“KISIN BEY.” The sound of his name drew Kisin’s attention from the window. He was aware he should have been minding the discussions around him, that once he would have. He remained Captain of the Immortal Guard, his sister’s personal army, but where he had once been eager to protect her and prove himself, he was now tired. He no longer rose before the sun to see to his horse or practice his swordplay. He had not wanted to for some time, but this year his bones seemed to grow heavier and demand he stay in bed.
The last of the apples had fallen from the trees in the orchard. The first frost would be soon. This would be his third winter without a heart. He hoped it might be his last.
All the same, he lifted his eyebrows at the servant who had requested his attention, and followed the direction of her hands as she waved toward the lower part of the chamber, where various advisors sat on a cushioned bench near a fire. He wondered if they had been calling to him.
Kisin glanced at them—soldiers, nobles, the wizard and his apprentice—not allowing his gaze to linger on any one of them before looking to his mother and father and sister. Each sat on a backless marble throne, arranged to allow the king and queen to gaze down at their councilors. There was a similar seat of marble, unused, near his sister’s throne. A place for a prince to sit, if he cared to, although not a place for him to rest. A servant had arranged a brazier in the middle of the three of them to ward off the chill. Kisin could feel its heat from where he stood.
His shudder sent ripples through the dark cloak that reached nearly to the floor. He moved with it, feeling the shiver of motion down through the scales of the armor over his tunic. His movements were nearly silent, as practiced as any step of a dance or a swordfight, but they were beginning to weigh him down more than ever. His silver armor did not help. The white fur at his collar seemed so heavy it was nearly too much to take without rest.
His sister watched him, no doubt noting his weariness and unhappy about it. She moved with restless energy, or a chill of her own. Her loose pants, gathered at her ankles, looked warm, as did her slippers, but the robe over her shoulders was thin, likely chosen more for the pretty pink shade than for warmth. She was currently very fond of pink.
Ceren Beygum, daughter of the queen, and his future ruler. At fifteen, she had not yet received a name suited to her, and so her childhood nickname remained. Kisin thought she would do better than he when destiny finally touched her.
He inclined his head to her and watched the flash of temper in her dark eyes, which were the same shade as his, although hers had more of the almond shape of their father’s. They both had the same fall of shining black hair, the same arch to their left eyebrow, and the same tilt to their chin. However, Ceren was soft limbs and colored fabric, where Kisin was muscle and armor, and patience was something she had not yet mastered.
“Your suitor,” she said, abruptly silencing the rest of the voices in the room. She lifted her eyebrow even higher. The curve was delicate, unlike Kisin’s slashing thick brows. All of her was light and graceful, like the gazelle she was named for. But her clenched fists were reminders she was not docile by nature. She would be a fierce queen someday.
Kisin inclined his head yet again. “Shall I accept this one, Dear Sister?” He did not raise his voice or roll his shoulder or lower his eyes from her silent challenge. “If you ask it, I will.”
A murmur rose from the councilors. His father turned toward him.
“I do not ask it, Brother of My Heart,” Ceren enunciated clearly. “But I would appreciate more of a response from you than indifference. I’m sure your suitors would as well.”
“Ceren.” The queen’s voice was even and quiet, but it silenced Ceren. Ceren sat with crossed arms and considered him. She frowned when Kisin stared back without comment.
She knew his situation as well as anyone else in the kingdom who delighted in recounting the story of the Winter Prince. Indifference was all Kisin had to offer, besides a yes or a no, a fact his sister had to acknowledge, if not accept. She hoped to bully the curse away, through force of will if necessary. Even a few months ago that would have made Kisin try to summon a smile. He had always been proud of his sister’s determination. She was close to being the most stubborn person he knew.
The flicker of life in his chest nearly made him stumble. He put a hand on the windowsill. Cold radiated from the stone, seeping through his gloves to his fingertips.
“You aren’t going to ask about this one?” His father spoke, watching Kisin carefully for some sign of interest or curiosity. He would remain disappointed.
“It does not matter. You will find someone suitable.” The shiver that ran through Kisin was violent, but he kept on his feet. His hair reached his shoulders when not tied back, as it was now. He had shaved. But he had not put on the soft cap he wore in the field, which warmed his head and had a mask that could be pulled down to shield his face from dust storms or sleeting ice. There was nothing to keep the wind from caressing his cheeks or turning the tips of his ears blue. His skin was pale as snow now, shining faintly like ice. Sometimes he wondered if his suitors truly thought him handsome or were more fascinated by the oddity of him.
