(1310-12-22) The Winter Queen
Summary: Late on the Longest Night a Gentian meets the Winter Queen on the stairs of Cereus House; they take tea together before climbing to yet further heights to greet the dawn.
RL Date: 13/01/2019 - 15/01/2019
Related: The Glass Bear, Longest Night on Mont Nuit.
heloise iamus leda 

Cereus House — Mont Nuit

Hours past midnight, yet somewhat in advance of the dawn, Héloïse Lavecq nó Cereus is climbing alone one of the more private stairs that lead up through the ancient and exquisite labyrinth of Cereus House. Of course nowhere is truly private tonight, with all the most beautiful youth in Terre d'Ange gathered beneath the same roof as an endless supply of cool and fragrant liquor: every bed is occupied and every sofa likewise, in the patrons' quarters and the courtesans' own, and more than a few doors seem to have been left ajar or wide open in haste. Evergreen boughs scent the air even here, though at this hour they're dripping with white wax from wreaths of candles which, despite earlier replenishment by teams of servants whose sole chore was to keep the house's lights burning throughout the Longest Night, are burning low again in their struggle to outlast the darkness and desire's own flames.

This year's Winter Queen is still scarcely-dressed in the backless silver gown in which she was awakened to youth, or something like it. The blush-tinged creamy petals of her marque are kept warm by her mane of red-golden curls — but there's a hint of swanflesh to be seen upon long white arms bare but for their diamond icicles. Joie-fragrant, but nowhere near as intoxicated as most of her house's guests, she's quite independent of the bough-draped bannisters, moving with an ideal grace and a few folds of her skirt caught up in one hand… "Iamus?" she calls softly. Her friend's name would hardly reach his ears, were he not descending the flight above as she ascends the one below, the two of them drawing nearer with each step till they meet in between upon a landing occupied by a Heliotrope with crumpled fairy's wings, curled up softly snoring, clutching her wand.

Iamus is indeed descending, shooing in front of him a younger member of Gentian House, Yvette, who, her paint smudged, is clattering down the steps to catch up with the friend Iamus has told her is setting up a racket calling for her. That job done, he has the attention to look in the direction of the Winter Queen. His own paint is not nearly so smudged as one would expect, though one or two of the constellation's stars have been clouded over. Perhaps he was not in as much demand as some others? "Ah, Héloïse," he says. "How splendid you are tonight. You shone the brightest of all the lights of Elua." He looks down at his censer, from which smoke has ceased flowing. "I, on the other hand, am having an eclipse."

"I thought it was you," his old friend says simply, with a luminous smile upon lips painted tonight by her own hand a hue less modest than Nature's own choice for her. She glances after the vanishing Yvette and then reaches out with slender white fingers to touch the back of Iamus's hand, where he is free of paint but for a delicate dark blue tendril. "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you where I was — there is such a lot of betting, you know," she murmurs, and shrugs one shoulder draped with glowing sunrise curls. "Are you looking for someone? Or…?" Her smile deepens, for she knows his character well enough. "Only for a little peace?"

"Oh, no, I'd hate to have the surprise spoiled," Iamus says, smiling broadly at Heloise, giving her his hand freely. "Oh, no, all the excitement is getting to my head. If I have one more swallow of joie I'll be sick all tomorrow. Peace and a light would be heaven," he says. "Possibly I can make off with one of these candles before it goes out."

"Come up to my room, then," Héloïse offers easily, "I left it locked… I was just looking in on Sido," she mentions as she leads Iamus higher, her hand cool in his. Of course he's met Sidonie, her half-Courcel daughter, rising seven and bidding fair to grow into a beauty rivaling her mother's own. "One of the nurses took her up into the minstrels' gallery at midnight to see me — of course after that," she smiles a different, more private kind of smile, her head bowed a fraction and her eyes gentle upon the stairs ahead, "she had trouble settling again to sleep… I'll make us tea," she decides, "to help us keep awake to see the dawn."

