They Call It A Dream
The Westminster Free House
London’s freehold is steeped in ritual and nomenclature that suggest a deep and complex history. However, the only ones that are known to keep that history are the Magistrates of the Wax Mask, and they are infamous for being uncommunicative. The Great Hall of the Palais is lined with painted portraits of changelings. Perhaps they are the founding members of the freehold, or maybe simply people the Magistrates have decided to honour over the years. Nobody knows, and though it is traditional to offer a toast to the Queen of Poppies in the Festival of Coming Spring, the average changeling knows her only as a serene-looking woman robed in red overlooking the banquet hall.
In fact, the only thing most changelings are aware of from the House’s history is that a great disaster befell the freehold sometime around the 1960s. The legend goes that London’s changelings were broken by a huge Fae incursion precipitated by a series of betrayals at the highest level. The Gentry were eventually driven back at the cost of a great sacrifice, but the event was so traumatic that the surviving changelings refused to talk about it, and have slowly trickled away to other freeholds, not wanting to live in a city in which they didn’t feel safe.
However, this did not destroy the freehold. The Magistrates remained to pass on the traditions, and changelings continued pouring out of the Hedge, particularly during the turn of the millennium. As such, the freehold is an awkward fusion of old and new. It still claims continuity and shares traditions with an organization that is reportedly centuries old, but almost none of its members know anything about its actual history.
The Court System
In a tradition dating from at least the 16th century, but probably much farther back, the freehold is organised into four seasonal Courts, each ruled by a relatively absolute monarch. Each Court governs the freehold during its season, and the cyclical transfer of power is seen as a ritual that confounds and protects against the Others, who can’t conceive of orderly cycles or willingly giving up power. The monarch of each Court is selected through an arcane process by what is said to be the season itself. Nobody knows exactly what factors into it, but one day the crown disappears from the brow of the now former ruler and appears on the head of another. It’s theorised that public opinion factors into it somehow, since it is rather rare that a monarch is selected which the Court despises or is indifferent to, but the process has proven impossible to influence, so most changelings don’t even try.
There is always an amount of clamouring that this system is profoundly undemocratic and at odds with modern ideals, but the fact that truly bad or oppressive rulers are very rare (and don’t tend to last long) combined with how hesitant changelings are to change a system that purportedly protects them against their former captors, make it so simmering disapproval never flashes into an outright movement for change. Those who do end up truly angry at the Courts tend to leave to join either the Margravate of the Brim or the Church of His Merciful Mother, two organizations that exist outside the freehold’s structure and which embrace democracy in one way or another.
The Palais des Couleurs
The freehold’s centre, where the current seasonal monarch and their Knights reside along with the Magistrates of the Wax Mask, where all celebrations are held, and usually where changelings that need temporary accommodation are housed, is the Palais des Couleurs. Also known as its English name, the Palace of Colours, or simply as “The Palace” or even “The House Proper” (although the Magistrates take offence at this last name, and point out that the original Free House that gives the freehold its name was another building altogether), the Palais is a huge, labyrinthine structure housed in the Hedge. Numerous gates lead to it from all over the city, and only the Magistrates are said to know the location and key to every one.
The most well-known rooms in the Palais are the Great Hall, where all official banquets and celebrations are held, the High Court, where the reigning monarch hears cases brought before them, and where trials are held, if the crime is deemed serious enough to necessitate a jury, and the Dance Hall. It is unknown if this large, circular, domed room was originally designed to hold formal dances, but nowadays it is far more famous for being the place where all High Duels are held. Even though the use of the High Duel, a duel of swords to death or surrender, has declined rather sharply as modern changelings grow to prefer less lethal ways to settle disputes, the Dance Hall still sees blood spilled on its mosaic floor from time to time.
Apart from these three very public structures, the Palais also houses the offices and rooms of the Magistrates, the Knights of the currently reigning monarch (although many Knights successfully petition to stay at their usual home instead, especially if they have mortal families to take care of), and rooms for changelings that don’t have anywhere else to live, either guests from another freehold, recent escapees, or those down on their luck. However, changelings are encouraged to not overuse the hospitality of the Palais, not because it’s any particular drain on the freehold’s resources, but because spending too much time in the Hedge isn’t considered healthy.
