The steppe ended in the distance, the horizon shattered by snow-choked mountains. From my window, I could see the clouds roiling white, the azurite sky behind it a challenge.
Not a challenge, I reminded myself. I could hear my mother’s voice in my ears. Never a challenge. A welcome. Welcome the cold. Welcome the snow, Daughter.
I waited, palm up in invitation until my arm grew sore. Until even my cold-hardened face was uncomfortable. And when my attention drifted to the desk beside me, I gave up, cursing. I didn’t want to welcome the cold, didn’t want to turn the weather.
I wasn’t a magician, and no matter how much my mother wished otherwise. I wanted to be a scientist.
My mother’s house was, of necessity, a place of cold wars. I carried the newest declaration in my hand as I went to find her, ignoring my ever-disappointing lessons in magic. I had read the paper a hundred times, trying to gather my wits for my mother’s frigid regard.
Her palace was a wonder of ice, wrought into walls and doorways, galleries, and apartments. Each morning, she would sit in her apiary, a tray beside her, cups of white bone china ready for her morning tea. My mother had always preferred Jasmine tea as her snow-bees danced around her. I preferred Gunpowder Black.
Today, she sat in her snow-wicker chair, a leopard curled around her feet. She wore white damask, a bear fur shrug across her shoulders. Mother sipped her tea and listened as the snow-bees told her of the sights they’d seen in their travels. They danced for her, and she understood—she was their queen.
There was a looking glass behind her, hairline cracks breaking the reflection into a thousand pieces. I watched as Mother sent a snow-bee into the distance. There would be a blizzard somewhere in the world.
I knew she was disappointed that her only child did not have wings like snowflakes and eyes like dark winter. I had never been small enough to dance on her fingertips and proclaim the wonders I’d seen. I had settled for essays and letters and books of dark leather.
She was magic and I—no matter how much I tried—was not.
I unfolded the paper that had arrived by post that morning. I read it again. Mother did not look at me as the bee-swarm grew thicker. One or two landed on my hands, but I brushed them away. I had learned to hate my snow-winged siblings.
“I’ve been accepted to University,” I said. There could be no preliminaries for that conversation; no warnings or advisories.
She did not speak.
“In Copenhagen,” I added. “I’m to take a degree in Boreal Alpinology.”
It was my concession to her. If I could not be magic, I could be snow. She loved the snow.
My mother did not speak for a while longer. She sipped her pale tea and watched her bees. I was the dark-haired daughter she had borne and that was the latest in a long line of disappointments. I did not care for her gentle teas, her precious insects, or the bluster of winter through the fjords.
We were too different, and we were both tired of pretending we were not.
I sighed. “I will study the movement of snowstorms. The growing and shrinking of glaciers. I will learn why the Aurora glows.”
There were only so many words to make her understand.
A single pale brow rose on her face. “Why not simply ask them?”
Because that was magic.
She had tried to teach me to love the blizzards that hunted the palace grounds, and the squalls that danced through her many galleries. I could not love her snow-choked rose gardens any more than she could understand why I read the diaries of Meta Brevoort and Lucy Walker.
“Because,” I said. There was no answer my perfect, icy, mother would understand. “Because it will be a place where I am not a pale copy of you. I have failed miserably at frost-craft, so perhaps I will learn something worth knowing.”
“No,” my mother said. “You will learn here. You have not been a diligent daughter.”
I knocked her teacup from where it sat. It shattered on the floor
“When will you let me live my life, Mother? How long will you keep me trapped behind the drifts? I am not you. I will not have a Storyteller come over the hills, break my heart, and leave me with child. Perhaps in Copenhagen I might be free.”
And perhaps I was as much like my father as I was unlike my mother. That, I left unspoken.
The Snow Queen stood and her ice swarm erupted out into the air. She did not look back as she left the apiary. The wind that blew off her skin carried her voice back to me. It held a bitter edge.
“You think that I am a queen from a Fairy Tale. Fairy Tales are never true, Daughter.”
The silence that followed was bitter cold.
“You will take a sledge south before the spring, then,” the wind said. “And when you have learned to be warm, perhaps you will come home to learn that there is more to winter than the cold.”
