The first time Winter Quertis fell in love, he was five years old.
(Later, he would consider this and shake his head even at himself. Five! How precocious!)
It was a windy autumn day, the sort that had the first promises of his namesake season in the air, but still sunny and bright, and warm in the sunny patches. He had been dressed properly with Geoffery’s help: a new tailored coat, dark silver gray in color, new trousers, new boots, and even a new ribbon for his hair — dark blue, to match his eyes — “You have to be neat about this, my lord,” he’d said; “the Great Quertis insisted that you be presentable for this.”
His mother had smiled at him when he’d come down the stairs to her, though, and she’d taken his hand in hers, warm and steady, leading him outside. She kept him tucked against her side for the whole of the carriage ride, her arm slim and solid around his shoulders, her hand on his arm. Winter dozed for most of the ride, waking in intervals. Every time, the scenery outside of the window was different: the familiar trees and hills of Quertis soon vanished, replaced by wide, wide stretches of flat farmlands. At one point, he sat up and saw a pair of cows, standing alone in a field, and he watched that with wide eyes until the carriage passed on, and they faded from sight.
“We’re almost there, little rabbit,” his mother said, when he turned to her, wide-eyed. “You do remember what we’ve been over, right?”
“I have to be quiet, I have to be patient,” Winter chorused, dutiful. “I mustn’t make a fuss, and I mustn’t show any sass. I’m to be a good boy.”
His mother smiled. She reached out to run her finger through Winter’s bangs, fine and soft, brushing them away from his face. “You’re always a good boy, little rabbit, but the Avis family–” Something crossed her face, strained and not quite stern, enough that Winter sat up just a bit straighter, “–they do things rather differently, in some ways. So you will have to be your own charming self, but you will have to be polite and careful, as well. All right?”
She smiled again, and she leaned to kiss his forehead briefly before she sat back. Winter tucked himself against her side again, as small as he could make himself, with his knees against his chest and his head against her side, and closed his eyes again.
When he opened them for the last time, they had arrived, and his mother shook his shoulder gently until he sat up. For a moment she hovered, brushing his hair back again, straightening his coat, and then his shirt below that.
“All right,” she said, and she stroke a finger down his chin so that he smiled, automatically. “Let’s go, little rabbit, let’s go meet your new playmate.”
“Do you think he’ll like me?” Winter took her hand as she opened the carriage door, using her help to step down. It was a large drop, and he held his breath until he hit the ground, his knees jarring a little. “I hope he does.”
“I’m sure he will,” his mother said. She tugged at his hand, and led him up the stairs — and unlike the main Quertis estate, wide and tall and full of windows, white and clean, the Avis estate was a large looming block, square and jagged, like some great beast hunkered along the ground. Winter dragged his feet a little in spite of himself, looking up and up — there were no windows anywhere to be seen.
The doors opened as they reached the top stair, and there was a voice announcing the Great Quertis and her son, and he drew himself up as tall as he could, his heart beating fast and excited in his chest.
The Great Avis was a tall thin man — taller than Winter’s mother, but thinner too, with sunken cheeks and deep dark-set eyes. His hair was shot through with thick streaks of white, and there was the slightest tremor in his hand, where it rested upon the head of his walking-stick. Behind him was a young man nearly as tall as he was, but broader and healthier, with thick curly dark hair and olive-gold skin and dark glittering eyes. He looked the both of them over once, the corner of his mouth curling up in an odd sort of smile, one that left Winter bristling somehow, in a way he couldn’t identify.
He stood at a casual slouch, his hips thrust outward, as if to present the whole of himself, and while he looked Winter over in a single dismissive glance, he looked Winter’s mother over with a great deal more appreciation. When Winter drew himself up, though, she put a hand on the back of his head to settle him.
“Great Avis,” she said. “I thank you for inviting us here today. My most fondest wishes and respect to you and yours.”
The Great Avis only frowned, sucking his teeth in a loud dismissive gesture. He did not blink once: his face put Winter in the mind of a lizard, slouched on a sun-heated rock and coiled, ready to strike at a given notice.
“Good day to you, Great Quertis,” he said, after a beat too long, and it sounded strange, like the conversation had been derailed somehow. “My most fondest wishes and respect to you and yours.”
His lip curled as he said it, though, openly unkind, and Winter found himself torn between wanting to shrink back behind his mother and step forward in front of her. He was small for his age, he knew that with a resigned sort of certainty, but his mother was perfect — there was no reason to sound like that when greeting her, as if he found something about her very presence unpleasant. But if that was so, how could he? She was a kind voice and a stern face; she was unwavering and beautiful and everything that Winter looked up to; how could he not see that, when he worked with her so regularly?
