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THE MIDWINTER Masque fell before my tenth birthday, for I was born in the spring, but the Dowayne elected that I should be allowed to attend. I was not, it seemed, to leave the Night Court without seeing it full, in all its splendour.

Every House has its own masque at some point throughout the year, and each, I am told, is a splendid affair with a worthy history—but the Midwinter Masque is something different. Its roots are older than the coming of Elua, for it celebrates the passing of the old year and the return of the sun. Blessed Elua was so charmed, it is said, by the peasants' simple ritual that he embraced it as well, as a rite that honored his mother Earth and her solar consort.

It has always been the role of Cereus House, the First, to host the Midwinter Masque. On the Longest Night, the doors to all the other Houses are closed, their walls emptied, for everyone comes to Cereus House. No patrons are welcomed save those who bear the token of Naamah, a gift given only at a Dowayne's discretion. Even now, when the night of the Thirteen Houses wanes under the light of profit, the tokens remain another matter, held only by those who lay claim to royal lineage and are deemed worthy of Naamah's embrace.

Days before the event, the house was shrouded in mystery and bustle. Mystery, for no one knew who would be chosen from among our ranks to play the key roles in the great masque; the Winter Queen was chosen, always, from among the adepts of Cereus House. The Sun Prince, of course, might be selected from any of the Thirteen Houses, and the competition was fierce. In Night's Doorstep, Hyacinthe told me, they lay odds on the choosing. It is said that the Sun Prince brings a year's luck to his House.

I know why, now; Delaunay told me. There is an old, old story, older than Elua, about the Sun Prince wedding the Winter Queen to claim lordship of the land. Such stories, he said, are always the oldest, for they are born of our first ancestors' dreams and the eternal turning of the seasons. Whether or not this is true, I do not know; but I know of a surety that Anafiel Delaunay was not the only one who knew the story that night.

But this was yet to come, and in the preceding days, the mystery-shrouded confines of Cereus House abounded with activity. The doors to the Great Hall were thrown open, and it was given such a cleaning as was seldom seen. The walls were scrubbed, the colonnades polished, the floor waxed and buffed until it shined like mahogany satin. Every speck of ash was emptied from the massive fireplace, and rickety scaffolding was erected so teams of agile painters' apprentices could cleanse a year's accumulation of soot from the frescoed ceiling. Slowly, the Exploits of Naamah brightened, colors emerging fresh and new from beneath the accretion of grime.

When the empty and pristine hall was judged ready, it was decorated with fresh white candles, all unlit and smelling of sweet beeswax, and great boughs of evergreen. And then the long tables were covered with brilliant white cloths to receive the bountiful feast that was being prepared in the kitchens. Indeed, I was manifestly unwelcome in all my usual haunts, as everyone from the concierge on down to the lowest scullery maid was busy making ready for the Midwinter Masque. Say what you will of the Night Court, but no one entered its service without pride. Even the stables were off-limits, as the Master of Horse supervised through gritted teeth a thorough scouring of the entire premises. If Ganelon de la Courcel himself, King of Terre d'Ange, were to attend the Midwinter Masque (and such a thing had happened in other times) he would find his horses better tended than in the royal stables.

Of course, I had witnessed such preparations before, but this year it was different, since I was to attend. Of my erstwhile companions, only the frail beauty, Ellyn, would be in attendance, for Juliette's marque had been bought by Dahlia House, as all had guessed, and the merry Calantia had gone on to foster at Orchis when her tenth birthday had arrived. Ellyn's pretty half-brother Etienne was too young, and must pass the Longest Night in the nursery.

There were two other new fosterlings, though, whom I'd not met, for Cereus House bought the marques of children from other Houses too; pale Jacinthe, whose blue eyes were almost-but-not-quite too dark for the canon of Cereus, and a boy, Donatien, who never spoke. Like Ellyn, they were destined to be initiated into the mysteries of Naamah, and I envied them their surety of place.

On the Longest Night, though, there would be no contracts, no exchange of coin. Among the Servants of Naamah and their elect guests, only such liaisons as pleased the fancy would be made; our role was to adorn the festivities. It is tradition to drink joie on Longest Night, that clear, heady liqueur distilled from the juice of a rare white flower which grows in the mountains and blossoms amid the snowdrifts. We were to circulate among the guests, offering tiny crystalline glasses of joie, which we bore on silver trays.

