From or Belonging to the Spring People
~ Kiya Nicoll
The girl stood on tiptoe, leaning over the velvet rope to peer into the case, not quite reaching forward to put her hands on the glass. She was albino, perhaps, though her skin lacked the rosy undertones one might expect, and her eyes were an ice blue that matched the bluish shading of her cascade of perfectly straight white hair. Her dress was a green so dark as to seem almost black, and the string of simple red beads she wore as a necklace seemed stark and bloody.
“Don’t touch the glass,” the guard said.
The girl pirouetted on one foot to look at him, to look him up and down, and then laughed, and spread her arms, dancing into a near-run and wheeling around one case, then another, like a hawk spiraling on a thermal, before she darted out into the hall and was gone. The private communications crackled to keep an eye out for her, and her recklessness, and to scold any parent that seemed attached to her, but she did not reappear.
She was the first, or at least the first that anyone noticed.
The next was a man, at least seven feet tall and broad in the shoulder, brown as an oak and hair dreadlocked into shaggy orange pollen strands. He loomed over the glass cases, looking down at them from above, his chuckle rumbling like thunder as he leaned to read the labels.
When another man slipped in, tiny, fawn-colored and black-eyed, the giant turned to him and greeted him with a booming, “Brother!” that made him jump, eyes going wide and startled. The big man crossed over to him in two strides, setting a hand on his shoulder, and steered him around to the case on the end. “Tell me, brother, do you think it’s authentic?”
The skittish little man allowed himself to be rearranged, and peered at the label. “From or belonging to the Spring People,” he said aloud, and then said, “Well.” He hopped in place once, then twice, and on the third the giant caught him in the air and held him suspended so that he could look down at the necklace. “Hmmmm. Put me down, brother.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“It’s the eye beads that have me particularly skeptical,” he said, in the tone of one who really ought to have spectacles to take off and polish while theorizing. “I’d expect more ambiguity about whether or not they’re also roses.”
The giant laughed, leaning back, his hands on his hips, as if he had just been told a tremendous joke. “You know, you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right,” he said, peering up high enough to strain his neck. “You wouldn’t have asked me to look otherwise.” He staggered a little when the other clapped him on the shoulder, but did not stumble into the case or back against the velvet rope. “The greens are quite good for them, though.”
“They are. The yellowish sheen there is like that girl I was seeing that time.”
The small man rolled his eyes. “I know, you like the Dawn ones.”
“Regardless of season!” boomed the giant, laughing, but the smaller man was back to studying the necklace, frowning. “What’s wrong now, brother?”
“Oh, just thinking that if the greens are particularly suited to a Spring Person of the Dawn, the reds are more suited to one of the Night and that’s an odd combination.”
“Is it? Does it have colors that suit the entire daily wheel?”
“Pick me up again, brother,” he said, and the giant obliged. “The shimmering golds might do for a child of the Midday, and the olives for Twilight, but that dark green there seems to be a duplication of Night. And of course there are minor times left unmarked, but they often are, that’s hardly indicative. The reds could be Autumn, too, though, and that tangles the whole thing up in briars.”
The big man did not put him down.
“I was wondering if it had Sun, Moon, and Stars, in your judgement, actually,” he said, thoughtfully.
With a frown, the other said, “Not sure. I could make the argument, but it’s a bit muddier than is typical. If the dark green is Night without Stars, the red is still perplexing.”
“Night with Moon? On the tulips? Or possibly the Sun at Night in Spring?”
He grunted. “Put me down, brother. I’m stumped.”
“Let’s go have a beer, then.” On that note, they left, in amiable company, and the other visitors to the exhibit clustered, briefly, around the piece in dispute, to verify what they had overheard, and to try to make sense of it.
It was two days before another of the curious museum visitors came to look at the necklace. She leaned on a cane, her stooped shoulders shrouded in a cape made of soft black feathers, her hair curling over it, this lock auburn, that lock silver, like maple leaves edged in frost. Her face had a certain agelessness to it, crow’s feet around eyes that seemed full of laughter, yes, but neither terribly wrinkled nor terribly worn, and she said, “Hmmm,” to the glass case, and then started to laugh.
