The windows at Blackwater were open, inviting the early-summer breeze. It played across the lake and rippled the surface of the water, whistling through the reeds along the shore. It filled the stone hallways with the tantalizing scents of fresh baking, sugary sweets, and imported tea. It carried with it the lilting sounds of light chatter as a small crowd began to gather at the house. And, everywhere the wind blew, it caught the bright, decorative ribbons that had been hung in celebration.
The day of the party had arrived.
Festivals were a common occurrence at Blackwater. Willow’s household staff had grown to rather enjoy these little get-togethers. What had started long ago as simple nights of drinking and gambling for the men, and for the Mistress of the house, had grown in the past few years. They had themes now, and curated meals designed specifically for the honored occasion. The men on staff would bring their families out to join, or invite those whom they were courting. Evenings filled with whiskey and card games became elegant dinner parties and masked balls. Entertainment was sought out and paid for handsomely. Friends and family from the lake community and all throughout Willan would descend on the house each chance they had, and be welcomed with open arms.
And today, they were also welcomed with party hats. The guests donned patchwork jester’s caps and tri-corner captain’s hats adorned with garish flowers. Some were given helmets with plumed feathers, and others proudly wore headdresses made of a strange, sparkling material that shimmered different colors in the sunlight.
But it was Lady Willow’s own headpiece that put all others to shame. She was rarely seen without a flower crown pinned into her thick, chestnut waves, and everyone expected her to pull out a particularly elegant one for the occasion. After all, the first of Apex was not only a widely-celebrated holiday, being the first day of summer; it was also Evon’s most important birthday. And Willow spared no expense or grandeur when it came to celebrating her only daughter. Even so, when the half-elven Lady Willow descended the main staircase adorned in today’s finery, she left the room breathless.
Her gown might as well have been made of dewdrops and spider webs. It was a shimmering, ethereal dream in silver and blue that hugged her frame like a second skin. Its sleeves were short and hung off the shoulder like a waterfall of crystal beadwork, exposing every tattoo that adorned Willow’s arms and neck and collarbone. The skirt wrapped tightly around her hips and legs in a cascade of gathered and pinned folds, shifting like water as she walked. The asymmetrical hem revealed elegant, silver sandals laced in complicated knots around her feet and calves, and those nearest realized quickly that her footsteps were silent, even on the stone floor.
All of this, however, was nothing compared to the new crown she wore proudly. It was not merely flowers, but what appeared to be living branches. They were woven seamlessly into her curled and pinned-up hair, to the point where no one could quite tell which deep brown was which. They seemed to bend and shift in a nonexistent breeze around only her head, the bright green leaves swaying gently. The longer the crowd watched, the more miraculous the entire piece appeared. Before their eyes, very slowly, the entire crown was constantly shifting through all four seasons. Tiny flowers bloomed and grew, dusting the branches in pollen. The color of the leaves shifted from pale, new green to a rich olive. Then, as the blossoms faded away, autumn golds and reds took over, soon followed by the cold blue of frost and winter. Over and over again the illusion played out, as a proudly smiling Willow greeted her awestruck guests.
Nobody noticed the shadow of black and grey that followed in her wake. How could they? Ser Echo, while finely dressed in her own way, preferred to let her wife shine and draw the eye. She felt a glowing sense of pride whenever people looked on Willow with awe and adoration. This was the woman she loved. It was only right that everyone else should love her, too. Echo descended the stairs several steps behind Willow, with Evon at her side, but they stopped one landing up, allowing Willow to formally begin the proceedings. As Willow welcomed everyone, and began her prepared announcements, Echo took a knee beside their daughter.
“Are you ready?” asked Echo quietly. “You remember everything we taught you?”
Evon straightened the ruffles on her own dress, and smiled broadly at Echo. “I remember everything,” she said impishly. “Full stop.”
Echo raised her eyebrow in mock disbelief. “Everything?” she said. “That’s an awful lot to remember for a child.” And then, with nothing but affection, she added, “Even for a child like you, my love.” She tucked a stray curl of brightest red behind Evon’s ear.
