The Frost Eater – Carol Beth Anderson

“DARLİNG, YOUR CROWN İS CROOKED.” Nora turned to her father. “You’re always telling me it’s not a crown, it’s a headdress.” “When it’s just the two of us, it’s a crown.” His brown eyes twinkled as he pointed to the band of gold around his head. “One day, you’ll wear the real thing.” Nora was only seventeen; she wasn’t ready to think about the day when she’d become an orphan and a queen all at once. “That won’t happen for a long time. Straighten the headdress for me?” He grasped it with both hands, shifting it to the left. It scratched Nora’s forehead, eliciting a wince. “Sorry. Does it feel secure?” “As secure as it gets.” The headdress was crafted of fine silver, with delicate filigree extending high above Nora’s head. She usually loved wearing it. But after weeks on the road, she had pimples from the molded metal that rested on her forehead.

She couldn’t be happier that they were approaching the last stop on their tour. Unseen people began chanting, “Cell-er-in! Cell-er-in!” The open-topped steamcar was having a tough time making it up a steep slope. Beyond the hill lay the town of Tirra, where crowds awaited their king and princess. Nora wished they’d harness a couple of orsas to the car and let the beasts pull it up the hill, but that would ruin the effect of them rolling into town in the most modern vehicle available. Most rural residents had never seen a steamcar. “Almost there!” the driver called over his shoulder. “Thank you.” Nora’s father returned his gaze to her. “Chin up.” Before he could finish his admonishment, Nora did it for him.

“Smile big.” Her father winked. A gust of chilly wind blew Nora’s straight, dark-brown, chin-length hair into her face. She peeled a few strands off her glossed lips and curved her lips into a smile she hoped was sufficiently regal. Windmills rose up on either side of the road as the steamcar puttered to the top of the rise. Chanting people came into view, hundreds of them, lining the road all the way down the hill and into town. Nora and her father waved, and the chants turned into cheers. The rush of support filled Nora’s chest and tugged her mouth into a wider grin. Eight guards riding orsas surrounded the steamcar. Between them, Nora glimpsed a little girl perched on a man’s shoulders, wearing a headdress made of—what was that, corn husks? Whatever the material, it was molded to look like Nora’s.

She blew a kiss to the cheering girl. It didn’t take long to arrive at the bottom of the hill. They drove a few blocks and pulled to a stop in a quaint town square. A wooden stage awaited them, decorated with large, fabric bows in blue and black, Cellerin’s royal colors. A woman who introduced herself as Mayor Ashler showed Nora, her father, and several guards onto the stage. When the crowd calmed, the show began. Nora awarded the town with a Cellerinian flag that had flown at the palace. Then King Ulmin began speaking, and Nora instantly grew bored. It was the same talk her father had given in every town they’d visited, except that somehow it got longer each time. He spoke of The Day, two hundred years earlier, when billions of humans on their planet, Anyari, had died.

Then he looked up to the sky and said, “But we thank God that four hundred thousand people, one in ten thousand, survived. They were your ancestors and mine. And they rebuilt civilization.” Nora had to admit, her dad cut an impressive figure. He was tall, with a broad chest and slim waist. His beard, more silver than brown these days, was perfectly trimmed. Autumn sunlight reflected off the gold of his crown and the silver streaks in his hair as he continued his speech, extolling the nation of Cellerin that had risen from destruction. He praised his grandmother Onna, Cellerin’s first monarch, who’d ended a terrible war. At first, Nora’s father’s speeches had inspired her. Now, three weeks into their tour, she was sick of the stories.

She tried to keep her face pleasant. At least her clothing was thick and warm, protecting her from the late-fall chill. Her blue-and-purple outfit—more of a costume, really—had belonged to her mother. The shirt and pants were crafted of hightech, preday fabric that had been made to last for centuries. It was layered and molded into a structural wonder that hugged Nora’s long legs, curvy hips, and slender torso. A massive collar of sorts, shaped like flower petals, extended up from her shoulders in front and back. The fabric was a visual reminder of the old days, and the collar represented Anyari’s people, who had bloomed from devastating tragedy. “Princess Nora.” Nora jolted but quickly recovered. Her father was facing her.