“Why is that lady laughing?” asked a child, fist knotted in her mother’s coat to tug for attention.
The woman turned, the base of her cane making a sharp noise against the floor as she did, a noise that turned heads. She lowered herself like she could fold downwards and said, “Schöner Streich,” and then frowned. “Nein, no . . .” It took her a moment to figure out what language she wanted, and it still came accented with a German that had an odd, mincing lilt to it, as if the entire concept of words was worth mockery. “It is a good joke. A beautiful joke? More ways than one. So I laugh.”
The child frowned at that, scuffing one foot against the floor. “What sort of joke?”
“Morgenstern.” The old woman stood, unfolding again, hands straining against the head of the cane. “No. Lucifer? A morning-star sort of joke.”
“What’s a morning-star joke?” asked the child, and her mother tried to hush her, inspiring only recalcitrance.
“Nein, no, I do not mind,” said the woman, with a wave of her hand. “Here is the joke: one who brightly burns, who high above the sun flies, but cannot escape, and back he falls, gone, invisible. Poof! And those who their aim set when the morning star is high, they, too, are lost, into the sun to follow.”
“That doesn’t seem very funny to me.” There was an intense edge of stubbornness in the tone, that bordered on sullenness.
“Should you become as old as I,” the woman said, with a curl of a smile at some private joke that made her eyes dance, “perhaps the humor of it you will see. The morning star returns, you know, but humans never learn.”
“How old are you?” demanded the child, and her mother gasped. “Never learn what?”
The woman laughed again, and answered, “Old enough to know secrets,” with a smile that suggested she had quite a few of them hoarded up, upon which she slept like a smug cat.
The child refused to be cowed. “What sort of secrets?” she demanded, with a little stomp of one foot. Her mother stammered an apology and tried to drag her away, but the woman just chuckled and said, “I do so enjoy young humans.”
“You have not yet grown into being conventional and afraid,” she said, putting her head to one side and smiling that smug little smile, like she was searching through her vault of treasures, letting them slide over her hands like beads to select one that she might consider handing over. “Come, I will whisper you a secret in your ear, if you can convince your mother to let you.”
“Mom,” she said, dragging out the word in the pleading note of children possessed of a great desire.
“All right, go ask,” her mother said, in the defeated tones of someone who does not care to have this fight right now, particularly not in the middle of a crowded museum exhibit. “I’ll be right here keeping an eye on you.”
The motley-haired woman said, with grand amiability, “Oh, I haven’t stolen any children away for years, I don’t have a place to store them these days,” and then leaned down again, shifting her cane so she could keep her balance.
“What’s the secret?” hissed the girl.
“When someone a favor asks, and does not their name offer? Then is the time to be very cautious. Some people play tricks, like the one who had that necklace brought here.”
The girl looked up, eyes narrowing. “What’s your name?” she asked immediately.
The woman laughed, head thrown back, and then said, “You may call me Hulda, child.”
“Thank you, Hulda.” She frowned, with a judiciously skeptical look, and then said, “Hmmmm,” and marched back to her mother’s side.
Her mother took her hand, firmly, and asked, “Why are you making that face?”
“She didn’t say it was her name. Just that that’s what I could call her.”
The older woman straightened, chortling. “Such a clever girl,” she murmured, and then said, more loudly, “When the Queen of Summer hears the gossip, it will be quite a show. But perhaps a show you don’t want to see.” She gave the necklace another long, studious look, and then made her way out, still chuckling.
Again, the museum staff made note; a Queen of Summer who promised to make trouble probably ought to be prepared for, though nobody was at all certain what to expect of her. It had become something of a game, by this point, to collect the stories of the peculiar visitors who studied that case in particular: the two identical children, dressed in grey with trailing sleeves like the wings of swallows, who trilled comments to each other in a language nobody recognized and then chased each other out of the museum in darting swoops; the girl with the shockingly yellow hair, wearing a ruffled shirt that was streaked with purple and white, who read the label and laughed uproariously; the big man who stood for hours, motionless as an exhibit himself, stone-faced and with crystalline-pale eyes shocking against the darkness of his skin. They debated whether the little crowd of short fat people who resembled nothing so much like a collection of mixed nuts in their shades of brown, wrinkled like almonds or even pecans, was another such apparition, but while those guests were quite interested in the necklace and talked quietly among themselves about it, they spent more time in front of the display of cups and forks.