"Lucky if someone hasn't broken it down on a night like this," Iamus jokes dryly, climbing the stairs with her. "Ah, you are too kind. I wonder what I thought of these things at that age. Surely it all seems very exciting when you are small and want only to stay up so late and know what everyone is laughing about." He looks down at himself. "We must find something I can sit on that I won't absolutely ruin. If a servant is to be found anywhere perhaps we could send for towels or sheets. I plan to take about eight baths tomorrow."

"Well, in truth," Héloïse confides as hand-in-hand they mount yet another flight, for she really does live at the top of the house, "most are so far gone in joie that they surrender to their passions long before they've climbed so many stairs… I always know," a flicker of a smile at Iamus beside her, "that anyone who comes up to see me, must be sincere in his affections. Anyway," and this is her landing, where two separate stairs converge and evergreen boughs yield to the unseasonal white flowers she so adores, "I have plenty of towels."

She produces a key from the recesses of her plain silver gown, and unlocks her door to find her chamber well lit and her fire already burned half to ashes. At once she assesses the situation: "… Maman," she murmurs in tones of mild reproach, "I gave you a key so that you might leave your cloak."

The tangle of limbs and bright fabric shifts upon Héloïse's bed.

A pale arm stretches further over the bare dusky-skinned back of a Tsingano from Jasmine House; and Leda Lavecq nó Orchis uses him to lever herself up into an approximation of a sitting position. She's as smudged as Iamus, in her way; her still-lovely face is framed by henna'd hair that has quite come down. Or been pulled down, more likely. "But darling, it wasn't my idea," she trills happily; "these two lovely boys insisted." The other half of her matched set is stirring on the far side of her, his hands sleepily threatening to pull her down again for another round. The air is heady with sex and cologne — and joie, of course.

"Oh dear," Iamus says, but he's amused rather than disturbed. "Surely they'll be passed out soon?" he suggests. At least there is warmth still in the room. The trouble with such creative costumes in the dead of winter is that one has to keep one's inebriation level high to tolerate the chill. Or find other ways of warming up. He stretches fingers toward the embers. "What shall we do?" he asks Heloise. After all, it's her mother.

And doesn't she know it! But Héloïse herself seems more the mother than the daughter as she circles the bed, picking up discarded garments and dropping them on top of her unexpected visitors as she searches for anything that might resemble a gown in Leda Lavecq's size. The entwined lovers appear to be sorting out which bits belong to whom, whilst Héloïse informs them with a certain Cereus steel in her soft voice: "You may not sleep here all night; and as you must go, isn't it better to go now when I've already woken you?" Her logic is received with groans and complaints from one Jasmine lad and fulsome apologies from the other; meanwhile she has seized upon her errant maman and is dressing her as though she were a doll.

Leda Lavecq must be fifty at least but she's still svelte and uncannily graceful, even hauled out of bed wearing only a pair of sheer silk stockings. The tradition of Orchis House is that she was always a dancer as well as a prankster — and the prognosis she represents for Héloïse's future, before she's decently covered in two layers of sheer and crumpled silk gauze, equally low-cut, is favourable indeed… Behind her back Héloïse casts a speaking glance at Iamus by the fire; in between running a comb through Leda's red locks, so much darker than her own, she finds him a towel to sit on and drapes another round his poor chilly shoulders.

Iamus is glad for his friend's kind attention in this moment, unfastening the precious gold over-robe and carefully setting it aside, folded, then wrapping the other towel around himself. Since Héloïse is so very busy, he moves to at least get water boiling for the purpose of tea, stoking the fire a little for that purpose.

"You know, that's rather a fun dress," Leda is saying to Héloïse, looking her daughter over as though for the first time as she swats her hands away and takes charge of the comb herself. "I don't suppose…?" she wheedles.

"… Maman," says Héloïse again, "I was the Winter Queen. Did you even see me?" she demands, looking from Leda to the Jasmine lads and back again.

It is plain from the raised eyebrows, the dropped comb, and the too-sudden, too-enthusiastic flood of congratulations which then ensues, that none of them did. Pious servants of Naamah that they are, they've been up here honouring the hell out of their august angelic patroness since well before the midnight hour. Leda's face is a picture, wreathed in candlelit smiles; she gathers Héloïse into her arms and exclaims, "Oh, how marvelous! But you know, to me, my darling, you're always the most beautiful…" And her sincere delight is so apparent to strangers, lovers, and family alike, that her daughter sighs into her and holds her close in forgiveness, red-golden curls mingling with henna-red tresses.

