During the height of Ysandre de la Courcel’s reign, when the scandal of her heir marriage’s had settled under years of peace and grandchildren, when the trade routes were open and the Straits calm, Absolon was Dowayne of Orchis House. And though Orchis had come, in those years, to represent the shock of crude humor and reward of a brassy laugh, under Absolon, Orchis’ domain broadened once again, delving into older wellsprings of mirth. Like Absolon himself, in Orchis House one discovered the spiced pleasures of change and surprise, the warmth of home and family.
Adepts of that House served Naamah but they acknowledged, too, the gods who were old when Elua’s song first warbled free of the earth. These were the gods of our earliest ancestors dreaming, the gods of forest and field and stream whose songs we sung before we had language to call ourselves D’Angeline. These were the gods of snow and snow-melt, of green shoots and bronze fields. These were the gods of the seasons who bowed so that Elua might join the dance.
And so the old gods were manifest in that place more so than in much of Terre D’Ange, accepting the small tributes of the House that did not belong to Naamah. Orchis had a warren of boudoirs reserved for Winter, warm, low-ceilinged affairs dug into Mont Nuit itself, with tortuous wooden carvings on the walls that ran ceiling to floor like roots. There were cool Summer grottos and an outdoor banquet hall for spring. Autumn saw the Adepts alongside the House servants, harvesting brights squashes and apples in baskets deftly woven for delicate strength.
Winter was but a young goddess with pink cheeks and frost-laced hair the day Absolon met with the Dowayne of Eglantine House. Absolon and Minuette nó Eglantine had been friends since the winter of their debuts, since the advent of marques upon their backs permitted the sudden freedom of association and acquaintance of Adepts of the Night Court. “Two or three in the grotto, I think. Musicians, of course, a quartet perhaps … and one to start the dancing.”
“Done.” Minuette’s smile did not light her face in the fashion of Orchis House but the lines of her body conveyed delight in a bargain well made, limbs folding in on themselves in paroxysms of pleasure. “And I’ll have Gaia and Baptiste in the audience at the opening of House Follies.”
“I’m making the better bargain I think, Min. The City of Elua awaits the follies every year,” said Absolon, fingertips resting on the small of her back as they entered the Small Hall for luncheon where the children of the house rushed to lay place settings. Some say decorum is nonexistent in Orchis Hosue, and indeed the children made a game of placing the silverware, of racing from the kitchens with steaming bowls of soup, of flourishing bows from the girls and elegant curtsies from the boys. But the place settings were immaculate and not a drop of soup was spilled.
“I’ve never heard a contrary word since Minuette was Dowayne of Eglantine House,” Absolon said, breaking a crusty loaf of bread with his own hands.
A blush glazed Minuette’s cheeks as steam from the loaf curled in her hair. Mistress of Illusions, she called herself, but truly it was a pretty illusion.
“Truly,” Absolon charmed. “My Adepts beg off in droves to see your plays. I’ve resorted to locking them in at night when the follies open.”
“I’ve some untested performers this year,” Minuetter countered, bright eyes betraying her. “You know the good it does the young ones to hear the first laugh from the audience. Gaia and Baptiste laugh like bells ringing.”
“That they do,” Absolon agreed, tucking a silver spoon into a hearty bowl of soup. It was a thick, creamy soup made from the pumpkins that filled Winter’s cellars every year in Orchis House, stacked in unlikely profusion against casks of wine. The waxy giants had first appeared one Winter when Absolon was yet a boy and their numbers had grown every year since. By now Absolon had the neat, clean hands of a Dowayne, he had mastered the art of cleaning rich earth from his fingernails.
“Speaking of laughter,” Minuette sat with her legs curled upon the cushion of the chair opposite him, supple limbs belying her age. “How is that boy of yours?”
“I could ask you. You’re the one raising him as a tumbler!” Absolon’s voice didn’t quite boom under the low ceiling of Winter’s Small Hall, snug as it was against the chill, but it filled the room to the edges, echoing in the hearth. “Imagine that, my boy, a tumbler!”
