Frost -- fiction by Riley Tao
Updated: Jun 30, 2022
“I told her she did the right thing!” Lord Astrea Frost roared, “I told her that it was okay to cry, that it was normal to feel terrible, that she’d heal—and nothing. Am I doing something wrong? Or is she just like you? Is she numb? What—”
Lady Celeste Frost grabbed Astrea’s arm, halting his frenetic pacing. “Stop shouting and think things through calmly,” she said.
Astrea drew in a shuddering breath. He sagged into Celeste’s waiting arms, and exhaled. “I’m sorry, my love. I just… fear for her. Ever since the assassin, the burning—”
“Fear has its place,” Celeste said, “but you can’t let it control you, okay? We can do this together.” Celeste held Astrea tight and close in their insultingly sunny bedroom.
Winterelle Frost bit his lips as he watched his parents. He wasn’t sure if either of them knew he was there—they were distracted and he was distant.
He crawled down from the third-story window. He’d been monkeying up and down the manor grounds for more than fourteen years now, which was the overwhelming majority of his life. Though others may have balked at the treacherous climb, he navigated the rooftops with familiar ease.
Winterelle hadn’t seen any sign of his sister, Constance, since the assassin had been repelled. Originally, he’d assumed she was simply embroiled in her studies. But even Constance had to eat, and after he’d seen three pristine, untouched meals left to rot outside her door, he’d realized that something was wrong with his sister.
And he would do everything in his power to fix it.
Winterelle shimmied through a convenient skylight and landed in his sister’s room.
The first thing that struck him about the room was the dimness. Though the room was well-kept, it was swathed in darkness. The curtains were drawn, the door was locked, and until he’d come in, the skylight had been shuttered. The only sources of light were the cheerful square of sunbeams he’d brought in with him and a single candle.
The second thing that struck him was Constance. Not literally; she would never hurt him. Still, the scene rocked him like a physical blow. Winterelle took in the sight of his sister—kempt, clean, presentable, yet somehow… broken, staring blankly into the pure white heart of a candle’s flame, two corked vials by her side.
The third thing that struck him was the smell. Burning. A subtle, choking smog filled her room, the reek of blackened, twisted flesh, the aroma of meat on a barbecue, the stench of a funeral pyre. Winterelle instinctively held his breath at one whiff of the terrible, disturbingly palatable scent.
But the worst thing was its source.
As he watched, Constance held the candle to her forearm for a count of ten. Two seconds in, her skin crisped and darkened. Four seconds in, smoke streamed from her underarm, joining the cloying miasma. Eight seconds in, she’d burned a red-black scar the size of a penny into her arm. Ten seconds in—
—and Winterelle knocked the candle from her hands.
It fell to the floor and sputtered out.
For a moment, Constance simply sat there. Then, wearily, she sighed. “Father—”
“I’m not Father,” Winterelle said. He tentatively reached out to touch her shoulder, and felt something rough beneath his palm as he did. Oh. Her entire body was pockmarked with those scars. “It’s me, Con. It’s me.”
Constance turned, and anyone who wasn’t Winterelle would’ve jerked back. She’d marred her face with the candle, too. Oozing welts shifted as she said, “Hey, Elle.”
For a moment, Winterelle had no idea what to say. He settled for, “You burned yourself.”
Constance regarded her younger brother, and Winterelle suddenly felt that he was supposed to be screaming, or begging for her to stop, or reassuring her that he’d help her get through this. But when he reached inside himself, all he felt was a cold, shocked numbness.
“You don’t understand,” Constance finally mumbled.
Winterelle nodded. “I don’t.”
Constance hesitated, then said, “Father already came to see me. After I stopped eating. He tried to make me drink a healing potion, but I wouldn’t let him.” She tilted her head at the bottles. “Overkill, really; a single one could regenerate a limb. Worth a king’s ransom each.”
“I saw Father, too. He’s—”
“Worried about me?” Constance raised an eyebrow, cracking open the blisters on her face. “It’s a little insulting, and a little sad. He doesn’t understand, either, and I don’t think he ever will.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Oh, well…” Constance looked up at the skylight and changed the subject. “When the assassin came, I knew he was here for Father. He had a knife. He’d broken into our home, in the middle of the night. There was no other logical conclusion. He was going to kill Father, and perhaps Mother and you and me as well.
“So I killed him first. I was still awake when I heard the window creak. I took my knife, the one you bought me, enchanted to cut through steel like butter, and killed him before he knew what was happening. Father came in and saw me standing over his body. And he thought he had to help me. So he said that I had no other choice, and that I had to kill him or he would’ve killed me or worse, and that it was okay to feel terrible about it because feeling terrible about it makes us human, makes us different from them, better than them, and that he would be there and that I could cry and be vulnerable and let myself heal—”
“And it was all a lie,” Winterelle finished, “because you didn’t feel bad at all.”
She stared at him. “Yes. I didn’t feel bad at all.”
Winterelle closed his eyes. “Of course not. You’d done the right thing. You were a sheltered nineteen-year-old girl in a room with a hostile, professional assassin. You stood no chance against him in a fair fight. Help wouldn’t arrive in time. So you took the only chance you had, and killed him to save yourself and your family.
“And then Father may as well have told you that because you weren’t bothered by it, because you were convinced that the right thing to do was the right thing to do, that you weren’t human, you weren’t different from them, weren’t better than them.”
