In the first days after Chernobog's defeat I lost track of time altogether. When Flek brought me the hand mirror showing its circle of sunlit sky, I just stared at her, blankly.
"Sundown approaches on the sixth day," she said, and a wave of exhaustion washed over me and I had to sit down. Here the sky was the cold white twilight of early spring. And time flowed differently than in the sunlit world. But I trusted her: if she said it was Friday afternoon there, then it was, and all of a sudden the weight of the week slammed into me.
"I should bathe before sundown," I said, aware of the words as they emerged from my mouth, but I felt no volition to make myself move. Now that I was sitting, everything ached.
"My daughter has drawn your bath," Flek said gently, and she helped me stand. She led me to the tub. The water was scented with a plant I could not name. I almost groaned aloud when the water surrounded me. It felt hot and sweet, balming aches I hadn't realized I had.
After a time with my eyes closed I stirred myself to move.
"Tell me the name of the herb in this water," I asked Rebekah as I washed.
"Silvergaze," she said, almost inaudibly. "Because the leaves look like eyes."
"What's funny?" she asked.
"In the sunlit lands there is also a tree whose leaves look like eyes," I told her. "It's called myrtle. We use its branches at Sukkot, if we can find them. And the leaves are fragrant, like this."
Rebekah was silent, but I thought she wanted to ask something. "Ask," I encouraged her.
"Sukkot?" she repeated, making the word a question.
"It is a festival of harvest," I said. Did they celebrate harvest in the Staryk lands? In the late winter, I supposed. Before the dangerous warmth began to make itself known.
Flek appeared with a towel to dry me off. It was as soft and white as snowy ermine. I felt lightheaded, almost drunk from the deliciousness of the bath.
"I will tell you all about Sukkot," I said, accepting the towel. "But I need dinner, and wine and bread, if not candles."
"Tsop has already laid your table," Flek said. "And I can provide a light." She had not made that offer, before. She had not been my bondswoman then, or had felt no inclination toward kindness: either way I could not blame her.
"Bring place settings for all of you," I called after her, and Rebekah gaped at me for an instant before she pulled herself together. I knew I was probably crossing half a dozen invisible lines. I could not bring myself to care.
By the time I was dressed and at table, the place settings were there, along with goblets of pale sparkling ice wine. On a silver tray there was a stack of a pale cracker topped with seeds: maybe not bread by my people's standards, but it would suffice. And Flek had brought a palm-sized globe of ice containing a tiny blue flame. The flame danced but seemed to release no heat; the ice encasing it didn't melt. I thought of the bush that burned but was not consumed.
I bentsched licht. I sang kiddush. I made motzi rather than saying mezonot, because I had seen nothing like Shabbat challah here, nor like the black bread that was our more usual fare. Whatever the Staryk took with meals would need to be my bread, now.
And then I turned to Rebekah, who was sitting in silence and listening intently, and I sang the words that my father used to say over me. "May you be blessed like Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel..."
Flek and Tsop glanced at each other, and then back at me, but they did not stop me.
For some time the king and I scarcely saw each other at all, though he would greet me graciously when our paths crossed.
Today, though, he was waiting for me when I returned from the lower pools, which I was pleased to see were filling again with small silver fish. Some even were not so small -- a good sign, I thought.
"You never cease to surprise me," he said by way of greeting.
That I had begun managing the kingdom's supplies, keeping a tally of every bushel and peck, had appeared not to faze him at all. As though, having seen me seal up the mountainside, he now presumed no skill to be beyond my ken. "What have I done now?"
"You're teaching her letters," the Staryk lord said, and I could not read his expression. He meant Rebekah.
"I am," I agreed, and braced for a fight. I didn't yet know whether girls here were encouraged to learn numbers or letters. Certainly no one had thought it fitting for me to learn my father's trade. The Staryk might be no better, and if so -- well: I had helped him bury his people's dead; I was not afraid of him, and I would not back down.
"Will you teach her the words of your prayers also, then?"
That surprised me. I hadn't known he was aware of our Shabbat dinners. He sounded more curious than angry, so perhaps I hadn't transgressed.