He took his other hand from the hilt of his short sword and wrapped it around his leather belt. The room was quiet, save for the snap of the fires.
“I had hoped…,” the queen began, then stopped. She continued as his mother. “You shaved today.”
Kisin stayed at the window but nodded deeply toward her. Once, his skin had been the same shade as hers—the pale brown of honey and spiced milk. His mother’s skin was lustrous, despite the weariness that clung to her lately. She was still beautiful, although ruling as well as worry for her children had turned a lock of her hair white.
“Someone was sent to do it,” he informed her. He had been surprised this morning to find a servant prepared to shave him and trim his hair, but hadn’t fought it. He should have known then that a suitor would be arriving today. But he hadn’t questioned the servant about it. There seemed no point in arguing, and he could not remember the last time he had given even a passing thought to his appearance. It would have been whenever the last suitor had arrived.
He’d grown a beard when he’d been younger and training with the Guard in the eastern mountains, which were high and desolate. The cold weather had demanded it. But in the palace and in the summer, he shaved. His father had a mustache and pointed beard, in the Eastern fashion. Many of the countries around them preferred their men clean-shaven, although some did not. Kisin had never cared one way or the other, except for the memory of feeling like a hairy beast once, years ago, when he’d returned from six months spent touring the mountains and living among the hardened soldiers there. He’d slipped into the palace straight from the stables without a chance to shave or clean himself, and he’d stunk of sweat and horse and leather. His shoulders had been broader and stronger than they’d been under the weight of armor and fur, but his steps had been quiet and deliberate. He’d felt a man, truly, for the first time, until he’d unexpectedly encountered the wizard’s apprentice.
Razin had carefully closed his mouth, which had fallen open, and he’d glared at Kisin’s beard as if it had given him insult before giving a similar look to Kisin, now a full head taller than him. Then he’d pinched his eyebrows together in either frustration or annoyance, and Kisin had marched past him before Razin could form a single sarcastic word. He had resolved to remain shaved when at the palace from then on, although that vow had become muzzier over time.
That morning, faced with steaming hot water scented with sweet basil, he had sent the servants from the room. He did not want them to know how he flinched when the hot water touched his skin. If they saw the way he had to set his jaw to mask the pain at the trickle of steam, they would run to tell the one who had sent them in the first place.
“You didn’t ask?” His sister’s disapproval called him back from the memory of the burning in his fingers and toes at the touch of the water, even though he’d let it cool before he’d gotten in. “Kaman,” she whispered a moment later, using the name from his boyhood—Arrow. A name better suited to a Guard and prince than the season without life.
“It does not matter who asked.” The king shared his daughter’s incautious temper.
Kisin’s gaze went toward the gathered councilors. He caught Razin’s eyes on him before the apprentice turned to face the king. Razin was deceptively quiet and composed today. He was always so, at least when meeting with the queen and king. Slight, and brown as rosewood, delicate in a filmy robe the color of pomegranate and a loose white tunic shirt, and with curls of black ink stamped into the skin of his fingers and wrists, he stood out among the councilors. Most of them were old, many were wearing their best and not whatever clothes they’d thrown on to come here after finally getting out of bed. Razin’s collarbone was visible, and yet the only sign he was aware of the cold was his proximity to the fire.
Razin favored long-sleeved robes. His sleeves were lumpy with stashed books and scrolls, perhaps a charm or two. Next to him, Tamar, the wizard, looked half-asleep. The old man did not have many years left, and truthfully hadn’t done much of anything for a long time. Razin was apprentice in name only, a courtesy to the wizard who had faithfully served Kisin’s family for decades.
“It will please you to know I ate, as well,” Kisin remarked, studying the fiery orange of the narrow scarf at Razin’s throat. Then he returned his gaze to his family. “Are we all here so you can inform me of this suitor’s arrival?” He didn’t understand their continued silence. “I knew when he sent his messenger ahead. This one came a long way.” Nearly from the vast desert far to the south and east, beyond the border of Pansan, on the other side of the Musan Sea, where Razin’s mother’s people had settled ages ago. A prince, but not a royal one. Kisin thought their people gave titles in terms of chieftains, not princes, but diplomacy had not been his field of study.
