The Lady of Winter
The workday was coming to a close for Foi and her colleagues at The Tired Mouse hotel. Foi was a young woman, about twenty years old, who had worked there since she was sixteen. The hotel had become something of a second home for her. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but nothing was in the tannery district. Each room she entered to clean presented a redolence of musty dampness and tobacco smoke, occasionally rounded out with the aroma of human excreta. The wallpaper, itself in tatters, hung down like some lazy willow branch, occasionally dripping water onto the hard wood floors. And if the damp wasn’t damaging them then people surely were. Burn and scratch marks were ever present, and stories spread among the staff that one could see a face among the scratches. Everything was in some state of disrepair, from the lights which were on intermittent strikes to the toilets which randomly decided to dry up or spray water. Despite the clear flaws, the place had a sense of homeliness to it. At least that’s what Foi theorised, failing to see any other clear reason for people to stay here. She was happy to work there all the same, it paid enough, just about, and it was better than being some street peddler in the cold. Speaking of pay, Foi was going to be receiving hers on this day. She went to the cloakroom and threw on her coat. She had repaired it so much over the years with other coats and fabric that she wondered if it could truly be considered the same coat anymore. She walked out of the cloakroom into the lobby, spying one of her co-workers, Broel, moving furniture around. He was a mountain of a man, with a heart of gold, but he was free, as the mistress of the hotel would say, from the ravages of intelligence. Being too focused on his work to notice Foi, she figured she would head to the hotelier’s office. She passed through the check in desk and through the door into the office. The office itself was rather small, made even more claustrophobic by the furniture, coats and sheets strewn haphazardly around. On the far side there was another door, and beside that was the desk; Mr. Arcu’s desk. Mr. Arcu was pouring over the books when Foi entered, paying no heed to her at first. His brow was furrowed, and he rose a shaky hand to rub his eyes, carefully removing his thin framed glasses before doing so. Like every denizen of the tannery he bore signs of hardship; long greasy hair, scruffy short beard and clothes which may have once looked clean and respectable but certainly hadn’t for some time. He had on his usual ensemble; a three-piece, grey suit and top hat with a frilly white shirt. Foi cleared her throat to get his attention, causing him to jump with fright.
“Oh my dear, I didn’t see you enter. Come, take a seat.” He gestured to a chair in front of him which had three sound legs and one which looked poised to shatter at first contact. His voice was tremulous, as it always was.
“Oh, I’ll be fine, I have to go soon. I just came to collect my wage is all.” Foi’s own voice was very timid, never drawing too much attention to itself.
“Well certainly my dear, please allow me a moment to retrieve it for you.” The particular pattern of speech of Mr. Arcu was odd. Foi had heard many people in the tannery say he spoke like that to sound intelligent or more regal. One even called him ‘piss elegant’ which upset Foi. She never had a bad thing to say about Mr. Arcu, as long as she had known him. He opened the rusted safe and removed a small pouch of coins, placing it on the table, his wife, Mrs. Arcu entering through the door at the same time. “I am afraid my lady that monetary yields have been stunted as of late, and I must leave you short for the time being. I will pay my dues with the utmost urgency.”
“That’s fine Mr. Arcu.” Foi looked at Mrs. Arcu as she poured herself a drink of wine from a bottle stuffed away in a box of papers. She was a short, rotund woman with long, grey, greasy and ratty hair. She had once been the head mistress of a brothel and possessed all the tact one would associate with the job.
“If its money you’re worried about I’m sure The Golden Cat would pay a girl like you handsomely; after some fattening of course. No man wants to pay to hump a bag of bones.”
“Cyón! Don’t speak to the lady in such ways.”
“Lady? I see no lady?”
“It’s ok Mr. Arcu.” Foi gestured for him to calm down, that it wasn’t worth starting an argument over. Mrs. Arcu rolled her eyes and left the room, wine glass in hand and a cigarette in her mouth, though from whence it came, Foi was unsure.
“Oh, Ms. Foi, I am unsure of what to do. This establishment barely pays for itself anymore and soon I fear I will have to let go of staff.” He slumped back in the chair, mentally drained from worry.
“I’m sure it will be alright in the long run Mr. Arcu. I hear the tannery is supposed to be getting government funding soon, maybe that will bring customers in.”
“I hope you are right Ms. Foi, but stupidity and avarice are equal in measure amongst politicians, and I fear this funding will do us no good.”
