by China DeSpain
Tatiana crept into the royal garden on quiet feet, her gossamer wings fluttering. The spice apple orchard was in full bloom, the golden trees erupting in magnificent white blossoms. The heady scent of cinnamon rode the air, juicy and rich. The trees stretched on, as far as she could see, and their branches hung low and heavy, ripe with glistening red spice apples. Delicate snowflakes drifted in the air, raining from invisible clouds and coating the spice apples in layers of frost.
The fairy queen’s orchard was off limits to all but her attendants, and it was Tatiana’s duty to select the best fruit for the queen’s table. Queen Elspeth was hosting the Yule Banquet tonight, and all the fey in the court would be in attendance. Clutching her basket tight, Tatiana fluttered up the nearest tree and plucked three luscious spice apples. She did the same at the next tree, and the next after that, until her basket was bursting with ripe fruit.
She rushed her bounty to the royal kitchen, where the brownies were busily preparing the feast. The head brownie took the basket and nodded at Tatiana in approval.
“These are well chosen,” he said. “I will make the queen’s favorite cider wine with them.”
The cider wine was a winter delicacy in the court. It could only be made from the queen’s spice apples, which only grew one month each year. This year’s crop was especially plentiful, and the brownies hoped they might be able to bottle extra cider wine to store in the larder. Perhaps there might finally be some come Beltane. Of course, that was assuming Queen Elspeth allowed any more spice apples to be picked.
Tatiana bowed to the head brownie. “The queen will be pleased. Particularly this year.”
The brownie nodded. “We will do our best.”
This year’s Yule Banquet was special. After decades of imprisonment in the human realm, Prince Alexandre, Queen Elspeth’s eldest son, was finally returning to court. Tatiana had never set eyes on the lost prince, who had become something of a legend. Only the oldest fey had known him, and the stories of his disappearance were varied and wild. Tatiana had heard that the queen had done all in her power to broker her son’s freedom, but even that had not been enough. His newfound freedom was as mysterious as his disappearance.
“What do you think the prince will be like?” asked the brownie.
Tatiana shrugged. She had neither the time nor patience for gossip or friends. “I suppose we’ll find out at the banquet.”
“Yes, but—” the brownie began, but Tatiana cut him off.
“We’re busy and speculation is a waste of time. We should both get back to work.”
She exited the kitchen and scurried to the banquet hall, where other attendants worked. The queen’s table was set; the best cobweb tablecloth rested beneath bluebell bowls, and several sprites were polishing both the silverware and the goblets.
“Lady Tatiana,” one said with a bow. “Does the setting meet with your approval?”
Tatiana cast a critical eye around the room, but found no fault with their work. “It does. I’m going to help the queen dress. Make sure the table is ready in an hour.”
She swept out of the room and through the warren of passages to the queen’s private chamber. She knocked and then waited until the door swung open on its own. “My queen,” she said, entering. “I’ve come to help you prepare for the banquet.”
Elspeth rested on a settee, her black bat wings folded behind her. A crown of briars and rubies rested at her brow, nestled against the horns that grew there. She wore nothing but a shift of pure spidersilk. “Tatiana,” she said. “Yes. Help me choose a gown for tonight’s festivities. I want to make the right impression when I welcome home my son.”
Tatiana drifted to the queen’s wardrobe and began sorting through gowns. After a few moments, she pulled one out. “This one, my queen. It’s perfect.”
Tatiana had garbed the queen in a striking gown of deep vermillion, the same shade as rubies and spilled blood. Elspeth sat at the head of the table, surrounded by the hundreds of members of her court. Only the seat to her right remained empty.
“My court,” she said, and a hush fell over the crowd. Tatiana watched intently from her seat. “I invite you to join me in this evening’s festivities, as we celebrate Yule,” the queen continued. “Of course, tonight’s banquet is special. Please welcome home Prince Alexandre, who has returned to us at last.”
She swept out an arm and a hidden door opened, revealing a tall fairy who shared the queen’s black eyes. He walked stiffly to his chair, and from her place nearby, Tatiana could see the scar that marred his handsome face. He sat, unsmiling, and didn’t utter a word. Rather than prompting him to speak, Elspeth picked up a spoon and began eating, and the rest of the court was forced to follow suit.
Tatiana couldn’t help but stare at the prince. He radiated pain, and it was clear to her that his time in the human world had not been pleasant. Something in her ached to help him, although she wasn’t certain what she might do to ease his discomfort. All the same, she was a royal attendant. If he needed anything from her, she would oblige.
At that moment, the prince looked up and their gazes locked. He stared at her, curiosity sliding across his strong features. Without a word, he stood and walked around to her side of the table. He pulled out her chair and extended his elbow, and flummoxed, Tatiana accepted it. Silently, he led her from the banquet hall, while everyone, including the queen, watched them go.
It wasn’t until he’d led her through a maze of hallways and into an elaborate chamber that he spoke.