Evon rolled her eyes. “But I’m not a child anymore, Mother. Not after today.”
“Don’t remind me,” teased Echo. “I might be just a bit in denial about you turning thirteen. By the end of today, you will officially be a lady.”
“Lady Evon,” said the girl, tasting the words on her tongue. “I like it.”
Echo could hear Willow nearing the end of her welcome speech. Quickly, she began to tug out small wrinkles in Evon’s dress, and dust away stray cat hairs. “Be sure to stand up straight,” she whispered quickly. “This is their first look at you as an official member of the higher society. A noble in your own right, not just the child of one.”
“Two,” said Evon with a smirk.
Echo ignored her, ploughing on quickly as cheers erupted down below, and music began. “Speak loudly and clearly,” she said. “Remember your proper curtsy stance, and dance with anyone who asks. You remember all the steps?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Evon as the music swelled grandly. A tremor of nerves had snuck into her voice now, despite her attempt to hide it behind her smile. As Echo started to stand again, Evon grabbed her by the elbow. Her hand was shaking now as she whispered, “What if I dishonor the houses? What if ... I can’t live up to two noble names?”
At this, Echo laughed softly, and gently pulled herself free. She stood, straightening her elegant black coat. “Don’t be silly, love. You’re far too clever for that.”
All eyes were on them now. It was time for Evon to descend the stairs, and take her place among the lords and ladies of the lake. Holding her head high, the half-elf took each stair with elegance and grace, just as Willow had done. When she reached the floor to stand by her Mum, she swept her skirts to the side and executed a flawless curtsy. That was all the cue the gathered company needed: the party had officially begun.
Evon was quickly drawn into the crowd as dancing started. Laughter and excited conversation mingled in the air with the music. Within moments, Echo was at Willow’s side. She wrapped an arm around her waist and brushed a gentle kiss on the tattoo wrapping up Willow’s neck. “Have I told you how devastatingly perfect you look, darling?” she asked quietly.
With a smile that could break every heart in a hundred leagues, Willow sank into her wife’s embrace, blushing. “It’s not a bit much?”
“Never,” insisted Echo. “And all of this,” she added, gesturing about the hall. “You’ve outdone yourself this time. Really and truly, I don’t know how you’ll top it next year.”
“Won’t stop her from trying,” grunted Mannet as he passed by, carrying a large tray of pastries from the kitchen.
“Oh hush,” teased Willow. “You know I will.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said Echo slyly. Before Willow could retort, Echo nodded at something across the hall, forcing her wife to turn and investigate.
A small group had entered the party now, their leader pushing through the crowd, making his way toward the women. It was a taller man, his face weathered from the wind and sea. His hair had begun to grey, and his beard was full but cleanly trimmed. He wore a long blue coat, tall boots, and a dazzling collection of firearms. Some were holstered at his waist, others slung across his chest and back on a modified bandolier. Many made room for him to pass, with some greeting him enthusiastically, proclaiming their joy at seeing him home. But Rowan Shaw brushed them all off, his eyes meeting his sister’s across the crowd.
With a shriek of pure joy, all decorum forgotten, Willow tore through the hall and threw herself into her brother’s arms. Those revelers who were nearest stepped quickly aside, allowing the siblings their reunion in relative privacy. Or, as much privacy as one could expect in a crowded hall in the middle of a high-profile party.
When Willow finally pulled away again, she was crying unabashedly, and Rowan was laughing. As Echo drew quietly near the two, Willow punched Rowan in the arm. “Three years, Ro! What the hell took you so long?”
With a rakish smile and a casual shrug, Rowan said simply, “Jail.”
“Jail?!” shouted Willow.
“Among other things,” said Rowan calmly. “But, darling, are you really surprised?”
As Willow began to sputter a long list of insults in every language she knew, Echo decided now might be the best time to intervene. She carefully side-stepped around Willow and held out a hand to Rowan. “Glad to see you made it safely, my brother.”
“Thanks for that,” said Rowan, taking the hand and pulling his sister-in-law into a quick hug.
