The last feast of winter was a masquerade.
After the servants had dressed him, the prince of Calladon stood before the looking glass in his chamber. He wore the costume of a pagan river god. Its blue tunic and cloak were trimmed with lace to evoke the froth of cataracts. His mask had a swirling beard beneath an azure face. Edwin studied the porcelain guise in the mirror.
It was rigid and smooth, revealing no hint of what lay beneath.
He took it off. He put it on. He took it off. He put it on.
And he realized he could see no difference.
He was late meeting his bride-to-be in the antechamber of the banquet hall. Aishling all but threw herself into Edwin's arms. "My love, you look glorious!" She ran her hands over the folds of his costume. Her own gown evoked the image of a Naiad. It had the same blue cloth and lace, though more flowing and diaphanous than Edwin's. "What a splendid pair we'll make!"
"Most splendid, my darling," said Edwin, giving her a kiss. "Be careful. You don't want to ruin your dress when it looks so radiant on you."
"Does it indeed?" she asked, stepping away and giving him a slow spin. The gown set elegantly upon her well-formed figure. Her golden hair was done up in a series of elaborate curls cascading over one shoulder. The color of her clothing brought out the exquisite blue of her eyes.
Yet the sight of her kindled no spark in the void at Edwin's center.
He made a show of drawing in a deep breath. "You're so beautiful it hurts my heart to look upon you."
Aishling gasped and held a hand to her mouth. "Oh, my prince."
Edwin took her hands and kissed her once more. "Come, we should go in." He put on his mask and gestured to hers. "May I?"
"Of course, my darling," said Aishling. She lifted it to her face as he stepped behind her to fasten it. Then he offered his arm and she threaded hers through it.
"After all," he said as he led her to the banquet hall doors, "this is the anniversary of the day you first arrived in Calladon."
"You remembered!" said Aishling with delight.
He smiled at her. "I'll never forget that first sight of you riding through the city as long as I live."
In truth, he only vaguely remembered the day. They'd been betrothed when he was a small boy. His father had grown weary from years of battle with neighboring Pendor and treated with the Pendorian king. The compact was sealed with Edwin and Aishling's engagement. With peace had come prosperity and abundance. The coffers of the kingdom had grown full. Trade flourished and the realm thrived. The princess had come to live in Calladon's capital a few years later so that she might learn the customs of the people who would one day call her queen.
"You know what this signifies, my love?" said Aishling as they approached the doorway. "My birthday is only half a year away."
"And then we shall be wed," said Edwin warmly as the guardsmen opened the tall doors.