… when the autumn were falling, just before the lake froze over… She… She drowned…"
"This was many sunrises ago, then?"
The fisherman, still in such pain, looked over at his guest. "… Yes. Why do you ask?"
"And you are still in pain…?"
"… Of course I am still in pain. How could I not…"
But he trailed off, for he could see the expression on the frozen princess' face. Or rather, the lack of expression. For it was clear it was not rudeness which kept her voice cold, and absent of sympathy. It was not resentment. It was ignorance. The memory of the princess' body as he carried her, the iciness of her skin, returned to him.
The fisherman knelt back down beside her. "Lady of the snow… Have you no heart?"
"A heart? Of course I have a heart."
"But can it feel?"
"Why must a heart feel?"
"… I am sorry."
"Sorry? Why are you sorry, fisherman?"
"Because I pity you, lady of the snow."
She bristled. For what right did this lowly fisherman, the lowest of the land, have to pity her? No one had ever pitied her. No one ever should. They should only admire her. Observe her. She was the princess of the Yukinoshitas, but most importantly, she was the daughter of the winter. The frozen princess. It was her who should pity him.
"Tell me, fisherman. Do you enjoy the sting of grief?"
"Do you enjoy loving a dead person?"
The fisherman's hand shot to his chest once more. His whole body shook in agony. "… Do not speak of my sister that way."
"Your sister is dead. I can speak of her however I wish, for my heart is not like yours. Why should I have yours, when all a human heart brings is pain?"
The fisherman bristled back. "I would rather feel pain than nothing at all."
Yukino-hime laughed, sneered. "You are as senseless as you are stupid."
"And you are as cold as you are wretched."
"Wretched? I am not wretched, fisherman."
"Of course you are. There is not one person like you in all of Japan. No one else with a frozen heart. No one else to share in your solitude… You would rather dance with the winter than dance with another. Feel snow between your fingertips than the warmth of another's hand. What sort of life is that, lady of the snow? Life is pain, yes, but it is also love. For a moment of love, I would take a thousand of grief. What you have, lady of the snow, is worse than death."
The fisherman had raised his voice. He spoke from the deepest pits of his heart, which had bled all winter, the hole within it wide and gaping, ever since he lost his sister, his only companion in this world. He had been so alone. He had hated it. Thoughts darker than the darkest of storms had passed his mind. But now, he saw that there was always something worse. Someone who had less.
The frozen princess sneered again, and made to retort, but for some unbeknownst reason her retort was found missing. She knew not what to say. She willed herself to snap, to speak her truth, which had never once troubled her before.
"You are wrong, fisherman," was all she could manage, and her frustration was greater than any she could recall, even greater than waiting behind her screen at the festival. The frozen princess stood up, and though her body resisted, screeching from the weakness in its limbs, the pain that lingered in her arm, she pushed forward and stepped out into the winter night.
Abandoning the warmth of the hearth, of the fisherman's log cabin, was a sweet relief. Here. This was her domain. The frost of the trees, the ice of the lake, the bitter beauty of the world. Wretchedness? How could this be wretchedness? This was a higher life that she walked, not a lower one.
"… Let your path to the festival be clear."
The fisherman's voice came again, and she spun around, all but snarling at him. "For the last time. Leave me be."
The fisherman smiled sadly. "Had I done so tonight, that wolf would have taken you… But I hope you're mistaken, and your heart can feel. I hope you find more in life."
It was as close as Yukino-hime had come to seething. She snarled once more, then strode away, her bare feet digging into the snow, onto the ice of the lake, crossing it, away from the cabin. The night was nearing its end. The first encroachments of morning could be seen against the stars.
… Save me… Save me…
The voice trapped beneath the ice echoed in her eardrums once more, but she ignored it. She did not care that, listening closer, it was the voice of a young woman. A spirit restrained in the lake; that translucent grave, like a window into the realm of the dead.
… Save me… Save me… Please…
"Hime! You are so late!"
The serving girl, Yuigahama, was panicked, and rightly so. Dawn was well underway by the time Yukino-hime finally arrived at the festival. Many were up and about; market stalls selling food and wares, taking the festival as an opportunity, already had customers. Tired morning pleasantries could be heard, exchanged from man to wife, family to friends. And Yuigahama, stuck behind the screen, in the clothes of the princess, had begun to worry her lady would never return.
Yukino-hime didn't react. She shrugged off the serving girl's robes. Yuigahama followed suit, offering the Yukinoshita's ceremonial dress back to its owner.
"I… I serve you in all things, hime, but please… I dare not think what they would do if you went missing-"
"Leave me be," the princess snapped, as if the fisherman were still beside her. "Return in the eve, for the third and final time, and then you will be rid of me."
"Yes, hime!" The serving girl squeaked, and with all smiles from her face gone, she scuttled away.
Yukino-hime breathed in, finished dressing herself, and then sat down on her knees. She went still, as if suspended in time. Her eyes went motionless and unblinking. On the screen before her, the winter scene of which she knew every detail stared right back.
She was meditating. Soothing herself. Pouring cold water over the unexpected frustrations in her chest; something which had never necessitated itself before. She found herself recalling a memory from her childhood, when she had sat on the edge of the roka passages outside her chambers, as the first gust of winter wind lunged over the palace walls.
Once she was calmer, her usual collected self, she thought of her argument with the fisherman. All the illogicality and idiocy of his words became apparent, in addition to the dozens of perfect retorts which had evaded her in the moment.
For a moment of love, I would take a thousand of grief.
What sort of harebrained talk was that? Yukino-hime snorted to herself. A thousand moments of grief for a single moment of love? How could that possibly make sense?
What you have, lady of the snow, is worse than death.
No. What she had was greater than life or death. She had both whenever she desired, and she desired neither of them, for life and death sat not on either side of some insurmountable boundary, but were interchangeable. To walk the earth and to lie in it were both as dull and nondescript as each other. Only she had more. Felt less. Only her.
These thoughts- the answers to all of the frustration the fisherman had wrought- swirled about in her head. They continued to do so, as she sat there behind her screen, until well past noon.
By then, the great sun had risen high enough in the sky to break over the confines of Yukino-hime's screen, reaching into the dim space behind it, illuminating her pale face. She blinked rapidly and averted her gaze from the light. She covered her face with her arms. For the sunlight wasn't merely strong; it was hot.
