As in much of Tal'Dorei, Winter's Crest is the most important civic festival in Whitestone, but in recent years -- since the return of the De Rolo family to power, and particularly with Lady Vex'ahlia De Rolo's connection to the Dawnfather, and the rebuilding of the city after the fall of the Briarwoods -- other celebrations have risen to be of nearly as much prominence. The main new holiday, of course, is Highsummer, Pelor's holy days, slowly being restored from a meager observance to its more traditional week of feasting, gift-giving, and, under the direction of Lady Cassandra, community service. But as the farming community around Whitestone grew, so did the bounty of the harvest, and now the Harvest Close festival is one of the biggest draws from the surrounding area.
So it is that Pike Trickfoot finds herself in Whitestone, taking a break from family and duty in Westruun to spend time prepping The Slayer's Cake for the festival's baking competition, as well as making simpler fare to sell at their booth. After a day of cleaning and baking, she knocks the flour off her hands and opens the front door, closing her eyes as she takes a deep breath. It is early evening, and the scent of autumn touches the air -- smoke from the city's chimneys, the light decay of the first fallen leaves, someone mulling cider nearby. It's a pleasant, homey feeling, and it warms her soul to feel how much Whitestone has changed in the past seven years.
Pike takes off her apron and sets it on the table before going outside and heading in the direction of the Sun Tree. Booths and tables for the festival are set up all around, hung with banners and wreathes of dried leaves and flowers, all awaiting the farmers and artisans to place their wares tomorrow. The tree's leaves have just started to turn yellow, a brilliant color that stands out from the oranges, reds, and dark evergreens of the surrounding forests, especially in the light of the setting sun. As Pike approaches, she sees that workers are still setting up decorations, under the direction of the Lady Vex'halia. Pike whistles at Vex; she turns and waves Pike over.
As she comes closer, Pike can hear Vex talking to the workers. "Can you put that up just a tad higher?" Vex gestures further upward, and the man on the ladder shifts the wreath he's holding. "Yes, now it matches the others. Thank you, that's perfect." She turns toward Pike and holds out her arms. "Oh, Pike! I didn't know you were in town already."
Pike hugs Vex tight, then steps back. "Keyleth stayed with us in Westruun yesterday, then sent me through the Sun Tree this morning. She'll come herself tomorrow. I would have come by the castle to say hello earlier, but there was so much work to do at the bakery that I only just now finished up. I was about to head there, then saw you here instead."
"I'm glad you did." Vex looks around at the workers with a series of nods. "Good work, everyone. I think we're ready for tomorrow; just clean up and put everything away."
A general murmur of assent runs through the work crew, and Vex turns away from them. "Do you want to join us for dinner?"
"In a little bit." Pike glances up to the sky, which the setting sun is already lighting a warm orange. "It's such a nice night, I thought I'd take a small walk first."
"That sounds lovely. May I come along?"
"Of course," Pike replies with a smile. Vex offers her an elbow, and Pike slips a hand through as they turn the other direction, walking past houses and shops and workers going home for the day, windows coming to ife all around them.
"So," Vex says, "no Scanlan this time?"
Pike shakes her head. "He's staying home to watch the girls. They deserve to enjoy Harvest Close without Mommy dragging them all over town, like they usually do when we run the booth in Westruun. And I think we were all due for a break."
Vex smiles and lays a hand on her rounded belly. "I can appreciate that," she says. "Much as I love our Freddie and Elaina, and look forward to meeting this one here soon, it's nice to get away sometimes."
"Yes." Pike sighs. "We're lucky, you know? So many women don't have the luxury of leaving their children safe at home."
"Oh, I know." Vex glances toward the castle. "Every day I think about how lucky I am, to live in this place, to have the partner I've chosen, and for him to have chosen me." She lets out a quick laugh. "See, I was right all along: it's useful to have money."
Pike chuckles in return. "I won't argue," she says, "but I suspect the supportive partner is more important in the long run." Vex laughs again, and Pike continues. "But yes, the place too. And it's such a pretty place." She pauses and looks toward the darkening woods, where a few trees are turning red and gold, splashes of color against the mostly-evergreen forest. "I'm not sure I've visited in autumn before."
Vex nods. "It's not my most favorite time of year -- there's nothing like shaking off a Whitestone winter with the first greens of spring -- but it is beautiful." She follows the direction of Pike's gaze. "Shall we walk through the woods?"
Pike glances at to the right, toward the temple to Pelor that perches at the edge of the graveyard. She'd assumed that to be their destination, perhaps followed by visiting the small shrine to the Raven Queen, but now she notes that Vex is decidedly not looking in that direction. "The woods sounds lovely," she says, and then allows Vex to steer her toward the trees.
Although the sun hasn't fully set, it's darker in the forest, quiet, only the soft crunch of leaves and pine needles underfoot. A mist is gathering in the treetops; the effect would be creepy in the graveyard, but here it is calming. Peaceful.
As the trees fully surround them, Vex lets out a soft, contented sigh. Pike smiles up at her. "You really are happiest in the woods, aren't you?"
Vex nods. "Woods, mountains, caves. Anywhere I can feel the distance from civilization, even when I know it's only a few steps away." Her eyes flick in the direction of the graveyard. "That's one way I never understood my brother. He was so comfortable in cities, making his way through the busting streets and back alleys. I'm happy to visit cities. But Whitestone is the only one I can even imagine living in, and that only because the forest is so close."
Pike nudges her in the side. "And because Percy is here."
"Well, of course." Her words have a fond smile in them. "But even if he weren't, if it had to be a city? This is the one I'd choose."
"Good." Pike snuggles a little closer to her friend. "I'm glad you have a home."
"So am I." Vex pats Pike's hand. "Most definitely." And the two of them walk together, through the woods and toward the castle where dinner and family await them both.