Because it is the privilege of Cereus House to elect the Winter Queen, it is the theme we maintain, in costumes of white and silver. I was hoping to see Suriah, to show her mine. All four of us were adorned as winter sprites. We wore sheer white tunics of gossamer to mimic the effect of snow drifting in the wind, with dagged sleeves beaded in glass that hung down like icicles when we raised our trays in offering. Simple white dominos edged in silver, suitable for children, masked our faces, and we wore only a touch of carmine on the lips for colour. An apprentice ribbonnaire bound our hair, and did a very fine job, too, plaiting our locks with white ribbons to evoke a tumbling fall of snow.

But Suriah did not come to see us, and it was another adept who gave us instruction in the kitchen. He wore white brocade trimmed in ermine, and the mask of a snow fox rode his brow, snarling above his own eyes.

"Like this," he said impatiently, correcting the line of Donatien's arm as the boy lifted his tray. "No, no; smooth, elegant. You're not hoisting tankards in a tavern, boy! What do they teach you in Mandrake House?"

What indeed, I wondered. The Dowayne's chastiser had been a Mandrake adept. Donatien trembled, and the delicate glasses trembled like chimes on the tray, but he raised it gracefully.

"Better," the adept said grudgingly. "And the invocation?"

"Joy." It was more breath than utterance, and Donatien looked like he might faint from the effort of it. The adept gave a wry smile.

"Such a fragile bloom... perfect, sweetheart. They'll be marking their calendars until you come of age. All right, then; you'll see that guests are given first offer, and the Dowaynes second. After that it's catch as catch can."

He turned then to go, drawing down his mask.


It was Jacinthe who had spoken. The adept turned, his face now a mystery behind the sly features of the snow fox, dark shadows behind the eyeholes on either side of the sharp, cunning muzzle. "How will we know?" she asked sensibly. "Everyone's in masque."

"You'll know," said the snow fox. "Or err."

And with this none-too-reassuring piece of advice, he left us to the harried direction of the culinary staff.

Beyond the doors, we heard the trumpets blow, announcing the arrival of the first party. The musicians struck up a processional tune. In the stifling air of the kitchen, the Master Chef bellowed orders and people rushed to do his bidding. We four exchanged glances, uncertain.

"For the love of Naamah!" The Second Assistant Sommelier took charge of us, handing us our trays and shoving us toward the door. "Cereus is making its entrance; go now, and take your positions along the wall, wait until all the Houses and the first of the guests have entered." He made a shooing motion. "Go, go! I don't want to see you back until every glass is empty!"

In the Great Hall, I saw that kneeling cushions had been placed along the wall. We took our positions to wait, and had a good view of the procession as it entered between the marble colonnades.

The tray was not light, laden with glasses as it was, but I had been trained for this, as we all had. Gazing at the entering celebrants, I soon forgot the strain in my arms and shoulders.

I knew the Dowayne in an instant, as she entered leaning on Jareth's arm. She was masked as a great snowy owl, wearing a vast white-feathered mask that covered the whole of her face. It was rumored, I knew, that this would be her last Midwinter Masque. Jareth wore an eagle's mask, white feathers flecked with umber. The adepts of Cereus House followed them, a white-and-silver fantasia of creatures and wintery spirits; I lost count, with the froths of silk and gossamer and silver piping, horned and hooded and masked.

And this was only the beginning.

All Thirteen Houses made their entrance. Even now, past its heyday, to those who have never seen the Night Court in all its splendour, I say: I weep for you. I have gone farther than I ever reckoned from my birthplace, and I have attended grand functions at the royal court, but nowhere else have I seen such exultation in beauty, and beauty alone. It is, as nothing else in this world is, quintessentially D'Angeline.

If I had been trained by Delaunay then, which I had not, I would have noted and could now recall exactly what the theme of each house was, but some of the highlights remain with me still. Dahlia challenged the sovereignty of Cereus with cloth-of-gold, and the adepts of Gentian came masked as seers, preceded by incensors of opium. Eglantine House, in its madcap genius, entered as a company of Tsingani, singing and playing and tumbling. The adepts of Alyssum, famed for their modesty, were robed and veiled as Yeshuite priests and priestesses, profanely provocative. Jasmine House flaunted, as ever, the exotica of faraway lands, and their Dowayne's young Second danced in naught but dusky skin, night-black hair and a cloud of veils.

