There was a gasp for air - it was a frozen night, and metal piping creaked as water iced up within it. The cold gusts of wind whipped at the castle walls and the windows rattled in their frames. The tall pine trees outside slapped the faces of the building, like a vigorous crowd that wished to enter – but they were not allowed, confined to the outside by heavy bolts and locks. Every fireplace roared with heat, yet the rooms were chilly and unfriendly. In all the beds, on all the soft pillows, laid people; royalty and servants alike, huddled up in their blankets, shivering with the cold. All the spare blankets had been brought out of their storages and hideaways and distributed, but there were simply not enough to keep everyone warm. Some chose to bed together, to share blankets and body heat – others slept alone, dreaming quietly of warmer times. The cold, black stone of the castle enveloped everything in a dark, gloomy atmosphere, perhaps cooling even more then the raging winter did.
In a room in the fifth floor of this magnificent, icy castle laid a small king. A small king huddled up in his blankets just like his servants, freezing even in his nightclothes. Another particularly strong blast of wind whistled past and he looked up again with another small gasp – but calmed down quickly and lay back down. The gray bird he kept in a cage by the window woke and peered up at him for a long moment before tucking its head back underneath its wing.
The king rolled over to lie on his back in his large bed. He slept much too lightly to get any rest at all. On this night, the winds were particularly horrifying and loud, and he could simply not catch a wink of sleep. On this night, the castle was like a graveyard, silent and cold with no motion inside whatsoever. It should be a calming, relaxed place. Yet the king could not rest. On this night, like every night – though this one in particular – far too many thoughts crowded the king's mind. Matters he had to address in the morning. Decisions to be made for his kingdom. And, on this night, like every night before, the queen was nowhere to be found.
The little king curled up on his side again, tucking up like the bird had done. He did not know where the queen would be on such a night, or any night, for that matter. She would tell him goodnight, then disappear for a few hours' time, then return and go to bed. She was quite the mystery to him still, mischievous and playful, yet calculating and brilliant. And secretive. Very secretive. So much remained for him to learn about her, yet she was his queen, promoted approximately two weeks ago. On this night, this dark and stormy evening, the king contemplated his wife quietly. She was a strange one, for sure, yet so oddly compelling. Had he only known her better before dragging her into this blasted marriage! It didn't feel fair. Not to him and not to her.
On this night, the king experienced a new kind of emotion when he considered her. Something about her had evoked an odd feeling within him, something that pulled at his stomach like a hook in his intestines. He missed her. And horribly so. As he watched her leave he had been filled with longing and wanted nothing more than to call her back, to order her to stay. But he knew he could not. The queen came and left as she pleased, much like some sort of stray cat would have. Luckily, the king had an affinity for cats.
In a few hours, he had mulled over everything he had to mull over, and gone over his plans a million times each in his head. With the war raging there was much to do, especially with the snow-white landscape so cleverly concealing the opponents' white uniforms. It was no doubt they would take advantage of this and attack. Soon. On this night, the king was reminded of this very strongly, like a heavy-duty boot to the face. Had he peered out of his window on this night, he would see nothing but a blanket of snow. A soldier hiding in the courtyard would be undetectable – at least by him. He had to trust his guard posts to have sharper eyes. He did not envy them their duty on this night, and threw a pitying look out the window. At least they had some of the thickest blankets with them in their cots, where they spent their breaks. They had hot plamer, a sweet-tasting drink boiled on leaves from the black forest's rarest plant, the mero bush, and they had small bunk beds for when the long hours of night became too long. Still, the king did not envy them, and even though he did have a craving for a hot mug of plamer, he would not stand outside for hours on end for one.
A soft noise came to his attention. It was the door, gently opening and then pushing shut. The hallway outside was also dimly lit, he noticed with dismay. However, despite its old frame and somewhat rusty hinges the door moves without a squeak, and his dismay is quickly replaced with a warm gratitude towards his staff. Had the hinges caused a ruckus whenever the door was opened, he'd never sleep at all. On this night, too, the queen made sure to be very quiet as she moved about, even though she knew he was awake. She quickly peeked out the window, and then pulled the black curtains fully shut with a soft exhale. As she clambered into the bed and crept under the covers, the hollow feeling in the king's gut slowly lessened and disappeared. She was cold, but carried the fresh scent of frost and ice the winter brings with it. The king turned to face her, keeping his eyes shut, for on this night only he wanted to save the sight of her for a while, to allow himself to anticipate it for a moment.
When he did open his eyes, however, he did not see much. It took his eyes a moment to adjust, but he could make out her form as he waited, and he could see her eyes glittering. When he looked at her, she bared her teeth in a grin – and they, too, glittered slightly in the darkness.
"Welcome back," he said lowly to her, inhaling the fresh scent of winter.
"Thank you," she replied, and her breath smelled differently than her body – the scent reminded the king of the pungent taste of the taki berries that grew on the banks of the large river that ran through the city. Yes, he realized, it was the smell of taki berries, or rather, the alcoholic beverage boiled on them. The spiky berries would be squeezed empty, and the jam-like contents would be used as an ingredient in the kingdom's most wide-spread drink. In the capital, the intake of this particular beverage was mostly seen in the commoners' quarters, but outside of the city it was most everywhere. Yes, the queen's breath smelled like the spicy plataki, a drink the king himself did not appreciate as much as the sweeter plamer. However, when it came out of her mouth, the bitter scent was wonderful.
"Having troubles sleeping?" She asked quietly, interrupting his thoughts.
"Yes," he admitted after a moment. "You know me. I can't sleep if there's as much as the noise of a mosquito landing outside the window."
She laughed, breathing warm plataki into his face. The king smiled, closing his tired eyes for a moment. On this night, he desperately wanted to sleep, but the dreadful promise of storm kept him much too awake for his liking.
"Maybe we should get you a jug of plataki," she joked and crept closer, cuddling up to him. "It'd make you drowsy right away."
"I'd rather not." He grimaced and accepted her nearness, closing his arms around her. "Seems like you've been rather appreciative of it tonight, however. Are you drowsy?"
"Yes," she whispered. Her breath was warm at his neck now, and he could no longer smell it. "Yes, I am."
She was quite soft, the little queen. On this night, she wasn't mischievous or playful or even calculating or brilliant – she was just soft, perfectly at rest in his arms. Outside, the winds whipped at the castle, and a windblown insect landed shakily on the window. The howling gale grasped the pine trees and the guard posts' robes and the water pipes and shook them, creating a horrible ruckus. And yet, on this night, as the king held his queen tightly and felt sleep lurking around the corner, the incoming storm was nothing.