“The people of Tirra have a gift for you.” He beckoned her forward, and Nora saw that Mayor Ashler had joined him onstage. Nora raised an eyebrow. Going off script, Dad? That’s not like you. The crowd cheered as she stepped to the front of the stage and waved. “Princess Ulminora.” The mayor had a closed wooden box in her hands. She was beaming. “We heard you ran out of ice on your journey. I’m an ice lyster too, and I just returned from the mountain last week to retrieve fuel for myself.

” Nora’s eyebrows shot up, and her gaze found Cellerin Mountain, which loomed in the distance. The mayor had climbed its icy heights herself, rather than sending someone else? Mayor Ashler answered Nora’s unspoken question. “I grew up climbing Cellerin’s slopes, and I can’t seem to break the habit.” The people cheered, and the mayor continued, “Your Highness, we grow both grapes and bollaberries in our town greenhouse. I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite things: shaved ice with bollagrape juice.” She opened the hinged lid. The box was thick, clearly insulated. Inside was a mound of shaved ice, colored with pale-purple juice. The mayor handed Nora a silver spoon. “Care to try it?” Nora grinned.

“Thank you, Mayor.” Year-round access to ice was one of the perks of being a princess. However, a few days into the trip, Nora had eaten the last of the ice from her personal ice chest. She’d then discovered that they’d left behind the large chest they’d meant to bring. It was the first time she’d ever gone two weeks without doing magic. She dipped the spoon in the snowy concoction and brought it to her mouth. Instantly, she knew she’d have to beg the chef back home to find a source of bollaberries. The combination of the berries, which originated on Anyari, and grapes, which originated on Earth, was perfect. Like so many mixtures of Anyarian and Original produce, the flavor was complex and surprising, both sweet and tart. Without thinking, Nora dipped the spoon in the ice again.

She halted and flicked her eyes up to the mayor’s. “I’m sorry—do you mind me going back for seconds?” Laughter and cheers filled the square. The mayor’s eyes crinkled. “Have as much as you’d like.” Nora ate several more bites, then turned to her father. She lifted her hands and wiggled her fingers. “May I?” He nodded. She took a step toward the edge of the stage, held her arms out wide, and turned her hands toward the sky. The crowd’s murmuring stopped, the hush only broken by a baby’s cry. Nora’s arms, fingers, and throat started to tingle, the sensation delightfully chilly.

She brought her arms in front of her and held her palms toward the crowd. With a bright smile, she pushed magic through her hands, shooting two puffs of snow over the front rows. The crowd cheered. Nora took a deep breath, lifted her chin, and blew snow from her cold mouth. It arced into the air, then fell on a dozen grinning townspeople. She laughed, basking in the crackling energy of the masses. In a thousand ways, she dreaded becoming queen. But she savored moments like these, when she forgot the stifling responsibilities ahead of her and simply enjoyed the people of Cellerin. Then, all at once, the crowd’s gazes shifted. Fingers pointed high and to the right.

Excited murmurs grew louder. Nora lifted her eyes to the sky. When she saw what was distracting everyone, her focus broke, drying up the flow of snow. She dropped her arms to her side. A man was soaring through the pale-orange sky, swooping up and down like a drunk bird. This little town has a feather lyster? And he chooses this moment to put on a show? She shouldn’t be surprised; the feather lysters she knew were the vainest people in all of Cellerin. Two royal guards were standing in front of the stage. One drew a pistol. The other lifted his bow and nocked an arrow. Both aimed at the flying man.

At the same time, the six guards who’d been standing at the rear of the stage rushed to surround Nora and her father. They faced outward, weapons pointed at the flying man. “Let’s get you two off the stage,” one of them said. From outside the circle of guards, Mayor Ashler said, “I assure you, he’s harmless. He’s a show-off, but he won’t hurt anyone.” “Let the mayor in,” Nora’s father said. Two guards moved apart, and the mayor joined the cramped circle. King Ulmin’s authoritative voice boomed in the tight space. “I’m staying here. I want a guard on either side of me.

The rest of you, take Nora off the stage.” “My office is next to the stage,” Mayor Ashler said. “I’ll take her there, and we’ll lock the doors.” “Dad,” Nora said, “the mayor said that man is harmless. He doesn’t even have a weapon. Should we really run from him?” “I’m not running. I’m keeping you safe.” Nora rolled her eyes as everyone followed the king’s instructions. Two guards held her elbows. Another stood behind her, hand on her back, and the fourth positioned himself in front of her.