Foi then took the small bag of coins from the desk, bade Mr. Arcu farewell, and began the journey home. Immediately when she exited the hotel her nose was invaded by the marauding reek of piss which clung to the air. Growing up everyone told her that it was from the tanneries nearby, from which the district derived its name, which used urine in the tanning process, but she reckoned that they believed this lie so that they wouldn’t have to confront the fact that the thoroughfare down which they walked was a putrid mix of piss, mud and other excrement. If that smell wasn’t bad enough, it was compounded by the odd hint of fetid flesh. The tannery was nothing if not thorough in its misery. The entire walk home Foi felt hemmed in by tall, colourless and oppressive buildings. The Tired Mouse was by far the best looking, and even that had a rotten sign and porch with holes big enough to lose a child through. The others were so devoid of life that Foi preferred to look at the actual burned down building near her apartment. This building had been in ruin so long that no soul alive actually knows when the blaze occurred, or for what reason. She continued down the path, squelching the whole way, trying not to lose a boot in the mire beneath her. She saw a paper boy handing out the day’s news and took one off his hands. The title read ‘Industrial golden future of yesterday, golden present of today’. She laughed to herself at the absurdity of the claim. ‘If this is the golden future they dreamed of, how bad was the one they feared?’ she thought to herself. The air was filled with the usual din of a district in motion, with trade, arguments, fights and crying coming together to form a terrible orchestra.
Arriving at the building which housed her apartment, she ascended the creaking, rotten stairs until she came to the door of her apartment. She entered and was greeted by the familiar sight of grim bleakness. She had a cooker, cupboard, floor length mirror, chair, table, bed and bath. Nothing more, nothing less. The only form of heating was the exposed pipes that ran along the wall, which leaked more often than not, dooming the room to eternal dampness. Mould founded colonies wherever it saw fit, and everything had some amount of rot. Sitting on the floor at the back of the small cell was a rat which Foi had made friends with. Or at least that’s what she told herself. In reality she gave it a wide berth whenever possible, still remembering the scars it left the first time she confronted it. She opened the cupboard, finding it empty, which she expected. Now having to go dinner-less she decided to have a bath and turn in early for the night. She turned the stiff, rusted tap which squealed open, letting forth a torrent of frigid water. While the vessel filled, she began to undress, first casting off the patchwork coat, then slipping her dress off. She stood in front of the mirror and gazed at herself. She was petite and delicate, with her hip bone protruding prominently and ribs on display. Not for reasons of vanity, but from childhood malnourishment, which sadly continued into her adult life. She let down her black hair from the bun it was tied up in and it fell down to her lower shoulder blade. Through the spotted and mouldy mirror she looked at her pale white skin. Ever since she was a girl, she hated it having once left the tannery, aged six or seven, she couldn’t remember which, and was berated by two well to do girls with olive skin, who jeered her and told her pale skin was a sign of impure blood. Ever since then she wished she could change it. Her bath had filled in the meantime, and she stepped in, preparing herself for the plunge. After counting down from three she sat down, causing a cold shock through to her very bones. She hyperventilated and tensed her whole body, but slowly began to acclimatise, before eventually relaxing somewhat. Then her neighbours started their usual routine of fighting. They would shout the building down every night before one would inevitably become abusive towards the other, subjecting their neighbours to the sounds of violence through thin walls. Both of them were violent, it just depended on who got high or drunk first. Foi was listening to the arguing, and right on queue heard the heavy thump of a fist and the crash of a body on the floor. “I might not have a husband, but at least I don’t live like that.” She said to her rat friend who had gone to investigate the cupboard across from the bath. “Remember Cleb, it’ll be alright in the long run, we just have to keep going until then.”
The next morning she awoke from her nights rest. She lay there for a moment, thinking on life, how it had unfolded to date, what it may hold in store. But her aimless mental meander was halted by the rumble of her stomach. She threw off the damp blanket, revealing a disgusting, stained and worn mattress which she had traded for some alcohol she stole from a rich man’s wagon that took a wrong turn some years prior. She sat up and put her feet on the wood floor, retracting them immediately upon feeling the baltic cold it possessed. Cleb was on the opposite side of the room, panned out and snoring, his fat pink belly hanging out. Sometimes Foi wondered if he was a rat at all, or some other kind of creature. If he was a rat, he must be the biggest in the world. She once saw him fight off a terrier without even so much as a panic. But she couldn’t stay lingering on her roommate all day, so she gritted her teeth and leapt out of bed. Her stomach continued to berate her, demanding tribute to satisfy it, but it was out of luck. The best she could do is hope that the chefs still had food from last night. She put on her long black dress, white wool stockings, white apron and worn leather boots, grabbed her jacket and left for work. Coming down the stairs she spotted something which filled her with joy. It was a man in plain grey robes, but not just any man; a dear friend.
