The Ruby of the Summer King

The Summer King fell in love with the Winter Queen before they even met.

He dwelt in the heart of summer in bursts of fruit and green, a place the denizens of winter did not and could not even consider approaching. But even in summer, tales were told of her stark beauty, of her penchant for tracing a single finger over every patch of ice and snow she encountered, leaving patterns of fragile beauty in her wake. He learned that she never wore the same dress twice, though she only dressed in white and black and grey and darkest blue. That the color red felt abashed to even enter her presence, and she herself had only seen it once, when an attendant had pricked a finger on an icicle, dropping three bright drops of blood. That most of her attendants bled dark blue or even green. That she had once wistfully said that her favorite color was rich purple, a color she could rarely see: less abashed than red, it would eagerly enter her presence, only to be swiftly covered in ice, hiding its richness and depths.

That she spent many days alone, gliding over lakes of silver ice, leaving her court waiting quietly behind on the snowbanks.

He had no idea why any of these things called to him. He himself had a horror of the color black, a horror so great that he forbade it in his court, and often shut his eyes before the sun retired from the day, to keep himself from seeing it—only to open his eyes in terror when the blackness rushed in behind his closed eyes. He seized flowers and plants to comfort him at those times, and kept torches burning through the night. All colors rushed to his presence. He particularly delighted in red, and the way it glowed against his green skin. He usually surrounded himself with his brilliant courtiers, and had even been known to welcome a warm star or two to his bed.

The Winter Queen, it was said, kept the cold stars at a distance.

And yet.

Who else could match him as well?

“The Lady of Spring?” ventured a courtier, bold on too much rich wine. “Or the lord of Autumn? He prefers strong young men, or so we’ve heard, and yet, nearly every one of those has ended up wilting in his presence, and so he still searches. Or any of the months? July? She’s a bit warm for many tastes, but she might suit you. They say she hates nights, thus why they tease her by growing ever longer in her presence.” The Summer King shuddered. The courtier hurried on. “Or May? A vigorous young man, by all accounts, who eagerly expects you.”

But the Summer King only longed for the Winter Queen. Not even the promise of a brief trip from December, who had been known to take warm days to her bosom from time to time, if never for very long, could tempt him. She was too changeable, he complained, too much of a mix of jolliness and despair.

No.

Only the Winter Queen, clad in ice, could stir his heart to flame.

“If I do not have her, I will die,” he declared.

No one wished the king to die, and so, negotiations were opened.

Great blue herons flew to the court of the Winter Queen, messages tied about their necks. Great white trumpeter swans flew back in return, to be much admired, and allowed to preen and swim about in the Summer King’s great lakes. The King spoke of his love, of his longing, of the ripe peaches and raspberries he wished to place upon the lips of the Winter Queen. The swans responded by requesting fresh frogs. The Summer King fell ever more in love.

Finally, a heron returned with a note written in silver on white paper, scribed by one of the attendants of the Winter Court. The Queen had spoken. She would meet with the Summer King once–once. On her terms, and in her court. She would not travel to see him. He could come alone, or with an escort—it was all the same to her—but he must not bring summer flowers. Snakeroot, perhaps, or fall monkshood, or witch hazel, or perhaps the very first of spring daffodils. But no marigolds, or poppies, or orchids, or sunflowers. Especially no sunflowers.

“Tell her I will come,” said the Summer King.

“This is unwise,” said many of the bright members of the Summer Court.

“I will die without her,” the Summer King said again.

“That would be a pity,” said the Lord of Autumn, though it was later determined that he was speaking of a proposal to tear down a palace built of leaves of emerald and gold.

“I will go,” said the Summer King, and reluctantly, his courtiers acquiesced.

But they refused to let him journey alone. He did not know the way, and, his courtiers pointed out, he was a king. Kings could not—did not—travel without escorts. Not, of course, anyone from the Summer Court, who all shuddered at the mere thought of the Winter Court, a place not merely cold, but frozen. But November, perhaps. March was too wild, too unpredictable, and besides, was involved just then in an intense flirtation with the Lady of Spring, as April and May danced nearby and February kept her own counsel. No one in the court of the Summer King even knew how to reach January—or even if such a person existed, in truth, and was not merely an icy myth. December had reacted with rage to her rejection by the Summer King, flinging hard holly berries at the Summer King’s messengers as they tried—with difficulty—to approach. June, it was said, turned stormy at the mere thought, and even August found himself dwindling into darkness. October claimed—not, it must be said, entirely convincingly—to know nothing of the Winter Queen at all, and September was busy with fruits and wines.

