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Joan D. Vinge

The Snow Qween

To the Lady, who gives, and who takes away.

'...strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leaded unto life, and few there be that find it.'

— New Testament, Matthew 7:14

'You shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both.'

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Introduction

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the inspiration and artistry of Hans Christian Andersen, whose folk tale 'The Snow Queen' gave me the seeds of this story; and Robert Graves, whose book The White Goddess provided me with the rich Earth in which it grew. And I would like to thank those people who helped me weed, and tend, and harvest the fruits of my labor: my husband Vernor, and my editors Don Bensen and Jim Frenkel, without whose perceptive and sensitive suggestions this book would not have grown as strong or as truly. I would also like to thank my father, for his love of science fiction; and my mother, for teaching me a woman's strength and giving me the freedom to become.

Prologue

The door swung shut silently behind them, cutting off the light, music, and wild celebration of the ballroom. The sudden loss of sight and hearing made him claustrophobic. He tightened his hands over the instrument kit he carried beneath his cloak.

He heard her amused laughter in the darkness at his side, and light burst around him again, opening up the small room they stood in now. They were not alone. His tension made him start, even though he was expecting it, even though it had happened to him five times already in this interminable night, and would happen several times more. It was happening in a sitting room this time on the boneless couch that obtruded into a forest of dark furniture legs dusted with gold. The irrelevant thought struck him that he had seen a greater range of styles and taste in this one night than he had probably seen in forty years back on Kharemough.

But he was not back on Kharemough; he was in Carbuncle, and this Festival night was the strangest night he would ever spend, if he lived to be a hundred. Sprawled on the couch in unselfconscious abandon were a man and a woman, both of them deeply asleep now from the drugged wine in the half-empty bottle lying on its side on the rug. He stared at the purple stain that crept across the sculptured carpet-pile, trying not to intrude any more than he must on their privacy. 'You're certain that this couple has also been intimate?'

'Quite certain. Absolutely certain.' His companion lifted the white-feathered mask from her shoulders, revealing a mass of hair almost as white coiled like a nest of serpents above her eager, young girl's face. The mask was a grotesque contrast to the sweetness of that face: the barbed ripping beak of a predatory bird, the enormous black-pupiled eyes of a night hunter that glared at him with the promise of life and death hanging in the balance... No. When he looked into her eyes, there was no contrast. There was no difference. 'You Kharemoughis are so self- righteous.' She threw off her white feathered cape. 'And such hypocrites.' She laughed again; her laughter was both bright and dark.

He removed his own less elaborate mask reluctantly: an absurd fantasy creature, half fish, half pure imagination. He did not like having to expose his expression.

She searched his face in the pitiless lamplight, with feigned innocence. 'Don't tell me, Doctor, that you really don't like to watch?'

He swallowed his indignation with difficulty. 'I'm a biochemist, Your Majesty, not a voyeur.'

'Nonsense.' The smile that was far too old for the face formed on her mouth. 'All medical men are voyeurs. Why else would they become doctors? Except for the sadists, of course, who simply enjoy the blood and the pain.'

Afraid to respond, he only moved past her, crossed the carpet to the couch and put his instrument kit on the floor. Beyond these walls the city of Carbuncle climaxed its celebration of the Prime Minister's cyclical visit to this world with a night of joyous abandon. He had never expected to find himself spending it with this world's queen and certainly not spending it doing what he was about to do.

The sleeping woman lay with her face toward him. He saw that she was young, of medium height, strong and healthy. Her gently smiling face was deeply tanned by sun and weather beneath the tangled, sandy hair. The rest of her body was pale; he supposed she kept it well protected from the bitter cold beyond the city's walls. The man beside her was a youthful thirty, he judged, with dark hair and light skin, and could have been either a local or an off worlder but he was of no concern now. Their Festival masks looked down in hollow-eyed censure, like impotent guardian gods resting on the couch back. He dabbed the woman's shoulder with antiseptic, made the tiny incision to insert the tracer beneath her skin, doing the simple procedure first to reassure himself. The Queen stood watching intently, silent now that he needed silence.

Noise concentrated beyond the locked door; he heard slightly slurred voices protesting loudly. He shrank like an animal in a trap, waiting for discovery.

'Don't worry, Doctor.' The Queen laid a light, reassuring hand on his arm. 'My people will see that we're not disturbed.'

'Why the hell did I let myself be talked into this?' more to himself than to her. He turned back to his work, but his hands were unsteady.

'Twenty-five extra years of youth can be very persuasive.'

'A lot of good it'll do me if I spend them all in some penal colony!'

'Get hold of yourself, Doctor. If you don't finish what you've started tonight, you won't have earned your twenty-five years anyway. The agreement stands only while I have at least one perfectly normal clone-child somewhere among the Summer folk on this planet.'

'I'm aware of the terms.' He finished with the small incision and sealed it. 'But I hope you understand that a clone implant under these circumstances is not only illegal, it's highly unpredictable. This is a difficult procedure. The odds of producing a clone who is even a reasonable replica of the original person are not particularly good under the most controlled conditions, let alone.'

'Then the more implants you perform tonight, the better off we'll both be. Isn't that right?'

'Yes, Your Majesty,' tasting self-disgust. 'I suppose it is.' He rolled the sleeping woman carefully onto her back and reached into his kit again.

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