Fable - Ask The Futures of Fae [Winter Court]

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Asemir

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Winter Court - Northwestish of the Spine
Underhill - The Scarlet Hall


Though it had been some two thousand years or longer since he'd stepped foot in the Scarlet Hall, Asemir felt its regal walls filter into his memory as if he had never left. The same cool, crisp air he recalled of nights spent at the behest of the Court and its Queen greeted his lungs like an old, weary friend. And through the steps his boots carried him, a route they could have walked in his sleep, he drifted between the present and the past as though walking through mirrors.

Alabaster statues and their silent regard shone under streams of silvren moonlight. Somewhere in the far reaches of his mind, he recalled a quiet conversation here, a gesture of friendship there, a stroll with close friends or a shared story among battlefield allies. So much of his life span across the polished floor of these halls, the weight of unbidden memories and distance of time sank heavily upon his shoulders.

He was not expected by the Queen nor anyone of note. No, each year a fair Fae by the name of Aster delivered the Futures Tome to Winter. Such were his ties to Winter and Summer that Asemir could not, would not walk their halls willingly again. Before it had been of little consequence; Dusk had plenty of Council Members to spare that could make the journey instead. Yet this year ...

...this year was different.


~~~

"You know what awaits you there in the Scarlet Hall," Eske's voice carried so resolutely in the Grove despite how gentle she spoke. Sullen, weighted with the deep wisdom that came only with the visions and knowledge contained within her being.

"As do you," he'd answered her, "and you could tell me."

"You neither wish to hear it nor are you strong enough."

"I have lived on this world for a countless millennia, carved my life across the immortal realms and left a scar so deep they'll not forget me for another countless millennia to come," the cut of his voice and the sharp churn of winds blustering through the Grove trees were a terribly naked tell of his emotions. He could school his face, but the ones that truly knew him could always tell, "who are you to tell me if I am strong enough?"

"Your heart is frail from its ages of neglect and abandonment. You have given it no cause to stay strong, nor allowed another to give it strength."

He did not deny this, there was nothing left to say on that matter. The Mirlorne Sisters had come to be as family to him, and in them both he had confided his many regrets and misgivings over the long years. Secrets. The Dusk Court was filled with everyone's secrets whether they meant it or not. "So what am I to do, forgo a sign of fate?"

"The Futures are not Fated, you above all know this."

"No, but they are not folly either. I will take them to the Winter Court this year. Will you stop me?"

Eske gazed upon him with quiet, tethered concern for several moments before bowing her head and turning away in relent. He frowned into the dismay he felt from her and breathed it in without remorse. For too long had he let this wound fester, he could not do it any longer. Not when the Futures foretold of healing.

~~~

"Lord Kor Aren, Triumvir of the Duskirae, High Guardian of the Hidden Groves, I have arrived to deliver the Winter Court's Futures."
 
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Mab

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Mab looked at the open parcel on her desk, tilting her head to the side and stroking her chin with one finger. Concentration creased her brow and pursed her lips. It was a rare occasion that a surprise crossed her threshold, and yet here one was, lying plainly in a large, crinkled square of parchment.

"This was discovered in Weiam?"
she asked, looking down at Juiril, the sidhe who had accompanied it. He nodded, his curly red mop of hair bobbing in added emphasis.

"Yes, Your Splendor. In the valley between the mountains Mudan and Fuurao." Having finally secured her interest, he rummaged around in the satchel beside him to produce a small homemade map. He flattened it out and pointed to a dot that had been circled. "Here, just outside of a village called Mong Say."

"It was in a human household?"
Juiril nodded again. Mab picked up a writing brush and used the end to turn the item over. If she had not known the merchant who had brought the oddity for centuries, she would have thrown him out of the Scarlet Hall with a bruise from her foot on his rump for wasting her time with trivial oddities. But who he was and what he claimed to have grabbed her interest. And what he had had not failed in being both beautiful and grotesque.

A brownie made perfectly out of green crystal -- its organs and skeleton also marked by dark, cloudy imperfections therein. It was frozen perfectly in a moment of fright, paws raised and mouth open. Its ears were still waving gently from the motion of reeling away from something. It was eerily exact to a real brownie, enough so that she was left questioning if it was a brownie.

"A neighbor found it. The house was untouched but the family was gone. They had been missing for a week when this was discovered. The man sold it to me as a 'demon idol' and warned me of its negative aura."