This was ill-received by Valerian's Dowayne, who had chosen a hareem motif for his adepts, but such things are bound to happen. For my part, I was minded of my distantly remembered mother, and then only briefly, for the procession continued.

One might suppose, and logically so, that I would be most curious about the adepts of Valerian House. It was there, as the Dowayne had said, that I would have gone, had I not been flawed. And curious I was, sufficient that some things I had learned: I yield, was the motto of the House; its adepts were those who had a propensity to find pleasure in the extremity of pain and were trained in the receiving thereof. Logical enough; but the magnet is drawn to iron. I dismissed the Pasha's Dream that was Valerian House, and thrilled instead to the arrival of the adepts of Mandrake House, arrayed as the Court of Tartarus.

There, amid all the froth and gaiety of the other masquers (Orchis House, I am minded, had a stunning aquatic theme with mermaids and fantastic sea-beasts) they struck a deliciously sinister note. Black velvet, like a moonless night, and silk like a black river under stars; bronze masks, horned and beaked, at once beautiful and grotesque. I felt a tremor run through me, and heard the crystalline sound of glasses shivering together.

Not my tray; I looked, and it was Donatien, his face pale.

I pitied his fear, and envied it.

Then, at last, the procession was ended and the trumpets sounded again, and the guests entered.

Royal or no, they were a motley assortment relative to the splendour of the Night Court; wolves, bears and harts, sprites and imps, heros and heroines out of legend, though there was no theme to it. Still I could see, once they had entered, that when all began to mingle, it would make for a glorious array.

The trumpets sounded once more, and everyone—Dowaynes, royalty and adepts alike—drew back along the colonnade, for this sounded the entrance of the Winter Queen.

She entered alone, hobbling.

It is said that the mask of the Winter Queen was made four hundred years ago by Olivier the Oblique, so sublime a master of the craft that no one knew his true features. Of a surety, it was old, wafer-thin layers of leather soaked and molded into the likeness of an ancient crone, painted and lacquered until it mocked not life, but the preservation of it. An old grey mare's-tail wig crowned her head, and she was shrouded in grey rags, a dingy shawl wrapped around her shoulders.

This, then, was the Winter Queen.

Everyone bowed as she entered the Great Hall, and those of us kneeling bowed our heads. She hobbled to the head of the colonnade, leaning on an old blackthorn staff, and turned to face the crowd. Straightening only slightly, she hoisted her staff aloft. Trumpets blared, people cheered and the musicians struck up a merry tune; the Midwinter Masque had begun.

As for the Sun Prince, he would come later; or was already here, most likely, but not revealed in his costume. Not until the horologers cried the moment would he emerge to waken the Winter Queen to youth.

So it was begun. I rose from my cushion, stiff from kneeling, and began to circulate. We had all of us taken heed of the costumes in the procession; as the snow fox had said, it was not so difficult after all. We might not know the players, but the teams were easily identified. "Joy," I murmured, lifting my tray, eyes downcast. Each time, a glass was plucked and drained, set down empty.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the other three, gauging the moment when all of the guests would have been served a single glass of joie. I had a mind to serve the Dowayne of Mandrake House, who wore a bronze crown above his mask, and carried a cat-o'-nine-tails in his right hand. My tray was emptied ere the guests were all served, however, and I had to return to the kitchen, where the anxious Second Assistant Sommelier refilled my tray with tiny glasses of clear elixir.

In the Great Hall, liveried servants had begun the process of carrying out platter after platter of sumptuous food, until the tables fair groaned; I'd had to dodge among them, with my tray of joie. In the center, several couples had begun a pavane, and I could see in a far corner that one of Eglantine House's tumblers was entertaining.

Before me was a portly guest who had unwisely chosen to costume himself as the Chevalier of the Rose. I caught a swirl of black velvet and a glimmer of bronze beyond him, and sought to move past, but a strange waistcoat blocked my view. It bore bronze brocade and buttons shaped like silver acorns, and I remembered that its owner was a guest costumed as Faunus. Hiding my annoyance, I murmured a ritual, "Joy," and offered my tray.


I knew the voice, a man's rich tenor, at once amused and bored, and looked up, startled. Behind the rustic mask, his eyes were grey flecked with topaz, and the long braid at his back was auburn.

"My lord Delaunay!"

