The following is an excerpt from a story called the King of Midwinter. It is part of a collection of Melissa's short stories by that title. Available in Kindle format:
I jumped, whirled and almost backed into the wall, but the young man caught my arm. “You wouldn’t want to touch anything,” he murmured. His hand felt cold all the way through my coat.
My mouth felt dry and my arm increasingly cold. “I saw you with my brother.”
The smile stretched to both sides of his face. “The clever twin. The talented twin. The special one.”
My shoulders stiffened. “Where is he?”
The young man pursed his lips. “I couldn’t say exactly. Shall we find him together?” He pulled my arm through his and placed his free hand over mine. The double chill of his arm and hand made my fingers burn. I tried to pull away, but he tucked me closer to his side and began to walk as the cold crept through my coat.
“It’s rather charming to see you,” he said as we floated down a side-stream of our own, separate from the feverish crowd.
“Who are you? His dealer?”
A sidewise look and that curl of a smile. “I’m Owen Smith, Persis Mitchell, and I’m just a go-between and an errand boy, a dogsbody running this way and that at my master’s bidding.” He said it half mockingly as if he were making a joke that might be at my expense or his own.
I snorted. “Smith? Is that supposed to be your real name?”
“One of them. I have dozens.”
“Who is the dealer?” I demanded.
He half-lidded his eyes as if thinking. “I suppose you’ll have to meet him if you want your brother back, but I advise you to reconsider. Your brother has had his heart’s desire. Take him now, and he’ll be as ordinary as you.” He flicked that one-sided curl of a smile again. “Can you think of a worse fate?” He tipped his head toward the wall, and I halted with a gasp.
This was Briar’s work, this modest canvas. I knew his style and hand, but it was also me, my straight black hair, my oval face, short nose and fair, lightly freckled skin. Briar had painted me in chiaroscuro, a figure in deep shadow hunched behind the counter at Lost Treasures, frowning down at a ledger like an old-fashioned account book, with a quill in my hand and ink on my fingers. In the background, darkened shelves suggested collections of dusty junk. It was the best thing I had ever seen him do, and it was cruel. The expression on the figure’s face told every secret that could be known about me. She was ordinary—not pretty or clever or charismatic, alone in a darkened room surrounded by the discarded trash of other lives.
I tried to avert my face so the young man wouldn’t see the stinging spill of tears down my cheeks, but he took me by the shoulders and squared me to the painting of myself.
He leaned his face over my shoulder, his cold cheek chilling mine and turning tears to frost. “Watch,” he whispered.
The portrait began to change without changing. Now the shadowed shelves behind the figure hinted at grinning totems, bits and pieces of ancient things heavy with history and implication. The figure’s face still bent over the book, but her raised eyes looked out of the canvas from under her brows, and it wasn’t numbers or lists she wrote in the ledger but names and fates.
My mouth felt dry. “What do you want a picture of me for?”
He shrugged. “Not the painting itself. From the moment my king saw what the clever twin painted inside your picture, we wanted you.”
“What for?” I asked again. My hand on his arm felt numb with cold, and I had to clench my teeth so they wouldn’t chatter.
He grinned, and I thought for a moment he had the pointed teeth of a fox. “A little of this and a bit of that.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“It’s all the answer there is. Ask me another.”
“What will Briar have to pay this time?”
“An arm, you mean? A leg? A soul?” He laughed. “What he wants, we can no longer give. His talent is nearly gone. The king will send him home.”
“It’s not completely gone, then. You could put him back the way he was. He wouldn’t be as good as he was before, but he would still have something.”
The young man’s eyebrows rose. “You know your brother best. Would he think that was a kindness?”
“Briar doesn’t know what he wants,” I snapped. “He’s a spoiled little prince who thinks he’s entitled to everything he dreams up.”
Owen laughed and pressed his icy fingers into my forearm. “Now there’s a truth with two faces. Well, I’ll grant that you know better, Persis Mitchell. If you made a bargain for your brother, what would you ask for?”
Wary, I said, “What would be the price?”
“That would be at the discretion of my king, but he has an interest in you, so I doubt the cost would be fatal.”
I studied his piquant profile for signs he was joking.
He raised one brow. “I’m not the king. I can’t bargain in his place, so there’s no harm in telling me what you would wish for. I could advise you as to the wisdom of your choice.”
“Would you advise me? Or would you trick me?”
“A fair question.” He slitted his eyes in thought. “I think I would deal evenly with you.”
“Would you tell me if you weren’t?”
“No.” He grinned again. “But I find I like you. I thought I would when I saw the portrait, and when I saw you at the window, I knew.” He squeezed my arm. “I like you very well, I think.”
His friendship could freeze to the bone.