Welcome to your second month of winter.
How long has it been since I picked up a quill and wrote out a letter to you? We always go out together somewhere and chat instead of writing these days.
I hope this finds you well at your hopefully temporary winter housing. Progress on cleaning up all the crystals from the plateau is on schedule. You won't have to stay way out in those old ruins come spring. We've discussed it before, but it bears repeating that moving there permanently is too unsafe. I worry about you being so far from the villages. Doubly so because all my time recently has been taken up by preparations for the winter weather and events like Cuddle Fest.
It's a an economic event meant to stimulate inter-village trade before the harshest part of the season sets in, but trading is usually pushed aside in favour of everyone bundling up together next to what the villagers call the Salamander's Passion Bonfire. Wouldn't it be fun to be right there, enjoying the warmth of the crowd and flames?
You've said before that the idea of Winter being the most festive season in my realm is fascinating, as humans tend to hole themselves up instead and wait for Spring. I wouldn't want you to miss a single event even though this focuses more on couples. I'll come by to escort you to Cuddle Fest on the very day, the one after tomorrow.
Big fat coat, check. Big fat gloves, check. Big fat hat, check. Big fat boots, check. All that wolf pelt and fur (minus the boots) treated and stitched by the small skinny succubus hands of Janet's Tailoring & Leatherwork (now in it's 75th year in business), check. Gotta get that woman a thank you gift for filling my order in seven days instead of fourteen. Sure, just wanted some mitts and a cap but she didn't have to shove me up to first in line. With all this, I’m having the best winter since working for a week at that ryu temple two years ago. Aaaaand it was all downhill after that.
Anyway! Another day to enjoy with Palamina! Err, another FESTIVAL to enjoy… With Palamina. Wait, the latter sounds more romantic than the first and I don't want that. Well, it WOULD be more romantic unless I slashed the ‘y’ from day and added ‘te.’ The resulting word is what everyone and their mothers thinks we’re doing which actually IS what it looks like but we aren’t unless- MOVING ON.
I live in a ruined village that’s wayyyyy south-east of the old plateau. It’s a three hour walk between here and there on a clear day! No wonder I never found it when I first came to Palamina’s doorstep. Seriously, if it weren’t for her, the doors would be barricaded, the fire would be fed day and night, and half-rations would be in place. In other words, a human winter but with snow up to my waist instead of my ankles and no friends or family in the same building to huddle with for warmth and laugh away the season with… Gods, that’s depressing. Let’s stay on the previous topic!
My new home is underground (from a cave to a bigger cave, ha), a series of chambers mimicking my old cellar/research rooms back in Gunecies (thanks for digging this out, Sari and gang). Except now instead of farming equipment, glass samples and way too much paper, I’ve got a bedroom big enough for two, a place for storing food, a study, and a firewood room that I hope will not crush me if I pull the wrong log out. I wouldn’t last a winter in one of those rotting wood, crumbling stone, hinges are missing, almost everything’s been looted, at least decades old, would have to completely rebuilt cottages on the surface. It was literally faster to smash the rotting floor, dig through the nigh frozen ground, and install doors to block off the hole. The only thing the leftovers are for is to be as much of a roof as possible and keep snow from piling on my way in and out. Wait, out. Is the fireplace out? Oh, yes, it is, I remember.
Now I’m ready for the final big trading opportunity of the year that I don’t need to trade at. Went all out two weeks before today at Derutcurts’ marketplace. Couldn’t risk not doing that when the winter weather is due to REALLY pick up and make travel even more difficult without a salamander escort. Perfect control over their body temperature melting the white stuff and a flaming tail as a guide-beacon-lighthouse-biggeststarinthenightsky-thing. That or a lilim with magical power bordering omnipotence grabbing me under the arms and flying over the land. Levitation is out of the question because the demonic energy wrapping around me would trigger my skull-swelling allergy. Better that we do what everyone says looks like the laziest carnival act ever, a claim that always comes with naughty giggling. Both of us don’t think much of it despite how hard gossip is to ignore. Or maybe we’re both putting too much thought into this and are refusing to face the problem so we don't make the other feel awkward.
Damn it, brain! Help me get organized here- oh right, brain’s still at choir practice. Let’s hear that single note he’s been perfecting!
