(123-01-26) The Ladies of the Seventh Floor
The Ladies of the Seventh Floor
Summary: Lady Marsei Hightower pays a call upon two cousins who have lately become neighbours of hers on the Hightower's blessed seventh floor; and becomes inadvertently more privy to the stresses of Lady Rowan's marriage than the latter intended…
Date: 10-14/02/2016 (by gdoc!)
Related: Runs concurrently with this.

The last time Lady Marsei Hightower came to call upon her cousins she met only Lady Bryony Tyrell, who embraced her and congratulated her again upon her marriage and regretted that Margot, for some months now Lady Rowan, didn’t feel capable of receiving yet. Word had just reached Oldtown of her son’s death — the second such death in her family — she was shattered, not sleeping at night and falling into a fitful doze by day, incapable of anything but tears.

But weeks have passed; and rumour is all over the Hightower that Lord Rowan is in the city, and that he paid a call yesterday upon his lady, for the first time in eight years. Whose curiosity could withstand it…? And in any case she must be receiving close relations and friends, if she received that man of whom she can barely bring herself to speak.

The first discovery to be made is that Lady Rowan and Lady Bryony have become Lady Marsei’s neighbours in her new matrimonial abode: only yesterday they and their noisy little household of women and children were moved up to the seventh floor. There, in a sitting-room elegantly done in pale green and gold and white marble, Tyrell colours which suit a Rowan well enough as well, the estranged wife and bereaved mother sits as always not in the best light but next to it, attending to a new piece of embroidery stretched across a broad standing frame set before her and angled towards the window. It is to be a winter garden, in silver and gold and shades of white silk, with hardly a hint of colour — though as yet it’s chiefly a design sketched upon cloth. She has finished one golden rowan tree, barren of leaves and fruit and flowers, and some of the snowdrifts which cover any blooms there might have been beneath.

The skin about her fine blue eyes is swollen from weeping, and marked in the lower corners by the dark smudges of sleeplessness. Her hair gleams about the shoulders of one of her plainest white linen gowns, modestly cut, exquisite in its way. She wears no apparent jewellery but the wedding ring she still faithfully keeps about her finger — even her usual seven-pointed star pendant is hidden away inside her neckline. Diamonds don’t become a mourner.

Of course Lady Bryony is there, dressed in plain grey-violet rather than any of her more cheerful summer silks, and Septa Melarie reading aloud from a book of devotion. Its words are surely familiar to Lady Marsei; surely she can complete the phrase which trails away at her announcement by a servant, as Lady Bryony rises with a rustle and Lady Rowan with her silver needle catching the light between her fingertips turns to look calmly toward her.

Marsei is the picture of warmth and pure intentions: she stands primly awaiting the attention of the ladies, a fond smile on her lips for overhearing the familiar devotional and, too, in kindness. A vase of flowers is held in her hands (she was determined to bring them by her own hands), a delicate thing of painted marbled porcelain and gold gilding bearing flowers – yellow blooms as close to gold as nature can manage without being gilded themselves, lush green leaves and unspotted white lilies — that match the room so utterly she must have either thoughtfully inquired to a servant beforehand or guessed with remarkable intuition. Both are not past the sweet Hightower. She looks on Margot knowingly, with instant empathy and without pity; she recognizes the swollen eyes and circumstances that have brought them about.

“Lady Margot. Lady Bryony. Septa,” she greets, smiling to each in turn, although her smile does not extend in the cheer it’s so capable of. She sets the flowers down carefully on the table of the sitting room, to be moved to their liking, and folds her hands in front of her, pale against the emerald green of her silken gown. “We’re neighbours now, here on the seventh floor. Blessed number seven. “It’s so good to see you,” she tells Margot in particular. “I’m so saddened to hear of your hardships.” Plural.

“Oh, aren't they beautiful—! Lady Marsei, you always think of the loveliest things,” sighs Lady Bryony, drifting nearer to touch the petal of a white lily, to smile to she who brought them and then look to their real recipient to see whether she too is pleased. She's forever taking cues from Lady Rowan, most of them too subtle to be interpreted by anyone but the two of them.

A tiny precise white silken stitch complete, the eldest of the Hightower cousins here present threads her needle through the unrecorded edge of her work, outside the frame which holds the cloth taut for her attentions. It is perhaps the cover of a cushion, or a chair. She folds her hands in her lap and echoes in her much lower voice, “They’re beautiful. Thank you.” Whereupon she lowers her gaze sedately, in gratitude for more than merely the flowers.