It had no aura. In fact, there was not a whiff of magic lingering around the crystal figure. Only the smell of an actual brownie. Both were things any fae could tell within a few seconds of seeing it. Still, Mab did not want to touch it. There was a… wrongness she couldn't place.

"Very curious. And you touched it?"
She looked down at the sidhe and he looked up at her. From that shared look, she gathered that she was not alone in her inherent distaste of the thing.

There was a quick rap at the door before her steward stepped in. Mab straightened from her observation and the fae bowed deeply.

"The representative from the Dusk Court has arrived on the premises, Your Splendor." There was something pinched in his expression that was out of the ordinary as he glanced toward Mab's desk. He frowned at the crystal brownie, and Mab waved a hand over it.

"I will inspect this further after my meeting. Auren, please request a visit from Yan Teimo to examine this object; I want a hat's opinion. That is, if you do not mind my relieving you of your demonic idol, Master Juiril?"


The little sidhe bowed with a grin. "Not at all, Your Splendor."

"Very good. I'll have Deslinre make a room for you."
She nodded to Auren, who bowed once again. Mab shrugged into her overcoat and breezed past both of them. Auren opened his mouth and began to raise his hand, but remained silent and lowered it again. He fell in step behind her on their way to greet the representative from Dusk.



The throne of the Winter Court was a dais at the end of a long hall. The sides were open to the elements, nothing but red pillars dividing the room from the lush, beautifully tended gardens fed by the rains that blew in from the massive maw overhead. Normally there would have been rows of cushions for courtiers, but today there was only a singular cushioned platform before the throne.

Seated on a platform of her own atop the steps of her dais, Mab had discarded her usual red attire for the pinks and purples associated with the Dusk Court. Layers of silk were carefully arranged around her to showcase the swirls of golden embroidered clouds giving way to the gold stars that dotted her shoulders. Half of her hair cascaded around her and the other half had been drawn and fastened with gold combs. On her right, a pin dripped with amethysts and pearls on gold chains, swinging gently at her every movement.

At odds with the vibrant ensemble, the Queen’s silver eyes appeared flat. The day the tome of Futures arrived was never overlooked, but it was just another day. Trudging in the endless march of eternity, it arrived like all the others: exactly as planned and not a second late.

Equally on time, the doors on the far end of the long hall opened and the court herald beside the dais stepped forward.

"Lord Kor Aren, Triumvir of the Duskirae, High Guardian of the Hidden Groves.”

Mab’s head snapped to the side and she looked incredulously at the herald, surprise breaking her stoic features. Blinking to recover her composure, she clenched her jaw and faced forward once again but fixed her eyes on a point on the floor halfway between herself and the door. Her heart sped, a gallop that made her feel dizzy and sick. What was he doing here?
 
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Asemir

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Lord Kor Aren, Triumvir of the Duskirae, High Guardian of the Hidden Groves, and all manner of names and titles that came before did enter the throne room without falter as he always had. He knew no measure of fear to speak of and he never had his entire life, so it was not fear that kept the duanann's gaze leveled with the floor as he calmly, methodically, strode forward toward the dais. His attire was formal, but not so posh and in-fashion as he had carried himself in his youth within the Summer Court. Here in Winter, Asemir had always chosen simple colors and clean lines over frill and fancy.

Dusky greys and faded purple marked his clothing, accented by elegant swirls of silver. The lengths of moon-drenched hair were pulled back into a loose coil of braids, allowing the scars of his face and the tattoos climbing his neck and jaw like wayward vines to show clearly for all to see. There was simply no mistaking him or his quiet, confident stride.

Upon reaching the foot of the dais, he bent as his waist to set upon the floor before his feet the carved wooden chest that, every year for thousands of years, had delivered the Futures Tome and the gifts that accompanied it. There he bent his knee into a kneel and from his position bowed his head.

"It is my honor to present to you this year's Futures Tome as well as the gifts provided by the Duskirae for Your Splendor," a breath, wolven eyes slid upward to take her in directly for the first time in ages, glinting knowingly beneath a drawn brow, "Queen Mab."

For all his mettle, all his valor, in that moment he felt his own heartbeat stop. Not in fear, but in awe. Time may always favor the young, but Mab had only grown more painfully lovely through the years. If only ... if only the colors of Dusk suited her better, but she'd always looked best, in his mind and eye, bathed in midnight blue.
 
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Mab

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Mab kept her gaze fixed on the spot, knowing that he would cross into it sooner than later. She was thankful that the room was empty, with the exception of a few close officials. There were no courtiers to see her avoid looking at Asemir in a way she had never avoided anyone.