He hasn't been responsive for about a month now. It's just really hard to break the habit of trying to converse with him for direction or advice. Sure, our relationship soured quick as milk in the sun after he possessed my body and tried to literally stab Palamina in the back, but I couldn't just throw him out after he almost single-thinkdedly making three years on the run bearable. Some things just bond a man and his brain for life. But he's just bumming around now still trying to end a very long 'What' and grasp the idea that my lilim friend is just a friend. A friend who helped and is still helping me get settled in a new land, integrate into a new community, and is not at all a potential rapist who’s taking her sweet time in getting here ‘cause I’m not hearing a-
Tock! Tock! Tocktocktock!
-ing at my door. Good timing.
"JOOoohhn! I’m hEEEerrre!" Singsong, sing a song, song being sing, supposed to be sung in accordance with proper tense.
“Palamina! One minute!” I shout from my study. It’s the room connecting the underground to the surface. Just a wee tunnel ending in some stairs. I probably didn’t need to shout.
Snowshoes from my bedroom! In hand! Treated wooden sticks bent into a fat teardrop shape with leather criss-crossing every inch of it. Heck of an invention that I've only used once before. Been told it distributes weight more evenly on the snow, stops wearers from falling in and needing to tunnel their way out. I’ll strap them on outside.
I shove the narrow door above me aside (thankful that it didn’t snow today), climbing up the short flight of steps under the playful gaze of wide roundish-almond eyes the colour of smoldering coals and a happy smile on full lips. When I get up top, a narrow almost snow white face rushes forward and greets me once on each cheek. I’m pretty sure it’s not out of love or infatuation or even friendship. Palamina is just really really really addicted to not being isolated. This is how she says ‘hi’ to most people nowadays. Who's going to blame her for becoming super touchy-feely-platonically after spending about two centuries in a bubble of uncontrollable lust magic? Sometimes someone who is supposedly a physical avatar of sexual deviance just wants a godsdamned hug that doesn’t lead up to anything else. But sometimes I think she lingers just a little too long or presses her lips just a little too hard. Then there’s all the other stuff she pulls sometimes that make me question exactly what we’re looking for in each other. Can't say I wanna think about that too much when I'm probably about to go through another round of them. Can't say I know how to answer them either...
Anyway, I've heard I'm still one out of maybe ten people willing to return her friendly greetings in any sort of way. It's still too soon for most in the realm to consider Palamina to be little more than their boss. So I give her a big hug that's going to last as long as it needs to, and I'm going to have to cut this short because gods above, what is she wearing?
“Gods above, what are you wearing?"
“I’m trying something new, John. Do you like it?” Palamina looks and sounds cheery but her movement is slow and awkward. She rotates on the spot, arms stretched out and legs spread a shoulder's length apart. I'm used to seeing her show off her height and slender limbs, not tucked away inside a fat coat. There’s no trace of that figure in sight, not the breasts that are larger than oranges or the wide (for her slim figure anyway) hips she seems so proud of. Guess I can just say that Palamina’s shaped a little like a pear. An unnaturally-beautiful-but-hey-she’s-a-monster-so-it-somehow-works-too-well pear that is also magically hiding enormous demonic wings and probably winding a somewhat thin spade-tipped tail around a leg. Covering so much, that’s a first. The only bits I can ogle are her narrow face, very long straight dyed-pink hair, red coals against black soot eyes, and thick black horns that don't quite touch at the middle of her forehead because the tips bend straight upwards. But even the last in that list is being obscured slightly by Palamina’s new headge- oh right, and she’s barefoot. Only super short pants or stirrup pants or something similar get to slide up those long legs.
Tried to buy her shoes once. She doesn't like them.
Anyway! All of Palamina’s present clothes matches my own set from the bucket shaped fur hat to how the wolf fur on the gloves lines half the wrist. The only difference is the colour, normal brown leather to magically dyed bright pink and grey fur to pure white. No points for guessing who’s wearing what. She doesn’t even need weather appropriate gear! I can see little wisps of steam behind her coming from that half-circle valley in the snow! Magic sure is damn convenient, if only it wasn’t demonic energy based and gave me headaches.