“Sit,” he said, gesturing to a plush divan. She sat. “What’s your name, fairy?”
“Tatiana, your highness. I’m a royal attendant.”
“Why were you watching me at the banquet?”
Tatiana lowered her lashes until she was staring at the floor. “My apologies, highness. Of course I’m pleased that you’ve returned, and I admit I was curious about you. But I also sensed…”
She trailed off, and he strode over and lifted her chin with his finger until she was staring into his black eyes. “Sensed what?”
“You seem unhappy. I wished to ease your pain.”
“You are perceptive, Lady Tatiana. My captivity in the human realm was agonizing. I was kept in a suit of iron, forced to live as a statue in a magician’s workshop.”
Tatiana couldn’t suppress her gasp. Iron was poisonous. That he had survived so long was a miracle. “What can I do to help, highness?”
“At the moment, all I require is your company.” He rang a small bell near the door. “And a cask of cider wine.” A brownie appeared almost instantly, proffering a bottle and two goblets. Alexandre dismissed the brownie and then passed Tatiana her drink. He sat in a chair across from her. “Tell me about yourself, Lady Tatiana.”
“What would you like to know?”
It was a complex question. Still, Tatiana told him of her parents and brothers, and the noble line from which they were descended. She talked about serving his mother and described her favorite holidays. He was easy to talk to, and she revealed more than she planned. By the time she finished, they’d polished off the entire bottle of cider wine.
“You’ve made no mention of friends. Or hobbies, interests. Things you enjoy.”
“I have none. It is my duty to serve the royal family. I need nothing more than that.”
He smiled for the first time, and his beauty was stunning, despite the scar. “I find that difficult to believe. We all have dreams and desires, wishes and wants.”
Tatiana blushed. If she felt a stirring of desire, she would never admit it. “If I may ask, how did you escape?”
“It is a long story. A human girl named Maria discovered me and helped free me. I then faced a long journey home. I’ll tell you the tale sometime, but not tonight.”
“Well,” Tatiana said. “I’m pleased you made it home.”
The prince called for more cider wine. “I missed this,” he said, drinking deeply. “In the human realm, they have nothing like it. When I escaped, Maria purchased beverages at a place called Vine and Bean. She gave me something called coffee, and it was bitter and foul. Human food cannot compete with ours.”
He poured more wine for her, and they sipped in thoughtful silence. After a few moments, Tatiana felt compelled to ask the question that weighed on her.
“Your highness, forgive my blunt speech, but why have you brought me here? I’m enjoying both your company and the cider wine, but I don’t understand. We could have stayed for the banquet, or you could have brought anyone else here if you wanted quieter conversation. Why choose me? You don’t know me.”
Alexandre paused for so long that Tatiana was sure he wasn’t going to answer. But at last he spoke. “I find that my time in the human realm has quelled my desire to be part of the court. I have no taste for political intrigue, no interest in scandal or gossip. No desire for the throne. I crave quiet, solitude, and genuine friendship. I sensed that I might find that in you.”
“The way you watched me, with kindness in your eyes. You have a trustworthy face. You seemed to care more about me than about my story.” He flicked a hand toward one wall and a window appeared. It looked out on the royal gardens, where the snow fell endlessly. Tatiana found it lovely, particularly from the warmth of his chamber, where a fire roared in the hearth.
“It is nearly midnight on the longest night of the year,” Alexandre said, watching the snow. “Thank you for spending it with me.”
“It’s been my honor. I may not fully comprehend what you saw in me, but I’m glad to have met you. You are not what I expected.” Tatiana had anticipated a brash and bold prince, a man who would rule by his mother’s side. Quiet, introspective Alexandre was a surprise.
He reached out and took her hand, clasping tight. His palm was large and rough, scarred from his iron prison. When they touched, a peculiar sensation surged through her: the feeling of their magic merging. She’d experienced the merge before, of course, but never this intense. It sent a tingle through her and made her wings stand at attention.
From his startled inhalation, she knew Alexandre felt it too. She watched as he closed his eyes and seem to soak in the merging, reveling in the way it coursed over his skin and through his blood. “I haven’t felt this in so long,” he breathed. “I’ve been alone for so many years. It’s truly pleasant to have made a friend. If I may call you that.”
Tatiana smiled. “I would like that very much. I want us to be friends, your highness.” It was a wonder. She’d never bothered with friends before.
“Please, call me Alexandre. There need not be any formality between us.” He was still holding her hand, the magical current coursing between them.
“In that case, I wish you a happy Yule, Alexandre.”
He smiled, and she noticed that some of the pain and tension had left him. He seemed genuinely relaxed and wonder of wonders, it had something to do with her. Something about her personality and his, about their mingled magic, set them both at ease. She grew warm with the certain knowledge that they would spend many more evenings together, just like this.
He squeezed her fingers. “Happy Yule to you, Lady Tatiana. For the first time in memory, I look forward to the year ahead.”