She moved her gaze only once to stall a little longer, but finally let her eyes settle on him. Mab wished she had worn something different. She wished her heart didn’t race at the sight of him -- that her stomach didn’t twist into a fist that pressed the air from her lungs. She wished that she'd gotten over him and this or that the feelings had lessened. She wished she could be angry and vindictive and throw him out of her sight the way Titania would.

Time had changed her in ways she hadn't expected and hadn't changed her in the ways she wished it would have. Even now she couldn't hate him. Time had been kind to him, even if her eyes easily perceived the same subtle lines of age in his countenance. He was as beautiful as ever, tall and lean and fair. Unlike her vibrant ensemble, the muted colors and warm grays suited him well.

He knelt and placed the chest before him. The words on his tongue were formal, the clipped wings of a bird that was meant to fly. Mab drew a slow, deep breath and prepared for the moment he lifted his eyes. Her gaze was fixed on his when he did, meeting for the first time in a very long time.

Why, after all these years, did he decide to come now?

"Lord Kor Aren." With all the decorum expected of her station, she swallowed her feelings. Her expression remained cool and neutral. She bowed her head and clung to protocol to carry her through this.

"The Winter Court accepts this gift. May we heed your wisdom and strive for peace in the coming year. In return, please accept our gift of hospitality. You have had a long journey. Please, Lord Kor Aren, be seated."

Mab raised her hand to gesture to his cushion, then rose from her seat. As she descended the dais, various attendants moved the chest beside a table and second platform that were brought and set out before Asemir. It happened quietly, seamlessly, and by the time Mab had fully descended, everything was set and prepared for her. Bowing gently, the jewels in her hair twinkling and her silk robes rustling, she took her place across from him with a flourish of her sleeves.

Tea ceremonies were not as in vogue in the other Courts, but they still maintained their place as an essential custom in Underhill. She had welcomed every emissary this way for thousands of years, but never an ex lover.
 
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Asemir

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He could not help but feel that fretting of her own, a jittery ripple unseen by all others. Mab was nervous, and that emotion was privy to him only through his personal gift. Yet that schooled presentation and her level words, practiced and maintained with such grace and austerity, would have fooled every other person here.

Not Asemir.

Cool air filled his lungs as she accepted the offering. He had, perhaps, given his own future a small of possibility that she'd revoke his welcome within the Winter Court at the first chance. A younger Mab might have. His niece would have just for the entertainment. This Mab was every bit as different as she was the same, and these changes - while welcome - were only a painful reminder that he wasn't here to witness their evolution for himself over the last several ages.

Rising slowly and moving to the indicated cushion, Asemir assumed a seated position of comfort in much the same way she'd remember him doing before. Old habits, and all. He'd grown so accustomed to the proper chairs and tables of the Dusk Court that it felt almost awkward to sit on the cushion. How very lavish. How very proper. So utterly royal. Oh, but this tea ceremony bullshit.

He didn't even look to see who was in attendance, "High Omnia Eske will be delighted to hear the details of your gown, Your Splendor," because sometimes, some things never changed. Especially Asemir's penchant for elegantly flipping the bird to social establishments and societal norms. Conversational rules be damned, she could listen and be served her snacks at the same time, "she always eagerly asks after Lady Aster's arrival back to Mirlorne. You are the only one that dresses for the occasion of the Futures delivery," his stormy gaze drifted along her ensemble, politely, "it means a great deal that you do."
 

Mab

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She had not yet placed a dish in front of him before he spoke. Mab’s mouth twitched, the solemn line she rigorously maintained pulling into a subtle, pinched smirk. One of her brows hitched upward, but she did not look up at him. Rather, Mab continued to serve him from a tray of small foods. She laid his utensils down with care before serving herself in the same manner, unspeaking but listening intently.

“I am glad that my efforts are appreciated. I do my best to match the level of respect I expect in return." She did not remark on the break of formality. He was never one to abide by the rules in the first place. Asemir would be fearlessly true to himself no matter what etiquette he had to step over.

"The embroidery was only done at dusk, so I am told. The embroiderer was very adamant about capturing the 'essence of the hour' in their work. It is for this level of detail I hire him."

She lifted her gaze, capturing his still roaming the aforementioned gown. Her eyes did not linger long enough to meet his, tactfully diverted to the dish she placed between them.

"Perhaps I shall visit the High Omnia myself someday so that she may see them in person."