Nora was tall, but the guard in front of her was practically a giant, his shoulders even with her eyes. His name was Ovrun, and he was the youngest guard, only nineteen. His muscular shoulders, clad in black livery with blue epaulets, distracted Nora as the guards rushed her across the stage, down a set of steps, and into a dark building. Mayor Ashler locked the door. “My deepest apologies, Princess Ulminora.” “It’s Nora.” “Pardon me?” “No one calls me Ulminora.” The mayor flipped a switch. A light bulb came on, illuminating a small lobby with a large, curtained window. Enough wind power for lights in public buildings.

This town’s doing pretty well. Nora took off her heavy headdress and set it down. She approached the window, but Ovrun and another guard were standing in front of it, their arms folded. A third guard stationed himself at the far edge of the window and pulled back the drapes just enough to look outside. Nora gave Ovrun her most dazzling smile, and the corner of his lips quirked up. “I appreciate you trying to keep me safe,” she said. “All I want to do is peek between the curtains. Please?” The guards exchanged glances, and then Ovrun parted the curtains just enough for Nora to peer out with one eye. The lyster was still flying. Nora watched for any signs of his magic waning, but he was soaring in confident arcs.

Must’ve eaten plenty of feathers. The crowd cheered as he flew in ridiculous figure eights, nearly hitting the tops of buildings every time he reached the bottom of the shape. Nora rolled her eyes. Show-off. Finally, the flyer ended his flamboyant display. He stayed in the air, however, hovering over a three-story building that faced the square. Nora was close enough to discern a rough outline of his face. He looked like a teenager, but he couldn’t possibly be that young. It took feather lysters decades to perfect their magical faculty. His dark hair was long enough to cover his forehead, but the wind was lifting it into a messy mop.

Despite how ridiculous this made him look, he beamed as he waved at the crowd. Then he alighted on the edge of the roof and dropped to his hands and knees. Nora squinted, then gasped. A thick ribbon of smooth, white ice flowed from the man’s hands, extending off the roof. He’s an ice lyster, too? The ice grew at an unbelievable pace. Within a minute, a gorgeous, curving ramp with banked edges extended from the roof to the ground. Nora’s jaw dropped. Despite years of training (focused on one faculty, not two), she’d never made that much ice at once. The young man sat on the ramp and grinned once more at the crowd. He pushed himself forward until the ramp grew steep enough for gravity to take over, sending him sliding at a dizzying speed.

Nora had just enough time to think, I’ve got to learn how to make one of those ramps! when the lyster reached the slide’s halfway point, and everything literally fell apart. The entire slide broke into at least a dozen pieces. The young man’s hands flailed in the air as he tumbled down, his fall cushioned only by massive, jagged shards of ice. Nora’s hand came up to her mouth. “Oh!” The guards on either side of her tensed. Ovrun grasped her arm and tugged her away from the window. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing. The lyster just fell.” Nora pulled away and stepped back to the window. It was clear what had happened.

The man had lost focus, turning his ice brittle. She’d done it a thousand times, just never when she was depending on her creation to support her full weight. “Come on, get up!” Nora urged under her breath. All the lyster’s would-be rescuers blocked her line of sight. Her heart pounded and her cheeks grew warm as she tried to determine his fate. Sure, he was arrogant and lacked common sense, but he didn’t deserve to die in a pile of his own ice. The clock on the wall seemed to tick louder than it had before. Suddenly, the young man pushed himself up to stand atop his bed of ice. Nora couldn’t see his expression, but his wave to the crowd was hesitant, his hubris gone. He dropped into a squat, then jumped into the air and flew again, soaring over the buildings of the square and dropping out of sight.

Nora laughed at the sight, then stepped back from the window and nodded at the guards. “Thanks for letting me watch.” “Is the feather eater gone?” Ovrun asked. “Yeah. What a fool. He’s lucky you didn’t shoot him down.” Despite her words, all Nora could think about was how fun it would be to make and use a slide like that. Across the room, Mayor Ashler cleared her throat. “I’m very sorry about all this.” Nora grinned and crossed to the woman.

“It’s okay; this is the most fun I’ve had in weeks. Tell me, Mayor, what’s that lyster’s name?

.

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