People all about the festival had noticed. The clouds of today were not quite as grey, not quite as all-encompassing, as yesterday. The only snow to be found was that which already lay on the floor. The bite of the chill had lost some of its ferocity.
And the sun was out. It was shining… the herald of an approaching spring.
Yukino-hime shuffled backwards, out of the sun, back into the dim corners behind the screen. Her frozen heart commanded it.
… There are still many nights of winter to come. Many. I will not have to bid it goodbye just yet. Spring will wait, if it knows what's best. The winter remains. It should remain forever…
The memory of her childhood self, waiting in anticipation of the first winter wind, reared its head. But this time, it was accompanied by a second memory. A less favourable one. She had been sat in the very same spot of the Yukinoshita's palace, staring upwards at the sky.
But her youthful heart had felt something… the slightest knick of feeling… as the first temperate breeze of spring surged over the palace walls.
This knick of feeling… this annual inevitability… Yukino-hime despised and cursed it each year. She prayed that it would never come. But it was a necessary evil, for the winter was the only joy in her existence. She would take a thousand springs for the return of a single winter.
The princess stopped.
For a moment of love, I would take a thousand of grief…
Suddenly, in her head, Yukino-hime was sat where she had been mere hours ago, by the irori fire, with the fisherman. When he had spoken of his dear sister, the pain of her absence, the days which done nothing to dull the ache. She had wondered how that pain could persist; how it could last so long, for so little reason.
But the knick of feeling in her chest when spring arrived; that persisted too.
… A horrible musing entered the frozen princess' mind. One so awful and abominable to her she immediately shuddered.
… What if the winter never came back? What if some year in the future, some dreaded and hateful year, the snow simply ceased to fall? The blizzards never stormed? What if the world was cursed with springs and summers and autumns for the rest of eternity, never to feel the sweet kiss of the cold? What if… the winter died?
The knick of feeling became a tug. A pull. A yank. Yukino-hime's hand rose surreptitiously to her breast, as if for someone to notice would be her ruin.
That would never happen. The winter will always return to me- that is the way of the world. That would never happen.
The frozen princess finally had a name for what she felt when winter changed to spring. She had never realised this was its name; that no matter how different, she could still feel what a lowly fisherman felt.
THE THIRD NIGHT~
"I am Master Naoki, of Hokkaido. I have travelled long and hard to be here, hime… My family have been carpenters, artisans, for many years, and I offer you one of my finest cuttings as a gift."
"Thank you for this wonderful gift, Master Naoki. I will treasure and take it into my heart's consideration…"
The carpenter bowed, laid his gift at the foot of the screen, where hundreds upon hundreds of other gifts of all shapes and description sat like some uncouth, overfed animal. Master Naoki, as a suitor, was no different from all the rest in person. He was neither very handsome nor very ugly, very wealthy nor very poor. To Yukino-hime, he was as plain as uncooked rice.
Except for one thing.
He was the last suitor in line.
In this moment, as a full moon glimmered overhead, on the third and final night of the festival in Yukino-hime's honour, the proposals had been exhausted. The declarations of love laid to rest. The queue, like the great body of a dragon winding up to the princess' screen, had finally been slain.
As Master Naoki retreated back to the crowd, an eerie quiet took hold. Men and women, in drunken stupor or silent respect, all looked around, half in confusion and half in disbelief. Some glanced towards their masters, of the Yukinoshita and Hayama Clans, wondering what would happen next. Was the festival simply over? When would the princess chose her husband?
Yukino-hime remained seated, as she had done for three straight days, for the majority of her luxuriously empty existence. But she wondered not. She knew that the proposals were not, in fact over. There was one more to come, to which all the others had been a mere precursor. A prologue.
At last, Yukinoshita no Michinaga snapped his fingers, and one of his officers, parchment in hand, took to the stage.
"… Men of Japan. The most eminent Yukinoshita Clan, the first Clan of the nation, urge anyone who has not spoken their love to the most beautiful princess who has ever lived or ever will live to speak it now. For they will not get another chance. The wondrous Yukino-hime has been deeply moved by the love expressed to her, and tomorrow morning, she will choose her husband. So step forward now, or forever hold your peace."
Yukino-hime waited for the man who was to be her husband to take to the stage, in this ceremony which had been delayed for as long as humanly possible.
"… I shall step forward."
Everyone in the crowd gasped as the Master Hayama, the heir to his Clan, stood up from his spot. He laid down his rice wine, straightened his stunning finery, and walked to where all the other hundreds of men had walked before. Yukinoshita no Michinaga and Yukinoshita no Rinshi smirked. The elder Hayama nodded approvingly. The crowd erupted.
"The Hayama heir! I told you he wished to propo-"
"-It only makes sense-"
"-He must have been lovestruck as a maid, to wait so long!"
The heir to the Hayama Clan smiled. He heard the whispers and knew his part had been performed exceptionally. When his mother and father informed him he was to marry Yukino-hime, that all had been arranged, he was neither surprised nor disappointed. He had always done what would earn him respect, for there was little else to do. Japan was at peace, so there was no war to fight. His Clan was wealthy, so he was never uncomfortable. A great actor he was, and act he always had.
"… Hime… I am the heir to the Hayama Clan, the second Clan of the nation. When I heard of this festival, that any man of Japan would be permitted to offer you his hand, I balked… Not because I felt it base or improper… Not because of birthright… Simply because of love. For my heart could not abide it. The idea that anyone could love you more than I, could offer you more happiness or respect, more admiration or renown, was beyond my belief. I knew I had no choice but to come here and offer you my hand in marriage, for it has always been my will. Let it be heard by all the good people of Japan and beyond, Yukino-hime: I love you. Truly. Deeply. Eternally."
Truly. Deeply. Eternally.
Behind her screen, the frozen princess lifted her hand to her mouth. Her silhouette could be seen through the fabric. Many noticed, pointed, gushed, assuming that she was moved by this most eloquent and heartfelt declaration.
But in truth, she was struggling to contain her laughter. Her embittered, scathing, cynical laughter.
"Is that so, Master Hayama?" She wished she could say. "Tell me then, would you mourn me if I chose another? Would you mourn me if I died? Would your grief send you half mad with loneliness, with pain, like it would for me, if the snow never fell again?"