Gods above, the rumours about us being a couple are bad enough already. Wearing matching clothing is the last thing we need.
John is staring.
Of course he is. In a way, I'm wearing his clothes.
Thin lips are drawn tight across an almost square jaw while dark green eyes scan me. Their roundish-almond shape is so similar to mine that were they coloured red against black, it would have felt like I was gawking at myself. That is our only facial similarity however, given his beak of a nose and wider face compared to my definitely thinner self. His stout but strong figure, almost like a bear’s and half a forehead shorter than I, is as well hidden as mine behind our matching coats. Also, just as my long hair is exposed, so are my friend’s very short sideburns (they were long enough to reach his jaw the last time I saw him and there was a beard attached to it at the time as well). The rest of his thick brown hair is tucked away beneath a stump shaped hat. We look so alike dressed like this that it’s cute but John clearly disapproves quite strongly.
“Janet’s work, yes?” I ask, trying to break his incredulous look and begin explaining. This is not embarrassing. This is just a coincidence.
“I was doing last minute winter preparedness evaluations for every shop in the city. Janet must have been working on your very fine hat come her turn.” I reach out and pat my confidant’s new hat in jest, making a little smile creep across his face. “You have wonderful taste, John. How did you come by the design?”
“It was something that I just picked up maybe three weeks ago from Nicole. That nekomata peddler, you remember her? She had a bunch of junk that wouldn't sell and let me choose something in return for some food. I picked a set of plans for winter clothing and traded them to Janet for actual clothing.” He answers readily, also a good sign.
That confirms what suspicions I’d gathered before. Janet was working on HIS order during my visit and evaluation. Hanging off a dummy’s head was a fur hat shaped like a bucket, and it looked so comfortable that I just had to have one along with any matching clothing.
If the last minute winter preparedness evaluations hadn’t needed to be done for eighty-six other shops, and if I hadn’t decided to do them all myself, I might have questioned the smarmy grin that was on Janet’s face when I left. On top of that, I’d forgotten about the order until three packages were thrown into my tower a week and a half later. My magic may be tamed but employing pitchers and catchers is still the best way for everything to gain my attention. A note attached to the biggest one that said, ‘You two will look perfect together,’ made me wonder if these clothes would embarrass John too much. However, as the ruler of this realm, I cannot send the order back or opt to not wear them. Either would mean insulting my own citizen’s work, the finest leatherworker in the city! Not helping is that I’m actually very happy with the clothing, John’s taste is impeccable. It's just the romantic implications I'm worried about, not that I would be opposed to them.
It is impossible to pursue John’s affections seriously with his allergy. However, I won’t look for a cure or anything of the sort as he has no desire to be rid of it. John has made his choice and I will respect it.
“Then it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, John, just a coincidence. You won’t need those snowshoes by the way. Shall we go?”
Turning away, I start stepping towards the snow, hearing John’s own boots following after a moment.
“Sure, sure… Palamina, where are you going? We’re not doing the carnival act this time?”
“I arranged for a sleigh this time, John. Annabelle will be taking us through the path I made through last night’s snow. Do you remember her? She turns to delivery and selling rides by sleigh in the winter for money. This time I’ve paid her to carry anything you might have to trade. It's the last large market until spring so bring lots.”
“Sleigh? Uh… I don't have anything.”
Nothing to trade? That was unexpected. John relies so much on others for even basic necessities. Previously, all our trips out were leisurely, not requiring anything but our own two legs and the clothes on our backs. I predicted that with more inclement weather coming and his fairly recent move into one of the village ruins, his need to trade would be greater (and I certainly can’t levitate everything all day, the demonic energy concentration might affect him). John might think he is ready, but will he pass one of my winter preparedness evaluations?
“Is that right?” I turn to face him as a concerned friend in the guise of an administrator. “John, this is your first winter here. Do you really think you’ve stocked up enough firewood, food, spare tools, medicine, and the like? Are your doors and windows secure against winds and blizzards? Is your home well-ventilated to prevent choking on the smoke from your fires? Emergency contacts? Boredom prevention activities?”
A silent moment passes and I start to suspect that he didn’t listen to a word. That incredulous look is in his eyes again.
“Are you… Going to send back that sleigh?”
