The queen in her dark halls kept a mirror of ice that had never known the sun’s kiss. Within it was frozen a maiden with pale lips and sweet eyes. A man appeared in the mirror’s cold depths. The queen breathed over its surface, erasing his reflection, and turned. Waited.
The man was not yet old. His eyes were large and dark, seeing too keenly into the shadows of this gray place, its listless shades. He opened his hands to her; dimly, even at a distance, the queen felt their warmth. A musician’s calluses marked his fingertips. His hands were beautiful even so, strong and lean.
“I thought you had come to play for my husband,” said the queen.
The musician’s smile was ironic. “The echoes in these your halls cast strange dissonances. You know, you and your husband, what I came for. Why bring music into it?”
“We hear music so seldom here,” said the queen. She did know her purpose. It pleased her to delay mentioning it. Here, where no green things grew, she felt winter. Blinded, chained, she would have felt the sun’s withdrawal and the fallen leaves, the dead flowers. She was neither blinded nor chained. Winter made her restless in her husband’s halls.
“Are there no poets to praise your eyes?” said the musician. “Or the long fall of light over your shoulder?” His gaze never moved beyond her to the mirror.
She liked the effort. Spring, youth, light–these must be newly painful to him, not the welcome, bitter ache they had become for her. “That’s not the trouble,” she said. “Who can speak of fruits on the tongue, or the color of the sea at twilight, when everything here is either gray or forbidden?”
“Then speak of other things,” he said. “The rocks. The shadows upon the rocks. The footsteps–” His breath caught. A dim shape moved in the halls beyond, bearing an unbearable burden. A moment later, the musician said, “I’m sorry. Manipulation is too easy.”
The queen laughed. “Isn’t that what your singing does? Isn’t that what music is?”
“No,” said the musician. Then: “Yes. That’s part of it.”
“And the whole?”
“They say–you know what they say happens when I sing, how the wind stills and the birds listen. When I play the lyre. The best poetry, the cruelest, remembers what we will become.” His eyes were compassionate. “The best music. And so.”
“And so?” the queen asked, in spite of herself. She watched the way the shadows defined his mouth and gathered in his hair. “Say why your music moves people. Why it is power.”
The musician did not flinch from the word, her implicit rebuke. He had meant to bribe her and her husband with music, to still death’s hand. “What we become,” he said. “The future describes the past; numbers describe the world. What is music but a cult of number? Ratios, rhythms. All I do is sing what I see.”
“Surely anyone could do that,” said the queen.
“Surely,” he said. “I do it.”
“And I cannot.” Unlike him, she lived outside the world’s weave.
“Surely,” he said again. “What good is any of it? I can number and unnumber the days, but they will not run backwards.”
He was coming to his purpose. The queen supposed it was inevitable. She, too, could not unnumber days. “Your wife,” she said. And, because she wanted to hurt him, see that mouth flinch, the eyes unwarm: “Who betrayed you.”
“No more than she would have betrayed me at the end of her thread of years,” said the musician, “or I, her.”
“She left you. For my halls.”
“She chose the snake at her heel instead of the snake in her belly,” he said. “I don’t fault her. She wanted my child. I wanted hers. Death before dishonor.” His empty hands tensed and untensed. “Child or no child, let her come back to me and live out the last of her thread.”
“Everyone who comes here has a story,” said the queen, “a reflection plucked out the world’s eye.” She looked at him sidelong. “Why should you two be different?”
“Because everything here is gray or forbidden,” he said. The earlier passion, the violence, waned. Only his eyes remained other than colorless, and they were still dark. He opened his hands, then closed them.
“Send her back,” he said. “We will return to you in the passing of years. We were born to your kingdom. We have never departed. The future describes the past. Dream that our future describes yours.”
He was speaking to her. To her, not her husband. To her, not the grim shapes that moved in the halls.
If she leaned closer, she might taste his mouth, and his throat, and the warmth that winter denied her. She might let his sun-browned hands taste her skin. She said, “There could be a child.” She stood straight, unashamed, lips curving. She was a queen, not the laughing girl in the mirror.
The musician bowed over her outstretched hand. His breath stroked her skin. “The past,” he said in a low, low voice. “Your past. There could be a child between us.” He straightened and lifted his hand just short of her ear. “She would not have flowers in her hair. She would not catch the sun in her eyes.” His head tilted back a little. “Beautiful, yes. Treasured like the earth’s ores, yes.” He lowered his hand. “Gray. Ashen. Forbidden.”
Just as she was forbidden to leave, these winter months. She had not realized she was holding her breath. “And to think it was your singing I feared,” the queen said.
“What do you think I was doing?” The musician’s smile became crooked. “Did you think I needed a lyre?” The smile vanished. “I would give many things to have my wife walk beside me. That is not one of them. And it would not fill the silence in your heart.”
He had not questioned that she had one.
They stood in silence, neither yielding. The mirror captured him, but left the queen untouched. It already had the maiden.
“There is a price,” the queen said. She ran her thumb along the mirror’s edge, her gaze never leaving the musician’s, then drew the sheen of water across her lips and along the ridge of one tooth. “You are halfway to paying it.”
He stared into the mirror. “My wife,” he said.
“That is the other half,” she said. “Can you ask her to live beneath the sky but avoid the sun? Can you ask her to accept what I shall give to you, which cannot be given back?”
“She is accustomed to difficult choices,” the musician said. His eyes were steady. His voice was not.
The queen drew his head closer. Her fingertips bade him not to close his eyes. She kissed him redly, without tenderness. In the dark halls, the echoing silences, the musician made no sound but his heart’s last beats, an irregular and not unpleasing rhythm. He sank to his knees, staring up at her, blinded. Chained by what she had given him, the life that is not life.
“Go,” said the queen, smiling. “She will be at the gates. You must walk without looking for her face or her reflection. You must walk until you stand beneath the night. And there you must give her the red kiss, and she shall return to you.”
“My queen,” he said. The music was gone from his voice. He bowed deeply and greatly, despite his unsteadiness. His skin remembered sunlight, but it would soon forget. The queen regretted that.
Then the musician departed, as she had told him.
The future describes the past.
So it does, thought the queen, knowing the musician’s story. Knowing herself complicit in the second separation to come, and all the separations, the pomegranate kisses, that happened in the sunlit realm.
Within the mirror, the queen saw the maiden in her forever winter. The musician’s reflection, too, was wrapped and motionless. In the realm above, no water or metal would show him his face. The queen raised a hand to her mouth and wiped away the red.
So, she said to the maiden in their shared silent heart, you have companionship now.
She was a queen, and the maiden was not. It made all the difference.
The queen broke the mirror, leaving warm red fingerprints on the pieces, and thought no more of music, or spring, or any such thing so long as she dwelled in her husband’s dark halls.
Yoon Ha Lee’s fiction has appeared in F&SF and the anthology In Lands That Never Were. She lives in Washington state with her husband and daughter.
“The Sun’s Kiss” arose from exasperation with mythological heroes who undertake apparently foolish actions, and wondering if there might in fact be a good reason for said actions.