“Arno!” she shouted with joy, running over to him. He looked around in confusion before seeing her and the two shared a warm hug in the middle of the thoroughfare. “What are you doing here Arno? I haven’t seen you in so long.”
“I got leave from the brothers to visit my mother. She is very sick, and I don’t think she is long for this world.” He had changed so much. Foi remembered the withdrawn and timid Arno from when they were children, barely recognising him now that he stood tall with the usual air of confidence a holy man has.
“That’s awful,” she said, “Are your siblings going to be here too?”
“I should think not. They still hold hatred in their hearts for her, still bare scars. In truth, the only thing that compelled me to come was guilt. As a boy I would pray every night for her death. But that was long ago, and the brothers have thought me to forgive.”
“So that’s where you went then, is it? To join the clergy?”
“Indeed. I saw only two ways out of the tannery; death or religion.”
Foi had begun to develop romantic feelings for Arno before he left, and on occasion she would fantasise that he was off becoming successful, and that he would return to whisk her away from the grim tannery. She knew it was farfetched before, but now it was near enough impossible. “So how is life in the order?”
“It is hard but rewarding. We have strict routines and much labour. I recently gave my first sermon though.”
A warm smile crept onto Foi’s face again. “That’s wonderful news.”
“It was only to some of the brothers, but every man starts somewhere.” The two stood in silence for some time, paying no heed to the bustle of the masses around them, who were toiling away at work. The silence was broken by Arno who said, “I ought to be on my way now. It was nice to see you, and I hope we meet again someday.”
“And I you, Arno.” They shared a hug and parted. ‘Maybe he was right,’ she thought, ‘maybe there are only two ways out.’
Foi expected this meeting to be the strangest thing to happen on this day, but there was yet more oddity in store. She walked into the musty lobby of the hotel, paying no heed to the dinner room adjacent to it until Mr. Arcu directed her attention with an outstretched finger in its direction. Sure enough, sat at a rickety table, on a worn-out chair, was a woman. Not just any woman either, but a Lady! ‘What is a Lady doing here?’ Foi pondered for a moment. She was enamoured by the woman’s elegance and regal air. Her clothes were made of the finest boysenberry coloured silk Foi had ever seen, in the form of a long slim fitting gown that flared out gradually on the legs. Her hair was snow white, done up in a twisted and curled low chignon. And her skin, it was as white as could be, without blemish, complemented by amethyst and silver jewellery, namely an amethyst ring on her right hand and a silver chain necklace around her elegant neck.
“What is her name?” she asked Mr. Arcu
“I do not know.”
Foi turned her head in bewilderment. “But you know the name of everyone who rents here.”
“Not, my dear, when they pay enough to buy this establishment four times over to not enquire.”
“Truly. But I would keep my distance when I could if I were you.”
He rubbed his scruffy chin while looking at the woman, now sipping tea from a small cup. “I don’t know what it is, but she appears to have an air of wickedness about her, hidden behind a veil of ladylike charm. Anyways, you should get to work before Cyón takes the broom to you.”
And so weeks and then months passed, with Foi living her usual routine. Arno’s mother had died, and he returned to his order of monks, likely to never see her again. Cleb the rat had started a family of his own, and Foi even had a wee marriage celebration, complete with a stale bread cake. She didn’t realise how reliant she had become on Cleb for company, and his leaving to find new accommodation hit her hard. Her co-workers continued to be distant from her, and each other. Mr. Arcu was still nice but Mrs. Arcu more than made up for that. Everything was normal; except that woman. Foi still couldn’t quite figure what she was there for. ‘Is she hiding from the authorities? Or maybe she is trying to discover what life is like here?’ She would spend minutes of each day asking questions to herself to which she could not answer, while staring at this woman. She had given her a wide berth like Mr. Arcu suggested, but her colleagues all said she was nice, if a little retracted. ‘Perhaps he was wrong?’ she thought to herself, leaning against the check in desk while waiting for Mr. Arcu to return with her pay. So enamoured was she by this woman’s aura of perfection that she didn’t notice herself staring. But the lady did. With a slender, pale hand she bade Foi to come closer. With surprise, Foi looked around to see if she was pointing at someone else, before pointing at herself for confirmation. The woman confirmed. ‘What would she want with me?’ Foi’s hands began trembling slightly, her heart beating faster, mouth drying. With timid steps she approached the woman.