In normal circumstances, a mere son of a chieftain would have been a suitable, if not the most advantageous, match for someone of Kisin’s bloodline. His family ruled a country that spanned from the mountains in the southeast to the Black Mountains in the north, with the Wild Sea on one side, and a path to the rich trade routes and the nation of Marcandia on the other. Marcandia stretched from one side of the Black Mountains—strips of dark rising peaks surrounded by hills—to lands far to the west. They considered their kingdom to extend as far as the foothills in the east, the place where the mountain range abruptly ended only to be become a thick, tangled forest. Pansan, the land of Kisin’s ancestors, also claimed this territory, although the Great Forest truly only belonged to the people who lived among the trees. There, countless traders passed between the two countries unmolested and paid the border people to take them through the trees and around the treacherous mountains.
The Black Mountains were also the home of the pari, Sarir. A fact that everyone knew but few mentioned. At least, they would not speak of it if they knew Kisin could hear.
Pansan was vulnerable only from the south, where the land was fertile and green. Their soldiers, including the Immortal Guard, had kept it safe for generations. So had many advantageous marriages with the neighboring kingdoms. In normal circumstances, Kisin’s betrothal would have been set already. The youngest daughter of the khan would have been a fair match for him, and it had been so, back when Kisin had still been known by his childhood nickname of Kaman Bey—Prince Arrow, back when a heart had beat in his chest.
Kisin would be a respectable husband for any ambitious royal, but that was not why they came. Suitors arrived at the Castle of the Roc, at the City of the Summer Gardens, at the capital city in this very palace, wherever the royal family was in residence, because they wanted to see the Winter Prince for themselves. They wanted to know if the stories were true—if Prince Arrow had lost his heart to the powerful pari of the Black Mountains and become Kisin Bey, the Prince-in-Winter.
His skin was as ice, and he avoided touch and had to force himself to be a part of the world, and still they came. They found him beautiful, and he did not understand why. They enjoyed the tale of the young prince and the wicked pari who must have stolen the heart from his chest and left him to freeze.
Kisin would do his duty and marry whom he was told to, but he had nothing to offer anyone looking for his hand. That part of the story was true. He had no heart to give and no desire to pretend.
“Kisin Bey.” One of the councilors spoke, hushed and hesitant. “You do not have to say yes to this one, but you must try to play the game. You must pretend to like them, even when both parties are aware of the fiction. It would not do to cause offense.”
“Have you not been listening to us at all?” Ceren exhaled loudly. Kisin could nearly hear the sound of her gripping the fur rug across her lap to control herself.
The wind whistled through the open arch of the window, making the fires dance and the others in the room shiver.
“I must eventually marry, Dear Brother,” she bit out. “The fact is unavoidable and unpleasant, but a consort must be chosen. It’s a matter of great importance. But it might go considerably smoother if you do not insult every single noble who visits us. Mother and I do not want to end up stuck in the impossible position of trying to appease every person you have offended.”
“Tell me which one I should marry, and I will marry them.” This time Kisin shrugged and ignored the eyes on him. “But I can’t pretend to love them.”
He’d never understand why so many royals needed the pretense of love in their arranged matches. He had always, always, been prepared to do his duty, always known his fate, but uttering false words of love had not been in his nature, even when a heart had beat in his chest.
“It’s all that poetry he used to read.” Someone clever, with eyes the color of cassia, made the comment in a voice just loud enough to be heard.
“The poems were a gift from my betrothed,” Kisin pointed out, although Razin knew that already. Once, Kisin had been promised to the khan’s youngest, and she had sent the book as a present. Kisin had read the poems to know her better before their meeting, just as he had sent her his favorite bow so she could learn about him. He had tried to loan the book of poems to Razin, but Razin had claimed no time for “sweet words about nothing” and sneered about the book every other time it had been mentioned.
Kisin had only wanted him to see, to explain, the words on the pages, the songs about trembling breaths and nerves as wild as a rabbit, and flushed, hot skin.
“Ah.” His father studied Kisin from head to foot. The king was not a soldier, although he could shoot admirably and kept a falcon for hunting. But he did admire poetry. “Do you wish to reinstate your betrothal? The khan released you, but if the princess could be found, perhaps we might—”
“My lotus,” the queen interrupted her consort, gently but firmly. “The princess has not been found, and the khan has sent no other suitors in her place.” She glanced toward one of her councilors, then lifted her chin before addressing Kisin once more. “We would prefer you marry and remain here to lead the Guard and protect your sister’s interests. All have been suitable offers. We waited….” She paused and met Kisin’s eyes. “I had hoped you might choose on your own, or that our most determined Razin would have found a way to help you, by now. But that hasn’t happened, my son, so I must ask you to do this. I’m sorry.”