Then she lifts them; “Won't you sit?” she inquires, indicating the chair nearest her own with a small lift of her hand, and a lift also in her tone which has the effect of altering a formula into a genuine invitation. “Melarie, will you—?”

And, marking their place in the book with a ribbon and leaving it shut upon her chair, the septa departs to order refreshments.

Marsei offers a silent you’re welcome by way of her kind smile to Bryony and Margot and sits as indicated, doing so at the very closest edge of the chair, her body language gently leaned toward her cousin. She spends a moment looking concernedly at her, gauging, but her gaze is not a prying one. “May I say you look lovely,” she says softly, leaving out things such as despite… and all things considered and never-minding the woman’s tired eyes.

Of course she may; but Lady Rowan's gaze slips away from her at that, her head softly shaking to disclaim any such thing. “I ought to be in black,” she remarks, eyeing the beginnings of her winter garden, “but I haven't…” She clears her throat. Her penchant for white gowns to the exclusion of all colour, all pattern, is well-known throughout the Reach. “I've an appointment with a seamstress in a day or so,” she explains.

“We can put it off, of course,” Lady Bryony reminds her, with the air of one who has said as much before. She has alighted upon a chair at a slight distance: as though a lady-in-waiting in attendance upon a princess whose visitors occasionally throw her into the shade.

Marsei is silent for a moment, but it doesn’t stretch. “I had trouble keeping to my mourning clothes,” she confesses quietly with a seriousness that goes beyond any fashion qualms with black attire. “Everybody looks at you differently when you wear them. After awhile I looked differently at myself … like there was hardly a self left to look at.” She lowers her head, with its assortment of braids and curls. “Like I was nothing but mourning. So I went back to my colours.”

To Lady Bryony’s suggestion Lady Rowan gives a slight shake of her head; she looks again to Lady Marsei, whose insight does not seem to rock her. “I recall,” she murmurs after a moment. “But it's a duty, isn't it? … People look at one in any case,” when one is a Hightower and a beauty, and one's slightest actions are apt to become public property in Oldtown, “and if I do not I am a bad mother as well as a bad wife.” She states this tranquilly, as though it were the answer to a mathematical equation worked out in her mind, or a fact of life beyond doubting.

A silent grey movement beyond suggests that Septa Melarie has returned.

Behind her, a breath later, comes a maidservant in Tyrell green with a pair of yellow-golden roses stitched upon her collar — one of Lady Bryony’s, then — with a tray, three goblets, a pitcher of lemon water, and a plate of tiny bite-sized cakes of a kind easily obtained from the Hightower’s kitchens and yet no less tempting for their regular appearances. She serves the visitor first, of course, and then Lady Rowan, and then her own mistress.

Marsei lowers her head further, knowing the concern; only she didn’t have to worry about being seen as a bad mother in addition to a bad widow. She lifts her chin to smile a gracious smile to the maidservant, soon nestling back with her cup of lemon water. “If there’s anything I can do, Margot…” she offers with the bare sincerity of so wishing there was something solid to offer her cousin, “Anything at all.”

When the wish is all there can be, it does count for something to hear it stated with such earnest charm; and Lady Rowan obliges her lips to form a small smile as she looks steadily into Lady Marsei’s eyes. She has always been possessed of remarkable composure. “Thank you. If I should think of anything… But it is a great comfort simply to know I have friends here, as well as kin.” Her gaze wavers just as far as Lady Bryony; she draws strength, she draws in a breath, and she adds, “Tell me, how are you, lately? And Prince Dhraegon?”

“It is something of a strange time,” Marsei admits, but is reticent. She deems her troubles so much less than Margot’s, which are paramount. She sips her drink; it is more of a delicate punctuation, giving her time to think, rather than thirst. “I’m well, truly, and so is Dhraegon. It is difficult to be upset in his presence. Perhaps … he should pay you a visit.” She smiles a little, half-serious.

“As I grow older I begin to think every time is strange in its fashion,” is Lady Rowan’s quiet comment. She tasted her lemon water, no more; she has put it down now, on the window-ledge beyond her embroidery frame. The sunlight glints upon her wedding ring as her empty left hand returns to her lap, to nestle beneath her right hand. “I’m glad to know you’re well,” she goes on, “and… and I’m sure we should all,” she glances about, to her sister and her septa, “appreciate a visit from His Grace, if he should wish to call. Bryony tells me I mustn’t… lock myself away forever,” her shoulders lift in a diffident little shrug, “and she is always correct.”

