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Authors: Joan D. Vinge

The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen

Snow Queen, Book 1—Hugo 1981

Joan D. Vinge

1980

 

Joan D.
Vinge received a degree in anthropology from
San Diego
State
University
in 1971 and
considers
herself
an “anthropologist of the future.”
She worked briefly as a salvage archaeologist before turning to writing. Her
novella
Eyes of Amber
won the Hugo Award in 1978, and her stories
“Fireship” and “View from a Height” were Hugo nominees in 1979. Ms. Vinge lives
in
Brooklyn
,
New York
.

 

 

To
the Lady, who gives, and who takes away
.

 

 

“... strait
is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be
that find it.”


Matthew
7:14

 

“You shall
have joy, or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both.”

—Ralph
Waldo Emerson

 

I would
like to gratefully acknowledge the inspiration and artistry of Hans Christian
Andersen, whose folk tale “The Snow Queen” gave me the seeds of this story; and
Robert Graves, whose book
The White Goddess
provided me with the rich
Earth in which it grew. And I would like to thank those people who helped me
weed, and tend, and harvest the fruits of my labor: my husband Vernor, and my
editors Don Bensen and Jim Frenkel, without whose perceptive and sensitive
suggestions this book would not have grown as strong or as truly. I would also
like to thank my father, for his love of science fiction; and my mother, for
teaching me a woman’s strength and giving me the freedom to become.

 

Prologue

The door
swung shut silently behind them, cutting off the light, music, and wild
celebration of the ballroom. The sudden loss of sight and hearing made him
claustrophobic. He tightened his hands over the instrument kit he carried
beneath his cloak.

He heard
her amused laughter in the darkness at his side, and light burst around him
again, opening up the small room they stood in now. They were not alone. His
tension made him start, even though he was expecting it, even though it had
happened to him five times already in this interminable night, and would happen
several times more. It was happening in a sitting room this time on the
boneless couch that obtruded into a forest of dark furniture legs dusted with
gold. The irrelevant thought struck him that he had seen a greater range of
styles and taste in this one night than he had probably seen in forty years
back on Kharemough.

But he was
not back on Kharemough; he was in Carbuncle, and this Festival night was the
strangest night he would ever spend, if he lived to be a hundred. Sprawled on
the couch in unselfconscious abandon were a man and a woman, both of them
deeply asleep now from the drugged wine in the half-empty bottle lying on its
side on the rug. He stared at the purple stain that crept across the sculptured
carpet-pile, trying not to intrude any more than he must on their privacy.
“You’re certain that this couple has also been intimate?”

“Quite
certain.
Absolutely
certain.”
His companion lifted the white-feathered mask from her
shoulders, revealing a mass of hair almost as white coiled like a nest of
serpents above her eager, young girl’s face. The mask was a grotesque contrast
to the sweetness of that face: the barbed ripping beak of a predatory bird, the
enormous black-pupiled eyes of a night hunter that glared at him with the
promise of life and death hanging in the balance ... No. When he looked into
her eyes, there was no contrast. There was no difference. “You Kharemoughis are
so self-righteous.” She threw off her white feathered cape. “And such
hypocrites.” She laughed again; her laughter was both bright and dark.

He removed
his own less elaborate mask reluctantly: an absurd fantasy creature, half fish,
half pure imagination. He did not like having to expose his expression.

She
searched his face in the pitiless lamplight, with feigned innocence. “Don’t
tell me, Doctor, that you really don’t like to watch?”

He
swallowed his indignation with difficulty. “I’m a biochemist, Your Majesty, not
a voyeur.”

“Nonsense.”
The smile that was far too old for the face formed on her mouth. “All medical
men are voyeurs. Why else would they become doctors? Except for the sadists, of
course, who simply enjoy the blood and the pain.”

Afraid to
respond, he only moved past her, crossed the carpet to the couch and put his
instrument kit on the floor. Beyond these walls the city of
Carbuncle
climaxed its celebration of the
Prime Minister’s cyclical visit to this world with a night of joyous abandon.
He had never expected to find himself spending it with this world’s queen and
certainly not spending it doing what he was about to do.

The
sleeping woman lay with her face toward him. He saw that she was young, of medium
height, strong and healthy. Her gently smiling face was deeply tanned by sun
and weather beneath the tangled, sandy hair. The rest of her body was pale; he
supposed she kept it well protected from the bitter cold beyond the city’s
walls. The man beside her was a youthful thirty, he judged, with dark hair and
light skin, and could have been either a local or an off worlder, but he was of
no concern now. Their Festival masks looked down in hollow-eyed censure, like
impotent guardian gods resting on the couch back. He dabbed the woman’s
shoulder with antiseptic, made the tiny incision to insert the tracer beneath
her skin, doing the simple procedure first to reassure himself. The Queen stood
watching intently, silent now that he needed silence.

Noise concentrated
beyond the locked door; he heard slightly slurred voices protesting loudly. He
shrank like an animal in a trap, waiting for discovery.

“Don’t
worry, Doctor.” The Queen laid a light, reassuring hand on his arm. “My people
will see that we’re not disturbed.”

“Why the
hell did I let myself be talked into this?” more to himself than to her. He
turned back to his work, but his hands were unsteady.

“Twenty-five
extra years of youth can be very persuasive.”

“A lot of
good it’ll do me if I spend them all in some penal colony!”