I nodded, heart in my throat. She would spend the rest of her day maintaining her frozen kingdom, attended by her bitter-wind courtiers.
“I hope you are happy, Ylsa. I hope you find what you seek,” the wind said in a quiet, final breath.
“I’m sorry,” I said, but my mother had always been too far away. I could name what I sought: my place.
My leave-taking was quiet. Mother’s snow-bees whirled around the sledge as I hitched up the bears. They were restless; the air had begun to smell of spring. Mother did not wish me good luck or good speed. The gentle kiss of the bees was all the farewell I received as we went south. I had packed everything I thought a young student would need: quill pens and dark ink, sensible shoes, and a wool sweater to keep out the chill.
I was not prepared for Copenhagen. It perched beside the Baltic beneath a coal-fire cloud. The bears liked it not at all, but they deposited me in the midst of the yellow-painted buildings outside the University. When they left, my trunks piled in the dirty snow, their white fur had been painted an ugly shade of grey by the sooty air.
By then, a crowd had formed and I was reminded of my earliest childhood lesson: it is not easy to be the Snow Queen’s daughter. Too many people had read the stories and confused fairy tales with real life, me included.
It took most of the afternoon to find a room to rent. The University bursar kept a list of homes that would rent to lady students. The proprietor of each boarding house was polite, offered me tea, and said that they did not have accommodations that would be appropriate for me. Then they sent me on my way.
Mrs. Lang did not. Her house was on the edge of the harbor. The room she offered was a tiny place under the eaves.
“If you’re lucky, you can see the sea on a good day,” she said, pointing to the windows. “I’ll expect payment first of every month. I’ll treat you the same as all the other girls, princess or not. We English women have had our fair share of White Queens. I am not so easily intimidated.”
I was intimidated, even with her wink, but I took the room. The fur blanket that I laid over the end of my tiny bed seemed out of place next to the checkered flannel sheets. That night though, as I breathed in the raw city air, I coughed and wondered if it were not the most beautiful feeling in the world.
My classes were challenging. I hadn’t expected to be the only woman with the half-dozen men. Each of them hoped for postings from the Danish Crown, and royal patronage to line their pockets. They were, in their own estimation, the next generation of adventurers, prepared to capture fame and glory on the frozen expanses of the world.
I was as quick-witted as any of them. Better read, by far. We studied more places than I could admit were within my mother’s lands. But they had no use for me. I had been to the glaciers they dreamed about in their blue-smoked parlors. But as the holidays came and went, as faces changed and the seasons moved, I was not one of them.
I had left my mother’s frozen halls and found the University just as chill. I was unwelcome, a scientist among strangers.
They said that royalty was not fit for their taverns, or to socialize with their ladies. I had no interest in sipping vodka from shared bottles. They told me to find trees to whisper to, or cast spells, to stop pretending and go back to where I belonged. I was lonely.
A man spent three days outside my library carrel. At first, he pretended to search the stacks just outside my line of sight. It was unlikely that anyone in Copenhagen would be so interested in the library’s collection of Tropical Gardening instructions. He wore a blue frock coat and had dark hair. His fingers were long and thin and he traced the spines of the books with delicate touches.
“The books don’t change,” I said as he glanced at me for the fifth time in an hour. I was preparing for an exam and had books piled on the desk, marking them with slips of paper to go back to research. I did not appreciate men staring at me. I was not a white-furred bear to dance for anyone.
“Nor do I much change. So you’ll be as welcome to stare at me from between the books next week as today. I have exams, and your staring is more than a bit of distraction.”
He jumped away from the shelf as though it has frozen over. “I’m sorry. I—“
“You’re leaving,” I offered and then turned back to my studies.
“I’m actually Jonas,” he said, “But I’ll follow your orders, your Highness. In case you decide to turn me into a snowman or some such. It’s true what they say about you, Snow Princess.”
He tipped his head toward me, tapping his fingers against his head as though he were a respectable man wearing a hat, and then turned to leave.