“You know very well Gaetan is a wonderful acrobat,” Minuette said, proud smile gentling the reproach. “You know which boy I mean.”
Absolon did, from Minuette, as I’ve said, had been his friend for a long time. And though there was many a child in the City of Elua, most under the roof of Orchis House, who wore the shape of Absolon’s eyes and the breadth of his smile, there was only one whom disturbed his heart with worry. “Achille is making his debut this summer.”
“During the showers of Perseus, isn’t it?” Minuette asked lightly, years of stage training schooling to nothing a knowing smile.
Spring was an apple-cheeked youth, peering into the audience hall, palms guarding the green of the year’s first shoot when Zephyrine of L’Agnace presented a black-haired boy to the Dowayne of Orchis House. The child knelt, abeyante, like one who was more accustomed to the sight than the action. “You honor us, priestess,” said the Dowayne, mirth dwelling deep in the creases around her mouth.
“The honor is mine, lady. I have come to your halls not as Naamah’s priestess but as a mother.”
“And yet priestess you are,” observed the old woman. “Much as I persist in being Dowayne even in the privy.”
Zephyrine grinned in reply, catching the eye of the Dowayne’s Second. In the air between them, he and she, Spring tasted the green growing thrill like a memory of a once nascent thing. The priestess smiled gently and nodded toward the boy, still kneeling in wait. “My son, Achille.”
The Dowayne waited, silently, for explanation from the priestess but it was the boy who spoke. Out of turn, as it were. “I wish to serve Naamah, my lady,” he said simply.
“I see,” said Este no Orchis. She looked from the priestess to her Second, weighing the matter. “Wit tells me one groomed for priesthood might be better suited to one of the other Houses. Balm? Or Gentian, perhaps.”
“But wit is why I’ve asked to come here instead of the others,” Achille protested innocently.
“Oh?” The Dowayne leaned into the barb, recognizing, immediately the tender attempts at humor inevitable in her charges.
“Oh, yes. I’ve my father’s wit, my mother says.” Achille turned his gaze upward for the first time, piercing with it not the Dowayne but her second. “Black as his eyes and twice as unholy.”
The Dowayne was the first to crack a smile. Turning to her second she chided, “I knew I should have put you up for stud instead of raising you to Second, Absolon.”
“My lady, you should have thought of that before I made my mark.”
Spring was the last to catch on for Absolon and Zephyrine had met ten years and nine months before, in his brother’s realm where the nights blaze hot and brief and so, their story was not for him to know. He could only infer the event from the sudden shift in the air, the light Absolon’s eyes, and grin on Zephyrine’s wholly unholy mouth.
Summer was an old god already when Naamah followed Elua, in joy, to the land now called Terre D’Ange. His skin was brown as a hazelnut, brown as baked earth, and streams ran over it, tributaries of sweat like the sun was a forge and Summer wrought the days of his domain in its flames. When angels trod on golden fields and cool streams, he welcomed them with that body, rejoicing in the way the land sang under their feet.
Elua and his companions did not chase Summer and his siblings away like jealous gods but chased them in the manner of lovers at play, laughing and stumbling and falling down in delight. And so it was the old gods and the new shared their love of the land until, one day, the new gods left this world and the old faded from memory. And yet, Naamah was his friend and lover and so ever year, when the Shower of Perseus began streaking the sky and Summer was hale, with breath like a hot wind, he would visit Naamah’s Houses.
This last decade, Summer had taken to watching the spectacle from the grounds of Orchis House where the fete went from noon to darkest night. This year was no different. Summer watched guests arrive to the House to see the landscape that had begun transforming in spring had now reached it peak. They stood, not on Mont Nuit but in a land that bumped up against a world of gods and fairies.
Luncheon was held in a cool stone hall with high windows empty of glass so the breeze and sunlight might pass through. Guests and Adepts alike lingered long over the meal, plucking flowers from the riot of bouquets that adorned tables and walls to weave into crowns.