November was damp, and had a reputation for changeability, and a bit of frostiness. But he was available, and gladly lent to the Summer King’s court for the purpose, as the Lord of Autumn wished to spend less time in November’s soggy presence, and more time sampling the glorious fall wines.

“Besides, I’m not always miserable,” November noted, as he crept into the court. “In some places, I am even considered overly warm and sunny.”

This was difficult to believe, but the Summer Court prided itself on its courtesy and generosity, and did not quarrel with him. Besides, November was a beauty, in his own way, and none of the courtiers wished to dismiss the idea of a November dalliance out of hand.

The Summer King spent little time in these discussions, apart from noting, somewhat distractingly, that November glistened with a certain wet beauty. Instead, he focused on devising a gift of summer for the Winter Queen. At last he summoned his court for their advice.

“Wines?” suggested one.

Another shook her head. “She has ice wines of her own.”

“Fruits.”

“Would they survive the journey?”

“Summer silks.”

“How useful would they be, in the Winter Court?”

“Jewels,” said the fierce voice of June.

The King let his gaze travel from one courtier to another. “Jewels,” he repeated.

So common were jewels in his court that the King had failed to consider them. In truth, he was fonder of flowers, but since summer flowers were forbidden, perhaps jewels—however common—might serve.

And so, he called for jewels. Vast chests were brought to him, not without a struggle, filled as they were with heavy gold and stones. The King ordered the contents to be spilled across the grassy floors—with a care for the wildflowers. Even July gasped at the brilliance inside. The Summer King stalked among the gems. His courtiers and guests followed.

August, taking an interest, chose a silver tiara, set with amethysts of a purple so rich they almost seemed black. The Queen’s favorite shade, it was said. But the Summer King, with his horror of darkness, looked at the stones and shook his head. A maple tree fished out earrings shaped like tiny trees, worked from emeralds and bronze. The Summer King considered, but shook his head again. A passing star, delighted by the brilliance before her, selected a single diamond, cold and silvery as snow. The king peered through the diamond—and caught a flash of red. Gently pushing the star aside, he bent to find the source of that light.

It came from a ruby, the size of a robin’s egg, of a color rich as blood, dangling from a golden chain. The King’s hand clenched around it. He could feel the coldness of the stone, despite its color.

A color the Queen, it was said, had only seen once.

A color that still lacked the warmth of Summer.

He stalked to an ancient oak tree that stood at the heart of summer, a tree that, despite its age, still looked fresh and young as a sapling. The tree was a friend of long standing, and an admirer of jewels, and he swiftly raised his branches to the King.

The King of Summer pushed the ruby against the bark of the tree. A sudden chill fell on the Summer Court. The oak tree rustled, and the King pulled his hand away.

The Summer Court gasped.

The ruby in the King’s hand now seemed a living thing, pulsing with red light. Those closest to the King could also feel its radiant heat, and even some of the visiting stars turned their eyes from its brilliance.

“I have never seen its like in the Winter Court,” admitted November.

“Let us be off,” the Summer King said. “I burn.”

Neither saw the oak tree drooping behind them, or heard the sobs of a cypress tree as they left.

The journey between the Summer and Winter Courts is a long one, not straight, nor easy, heavy with fallen leaves and rains. They found themselves lost, and tangled, and lost again. The Lord of Autumn offered no help, busy, perhaps, with the new palace of emerald leaves and gold. The Lady of Spring, too, kept her distance. Birds, always fond of the Summer King, chattered away, but they knew little of pathways on the ground, and could only assure the King that the Winter Queen waited for him in her palace of ice. It rained, again and again, often coldly, and the winds howled. November seemed comfortable enough, and proved a surprisingly pleasant companion, but the Summer King found himself clutching the ruby for warmth.

“We can return,” November said. “Or wait here for the Queen.”

“I must go to her,” the King said, and so the two walked on.

The days grew colder. The Summer King woke to find frost on his shoes and his fine silk cloak. He saw, for the first time, his breath leaving his face and rising into the wind, a wonder to behold. He marveled at the first fragile snowflakes, which melted at his touch. His skin turned pale and grey. It grew hard for him to remember heat, even with summer still flowing through his veins and the still-warm ruby clutched tightly in his hands. But the snow had its own beauty, and November built a fire each night and told jokes and tales. The King told himself he did not mind the cold.

