The dappled sun shone brightly through the trees above, while the soft babble of water in the stream sang a little song to the girl sitting just up the bank. She was at peace here, as it was quiet. Her porcelain skin couldn’t handle direct sunlight, as it burned excessively easy. The leaves above provided the shelter she needed however, enabling her to enjoy the afternoon before her. The rest of her clan were busily going about their chores, whatever they might be, while she was prohibited from working on anything she might accidentally destroy. She was cursed, after all. At least, that’s what the clan believed, given her pale complexion and snowy hair. They’d never seen an albino before, never even knew that was a possibility. And yet, there she was.
Her mother had named her Wynter when she was born, not only for the time of year in which she came, but because of how snowy her skin looked. As she grew, her clan had begun experiencing hardships, from having the Keeper die in a freak accident involving one of their aravels, to her own mother getting sick and dying from Blight sickness after a darkspawn raid. When her magic had appeared, she’d hoped the new Keeper would start training her as his second. Instead, he kept her as far away from himself as he could. He was terrified her magic would somehow corrupt his own, making him the monster everyone feared an apostate could become.
Now, she was sitting in her favorite place under the canopy, trying to pretend their voices didn’t reach her, or the harsh words they spoke were about someone else. Hearing her Keeper call her name, she got to her feet and made her way over to where he waited. Lacing her fingers together behind her back, she knew he didn’t want her to look him in the eyes, as he firmly believed her curse would spread to him.
“I’m sure you know what this is about.” he began, looking down at her coldly. “I’ve arranged for you to be taken with a merchant in exchange for some much needed goods. We cannot afford to have your curse remain with us any longer. It’s already cost us the lives of three of our best hunters, and the halla cannot afford to lose any more young. You will be leaving in the morning, so I suggest you gather your things. As a word of advice? I’d keep your magic hidden unless you want to end up in one of the shem Circles.” he stated firmly.
“Yes, Keeper.” she replied dutifully.
Daring a glance as the man turned away, Wynter let out a sigh. She was only eight, but knew the clan wanted this, if only to be rid of her presence. She knew they hoped her departure would bring them good fortune, despite the fact that there was no way she could have been responsible for everything that had gone wrong. She wouldn’t miss anyone there, if she were to be honest with herself, as she didn’t have any friends or family worth mentioning. Her father had turned his back on her the day her mother died, believing her responsible. Climbing aboard the merchant’s wagon the following day, she cast one final glance at the only home she’d ever known before setting off on what she hoped would be a journey to a better life...
“One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three... The steps are every bit as important as who you’re dancing with, my dear.” the older woman instructed. “If you’re going to attend any sort of gathering, you must at least know how to dance.”
“Yes, Lady Cerise.” Wynter replied, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
It had been seven years since she’d left her clan, yet Wynter never gave them much thought. They’d cast her out because she was different, sold her to a merchant for goods they needed to survive the remainder of the year. She was fortunate the merchant saw her as a highly valued trinket, as he’d paid handsomely for her. She was then given as a gift to Lady Cerise in the hope the Duchess would shower her favor on the man, thus promoting his business. Yes, she was a servant of the older woman, but she was treated kindly, and given every luxury befitting a noble in Orlais.
“You’re going to look so pretty tonight, my dear. I’m certain to be the envy of the party.” Lady Cerise beamed.
“I’m looking forward to it, my Lady.” Wynter smiled.
Returning to her dance lessons, she was soon spinning the floor as though she’d done so her entire life. She was a fast learner, after all, and was eager to make a name for herself in the Orlesian court. The Duchess had hired a private tutor to teach her magic, as she didn’t want to lose her favorite pet to the Circle. The Templars in the White Spire had been paid handsomely to turn a blind eye, though she knew they watched her whenever she was out on an errand for her Mistress. She didn’t mind though, as she knew they were really only just doing their job.