The Hayama heir noticed this too, and assumed the same as the commoners. He continued with reassured confidence.
"Others have insisted on offering you a gift, as a token of their affections… I see such gifts as frivolous, for what could be a greater or more boundless gift than love itself? My love transcends any symbol of wealth. Any jewel or gemstone. My love shines brighter than all the gold in China. It is a fire that burns through night and day, through summer and winter, through years and centuries, right here in my chest, forever and always. In this, the coldest of winters, nothing could be more warm or beautiful than my love for you.
"… Nonetheless, for fear of being undone, I will partake in this most frivolous of ceremonies. I shall offer you a gift, beyond the gifts I offer you as the heir to the Hayamas, to that seat of such incredible power, influence, luxury, comfort and joy. I offer you the second most priceless object in my possession, second only to my love."
He gestured to the side, and a pair of servants to his Clan hauled a great wooden chest on to the stage. The Hayama heir nodded to them, who then retreated. Still bowed, he opened the chest and removed the gift within.
"This is a priceless heirloom of the Hayama Clan, one that has been passed down through the generations, father to son, father to son… I can think of no one more deserving of this gift, nor resplendent than yourself, Yukino-hime. I come to you on my hands and knees… Please accept this gift, as you would accept my eternal love and affection…"
The stunned whispers that rippled through the crowd said all of the gift's profligacy. It was an ancient jade brooch, of Chinese crafting. The deep emerald green of the stone was of such purity, such polish, that it seemed almost incandescent. Solid gold had been woven in and around the jadestone in the shape of a butterfly, with rubies dotted along the tips of its wings.
The heir to the Hayama Clan had nothing else to say. He waited in front of the screen for the princess to recognise his proposal, as she had all the others. Yukino-hime steadied herself, the clarity of her voice, and responded:
"Thank you for this wonderful gift, Master Hayama. I will treasure and take it into my heart's consideration."
Their audience swooned. "Still so noble-"
"-It's as if the gift hasn't moved her in the slightest!"
The last and greatest of Yukino-hime's suitors retreated to his family, his sake, satisfied with his performance. His mother and father felt the same, and leant over to offer their congratulations. Yukinoshita no Michinaga and no Rinshi exchanged knowing, satisfied glances; the heir of the Hayama Clan was charming, that was for certain, and the union of their Clans would only strengthen their chokehold on Japan.
Yukino-hime thought not of this.
She did not even think of the winter's embrace, of the dance she was due one last time before the festival ended, before her marriage.
Instead, she thought of a frozen lake.
Of a voice beneath the ice.
Of a fisherman, and the love and grief which was no performance at all.
The serving girl was nervous, switching places with Yukino-hime for the last time; the sting of the princess' harsh words earlier that morning had been sharp, and she dreaded further scolding at midnight, or worse. Still, she had observed the Hayama heir's proposal, and hoped this might have chastened her lady's mood.
She could tell immediately that something had changed. But it had nothing to do with the proposal. Yukino-hime's eyes were far, faraway, and her countenance was absent, instead of cold or slighting. Exchanging their clothes, Yuigahama couldn't withhold her curiosity.
"You seem… different, hime."
"Yes… I watched your future husband's proposal. He seemed beyond perfect."
Yukino-hime did not bother to reply. She ducked out of the screen in her serving girl's clothes. But Yuigahama could not resist saying more. She needed to know if she had been successful in her intent, or if her efforts had been in vain.
"Hime… Are you…" She hesitated.
"… Are you… I… I sincerely hope you have enjoyed these past two nights. I sincerely hope you will enjoy this last night, too… I must confess. When we travelled down here for the palace, I had never seen you look so… unsatisfied. You seemed more lonely than I had ever seen you before. So with this deception, I only hoped to offer you a gift of my own. It may be nothing compared to ancient jade brooches or solid golden signet rings, but nonetheless… I hope you have found some pleasure in it. Some happiness in these nights of freedom."
With this, the serving girl prostrated herself low, still nervous, still fearing she had spoken too long, too much.
The frozen princess' instinct was to turn away, to dismiss her with a curl of the lip, to be proud of her indifference. She prepared herself to do exactly this, and then stride away into the night.
But her tongue acted against her will. It betrayed her.
The serving girl blinked, where she bowed. Had she really heard correctly? "… Pardon me, hime, I… I think I misheard you."
"Thank you, for this gift you have given me. You are correct; it is no ancient jade brooch, nor solid gold signet ring. Rather, in my heart's estimation, it is far greater. These nights have been the finest of my life. So hear me, loud and clear. Thank you."
The serving girl blinked once more, but then a wide smile, wider and brighter than the full moon above their heads, consumed her face. "… You honour me, hime, more than you could ever know."
Yukino-hime struggled to process what had been said; not by Yuigahama, but by herself. Had she really said those things?
She fled her serving girl, her own words and actions, her festival and her future, casting herself out into the grip of the black sky and the white earth. But unlike the last two nights, her legs did not take to running. She did not fling away her robes, sprint up the hill like a madwoman, crazed and lusting. She walked. Her steps were measured and careful.
The song of the winter was louder than ever. Defiant, in the face of the spring sun fanfare earlier that day. The melody was everywhere and anywhere, in the trees, at the crest of the hill, in the stars, in the snow. But Yukino-hime could not find it within herself to dance to its tune. To release herself to its rhythm. She was a spirit restrained.
She couldn't stop thinking about it. She couldn't get it out of her head. The fisherman. His sister. His grief.
Yukino-hime tried again and again to banish the thoughts from her mind, as her human mother would banish a foolish lord from her court. Nothing worked. The ashes, the smoke, of the irori fire. The smell of dead fish. The passions and pains of humanity. They would not evacuate her mind.
For a moment of love, I would take a thousand of grief…
"Leave me be," the princess muttered.
You are as lonely as you are wretched…
"Leave me be," the princess muttered.
"Save me… save me…"
… The bank of the frozen lake. Yukino-hime had reached it.
She glanced downwards, at her geta shoes. They were inches away from the ice, which had blossomed over the lake like a frozen lily all winter. Her feet had carried her here, against her will, just as her tongue had moved against her will when she spoke to the handmaiden.
The princess gripped her arms. She didn't want this. None of it. All that she wanted was the winter, as was familiar, as was reliable. Not this.
But still, she walked on. Onto the frozen lake, crossing it, towards the fisherman's cabin.