"Indeed." Why did he sound so amused? "I did not think to see you here, Phèdre. You've not turned ten without telling me, have you?"

"No, my lord." I could feel the blush rising in my face. "The Dowayne thought I should be allowed to serve; to see the masque, once."

He brushed my ribboned hair with his fingertips, adjusting a lock with a critical gaze. "You'll attend as you choose, unless I miss my guess. Though you'll never be a success en masque, my sweet; not with those eyes. Kushiel's Dart shall give you away."

I could have stood there forever, while he fussed over my appearance; I don't know why. "Is that how you knew me, my lord?" I asked, to keep his attention.

"Not at all. You never looked up." He grinned then, unexpectedly; even masked, it made him look younger. He was only in his mid-thirties then, I think. I never knew for certain, even when I knew far more than I knew then. "Think on it, Phèdre, and I'll tell you why when next we meet. And keep those dart-stricken eyes open tonight, my sweet. There may be more to see here than paid flagellants with a fetish for black velvet." With that, he plucked a glass from my tray and drained it. "Joy," he said, setting it back empty, and turned away.

Balancing the tray on one hand, I picked up the glass from which he had drunk and raised it to my lips. With the tip of my tongue, I caught a tiny drop of pure joie remaining at the bottom. The flavor blazed on my palate, clean and spicy, at once icy and burning. Watching him wind through the crowd, I savored the taste of it and the secret sharing; then, quick and guilty, I replaced the glass and continued on my rounds.

It was on that night that I first began to discern the deeper patterns at work in Terre d'Ange, the swirls and eddies of power and politics that governed our unknowing lives. Despite this encounter, one can hardly say, I think, that it was all due to Delaunay's influence. Surely I would have taken heed, by the stir it created, of what happened later, warning or no.

It was yet an hour shy of midnight, by the horologists' calculations, when Prince Baudoin's party arrived. By this time, I had lost count of the number of times I had circulated with my silver tray and the number of times the Second Assistant Sommelier had provided me with fresh glasses. We had been granted reprieve in shifts, and given leave to fill our plates at the great tables. I secured for myself a whole capon smothered in grape sauce, a tender slice of venison dressed with currants and even a small sallet of greens, and was well content.

I had just resumed my duties when I heard the commotion; a new party arriving, loud and high-spirited. Pushing my way through the crowd, I came upon the forefront of the audience.

It was four young men, and from their attire and demeanor alone, I could tell they were of royal blood, true scions of Elua and his Companions. "Prince Baudoin!" someone said in a tone of hushed awe, and I surmised which was he; slender and raven-haired, with fair skin and sea-grey eyes, the stamp of House Trevalion. The others deferred to him, for all that he leaned, drunken, on the shoulder of a comrade.

He wore a mask of Azza which was surpassingly lovely, though askew on his pure D'Angeline features, and a large velvet hat with a drooping feather. Seeing the gathering crowd, he pushed himself off his companion's supporting arm and raised a goblet in his right hand. "Joy!" he shouted, his voice clear and carrying, even slurred with wine. "Joy to the Night Court, on this Longest Night!"

To my left, I heard the faint sound of trembling crystal; Donatien. He glanced once at me, terrified. Well then, I thought, so be it. Squirming past an antlered hart, I approached the Prince's party. I could feel the eyes of the Night Court upon me, and my heart pounded.

"Joy," I echoed softly, holding up the tray.

"What's this?" A grip like a pincer caught my upper arm, fingers digging into flesh, making me gasp. I looked up into the gaze of the Prince's companion. He wore a jaguarondi mask, but behind it his eyes shone dark and cruel, smiling. His hair fell straight about his shoulders, a gold so pale it glittered like silver in the candlelight. "Denys, taste it."

One of the others took a glass from the tray I offered and tossed it down. "Owwooo!" He shook his head, wolf-masked, and smacked his lips. "Pure joie, Isidore; have some!"

I stood trembling, while the scions of Elua snatched with greedy hands at my tray. Glass after glass was drained, and hurled to smash on the gleaming parquet floor. The Prince let loose a laugh, high and wild, like trumpets. His mask rode crooked on his white brow and I could see a hectic gleam in his eyes. "A kiss for luck, little joy-bearer!" he declared, sweeping me into his arms. My tray was crushed between us and fell clattering to the floor, more glasses crushed to shards. His lips brushed the corner of mine for one breathless instant, tasting of joie; and then I was cast aside, forgotten, and the Prince's party swept onward into the Great Hall. The man in the jaguarondi mask glanced once my way, and smiled his cruel smile.