Mab folded her hands on her knees and finally looked up, unable to avoid doing so any longer. The Queen of the Winter Court rarely traveled. She never left the territory of Winter or Autumn when she did -- a position she had sworn to maintain with the end of the last war.
 
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Asemir

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Naturally, respect given where respect received. The Duskirae representatives were nothing but respectful - for their own sake as much as anything else. Asemir nodded in agreement, turning his attention from the gown to the food she served. He was, at least, capable of wrangling his appetite into respectful etiquette - while he had worked up a hunger from traveling the Ley, it was nothing that could not wait for the Queen to eat first.

He was watching her hands, such graceful and delicate things for such a strong and powerful fae, when she dropped a proverbial bomb into the conversation. Asemir's eyes winced and fluttered in disbelief of what he'd just heard. Mab? Travel? No, certainly she was being funny. Something she was never particularly good at, given her dry sense of humor (or perhaps it was her frozen heart, as some people liked to believe).

But her expression was anything but humorous. Honestly, one could hardly call her face warm or amiable on her best days - but he'd learned to see past the default stony expression a long time ago. Asemir gently cleared his throat in surprise. He may have been an utterly unflappable Commander in numerous wars, but he was still able to be caught unawares. Some fae were just more prime at it than others - she most of all sitting across from him.

"Well," he shifted his weight, uncomfortable in his moment of uncertainty of how to respond that wouldn't seem like anything other than acceptably shocked and grateful, "that would undoubtedly be cause for a great celebration in Mirlorne. We may not revel like Dawn, but we take our reasons to fete whenever we can - especially for such a rare and esteemed guest. Lady Eske would bloom the entire grove in anticipation."

The faint, thin smile to curve his lips didn't linger long but it connected with Mab's gaze all the same. Eske would not be the only one eager to see the Winter Queen at Dusk Court, but it was a possibility he wasn't going to put much stock in and wouldn't let it distract him from current endeavors. Greatest of which included rebuilding that bridge to Mab that he'd allowed to crack and crumble over the ages.

"It is good to see you again," a statement that fell low from his lips but with a tremendous amount of weight, "I understand the years have been ...kind."
 
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Mab

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When one spent as many years learning to read every facet of a person as Mab had, Asemir's surprise might as well have been a statement as frank as the one she had delivered. She had meant to shock him, but now felt a twinge of guilt for it. They had, after all, separated because she could not change and was now proposing a venture that was purely motivated by just that.

Still, his small smile made her stupid heart flutter. She was awash in confusion, her mind still a maelstrom of questions and doubts and things that she wanted but was too afraid to hope for. The Queen was trying to settle in for a visit that was strictly formal, denying herself as she denied herself many things to rule the unseelie.

She had prepared to respond with an inquiry, something polite about the complexities of a foreign dignitary visiting a Grove that was historically a secret. She was prepared to dance around what even he could not divulge about whether or not she would have to leave her territory to visit the Dusk Court, to be professional. She would be civil with him, regardless of their history.

However, Asemir had other ideas for the direction of this conversation. Mab's formally blank facade broke. She frowned sharply at him before looking away very quickly -- not an expression of ire as one might take the glare, but something more akin to exasperation. Fae did not lie. His words packed in far more than so few words should have. A soft pink flush bloomed across the bridge of her nose and she picked up something from her plate and put it in her mouth so she didn't have to respond to that right away and hopefully he would take the cue and put something in his mouth to stall any more statements like that. It was a bite-sized lemon tart with a whipped lavender frosting. It was grossly delicious and Mab was upset by how good it was when she felt so juvenile.

"They have," she finally replied. Her answer was not so certain. Fae could not lie, but the truth was easily spoken around. There was something equally heavy in her voice.

This was not where she had envisioned this year's delivery to go. She and Aster had followed a comfortable routine of polite gossip and fawning over her attire and the exotic snacks. She had politely declined to read her fortunes and Aster had had a knowing look about everything as they spoke carefully about that year's points of conversation.

This was neither expected nor comfortable. The nostalgia of his indomitable personality and disarming her with his presence alone were the instruments reopening wounds that had yet to fully heal. She felt thousands of years in the span of a few seconds.

Why had he come back? Why couldn't he have just stayed in his wild Grove and let her be?

Mab drew a long, slow breath. She did not look at Asemir again just yet, unable to wrestle up that much willpower. Something vulnerable and sad crossed her features for a moment before her formal mask returned. She managed to keep any sense of tone and emotion out of her voice. It came out flat and dispirited.