“Sorry, thanks for what?” insisted Willow, glaring at the both of them.
“Let’s just say I had to call in some favors to get him here in time for the party,” said Echo lightly. And then, under her breath, “All the favors. You couldn’t get caught up in a non-Imperial prison for once?”
Rowan laughed again. “And where’s the fun in that, Echo?”
Before any of them could answer, there was a small, timid sound behind Rowan as Evon cleared her throat shyly. The girl had always looked up to her uncle, hearing stories about him her entire life. She didn’t see him often, but when she did she gazed on him with awe and fascination. Now, her eyes were filled with pure joy as she smiled up at him. “Hello, uncle!” she said excitedly. “You’ve come for my party?”
“Wouldn’t miss it!” said Rowan jovially. And then, through an affected cough, “Almost missed it.” With a flourish, he pulled a small package from an inner pocket of his coat and offered it to his niece. “In any case, I’ve got you something no proper lady should ever leave home without.”
Evon squealed her thanks and tore it open. It was wrapped hastily in what looked like a bit of canvas sail, tied up with hemp. As she opened it excitedly, a metallic glint shone through, and Willow grabbed Rowan’s elbow. “Oh gods, what did you do?”
“Don’t worry,” said Rowan, “it’s not what you think.”
“It’s exactly what she thinks,” corrected Echo, as their daughter pulled a small, elegantly-crafted gun out of its wrapping.
“Well it’s not loaded!” Rowan said defensively. “It’s barely even a gun, to be honest.” He turned to Evon. “I stole that piece from a truly terrible woman up in Averdale. She used it to look impressive, but she wasn’t a great shot, to be honest. Barely grazed the skin. When opportunity presented itself, I decided it was best to ... relieve her of the burden of learning how to use it properly.”
“Could I learn how to use it?” asked Evon, practically bouncing with excited anticipation.
“Tell you what,” said Rowan, holding up a hand to silence the coming onslaught of arguments from his sister. “You hold on tight to this for a few years. Take good care of it. Keep it clean, keep it from getting scratched up or lost. Then, next time I’m around, I’ll start giving you lessons. If you’ve earned them.” He held out a hand. “Deal?”
With the brightest grin, Evon shook his hand enthusiastically. “Deal! Oh, I promise to keep it safe, Uncle!” It would have been far easier to believe her had she not immediately dropped the gun in her excitement. With a terrified yelp, Evon immediately scooped it up and tucked it away carefully in one of the hidden pockets buried in the folds of her dress. “Promise!” And then, before he could change his mind and take back the wonderful gift, she scampered away.
“Well,” said Echo dryly. “I can only see that ending well.”
Willow had a different approach. She punched her brother in the arm again. “You got her a gun?”
“To be fair, Darling,” said Rowan, expertly leading her by the arm toward a comfortable seating area in the corner, “I didn’t have much time to pull together any other gifts. I was in prison up until a week ago! I barely made it to the continent in time, let alone the party.”
As they went, Echo silently signaled to the staff to bring the threesome an assortment of refreshments. In this mood, she knew Willow would only eat if food was physically handed to her with great insistence. And, after all, she’d spent so much time and effort on the menu, it would be a shame if her irritation kept her from enjoying it.
As they wove through the crowd, they were constantly waylaid by family and friends trying to say hello. They greeted Rowan warmly, often expressing their joy that he had returned home to Blackwater. They congratulated Willow and Echo on Evon’s official introduction into society, and praised Willow on her flawless party. By the time the three made it to their seats, tucked away into a cozy alcove with a full view of the main hall, almost every guest had at least thrown them a passing greeting.
Tea and brandy were brought to the alcove, along with a platter of decadent sandwiches. Willow’s anger quickly faded as the three sat and talked over their meal, and Rowan filled them in on his latest string of misadventures on the high seas. By the time he began to regale them with tales of the quest that had most recently landed him in a cell, even Willow was laughing at him.