Another girl in Tyrell colours, a handful of years older than the maid who served the lemon water, admits herself then to the sitting-room ushering before her a small girl in a pretty pale blue dress whose soft, floating waves of honey-blonde hair are a perfect match for Lady Bryony's. Alas for the peace and comfort of the ladies sipping lemon water and eating small cakes, she's also carrying on her hip a baby less than a year old who has had a distressing experience and doesn't see why everyone else oughtn't to have one too.

His squalls (audible through the door as he approached in his attendant's arms) tighten Lady Rowan's expression and bring Lady Bryony forward in her chair, suddenly anxious and crestfallen; "I'm so sorry," she has time enough to murmur, not to Lady Marsei so much as across her to Lady Rowan, before he is in their midst and demanding feminine attention at the top of his tiny fierce lungs. There's a certain note in his upper register, beyond the reach of any normal babe — once heard, never forgotten. It may well be familiar already to their visitor from occasions when he passed by her door in his nursemaid’s charge, in just such a hurry as this. There can’t be two like that on the seventh floor. Not if the Mother is merciful.

Lady Rowan holds out her hands wearily and the Tyrell nursemaid deposits her charge in his aunt’s lap rather than his mother’s, this being the accepted custom among them. Her eyes close and she turns her face briefly away, murmuring, “Shh, shh,” and stroking his pale head where she has it resting upon her shoulder. Nuzzling wet-faced and miserable into her neck, tangling a small hand in the dark strands of her hair, he’s already calming. She begins to sing, wordlessly, nothing more than a soft ‘la la la’; and it seems as though he quietens just to listen.

Marsei smiles a little; there’s empathy there, too, but it lacks perhaps the scope of full understanding that’s made Lady Rowan more astute on the passage of time than she. The squalling babe and the girl who brought him earn smiles of another sort, and she seems unbothered, despite the sharp cries; instead, shaking her head softly to Bryony to assure there’s no bother, she warmly watches the way Margot holds him and sings to him, as though she, herself, is almost soothed by it as well, and intrigued by her cousin’s manner with him. “You’re so good with them,” she comments gently, a compliment that hasn’t the tone of a new realization but something she’s admired for more than these few minutes.

One, sweetling,” Lady Bryony is murmuring to her daughter, a pretty tiny creature about three years of age who whilst hanging back beyond her mother's chair in shyness of their visitor is nonetheless expressing via gazes and whispers an interest in the plate of miniature cakes; “and remember to choose before you touch, mmm?” She nudges the child forward with a hand at her waist, encouraging her to inspect the cakes more closely, keeping an eye on her as she adds in a brave aside to Lady Marsei, “He likes Mar so much better than he likes me — and I suppose I ought to be jealous, but being so fond of her myself…” She trails off into a shrug and a brighter smile.

In control again of her expression Lady Rowan looks back from the blue sky beyond her window to the ladies gathered near her. She rocks gently in her chair, making those low purring sing-song sounds, leaving an absent kiss upon the baby's wispy dark curls. As he burrows into her arms and her hair like a small animal trying to hide from the world, he's quieter and quieter: she has, it would seem, a positively magical effect upon her sister's child…

“He's living in a strange time too,” she remarks tiredly to Lady Marsei. “It's all strange, at that age — but he, at least, can weep until someone makes it go away.” Her hand rubs in the same soothing rhythm over his small back. “Little boys seem always harder than little girls. So passionate, so impatient… so full of wanting.”

Marsei leans ahead ever-so-slightly to pluck another cake for herself and, in doing so, gestures in acted subtlety with her little finger to suggest a cake that happens to be the biggest and surely sweetest of the bunch, giving Bryony’s daughter an encouraging (and conspiratorial) smile. Sitting back, she’s thoughtful, looking between the two women and to the babe. “Do you think? I wonder if it only seems so because they become that way when they grow up.” She ducks her head down modestly as if to amend, to say she is no expert, on children in particular, but is only quiet.

The small girl’s brown eyes widen as she receives Lady Marsei’s signal. She chooses that very cake, quickly so that nobody else can get to it first, and steps back behind her mother's chair before taking a bite. There's such a lot of icing on it. Fancy!

Satisfied with her daughter’s purely visual cake survey, and with her quietness before their visitor, Lady Bryony regards her with a fond eye and a smile as her gaze flits again to her younger cousin. “Oh, not— all of them,” she feels obliged to put in, being wed to the pick of the bunch. Though her sense of the unpopularity of her view ensures it comes out quietly.