As she did, that celestial voice echoed upwards once more. The raspy, thin, silvery voice, scratching on the window into death. The voice vibrated up through her shoes, her feet, all through the body, as loud as the song of the winter.
"Save me… Save me… Please…"
Yukino-hime listened on, as the voice grew louder, this pitiable cry for help, the nearer she came to the fisherman's cabin. When the waterfall was in view, as well as the log cabin, she stopped, just where the voice reached fever-pitch. Where it almost sounded like the fisherman's sister was standing beside her.
"Save me… Onii-chan…"
Nearby, within the log cabin, warming his hands by the irori fire, the fisherman was restless. He would have been asleep, but the disturbances of the wolf, of the princess, and the slim chance she might reappear, had kept him awake. No one had so much as appeared in his life, let alone made an impression on him, in so long.
He half wished he had not snapped at her, though she had snapped at him herself. She was a poor, miserable creature. Beautiful, elegant, but miserable. That was how he saw the lady of the snow. He would apologise to her if he got the chance.
Passing the time, he stood up and peered through a gap in the wooden door, out at the lake. And he gasped, for there she was.
He opened the door and stepped out, wrapped in his furs, in the scent of fish which he could not escape. The princess was clothed, though he still did not know her to be Yukino-hime, the most famous princess of Japan.
Their eyes met. Both had resentments to express, apologies to impart, but neither could say them.
"Lady of the snow," the fisherman said, and then nothing else.
The frozen princess did not sneer, or glower, or jibe. All these things occurred to her, seemed fit for her to do, but none of them came to be. She whispered something under her breath which the fisherman didn't hear.
"… I can't hear you," the fisherman called out.
All of a sudden, the heir to the Hayama's speech had arisen in her mind. All his proclamations, his grand and indulgent confessions, repeated themselves. She looked dead into the fisherman's small and grotesque eyes, into his being.
"… You loved your sister, did you not?"
The fisherman swallowed. "I did."
"How did she die?"
"… I… I told you. She… drowned."
"How did it happen?"
"… I would rather not speak of it."
"Speak of it you must, for it happened, and there is nothing you can do to change that."
The fisherman's pain roared at him, as well as his anger at her bluntness, her ignorance, though he knew in his heart of hearts this was not her fault. So he steeled himself, and spoke:
"… She… My sister… It was one of the very first days of winter… The first layer of snow had only just fallen. The waterfall and the lake had only just frozen over. We… When we were young, we had always played on the ice, and my sister decided to do so again, just like in our childhood… But the ice wasn't thick enough yet. It wasn't strong enough. I was out hunting, when I heard a splash, and screaming… I ran back here, to where you are stood… She… The ice had cracked. She had fallen in. She couldn't find her way back up. She was stuck beneath the surface. When I got to her, it was already… It was already too…"
The fisherman steeled himself; not a day had gone by since his sister's death that the tears hadn't flowed, at least once.
"I… I couldn't even get her out… She sank down, and the ice thickened… I couldn't even bury her…"
Yukino-hime had no name for what she felt when the fisherman spoke. She did not know its name was empathy. Empathy for his grief. For the death which plagued his spirit.
The Hayama heir's speech…
"Tell me, fisherman… How deeply did you love your sister?"
He wiped his eyes. "… I cannot answer that."
"I loved her as she was. I still do. Nothing more, nothing less."
"… Does your love shine brighter than all the gold in China?"
The fisherman shook his head incredulously. "Why do you speak in riddles?"
"Is your love like a fire that never goes out?"
"So is any love."
"Does it burn through night and day, through years and centuries, forever and always?"
The princess closed her eyes. She lifted her fingers. She prayed, and asked the winter, her one true mother, for a favour… A favour for the fisherman, who said things she could not comprehend, but slowly, surely, she was beginning to…
"What are you doing?" The fisherman asked tiredly.
"… Hear me… Let me save her…"
The ice cracked.
It happened out of nothing. The ice, in a clean circle around the frozen princess, folded in on itself. Fell away.
Yukino-hime plunged into the icy black water of the lake.
The fisherman gasped, dashed forward. "Lady of the snow! Are you alright?"
She heard him muffled, submerged in the chilling water, her hair spilling out in all directions like pondweed, her clothes sagging and floating in the water. But she heard another voice much clearer. Now, it was a visceral shriek. A scream. Painful to the ear. The voice of a trapped, desperate soul. Of the fisherman's sister, who had died before her time.
"Save me! Save me, Onii-chan! Anyone! Please!"
"… I'm coming…"
The princess spread her arms like a butterfly and swam downwards, into the dark and inky abyss of the lake, down into the grave. The screams were piercingly loud. Unbearable.
Above, the fisherman dropped to his knees, just where the ice had cracked, searching for a sign of Yukino-hime. Unwanted memories he could never erase: of bubbles rising to the surface of a hole in the lake, of a beloved face disappearing down and down and down. He couldn't bear them.
"Lady of the snow! Come back!"
The princess could not assuage him. Not yet. She had a wish to fulfil. The water was numbingly cold. Anyone but her, the frozen princess, would have gone into shock. To her, it was like a hot spring; refreshing, rejuvenating. She swam right down to the bottom, to the lake-bed, following the voice, until she saw it.
The remains of a woman, pulled down to the depths. Her soul lingered about its lifeless, floating shape. Still, it tried to swim upwards, trying to find the hole in the ice from whence she fell. Still, her voice cried for help, for her brother, her Onii-chan, and it would have cried for all history had the frozen princess not answered the call.
Yukino-hime reached out, wrapped her arms around the corpse, and the voice was soothed. It cried with joy. She was rescued. She would return to the surface. She would be laid to rest.
"… Don't worry… You'll be with your brother again soon."
"Thank you… Thank you…"
Holding the fisherman's sister close, Yukino-hime swam upwards. She was protected. She did not need to breathe. The lost soul swam beside her, stroke for stroke, this ghost of the winter.
When the princess re-emerged onto the ice, the rescue complete, a soul ascended to the heavens, where it had always belonged. And a lonely fisherman wept, for when he saw both the princess and the body of his beloved sister rising to the surface, safe from the clutches of the lake, he dared not believe it.
But it was so. It happened. His wish had been fulfilled.