She was not truly asking, so Kisin lowered his head. The room seemed very still again, startling and quiet, but so it often seemed to Kisin, who had no heart to beat in his ears. “I will do my best to obey, my queen,” he offered softly.
“That is not good enough, Kaman.” The name the world had given him did not often cross his mother’s lips. She preferred his childish nickname, as did one or two others.
Kisin kept his gaze down. “They can have the Winter Prince, whoever you decide. But I don’t need them to pretend they love me. And I cannot love them.”
“This isn’t about your missing heart. The last time a suitor came for you, you didn’t come out of your rooms for more than a day, and that was to visit the barracks on Guard business.” His sister sniffed sharply. “You have to at least talk with them. If I can remember my manners, so can you.”
“Beloved Son.” Again the queen took control of the conversation. “Will you not come away from the window? The evening is cold, and I worry for you.”
Kisin raised his head. He realized his hand had gone back to his sword hilt, but he could not feel his fingers. He flexed them, curiously, then slowly lowered them to his belt. Slivers of ice burrowed through his cloak and tunic and nestled between the small metal plates of his armor.
“We have much to discuss.” His mother used a coaxing tone he had not heard since he was a child. “And it is warmer here with us.”
Kisin took a step from the window to placate her. When he moved, there was no trace of a limp, although his first winter had cost him a toe and forced him to relearn his balance. He thought it made him better. He was more careful now than he had ever been at seventeen.
He managed one more step but then could go no farther. The brazier blazed hot.
He shook his head.
“He is going to provoke an incident.” A different councilor spoke up—Aysel, from Kartbakh, a family long loyal to his own. But the older man’s gaze was hard. “I’m not certain that some of them aren’t coming here to invite insult or imagine it. Others are using this as their chance to try to get closer to the princess, if Her Highness will forgive me.” He barely waited for Ceren to turn to him before he faced Kisin once more. “This is no longer an unfortunate story. This is a liability. As you are, you are drawing trouble to us, and you will continue to draw it until you are settled.”
The king sat up. Ceren made a low, offended noise. Some of the other councilors went still. But the queen said nothing.
“I see.” Kisin acknowledged his wise and worried mother, and not Aysel, right though the man was. He swallowed and felt unimaginably tired as he thought of the evening to come, the smiles and conversation he’d be forced to make. Every suitor asked if it was true, if he could never love them, and to each one he had answered seriously, no, he could not. And yet they continued to come.
He turned back to the window. Atabek, the honored Keeper of the Stables, had two clever children who were fond of tales, and there was currently no greater story to be told and embellished than the noble Prince Arrow’s encounter with the dreaded pari. Despite the growing cold, the children were still outside, beneath the window, reciting the familiar story to another child. Perhaps they had snuck out and now were reluctant to go inside, even with the wind picking up. He caught snatches of their words. “…Many brave warriors went out in search of the prince’s heart, but all of them returned empty-handed, unable to gain entrance to the pari’s mountain palace, which only appears to those Sarir deems worthy.”
Kisin stared down into the courtyard, for once not certain how much of the tale was true. He had sent no soldiers after the pari, nor had he expressed a wish for any of his suitors to do so. But some may have tried, thinking it would gain his favor.
He had no favor to gain. He wished others would finally understand. “You would think feeling nothing would be an advantage in a political match,” he remarked, the air making his eyes sting. The very idea of someone seeking out his heart for him was ludicrous. Getting his heart back was impossible. The pari had no reason to keep it, and none at all to give it to anyone else. Kisin had spent years knowing it was safely out of reach, and that no one would ever find it. “Now you tell me I must give up even that?”
The sound of his own voice surprised him. He rarely spoke in these meetings, letting faster, cleverer men and women do the talking. When he did offer comment, his voice was usually calm, respectful. Not strangely rough and broken.
Kisin pressed his palms hard into the stone of the windowsill until the chill spread up to his elbows and then his shoulders. When it almost reached his chest, he nodded and took a breath. “I will do my duty, as long as I have strength left in me. You need not worry any longer, my queen.”
The silence behind him did not ease at his capitulation, so he turned.