Lady Rowan is still singing softly in competition with the great Lord Davith Tyrell’s breathless little sobs. He seems to have exhausted himself by the effort of making noises so much bigger than he is; he's winding down slowly into silence. She shifts his weight in her lap and reaches into her pocket for a finely-embroidered white linen handkerchief; “It's innate in them,” she pauses to suggest, giving Lady Marsei a knowing look as she encourages the specimen at hand to extract his face from her neck so she can wipe him clean — and her neck, too, of course… “How the seed flowers depends I suppose upon how they are brought up. Little girls must be taught patience, modesty, humility. Little boys?” And she lifts a sardonic eyebrow. They all know the way of it.

The talk is verging upon becoming so grown-up that Lady Bryony seizes upon the emerging icing crisis — the nursemaid has left the room — as a pretext for excusing herself and her not-quite-four-year-old. “Just look at you,” she sighs to her little shadow in tender exasperation; then, to her cousins: “Do excuse us!” She alights from her chair with a rustle and shepherds the child away to wash those sticky fingers. Anyway Mar will tell her the interesting bits later.

Lady Marsei’s thoughtful, slightly sorrowful countenance – a wee bit melancholy without giving in to it — lifts only to smile as the young child is led out, sticky-fingered (unapologetically, despite being party at least partially to the excess of sugar; if she had children of her own, it’s possible they would all be plump, like her sister Lynett’s, the Lady of Honeyholt, whose married house’s beehives probably lent sweetness to those very cakes). “Yes,” she says quietly in return to the subject; she seems primed to speak again, but the urge deflates – perhaps she reconsiders – and she curls her hand on her lap, near her knee. “I heard that Lord Rowan has arrived,” she does say, again quiet and with a glance the way Bryony went before returning a gently concerned gaze to Margot. There’s a hint of questioning to the statement – no revelation – but she adds, “You need not speak of it if it brings you distress.” A pause; a more pointed look of concern—that non-stop empathy as she says, “I understand.”

The handkerchief, another exquisite example of her own skill with a needle, is soon folded with the sticky bits inside; and Lady Rowan sets it away upon the window ledge rather than returning it in such a state to her pocket. “Yes…” she muses, as with both hands she adjusts the little boy’s position in her lap and holds him close against the fragrant warmth of her body. “I imagine all the Hightower knows he called upon me yesterday…” And then, to Lady Marsei’s claim of understanding, she returns a look unavoidably hooded by the swelling of her eyelids. “I wonder whether you do.” Her fingertips play with the soft, wispy hair of her worn-out and silent little Tyrell lord. “What is it you would like to know?” she asks simply.

“I do not claim to know Lord Rowan very well,” Marsei admits softly; but then, they did just have that conversation on the nature of most men. “But I know husbands; and simply that… if he’s sought you out, after all this time…” And that there is an all this time… she shakes her head gently without fully finishing the thought, however, regarding her dark-haired cousin apologetically. “I suppose I don’t know what I would like to know,” she says, her sincerity taking over above eloquence. “Only that I wish I could help, whatever it is.”

Across the chamber a door opens; Lady Bryony comes back, ushering a clean and laughing little girl before her. Looking over the child to her cousins in conversation, her young son resting at last, she gives them a smile which just means ‘go on’ and leads her daughter away to another corner of the spacious chamber for games and whispers of their own.

All this time… Lady Rowan's gaze wanders deep into her winter garden, into the snowdrifts of pale silk which lie beneath barren and stylised rowan trees, one and a half so far stitched with fine golden thread. “If he has sought me out,” she echoes, “after all this time… what do you suppose it means, Lady Marsei? What were you going to say? I ask you seriously,” and her eyes lift to her cousin’s in token of her sentiment, “for I should like to know how this situation appears to one outside it, and I know you to be honest as well as gentle.”

But before Lady Marsei can address this difficult question a maid seen earlier returns, to lean over Lady Rowan's shoulder and breathe a few apologetic words.

That lady’s eyes tighten. “No hand but my own…” she sighs. “Very well, you may show him in.” She reaches however for her needle, and is stitching calmly as the door opens again for the young man to come in, his Rowan tabard making plain at once his origin. Her gaze (disciplined to calm) lifts to him. "I gather you have come from Lord Rowan," she states in tranquil greeting.

It was the maid’s mistake, when told the message could be given to her mistress and no other; the man bows once to the ladies assembled and instead of presenting a letter speaks his master’s words boldly aloud. “Why do you alter a home you have no intention of living in? Will you be the lady of Rowan Door Manse, or will you not be?"