"I hadn't planned to," I said, truthfully.
"Flek is your bondswoman; it is..." He seemed to be choosing his words carefully. "It is not inappropriate for you to share your traditions with her daughter."
His careful turn of phrase made me feel reckless. I tossed his word back at him. "And if it were inappropriate, would you object?"
His eyes gleamed. "Not in the least." It might have been my imagination, but I thought him pleased. Though whether he were pleased by my stubbornness or by the fact that I was teaching Rebekah things she otherwise would not have learned, I couldn't say.
"If she wants to learn, I'll teach her." The words felt strangely like a vow.
"I am glad of it," he said, and rose to leave. He was almost out the door when he turned and asked, "Today we will finish cutting back the burned vines. If I were to return from the orchard in time for dinner, might I join, or is this a women's custom only, among your people?"
I almost said that surely he knew that as king he had the right to dine anywhere he wished, any night he wished, but just before the words left my lips I realized he meant Shabbat dinner. Would wonders never cease. "It is not for women only."
"Very well," he said, inclining his head in a fraction of a bow.
It wasn't until much later that I realized the melody I was humming was eshet chayil, the way my father used to sing it to my mother. This was no real marriage, of course. But for an instant it crossed my mind to wonder what it would be like to teach that tradition to Rebekah, too. That a husband should so value his wife, and prize her skills so highly he would sing her praises unbidden.
And then I put it out of my mind. There was much to do before Shabbat. I had in mind to visit the caverns where the violet mushrooms grew, and to learn how many had been harvested before the destruction.
Besides, I wanted to give Rebekah another lesson in numbers. And now that he had suggested it, I wanted to teach her alef-beit, too. Perhaps I would paint her first page of letters with honey, to teach her that learning what she does not yet know is sweet.
Late summer in the Staryk lands was sere and hungry. Tsop said it was always so, but I knew this year was worse because of the damage wrought by Chernobog. The walls and dwellings of ice had been long since restored, but the orchards were bare, and the fields. The farmers had ploughed destruction's ash back into the soil. I would not be here to see what would grow.
Many of the streambeds were dry. Shofer assured me they would flow again when the snows came, but my heart ached to see young deer picking their way through the empty riverbeds looking for little pools of water that were rarely to be found.
Even in the palace our meals were modest, because the king had distributed most of our stores. Like all of the Staryk, he was bound by a web of customs I scarcely understood. But he didn't keep our larders full when children were going hungry. That, I understood, and I admired it -- though I did not tell him so; I expect he would've been offended by my approbation.
Still, when Friday came to the the sunlit lands we always had plenty of the thin white crackers over which Rebekah had learned to make motzi. There was always wine for kiddush, which I sang. We never went hungry the way I had in the old days when my father had failed to collect what was owed.
Sometimes after dinner, if there were enough wine -- or better, the clear, thin fruit spirits that tasted like an ice-white draught of stone-fruit flame -- Tsop might sing a Staryk poem. Rebekah would listen attentively, learning the words of her people's songs as avidly as she learned mine.
True to his word, the king had come all summer to my Shabbat table. He didn't attend in formal court attire, which might have been meant as a subtle insult, though I didn't care. He always took the time to wash away the ash and dust of the rebuilding, at least. For me, the scent of silvergaze crumbled in my bath became the scent of Shabbat approaching.
He said little, but he noticed everything. He watched me raise my glass for kiddush, and the next week he lifted his, solemnly. It could have been a mocking gesture, but it didn't feel that way. He didn't look down on my customs because of my Jewishness. To him, every human custom was strange, and mine were no stranger than the Christians' would have been.
One week I covered our bread before motzi with my napkin, remembering the challah cover in my mother's house, and the next week there was a gossamer kerchief covering the bread. I knew enough by then not to thank him for it, but I glanced at it and then glanced at him, to make sure he knew I understood its provenance.
Sometimes after everyone else had departed the table, I would sit and watch the shadows cast by my one tiny blue flame against the endless twilight. And then I would reach for my books. My people might forswear labor on Shabbat, but tallying lists of the kingdom's stores didn't feel like work to me. It felt like taking care of my household, and that brought me comfort.