“What?” I said, slamming shut the book on S. A. Andrées’ Arctic balloon expedition. The words echoed in the silence of the library. There were more than a few young men who shot disapproving glances toward me. I did not care.
“Your Highness?” the man—Jonas—said.
“What is it that they say about me?”
“That the Princess Ylsa has skin of the most delicate frost, and she is too smart, too sure, more like a story than a real person. Good day, your Highness.”
“You think it’s so simple?” I raised my voice to follow him, like the echoing of a scream down the crevasse of bookshelves. “When everyone who doesn’t hate you because a woman does not belong in this University is terrified that every snow flake might be the Queen’s harbinger, come to freeze them in their sleep?”
“I would never imagine what it would be like to walk through a winter palace, waited on hand-and-foot by polar bears, and want for nothing in the world. I am merely a student of business and a servant of the King.” He turned back away from me. “I have heard stories of your mother for a long time. I’d come to see if they were true.”
I followed him, stung, but determined to show this strange man the truth of me. I left my studies in their book-drift piles. And when Jonas Collin asked me to accompany him to a tavern for rye bread and smoked herring, I did not think about balloons over the arctic or the stunted trees that grew up from the snow. I thought about the way he called me Snow Princess as though I wasn’t the queen’s dark-haired, misfit, child.
When we kissed the first time, his breath came away white, like winter, blue like crag-ice.
I took him as a lover. Perhaps it was not the way things were done in the civilized age, but I learned the shape of him in the darkness and the lines of his smile lit only by moonlight through the open window of my rented room. If Mrs. Lang had an opinion, she kept it to herself.
When morning broke from that first night, I opened my eyes to find him warm beside me, the paleness of his skin looking beautiful beneath the bear fur. There was a strange weight at the end of my small bed, though. As I looked away from him, I saw that the window was open and that the winter wind gusted through my garret room.
Jonas smiled when he woke beside me. I was still, unmoving. I would not be bent, or bribed, or intimidated. He grew quiet when he saw my mother’s leopard at the foot of the bed, staring at him—judging him. He laughed when the cat crawled up the bed, pressed its cold muzzle against my face and left the way it had come in.
He pulled me close and kissed me again as I tried to apologize, to explain.
“One must expect strange things from the Snow Princess,” he said. He tasted like the warmth beneath the blanket, when the storm clouds feel very far away. “But I am glad to find no mirror-glass in my eye this morning.”
They liked to say that my mother had stolen her sweetheart by piercing his eye with a shard from her broken mirror. I wanted to tell him it was a lie, a Fairy Tale like so many others, but his lips on mine were enough. The kisses were what I wanted, something that was just for me. It was more than enough.
Students wrapped thick scarves around their faces and did their best to stay warm as the wind pulled at their skin. I walked bareheaded and smiled to myself as I left the lecture hall.
Jonas wore a dark frock coat. He saw me in the snow—I know he did—but he walked past me as though he hadn’t. He’d looked at me and kept walking. I turned, called out his name, but he was gone, as though he had never been. Only his footprints in the snow proved he’d passed.
Some days he lurked by me in the library, stealing kisses when I should have been studying. He had classes and seminars of his own, but he always seemed a little sad when I asked him to accompany me to the theatre, or to see a musical performance.
My mother’s kingdom did not have engagements or betrothals. I did not understand the ways of mortal men. The winds took lovers when they wished, left them when the time was right. I had meant to do the same and let Jonas choose when and where we met. It had been my mother’s way—the only way I knew to love. Though I tried to be like the snow-storm zephyrs, to let the fickleness leave me unmoved, it did not work.
The Storyteller had come north out of Copenhagen. My mother had loved him with all her cold heart as she’d never loved me. He’d taken her story and left the Queen a daughter with his dark hair.
The Storyteller had sold stories of my mother in Copenhagen, stories that her bees carried to her and her broken mirror. They had been lies, stories and untrue. All untrue. I wondered if all men were liars and for the first time since coming to Copenhagen, I felt myself grow cold to the fickleness of Jonas Collin.