"The years have been kind to you as well. Lord of a Grove and a member of the Triumvirate… It would seem you have found your place in the world at long last. I hope it has brought you peace and fulfillment, Lord Kor Aren. As a veteran of both Courts, I imagine Dusk is a welcome reprieve from our politics. I understand that precious little is ever shared about your Court to outsiders, but I should still like you to tell me about your time there."

Mab was tired. She didn't want to yell at him anymore, as she had when he had departed. Time and perspective had taught her what she had lost, and being petty wasn't going to bring it back. Instead of dredging up things that she knew would hurt him and starting that here, Mab began to serve their tea. Nevermind that it implied she wished for this ceremony to be over, hastening its end by rushing into the second part.
 

Asemir

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Ah, yes, there was the blush he'd been so terribly fond of. Queen Mab did not blush in public, but he'd rather enjoyed making her do so in private. Asemir actively suppressed the thought of those yeas spent together, memories he'd often replayed in his mind whenever doubt and regret lingered particularly heavily on a given day. Those who had watched their public relationship bloom during his time spent at the Winter Court would have asked why. It wasn't an answer he'd readily given to anyone and the only two who really had any sense of how it had degraded so were the Mirlorne sisters.

Ase watched her hide the expression behind her snack and did not take up the gesture to do the same. He wasn't here to eat tea cakes and goodies. Frankly, this entire ceremony could burn in a fire and he very much would have liked to flip the entire table between them - but that was only something an exceptionally young and fooldhardy Asemir would have acted on. An Asemir that Mab had never met.

As he predicted, she skated over speaking on herself and very purposefully drove the conversation back to him. Mab liked her privacy and he'd not fault her that one bit; not now that he'd become the leader of the most secretive Court of the fae realm. But this felt much more like avoidance than anything particularly private. The faint smile that lingered between the scars of his face was bemused, "Would you?"

The statement held a noticeable amount of uncertainty. Mab was very good at playing face and she'd had several thousand years to change and evolve her dance.

"I should not wish to speak on anything you do not truly care to know about. I believe we are beyond such superficial things."
 
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Mab

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Would she? They were beyond such superficial things? Mab had no problem looking up at him now. She set down the teapot with a sharp clack that resounded in the vast, empty hall.

"Did you come just to annoy me?" she asked, breaking the formality just as suddenly as he first had. She maintained most of her cool, aloof tone, but the slight inflection of irritation was more than she normally took in Court. Then again, Asemir was not just another Court dignitary and they were virtually alone. The staff gathered had smartly averted their eyes and this would ever leave her palace.

Not in its honest entirety, at least.

"I did not think asking you what has occupied your time for three millennia was so superficial since it has been three millennia. Let's not pretend like you have not been abreast of my affairs." Mab threw a curt, dismissive gesture towards the box on the dais behind her. Between fortune and gossip, he was likely better informed than most. Mab was an incredibly private person, and the notion of a Court diving anything about her life every year (intimate or otherwise) got under her skin -- especially when her ex was one of their key figures. Continuing, she wasn't catty or curt, but frank.

"But if we must be honest -- and being that we are beyond such superficial things as dishonesty -- no, I do not particularly want to hear about it. I was being polite. Satisfied? Is there something you would prefer to discuss?"

Determined to enjoy some part of this, Mab dropped a cube of sugar into her small teacup. In spite of the cool temper in her words, she held her long sleeve out of the way and drank elegantly.
 
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CLANK. "Did you come here just to annoy me?"

Well, well, well. Seems he hadn't lost his touch. Asemir allowed a ghost of a smirk to filter across his facade as the cold, clipped winds of winter blew away all manner of warmth that might've been lingering in this place. Not that there had been much - something akin to someone had forgotten to douse the embers before bed, warmth. Stale and not particularly welcoming.

"No, of course not," he replied gently, giving her no quarter despite her frigid stare. Stormy greys held her gaze, following the gesture calmly toward the chest, and then back again. Mab liked to think she had it all figured out, and sometimes she did - but mostly only when it came to her Court. Like the vast majority of fae, very few were privy to the Dusk Court. On purpose.

"But if we must be honest -- and being that we are beyond such superficial things as dishonesty -- no, I do not particularly want to hear about it. I was being polite. Satisfied? Is there something you would prefer to discuss?"

No, not satisfied in the least. Asemir hadn't touched his tea, he'd nibbled politely on one of the lesser of the sweet-sweets, but he wasn't here for tea. He'd never particularly cared for tea, anyway. Ase was a whisky and coffee sort of fae. Everything else was just grape juice.

