Time was in the kingdom of Berengeny that no one picked their spouses. No one courted – not officially, at any rate, and no one married in a moment’s foolish passion. It was the charge of the town Wise Woman, who would fill her spell bowl with clear, pure water, a little salt, and the essence of roses and rosemary and sage. Next, she would prick the finger of the new born child, letting his or her blood drip into the potion. If a face showed in the waters, then it was known that the best possible mate (they never said true love, for that was the stuff of foolish fancy) was born, and the wise woman could then tell where the future spouse lived, and arrangements were made.
For the parents of William of the House of Almsley, this process would turn out to be less than pleasant.
The first year that the baby William’s finger was pricked, and nothing showed, the Wise Woman said, “fear not, a wife is always younger than the husband.”
The second, third and even fifth year she said much the same.
But you see, since the spell’s parameters were to choose the best match, not the true love, of the heart the blood in the bowl belonged to, this did not mean, as years passed, that their child was special. It meant that he would be impossible to live with.
On his seventh birthday it seemed as if everyone had quite forgotten all about visiting the Wise Woman until William, who knew this of long habit to be a major part of his day along with cake, a new toy, and a new set of clothes tugged on his mother’s skirt and asked when they were going. She stared at him a long moment, tea cup in hand, before sighing and calling for the carriage. She did not even bother to change into formal clothes, this time, and the Wise Woman seemed surprised to see them at all. “Well, we might as well try while you are here,” she said, her voice obviously doubtful. William obediently held out the ring finger on his left hand, and watched as the blood dripped into the bowl. “She has dark brown eyes,” William observed, “and some hair already.” He shrugged, and looked at the two women. “I suppose she will do. I’m just glad tis over, and that I can go on with my life.”
“For you, perhaps.” His mother said, thinking of what she would now have to accomplish.
“Do not fret, mother, I shall write the letter to the little girl. Not that she can read it, anyway.” He petted his mother’s arm. He was a sweet boy, but he was always charging forward, not worrying about feelings, only thought.
The two women looked at each other. One could think they felt bad for the little girl. Almost.
At least until the Wise Woman conducted the second spell. She rolled out an elegantly painted silk map, his mother smoothing the fabric across the table while the Wise Woman dipped a brass weight into the bowl. Henriette placed her hands on William’s shoulders as the woman held the weight, suspended, over the map. His mother held her breath, as if waiting to see where it would land. Andrew, her younger son, had his intended living just down the street, which was quite convenient. At least they knew what they were getting into immediately.
The plum-bob made huge circles around the map, spinning and spinning as the Wise Woman recited the words over and over. It stopped, stiffly pointing toward the North.
“Tarnia? Not possible, or even probable. You must try again!”
For once, she wasn’t being stubbornly demanding. Tarnia was the last place one would wish a bride from, a place of cruel and wild magic. They did not have Wise Women there, for anyone could perform spells. The Hags of the North ate their dead and sent the harsh winter wind to ravage the crops of the people of the South. Five hundred years ago, the North and the South had fought a bitter war over a cause no one quite could remember, only that it had been a brutal thing, and that many had died, and it led to the South losing most of its magic.
“I have cast it twice.” The Wise woman chewed her lower lip, but there was naught else she could do.
“Not Tarnia, please?” His mother, usually a rather fierce and cold woman, was begging.
“I am afraid so.” The Wise Woman began cleaning up, her shoulders set a little lower. “I am sorry.”
William, staring out the window at the children playing outside, could care less. What did it matter where anyone was from? She was a baby, and babies were hardly dangerous.
“Only you, William.” his mother said, shaking her head. “Why can you not do anything normal?”
This was to be the tenor of most of their conversations throughout their lives.
The Thirteenth day of Jarien, Sapphire Moon Quarter 1775
Since we are to eventually be married, and now that I have set forth on my own in order to secure our future, I suppose that it is my duty, as well, to get to know my intended a little more than I do now. So I have taken it into my head to write to you, and it is my hope that you will reply to my missives as best you may; the letters, and my receiving of yours, may be a bit sporadic since I will be at sea a great deal of the time, but it is better than nothing at all.
Now, if memory serves me, it is near the day of your birth, and since, again, if memory serves, you are soon to begin your seventh year, I have enclosed a doll. My sister in law to be favors this type a great deal, and so I believe that you might, as well.
It was not, in fact, the first letter she had ever received from him, though it was far more eloquent. She kept the first missive with the others, but she never mentioned it for fear of embarrassing him, for it went, rather simply,
Hello. My name is William Almsley. I am seven years old today and I found out that we are getting married. I hope you are well, though being a baby I suppose you don’t really know. I like animals and the color blue. You shall have to tell me what you like when we see each other. Until then I hope you are happy.
While it was the one she read the least of all his letters, she still liked it, because as far as she could tell from its predecessors, he’d never really changed.