“Hello Ma’am.” Said Foi in a shaky voice.
“Hello darling, please, take a seat.” Foi did as asked, with some hesitation, and the woman continued, “I couldn’t help but notice you staring.”
“Oh, well Ma’am, it’s… it’s just that you are so beautiful, and we don’t get many ladies around here.” Foi was looking down at her fidgeting hands, trying to avoid the lady’s gaze.
“Yes, I am sure my presence here must be rather intriguing for you.” The woman’s mouth shifted into a captivating and cold smile.
“Might I be so bold as to ask your name my Lady?”
“My name has been long lost to time, but I am known to some as The Lady of Winter. You can stop staring at your hands, I won’t bite. And no man wants a timid girl these days.” Foi hesitantly looked up, confused as to what ‘long lost to time meant’. She saw the Lady’s eyes, icy blue, with the ability to pierce the soul like a dagger through the chinks in plate armour. Yet, they offered a certain comfort, which Foi could hardly understand. “Tell me darling,” she said in her velvetesque sultry voice, “What troubles you?”
“I can sense it from you. You are dejected without clear cause; thus it must be assumed that your problems are less immediate; in the soul as it were.” The way she spoke, Foi thought, was so strange, yet intriguing. She possessed an aura which suggested she was privy to some kind of deeply esoteric information, or perhaps the keeper of a forbidden knowledge.
“Well… I suppose I do have some troubles in that case, but I assure you they aren’t very interesting…”
“Nonsense darling, I want to hear them; I want to help if I am able.” She reached out her long, slender, pale as could be hand, and placed it atop Foi’s.
“In that case…. The tannery is a terrible place to live. It stinks and its filthy and there are so many bad people who live here.”
“It is quite ghastly, I must agree. But we both know that the tannery isn’t your most pressing issue.” Her eyes were fixed on Foi, reading every social que, peering into her very soul, hoping to draw out Foi’s demons.
“I live in a shit apartment,” Foi realised what she had just said and quickly covered her mouth with her free hand, her eyes widened such that they resembled a shocked fawn, “If you’ll excuse the language Ma’am.”
“Oh darling you need not speak with such reverence to me. Frankly I tire of the less fortunate feeling compelled to grovel at my feet.” Foi was in awe of her conversational partner. She was a Lady, real as could be, in the worst part of the city, and didn’t expect people to worship her. She was so pristine but didn’t judge Foi for her ragged clothes. “Hmm. It seems you are struggling to speak openly about the deeper issues. I have an idea, wait just a moment.” She arose from her seat and walked up the stairs to her room before returning with a bottle in hand. The liquid imprisoned within looked wicked. It was green like mint, but shimmered like mother-of-pearl, a stormy cloud floating within. The Lady produced a glass which she had also carried down and poured two fingers of this mysterious elixir. Foi took a sip of the drink, not wanting to seem ungrateful and immediately began coughing, such was the noxious taste. The Lady giggled with a tender smile as Foi struggled to keep her face from turning inside out.
“Now darling, let me ask you a question; Have you a lover?”
“No Ma’am, I haven’t.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, nobody ever tried to court me, and the only boy I felt love for became a monk.”
“A monk? Well why would anyone become a monk when a woman like you was around.” The Lady said while gesturing for Foi to drink some more. Once the sour face had abated Foi replied.
“He didn’t want to live here anymore. And I can’t blame him either. Besides, I’d have to be as pretty as you to stop somebody leaving the tannery when they had the chance.” Foi could feel the effects of intoxication on her inhibition setting in rapidly, even after two sips, but none of the slurring of words or loss of sensation.
“Ah, there it is.”
“There is… what?”
“You feel you are not pretty.”
“Well… I… I suppose I don’t.” Foi began retreating to the safety of timidness, once again looking down at her lap rather than holding eye contact, but the Lady hooked a finger under her chin and gently readjusted her head upwards.
“And what is it about yourself you feel is lacking?”
“My weight, I suppose,” Foi’s voice was unconfident when she spoke now, “I can seldom afford food these days and so my body is bony and repulsive.”
“And who told you that? Hmm?”
“Mrs. Arcu tells me all the time, ‘nobody wants to hump a bag of bones’.”