Winterelle lowered his head. “I think I understand.”
Constance asked, “Do you really?”
Winterelle opened his eyes. “Not quite. What about the burning?”
“It’s…” Constance struggled for words. “When Father was holding me… I realized that, to the best of my knowledge… I’ve never been ashamed. I’ve never been sad. I’ve never been lovestruck. I’ve never been… happy. I started burning because I just wanted to feel something. Anything. Horror. Fear. Loathing. I’d take it all if it meant that I was human.” Constance stared down at her scarred, ruined arms. “I feel pain, yes. But that’s all. I don’t feel remorse for making my family worry. I don’t feel disgust for having destroyed my appearance. I don’t even feel like I have to stop. And without those feelings, without those regrets, those worries, those invisible rules that Father plays by…” Constance sighed. “I killed a man because I suspected he was dangerous. I guessed correctly. But I won’t always be right. And it’s just… what stops me from looking back one day and realizing I’ve gone so far over the line that I don’t even know where it is anymore?”
Winterelle thought. Then he reached onto the table, where the knife he’d bought his sister laid, and placed it into her hands, hilt-first. From his belt, he withdrew a matching blade.
He picked up the candle from the floor and placed it on Constance’s desk. He took out his impossibly-sharp knife and swung it once; it sheared through the half-melted candle and the three-inch-thick slab of wood with equal ease.
“That was an expensive desk,” Constance said.
Winterelle shrugged. “Father could buy millions of them.”
Then he jammed the candle halves into his ears.
The still-hot wax burned his skin, but, he reminded himself, it was nothing compared to the living agony his sister was going through right now. He brushed the pain aside and turned over the knife.
Then he slashed at his sister’s arm.
It was a clumsy strike; he was untrained in combat, and a child, to boot. Still, it was a surprise attack, and his sister barely jerked back in time.
“Winterelle!” Constance exclaimed, “What do you think you’re doing?”
The wax in his ears choked his sister’s voice to nothing. Calmly, Winterelle said, “You are facing an enemy you cannot talk down.”
Constance backed up, grabbed a curtain rod, and tried to shove her brother away without harming him; with two whips of the enchanted blade, Constance was left holding a stump of metal no longer than a pencil. “You are facing an enemy you cannot subdue.”
Constance shouted, “Guards! Winterelle’s gone mad!” But nobody came.
Winterelle strode towards Constance. “You are facing your enemy alone.”
He surged forwards, knife aimed at Constance’s belly. She met his eyes, shocked, and finally brought her own enchanted knife into play. The twin weapons met with an adamant tone, and the aftershock reverberated through the siblings’ bones. Winterelle tripped; Constance watched him in horror. Standing up unsteadily, Winterelle said, “You are facing an enemy whom it is in your power to kill.”
“Winterelle, whatever you’re playing at, please, stop!” Constance screamed, shaking, “Please, you’re scaring me.” Winterelle, deaf to her cries, lunged forwards. Constance moved to bring her knife down, but moments before it would have severed Winterelle’s hand off, she flinched back.
And so Winterelle stabbed his sister in the gut.
“And yet.” He met his sister’s eyes. “You choose to spare your killer’s life.”
He wrenched the blood-soaked knife from her gut, tears freely falling now, and watched his sister’s lips as she mouthed in shock and confusion and fear, “Why?”
Winterelle knelt by her side and handed her one of the two healing potions. She swallowed it without hesitation. Winterelle was confident that a single potion would be enough to restore her to perfect physical health, but just in case, he made her drink another. As she sat there, panting, Winterelle ripped the impromptu earplugs from his ears—ignoring the sharp flare of pain—and knelt by her side.
“Why?” Constance rasped again.
“Because I’m your brother,” Winterelle said, holding her hand, “and because I’m like you.”
Silence fell. Constance’s wounds began to heal.
After a spell, Constance asked, “What do you mean?”
Winterelle sighed. “I’ve never been happy when my friends came over. I’ve never been sad when my relatives die. And… I’ve never been afraid before.” He clasped his sister’s hands in his and shuddered. “I don’t want you to lose yourself, Constance.”
“You stabbed me.”
“Yeah.” Winterelle looked into her eyes. “You were going to do worse to yourself if I didn’t.”
Constance hesitated, then she whispered, “What if you were wrong?”
“What if I was too far gone? If I didn’t care enough?”
“I wouldn’t want to live in a world where you could kill me,” Winterelle said.
“Ah.” Constance laughed wryly. “That’s the textbook definition of an abusive relationship.”
“And that’s funny?”
“We aren’t good people, you and me, are we?” Constance stood up, and offered her brother a hand. He took it without hesitation and stood.
“Yeah.” He met her eyes unflinchingly. “We aren’t.”
Winterelle felt something in him jerk in pain as he made the admission. And he looked into Constance’s eyes and knew she felt it too.
Constance looked down, and for the first time seemed to realize that she was drenched in her own blood. “Alright. You win. I’ll go reassure Father that I’m still alive.” She ruffled his hair fondly and turned to leave.
Winterelle watched her go, a sad little smile on his face.
Riley Tao is a high-schooler at Harvard-Westlake who wishes their cat would stop finding ways to kill birds and wishes their classmates weren't all cheering the day school was shut down due to COVID-19. They maintain a small personal blog at rileyriles.wordpress.com, and is hoping to find representation for their finished 67,000 word YA fantasy novel, SMART ALEC. This is their first publication.