As Iamus well knows Héloïse's collection of elaborate paraphernalia for the ritual of brewing and serving tea — most of it from Ch'in or farther east, most of it gifts from patrons who know her little hobbies — reposes in a lacquered cabinet next to the hearth, there to be plundered at need.

"She was stunning," Iamus contributes calmly to the conversation as he busies about getting the tea started. "People gasped." He is very careful with the tea things and scarcely takes his eyes off them. But he can appreciate the lovely reconciliation scene in glances.

"Oh," Leda gasps, turning her famous sea-green gaze upon Iamus, "but when isn't she, darling? And when don't they?" Despite her rude awakening the ex-Orchis is already hopping about with girlish high spirits, looking for her slippers and the bracelet she could have sworn she was wearing — one of her Tsingano boys helpfully reminds her that she lost it in a game of dice — most of the scarves, the bells, the odd bits of jewellery are gathered up; and then Héloïse's slightly joie-flushed cheeks receive a variety of kisses tender, loving, apologetic, and even maternal, from her departing guests, who have also found a bottle of joie they didn't quite get to the bottom of earlier and are already passing it from hand to hand to get them back into the mood for the next phase of their moveable feast.

The proprietress of this lofty chamber shuts the door behind them and turns her own key in the lock, saying to Iamus, "Oh, I didn't ask for her key… I suppose she's left it anyway; I can't think where she might have been carrying it, in that gown." She inhales, and crosses to her oriel window in as much haste as is commensurate with the dignity of a Cereus. "Forgive me, I know you must be cold — but I simply must let some air in," she sighs, "if only for a moment."

Iamus laughs quietly and shakes his head. "I would have suggested the same thing," he says, quite patient with all the goings on. They are, after all, an entirely expected part of this world, and particularly this night. Just about the time that Héloïse has the window open, Iamus is pouring the tea. "Here's to keep us warm," he says. "And the fire's a bit higher, now."

Héloïse draws back the carved wooden screens which cover with their intricacy her windows of leaded glass; and then she throws the latter open wide over the snow-kissed Cereus gardens in which all those wrought silver lanterns have been permitted to go out, and the dim expectant expanse of the capital beyond.

"I adore my mother; one can hardly not," she remarks absently, even as she invites in a chill which sends a shudder through her fragile frame, "but she has always such an unexpected quality…" She turns from the windows to the fire, and accepts with smiling gratitude the thin grey-green porcelain bowl of tea pressed into her hands by Iamus. "Thank you, my dear. I'll try not to freeze you quite through," she promises, as that cold and cleansing breeze scours her chamber free of recent influences. Even the smoke from the candles is duly whisked away.

"Would you like another towel?" she inquires solicitously. She takes her tea in hesitant little sips, with the delicacy of a kitten: craving and daring the heat of it.

Iamus shivers as well, wrapping hands round his cup now that his friend's has been safely passed over to her. "I suppose that's only right for her House," he replies. "Yes, perhaps after the tea," Iamus says, not wanting to relinquish it. "Did you get to see anything entertaining tonight, or were you too busy being regal?"

Grey-blue eyes lift fleetingly from the cup to Iamus's face. "One can peek through the screen to a degree," she confides — and looks down again, as though to indulge one's curiosity after that fashion were at least a sin of medium size as such things are reckoned, "though it is a tease, looking at some of those costumes but not being able to get any nearer, or to touch the Dahlias' peacock feathers, or ruffle the fleece of that little golden lamb I saw from… Orchis, wasn't it?" Again, she's smiling: her infancy in the nurseries of Orchis House imparted to her character a fondness for whimsy in others, if not any of her own. Nature's way of ensuring she'll never disown Leda. "I imagine you Gentians were rather glad when people couldn't touch," she goes on, between sips. "Whatever happened to that poor girl you were fetching down the stairs? I hope at least she enjoyed herself."