None of that prepared them for the blue woman.
She was not particularly tall, but despite that she loomed, her clothes billowing turbulently around her in whorls of grey and ultramarine, whipping to white at the edges. Her hair was swept up into plumes and cascades, green and blue and grey, and her skin was genuinely blue, sky blue, summer sky blue.
There were fewer people in the exhibit, at least, so she swept to the obvious case without catching anyone in her undertow. She read the label, lifted her chin in obvious disapproval, and sniffed once, before turning and walking back out again. Her wake filled with eddies of murmurs and exclamations, and appropriate calls were made to management.
The days after the blue woman had visited were tense ones. Not by anyone’s deliberate choice; it seemed more that the air in the museum had that electric sense of potential, something waiting to break open, though it lacked clarity as to when or how. There were no further strange guests, or at least not any that distinguished themselves from the milling visitors. The most remarkable thing anyone noticed was a sulky teenaged girl in a grey hoodie who spent the afternoons in the exhibit, hands in her pockets and watching the people more than the displays.
Midway through the next week, a man arrived, thin and straight and upright as a sunbeam, wearing white robes that shimmered with the intensity of a mirage dancing over hot stone. His hair was long and golden under a thin, precise circlet, his eyes a vivid and unquenchable green. He glided rather than walked to the case containing the necklace, and bent his head just the slightest amount so that he might read the label. “This,” he said, and somehow everyone hearing him knew it to be true, “is incorrect.”
“Who are you?” asked a guard, stepping forward.
The man made of angles and light turned towards him, and did not speak, but everyone present understood, for a fleeting instant, the vast spinning angles of space, the pole bent sunwards for long enough for a breath before sweeping on, the dancing orchestra of planets and moons arrayed in their many chords, tracing ellipses in the breath of stars, angles and arcs all made of light. This, too, was a burst of noonlight shining upon white rocks undappled by shade, and the sharp brine smell of the sea.
“You can’t just be at them,” said a voice, a swaggering voice belonging to a swaggering man. “You have to use mouth noises to communicate.” He was broad and red-brown, tall but not overwhelmingly so, his muscularity softened by his paunch. While he also wore a circlet, it was not precise and elegant, but rather a coiled tangle of oak leaves, golden heads of grain, and some sort of reddish purple berry, from which swept two sharply pointed horns in a manner that suggested that he might have grown them himself, even as every onlooker was certain that that was obvious nonsense.
The pillar of a man turned towards him. “It is imprecise.”
“You are hopeless.” He heaved a tremendous sigh. “Let me translate a moment, I believe he wanted to say that he can be known as, let’s approximate, Stilled Sun in Quartz At Noon, Prince Consort to the Queen.”
“And who are you?”
“You can call me Frank.”
The shining man turned upon Frank a gaze of burning disapproval and sniffed once.
Eyebrows like sundogs arched upwards.
“It’s hardly my fault you have no discernible sense of humor,” Frank grumbled. “And I do intend to be.”
The other sniffed again.
“I suppose it’s for the best you’re too good to actually talk, that language would probably turn half of them into frogs,” he snapped back. “Or something worse.”
A twist of the hand, a curl of a smile.
“Ugh,” Frank declared. As the other man lifted his chin slightly in apparent triumph, he pivoted on his heel and bowed, spreading his arms wide, and said, “My fair Queen.”
The victory fled from the pillar’s face as he turned, belatedly, to incline his head with elegant formality, even as Frank stepped forward and accepted the Queen’s hand in his own, bowing over it to plant a kiss on the back.
“My dear consort,” she said.
A flicker of displeasure crossed the other man’s impassive face. “He has told them to call him Frank.”
“Has he?” The Queen seemed amused, more than anything. “I suppose he is.” She offered her other hand to Stilled Sun in Quartz At Noon, Prince Consort to the Queen. “But it does not please you, my love.”