“I see you brought your boy, too,” he said, and there was a strange emphasis to the way he said boy, as if it were somehow some kind of joke. The young man behind him laughed aloud at it, the sound echoing and brash. It made the skin of Winter’s back crawl; he did not like it, though when he shifted closer to his mother, she did not even waver.
“I did,” she said. “As requested. I think he might do well to get to know your Nikolas.”
Winter brightened a little in spite of himself. Nikolas, he knew that name, if only just: the second son of the Great Avis, just a couple of years older than Winter himself. Unlike the Heir Avis — and Winter had to at least guess that the young man behind the Great Avis was him — he was someone that maybe Winter could understand; this was the friend that his mother had been promising him, and he found himself excited even through his nervousness. Maybe they could be good and proper friends; maybe there would be something pleasant out of this strange gloomy estate, looming large with its severe walls and no windows–
“Reynold,” the Great Avis said. “Go take him to the brat’s room.”
“Me?” The young man — Reynold — said, and there was a note of actual distaste in his voice, like a sour note, too obvious to be ignored. “Why me? Have a maid do it; I’ve got more important things to do.” He made that same look at Winter’s mother now, raising his eyebrows in a way that made Winter bristle all over again. “Besides, he’s probably asleep or something. I don’t know where he is.”
Reynold rolled his eyes. “All right, fine,” he said, dragging the words out slow and insolent, as if it were some grand dramatic favor he was doing by agreeing. He stepped forward, around his father, and he crossed his arms as he looked down at Winter. His lips pursed and twisted, and it wasn’t quite a sneer, but it was close enough that Winter recoiled from it, just slightly. His mother’s fingers pressed gently against the back of his head, then pushed, urging him forward. When he glanced back at her, she gave him a small gentle smile.
“It’s all right,” she said, and Winter could hear the unspoken endearment, little rabbit, even if she kept it quiet. “Go on; I’ll come to fetch you later.”
It took considerable effort not to just reach out and grab her hand and refuse, but she didn’t falter in studying him, so he made himself take a deep breath and turn to face Reynold Avis, stepping away from the shelter of his mother’s side.
“Good morning,” he said, as clearly as he could manage: he’d lost a tooth a week previous, and his voice could whistle sometimes if he wasn’t careful. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Nice,” the man — Reynold, Heir Avis — said. He tipped his head as he looked down (and down, and down) at Winter, and the corner of his lip twitched. It wasn’t a very pleasant hint of a smile; if anything, it set Winter even more on edge; there was something wrong in the way this man smiled, it felt like, and the greater part of him wanted to skitter away from that and back to the safety of his mother’s side. “Sure, brat. Nice. If you wanna call it that. Oh, you’re going to be utterly hideous with that monster.”
Monster? Winter’s brow furrowed. He didn’t want to ask, not when the Heir Avis looked like that, and he didn’t seem particularly inclined to explain himself, turning and walking off without so much as a proper polite farewell to either his father or Winter’s mother. In spite of himself, Winter glanced back at her — but she was already preoccupied with speaking to the Great Avis, her expression stern. Winter almost called out to her anyway — Please, Mother, may I stay, if I promise to be quiet and keep to myself — but he turned away before she could notice him lingering, following after the Heir Avis. He had to break into a bit of a trot to keep up, and then nearly a run, so that he was breathless by the time they finally reached an ornate door, deep mahogany red and stained darker still, carved with the winged stag of Avis’s crest.
Without pausing to see if Winter was with him or not, though, Heir Avis pushed the door open hard and fast, enough that it banged against the wall with a clatter that made Winter wince.
“Nikolas!” he cried, in a ringing loud voice, enough that Winter cringed again, and he had to wonder if maybe his mother might hear him bellowing like that, as far away as she was now. “Nikolas, you little monster, are you lazing around in bed? Father’ll have your hide switched for that for certain, come on and up you go! You’re on babysitting duty; it’s a solemn job handed down to you from myself, your brother! Your leader!”
“I’m awake,” Winter heard another voice protest — a softer voice, much younger, and he remembered again his mother’s promise that he might make a friend in the younger Avis brother. His own heart gave an excited little flutter at that, and he finally let himself crowd a little closer to see the owner of that voice.