"Body paint was a dreadful idea." That comes out so quickly and vehemently, Iamus must have been dying all night to say it to someone in private. "I was against it from the beginning, but the Dowayne found it charming, and so…" No help for it. "Naturally the whole house will be a mess tomorrow. Everyone's going to wind up with blue sheets." He sips the tea. "Oh, Yvette, there's a boy who's sweet on her and he'd had quite a lot to drink and was setting up quite a ruckus calling for her. I'm sure he looks like a bluebell by now." Sip.

Héloïse considers. "Perhaps she likes bluebells." Another gust of freezing air coming off the snowy gardens below turns her shrug into a shudder; and she sets down her tea bowl upon a small lacquered table where it forms with the key of her chamber a perfect minimalist aesthetic composition, and returns to her windows. "Any longer," she opines, kneeling amongst her windowseat's ample supply of silk and satin cushions, "and we should have real icicles dripping from us…"

She draws shut one window, not with a bang but with a discreet little ahem hardly audible to Iamus over the crackle of the fire in the hearth — and then the other, with the same cautious, Cereus-trained hands. Companions forfend a patron should hear a loud and unattractive noise in this house. "Did you ever see anything like the sour faces on all those Eglantines?" she goes on. "Someone told me it was a matter of the costumes. I wonder what they thought would happen," she muses as she caresses her carved screens back into their proper places and latches them just so. "Cereus always takes a winter theme — did somebody hint to them that perhaps this year we wouldn't, just to make mischief—? … It isn't at all easy to refresh it annually, either. After seven centuries there isn't a single new idea for winter. We only look in the archives and choose what hasn't been done in living memory. The masks of snow geese, for instance, we wore last in the year 1206."

Iamus turns his back toward that gust, but that hardly helps. He too sets down his tea to shove some more fuel into the fire. "Oh, yes, I overheard a bit," he replies, sitting down on his towel. "Very strange; I wonder who's ultimately responsible. No one could be so bad as to do that, could they?" He lifts an eyebrow. "Winter themes are difficult. Of course, ours are tricky, too. Making sleep both concrete and attractive is a struggle. Imagine if we came dressed the way most people look when they're sleeping…" He chuckles over his cup, having had many opportunities to observe sleeping faces. "I ran into some Azzallese lord who'd stopped by before…one of those very sweet provincial types. But I'll tell you, this year leading up to the festival was terribly dry. Great number of visiting nobles came by wanting advice but hardly wanting touched, half refused poppy…I cannot understand it."

In taking up her tea bowl again with delicate white fingers Héloïse puts an end to the transient beauty of that arrangement upon her table. Then she settles lightly upon the edge of her favourite chair, nearer to the fire than if she relaxed into it, with silver skirts trailing about her and silver-slippered feet extended neatly side by side toward the flames. "I'd almost suspect my maman," she confides, "but it's a tad spiteful for her taste… She only does harm by accident and then discovering it crushes her. She didn't look crushed tonight, did she? Even with," Leda's daughter's lips twist in reluctant amusement, "two of them…"

She sinks forward then onto her knees and places her almost empty tea bowl next to the cast-iron teapot Iamus left upon the hearth to keep warm. She refills his bowl and then her own; diamond icicles glitter against her skin with each languid, meticulously graceful movement of her arms and her hands. "I'm sorry for your dry season, my dear," she sighs. "Still, I feel I've hardly seen you this winter…"

"Not terribly," he agrees. "I think she was having a very nice time." Iamus, too, seems to find the whole thing amusing, but also a little impressive. He wraps his hands around the cup. "There was one lord who came in to have his dreams read and built an actual wall of pillows between us. How is one meant to take that, after all?"

Héloïse rises smoothly from her knees to her feet and reclaims her chair, without spilling a single drop of tea from the bowl cupped in her hands.

She takes another dainty sip and then, swallowing, raises her finely-drawn eyebrows at her friend. "Had you been painted blue that night as well I should have considered it a reasonable precaution," she teases gently, "but I take it you were not…? I can see it must have been difficult for you," she condoles, "without the opportunity to create that deeper connexion with his soul."