"Much as annoying you had been one of my smaller guilty pleasures," he let that smirk arrive in full on his lips as he eased back where he sat, "...and apparently still is - it is not on my list of reasons for being here. I understood your dash to tea as being something other than simply washing down the sweets. Since you seem very keen to be rid of my presence, I will be frank; I wish to discuss the contents of your chest..." he let the statement linger, brows lofting subtly over that slowly vanishing smirk before he gestured to the chest in mirror of her own seconds ago, "if you would oblige me so at your leisure, Your Splendor."

Open the damn chest, Mab.
 
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Mab

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It was all she could do not to roll her eyes and huff at him. Presently, she struggled to understand how she could have wanted this back. She latched onto her annoyance to convince herself (poorly) that she was over him.

So he hadn't come to annoy her, but enjoyed it nonetheless. She checked off another box on a mental list of things that were so very like Asemir: surprises, break of protocol, and irritating the shit out of her. If one could describe tea being poured angrily, she did just that.

"No."

She plunked a sugar cube in her cup to let it dissolve before speaking.

"As Aster will have informed you, I decline to read my Court's fortunes. I know my mind; I do not need what may or may not be clouding my judgment. What will be will be, for better or worse, but I will always be authentic and never doubt that my choices were not my own. My Court will never doubt my motivations or learn to mistrust the tidings of your Court.

"As per protocol, I will deliver this tome into the capable hands of my Marshal. She will extract any information that she may find relevant for future strategies and potential intel regarding political advances of the other Courts. After that, it will be archived at the Augur's Hall and protected by the curators."

He knew all of it, but she made him listen to it regardless. She finally looked up at him with a feeling of regained composure.

Mab had maintained her position on the Dusk fortunes since the first tome's delivery. It was about more than the breach of her private life, but also the fostering of her public image. In the swirling maelstrom of chaos that the Winter Court so often happened to be, she was the calm eye at its center. It remained closed and blind to most machinations, but all around it trembled when her eye opened. A book of possibilities could not tempt her away from her vigilance or inspire doubt in her subjects.

Even if someone she had once loved dearly asked her to break from protocol. Especially since it was someone who had left her because of the doubts he couldn't silence.

"It must be of great import to make you come back," she added as she lifted her teacup. "Considering what it must have also contained in the past." Mab sipped her tea, her gaze unswerving. A little verbal backlash was her due. If he needed reminding that he had left her, it was his own fault for being upset that she had lived a life without him.
 
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Asemir

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"Of course," Asemir reiterated his understanding of Mab with a sense that he understood her better than most anyone. Anyone but herself, he'd wager.

"Omnia Aster has informed me every year Her Splendor's denial to read the tome. That is, naturally, your right. However, she has never once informed of your negligence to receive the gifts so graciously handcrafted, chosen, and placed for you alongside the tome. Nor has she ever allowed me to think that you deny the Dusk Court's honor in gift-giving."

The expression of stone upon his face was one Mab knew well.

"As for what the Winter Court's, or any other Court's Futures contain presently, previously, and henceforth, I remain uninformed. Lest they concern me personally or threaten the Dusk Court directly, they are not mine to know or read. As is the law of the Duskirae."
 
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Mab

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She stared at Asemir for a little too long. Her face was set, her expression unchanging, but her silver eyes were calculating. She weighed her civility against how satisfying it would be to dump her kettle in his lap. There were many things Mab wanted to do. She wanted to cut the bullshit and talk to him like they were at least friends -- like what they had been mattered at all. She wanted to cry. She wanted to yell at him. She wanted to be as petty and cutting as she could to make him hurt as badly as she had hurt for decades. She wanted to forget all of it.

Most of all, she wanted to know why he was here. He sat there, a stranger with a face that made her old, hard heart ache. She thought she’d understood him a long time ago, but now she wasn’t sure. She had no idea why he'd come, why he was so set on opening this box with her.

In the end, civility won over her wants. As always, her Court came before her own heart and nature. She huffed petulantly, then waved a hand toward the attendants. They sprang into action, each grasping an end of the chest and setting it beside the tea table. Mab sipped from her cup, as if that alone were keeping her from saying something. It was.

“I have never been ungrateful for the gifts of the other Courts,” she said carefully as she set the cup down. There was still the silent implication that the reason she had deviated from her normal routine was because of the man accompanying it. Mab wasn't sure she didn't regret the insinuation. With a singular nod from the queen, the attendants opened the chest and scampered back to their places. “So let us see what gifts Dusk has brought us this year.”
 