By the time they reached the borders of the Winter Court, the snow fell so thickly that the King could hardly make out the icy walls. Ice covered his feet and hands, and crept upon his face, though the ruby still burned brightly against his hands.

“We do not have to enter,” November said. “It is even colder, inside the realm of Winter.”

“I do.”

November looked at the shivering King. “You may die.”

“Summer is not so easy to kill,” the King said, and stepped into the Winter Court.

The Summer King thought he had learned something of cold from the journey. He had not. Each room of the palace of Winter was colder than the last, and if any fires burned within, he was not privileged to see them. The attendants at the Winter Court wrapped themselves well in thick wool and fur, clearly chosen for warmth, but no less beautiful than the flowers and silks and leaves that draped the members of his own court.

His feet still held enough of summer’s heat to melt the icy floors beneath him, which did nothing to warm him. His outer garments were now stiff with ice, and touches of frost crept upon his face. But the ruby still pulsed within his hand. Enough warmth to let him follow the attendants of the Winter Queen.

They brought him to a magnificent room carved from clear ice, as beautiful as anything in his own court, glimmering in the light of moon and stars. February put a goblet of hot spiced wine in his hands, almost making him drop the ruby, murmuring of the honor. November called for warm furs and wool blankets, and urged him to sit on a hard couch covered with sealskin. The King refused; he wished to stand before the Winter Queen. But he did sip the wine, nodding his approval as snow fell from his eyelashes, splashing into the drink.

It seemed hours before the Queen appeared, dressed simply, in black lined with the lightest of blues. Seven white seals escorted her, but the King did not see them. He saw only her face.

“King of Summer,” she said, her voice colder than the ice of her palace.

He inclined his head. “Queen of Winter. The tales do you little justice.”

“They are tales, not laws,” she answered. “They need not do justice.”

The King allowed himself to smile. “True. Especially since they have served their purpose, and brought me to you.”

“To speak of love, or so your messages said.” Her voice, if possible, grew even colder. “Love does not thrive in the Winter Court.”

A few attendants, who knew December quite well, shuffled in the background, but no one spoke out loud.

Has not, perhaps,” said the King, who had heard some of those tales. “It thrives well in the Summer Court.”

The Queen traced patterns of ice in the air. “A place very far from here.”

“No longer,” said the King. “I have brought a taste of it to you.”

As he spoke, he stretched out his hand, showing her the pulsing ruby.

The ice patterns shattered in the air, as a light mist filled the room.

The brilliance of the ruby seemed to dim, though the hand of the Summer King remained steady.

“Red,” whispered the Queen. “You dare.”

“For the love of the Winter Queen,” the Summer King said, stepping forward, “I do.”

“A lovely thing,” whispered the Queen, with something other than ice in her voice.

The Summer King gave the slightest of bows. “It is yours, if you will have it. As am I.”

And with those words, he placed the ruby in her hand.

The Winter Queen screamed. The seals behind her shot forward, sliding over the ice, knocking everyone down in their way—including February, still holding the goblets of hot spiced wine, and November, intent on the Summer King. Both she and November fell hard against the floor, flinging hot wine and dead leaves everywhere. Snowflakes called out, spinning away from the seals and the Queen and the mist—no, smoke—rising from her hand. The Queen screamed again, cracking the ceiling above, and a third time, sending two stars wailing from the room.

And with that third scream, the Summer King fell to the floor.

The Queen dropped the ruby, and held up her hand, allowing her attendants to see the burn marks on her skin.

The Summer King drew one long, ragged breath.

The Winter Queen held up both hands.

Far away, the Summer Court, the wind began to shriek, loudly enough that July clapped her hands over her ears, and two great branches of an ancient oak tree that had once been a friend of the Summer King snapped off and fell to the ground.

In the Winter Court, they watched in silence as a coat of ice covered the Summer King.

“Majesty,” whispered an attendant, though no one knew which Majesty was meant.

“He came for Winter,” the Winter Queen said, after a long moment, “and Winter he shall have. Dig through the ice on my greatest lake, and let him fall beneath its waters. Send rabbits and swans to his court, to let them know their King knows Winter at last.”

Her attendants bowed.

November kept his head bowed as the Queen departed, and thus did not see what others claimed was a single tear of ice running down her cheek. She did not look at November, either, and thus did not see him quietly pocket the ruby in his great woolen cloak.