He liked to ask questions of her, of me, after we made love. Were there really snow-bees in her castle? Did she have a mirror that looked out onto the world? Did I have magic? Had she stolen a boy away and made him love her? Yes, and yes, and no, and no.
Things came to a head one day as the winter grew deep and long and the students at Copenhagen were off to visit family in the country. Mrs. Lang’s boarding house was warm, despite the weather. It was too cold for snow, and the sky was the clear blue of forever.
Jonas lingered beneath the bear skin blanket. I had begun to think of him as two separate men: the one who was at home in the private warmth we shared, the second a colder man who only lurked and lingered at the edges of my life. No one should have stood for it.
But he was warm, and I looked into his brown eyes as I wrapped myself closer around him.
“What is she like? My uncle tells me so many stories about her. Everyone does,” he asked me. His voice was still thick from sleep. He buried his face in my hair.
“The stories are lies,” I said. I felt hot all through. I hated the Storyteller for the way people thought of her. Hated what they thought of me as her daughter.
“Does she really have a broken mirror? Does she make the snow fall?”
He was quiet when I didn’t answer immediately, running his fingers through the ends of my hair. Waiting.
“She’s a bit like you,” I said.
“On some days, she’s the winter every child dreams of. She’s gentle and soft and when I was little, dancing with her through her palace was like being wrapped up in a cloud of gentle snow. It’s like when you kiss me, Jonas. Or when we come up the stairs and you lay back against the blankets.”
“Other times,” I said, “she is like you when you see me passing from class to class. She is cold and uncaring. The winter does not love many, and even those the Snow Queen loves can feel the chill of her regard.”
“Ylsa—” The man pulled away from me. “It’s not like that.”
“There are days where you say that I’m all you think about, Jonas. There are nights where we watch the Aurora Borealis from the window and laugh and sip tea. There are days where you don’t even act like I exist. And always there are questions. Are the stories true? And I tell you again and again that they are lies.”
Jonas was quiet as I dressed. I did not put on a thick cloak or braid my hair. Instead, I opened the window and welcomed the cold against my skin. The coal-dusted air did not taste as sweet as it had. I suddenly longed for the silence of my mother’s house and the cold embrace of winter.
“There are times, Ylsa, where you are bright and wonderful and smart. You are going to be a scientist and the world will know your name. And other times you are a squall coming off the harbor and everything in me screams to brace myself for the impact of you. They say so many things about you.”
I wondered if the Storyteller had told my mother such lies, before he left her. Was that all I was? A story?
“What do they say, Jonas?” I asked.
“That when your classmates fare better on exams, you send snow-bees to their rooms and threaten to freeze them. That the winter wind howls through their garret rooms. That you’ve taken lovers and left them cold in the snow.”
I turned to him and laughed. It was an ugly noise, like the cracking of ice or the harsh sound of frozen snow underfoot on a starless night.
“This is not a fairy tale, Jonas. My mother did not spirit you away or break a mirror into your eye, any more than she did the Storyteller who made her so infamous. I have no magic and whatever they say of me is lies even more.”
“Ylsa,” he said, standing. He left the fur on the bed as he came to me, all naked and beautiful. “I have been as honest as I can be. There is no one else and sometimes I fear that beneath your smile, your temper, your ferocity—the things that I love so much about you—is something cold and I will be another story they tell to children. Sometimes I worry that there is a magic in you that has bespelled me. When I am not near you, I want to be. And sometimes I want it so badly that the only thing I can do is be aware from you, so make sure that it is still a choice I have.”
“I am no magic, Jonas. I am a scientist. I have never been magic. I thought you understood.”
He tried to kiss my neck, but I pulled away.
“I am going home,” I said.
I ignored him and went to take my trunks from beneath the bed. Jonas followed and took my hands in his. His hair was still disheveled and he’d kept his face shaved because I had hated his moustache.
“Come and meet my parents,” he said. “Come to dinner and meet them. Meet my uncle, who was so enamored by the stories of your mother. Let them see you. I am sorry that I have not been certain about my feelings for you, Ylsa. It has taken me time to learn how to love you, and I am still a novice.”