Retiring to her chambers once her lessons were finished for the day, she smiled at the mahogany spinning wheel and loom she’d been given for her last birthday. The Duchess had watched her working a bundle of wool with her hands, and sensed there was an aptitude for weaving there. It was something Wynter had seen her mother do before she died, turning soft fibers into magnificent swaths of material her clan would then use for their clothing, or to barter for other goods. It was the only connection she had to the woman, and it was something she truly enjoyed doing.
Taking a seat at the spinning wheel, Wynter was soon lost to the magic of making her own special thread. It was silky and soft against the skin, yet durable enough to withstand the demands of Orlesian fashion. She couldn’t understand all the foppery, as styles changed so quickly. She was learning to keep up with the changes though, always altering her material to meet the ever changing demands of the nobility. Nodding when she was called to supper, Wynter quickly washed up before joining her Mistress at the table.
“Wynter, dear, I have some wonderful news!” Lady Cerise began. “You have been invited to the Summer Palace to meet with the Empress to discuss her newest gown! She was so taken with the one you made for me that she insisted I bring you as soon as possible. You’ll need to draw up some designs, and bring along some of your best materials to show her, but she’s looking forward to seeing what you can do! Isn’t that fantastic?”
“The Empress, Mistress? She wants me?”
“Indeed she does. If you impress her, she may even commission you for further work. Wouldn’t that be delightful?”
“It would be amazing, my Lady. So long as I get to remain with you, of course.”
“You’re a treasure I’ve no intention on parting with, my dear. You’ve been such a pleasure to have around, I couldn’t imagine letting you go for any price.”
“Thank you, my Lady. That’s very kind of you to say.” Wynter smiled.
Finishing her supper, Wynter played the harp for the Duchess before retiring later that night. So much had happened in such a short while, she wondered how she was able to keep up with it all. Now, the Empress of Orlais, the greatest nation in Thedas, had requested her presence to talk about a potential gown. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, one she did not intend to squander.
Scribbling some designs in the days that followed, she found her heart fluttering at the sight of the Summer Palace. It was more elegant than the Winter Palace, with gold threaded tapestries and gilded floors and banisters everywhere she looked. It was breath-taking, and she could do little more than stare at all the marvels around her. Not that she was any less elegant, as Lady Cerise had instructed her to wear her pearly white gown to accentuate the pink tones in her skin, and her waist length hair was wound in a series of braids fashionably piled atop her head. She wore only minimal makeup, as it tended to irritate her skin. She was typically only able to wear a little liner around her eyes, which Lady Cerise had taught her to apply in such a manner as to make them look bigger, and more exotic.
Thanking the servant who showed her to her room, she couldn’t help but notice the air of quiet hostility the girl was giving her. It was almost as though she despised Wynter for her position, though she couldn’t imagine why. The girl lived in the Summer Palace, the most grand place in all of Thedas, not in some alienage tucked away from the sight of the Orlesian Nobility. It was a privilege she was certain anyone in the Halamshiral Alienage would have given their left arm for.
Sighing as she closed the door, she quickly set herself to unpacking, as they were going to be there for a few days at the very least. Smiling as she let her newest material slide through her fingers, she wondered what the Empress would think of it when it was presented to her. She’d planned on bringing some other samples, though Lady Cerise wanted her to sell the newest fabric, rather than something that was, as the Duchess put it, last season.
Closing the wardrobe doors, she made her way to the Duchess’ room to assist the woman in preparing for their meeting with the Empress. Waiting until Lady Cerise called for her to enter, she slipped softly into the room and bolted the door behind her. It was one of her duties to make the woman as stunning as her age would allow, though the Duchess was already in her sixty fifth year. There wasn’t really much she could do to reverse the aging process, which, if she was honest with herself, made her a little nervous. The Duchess had no children, which would mean that Wyner would end up in the alienage when the woman passed. It was a thought that terrified her, as she was already seen as an outcast by the elves that lived there. If she was forced to take up residence... She didn’t think she’d fare well in such a hostile environment.