Yukino-hime rose to her feet, soaked to the bone, not quite smiling, not quite frowning, clueless as to what she was feeling, as the fisherman held the body of his sister, weeping all the while.
"My sister! You brought her back… You brought her back to me…"
The fisherman resolved to bury his sister in the morning, to truly lay her to rest, when he could shovel aside some of the snow. There was a meadow not far from their cabin, to the west of the waterfall, where his family had always buried their loved ones. A stone shrine stood in its perimeter; its melancholy guard. Their mother and father lay there, as did all the mothers and fathers before them. They would rejoice up above, reunited with a daughter who might have been lost forever.
In the mean time, he laid her on the bed she slept in while living, next to all the possessions she had left behind. The fisherman was too overwhelmed to say the exact nature of his feelings. He grieved for her still. Guilt would never fail to brood in his chest for what had happened- for the mere fact he was alive and she was not. But there was resolution too. A sense of contentment… Contentment with the cruelty and kindness, the endless cycle, of life and death.
He knelt next to her, next to the bed, for half the night. Contemplating. Finding sense where there was none.
The whole time, Yukino-hime stood outside the cabin, on the bank of the frozen lake. She did not enter. She did not leave. As the fisherman had carried his sister inside, she had watched, almost followed him in, but decided against it. The moment was too private, too personal, and her presence too intrusive. She dared not.
But if this was true, if she had done everything within her power to help the fisherman, to grant his wish, then surely it was time to leave? Time for her to enjoy the rest of her night, of her last few hours of freedom. She could dance with the winter, one last time, before her impending marriage. She had been selfless; now, it was time to be selfish again.
Yet she did not. She remained by the fisherman's cabin, waiting, until he stepped out once more.
"… Lady of the snow. You are still here." Surprise was written all over his face, apparent in his voice.
"… Yes. I am."
The fisherman was still emotional, still moved by the gesture of kindness, which he felt he did not deserve. So he walked up to the princess and bowed before her, as if he were just another of her suitors.
"You have done me a great service, lady of the snow. Honoured me… I know not what to say, other than thank you. I am forever in your debt, and it is not a debt I can easily repay."
"…" The princess was aghast, for this night had been unlike any other in her life. She was conflicted, unsure of her own actions, her own heart. "… Speak not of debts and gratitude. I have done you a favour because… because I… because I wished to repay you. For the wolf. For your kindness the past two nights. So we are even. Equal. You see?"
Not a word of what she'd said was true. She had cared not when he guided her back to the festival, on the first night. She had cared not when he saved her from the wolf, on the second night. The fisherman knew and remembered this too.
But he continued to thank her regardless, to bow, for she had brought his sister back. For this, Yukino-hime was a goddess in his eyes.
"If you are truly grateful, you will stand," the princess said, in a voice that was almost embarrassed. "Stand, and be done with it."
The fisherman did as she said, though his eyes were still full of awe, of overriding gratitude. There they were again: the red hot embers of his humanity, his grief, his love. Yukino-hime turned to the side, her arms crossed.
"… If you will not allow me to thank you, perhaps you will allow me a question?"
"What do you mean?"
He hesitated, before pursuing what he wished to know. "… Why?"
"Why did you do this for me? What brought about such a change? Only last night, I thought I had never met a person so heartless, so cruel, even… But now I see that I was mistaken. You were never heartless or cruel in the first place. How could you be, to do something so kind?"
"… So I ask why, lady of the snow? Why bring my sister back?"
Her resolve, her way of life for sixteen years, commanded that she leave the fisherman's side, leave his question unanswered, undignified. But she could not find the strength to walk away, to retreat back into herself, like some frightened animal retreats to their winter burrow, unwilling to believe that spring has arrived.
"… What if the winter died?" Yukino-hime blurted out, and then felt a fool, for the confusion in the fisherman's eyes was obvious.
"… How could the winter die? What does that have to do with my sister?"
"… I… I thought to myself… What if the winter simply never came? What if autumn flowed into spring, then spring into summer, then summer to autumn, without snow, any cold, any ice? What if, from sunrise tomorrow, I never saw another winter all my years… I couldn't stand it. That would not be a life worth living."
"… You really love the winter that much?"
"It is everything," she said simply. "My mother. My day. My night… How could a person not love it?"
The fisherman found himself glancing around. His eyes flickered between the suspended waterfall, the ice of the lake, all the composite features of the winter before him. He did not understand the princess' love, just as she had not understood his. What was there in the winter but death and desolation?
"… Strange. For most people in this world, there is no time more miserable than winter. I love the spring, when the flowers bloom again. I love the summer, when the sun shines brightly. I love the autumn, when the leaves dapple the earth. But this?" He gestured to their surroundings. "… How can this be the only thing you love?"
"Because it is beautiful," she said immediately, with complete honest, and the princess was possessed by an urge… An urge to help him, this lowly fisherman, to understand. As no one else had ever tried, nor been permitted to.
"Can't you hear it?" she asked.
"The song… The song of the winter." She too gestured to their surroundings. Her voice was soft and airy.
"… All I hear is… Well… Nothing."
"You're wrong. There is a song. A melody. No one ever hears it, except for me. But there's no reason why you shouldn't, if you try. Listen… Just listen. There is no summer birdsong in all the world which sounds as sweet."
The fisherman strained his ears, listening for the song she spoke of, but heard only silence. "… I'm sorry. I can't hear anything."
"No. You can, but you won't." Yukino-hime stepped towards the fisherman, and it felt like she was watching someone else as she took hold of his arm. "Listen. Really listen…"
The fisherman shivered at her touch- just as he had when he carried her last eve- but obeyed her whims. He closed his eyes, strained his ears all the more, trying to forget the chill of her fingertips against his furs.
And soon enough… he heard it.
His eyes opened wide, for where there had once been nothingness, quiet, a melody had hummed itself into being. All of sudden, as if drawn forth by the princess' touch, he heard the white-capped trees and the shimmering snow all join their voices together. It was a chorus; a sombre but delicate tune. Not quite a funeral dirge. Not quite a lullaby. It was like no song the fisherman had ever heard; this song of the winter.
"Can you hear it?" The frozen princess breathed in. "You can hear it, can't you?"
"… Yes," the fisherman rasped. "I can.
"What does it sound like?"
"… It sounds… sad. Sad and lonely. But also… content."
