Julian had chosen to forego the mask; he instead wore all black, with a simple crown of silver leaves in his hair. He left his hair down, and Melissa had said he looked like an elven prince.
Lu, the clockwork jackal, was asleep by the fire. Julian had no idea how Melissa had gotten the thing inside the ball with her, but she had. He kept his gaze on the creature, waiting for Melissa to arrive.
He reached for the glass of water on the table. He kept looking at the envelope, it had indeed been an invitation to a ball. The correct name had been on it as well.
He knew his fears of rejection were irrational; but constantly looking over his shoulder for over twenty odd years of pretending to be someone he was not had given him a feeling of sinking into a void of his own mind.
You’re free now, he told himself. You’re Julian now, not the person you were before. They’re all going to read your costume as a prince tonight.
There was a soft click of the door opening. The sounds of laughter and music from the ball in the main part of the building. Then the door closed, sealing off the sounds of the party. Julian waited, but did not turn to see who it was that had interrupted him. He knew it was not Melissa, she would have spoken by now. And Julian knew she did not wear perfume that somehow smelled of snow.
The clockwork jackal raised his head, looked at the intruder, then went back to sleep.
“You’re no help,” Julian said under his breath to it.
“I do not think he would be,” a soft voice said from behind him.
A chill ran down Julian’s spine at that voice. He rose to his feet and turned, managing to keep the surprise off his face at the man—no, this was a god—that came into view.
“I see he knows you,” Julian said, nodding to the jackal.
“So,” the god said with a raised eyebrow, “I’m infamous even among clockwork creatures.” He smiled at his own joke. “At least for them, I didn’t start rumors of a rebellion requiring the use of mortal spies.”
“You’re the Lord of Winter.”
The god bowed. “That is correct. Though that is only one of my names. I prefer to go by Aspen, at least on this plane”
“For a god of puzzles and tricks,” Julian said, “I’d have thought you’d hide your identity from me better than this.”
“I prefer this form,” he said.
“I was talking about the name you chose to go by. Aspen trees are sacred to you.”
“Mortals always miss what’s right in front of them—at least, many of them do.”
Julian studied him for a moment. He looked the way the myths and rumors described him, dark skin and piercing silver eyes.
“You don’t have wings,” Julian finally said.
“I have no need of them at this moment.”
Julian held out his invitation. His hands were steady; were he in any other situation, handing a letter to a god would have him shaking. But this was somehow different.
The Lord of Winter took the letter, his silver eyes lingering on Julian’s face. His eyes appeared to shimmer for a moment, holding the depths of crystals.
Julian held his gaze, wondering what had brought the Lord of Winter here. Not to this world; the rumors about him starting a rebellion among the lesser gods appeared to hold some truth to them. But why was he here, at this ball, of all places?
“You want to make a home for nameless gods,” Julian said.
“Correct. And lost gods as well.” He flipped the envelope over, a faint smile on his face. “But you know that already.”
“I did.” Julian cleared his throat. “So, why are you here?”
“The same reason you are. Justice, vengeance,” his gaze moved from the envelope to Julian’s face, “or perhaps I just came to dance.”
Vengeance, Julian thought, the word like a clanging bell in his mind, of course someone like him would come here for revenge.
“Revenge against who,” he asked instead.
“Not a who,” the Lord of Winter replied, “but a what.”
“I don’t understand,” Julian said.
“What do you know of gods, Julian?”
Julian reflexively took a step back when Aspen said his name.
“Not much,” he said, deciding it was better to be honest than to try and bluff his way out of a situation, and get into worse trouble.
“There is the Void,” the god said, “and it would swallow all of me and my kin, rather than have us live. We may have power in this world,” at this the god flicked his fingers, and frost was dancing off the end of his fingers, “but we do not live.”
He gathered the frost into a ball, that appeared the crackle with little sparks of lightning. He threw it, and Julian immediately held out his hands to catch it. Julian was surprised when it felt like glass, with a slight tingling feeling.
He held the sphere up to the light, watching as the little flecks of light darted around, the same shade of silver as the Lord of Winter’s eyes.
“And you,” Aspen asked, “why are you here?”
Because I’m stupid and reckless, Julian thought, because of course I’d pick somewhere public like a ball to announce to the world that I’d switched genders.
“I have my own reasons,” he said instead.
He remembered rumors about this god. That the Lord of Winter could shatter any illusions his followers had, that he could slip into a mortal’s dreams and change them to his whim. He was not the Ruler of his Pantheon, but surely, he was the most terrifying of them.
Don’t see who I used to be, Julian thought, please don’t call me by that old name. and don’t you dare say this is an illusion. Don’t you dare say a word about the years of doubts and pain and fears.
“Let your reasons stay your own,” Aspen said.
Aspen walked up to him, and removed the ball of ice from his hand.
Julian watched as the Lord of Winter threw it in the air. It vanished, not even a trace of light left behind to show that it had even been there.
“There is someone I have to meet with,” Aspen said, “I will see you later, perhaps?”
Julian nodded, and watched in stunned silence as the god walked out the door, gently closing it behind him.