Their glasses were refilled time and time again, and sandwiches were replaced by sticky buns and chocolate cream cakes. Every so often a member of the Blackwater staff would approach to ask for Lady Willow’s help with some trivial issue or other. She always started to stand, but Echo insisted she stay and continue to catch up with Rowan. Instead, Echo would excuse herself from the comfort of the alcove, and deal with the matter on her own.
By late afternoon, it was as if Rowan had never left. And, for a moment, it was as if he would never leave again. He fit seamlessly in with the company, a missing piece that had never been replaced or forgotten. The siblings dominated the dance floor with a country jig from their home town, and Rowan’s own sailors filled the air with their favorite sea shanties. When the hired band was given a reprieve, four of the sailors jumped onto the small, raised musicians’ platform and started up a rowdy set of their own. They were cheered on with gusto, and completed five songs before bowing their way off the stage, to be replaced once more by the previous bards.
As the music began anew, it was much slower. A beautiful, sweeping tune filled the hall as lovers and courting couples began to pair up, joining hands on the dance floor. As Rowan excused himself to get another drink, Echo slipped onto the floor to join Willow. Offering a pale hand she asked, “May I have this dance, my love?”
Willow smiled, intertwining her fingers with Echo’s and pulling her close. “You may have every dance, my darling.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I’d sent for him,” said Echo apologetically as they danced. “You’ve just worked so hard lately, especially with all this ... I thought you deserved the surprise.”
“You know how I hate surprises,” Willow teased, leaning forward and affectionately nuzzling noses with Echo. “I’ll have to punish you for that later.”
“I suppose I could always send him away again.”
“Don’t you dare!”
As they laughed, for a moment the rest of the party disappeared. Between parenting and running two noble houses, the couple were known to work themselves almost to exhaustion. But in this moment, lost in the music and the summer afternoon, they simply enjoyed each other’s company on the dance floor. They talked about nothing in particular, but it might as well have been the most important conversation in the world. They forgot about every other partygoer, every other dancer. Family and friends practically faded away, until they caught a glimpse of Evon’s dress as their daughter whirled by, being led expertly across the floor by a young squire in Willan militia colors.
“You taught her perfectly,” said Echo. “Look at her ... she’s flawless.”
“The dancing I’ll take credit for,” said Willow. “But you’re her teacher. You have been since we brought her home.” And then, casually, but without missing a beat, “I’ll need to know everything your spies can tell me about that young man before he leaves Blackwater.”
At this, Echo laughed outright. “And they accuse me of being overprotective!”
Willow raised an eyebrow. “Tell me you’re not already secretly investigating him.”
A moment’s breath, and then a resigned sigh. “Every man between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, actually. Just in case.”
“That’s my girl,” Willow said with a wink and an impish grin. The two watched their daughter proudly for several more moments before she disappeared into the crowd of finery once more. And then, they danced in comfortable silence. It wasn’t until someone tapped Willow on the shoulder and cleared their throat that the couple broke apart, though they kept their hands clasped tightly.
It was Rosalie, dressed in her finest, her large holy symbol prominently hanging from an elegant chain around her neck. “Ladies, it’s almost time. Everything is ready, and I’ve started gathering the witnesses. If you’d like to join me outside?”
Echo could feel Willow’s hand tightening, seemingly involuntarily, but they both nodded and followed after their friend. Rowan fell into step beside them as they walked, making their way out into the courtyard, where even more familiar faces waited to greet them.
“Winnie, there you are!” said Willow joyously. “Is everything alright?”
Lady Winifred of Talladega waved her hand in a gesture that was at once regal and annoyed. “The twins,” she said simply. “They’re being ... difficult, at the moment.”
Beside her, her husband Elias snorted. “Don’t mince words, Winnifred, they’re being monsters.” The man looked tired, but content for the moment. He shook hands with both of the ladies, congratulating them on Evon’s coming of age.
Despite the obvious exhaustion of having two three-year-olds in the house, Winifred and Elias looked flawlessly elegant. Winnie had braided her hair in a series of complicated knots that wrapped around her head, and she’d woven fine golden cords throughout. They shimmered slightly when they caught the sun. She’d worn her ceremonial chain mail, tinged in gold, and bore the same sword with which she’d once knighted Echo. Her only adornment, other than her wedding ring, was an elegant necklace that could just be seen peeking out from beneath the collar of her shirt. It was fashioned to look like two branches woven together: one of a rowan tree, the other of a willow.