Summer did not quite die with the death of the Summer King. But it dimmed. The light never felt truly bright. The warmth never felt really warm. June pined, and fruit trees drooped. July wept, and water overflowed. August mourned, and days grew shorter. The Lady of Spring would not leave her rivers, and her flowers faded. The Lord of Autumn complained that his wines were not as rich, and his apples tasted hard and bitter. The ancient oak tree that had once been a friend of the Summer King lost leaf after leaf, branch after branch, until finally it seemed little more than a dark pattern against a dimmed blue sky, without a hint of green.

Even in the quiet Winter Court, some claimed they felt something odd about the court, though when asked, they could not say what. An absence of birds, perhaps, or of seals. Neither birds nor seals had exactly been prominent in the court before, but they had been there, and their absence was noted. Perhaps the paleness: the Winter Court had never been a place of color, but now, even the rare dark greens and blues of the court seemed covered in thin layers of snow, bleaching them to near invisibility. The attendants of the Winter Court were fond of snow—they could not have lived there, if not—but even their eyes began to weary of the endless white. Perhaps the wine: the sweet ice wines of the court had not lost their tang, but the hot spiced wines they relied on in the coldest halls required both spice and the rich wines of Autumn, and both had faded with the King.

What the Winter Queen thought of this, no one knew, though some claimed that she returned again and again to the lake where her attendants had placed the Summer King, now sealed in thick ice.

Some even claimed to see an icy tear or two upon her cheek, as unlikely as that seemed.

In time, December grew weary of the gloom of the Winter Court, and headed to the halls of the Lord of Autumn. But these halls, too, were quiet, and December found almost no one in the halls other than November. He was wet, and dreary, and the leaves that clung to his cloak were dull grey. She herself had tried to drape herself in the bright red holly berries that grew just beyond the Winter Court, but when she looked down, she saw that those berries, too, had swiftly faded, and she was as dull as anything else in the halls of Autumn.

“Who knew that Fall and Winter were in such need of the Summer King?” December asked.

“Spring, too, if the tales are true.”

December avoided the gardens of Spring, and could not say. “And yet the Summer Court chooses no new king.”

“Perhaps they cannot, without the old.” He frowned at his spiced wine, which was lukewarm, and somewhat sour.

“Perhaps you might return him,” December said idly.

“Me?”

“You did bring him to the Winter Queen.” A few dull berries slipped from her robes.

“At the request of the Summer Court.”

“You could have refused,” December said.

November could not deny this. Nor could he deny that the thought of the King and their conversations on their journey still haunted him. He touched the ruby, still hidden deep within his cloak. And so, after he found a second cloak, to keep the ruby still more hidden—and shield himself, as much as possible, from Winter’s chill—he returned to the Winter Court.

Far away, in the Summer Court, the old oak tree that had once befriended the Summer King fell over in a sudden wind.

All was frozen and silent at the Winter Court. Even November, who had once spent centuries dallying in its icy halls, could not remember such heavy ice and snow. But it was not hard to find where the Summer King was concealed. Seven seals sat in a rough circle on a lake near the great halls of Winter, fresh ice thick beneath them. The same seals who had followed the Queen when she had met the Summer King, November thought, though he could not be sure. The skies were dark and grey, and he was not an expert on seals.

He soon learned, however, that the seals did not want him to approach the Summer King. They grunted and squealed as he strode forward, and then rushed at him, all at once. He was more agile than they on the ice, but they were faster, and had sharper teeth, and he was gravely bruised and bleeding before they retreated. They did not remove their eyes from him.

November tried to cut the ice with an iron knife, but the blade cracked and broke within moments, leaving the ice untouched. He tried to melt the ice with fire, but the fires he built were all cold, and swiftly died. He tried to thaw the ice with heavy rains, but each raindrop turned to snow and ice, leaving the Summer King more deeply buried than before, and November’s own hands thick with frost.

The ruby hidden in his pocket still pulsed, and when he pulled it out, he felt a little warmer, even if the frost lingered on his hands. He placed it upon the ice that covered the Summer King. Behind him, the seals made whimpering noises. But the ruby did little more than turn the ice slick, and no matter how much November pressed it into the ice, he could not make it release its summer heat to free the Summer King.

At last, he pulled the ruby from the ice, and turned to the seals.

“Would you go to the Winter Queen, and tell her that I must humbly beg her aid?”

Two of the seals responded by sliding forward and sinking their teeth deep into his skin.