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Asemir

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A very small part of him hoped she might act upon whatever conniving, vindictive, emotional turmoil he presently witnessed churning within those eyes like unsettled storm clouds alight with the blaze of her thoughts. They were a pair in that way - carefully curating the person they needed to be for the moment they were in while all manner of strategy, questioning, second guessing, and judgement filled their minds. Mab was the Queen of it, of course, only for the fact that she cared a great deal more about her curated self than he did.

For a time he'd cared not at all. It was that nonchallance that had caused his currents to drift to Autumn where he could allow his pent up emotions to empower him unchecked at the Erlking's whim.

It was different now. He was different. Now he cared because he needed to. Now he cared because what the Mirlorne sisters had worked so hard to build meant more to him than any of the other courts ever had. But nothing would ever mean more to him than the Queen seated across the table. How much he missed the way the lines formed at the corners of her eyes when she was forced to act against her natural urges. Those lines had deepened over the years he'd been gone and seemed more strained than ever. Could it be she was growing tired of it all, finally?

Asemir gently cleared his throat and forced himself to look away from her, giving his attention now to the contents of the chest on display. It was lined loosely with plush rumples of velvet that shifted from deep purple to midnight blue to forest evergreen and shimmered with tiny dewdrop gemstones.

"From the Sisters Mirlorne: giant Night Lilies that glow under the light of the moon for you and for the young Princess, Whisper Bell blooms that gently ring when touched.

From our Vineyard Master: five bottles of this season's finest wines in a selection carefully catered to your tastes.

From the Delicatese: a collection of delicious chocolates and sweets to be shared with the little one,"
Asemir glanced to her with the faintest of smiles, "or not, if she is not yet entreated so."

"From the Loomier, a set of velvet travel cloaks for yourself and your daughter that will keep you both comfortable when worn no matter what weather greets you.

And lastly, from the Cove Jeweler, a necklace of rare, black freshwater pearls for her Splendor, and a matching pearl drop necklace on a string of braided unicorn hair for the Princess."
 
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Mab

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The fact that she had eagerly sought every murmur and whisper on his business over the years had been the cause for far too many glasses of wine late at night. And courtiers had been all too happy to supply them. A hushed word, a rumor reluctantly repeated. Never once did they mention a partner or a mate or a family. How, then, must he feel that she had a daughter? Her eyes slid carefully away from the gifts to his face, looking for some indication.

Mab understood people. It did not take her long to pare down their person to know what they wanted and how they felt at a given moment. She had used it mercilessly to rise up the ranks of Lords and Houses, and it had been an invaluable weapon as Queen.

With Asemir she didn't know. She thought she did, or had once. Only with him did doubt creep in on her judgement. He had quite plainly expressed his want of a family. It had become a wedge between them that she had not wanted it, too. Yet here she was, a mother while he remained a bachelor.

Or so the rumors implied. If there was a Court to live a secret life, it was Dusk.

The annoyance bled from her features. She surveyed the gifts thoughtfully and handled them with gentle, slender hands. There was something more intimate about these gifts than in previous years. The difference between gifts for a Queen they thought they knew, meant to dazzle and flatter, and things that spoke to her as an individual. A difference that suggested it was not simply the Mirlorne sisters that had selected these items.

Mab didn't know if that made these gifts more precious or if that upset her more. Something she would, no doubt, make a decision on in the quiet hours that followed this appointment.

Strewn over the table and the cushions and even her lap, Mab looked over all of it in silence.

"These are lovely gifts," she remarked, idly stroking the soft velvet. "We will cherish them and wear them proudly as a symbol of friendship between our Courts. Please extend my thanks to the sisters."

Mab was avoiding looking at him. Looking over the items again, she spied another at the bottom of the chest. It was so small that she had easily overlooked it, the simple box fitting in her long hand.

"I missed one?" she asked, only briefly looking for confirmation as she withdrew it from the chest. She opened it, expecting the commentary on this item to be delivered simultaneously.

If he spoke immediately, she didn't hear him. Mab stared at the olive branch cutting. Her lips parted and her brows drew gently together. The quivering charms on her comb had gone still before she looked up at Asemir again. She drew a breath, but she just as quickly shut her mouth and remained silent.

She didn't know what this meant. She didn't know if she wanted to know what it meant. The only part she was certain of was that this cutting was not a gift from the Mirlorne sisters. She waited expectantly for him to explain it like the others. She needed him to explain this one, needed to know for sure what it meant.
 