Elias, standing tall by her side, wore deep blue robes that were at once practical and dignified. There were shell patterns stitched into the trim in shades of green, silver, and black. It was the first time in many months that he’d been seen by anyone other than Winifred. Echo in particular scrutinized him carefully, taking in every detail of his appearance and attitude. Looking for the lingering effects of the dangerous missions she knew he’d been wasting his time on. For the moment, he seemed stable. There was a hint of madness in his eyes, but with Winnie at his side, he appeared to be in control. Nevertheless, Echo’s free hand casually came to rest on the hidden dagger in the small of her back, just in case.
The small company of friends and family gathered beneath the tree in the courtyard. A tall, fascinating tree that Echo had planted many years before, when Willow’s soul was lost. What had once been two seedlings had grown together into a hybrid that matched Winifred’s necklace: an elegant willow tree entwined around the sturdy frame of a rowan. The tree had become known as The Heart of Blackwater, and it stood in prominence in the center of the walled courtyard. What better place to bring Evon officially into the family line.
The six Irregulars looked at each other in silence for several moments. This was the first time in years that such a large number of their guild had come together, all in the same place. Rosalie was the first to reach out and grab Rowan’s hand. Rowan, in turn, took Willow’s free hand, while Echo held fast to the other. Winnifred and Elias joined theirs, completing the circle as they stood, each wondering when they would ever be together again. Wondering how long it would be between meetings next time. Wondering if more of their number would return, or vanish.
When the rest of the revelers began to trickle outside for the ceremony, the group separated, each clearing their throat or rubbing a stray tear from their eyes. But they stayed close to one another as Rosalie took her place beneath the tree, beckoning Evon to join them. As the sun began to set across the lake, a hush fell over the crowd. And Evon, holding her head high, but visibly shaking with nerves, stood before the gathering.
Rosalie spoke, her voice filling the courtyard and resonating through the air. “As the dawn of Apex begins to close, we celebrate the dawn of a new life for our young Evon. By the laws of the land, she has come of age today. And now, we gather to bless her steps on the path through adulthood, and to welcome Evon into the ranks of Lords and Ladies, as the daughter of two noble houses.”
As she had been taught, Evon knelt before Rosalie, elegantly spreading her skirts in a perfect halo of silk on the flagstones around her. Rosalie stepped forward, and placed her hands on Evon’s head. “May you never set foot in battle, young one. But should you find yourself fighting for what is right, may Iroas bring you divine glory and honor.”
She stepped back, and held a hand out to Winifred. The knight captain stepped forward, sword drawn. “I, Lady Winifred Woolten-Smythe, do hereby grant you the title of Noble. May you wear it with pride and honor, and remember all that a Lady should be.” Gently, she dubbed Evon with her sword, as though knighting her. At this, a broad smile broke across Evon’s face, and those standing beneath the tree could see the pride in her eyes. This was all she’d ever wanted: the chance to prove herself, like her parents. When she looked up to meet the eyes of her godmothers, Rosalie and Winifred, it was with a steely determination.
Winifred stepped aside, and Willow took her place. She held out a hand to her daughter. “Rise, Evon,” she said clearly. But it was in Elvish, rather than common. As Evon took her hand and pulled herself to her feet once more, Willow continued. “This community is still new. And you are part of a new generation of noble. One that has the chance to bring light and justice to this continent, and continue to unify the factions of the Arcadian Straights. May Xavid bless each change in your horizon, and may the stars always guide you home.”