The fact was, Tasmin Bey did not mind her husband to be at all. She knew she was luckier than most, for few received any letters at all from the one they would spend their lives with, as if they were all trying to forget the inevitable. William’s missives came four times a year, like clock work. The ones that were meant to come around the Light Day celebrations and around her birth day brought with them a present wrapped in good cloth, though the other two often held some trinket, such as an unusual plant or flower pressed in between thin slabs of preserving wax, a stone, a feather. Whatever William thought she might find interesting. One held a ring of coral that she wore still, on her smallest finger.
And she liked his letters. They were straight to the point, just like the very first, practical. He never wrote anything flowery or romanticized their match, but she thought he was kindly disposed towards her, and so she was happy enough.
She would have been quite content, if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone around her was quite determined to hate him.
The conversations usually went something like this:
“He’s from the Azin shore! Do you know what kind of people live at the Azin shore?” her Uncle said, accusing her as if she’d had a say in it.
“They used to eat their dead, according to Apercus’s Dictionary of the Peoples.” Her father said. “Can you imagine such barbarity? And we are sending our little girl into that that world? It is disgraceful!”
“I suppose at the time there was a practical reason for them eating their dead.” Tasmin observed. “If William is any example of his people, practicality is quite his main motive of being.”
This, she found, was not a popular argument, and they finished their meal, an unfortunate choice of roast, considering the topic of conversation, in complete and disapproving silence. This was not the first word on the matter, nor would it be the last.
“You are determined,” her mother said, scrubbing bleaching oils (meant to counteract the effects of Tasmin spending hours in the sun) into her skin with a slightly less than careful vigor, “to give your father a heart attack. And me! What about me?”
“Mamma,” she said, “What exactly am I to do about this? He is my chosen, and I think it is good that we get to like each other before…” she changed “before we start making children” to, “we begin living together.”
“I know.” Her mother sighed. “But they are such awful people. Nothing like us. During the war…”
“Five hundred years ago,” Tasmin interjected.
“They took any prisoners they found with the gift and murdered them out right. It didn’t matter if they were Finders or Healers or Beast-Charmers or those with real power, they were all slain before you could pray for their souls. And you know what happened to them after that.”
“Aye, the Lord in His wisdom made it so that any born in the South lose most, if not all, of their Talents. You’d be hard pressed to find a Fire-Starter among the lot.” She took the cloth off her mother and started rinsing off the bleach. “I wonder if William has any talents? He never told me if he was tested? I think all of their Wise Women come from Tericia, from the East.”
Her mother sighed a great martyr’s sigh, and helped Tasmin rinse her skin. “If you put in for the circle, you will be exempt from having to wed. Alcide herself says that you are gifted with herbs. Think of the life you could have at the university, teaching the craft until finally Alcide passes on and her seat is left open. She will certainly request that you fill it.” The words were filled with their own sort of magic. The University Circle ruled the town, and all the Circles in Tarnia ruled together. Their town was small, and her talents would mean that she would not have a part in any major governmental decisions, but she would be part of the body who created hospices and researched new ways of using magic to improve lives, then implemented the changes. The King of Berengeny, who ruled all the quarters of the continent, was said to listen very closely to the councils. It was his ancestor who, three hundred years ago, had approved of the Mating Spell. This same spell that most had forgotten, whether by choice or because of propaganda, had been first discovered by a council in the North. In any case, it was a life of comfortable beds and exotic meals, velvet and silk and more parchments and books than Tasmin would be able to read in three lifetimes, access to the best quality herbs and stones and working materials.
“I will think about it,” she said, her mother helping her to wash her hair.
“That is what you always say.”
“But I will. I am nothing if not obedient.” Then their conversation ended, because her mother had dumped the rinse water over her head.
When her mother was gone, having finished pinning Tasmin’s hair up to keep it clean, Tasmin leaned back against the edge of the bath and thought of William. She had calculated his course using his last letter to find out heading and rough position, and thought that it was likely that he was in the Sea of Disea by now. She wished she could picture him, but it was impossible. If the persons lived in different locations, it was decreed that they should never see each other before the bride was sent for, to prevent expectations from forming. Her mother had seen him during the spell, and was not very tactful about his looks, “A sturdy, round faced boy. Doubtless a chubby man.” Tasmin did not mind, she was not, herself, much to gaze upon and it would be better if her husband was not desirable. Well, too desirable, at any rate.
She thought his life quite exciting. He was most fortunate, for he was able to travel the world, going from port to port, trading for goods to be shipped back to his family’s warehouses, where merchants looked over the shipments and bought what they liked best. They were a merchanting family, had been for years, transporting and trading all over the world. William had told her once that he had lists of what people wanted, and he went and found the best places to fulfill them. He told her that he was doing as much of the shipping work now as possible, so that when they were married, if it seemed right, he could spend more time on land. Her letter back had approved greatly of this plan, for she had not wished for herself a life of window’s walks and worry.
Maybe he likes me, then, she thought, looking at her toes, which were propped on the edge of the small tub.
She hoped so.