"Yes. Content…" Yukino-hime let go of the fisherman's arm, and stepped back, but her gaze was soft and tender as it inspected the white, winter treasures she held dear…
She began to sing. Sing this song which, after sixteen years, she could now share with another.
Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving,
But how can they know it's time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming,
I have no thought of time…
The princess' voice was of pitch perfect clarity; almost unreal in its perfection. She sang sweetly, but bitterly too, and as the melody emerged from her lungs her body moved of its own accord, dancing to the tune. The dance was slow, mournful even, but joyous too, and the fisherman merely watched, transfixed.
She continued to dance, but stopped singing again, eyes back on the fisherman. She repeated her question. "You can hear it, can't you?"
"Then dance with me." She reached out her icy hand, inviting him. And she sung on:
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the times goes?
The fisherman swallowed. The hair along his spine stood up as she sang. Goosebumps rushed over his skin. The song was hypnotic, and the voice which brought it to life a soothing spell. He might have fallen asleep to it, this soporific tune, had the sight of her dancing not been so moving. So stirring.
So he took her hand. Their fingers intertwined. The fisherman shivered again from the cold of her touch. The princess bristled from the heat of his. But they looked into each other's eyes, and knew they could hear the same song.
Sad deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving,
Ah, but then you know it's time for them to go,
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving,
I do not count the time…
And so the two of them, the frozen princess and the lonely fisherman, danced. Yukino-hime sang on and on and on. They circled each other, stepping this way and that, the lake and the sleet and the stars their only audience. It was a festival for just the two; one that the princess could finally enjoy.
For who knows where my love goes?
And who knows where the times goes?
The fisherman thought that the world must have spent all of its beauty on her, this lady of the snow, and there was none left for anyone else. No more to go around. Cold? Wretched? Cruel? Where were these qualities now, in the woman he danced with? All he could see was beauty, and kindness, and loneliness… Loneliness which he couldn't abide. Which he longed to take away. Perhaps that would repay but the smallest piece of his debt…
And I am not alone while my love is near me,
I know it will be so until it's time for me to go,
So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again,
I have no fear of time…
Yukino-hime thought that the world was playing tricks on her. That she had forgotten who she was. He was warmer than even his irori fire; than all the torches of the Yukinoshitas festival. She wondered how a person could possibly be so alive? How could he stand it? How could anyone?
For who knows where my love goes?
And who knows where the times goes?
Both of them lost track of time. They danced for hours, But this was no endless night; all the lovely things in life die like mayflies in the spring, while the hateful things cling to life for time immemorial. So dawn intruded, on the night, on their dance. Yukino-hime felt the searing prick of morning sun on the back of her neck. The fisherman felt it too.
Their circling stopped, for both could see the hourglass was running low, but they did not withdraw their hands until the very last proverbial grain of sand fell. Yukino-hime brought her hand back into her chest.
"… I must return to the festival." And I will never come back. I am to be wed.
"… Of course, lady of the snow," the fisherman mumbled. His eyes travelled to the horizon, the clock in the sky, then circled back to the woman before him. "Thank you, once more, for bringing my sister back… You saved not one spirit, but two-"
"You have already thanked me. There is no need."
"And I always will."
The fisherman hesitated, for he could not predict how the lady of the snow would react, if she would even comprehend what he wished to convey. But his feelings of gratitude, of yearning, of disbelief- they raged inside uncontrollably, as a bushfire rages through a forest, leaving splintered ashes in its wake.
So he closed the distance between them, head bowed respectfully. He waited, in case she pulled away, scolded him, sneered. But she didn't. The lady of the snow was still, her eyes wide but far from empty. He breathed out, and then kissed her, lightly, on the cheek.
It was as if he'd kissed a statue, so cold against the pressure of his lips- except that the lady of the snow moved. Instantly, she snapped backwards, flinched, as if he'd struck her. Her hand shot to her cheek.
"… Why have you done this, fisherman?" She hissed.
He realised he had gone too far, and bowed his head again. "I'm sorry, lady of the snow… But I felt it needed to be said. You have my gratitude for as long as I live… just as you have my heart."
"Your heart? What need have I for your heart?" At last, Yukino-hime heard the snaps, the sneers, and saw she had found her voice again. Her voice of sixteen years. "I asked for none of this…"
He apologised again, but the princess was already backing away. The skin where his lips had brushed wasn't just hot- it burned. She had been scorched. It spread from her cheek outwards, everywhere, the burn felt in her blood, her fingers, her arms, her chest. It pained her. And shaking her head, in agony, she retreated. She backed away.
"I'm sorry…" He called out again, but she was already leaving. The frozen princess turned and fled. She ran, glided over the winter snow, as fast as she had done on the first night, but this time she was fleeing back to the festival, to her cage, her prison, for even that unfeeling imprisonment was better than the pain she felt now.
I asked for none of this…
My true mother, the winter… what did I do to deserve this?
The pain, the burning, didn't fade by the time Yukino-hime returned to the festival. It only grew stronger.
Even as she ran, knowing that sunrise was upon the world, that winter was letting loose its dying breaths, that spring was gasping as it emerged from its annual tomb, the princess tried to heal herself. She grabbed fistfuls of snow, flung them over her hair, her limbs, hoping the temperature might spread back through her body. She prayed to the winter, begging it to relieve her of this unbearable heat, this torture.
But the winter was dying. Spring had almost arrived. She received no answer.
Yukino-hime gripped at the fabrics of her dress, wincing, tempted to scream. This pain… it… it hurts so much…
Once she ran down the great hill, re-entered the festival limits, she saw that the largest crowd yet was swelling before the raised platform, before her screen. But the pain was too great; even as she navigated the hundreds of people, ducking under the men and women who had travelled so far, and who at last would learn the princess' husband, Yukino-hime just pressed on. The adrenaline, the pain, was overwhelming.
"Why are we still waiting-"
"-It's dawn, and they said the princess would announce her choice-"
"-It's been three days and nights-"
"-I know the princess will choose me, I just know it!"
The pain… I… I'm burning up… I'm burning…
The first sunbeams of spring plummeted down from the sky; all around, the layers upon layers of snow that covered the earth were beginning to melt. Not fast- it would take many, many days for all of the whiteness to disappear. The sun was not hot enough yet, and the air was still chilly. But all around, a snowflake here and there was melting. Just one or two. One of them, stuck in Yukino-hime's hair, disappeared just as she reached the screen. She shook her head. She felt like she was about to cry.