For the next few moments November was too distracted by pain and teeth to notice that the other seals had all vanished, not even leaving tracks for him to follow. He despaired, but not for long. Even in the halls of Autumn, he had heard of how she was said to return to this place, and study the ice concealing the Summer King. Nor did he believe she would allow November to linger too long on her lakes, unchallenged.

In this, November was right. Some of the seal bites were still bleeding when she appeared, cold and dark, cloaked in midnight blue.

“I cannot free him,” November told her, with a slight incline of his head.

“No, you cannot,” she said coolly.

“But perhaps the heat of Summer can.”

“Where would you find that, in this realm?”

“In the stone he meant for you.” He opened his hand. The ruby glimmered in the harsh moonlight, and warmed his cold fingers. “Perhaps you can release its heat.”

“And be burned again?”

“And let Summer live, unfaded.”

“That is of no concern to the Winter Court.”

“Spring and Autumn as well.”

“Of even less concern.”

Her eyes remained on the ruby sparkling in his hand. “And things of red.”

The Queen stood very still. “They have never thrived in the Winter Court.”

“But they can be glimpsed,” November promised, recklessly enough. His own chests were filled with gems of grey and white and amethyst, and the leaves in his home were yellow and brown. “They may fade here, but you will at least see red again. And again.”

Her eyes turned towards the distant stars, that here in winter seemed always cold and blue.

“Hand me the stone.”

November did, offering his own hand as well.

The Queen screamed again as the ruby touched her skin. The seals behind her whimpered. November felt the heat rising from the ruby, hot enough to burn his own skin.

Enough to melt the ice below.

November shouted as the ice cracked beneath them, leaving them standing on small plates of ice, as the water began gushing below them, warm and hard as a summer’s rain. And shouted again at the sight of a green hand in the water below.

He would have leaped into the water, but the Winter Queen stopped him with her burned hand. “Allow them,” she said, and as he watched, the seals dove into the water, and pulled out the Summer King.

He was still and pale, and November could not see him breathe.

Yet far away, in the realms of summer, three stars watched as first a leaf, and then a branch, rose up from the rough stump of the fallen oak tree, and began to wave beneath the wind and sun.

“Take him from here,” said the Queen. “And do not forget your word.”

The ice of Winter lingered long with the Summer King. His once-rich green skin was first a sickly white, then a sickly yellow, and then no more than the palest green, even after a journey to the gardens of the Lady of Spring, and a swim in Summer’s warmest lakes. His hair remained streaked with white, and he could not look at things of red without a stab of pain.

Yet in time, the Summer King began a dalliance with July, and then with August, and then both at once, before entering into a slow green love with a young maple tree, whose leaves trembled at the sound of his laughter. It was doomed, but the Summer Court rejoiced and danced, and stars spun merrily in its fragrant halls.

The Winter Queen remained on her ice-bound lakes, largely leaving the duties of her Court to merry December and quiet February. (In all of this, no one had found January; some found it comforting proof that January was nothing more than a legend.) The seals who had once followed her had vanished. No one was quite sure where they had gone, though tales were told of the new cloaks November now wore to Autumn balls—cloaks made, they thought, of fur.

But sometimes, the Summer King was seen to look at bright cloths embroidered with the patterns of snowflakes, or gaze at diamonds clear as ice, that could swiftly cut his skin, or ask every torch and fire to be quenched, leaving his courtiers to dance in the dark. And a few—after imbibing some of the rich wines of the Lord of Autumn—even claimed that they had seen rabbits racing to the north, holding something bright and red in their mouths.

And on his trips to the Winter Court, carrying heaps of bright red things, November sometimes saw the Winter Queen let her fingers run across the dark greens of the Winter Court—not summer greens, but greens nonetheless, or turn her head towards the skies and the stars the Summer King was known to love. And once, he thought he saw her place her finger against her chest, as if to touch something hidden there. Something that—he blinked—almost seemed to hold a flash of ruby red. But that was, he knew, unlikely—as unlikely as finding January in the Summer Court.

And so he did not think about it, but returned to his revelries, as the Winter Queen skated on her lakes, and the Summer King pressed sharp diamonds against his palms.

 

(Editors’ Note: “The Ruby of the Summer King is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 35B.)

Mari Ness

Mari Ness has published poetry and fiction in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fireside, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, and previously here in Uncanny. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, is currently available from Papaveria Press, and her first essay collection, Resistance and Transformation: On Fairy Tales, is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press. For more, see her website at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter @mari_ness. She lives in central Florida.

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