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Asemir

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Asemir had very purposefully placed himself beyond the ring of interaction with the Winter Court since the day he'd left it. It had been as much for his own sanity and broken heart as it had been for any presumed slight or grievance or anger with Mab. Every year Eske had offered him opportunity to go as the representative, or to pick the gifts, or to do something to get over this life hurdle.

Every year he had declined. He'd thought it was best - not to involve himself. He would, instead, endure the spite of his home Court or the insipid tauntings of Dawn. As immovable as he was, he'd been the best option for them both. Eske was a gentle heart, her sister even more so. And the last Triumvir, a Siren and the founder of the Cove - Lady Morria, had little taste for such drama.

"That," Asemir's glacial gaze followed the progress of the last gift from the chest to her lap, steeling his heart behind an immutable expression, "is from me."

This year's Futures had changed everything.

The offering of an olive branch was a nigh universal symbol for peace. It was no different here, between them. He caught Mab's eyes as she looked up at him, unsmiling and uncertain of where this offering would lead them. There existed no gift he could give that would make up for all the pain he'd caused for leaving, even if it was pain she'd engendered within him that made him go. They were both at fault and he knew for a long time it would need to be him to bend in order for there to be peace.

The Winter Queen had a reputation to keep, after all.

"I wish to make peace with you," he caught himself before he said her name, though it desperately clung to his tongue. He might damn conversational rules and etiquette, but he'd never purposefully disrespect the woman before him, " ... if you'll have it. You need not decide now."
 
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Mab

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His response was enough for her to understand. Or for her to think she understood. A peace offering. He was requesting to leave the past and begin anew. Why? She could only grasp at theories that were dangerous in her current mood. Regardless of his motivations, he wanted to start over.

She hated it. She hated that it made her guts twist up with sadness, hated that he wouldn't say her name… hated that she knew her answer to this offering so quickly.

With a calmness that belied the swirl of emotions propelling her forward, she closed the box.

"I accept," she declared effortlessly. Without missing a beat, she swept her long sleeves aside and stood, the jewels in her hair clinking and the silk of her layered robes hissing. She held the box between her hands, close to her midriff. Poised and elegant, not an inch of her betraying her true feelings.

Except the act of leaving itself. Mab bowed her head in polite deferral, signaling her departure. She left her tea unfinished and her snacks virtually untouched. She was quite clearly running away from him for the time being. She didn't care that that was obvious.

Mab looked toward the servants standing at attention at the edge of the room and two individuals stepped forward.

"Your quarters have been prepared for you: the blue room in the right wing. Dinner is at 6 in the small dining room. If you have forgotten your way or if you would like to request changes to your accommodations, a personal attendant and a valet have been assigned to you for the duration of your stay. It is my hope that you feel welcome and comfortable here as our guest, Lord Kor Aren."

The room had been prepared for Aster, not Asemir. It was in the family wing, where their most venerated guests stayed, but the blue room was only just inside that threshold. His had been the green room -- located halfway down the wing, much closer to her quarters at the very end.

A small test of curiosity.
 

Asemir

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Having no thread on the present course of his choices, no Sight to gauge his chances of fortune or loss, Asemir found himself hanging in the balance of those short moments of silence between his words and her own. Short they were, her decision caught him briefly off-guard and he blinked at her in mild shock of it.

A lesser fae might have stammered some poorly given response and allowed the surprise to carry away their wherewithal, but he maintained his poise: chin lifting ever so slightly as he carefully sifted air back into his burning lungs. Hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath. This wasn't fear - he didn't know such a thing - but it was about as close as he would ever get to it. The anxiety of balancing at the very edge of the precipice and giving another the power to tilt or secure his next foothold.

He barely heard the sentences that followed her acceptance. Didn't matter, there were attendants and valets to get him where he needed to be. Asemir slowly released the breath, closed his eyes, and pushed himself into a stand as court etiquette demanded whenever the Queen rose from her own seat. She was leaving. No, she was running, and he found it as some strange assurance that this had been the right move.

When Mab fled, it was to think. Thinking usually was a good sign.

Usually.

He felt pretty good about those odds.

With a sigh, the Dusk Triumvir offered the Winter Queen a nod and a respectful bow back, "Gracious as ever, thank you Your Splendor." The desire to say more was there but he checked it forcibly and waited for Mab to take her leave before he turned to take his own. Regardless of the eggshells he would now walk on for the remainder of his life, it was good to be back in the lands of the Winter Court and he was looking forward to seeing the many familiar faces of his past.
 
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