The room inside was dark — there were no windows here, either, he realized after a moment, and the only source of light was a lamp on the table. It was a very neat and precisely-ordered room, one that reminded Winter more of his mother’s bedroom than his own — there were no toys to be seen anywhere, no soft quilts or warm colors, just all the dark muted colors he knew were meant to belong to Avis — the dark red, the black, the deep brown and green. Winter looked around curiously: there was nothing at all about it that seemed personalized; nothing about it suggested what sort of person the younger Avis was.
“Is that him?” he heard the other boy asked, and he started, turning to look.
Nikolas Avis was already tall for his age, the top of his head reaching to about his brother’s elbow — and the Heir Avis a tall man for certain — with loosely curly dark hair that framed his face in artful waves. His coat was Avis red and his shirt was white and his trousers were black, ending with boots that were polished to an impressive shine. He had large dark eyes that were clear and clever, a sharp elegant nose, and a generous mouth that was set in a solemn line. His expression was schooled neutral, but he looked up at his brother like the Heir Avis was something awe-inspiring and amazing.
He was beautiful.
“You’ve got the day off from lessons, brat,” Heir Avis said. He settled a heavy hand on Nikolas’s head and ruffled hard, leaving it badly mussed and on end, and it was still lovely, which Winter thought in the privacy of his heart was rather unfair, because his hair was so fine that any sort of gesture like that would surely leave it in a tangled ridiculous mess. “Take advantage of it! Do whatever I would do, I am giving you the permission for it.”
Nikolas ducked his head, and his cheeks were a little pink. It was obvious he was trying hard not to smile, fidgeting in place as if he’d been somehow praised by the High King himself.
“Really? Anything at all?”
“Whatever you feel like, so long as I don’t have to be there for it.” He gave another hard ruffle for Nikolas’s hair and turned away, waving over his shoulder and entirely missing the way Nikolas’s expression fell in open disappointment. “Don’t get yourself in trouble, brats, I’m not going to take care of it for you.”
Then he was gone, and Winter found himself hovering near the wall, staring at Nikolas with eyes so wide-open they were nearly completely round. Nikolas stared after his brother’s exit for a few long moments, then finally turned to fix Winter with a critical eye. Winter drew himself up a little at the weight of that glance, wringing his hands a little as he did.
“So, you’re the Quertis Heir,” Nikolas said. He sounded a little dubious as he came forward, his arms crossed and his chin up. He was just enough taller than Winter that he could look down his nose easily at him, circling around Winter with a thoughtful frown. “You’re very small, aren’t you?”
“I’m still growing,” he said automatically, before he had a moment to consider how strange it was, to be the one asked the question, instead of asking it himself. “And so are you, after all; you’ve had a bit of a head start.”
“A head start?” Nikolas leaned in further now, so close that Winter had to take a half-step back, reflexively, out of reaction to that closeness. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He reached out and snagged the ends of Winter’s hair, where it was loose from his ponytail, curling it around his fingers until his whole fist was wrapped in it — and it left his hand close to Winter’s face. He was really very warm; it surprised Winter a little how much he could feel it, even without direct contact.
“Only that you’re older than me,” Winter said. “So you’ve had some time to do better, and grow taller.”
Nikolas hummed and tugged at Winter’s hair, a small short sharp gesture that made him wince a little as he leaned into that pressure. It brought him closer to Nikolas still, so that they were nearly pressed together, and Winter found himself looking straight up into those clever dark eyes, looking him over with an unnerving sort of intensity.
“You’re pretty,” he said at last. “Are you certain you’re not a girl?”
Winter recoiled a little at that automatically, an indignant little huff escaping him as he did. Nikolas’s grip on his hair didn’t loosen, but he did let his arm stretch with Winter’s movement, his expression still openly curious.
“Of course I’m not,” Winter said, with another fierce huff. “I am very certain of what I am! Why does it matter how I look? I’m not pretty at all.”
“You look like a girl,” Nikolas said, and he tugged with his fingers, letting them slide through Winter’s hair, before he took hold of it again. “It’s very strange. Father says that Quertis is full of women anyway, so what’s one more? If you were a girl, we could probably get married.”
“M–” Winter’s voice cut off in a squeak, his eyes going wide. “We could not!”
“That’s if you were a girl,” Nikolas said, his tone matter of fact. He tugged a little at Winter’s hair again, almost gently. “If you were then maybe that would happen and Father would be pleased that I was doing something good for the family. Are you certain you couldn’t be a girl?”
“I’m very certain,” Winter said. “And Mother says it does not matter whether it’s a girl or not, I could still get married to you if you’d like.”