Iamus rubs his brow with the heel of his hand, knocking his circlet a bit off-kilter. "Not that I wanted to get any closer to that one's dreams, I can tell you." He shudders once more. "Makes me wonder if my looks are going, sometimes. But. We often have a busy season just after Longest Night when everyone is dying to get a bit of rest after exhausting themselves."

Iamus's older friend (she must be, and surely he's worked out the dates — though just as surely, he's too much a gentleman to admit it) gives him, at that, the considering glance of a professional able to see through any quantity of paint. Her grey-blue eyes are round and open and quite frank. "Oh, not yet," she informs him, with a firm small nod that belies the airy tone of her voice; "men always bloom longer." And, truthfully, hours later and at close range, no longer basking in vast acclaim beneath glimmering chandeliers but sitting by her own fire with the red of her lips leaving traces upon the rim of her tea bowl, the glamour of the Winter Queen is fading from this Cereus who has been up nearly all night.

Iamus smiles at Héloïse. "Yet you have the secret to eternal youth, as long as the Sun Prince continues to visit you," he jokes gently, sipping his refreshed tea. "Do you feel triumphant?"

Héloïse laughs prettily at Iamus's jest about Séraphin; then, by instinct, she favours him with that expression of sweet, modest, uncomprehending curiosity with which she has over the years greeted so many pronouncements by patrons yearning to pour their thoughts into a sympathetic feminine ear. Triumphant? Her? Pourquoi? … Catching herself, she gives her friend a catlike little smile over the rim of her bowl, and casts her gaze ceilingward as she takes another sip.

"Perhaps," she grants after a moment, speaking honestly now, "but we shall see." She sips again. "You do make wonderful tea, Iamus," she grants confidingly; "better than some of the adepts we have at present… It is necessary to love drinking it, don't you think, to make the brew come out just right—?"

Iamus seems pleased to watch the procession of expressions that very few outside their world will ever see in earnest. "We do of course serve it in our house as well," Iamus replies, inclining his head at the praise, "Along with tisanes. They are both better with poppy in them of course." He tugs the chain of the censer. "Speaking of which, now that the window is closed, I can re-light to provide us with some heavenly vapor if you so wish…"

The procession extends to a conspiratorial shade of Héloïse's smile and a lowering of her sooty eyelashes, to concede that, yes, a touch of the poppy has a marvelously improving quality— the only taste, almost, she has in common with her notorious maman. And then she blossoms into a guilty giggle and urges, "Oh, do, darling. Just for a little while. And then we must go up to see the dawn break. I'll find you something of mine to wear. Something I don't like very much," she suggests candidly, letting her gaze flicker over his towel-draped Gentian-blue form.

Iamus sets his teacup down carefully and reaches for the ball-shaped silver censer at the end of the chain attached to his finger like a ring. He opens a latch and the censer hinges into two halves, one of which contains opium and a bit of ash from previous embers. He uses an implement at the hearth to deftly snatch up a couple of hot embers and sets those in contact with the dark, resinous lump, then closes the lid, which is pierced with many holes to let the smoke escape. He removes the ring from his finger and sets the censer on the hearth where it can enrich the atmosphere. "If you insist," he says. "Only don't blame me if it gains a new color. Pity we don't have a patron in common, wouldn't one of your garments stained with the paint from my Longest Night costume be the perfect gift for just the right person?"

Héloïse watches serenely patient as Iamus makes his arrangements, his Gentian grace scarcely less than her Cereus own; "Yes, we ought to keep it, in case," she suggests, drawing an unconsciously deeper breath as she sees a first tendril of fragrant smoke wending its way up through the fire-warmed air to where she sits in anticipation. "I had thought… But perhaps she changed her mind," she murmurs. Again her eyelids lower. "A young lady who came to me last month, not long after you called — she was intrigued by the scent of my cushions…"

Iamus chuckles faintly. "Poppy is a flower. Therefore I consider opium a perfume. It is always part of my own scent, after all. It is sweet and rich, and provides much more benefit that most scents, eh?" His smile briefly shows teeth. "I think even those who tell me they will not use opium when they visit do not think of how it is infused in all my bedclothes. Even they drop off quickly."