Really now, John? Not answering? Fine. I’ll just have to tour and evaluate your residence later.
“We should put it to use. I may not be able to hold onto your arms as usual because of these mittens and coat, you could slip.”
He sighs and says nothing more about it, catching up with me through the magic-melted valley that connects us to our transportation. With much less weight for Annabelle to pull we will reach Cuddle Fest a bit earlier than anticipated, so I'll have to account for how much sooner John’s allergy will become unbearable.
Additionally, without any goods to trade, it will be just us two riding on a one-centaur open sleigh and arriving at a couple-focused festival… Well, it’s impossible to even try quashing the rumours. I was just hoping to avoid giving the gossips of my realm anything to further pressure us.
I can't remember climbing into the sleigh at all. Ordering Annabelle to start traveling is a faint memory. But the red-haired centaur’s cheeky smile when she sees John and I burns itself into my mind. Perhaps I should have chosen to throw all my clothes on the ground and carried John after all.
I was hoping for a horse. Didn’t get a horse, got a gossipy brown-white speckled centaur named Annabelle whom I’ve hired before to guard my stuff when I moved out to the ruins that she is now very quickly pulling me away from. Hooves pound ground that has been mostly cleared of snow, retracing a wide path made by Palamina’s magic. It’s like spring came for a single stretch of dirt. The guard turned sleigh puller keeps glancing back, like she’s expecting her passengers to start having sex to keep warm against the whistling winds. Pfff, yeah, prepare to be disappointed.
“What’s new? Are Snitty and Mitty doing okay cooped up in your tower?”
“They’re doing very well. There are claw marks all over the bookshelves in my library but none on the books themselves thankfully. Do you think they want to be read to?”
“I think your cats just want something to scratch.”
“Maybe I should sic them on your trees when you finally rebuild your orchard.”
We catch up and reminisce throughout the ride. Palamina wants me to visit her personal library and borrow some reading material for the winter.
“They’re mostly educational tomes, but I do have some fiction or war records if you’d like those.”
“Got anything about poetry?”
“John! Are you making fun of me?”
I share some ideas to refine the hothouse plans we haven’t been working very hard on, miming some things with my arms.
“Make it a big triangle.”
“Three sides? You’ll lose a lot of space that way. Or do you have something else in mind?”
“Yeah, make the greenhouse roof-shaped. Forget the walls, have it be a big roof. How the surfaces are angled affects how the heat is kept inside somehow or something like that, so why not kick out the straight bits?”
“You understand this topic better than I do, but what if it’s taken a step further and the entire building is made a dome? There are some blacksmiths and glaziers I can consult on that possibility for you.”
“How would that even work? A piece of glass that big and that curved is impossible to create by regular means and a door can’t be installed in that.”
“I’ll be seeing those specialists and getting back to you then, won’t I?”
We go on like this the entire trip. I’d have thought yammering on and on would have bored Annabelle but nope. Now and again, out of the corner of my eye our burdened bodyguard glances over her shoulder at us, ears perked and- ‘Whoopsies! Did he see me, probably saw me, but I saw and/or heard everything anyway, ha ha ha, I’m still embarrassed I got caught,’ something like that.
Anyway, the trip is without incident so that’s good. But Palamina might have forgotten to feed her cats before leaving so that’s bad. Oh, she perked up after remembering that she did, that’s good. Thrawm village, where Cuddle Fest is taking place, is on the horizon and we can already see a huge crowd gathered at the entrance straight ahead of us, that’s bad. In fact, I can guess where Palamina started her sleigh ride from. The road she carved would have kept going straight through the crowd and into the village proper. She didn't even try to keep this quie- And how would any part of RIGHT NOW be quiet at all? I give up. Let’s try not being grumpy and enjoy being part of a community again.
I force a smile and jab Palamina’s arm with an elbow, “Hey, are we getting that predictable?”
She gives me an overly sad look and places a gloved hand on my shoulder, “I’m afraid we are.”
Both of us laugh a little at the unavoidable situation. It isn’t at all surprising that my subjects are forming up like this. Together, we’ve observed the 164th Annual Snow Sculpting Competition, participated in the Cross-Country Snowshoe Hike, and danced at the Yeti Carnival. On top of that, how many times have I taken wonderfully long strolls with John in public, or had him visit my tower, and I visit his hopefully temporary home?
