“And so we forego all sustenance from dusk to dawn…”
“Mommy,” Elizabeth said, tugging on her mother’s sleeve and interrupting her. “What’s suh-den-ants?”
Andrea smiled down at her daughter. Times like this she missed her husband dearly. This was the beginning of the fourth year without him, and Benny was missing so much. Their child was five now, curious as a monkey and more than willing to make her presence known. Andrea saw more and more of Benny in her as she got older.
“It means food and drink, honey,” Andrea said. “We’re not going to eat or drink all night, until the sun comes up and we’ll have a feast and sacred ale.”
This was the first year that Elizabeth would be expected to participate. At five, she was considered old enough to understand what was going on. Elizabeth had emphatically declared late last year that she was, in fact, a girl-child, and her genrevelier party was planned for later in the year. For now, Andrea had a lot of explanations ahead of her. Midwinter meant fasting until dawn, honoring those that had come before them with song and prayer, and then breaking their fast with a party, celebrating that the sun had once again risen and the new year had begun.
The sacred ale was the last priest-ale of the year, drunk together by all in order to symbolically consume the last of the year before venturing into the new growing light. It was made from water blessed by the ancestors, where their dead were placed to drift into the next world. The sacred fish consumed those left there, sending their bodies through the cycle of rebirth and granting them immortality in the form of the water. The priests would take water from upstream, where the rivers were shallower, and create an ale with it that was sent to each of the provinces.
Not everyone could have the highest of priest-ales, of course, but most provinces had smaller temples that made ales for the masses, and those were just as sacred. Andrea was lucky to be a noble, in this, for she had access to the sacred ale from the Capital. Elizabeth too, would get a small glass of ale, so that she could join in the festivities of the season. Fasting would be hard for the child, but Andrea knew Elizabeth was ready.
Arete willing, next year Benny would be doing this with her, and she would meet their newest child. After all, with Benny pregnant, their family was growing, and she couldn’t wait to see her child. She was so tired of being alone.
As Queens, Mary and Kate’s Midwinter festival was necessarily more public than they would have liked. It was the first year they’d ever had without their two eldest sons in attendance, and everyone, from their advisors to the servants, knew they were quietly mourning.
It wasn’t as though the men were dead, of course, at least so far as anyone knew. Dean sent regular reports from Enochia, now that communications were open, and everything seemed to be going well for him. He seemed excited about being able to celebrate Midwinter and the ending of the dark season with his husband in Enochia, and Mary and Kate couldn’t deprive him of that. Honestly, if the circumstances weren’t what they were, they likely would have welcomed the idea of Dean spending the holiday with his in-laws.
Sam, on the other hand, was in trouble when he got home. He’d left a note saying he had ‘business to deal with’ and disappeared with Eileen in the dead of night. Mary and Kate were not pleased. Mary suspected, given the timing, that she knew what their middle child was doing, and while she couldn’t blame him, she was furious he’d made the decision to go without approval. Not that she would have given it had he asked.
So instead, the Queens rested in the amphitheatre in front row, closest to the giant bonfire on stage, while the actors and dancers spun about the fire. The festival involved lots of noise and laughter, singing and dancing, and the telling of stories, both ancient and modern. Stories of the previous year, of years further back than that, stories that reminded them of who they were and who they wanted to be, stories of gods and heroes and simple country folk called for a higher purpose. Those not in attendance in the amphitheatre would be in their homes, gathered around the hearth fires and doing the same, telling stories of their own families and history.
The noise and laughter, the story-telling and dancing, all of it was to ward away the darkness. The sun might be gone, but Helical loved a party, and he couldn’t resist coming back when such a great one was happening. The festivities would continue until the sun reached its zenith the next day, at which point all fires would be extinguished and everyone would head outside, each offering Helical a gift in thanks for his return. Then, as always, there would be a great feast, and everyone would be asleep by dark.
Mary just wished that all her children were with her.
The Enochian amphitheatre was a huge, towering spire, the stage at the bottom. Unlike in Cecropia, where rank was measured by how close a person sat to the stage, in Enochia it was about how high a person was. That meant, to Dean’s utter despair, that he was required to be hauled up to nearly the top of the spire, just below the King and Queen.
Cas, Dean, and Cassie got their own balcony, one usually reserved for holding a large number of royal guests. It was the only balcony that anyone was sure would hold both Cecropians without any problem. Dean had suggested that he would be perfectly happy to stay on the ground but unfortunately had been overruled. Everyone had, in fact, been rather scandalized by his suggestion.
Everyone in attendance, including Dean and Cassie, were given lit candles when they arrived. Both Cecropians had been warned that it was imperative that their candles stay lit until they were told otherwise. Dean was sure he was sweating with the effort to keep his candle out of the wind this high up, especially with how much he was shaking.
“Would you like me to hold your candle?” Cas asked.
“Is that okay? Can we do that?”
Cas nodded. “Technically no, but at this height, especially if I sit close to you, no one will be the wiser.”
Cassie grinned. “Still haven’t gotten over that fear of heights, have you?”
“Shut up,” Dean said. “I don’t see you resting too close to the edge.”
Looking between the two of them, Cas sighed. “Neither of you is used to this. Why don’t we…” Cas began shoving at the Cecropians until they were twined, Dean’s shaking calming as Cassie’s tail rested along his own. Then Cas settled on their tails between the two of them, his back against Dean’s chest and his legs over Cassie’s hips “There. Now I can monitor both your candles and you can both rest assured that no one will fall.”
Cassie and Dean shared an incredulous look, but neither moved away from the other.
“Your highness… Are you sure this is… That this won’t make people talk?” Cassie asked.
“Talk about what?”
“Uh. What Cassie means is that we wouldn’t sit like this unless we were courting or married, Cas,” Dean said. “This is kind of… intimate.”
“Oh. Uh. Should we move?” Cas began to get up, and Dean wrapped his free arm around him to stop him.
“I uh. We’re okay, as long as this won’t start up the rumor mill, babe.”
“Oh! No. This is fairly normal. It helps keep everyone warm,” Cas said. “You’d be more likely to start talk if you didn’t share body warmth this way.”
Dean nodded firmly. “Then we stay. You okay with that, Cassie?”
Cassie was blushing slightly, but she nodded. “I’m okay with it.”
Relaxing back against the wall behind him and Cassie beside him, Dean nuzzled the back of Cas’s neck. He watched as Cassie hesitantly let her free hand settle along Cas’s legs, and found he didn’t mind. That was something to think about.
For now, though, it looked like the ceremony was beginning, the sun just sinking over the edge of the world, and Dean watched as the light faded away.