Afterwards, nobody could agree what she had looked like. When one person spoke of her shockingly bonfire red hair, another frowned and said her hair had been black, and others argued about whether it had been a metallic gold or like beach sand. Her eyes were definitely vibrant and stunning, but whether they were clear summer sky blue, or luminous green, or even yellow was a topic of dispute. They did not bother fighting about whether her gown was green or blue or red, not when they could occupy themselves in endless debate about whether her crown was made of wheat wrought in gold, or crystal that refracted rainbows around her, or had the horns of a stag worked with silver. Her skin might have been golden, or pale green, or a velvety black that glittered faintly as if she were made of stars.
Everyone agreed that she was compelling, that she was beautiful, that she was terrifying.
“It does not,” said the shaft of light shaped into a man, as if the Queen were not a force that interrupted all thought, as if he might carry on a conversation with her about his grievances as a matter of the perfectly ordinary.
“And how did you introduce yourself?” purred the Queen. “Did you?”
“I told them who I am,” he replied, with a little prim huff.
“You gave them your name?” Her humor turned thunderous, and she seemed to grow taller. “Knowing the risks, you gave them your name?”
Frank glanced at the other consort, and then laid a hand gently on her arm and said, “To be fair, my Queen, they could barely comprehend it, let alone pronounce it. You know how he is about the mouth noises.” His other hand shaped itself into a squawking bird’s beak, thumb tapping the fingertips, mocking the concept of sound.
There was a moment where she turned on him, where it seemed there might be some incomprehensible act of violence, and then she laughed. “The mouth noises, yes,” she said, and the hurricane was gone, leaving everything windswept but miraculously undamaged. “You are indeed correct.”
He bowed, just slightly. “My Queen.” He looked up as he bowed, meeting the gaze of the pale shining man, who gave him a slight, small nod, curt and acknowledging.
“Show me the necklace,” she said, then.
“The label is incorrect.” Nonetheless, he pointed, one slender finger aimed at the case.
The Queen shook her head, amused, and swept past them both to study it. “I do remember this piece,” she said. “It was given to—oh, who was she, do either of you recall? She was of our court, of course.”
Stilled Sun in Quartz At Noon tilted his head, and deigned to say, “She was a midday child.”
“Like yourself,” the Queen agreed. “Though much later in the season, I believe, not a solstice girl.”
Frank drummed his fingers on his chin, twirling a lock of his beard around them. “Beech tree, I believe. And the colors did suit her.”
“Even as she turned red in the autumn,” agreed the Queen, with a little shake of her head. “A pity. As mortal as her tree, she was.” She waved a hand. “We must correct the sign, at least.”
“Do you wish to reclaim the necklace?”
“The mortals made it, and the one with a claim to it is centuries gone,” she said. “But this is—” she left it unfinished, for long enough that the predictable consort grew uncomfortable enough to say, “Incorrect,” so that she could turn to bestow a smile upon him.
Most of the patrons had shifted to one side, where they could watch the strange guests without grand risk of interference. The Queen lifted her chin and crooked a finger at a guard, saying, “Please, fetch someone with authority. We must speak with them.”
There was nothing possible but obedience, though the guard hesitated a moment before one said, “I will keep order.” Thusly, if not reassured, at least affirmed that the man made of straight lines and undeniable facts would stand guard in his place, the guard hurried off. Certainly, none of the museum visitors seemed likely to challenge him, even the little cluster that was pinned between them and the wall with no route to edge around towards the larger group of people. The teenaged girl among them chewed gum ostentatiously and somehow, despite everything, managed to look unimpressed.
The guard returned promptly, curator in tow, and reclaimed his position.
The Queen turned, head cocked slightly to one side, and said, “Your sign is incorrect.” She flicked her fingers imperiously. “Fix it.”
The curator was a short woman, somewhat round, with grey hair in loose curls, and she met the gaze of the Queen and said, “The sign is as accurate as we know how to make it, ma’am. If you have information regarding its provenance, we would be happy to review the documentation.”
Frank whistled sharply through his teeth, but the Queen simply smiled. “I see,” she said, with a purr in her voice. “The owner of the piece was not of the Spring court, but the Summer. I knew her, in passing, of course.” A little languid wave of the hand encompassed the span of years casually. “Sweet girl. A mortal made the bauble for her, after a dalliance.”
“I see,” the curator said, continuing to stare up over the rims of her glasses.