"Even tucked safely behind their bastions built of pillows," Héloïse teases demurely, and leans forward to set down her tea bowl with just the dregs remaining. To have emptied it twice seems to her an elegant sufficiency. Of course this means also that she's the first to draw a full breath of that ever-soothing vapour, which no matter how eagerly the Gentian contingent were dispersing it earlier in the evening, scarcely drifted through the fine latticework of the Winter Queen's screen. Very sad. "Ah, my dear, I hardly know why anyone would seek assignation in your house and yet refuse so many of Naamah's gifts and your own," she sighs, straightening; "of course not everyone grows up with an understanding of how to take pleasure, but why come to Mont Nuit if not to learn from us—?"

"That one went out like a light," Iamus confirms. "Only he left me feeling I couldn't enjoy any." A little sight at the recollection of that experience, though he does not share names or details. "Sometimes we get strange types this time of year," he replies, smiling. "Curiosity brings more travelers forth on the Mont than in their home cities, don't you think?"

"They get here and then they simply don't know what to do," agrees Héloïse ruefully. She is settling now into a more languid posture, nestled into those aforementioned cushions which Iamus has so often perfumed with his favourite flower. "Still, when they permit it, we can at least teach them to savour their d'Angeline birthright… Oh, this is the same, isn't it?" The smoke isn't affecting her yet; but even the scent of it is a pleasure to the refined senses of a Cereus courtesan, who appreciates her opium as she does her tea, her cognac, her wine and her cheese.

"Yes," Iamus says. "I think it's very good." He is enjoying the smoke as it wafts, and finishes off the last sip of his tea in the meantime. "Do you know, I've never been to another city? I don't think."

Héloïse indulges in a small soprano giggle at that. "Perhaps if you or I went to another city, we wouldn't know what to do," she suggests, purely in jest, for of course a courtesan of the Thirteen Houses must be presumed equal to any social situation, foreign or domestic. Then she lets out an airy sigh. "… I wonder what hour it is now," she muses. "I suppose we'll hear when it's time."

"Well, the first thing I would do is to have a smoke," Iamus replies predictably, smiling. "To be honest, I would feel nervous about it. Though if a patron invited me…" He looks toward the window. "Do you think it will be a pretty dawn and we shall have a good year?"

"… Well," Héloïse considers aloud — a little breathily, a little fancifully, "if one received the right kind of invitation, who knows where one might not go—?"

Her gaze lifts from Iamus's face to some arbitrary horizon of her own; she seems to discern a compelling beauty in those wisps of sweet poppy smoke. "I think so," she decides, sounding smug. "I think it shall be a fine year indeed."

These two scions of Mont Nuit who know well how to take their pleasures, luxuriate a while longer in the rising smoke from Iamus's censer before the horologist's cry, dimly heard, summons them to greet the dawn. Then there's a great flutter of expensive cloth and the Gentian's blue paint is hidden under a flowing eastern-style robe, embroidered with half a dozen different kinds of peculiar foreign birds, before he's allowed to don Héloïse's second-best fur-lined cloak. Her best, pure white, enshrouds her frail figure completely but for those long red-golden curls permitted to spill out of her hood and identify her at a glance even with her face so tenderly sheltered against the roughness of the winter winds.

From her chamber to the rooftop terrace which marks the very summit of Mont Nuit they have only one last flight of stairs to climb, laid with the carpet of blue velvet which marks the route up through the house for the convenience of intoxicated visitors. The seasonal chill comes down to meet them; the laughter drifting through the open doors above beckons them upward; Héloïse, fortified by her own tea and Iamus's fine poppies, puts on her most brilliant smile in answer to the ragged chorus of cheers and compliments which greets the Winter Queen, and tows Iamus about the terrace with her to exchange kisses and well-wishes with the old friends and the new who have kept their spirits high to the end of the Longest Night.

When the first rays of sunshine break through the heavy greyness of the sky, Héloïse pushes back the hood of her cloak and turns her face up toward that illusion of warmth. And to Elua alone she whispers one last, passionately hopeful prayer.

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