I knelt on the floor, gathering shards of broken glass upon my tray, not heeding the tears in my eyes; why, I could not even have said, whether it was the kiss or the casting aside that seared my heart. But I was a child, and such things are quickly forgotten. In the kitchen, Jacinthe shot me hateful glances, and I remembered only pride that a Prince of the royal blood had named me joy-bearer and kissed me for luck.

Ironic, that; as Anafiel Delaunay could have told him, mine was an ill-luck name. If I'd luck to spare, I'd have shared it with him. I could not have known, then, that I would be there when his luck turned at last. Some would say he was a fool to have trusted Melisande, and perhaps he was; even so, he would not have seen the other betrayal coming, from one he'd known longer.

But that night, such plots had not even begun to be dreamt. As if the revelry hadn't been in full stride before, it swung into a faster pace. Stately pavanes gave way to the galliard and the antic hey, and the musicians played in a frenzy, faces shining with sweat. So great were the proportions of the masque, it swallowed even the Prince's party. I circulated with my tray, dizzy from the noise and heat. The evergreen boughs above the roaring fireplace loosed a piney fragrance, rising above the olfactory din of a hundred competing perfumes and heated flesh, punctuated by the pungent opium smoke of Gentian House's incensors.

We were running short of glasses. The style of the evening had been set, and I'd no way of counting how many guests and adepts downed their joie and shattered their glasses on the floor, shouting. There was naught any of the four of us could do; we carried on, our trays sparsely laden, while the liveried servants of Cereus House darted amid the crowd with brooms and dustpans.

Such were the profundities that occupied my mind when, beneath the merry skirl of music, the slow beat of the tocsin began. It was the Longest Night; we had almost forgotten, all of us. But the horologists had not— they forget nothing—and the Night's Crier struck the gong at a measured pace, cutting through the din and slowing the revelry. Dancers parted and the floor cleared, celebrants falling back. From behind a screen the Winter Queen reemerged, leaning on her blackthorn staff, hobbling to the head of the colonnade.

Someone cheered, and was silenced. Everyone looked toward the fast-shut doors to the Great Hall, awaiting the Sun Prince.

Once, twice, thrice; from the far side, a spear-butt rapped upon the doors, and they fell open at the third blow with a shivering sound from the musicians' timbales.

He stood in the doorway: The Sun Prince.

He was a vision in cloth-of-gold, gilding his doublet and hosen, even his boots. His cloak was cloth-of-gold, falling to sweep the parquet floor as he entered. The mask of a smiling youth, gleaming with gold leaf, hid his face, and its rays hid his head. I heard murmurs and speculation as he strode the length of the colonnade, gilded spear in hand.

At the head of it, he bowed; but as he rose, so did the head of his spear, sweeping up to touch the breast of the Winter Queen. Bowing her head, she let fall her blackthorn staff. It clattered in the silence. With both hands, she raised her mask and swept the wig from her head, shrugging free of her encumbering rags and shawl.

I gasped, for the Winter Queen was young and beautiful, and she was Suriah.

But the masque was not done.

The Sun Prince dropped to one knee, grasping the hand of the Winter Queen. In one swift motion, he drew forth a ring and thrust it upon her finger; harshly, for I saw her wince. He rose, then, grasping her hand, and turned to face the crowd. When he lifted his mask, we saw: It was Prince Baudoin.

After a brief, indrawn breath of surprise, the Night's Crier swung his baton and struck the gong a resounding blow, letting the tocsin give shuddering voice to the New Year, and the trumpets leapt into the void of silence with a brassy shout, proclaiming joy to all. And in that indrawn moment of surprise, the celebrants found their breath, shouting with the trumpets, hailing the derring of one drunken young Prince of the Blood. And then the exhausted musicians found a new surge of energy, and their maestro tapped his toe, and they swung into a lively tune.

Somehow, amidst it all, my gaze settled on Anafiel Delaunay. He was watching them; lovely and bewildered Suriah, her ringed hand held aloft by the Prince, with his wild, gleaming eyes; and behind the wise, rustic mask of Faunus, Delaunay's features were composed and thoughtful.

Such was my introduction to politics.

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