I forgave him, because I was a novice in love as well, and Jonas was so warm, even when I missed the simplicity of the cold. I agreed to visit his parents, in their house at 9 Amaliegade.
My hired carriage slowed before the Collins’ house, built back from its siblings along Amaliegade Street. I had dressed in white linen and scalloped lace. I had pulled my dark hair up into a complicated braid and did my best not to be nervous. I wanted his parents to like me. I wanted the man I saw as I entered the house to be the warm Jonas that I loved, not the cold man that seemed to face me too often. I wanted him to forget the stories that he’d heard and live in the moments we had made together. Not someone who thought I’d bespelled him. I had a secret to tell him, and I was worried that he would not like it.
The footman bowed deeply as I entered the house. The foyer was lit by gas lamps and it was warm. I had never been to a party before. Not one where the women wore sparkling jewels and bright feathers. No, I knew only the parties of storms, and as quickly as I entered the Collins’ house, I was adrift in the flow of people.
It was some time before I found Jonas. He wore a dark suit coat with a pale blue cravat. My lover spoke to a tall man who had his back to me. I smiled when Jonas looked up and he smiled back.
“I’m so glad you came,” he said as I approached. “I was just talking to Uncle about you. I wanted you to meet him.”
The man turned and the world slowed.
Jonas’ uncle was tall and gawkish. His clothing was well made, but fit poorly. His hair was dark and his eyes were two black coals over the beak of a nose. Jonas moved him forward, still smiling.
“Ylsa, I would like you to meet my uncle Christian. Christian, this is Ylsa.”
Jonas’ uncle did not extend his hand.
“Hello, Ylsa,” he said. His voice was thin, like mountain clouds. “Jonas has told me so much about you.”
I felt like I’d been slapped.
The air went cold inside the house. The glasses with their fancy champagne became rimed with frost.
“Hello, Storyteller,” I said.
Jonas’ smile was frozen to his face, he looked back and forth between us.
“You should not trust her, Nephew,” The Storyteller said, holding his iced-over glass. “As I’ve told you and you’ve chosen to ignore. I know. She will freeze your heart as her mother did mine.”
“Ylsa?” Jonas said, looking at me, then back at the glass.
“I am not magic,” I said, shaking my head. Why now? Not now, please not now. “I am a scientist. I came to Copenhagen to learn and it seems that what I have learned is that there are lies here just like everywhere else.”
There were a thousand other things I could have said, answers I could have demanded, but I turned around, wrapping my hands around my stomach.
“Ylsa!” Jonas yelled. I looked back to see the Storyteller—my father—holding his arm.
“She is just like her mother. Using you, Jonas.”
I walked back through the Collin house and then out onto the street. It had begun to snow, and there were carriages still arriving, turning the white to muddy water.
Jonas followed behind me.
“I don’t understand. Ylsa, what’s happened?” he said. He reached for my hand. I was tired. “You haven’t met Mother or Father. You know Uncle Christian? I don’t understand.”
“Your Uncle is Hans Christian Andersen,” I said. “The Storyteller.”
“Yes,” he said.
“He told you I was bespelling you,” I said. “Told you I was…”
The words ran out and the look on Jonas’ face did not draw them out.
Someone called out Jonas’ name from an arriving carriage. I felt the cold mud as it hit me, leaving brown tracks against my dress. The carriage wood was carefully polished, the wheels high enough not to notice when the street-muck was disturbed.
“Jonas!” the Storyteller was at the doorway, calling him. “Jonas! Magic! Do you still doubt me? Let her go, she doesn’t love you.”
I laughed and turned away from them both. A cold wind raced down from the North, freezing the mud and snapping at my face. My mother’s story repeated itself. When Jonas reached for me again, he pulled his fingers back, frost-burned.
“You said you weren’t magic,” he said, eyes wide.
The tear that slid down my face froze as it fell.
“Uncle Christian, stop talking. Ylsa—” Jonas called out to me as I stepped toward the street. My dress was ruined. It didn’t matter what impression I made on his mother and father. It didn’t matter what impression I made on his uncle, it only mattered that my feet follow their way north.
I had stayed too long in Copenhagen. It was time to go home.