Afterward, they strolled about the grounds, some pairing off to dally long in dappled shade, some wandering off into the gardens and the wild patch of forest. One such was a young woman, dark of eye and complexion who talked little with the others. She had only a trace of the D’Angeline look about her. And indeed there was a wildness about the set of her features so that had he not seen her come through the gates with the other revelers, he would have thought her the most convincing of the apprentices who had hidden themselves about the grounds, bedecked like all manner of sprites.
The girl moved easily through the patch of wood, and so silent was she that she came upon more than one apprentice, unawares, though they were lying in wait for revelers, ready to flit from tree to tree with peals of laughter. The youngest of them were so frightened by the girl who moved silent as a ghost they leapt from their perches in search of their elder brother. And so it was that Galanna mab Sibeal first came upon Achille Zephyrine as his laugh echoed forth from the mouth of a cave.
“So you’re the one who’s been frightening the imps of summer.” The boy emerged from the shadows stripped to the waist, wearing fabric rough as tree bark but adorned with leaves and bright blossoms. He looked too old for an apprentice, and indeed, his sixteenth natal day had passed a season gone by. But there was no marque yet begun on the broadening expanse of Achille’s back. “Back to your places,” he called behind him and two or three children spilled from the cave, shouting and casting quick glances at Galanna as they darted into the trees.
“You’re not from here, my lady.”
Galanna only weighed him under a raised eyebrow.
“No matter,” he said. “Neither am I.” And, indeed, Summer could see thoughts of home rising off the young man like waves of heat, he saw long roads and small temples, heard roosting doves and smelled incense burning.
“This is not what I expected from a pleasure house of the Night Court.”
“It is my father’s thought that the unexpected is often the source of mirth.”
“Is that why he invited me?”
Achille shrugged as if to say, “Who are you?”
“Are you guarding this cave, then?”
“I am!” Achille stood with dramatic dignity, legs astride the tiny stream that flowed from the cave. “And if you would enter you must pay the toll.”
“Or battle you to the death?”
Summer saw the young man take in the shift in her stance and the wicked light in her eyes. “No, lady. I am one of the gentle woodland spirits. Your name or a kiss is all I ask. Death holds no savor for me.”
“Gentle?” Galanna laughed. “Ah, but you are D’Angeline and not near dirty enough to be a true wood sprite.” So she placed a kiss on his lips and darted behind him into the cave, skirts drawn up out of the stream. The grotto inside boasted a tiny waterfall and streams of sunlight from openings in the ceiling. Three Adepts of Eglantine House were by the pool dressed as fire sprites who blew flames from their lungs and danced over hot coals.
But Galanna looked past them to where the cave grew deeper. “And will Queen Maeb punish you if you abandon your post?” The young woman laughed with delight and kissed him again.
“On the contrary, my lady,” Achille replied. “She will punish me if I do not.”
And so, hand in hand, the two ventured past the grotto to the place where it gave way to the network of gypsum mines of ancient Tyberium. And there they spoke of many things, both idle and not, delighting as mystery yielded to discovery.
When Summer saw them next the light had long faded and the revelers danced around an enormous fire as wine flowed and they awaited the first fall of meteors overhead. Tonight the shower would culminate in the wee hours in a spectacular display. The young man and woman were late to the dance, returning from the mines so streaked with gypsum powder that they truly looked the part of wild things.
Summer bumped a brawny should against Absolon where the Dowayne stood at the edge of the firelight, watching his handiwork. “That’s your boy there, is he?”
“Yes,” Absolon said and smiled, turning to look at the god as if he’d only now noticed him standing there.
“Quite a night for a debut. I wouldn’t have expected a Cruithne girl to pay his virgin price. Even that one.”
“How did you….”
“Ah, lad, I’ve watched you grow from a beautiful boy yourself. Not even you throw a party like this for the Perseids.”
Absolon only nodded, for he had indeed known Summer long. “She did not pay his virgin price,” Absolon said mildly, watching his black-haired boy twirl the sea’s own daughter around the flames. “It was his mother’s one request when she gave his marque to Orchis House, that the first time he would be able to choose. It is something neither she nor I has ever done. There is joy, she says, in choosing the beloved and being chosen back.”