Atop the platform, where the great lords of the Yukinoshita and Hayama Clan had sat all festival long, nothing had changed. Still they sat, having retaken their seats mere heartbeats ago, pecking delicately at their asagohan, nursing their drinks.
Yukinoshita no Rinshi could see all her designs falling into place. The wedding between her daughter and the Hayama heir was almost upon them. She was not happy, but she was satisfied, for her plans unfurled themselves now, perfectly, immaculately. The heir to the Hayama Clan was poised. And behind the screen, she could see the silhouette of her daughter, and her serving girl arriving to prepare her for the ceremony.
Little did she know, did anyone know, that this was not the case. The silhouette she saw was the serving girl, Yuigahama, who was so consumed with anxiety she might have vomited. The princess had returned later and later each night. This was the latest yet. What if the princess never returned, and they opened the screen to reveal nothing but a lowly servant? She would be executed on the spot!
But just as she started to pray to the gods, Yukino-hime stepped back into the room behind the screen. Or rather, collapsed. She maintained her poise until she was concealed, but then her legs buckled, and she fall, wincing, the agony written all over her face.
Yuigahama did not have the time to be relieved. She squeaked, and just managed to catch the princess before she hit the floor. "Yukino-hime! What's wrong!"
"… I… I'm ill… I'm burning up… Help me…"
The servant girl was horrified. Quickly, she laid her hand on the princess' forehead, expecting her to be as cold and stiff as ever. But instead, she was feverish. Through the lowly robes, the body of the princess was as searingly hot as the inside of a forge.
"You're right… You must have caught a fever while you were out… But there's nothing to be done, hime! The wedding is about to begin!"
And so it was. Yuigahama peered through the screen, and saw that an officer of the Yukinoshita Clan was preparing to take to the stage, and the noise of the crowd was rising.
"No, you're wrong… Fetch a doctor… Fetch someone… I'm in pain… So much pain…"
Yuigahama shook her head, panicked, out of her depth. The princess was not in a fit state for the ceremony, but she feared what would be done to her if anyone discovered her nightly deceptions. So she did what she could: she exchanged as much of their clothes as possible, giving Yukino-hime back her high dresses, though there was no time to make her presentable. She noticed that her own serving garb was wet with moisture; it must have been sweat, from the princess' fever. But she shrugged off the discomfort.
"I'm deeply, deeply sorry, hime… I'll fetch the court doctor as soon as she ceremony is over, but you have to stay strong. Your parents will be furious if anything goes wrong! Just stay strong, for a few minutes more."
"No… I can't… I can't be wed! I don't want this! I don't want any of this!"
"I'm sorry, hime! There's nothing I can do!"
The serving girl bowed low, but abandoned the princess, dashing out from the behind the screen and off the stage, just as the officer cleared his throat to speak. Yukino-hime lifted her arm weakly, the searing, stifling, sweltering pain almost incapacitating her. She could barely sit up straight. Her heart, frozen as it was, felt like it was being besieged, as an enemy fortress is besieged. Flaming arrows were being fired over her defences, setting her insides aflame. And there was nothing she could do.
My mother, the winter… Help me… I'm burning…
But the princess wasn't just burning. It was more than that.
Her ceremonial dress wasn't just wet. It was no fever which left her so weak and helpless. It wasn't sweat that stained her clothes.
Water was beginning to pool around her feet: melted ice.
Yukino-hime, the frozen princess, was melting. Just as snowflakes melt on the first morning of spring, so too was the princess. Her heart had been ignited. She was finally alive. And for a frozen princes, this was a death sentence.
All things must die; Yukino-hime had thought she was above the eternal ruling of the world. She had been showed otherwise.
The princess looked down at herself in horror. The pool of water was spreading. The fabric around her knees was soaked with melted ice. Her fingers were beginning to fade. Her hair was heavy, as if she had just bathed. This… this is death?
"Men and women of Japan!" The officer's voice echoed out loud and clear, silencing the thousand upon thousand strong crowd.
The princess shook her head, agonised. I'm running out of time…
"… Men and woman of Japan. The most eminent Yukinoshita Clan, the first Clan of the nation, invited you here to celebrate your love for Yukino-hime, the most beautiful princess who has ever lived or ever will. You have all been blessed with the opportunity to speak your love, and even offer your hand in marriage. The wondrous Yukino-hime has been deeply moved by the love expressed to her, and now, the morning has come for her to choose her husband. The decision has been made…"
The decision was made for me… I never had a say, all my life…
On the platform, Yukinoshita no Michinaga stood up, taking the stage from his officer. "My wife has spoken to our daughter, Yukino-hime, the most beautiful princess who has ever lived or ever will live. And she has reported to me her choice. It is a fine choice, one I am sure will please all who hear it… Yukino-hime has chosen to wed the heir to the Hayama Clan!"
At once, shouts and screams of excitement, of surprise, of horror, engulfed the air. The crowd, like a pack of dogs, howled their feelings to the sky. Yukino-hime heard it all, and her pain howled back.
She laid her hand on the floor, in the pool of water. Lukewarm. Was this really all she would leave behind? All she had to give?
She prayed. She prayed to her mother, the winter, who was dying as fast as her daughter. Please… Answer my prayer… Take me away from here. Take me away from this life I have been cursed with… Take me to some lonely place, where I can die in peace… Where I can be with what I love, one last time…
Grinning at the excitement of the crowd, Yukinoshita no Michinaga signalled to his servants. A group of four, clad in black, took to action behind him. Yukino-hime watched in desperation as they approached the screen. They were going to pull it away. Draw it aside. Reveal her to the adoring subjects of Japan. To her husband.
The heir to the Hayama Clan had stood up too, waving, smiling, and taken his place beside Yukinoshita no Michinaga. He tipped his head to the great lord; then, he strode over to the screen. Yukino-hime could see his shape. He was extending his hand, preparing for the moment when the screen was removed, when she would get to her feet, offer her hand in return, and the ceremony would commence.