And then the first snows fell, and we traveled the king's road back to my parents' house, and in a heartbeat everything changed.
When we returned to the mountain newly-betrothed, everyone knew. The Staryk were lined up alongside the king's road three and four deep, cheering and waving sparkling ribbons in the air. I was no drab human stranger to them now. Six months I had worked and mourned and planted alongside them, and now they welcomed me home.
Now in theory I could go back and forth any time I pleased, while winter lasted. But it chafed me that I needed to ask the king to ferry me. Now that I was to be queen in more than name, I didn't see why I needed him to open the path. "Your kingdom is mine too," I reminded him, but he did not budge. "I should be able to open your road."
"It has ever been thus."
"You know exactly what I think of that line of argument!"
Now he smiled. "True. And what if I told you I enjoy opening my road for you, and bringing you to your parents' home?"
I huffed in impatience. "I would tell you to find something else to enjoy."
"There is much I intend to enjoy," he said, archly. I felt my cheeks pink, and and my insides twist in eager anticipation, though that at least I could keep to myself. The pink cheeks, though, were a tell I couldn't control. His eyes lit up like blue Staryk Shabbat flame.
"My point stands," I said, trying to regain the upper hand.
"Lady, in truth I know not how else the king's road may be opened."
That had the ring of truth to it. "Fine. Is there a queen's road, then?"
Now he laughed, a peal of silver bells, and I thought despite myself of what his voice might sound like when we were joined. I turned away so he would not see my face so flushed. I had no intention of giving that him that satisfaction until the time came to do so wholly.
"There has never been a queen's road," he said, "but if you wish to open one, there may yet be."
"Fine!" I said, and moved to depart. But he caught at my hand, and I turned.
"Are you so eager for the sunlit lands?" His voice was low now, quiet and pressing.
Lord of the white forest and the mountain of glass he might be, but in that moment he sounded like any human man. I wanted to needle him and I wanted to reassure him, both. What came out of my mouth was, "You know perfectly well where my heart lies."
"What draws you back there so quickly, then?" His thumb traced a line over mine, and I gave up on trying to hide my body's response.
"I want to bring some silvergaze to my mother; I think it will grow there, in winter, and it might be a healing herb for her. And there's something I want to bring back here for Rebekah."
"Open your road, then, if you can. Or summon me again, and I will transport you." He let go of my hand and swept out of the room.
I was still smiling when I called for Flek. "Can you bring me a bag of silverleaf, and alert Shofer? I want to ride to the cottage at the edge of night. And when we get there, you and he will help me build something of ice."
I wouldn't open a road; that seemed too powerful a working. But I had an idea of how to open a door. I knew the blessing for affixing a mezuzah. I would sanctify a door of ice, there on that threshold, and it would take me where I wanted to go.
Rebekah turned the book over in her hands, face full of wonderment. Its binding of cloth and paper was growing threadbare -- I should have had it re-bound in leather; I could afford that, now! -- but she held it as though it were incomparably precious, an artifact from another world.
"Open it," I urged.
By some magic -- or more likely by long use -- the siddur fell open to the prayers for the Shabbat table.
"The words look different than when you write them," she exclaimed.
"The work of a printing press, not written by hand." Printing press: there was something else I would need to explain. I had a vague notion of letters set in type trays, but not enough of one. I resolved to ask my grandfather. "I know they look strange, but I think you can read them, if you try."
She stared down at the page for a long quiet moment. "Vayehi erev," she sounded out hesitantly, "vayehi voker, yom hashishi." And there was evening, and there was morning: the sixth day. "Oh, I know this!"
I beamed. "Your first time reading from your new siddur. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higianu lazman hazeh!" Thanking God for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.
"Will you say those words next week?" Rebekah asked.
Next week: my chuppah. My chest felt filled with dancing snowflakes. "I will."
"And can I say them each year when winter comes?"
"If you like, and when you taste the first snowcherries of a new year."
"I want to learn all these words," Rebekah said, with determination.
"Go and study, little snowflake," I said, thinking of my father's story about Hillel: all the rest is commentary, go and learn.