Stepping back to look the Duchess over, she smiled as the woman nodded at her reflection in the mirror. It made Wynter feel good to know she pleased the woman, as Lady Cerise had always been so kind to her. Helping her Mistress to her feet, she walked beside her as they made their way to the chambers they were to meet the Empress in. She had her sketches tucked safely under her arm, each rolled up and tied with a thin strip of dark red fabric. Moving to stand behind the elderly woman as she took a seat at the little table, Wynter rest her hands on the back of the chair, ready to answer the needs of those that would be present in the room. Dropping into a low courtsey as the Empress entered, she waited until she was given leave to sit before doing so.
“We were most pleased you accepted our invitation, Lady Cerise. We are most eager to see the designs you have brought.” the Empress said, taking a seat and reaching for her tea cup. “We were most impressed with the gown you wore to our last ball, and hope you will not disappoint us with something more spectacular.”
“Indeed, your Grace. My designer has brought you some truly inspired sketches, and can work them into a new wardrobe at your command.” Lady Cerise stated boldly.
Getting to her feet, Wynter took her designs to the elven woman that had accompanied the Empress, Briala, she thought the name was, and placed them in her hands. Watching nervously as the Empress carefully unrolled each one, she saw the spark in the woman’s eyes that told her she was pleased with what she was seeing. Passing over the swatch of material, she breathed a sigh of relief when the Empress expressed how excited she was to have the woman make her several of the dresses out of the new fabric. Looking back at Lady Cerise, she knew the woman would offer her praise once they were out of ear shot of anyone that might scoff at her treating an elf so good.
Returning to the Duchess’s estate once their business at the Summer Palace was concluded, Wynter immediately retired to her workshop to begin weaving the material for the Empress’s new wardrobe. It was a great honor to be making clothing for the woman, as it meant that she would bring in business for the Duchess once everyone saw how remarkable the Empress looked in her new finery. Not that Lady Cerise would take the credit for the designs, she always told those that came to her for unique clothing that it was Wynter that had created them.
Finishing the last gown several weeks later, Wynter made her way to the sitting room where Lady Cerise liked to read quietly on her chaise. Finding the woman looking paler than usual, she made her way over and took the seat beside her.
“I’m glad you’re here, my child. There is something we need to discuss.” the woman began.
Feeling her heart sink slightly, Wynter nodded her head.
“My heart is failing me, and the mages and healers can’t do anything to reverse or prevent the damned thing from giving out on me. I don’t know how much time I have, only that it’s borrowed at best.” Lady Cerise continued.
“My Lady, what can I do for you?” Wynter asked, feeling a tear steal over her porcelain skin.
“You can continue working your magic, my child. The nobility of Orlais would be lost without your gift for fashion. That can’t happen simply because I pass away.” the woman said, smirking as she held out a scroll.
Taking the rolled parchment, Wynter carefully opened it and read the contents. Her eyes widened as they took in the contents, making her return her attention to the Duchess once she’d finished.
“You’re giving me the shop?” Wynter asked, unsure if she’d understood the woman’s intentions.
“Not just the shop, my child. The apartment above it, the trade agreements with the merchants, and funds to keep it going for the next several years. I can’t give you my title, the Council of Heralds would tear you apart for it before stripping you of everything you own. I wanted to make sure you were taken care of though. You’ve been like a daughter to me, and I want to ensure you have the best that I can provide for you.” the woman smiled gently.
“I... I don’t know what to say... Thank you, my Lady, truly. I promise, I will live up to your expectations of me.” Wynter replied, wrapping her arms gently around the older woman.
“I know you will, my child. I know you will.” Lady Cerise smiled, returning the elven girl’s hug.
Little did Wynter know the woman who had taken her in and raised her as her own would pass away that same evening. As she’d predicted, the Council of Heralds were quick to swoop in and divide her estate amongst themselves. Watching in sorrow as the nobility of Orlais acted like vultures on carion, Wynter knew her life would never be the same without the Duchess there to guide her...