“Mrs. Arcu, the hotelier’s wife?” Foi nods in acknowledgment. “As if she were a sought-after prize herself.” Scoffed the Lady. Foi was filled with a certain joyful warmness upon hearing the Lady stick up for her. “And what else darling?”
“I have always been ashamed of my skin. Some girls told me it was a sign that my blood was impure.”
“Impure? Look upon my skin, would you consider me impure?”
“No Ma’am… it’s just… that’s what I was told.”
“Let me tell you a secret darling, but you cannot repeat it to a soul.” Foi again acknowledged with a nod. “I was one of the first of our species. I was there when the Mistress led us to the mountain sanctuary, and I can tell you with certainty that many of us were pale skinned. There were even a number of those savages who inhabit the western isles there, for who knows what reason.” Foi placed her head on her hand, listening intently, hypnotised by the Lady’s effortless beauty. “I even took one of them as my lover. Aedh was his name. We shared a wonderful time together, but alas, he passed on as all mortals must.”
“One of the first of our species?” Foi thought, “That would make her at least two thousand years old.” This however, was the least interesting part of the conversation to Foi. “But why would you take one as a lover if you thought they were savages?” she enquired.
“That is precisely why you would my dear.” She said with a coy smile. “But please continue. What troubles you yet further.”
Foi took another drink, losing yet more inhibition. “I sometimes wonder if life is worth continuing, if there is a point to the suffering.”
This piqued the Lady’s interest. “And why haven’t you done it? Why not end it all?”
“I suppose I want to experience happiness before I do. To know what it feels like. Not just momentary happiness, but a longer sort of happiness.” Foi’s voice grew quieter as she spoke, and she once again averted her gaze from the Lady.
The Lady reached out and grabbed her hand, lightly stroking her knuckle with her thumb. “What if I told you I could offer you a night of exceptional pleasure before you die?”
Foi looked first at her hand, and then into the Lady’s eyes. She felt her admiration turn to desire; her fascination morphed into lust. Her heart began to pound in its cage of ribs, like a lark trying to regain lost freedom. The Lady could see this and arose, leading Foi up the stairs, to her chamber. Her emerald dress flowed like a grand river, culminating in a swell like that of the ocean. They entered her chamber, shutting the door. The Lady pulled Foi closer, beginning to sensually kiss her, before pushing her back to the wall, where she moved to her neck, then to her breast. So many thoughts raced through Foi’s head as the Lady slipped the dress from her shoulder. ’What did she mean by ‘before you die?’, the smell of lilac from the Lady’s perfume, the sounds of the street from below the window on the far end of the room, her chest heaving. But no thought could linger for very long, certainly not when the Lady withdrew and began slowly undressing Foi, caressing her malnourished frame. Once both were undressed, the Lady led Foi to the rickety bed of the hotel room, pushing her gentle onto it. She once again began kissing her, once again moving to the neck, then to the breast, then continuing further. She kissed Foi’s gaunt stomach and her prominent hip bone before proceeding to her vagina. As Foi lay there, she could feel a deep cold move through her, reminiscent of the bath, but enjoyable. The feeling built and built until it came to a crescendo and she climaxed, quivering from the shear ecstasy. Her and the Lady lay together, in a lovers embrace for some time. How long was indiscernible to Foi, but she cared little, for she hoped this feeling would never fade. As they lay there, the cold returned. But this time it was different. It seemed to originate from a deeper place; from the soul. She rolled onto her back and saw her breath condensate, despite the warmth of the room. The Lady got up from the bed, walked around to Foi’s side and knelt beside her.
“What’s happening?” Panic now began to build in Foi as she tried with all her might to move, to no avail.
The Lady took her hand once more, beginning to also stroke her hair softly. “This is what you agreed to my dear.” It dawned on Foi immediately what she meant.
Her breathing hastened and she pleaded, tears welling in her eyes, “Please, I don’t want to die, I don’t!”
“Shh, now darling. Fighting only makes the process painful. Relax and go gently.”
Foi thought of everything she had experienced in her short and miserable life. Every day of hunger, every day of torment or abuse, every day of loneliness, all of it. She thought of Arno, Mr. Arcu and recalled the vague memories of her parents. The lady kissed her on the forehead and sitting on the edge of the bed, cradled her naked body, stroking her face and wiping the tears from her eyes. With each passing moment her vision became darker, her soul weaker, until it all turned black. No more thoughts of a miserable life, no more regret for decisions made, no more cold, no more pain; nothing.