“Get hold
of yourself, Doctor. If you don’t finish what you’ve started tonight, you won’t
have earned your twenty-five years anyway. The agreement stands only while I
have at least one perfectly normal clone-child somewhere among the Summer folk
on this planet.”

“I’m aware
of the terms.” He finished with the small incision and sealed it. “But I hope
you understand that a clone implant under these circumstances is not only
illegal, it’s highly unpredictable. This is a difficult procedure. The odds of
producing a clone who is even a reasonable replica of the original person are
not particularly good under the most controlled conditions, let alone “

“Then the
more implants you perform tonight, the better off we’ll both be. Isn’t that
right?”

“Yes, Your
Majesty,” tasting self-disgust. “I suppose it is.” He rolled the sleeping woman
carefully onto her back and reached into his kit again.

 

1

Here on
Tiamat, where there is more water than land, the sharp edge between ocean and
sky is blurred; the two merge into one. Water is drawn up from the shining
plate of the sea and showers down again in petulant squalls. Clouds pass like
emotion across the fiery red faces of the Twins, and are shaken off,
splintering into rainbows: dozens of rainbows every day, until the people cease
to be amazed by them. Until no one stops to wonder, no one looks up ....

“It’s a
shame,” Moon said suddenly, pulling hard on the steering oar.

“What is?”
Sparks
ducked down as the
flapping sail filled and the boom swept across over his head. The outrigger
canoe plunged like a wing fish “It’s a shame you aren’t paying attention. What
do you want to do, sink us?”

Moon
frowned, the moment’s mood broken. “Oh, drown yourself.”

“I’m
half-drowned already; that’s the trouble.” He grimaced at the water lapping the
ankles of their waterproof kleeskin over boots and picked up the bailer again.
The last squall had drowned his good nature, anyway, she thought, along with
the sodden supply baskets. Or maybe it was only fatigue. They had been at sea
on this journey for nearly a month, creeping from island to island along the
Windward chain. And for the last day they had been beyond the Windwards, beyond
the charts they knew, striking out across the expanse of open ocean toward
three islands that kept to themselves, a sanctuary of the Sea Mother. Their
boat was tiny for such far ranging, and they had only the stars and a rough
current-chart of crisscrossed sticks to guide them. But they were children of
the Sea as truly as they were the children of their birth-mothers; and because
they were on a sacred quest, Moon knew that She would be kind.

Moon
watched Spark’s bobbing head catch fire as the pinwheeled binary of Tiamat’s
double sun broke the clouds, to kindle flame in the red of his hair and his
sparse, newly starting beard; throw the soft-edged shadow of his slim, muscular
body down into the bottom of the boat. She sighed, unable to keep hold of her
irritation when she looked at him, and reached out tenderly to finger a red,
shining braid.

“Rainbows
... I was talking about rainbows. Nobody appreciates them. What if there was
never another rainbow?” She brushed back the hood of her mottled slicker and
tugged loose the laces at her throat. Braids as white as cream spilled out and
down over her back. Her eyes were the color of mist and moss agate. She looked
up through the crab-claw sail, squinting as she sorted tumbled cloud from sky
to find vaulting ribbons of fractured light, dimmed here to nothingness,
brightening there until their banners doubled and redoubled.

Sparks
dumped another shellful of water
overboard, sending it home, before he lifted his head to follow her gaze. Even
without its sun-browning, his skin was dark for an islander’s. But lashes and
eyebrows as pale as her own tightened against the glare, above eyes that
changed color like the sea. “Come on. We’ll always have rainbows, Cuz. As long
as we have the Twins and the rain. A simple case of diffraction; I showed you—”

She hated
it when he talked tech—the unthinking arrogance that came into his voice. “I
know that. I’m not stupid.” She jerked the coppery braid sharply.

“Ow!”

“But I’d
still rather hear Gran tell us that it was the Lady’s promise of plenty,
instead of hearing that trader turn it into something without any point at all.
And so would you. Wouldn’t you, my star child. Admit it!”

“No!” He
beat her hand away; anger blazed. “Don’t make fun of that, damn it!” He turned
his back on her, splashing. She pictured his knuckles whitening over the
corroded crosses-inside-a-circle: the token his off worlder father had given to
his mother at the last Festival. “Mother of Us All!”

It was the
one thing that drove between them like a blade—their awareness of a heritage
that he did not share with her, or with anyone they knew. They were Summers,
and their people rarely had contact with the tech-loving Winters who consorted
with the off worlders except at the Festivals, when the adventurous and joyful
from all over this world gathered in Carbuncle; when they put on masks and put
off their differences, to celebrate the Prime Minister’s cyclical visit and a
tradition that was far older.

Their two
mothers, who were sisters, had gone to Carbuncle to the last Festival, and
returned to Neith carrying, as her mother had told her, “the living memory of a
magic night.” She and
Sparks
had been born on the same day; his mother had died in childbirth. Their
grandmother had raised them both while Moon’s mother was at sea with the
fishing fleet. They had grown up together like twins, she often thought: strange,
changeling twins growing up under the vaguely uneasy gaze of the stolid,
provincial islanders. But there had always been a part of
Sparks
that she was shut off from, that she
could not share: the part of him that heard the stars whisper. He bartered surreptitiously
with passing traders for mechanical trinkets from other worlds, wasted days
taking them apart and putting them back together, finally throwing them into
the sea in a fit of self disgust along with propitiating effigies made of
leaves.

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