The hall extended itself for a mile at least, winding and turning in ways Irene never deigned to explore. Her heels clicked and resonated off the cream walls and dimly lit chandeliers. The maid, who scampered behind Irene, pulled her shawl closer to her. Irene’s gait slowed when she reached the warmth of the library. The fire’s flare receded, flinching from Irene’s frost. Crystalline designs bit themselves into the walls. They wouldn’t damage the expensive detailing or the delicate bindings of obscure titles. Any streak of destruction was long forced out of Irene.
“You are dismissed,” Irene curled herself onto the reading chair next to the fireplace. The fire remained lit but fluttered in terror of being extinguished. It withdrew towards the back of the fireplace, leaving just enough light to read.
The maid bowed.
Irene only allowed herself to enjoy outdoor pleasures during the wintertime. The cold temperament of the season suited her well. The neighbors would not bother to ask why frost dug its claws into the woodlands or why the air suddenly grew chilly when their introverted neighbor brushed her fingers across the evergreens. Her parents would never hear from their acquaintances of how their daughter stood starkly out of place in the summer sun or among the budding spring. Irene’s looks matched the winter wonderland with absolute perfection, and nothing less would’ve been expected.
A sigh was allowed to pass through her lips when Irene had entered deeper into the woods. Her exhalation melted with the frozen temperature and lifted unnoticed into the atmosphere. Her parents were arguing again during their rare stays. The aura in the building was cold when Irene was present. With her parents, the air was frigid even compared to the snowy weather outside.
To marry or not to marry, Irene mused. That is the question.
Not her question perhaps, but most certainly the focus of the current debate.
Irene was a Remnant, a prized one. Gifted, the Council murmured the first day she presented in panic, whimpering before the masked members as the scalding frost curling up her forearms like ivy vines. She was untrained then, but they’d polished her until all that was left was control. As a trained Remnant, she was expected to remain perfect, and such perfection was in high demand. She could seal any political or financial alliance her father could possibly want through marriage. Her mother argued that point well. Irene would be well off, comfortable and alone like she was now. Her future husband would never touch her unless Irene was willing to raise her body temperature above its naturally glacial temperature. She doubted that she would ever be willing.
Her father argued the opposite. Send her to court, and let her conquer her own armies. Irene’s Remnant gift elicited fear and curiosity. It would be simple to gain followers and increase the family’s political authority tenfold. Irene found the idea distasteful. It was only marginally better than being displayed in pretty glass walls of marriage.
Another invisible sigh hid itself in the air. Irene turned back towards the estate. They would never miss her, but they would most certainly notice the disappearance of a Remnant’s wintry presence.
“You’re trespassing,” Irene heated her breath just enough to draw wisps of heat, which touched the frozen air and turned white. A part of her grew irritated at the boy for encroaching on her solidary haven; another shivered with dull excitement at meeting a peer. A few pieces of wood helped prop up a canvas in front of him. Only the profile of his face was visible from where she stood. Young and naive for trespassing on her family’s estate and for not recognizing her, she noted. The trail of her deductions escaped her when she caught the bright colors staining his fingers.
He seemed to relax when he finally saw her. “And you aren’t?”
Irene blinked in confusion until she remembered the new maid had insisted Irene wear a cloak out. Irene had accepted the cloak with necessary etiquette, but she’d planned to remove it once she’d reached her destination.
“No,” Irene inhaled sharply in surprise at her deceit as such direct dishonesty marred perfection. “I am part of their staff.”
“I won’t tell,” Irene’s attention still remained on the vivid hues on his fingertips. “If you tell me what that is on your fingers.”
His posture relaxed immediately with a grin. He bounded across the ocean of snow separating and pulled her across the divide.
“It’s paint!” he explained. “My father is a merchant. He bought new colors back from his travels. Is it not lovely?”
Irene blinked in fascination as he directed her to apply the fluid onto the canvas. He babbled, and time aged, but Irene found that she did not mind. The sound of horseshoes on the cobblestones brought her attention back to the present.
“You should go. The Duke and the Duchess will arrive soon.” Irene murmured, ushering the boy to leave.
“We should meet again,” he smiled, brushing the snow off her shoulder.
“Perhaps.” Irene bid him goodbye.
Two years later, the final verdict was marriage. Her future husband was also a Remnant. Her parents expected her to have questions. Her mother even seemed disappointed when Irene simple nodded and exited the study to hide in the forest.
“Tell me about the ocean,” Irene asked the boy while leaning against the elder sycamore.
He mixed the paints to show her the dark blue of the deep ocean and the light blue of the shallow tide-pools. She didn’t dare touch the paints in case they stained her clothes.
“You could quit your job at the estate,” he offered. “We could travel. No roots, no commitments.”
“I don’t think I could,” Irene drew in the snow. White lines on a white canvas.
He left her with the offer and another smile.
A year later, her engagement was set.
Irene waited for the boy in the snow, but he never came again. The cold never bothered her, and she kept her unknown vigil for her friend. Winter storms covered any trace of spilled color from the year before.
A painter arrived during the spring to paint her portrait.
“Do you have a son?” she whispered as she studied the familiar blue eyes.
“A nephew, but he is passed this late winter.”
“The cold took him, my lady.”
Irene remained silent for the remainder of the sitting. The painting was perfect.
Wrapping the thick cloak around her body, Irene hesitated before knocking firmly on the wooden door. The merchant opened the door. The lines around his blue eyes deepened as her lantern flickered in the late spring evening.
“I am in need of some paints and a few canvases.”
He wanted to turn her away, but he recognized her. His son was correct in his tales. The Duke’s daughter was a beautiful Remnant, hidden and restrained in the glass castle surrounded by the winter woods.
“I have old paints from last winter. Leftovers and nothing new.”
Irene nodded. “I’ll take them.”
Their exchange was simple and direct. Neither traded pleasantries. Irene placed a small pouch of coins in his hand. Before he could return her the correct change, she’d already left on her stolen steed. Towards the coast, the man noted.