I scowl unhappily at my faded reflection in flawlessly smooth ice. The ice towers spiral up into some distant night sky leading to some distant forever. Nyshi's laughter echoes sharply against the unforgiving walls and rises above the endless murmur of the dancing pride. The palace is lit at night.
The Ice Palace is the central territory of all lion demons in the Immortal's Forest. Tonight dignitaries from an Outside pride are visiting. There is a nice dinner in honor of the outsiders but nothing too nice. As a courtesy to the guests, all the demons present are in their human form instead of their animal form.
I am standing by the wine fountain, artfully carved out of frosted ice in the shape of frightened hares so that wine trickles from their appetizing throats like blood. Idly, I glance across the room at an elegant demoness with a black chocker above a rich pink silk gown shamelessly flirting with a dashing male nomad. My mother, the glamorous demoness in pink, acts like she doesn't know me. As a punishment, I have been sentenced to serve wine to tonight's guests like I was a low rank in the pride.
A lion demon, one of Nyshi's followers, struggles to find a glass and ends up spilling red wine over the table. I sneer at him once I realize that no one is there to make sure I'm on task. Over the next few minutes, a few more individuals struggle fruitlessly with the fountain. I pick at my nails.
I hear a quiet shuffle of slippers and silks. It's impossible to ignore. She always is. I look up. Nyshi's smile flashes two white rows of perfect little teeth and diamonds flash in her ears.
Nyshi gushes like I am an old friend: "Winter, did you see Sonya dance? Her arms jiggled everywhere, I don't think I could bear it if I were so fat, I'd rather die! And her dress is dreadful, it's like she's melting out of it. Not that Tia's dress is any better—" She continues to sparkle away at me to the point where I begin to realize that I will have to toss her over a balcony just to end it.
Over Nyshi's shoulder, beyond her beautiful pupiless eyes, comes the most handsome lion of my life. He is tall with dark hair and a deep voice that makes me feel empty just to hear it. I have never loved anyone more than him and I am instantly furious that he is walking towards me.
"Nyshi" he says breathlessly, headily. She turns and opens to him like a blooming flower. I feel nauseas.
"Winter and I were having the loveliest conversation." Nyshi leans closer to him. Now I can see that her dress sweeps open in the back to show off her fine little shoulder blades, like wings.
Nyshi is perfect. I doubt that I have ever hated anyone more.
His pupils dilate and his mouth softens as he looks at her. He has sharp cheek bones and a lazy, playful smile. "You don't mind my interrupting then?" he asks.
"Never" she says, soft and breathy. Neither look at me as they talk. They both appear absorbed by their shallow, empty words, and I have this stupid urge to lean in and try to join the tiny circle they have created in the middle of the vast ballroom.
"You'll come with me to the private party at Soyala's place?" her fingers lift up to dance along the edge of her necklace. She quickly shifts to flick her hair and continue speaking before he can answer: "I made her show me the guest list before I would go and it seemed good but she just had to go and invite Tia—"
As Nyshi rattles off banal details about the after party, Aspen subtly shifts closer and attempts to move his hand to catch hers. She brushes off the attempt to continue gesturing animatedly to her rapid speech. I watch as his expression never changes from one of vacuous rapture over the rapid tilts and nods of Nyshi's elaborately done up head.
Nyshi continues: "you know I can't stand her, too nasally. Anyway Soyala will use her parent's balcony and you know the view is just to die for from there." Having come to her conclusion, she trails her fingers along his forearm and rests her hand on his palm.
He laces his fingers through hers, "Sounds great."
Just as I'm sure he will never look up, never see me standing behind Nyshi's pretty head and dancing hands, he does. He sees me. It is a meaningless, friendly glance but I fear that look as desperate as I feel.
"Want to join all of us later?" he asks. The empty politeness of the request burns my pride.
"I'm sure she doesn't. You know Winter, always so busy." Nyshi smiles as careless, cruel, and lovely as always.
"I have time. I just hate those parties." I just hate sitting in dark, festive rooms smothered by the oppressive judgment of drunk strangers.
Nyshi bristles and then masters herself with a beaming smile.
"Winter, you're so strange," she gushes.
I imagine that Aspen is about to say something else, but Nyshi turns to him and runs the tips of her fingers across his cheek as she says, "I want to spend time with you before Soyala's party, you know, just us."
They leave. Aspen looks sickeningly in love and Nyshi looks pretty and effervescent. I wish she would just die.