Monsters and men from all over the Northwest Reaches wave furiously at us, applauding my name and teasing, even heckling John for not taking advantage of me. I wave back with fervor and grace in equal measure, and my friend joins me mockingly. With his left arm wagging at the crowd and his right crossed over his chest and pointing at me, John yells, “Palamina’s the one you want to see! I'm just here for the ride!” That action only increases the jeers at him however, something John takes in stride with a smile. They part like water and Annabelle stops right in the middle of everyone, turning her bemused face to see our reactions.
“John?” I stand up and extend a hand to him. It’s half a joke and half serious. What do we want from each other?
He takes one look at me before scoffing and grinning, tucking his hands closer to himself for warmth. “Nah, you go enjoy your adoring public. You can't get enough of them, right?”
My disappointing friend isn't wrong. With his blessing, I leap from the sleigh and walk up to the circle that has formed around us, caressing, shaking, and touching every hand reaching out to me. A month ago, seeing all these faces up close smiling and happy but ready to go about their own business would have been impossible. There are none caught in the throes of ecstasy, none made stuttering or moaning things because of my presence. I have observed this time and time again over the past month, but the joy at being able to be this close to my subjects and talk with them about business matters and lazy days never abates. The great closeness I now experience would never have been possible without John’s support.
With the eyes of Vanna, Sari, Tsuruko, Hailey, Krysta, Candice, Malory, Kitty, Nicole, Gertrude, Annabelle, and countless others upon me, a speech begins to form in my mind. How can I praise these men and women who follow me? How can I tell how much I value all of them staying to make homes, families, and careers? And also warn them to ready themselves for the worst part of winter, can’t forget that.
After but a moment to gather the needed words, I jump back into the sleigh and cast a glimmering look of delight upon the still noisy crowd before raising my gloved palm for silence. It falls quickly though there are whispers of a romantic sleigh ride that refuse to die. When I speak, even John looks upward from his seat next to me, watching and listening intently.
“My people! I am very pleased to see every part of the Northwest Reaches come together here at Thrawm village for Cuddle Fest! This is our last great celebration of the month, but not our last for the remainder of the year or the years to come!
I cast my gaze in as many directions as I can, alternating where I look with my head held high and voice near booming.
“We are here not only to trade goods but also friendship, feast on our hard work as well as food, and to take comfort in what things we possess and each other. Our-”
“Malory, Candice, what are you two-!”
John? Why are you standing up?
What?! Who dares- John? John”John, you’re pullingmedowwOof!”
John flails from the sudden weight upon him, grabbing my arm in a panic. His firm grip and how quickly everything is happening are surprise enough, planting our backsides firmly on the sleigh seats with something very wide and very soft falling on top of us. There’s something familiar about it. It flaps and folds, flexes and flips all too easily. And it feels like… wool?
“Yay! Yay! We got them! We got them!”
“If you’re under a quilt, that means you love each other like Momma and Poppa do!”
Somehow, we manage to slap away some of the quilt at the same time, freeing our eyes from darkness at the same time the crowd’s howling laughter begins. Two child-sized bundles of feathers drop from the air and onto our now covered laps, staring at our confused faces with unabashed glee.
Malory and Candice, Malida’s children, are they trying to embarrass us? From what I can see, this green quilt that covers us up to our chests has the image of two trees intertwined with one another, one a dark shade of brown and the other light. Their branches grow upwards and form little wooden hearts that stretch across and around the border. Thrawm village only applies romantic themes to their quilts when Cuddle Fest approaches.
I cast my gaze beyond the tengu and harpy, trying to find their parents in the crowd. The crowd’s shaking mirth make it difficult to scan them, but something in the back of my mind tells me that Milda and Tom are absent for some reason and that this is only the start of whatever their children have in mind.
Looking at John, he’s completely red in the face and the sudden bloodflow isn’t from his allergy. He simply stares at the two children, beginning to unnerve them with an expression suggesting that he is straining to keep from becoming angry? Embarrassed? Fainting? What John must be feeling is something I can’t even begin to imagine.
Malida is soooooo dead when I find her.