It was a good costume; I’ll give her that. Her story was nonsense, of course. But she certainly looked the part she insisted on playing.
I picked straight away that she was dressed as a tree spirit. And not just any tree, but one eminently suited to the season that had ended the night before. The slenderness was natural, of course. The draperies, a nicely measured compromise between Greek drapery and the current fashion (which called itself Greek but was far fussier), still gave the impression of leaves and a hint of branches in its golden-green overlaid on a golden underskirt. The hair confirmed my instant conclusion; she’d managed to achieve a golden-green colour in her tresses the exact shade of mistletoe leaves, and if that were not clue enough, the beads threaded through her hair were actual mistletoe berries.
A courtesan, I guessed, and one with a generous protector by the jewelry that caressed her slender neck, arms, and ankle, and dangled from her ears. More mistletoe leaves and berries, this time fashioned with gold and opals.
No virtuous woman would be in a coffee house at any time of the day, and certainly not at seven in the morning. Was she heading home, like me? She did look tired, sitting there alone in a booth near the rear of the coffee bar, nursing a cup and staring into space, a small smile on her face as if what she saw in her imagination pleased her.
I had been planning to ask for a pot of coffee to take up to the rooms I kept just down the street. Feast day or no feast day, I had a story to write on the Twelfth Night bacchanal I’d attended at the Duke of Richport’s, and the editor of the Teatime Tattler would expect it on his desk when he returned from taking Epiphany Day gifts to his nieces and nephews.
Even on a good day, when I was neither tired nor busy, I lacked the means to attract such a lovely — and clearly expensive — lady of negotiable virtue.
But something drew me to the tree spirit, and I found myself sitting at the table across from her, waiting for her to notice my presence.
Close up, she was even more beautiful than I thought: an other-worldly beauty enhanced by the colour of her hair, and in no way impaired by the startling eyes she turned towards me, her smile still curling her lips.
They were white, dear reader. I kid you not. Not a pale grey or a blue, as I’ve seen before, but as white as the berries that wreathed her head.
She tipped her head to one side and examined me carefully. “You wish to join me?” She sounded not quite English: the low musical voice pronouncing each word in an exact educated accent, but with a hint of something else. Not French. Not Greek or Latin. Not Gaelic. Something Northern, I thought, and I have not yet studied the Northern languages.
“I do,” I replied, “if you permit. May I buy you another drink?”
She lifted the cup she cradled, and looked into it, a slightly perplexed expression crossing her face as if she wondered when she had emptied it. “It is a lemon-scented tea. It refreshes me.” A single brisk nod, as if she had decided something. “You may if you please, but I am not what you think.”
“You are a tree nymph, of course,” I agreed. “From a mistletoe tree.” I waved to the waiter, and turned back to her once I had her attention.
She nodded again. “Some call us parasites, but others see us as a great blessing.”
“I am Jack Parslow, at your service. I write articles for the Teatime Tattler.”
The lady, for the cultured tones confirmed that she had been born into the same class as myself, raised her brows at that. “Do you think to find a story? Here? With me?”
I told her what Sam Clemens always tell us. “Everyone has a story, miss…”
She extended her hand, palm down. “Gwynneth Santalacaea.” A mischievous smile lit her face when I raised my own brows. Don’t voice it around, because my colleagues at the Tattler would never let me hear the last of it, but as well as a gift for languages and a first in Greek at Oriel, I am a bit of a botanist. The Viscus Albans, the white-berried mistletoe she represented, is classified a member of the Santalacaea family, and Gwynneth is a Welsh name meaning White Lady.
Her smile grew more mocking and recalled me to my manners. I bent and kissed just above the hand, deciding then and there to play along with the identity she had assumed with her costume.
“A busy time of year for you, then, Miss Santalacaea, and I imagine you have many stories to tell.”
“Of those who kiss beneath my branches and take a toll of a berry a kiss?” She lifted to her eyes as if some vision of precious beauty danced just over my right shoulder. “I have seen much magic this holiday season, Mr Parslow. But we mistletoe never tell tales.”
On 15th December, I’m releasing the ecopy of If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales, a collection of six already published holiday stories. To celebrate, I’m giving the book away for the next couple of days, until midnight GMT on 11 December. Pick up a copy on https://www.instafreebie.com/free/QD1m0, and Merry Christmas or happy whatever holiday you are celebrating.
I hope you enjoy the book, and would be delighted if you chose to leave an honest review to help me with book sales after release.
See my book page for more details about the six stories in the book, and for links to the eretailers where reviews can be left. The print copy is already available on Amazon, and reviews left against that will transfer to the ecopy when the ebook is published.
Oh, and if you have someone who’d love 320 pages of holiday magic for Christmas, consider buying them the print book. Only $12.50 USD, and it is a beautiful object (said proud Mama).