Finally, it was Echo’s turn. She stood for a moment, scrutinizing her daughter. What could be said that hadn’t been already? What more could she offer that the rest of this wonderful family hadn’t? In a moment of inspiration, Echo unclasped the necklace she wore always, and fastened it carefully in place around Evon’s neck. It was a silver chain, with a polished black stone of agate set into it. The gem’s housing was shaped like polished dragon claws, holding the stone tightly in place. “May luck grace your footsteps wherever you travel,” she said. As the stone passed between them, an uncomfortable shiver filled Echo’s soul. For the first time in years, she felt ... vulnerable. She assumed, for a heartbeat, that it was because she’d lost the Luckstone. That she no longer felt safe without it around her neck. But then, almost instantly, she realized the truth: she was terrified of her daughter ever needing to use it. The urge to hold every member of this gathered family close almost overwhelmed her as she clasped Evon’s shoulders tightly with both hands. But then, summoning all her willpower, she spoke loud enough to be heard through the entire crowd. “I now name thee, Lady Evon Merrick-Amakiir Luckstone, of House Blackwater and the Curio Academy.”
The applause was deafening as Evon turned to face the crowd, beaming that perfect copy of Willow’s smile. The party moved inside once more, quickly finding seats at the long tables that had been magically set during the ceremony. Dinner was promised to be an incredible affair, and all were eager to partake. The six members of the Irregulars, and Evon, sat at a high table that overlooked the entire room, presiding over the feast. Course after course was laid out before them, each one more decadent than the last. There were freshly baked loaves of bread with whipped butter and sugared almonds. There were no less than seven types of cheese, sliced and piled in complex patterns on their dish. Saffron meatballs were passed around and dipped in thick glaze, and meat pies were delivered piping hot from the kitchen, each with elegant carvings in the crust. Spiced wine and fresh summer fruit were accompanied by sculpted artisan chocolates in the shapes of small animals.
Throughout the meal, guests would approach the high table in small groups to congratulate Lady Evon on her coming of age. On either side of her, her mothers watched with glowing pride as she addressed each attendee properly. As the evening faded into night, Echo and Willow were once again bound by their responsibilities. They managed the rest of the party effortlessly until, finally, the crowd began to dissipate. As the musicians packed up and the staff began to clean, Evon was sent upstairs to bed. It was a sign of just how exhausted she was that she didn’t argue, but instead trudged up to her room and disappeared. Rowan promised to stay the night, and agreed to at least a week upon Willow’s insistence. He left with Winifred and Elias, planning to return to Blackwater once he’d walked his old friends home. Rosalie was the last to leave, embracing Willow and Echo tightly, and leaving them with Iroas’ blessing.
The men of the house refused vehemently when Willow tried to help with the cleaning, and Echo swept in quickly. “Come on, love. You’ve done enough for tonight, I promise.” Before Willow could argue, Echo took her hand and led her back outside, back to the courtyard and the Heart of Blackwater.
On the far side of the tree, facing the lake, there was an iron-wrought bench set into the trunk – the tree had grown around it long ago. A small table was waiting for them, and someone had already set out a tea set. Seeing it, Willow laughed. “Of course,” she said. “Let the madness carry on around us, we’ll just sit and drink tea.”
“It’s always sort of been our thing,” admitted Echo, pouring a cup and offering it to Willow. They both sank into their seats, exhaustion finally catching up to them. Willow slipped off her sandals and stretched out, tucking herself into the curve of Echo’s side and propping her feet up on the iron arm of the bench. Echo poured her own cup and sat back carefully, stroking Willow’s hair with her free hand. They could hear the sounds of drunken guests making their way home, with laughter and occasional bouts of singing. The sounds of hooves and carriage wheels faded into the distance, replaced by crickets and the soft hoots of local owls. As the summer night came to life around them, fireflies began to glow along the shore, briefly illuminating the shallows of the dark lake.
Tomorrow was a new day of work. A new day of parenting, and raising a young noble instead of a child. They had businesses to attend to in the morning, and staff to pay. And, if they were honest with themselves, hangovers to contend with. But tonight, the wives simply held each other. Echo traced her fingertips along the lines of Willow’s many tattoos. And Willow sang softly in Elvish and ancient lullaby they’d once used to sing Evon to sleep. And, no matter how dark the night became, or how late the hour, the tea never grew cold.