The Palais is also rumoured to hold many more rooms of mystical or even sinister purpose, but due to the fact that navigating the Palais is more than just a question of having a map (particularly because rooms are known to move around often enough that maps are of little use) and that the structure is rife with secret doors and magical locks, they don’t tend to be found very often. What’s more, the Magistrates frown on people poking around, when the Autumn King tried to get the whole of the Palais investigated and mapped, even he had to back down when the Magistrates rebelled.
The Magistrates keep a heavy, leather-bound tome describing in painstaking detail the various rituals and festivities that must be executed by the Courts to maintain protection against the Fae. Interestingly, most of them are no longer observed and, in fact, most changelings in the freehold aren’t even aware of their existence. The eight that have been continued to be celebrated are those most important to the transfer of power between the Courts:
The 1st of February, Coming Spring, is commonly thought of as the Changeling New Year. It’s when the Winter Court ceremoniously cedes power to the Spring Court, Sorrow giving way to new hope. The ceremony includes a ritual presentation and oathbinding of changeling that have emerged from the Hedge in the past year to the freehold. Almost as traditional as the ritual is a huge party uniting the entire changeling population of London in joyous, and also decadent, revelry.
The Height of Spring is celebrated during the Spring Equinox. As a celebration of the Antler Court’s reign and power, it is focused on creation and Desire. Exhibitions of all kinds of creativity are common, and it is a traditional time for marriages between changelings. Most importantly, a huge feast is thrown in the evening, celebrating changelings’ freedom to enjoy the abundance of Earth now that they are escaped from Faerie.
On the 1st of May, the Spring Court cedes power to the Summer Court during the Festival of Coming Summer. In contrast with Coming Spring, this is a serious, even sombre occasion. The Summer King reads out a list of crimes committed (or suspected to have been committed) by the Fae and their agents during the past year, along with a formal declaration of war against Arcadia. It is a time for remembering friends lost to loyalists and letting the memory of the Durance fill you with Wrath.
Height of Summer, during the Summer Solstice, is different. Here Wrath is expressed rather than contained. Competitions of battle prowess and physical ability are hosted by the Summer Court and the main event of the evening is the Contest of Boasts. Here, Changelings compete to make the most outrageous threats and insults to the Fae in general and their Keepers in particular. This is not just a contest of verbal wit, but one of courage, as daring the most feared beings in changeling society to come and fight you is no small task, particularly as the ritual pretty much assumes that the Others are, in fact, listening.
The Summer Court passes on power to the Autumn Court at the Coming Autumn, on the 1st of August. Originally, the main event here was the Hunt, where the freehold would release whatever enemies it had captured during Summer rule, and they would be harried, driven to the greatest possible panic, and then killed bloodily. However, the rite was at some point deemed barbaric and damaging to Clarity, and it has not been performed at least since the reformation of the freehold. Instead, it has become traditional for changelings with serious disputes to approach the Autumn King and ask for a resolution. Only matters that cannot be resolved any other way are usually brought up, since, this being the Court of Fear, the resolution tends to include as much punishment as redress, and one can never be sure if the King will judge one to be in the right.
The Height of Autumn, during the Autumn Equinox, combines a ritual renewing of the ancient oaths that protect the freehold with an open conference where changelings from all Courts can present to the freehold new discoveries they have made in the mystical arts. It’s far from unknown for changelings of other freeholds to travel to London for the occasion to both teach and learn.
The Coming of Winter is celebrated on the 1st of November. Also called the Great Mourning, the rite of passing power from Autumn to Winter is a night of remembrance of all those changelings which didn’t escape Arcadia. As darkness and frost start blanketing the city, the Winter King urges the freehold to stay home, resolve personal matters, and rest until Spring arrives once more.
The Height of Winter is the only grand congregation of changelings allowed during Winter rule. On the longest night of the year, from dusk until dawn, the Grand Bal Masqué is held, not in the Palais like other celebrations, but in a secret location in the Hedge. This is necessary because the enchantments that cover the evening ensure that, as long as the attendees remain masked, they are unidentifiable. This means enemies of the freehold, or non-affiliated creatures like hobs or other, stranger denizens of the World of Darkness, can and do attend with impunity. The occasion is an opportunity to socialise, party, and conduct dealings without worrying about one’s reputation.