Mother sent the bears for me on my second day of walking. The city had given way to snow-clogged fields. My pretty dress had gone to tatters, my embroidered shoes lost somewhere along the city canal. I didn’t recognize the bears at first as they crossed the field. Their paws were quiet in the stillness of the gentle snowfall.
I was cold, but it was my heart that ached, not my body.
It was another full day before we reached my mother’s house. It was still a place of cold wars and frozen secrets, perched between a nameless fjord and an ancient glacier. In the afternoon sun, the ice-walls were green, and the storms that cavorted around its towers caroled our homecoming. It was only then that I looked behind me and my broken heart froze a little bit more. He was not there. I had not actually expected Jonas to follow. The Storyteller spun his lies. And Jonas had believed. The days where he was cold and distant. The times where I did not exist.
Mother sat in her apiary. The snow-bees were quiet as she sipped her tea. Mother’s leopard sat at her feet and looked at me with sorrow in his eyes. I sat in my chair beside the frozen fireplace and was quiet. The Snow Queen and I were quiet for a long time.
“Did you love the Storyteller?” I asked at last.
She sipped her tea.
“Yes,” my mother said. “I loved him more than evergreens love the first snowfall.”
The mirror behind her reflected the smoke-clogged rooftops of Copenhagen. I could see the window of my garret room.
“Did you know his nephew would break my heart?”
“We must all live our lives, Daughter.”
I pulled my legs up beneath me, as I had when I was a child. “I did not want magic. I wanted to be a scientist.”
I wanted Jonas to love me.
I touched the place where the mud from the party had stained my dress.
Mother stood slowly and waved the snow-bees away. She stood close enough to me for me to scent the jasmine tea on her breath. Where she touched the linen, it changed, until it was white again. As I looked, it was white like fallen snow, the ripped lace pulled back into place as though it had never been rent.
“I loved the Storyteller and he loved another. He fled to the North because the man he loved could not love him in return. I knew all of it and chose him anyway.”
The Snow Queen, in all her years as my mother, had never held me. She did then, pulling me to her as I cried. She was not warm as Jonas had been. But she was the thick fall of snow that covers the world. She was my mother and she would never leave me to the dirty world.
“I’m sorry I left,” I said. “I should never have gone. I’ll never leave again. I have magic now.”
“Silly girl. How can you say you’ll never leave again? You have a degree to finish. Trees to question, snow to study. All of the world to explore.”
I could not look at her. Not when I saw the look on Jonas’ face. Not when I knew that I had followed my mother’s story, right until the end.
“I hope my daughter does not look like him,” I said softly.
The Snow Queen said nothing, only smiled still.
“You will choose whether you will follow my story or not, Ylsa. You can choose to let your love freeze, because your Jonas listened to words that were lies. You can let your daughter grow up cold and lonely.”
A snow-bee landed on her shoulder. She looked at it with pale eyes as it danced, nodding as it flew off.
“Or, you can go out to your Jonas Collin, who is half-dead in the snow, calling your name. He is out on the Steppes, even now, Copenhagen far behind him. He made good time for a man who does not know the first thing about winter or the cold. But perhaps he’s learned to love the Snow Queen’s daughter, no?”
Mother smiled at me. I felt a strange tightness low in my stomach, not what grew there, but fear and a needling of hope.
“He followed me?” I asked. I looked at the Snow Queen’s broken mirror. Jonas was there, wrapped in a coat that was too thin, in a squall that he fought with each step.
“Foolish,” I said, standing and crossing to the mirror as Mother had since I was a child. I stepped through the mirror and out into the white, to see if the man who came was the cold creature, or the warm. Mother’s snow-bees guided my way out into the drifts.
He standing in the snow.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His eyes did not leave my face. “I listened to someone I thought I could trust, instead of my heart. I love you, Ylsa. Snow and frost and everything besides.”
He was shivering. And in one moment I had my choice. I could leave him in the cold, to find his way. To freeze. I could gather my anger around myself, my rage that he had believed the Storyteller and not told me. Or I could go to him.
I crossed the distance between us, pulling him into my arms.