Yukino-hime prayed one last time, with all of her frozen, dying heart. Please, mother… Answer my prayer… Answer my prayer…
And the wish escaped the princess' thoughts. It rose up and up, like an autumn leaf carried on a breeze, all the way to the heavens, where the winter could hear it, who was weak and weary, who was losing her yearly war with the spring…
The winter listened closely to the prayer. She looked down from the heavens, on this farce of the living, the festival and the nation they called Japan. She saw her daughter, the frozen princess, whom she doted on and loved… She saw that she was melting. That she was in pain.
A pity… The winter thought. A pity that my daughter should finally learn of love, only to melt away…
So the winter snapped her fingers. She answered her daughter's prayer. The frozen princess was whisked away as a snowflake, out from behind the screen, away from the festival, away from her hated life. Yukino-hime had prayed to be taken to some lonely place, where she could die in peace. Where she could be with what she loved, one last time…
When the servants pulled away the screen, revealing the princess to the Hayama heir, to the lord and lady of the Yukinoshita Clan, to all the men and woman of Japan, they saw nothing. The crowd went silent. There was no princess to be found.
Just a pool of water on the floor, where Yukino-hime had been.
Yukino-hime rejoiced, as she was whisked away. The snowflake floated on the wind, swift and free. Free as a bird, soaring over the petty humans of this world. She thanked her mother, the winter, over and over again. For her prayers had been answered.
Yes… The princess thought. A quiet, lonely place… A cavern within a mountain, perhaps… A forest in the middle of nowhere… The shore of some forgotten island… That is where I long to be. Where I can melt away, and be content. That is where I am headed.
But she was wrong. Yukino-hime did not realise what she had wished for.
But the winter did. She had asked to be taken to some lonely place, yes. But she had also asked to be with what she loved, one last time. And what she loved the most was not her mother. It was not the winter.
The snowflake floated downwards, out of the sky, back down to the earth. The frozen princess was confused. Where was she going? She almost felt like she recognised this place, but how could that be? This was no mountain cavern. No isolated forest. No forgotten shore… This was… This was…
The frozen lake. The frozen waterfall. The black pines. And right there… a log cabin.
Yukino-hime's eyes widened, as she landed on the snow-covered floor, on the bank of the frozen lake, and her snowflake, her carriage, evaporated into nothingness. She was still in her ceremonial dress. The robes of a princess. She was still melting. But here she was, in the bright light of day, back in the place she had just fled.
How can this be? This isn't what I love the most… It… It can't be…
Yukino-hime looked down at her chest, at her frozen heart, which had given out on the first night of the festival. All the pain she was feeling, all the aching, all the agony, all the fire… Was this… Was this really love?
The frozen princess had no strength left. She fell down on the floor, as the ice of her body continued to melt. The sun of spring was rising higher in the sky. She closed her eyes… Death was almost upon her-
"Lady of the snow! You came back!"
From out of the log cabin, she heard his voice. The fisherman's voice. She blinked, for she did not know if she was happy or not. She had been so angry at him. For their dance. For kissing her. For stealing into her grey and frozen heart. For lending it life and colour and pain. For teaching it something it had never known.
The fisherman dashed to her side. He gasped in horror, in fear. For he saw the water that was spreading over the snow where she lay. He saw that she was melting, right before his eyes. He stooped down and held her, cradling her in his arms. They looked deep into each other's eyes.
"Lady of the snow… I see you haunt me still."
"It… it is you who haunt me," Yukino-hime gasped out.
"What… what are these robes? These are the robes of a princess… And you are… Are you dying, lady of the snow? Surely that cannot be. You can't die, lady of the snow. You can't."
"… I… It is true, fisherman. I am dying. But… but I escaped. The festival. The winter took me away… It brought me back to you."
She laughed bitterly. "Apparently, I am in love with you."
The fisherman trembled as he held her. "You… you love me?"
"It would seem that way… I cannot say if my love burns brighter than all the gold in China. I cannot say if my love is like a fire that never goes out. I cannot say if it burns through night and day, through years and centuries, forever and always. But you heard the song. The song of the winter. No one else has ever heard it. And we danced… So I suppose it's true that I love you. That much I can say."
"… I love you too, lady of the snow…" He choked, tears spilling from his dead-fish eyes, and sang the song back to her. "… For who knows how my love grows? Who knows where the times goes…?"
"Yes… There's no summer birdsong which sounds as sweet."
"You can't die, lady of the snow. I can't watch you die too. Not after everything you've done for me. Not after you brought my sister back."
The princess reached up with the last of her strength, and laid her melting fingers on his calloused cheek. "… I may be dying, but this is not the end… Hear this vow. For as long as spring chases away the winter, I will return to you. Whether its sunrise tomorrow or in a thousand years time, I will return to you. Just remember that. I will always return to you."
He kissed her, and she melted away completely. She left behind only her ceremonial dress, soaked with the life that had dissolved in his arms and the tears he was shedding for her. His love, his princess, his lady of the snow.
The fisherman could do nothing but cry, for he had never loved anything as he loved Yukino-hime, not even his sister, and for her to die in honour of those feelings was more than he could bear.
Spring was coming, as it always will, and some time, some winter soon, the snow would return with his princess in tow.
Until then, the fisherman would wait. For his princess. For love.
AN: Some of you may remember the original version of the story, published under the same title. Originally, the Tale of the Frozen Princess had a modern narrative to go along with it, where Hachiman (aka the descendant of the fisherman) would eventually be reunited with the same frozen princess from the fairytale, but in the 21st century.
The original reason I discontinued that story was because I didn't like the way I executed the modern narrative. I honestly have no idea how I'd write that, on a second attempt. But I found myself re-reading the fairytale sections, and really liked them, so I thought I'd finish the fairytale and publish it. It's a fairly simple story, but I've always loved fairytales/folkstories, so it was a fun write! Key influences for this were the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter and it's superb Ghibli adaptation, the excellent manga Shirahime-Syo, legends of yuki-onnas and other fairytales such as Beauty and the Beast and The Snow Queen. The song I used in this was the classic folk song Who Knows Where the Time Goes, in particular the Eva Cassidy version.
Not much else to say. Was this all an elaborate way for me to procrastinate writing Pink and Blue's ending? Absolutely. I know exactly what I'm going to write for that story, but in many ways I find the lack of spontaneity makes writing harder, sometimes. Anyway, hope you enjoyed the Tale of the Frozen Princess! I'm back at uni now, so although I hope to keep up the same level of activity, I probs won't be churning out 10 thousand word updates in the same way.