The other women look on, Lady Bryony shushing her daughter and the septa uneasily fingering the prayer book in her grey lap. Lady Rowan listens to the message with an unshakable dignity, inclines her head, and gives a small nod as though she is affording it due consideration. "I take it my lord husband did not approve of the alterations I made for his comfort…? No, you need not speak against him; I would not ask that of you." She pauses. "Will you please tell Lord Rowan that if he had let me know he was coming to Oldtown, I should certainly have opened his manse for him and seen that all was as he would wish; but I do not find it necessary or convenient to move my own household at present. I am sorry you were obliged to climb so many stairs — please, take this for your trouble." And, leaving the needle tucked into the cloth protruding from the edge of her embroidery frame, she shifts the baby in her lap and reaches into a pocket of her crisp white linen gown to produce a silver stag. It shines bright between her outstretched fingertips.

The messenger takes it and is shown out by the maid, whose cheeks burn red with the horror of what unwittingly she has done.

“Of all the— !” exclaims Lady Bryony, wide-eyed and incensed.

Lady Marsei looks in the direction of the messenger even still after he’s left, but does not gape, nor go wide-eyed as Lady Bryony. There’s a frown on her lips when she looks back to Margot; rather, the impression of one, the sentiment, without her mouth fully turning down. “To me it seems…” she says quick but soft-spoken, “… there was a purpose to your being apart, and to your being apart still.” As evidenced by Lord Rowan’s messenger. “There was never such a distance between Lord Jarvas and I, and yet—“ Marsei hesitates to confess; goes on, all the same. “Yet I wished there were.” She pauses to add, “Sometimes.” And the quiet little word, so cautious, somehow has the tone of always. It didn’t seem that way from the outside, when she was married the first time, not at all, really. “So that Lord Rowan is here now, I feel that must mean trouble for you.”

Nor did the serene surface of Margot and Antony Rowan’s marriage exhibit disturbing ripples, in the first four years of their union. At any time till the death of their son Olivar they appeared one of the handsomest, the most fortunate, the most ideally matched couples the Reach knew — formally courteous to one another, of course, more than openly affectionate, but for two people of such superb breeding that’s not so unusual… They were, in short, correct.

And now Lady Rowan’s shadowed eyes meet her cousin’s, taking her measure and returning a bottomless clear blue empathy in place of her usual opaque consideration; and she murmurs, “I beg your pardon, Marsei, for doubting your understanding… I am truly sorry you’ve cause to know what it is you know.” She looks up then at the touch of Lady Bryony’s hand on her shoulder, and finds herself receiving a kiss to her forehead which is as impulsive and heartfelt as that lady’s actions always tend to be. She gives her head a little shake (really, my dear) and manages a smile up at the cousin she has long named her sister: “It’s all right,” she insists, “I knew he wouldn’t be pleased… I only wondered what he would do.” That fond hand squeezes her shoulder and obediently withdraws, its owner muttering something under her breath; and Lady Rowan herself looks distractedly to Lady Marsei, feeling an explanation is in order.

“I visited his manse this afternoon to… see that all was clean and properly aired, inspect the cellars and the gardens, put out flowers in the public rooms,” she recites, each item in her list occurring to her a second or so on the heels of the previous, “look over the tapestries and send out those which required cleaning or mending, re-arrange one of the sitting-rooms so that it would be more comfortable to inhabit — it was in a very queer arrangement,” her lips press pensively together, “and provide my lord’s cook with a week’s worth of menus and instructions regarding which merchants in the city were the best to deal with for meat and poultry and cheese and so on… which are reliable and don’t give short measure,” she elucidates. “I suppose it has all been put back the way it was now… I didn’t like to ask.”

There’s no particular feeling in her words, of course. No more than she displayed for the benefit of that messenger from the manse in question. She takes Lord Rowan’s displeasure in her domestic labours for granted, and leans forward to choose for herself a very small iced cake.

Marsei is caught by Lady Rowan’s clear blue empathy, meeting it, scarcely blinking lest she loses sight of the rare insight; she looks up, too, when Margot does, smiling softly at the fond familiarity between the cousins. “It was very generous of you, to see the house was in order, all things considered and—while you’re in mourning,” she decides slowly. “At least… he should have seen it as such.” As forever polite as her words are spoken, there’s nevertheless an emphasis on should. She too reaches for another cake, at least her third or fourth. “What will you do now?”

Stepping away towards where her daughter is frankly staring (and with far too many questions rattling round in her small golden head) Lady Bryony turns sharply to watch her sister’s reaction.

There is not however much to see. Only a pair of blue eyes closed off again from the wider world, as though the contemplation going on and on and on behind them is absorbing and exhausting all Lady Rowan’s energies; and then her tranquil contralto admitting that, “I have no idea what I shall do now. Or even if there is anything to be done.”

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