Something in Nikolas’s expression twisted at that. It was an odd, ugly sort of expression, out of place on his handsome face. “No. It has to be a boy and a girl, or else it’s not right.”
“It’s fine however it is,” Winter shot back, heatedly in spite of himself; he could feel himself beginning to flush red with the frustration of it. He curled his fingers into fists and stepped back now, tugging at his hair until he could free it from Nikolas’s hand. “Whether you like girls or boys, you can still get married. My mother told me that was so, and she could never lie.”
“My father doesn’t lie either,” Nikolas said. He was still sneering in that odd cold way, and the longer Winter looked at it, the more uncomfortable with it he felt. “He’s a good and honest man, and he works hard for Avis. You had better not call him a liar in his own house; I won’t tolerate that.”
“My mother wouldn’t lie either,” Winter said. He crossed his arms and set his feet as firmly as he could, raising his chin up, defiant in his challenge. “My mother is a good and honest person, and she has done very well for Quertis.”
They’re parroted words, mostly: the things he’d heard other adults say to his mother in greeting and flattery, and she’d always accepted the comments with a steady smile and murmured thanks. In all of the world, there was no one who was more capable than his mother, Winter was utterly sure of it.
Nikolas’s frown deepened for a moment. Then he shook his head and reached out again, taking some of Winter’s hair in hand again, curling it around his fingers and tugging until he’d reeled Winter in close again.
“Well, maybe we could still get married,” he said. “But maybe you’ll turn out to be a girl after all, and that’d be very convenient. Do you want to see my books?”
“Oh,” Winter said, and he was thoroughly distracted from the oddness of that comment by the offer. “Yes please, what sort of books?”
Nikolas broke into a smile, and it was wide and warm and nothing at all like his earlier sneer — it made something in Winter’s chest curl a little, like maybe the little rabbit that his mother always called him had nested in his heart and was sleeping there comfortably. He wanted to take Nikolas’s hand in his, and he made a small abortive movement forward before he caught himself; there was no way of knowing how he would react to that — he seemed to be friendly enough, but the last thing Winter wanted was to have this smiling dark-eyed boy turn away from him again.
“Here,” Nikolas said, and then he took Winter’s hand — he was warm to the touch, tremendously warm, warmer than anyone Winter had ever known — and he pulled, his smile wide and sweet. “I’ll show you.”
“Were you good, then, little rabbit?” his mother asked later, on the carriage ride back to Quertis. She smoothed her hand over his hair again and again, long slow soothing gestures, and Winter, with his head in her lap, had to struggle to keep his eyes open.
“Mmmhmm,” he said, nearly a hum, rubbing his cheek a little against her leg. If he was entirely honest with himself, this was his favorite part of everything — he did not always get to accompany his mother on her day trips, but whenever he did, he liked being able to curl close to her like this, with her hand in his hair and her voice low and soothing; he liked listening to her talk in that low gentle voice about everything and anything. “We looked at books. They had a lot of pictures, though perhaps not as many as the ones I have.”
“Nikolas is a bit older than you, little rabbit,” she said, and there was approval in her voice, the sort that warmed Winter the whole way through. “He’s perhaps a bit more advanced in his reading. You’ll catch up soon enough, though, and then the two of you could talk even more about books.”
He considered that for a moment, then turned his face up towards her, sleepy and blinking slowly. “Do you think he would? He was very pretty.”
“Was he?” There was an odd note in her voice at that, something that nagged just at the edge of Winter’s awareness — it wasn’t disapproval, precisely, though there was something to it that made Winter shift uneasily, like the brief calm before a terrible storm. “So then, did you like him, little rabbit?”
“I liked him,” Winter said at once, loyally. “He was nice and he showed me his books and he said my hair was nice and we could get married if I was a girl.”
His mother made a peculiar noise. “–Ah, did he?”
“But I’m not a girl.” Winter put his head back down, huffing a little. “And I don’t want to be a girl. But if we could get married, that’d be nice, right?”
“That would be … something, certainly,” she said. “But — really, little rabbit, already talking about marriage? That’s a little early for such a thing. You’ve got quite a long way to go before you really need to be seriously thinking on that.”
“Mmm,” Winter said. He closed his eyes again, and snuggled when his mother resumed her petting. “But if I did, Mother, I like him.”
Whatever else she said after that, he barely heard: just the low hum of her voice, barely audible over the creaking of the carriage wheels, comfortably and deeply asleep.