“You do not believe me?”
“I cannot change the labels in the museum on the mere say-so of a visitor,” she said. “It would be chaos.”
“The sign is incorrect,” said Stilled Sun in Quartz at Noon, though his voice wavered, slightly, in the manner of one who also did not approve of chaos, and who could well be swayed by that concern.
“Even if I grant that, I would need to be able to support it to others,” the curator said. “And I am certain that people as important as yourselves would not wish to be placed on call to answer questions.”
The Queen chuckled. “I see. But the sign must be changed.”
“Find me a means by which I can, and I will see to it,” the curator said, with stubbornness.
“You dare make demands of me?” Storms returned to the Queen’s manner, as if the eye of the hurricane was now past and the fury returning.
She lifted her chin. “You make demands of me, ma’am.”
Both consorts took a step back, not certain what the Queen was about to do, but the teenager in the grey hoodie stepped forward into the space they vacated, and put back the hood.
She was not a girl, suddenly, but a fox, standing on hind legs, tall as the girl had been, wearing a grey hooded robe embroidered with silver flowers and a silver circlet worked with buds that shimmered faintly green and white. “I witness,” she said, sharp teeth and tongue somehow able to form words. “You challenge a Queen on her own lands, Summer.”
The Queen of Summer whirled to face the fox. “Who are you to interfere?”
The fox tipped her head to one side and smirked, somehow, her features twisting with wry humor. “I am what I am, that leaps and sprouts and appears, all unexpected, and I, like a cat, can spot a Queen.”
“Her?” The Queen’s finger jabbed at the curator.
“Did you not feel the power by which she held her ground? You are in her domain, after all.”
“She speaks truth,” said the shining consort.
“Spring,” said Frank. “You are riddling again.”
The fox laughed. “Do you like this face?” she asked him.
“I’ve liked others better,” he rumbled. “But I know you, no matter what face you put on.”
The fox tapped her nose with one finger. “Ah, but you did not know me when I was the mortal girl, did you?”
“I did not, but I also was not looking. My fair Queen held my attention, after all.”
“Flatterer,” said the Queen, somewhat mollified.
“I merely speak the truth, my beloved,” he replied.
The fox rolled her eyes. “Honestly,” she said, and tapped one foot, and then said, “Do you happen to know if the mortal who crafted it named it?”
“Was it given a name?”
“I do not know,” said Stilled Sun in Quartz at Noon, when the Queen looked at him.
Frank shook his head. “I’m unaware of a name, myself.”
“So the people who named it are of the court of this queen.” The fox pointed at the curator. “And they have named it ‘From or Belonging to the Spring People’. Which means it is mine, not yours.” She drew herself up taller, straightening until she matched the height of the Queen of Summer, and her predator’s smile grew sharper and hungrier. “And even Queens cannot dispute the power of names. Can we, Summer?” Her hand was now holding a staff or scepter, a stalk that flowered into a spike of cascading rosy-purple bells, and despite her bestial features she had taken on a potent majesty of her own.
“You have a potent glamour, Spring, to hide from me,” said Summer.
“Ah, even when they expect me, nobody is quite certain when I will arrive,” laughed the fox. “But come, let us take our discussion away from prying mortal eyes.”
The Queen of Summer sniffed, and said, “Fine,” before saying, fiercely, to the curator, “I shall return.”
Spring smiled as sweetly as her fangs would allow. “Unless you yield, of course, in which case the item will remain in my domain, as it is named to be.”
The curator stepped back to let them go, first the Queen of Summer, hand in hand with both consorts, and then the fox, her glorious tail swishing behind her as she went. Once they were safely away, she let out a breath and said, to nobody in particular, “Perhaps if we added ‘Origin disputed’ they won’t come back.”
Kiya Nicoll is a writer, poet, and artist living in a New England oak grove. They dabble in a wide variety of assorted obsessions when permitted to do so by the children, the cats, and the limitations of physical embodiment. Their work has previously appeared in magazines including the Escape Pod podcast and several anthologies, most recently Bioluminescent: A Lunarpunk Anthology.
They can be found at kiyanicoll.com, on Twitter at kiya_nicoll, and in the Fediverse at @firstname.lastname@example.org.