Lady Winter ceased her twirling and turned to face Adage, her faithful butler. He nodded once, and stood to attention in the doorway. Lady Winter snapped her fingers and the quartet ceased playing, musical notes hanging frozen in the air.
"M'lady, my apologies for the interruption, but there is someone to see you."
"Is it someone interesting?"
"That is not for me to decide, m'lady. His name is Ulf Bauer, and he hails from the village of Pennendorff."
Lady Winter cocked her head on one side and thought for a moment. Pennendorff lay just five miles from the Palace - the closest any humans dared come to her home. The villagers were stalwart and sturdy, as proven by her quartet of musicians. Even without her enchantments, they'd pandered to her every whim for weeks.
"Very well, Adage. Send him in."
Adage stepped aside and bade the villager to enter. A very short man, pale of cheek and gaunt in build, stumbled into the ballroom. His fingers grasped the brim of a faded hat, and his hands shook with cold. His nose glowed red in an unremarkable face.
"Bauer, is it? What business have you at the Winter Palace?"
"Beggin' your pardon, m'lady, but I come on behalf of me village." Bauer fiddled with his hat, eyes darting around the room as he fought to avoid Lady Winter's gaze.
"I'm familiar with Pennendorff." She shot a sly grin at the string quartet, now motionless on their dais. Their faces froze in eternal grins, but their eyes screamed for help. Bauer started, recognising his neighbours among them.
"Well, er, well y'see, m'lady, winter came a bit early, and we din't have time to bring the 'ole 'arvest in. Food's runnin' a bit short, y'see, and, well, we was wonderin' if you could maybe end winter a week or two early so we can start foragin'." Bauer stared at the floor.
"Why would you ask me to do that? Why not visit Lord Spring and ask him to come early?"
"Oh, m'lady, we ask you because you're more powerful than he is. Oh yes, m'lady, we know that."
Bauer nodded several times, and Lady Winter pursed her lips. Annoyance and displeasure burned in the depths of her frosty eyes.
"No, m'lady. It's the 'onest truth, yes it is."
Lady Winter glanced out of the window at the lawn. An idea struck her. She looked at the villager, a smirk hovering around her mouth.
"I'll make a deal with you. If you can win a game, then I'll end winter early." Her tone thawed, the ice replaced by a sheen of honey.
"Really, m'lady? Oh, you're ever so good - ever so good, indeed! What's the game?"
Bauer's face fell. He looked at the floor again.
"I'm afraid I don't know how to play, m'lady."
"That's alright, Bauer. You don't need to know the rules."
"No. For I shall be playing for you. Or, should that be, I shall be playing with you."
Confusion clouded Bauer's face. Lady Winter snapped her fingers, and the villager's bewildered expression froze in place as thick frost clung to his entire body. Lady Winter skipped around him, examining her handiwork. She squealed and clapped her hands with delight. Adage appeared at the ballroom doors.
"Is everything alright, m'lady?"
"Perfect, Adage, perfect! Have this pawn taken outside. My chess set is finally complete! I think I might invite my sister to play tomorrow."
Adage disappeared to fetch help to move the pawn. Lady Winter twirled across the ballroom to the window to admire the chess set on the lawn outside. If she used a pawn to win the game tomorrow, then she would keep up her end of the bargain. Otherwise...
* * *
The original image is of the ballroom at Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg, taken by Chilli Head. Wintry editing by me.