When the Willow Bears Grapes, Part 1

Beorn Mogen was a man of immense power and immense appetites.

This story is not about him. But without knowing these two facts, none of the rest of it will make sense.

Beorn was one of the most powerful mages born in the 18th century. Of course, what he possessed in raw power he more than made up for in a complete lack of finesse, refinement, tact, or restraint. What he saw, he wanted, and what he wanted, he found a way to get.

 As a Duke, this served him well.

 As an opponent of the English magicians, this was essential.

As a human being… well, no one is perfect. Beorn was confident that his accounts were balanced, on the whole. His wife, Catherine, might have disagreed or not, depending on how many of his children she was fostering in a given year.

When he saw Sonia Kostka at the market, looking over charms with a sharp eye and long fingers, he wanted her. He was not consumed with passion. Nor was he overwhelmed with lust. But he saw a very beautiful woman (if altogether too pale for his usual taste: in moonlight she might be taken for a ghost, with hair nearly white and skin not much darker), and she caught his eye. As he watched her move through the market, he grew more entranced. Her dress was modest, pale blue with a silver trim that rose unfashionably high on her neck and down over her wrists. She was… demure, and that wasn’t something that usually attracted him either. She walked slowly through the market, looking now at herbs, now at a stand of silk ribbons. She was crafting a spell, he thought, based on what she was buying. 

At some point he realized he was hunting. It was an image that appealed to him. It never occurred to him that it would not appeal to her. He followed her long enough to be certain of where she lived, and then waited for the sun to set.

When Sonia went to her chamber for the night, she was not expecting anything of any interest to happen. One is not generally wary in one’s own room, after all. So she undressed, kissed the little brother who had curled up on the floor between her bed and the wall, got into her night shift, blew out the lights, and climbed into bed. Josef did not like to sleep alone. But at five, he did not like to admit that he did not like to sleep alone. So he would let their mother tuck him in, wait half an hour, and trundle across the hall with quilt and pillow to build a nest where he thought his sister would overlook him. 

At some point in the night, he would often leave this little nest and climb into bed beside her. So when she felt movement in the room, she thought nothing of it. Until she began to hear music. Her eyes shot open, and she saw a man leaning against her windowsill, playing a lute. He had left the windows open, and the late-spring breeze billowed the curtains around him.

The lute seemed ludicrously small in his hands. Even half-seated he was toweringly tall. His hair was long and tied in a knot at his neck like a sailor’s, his beard was full and shaggy. He played… quite well, actually, and this fact distracted her for just long enough for indignation to overtake fear.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I’m serenading you,” he said.

“Doesn’t one usually do that from outside the window?”

“Only when one is barred by doors.”

She scowled and crossed her arms over the coverlets, keeping them pinned over her chest. “You must leave.”

“Must I?”

The man was absolutely infuriating. “If you will not, you are no gentleman.”

He grinned wolfishly. “Oh no. I’m a great deal more.”

Anger overcame modesty then, and she thrust back the covers, stood up and stalked across to the window. “Or a good deal less. You will go.”

He laughed.  “You’re even more beautiful when you’re angry.” He reached out to cup one massive hand behind her head, pulled her against his chest, and began to kiss her. 

She would like to think it was cunning that made her do what she did, that somehow through her shock she noticed he was off balance. But really, it was pure reflex. She planted both hands against his chest, and shoved, hard, tipping him backwards out of the window. 

Once she realized what she had done she gasped and looked down at the street, half expecting to see him splattered across the paving stones below. But the alley was empty, until the man stepped back out of the shadows.

He laughed again. “Can I come call on you?” 

Furious, she sought out the nearest weapon at hand. She discovered Josef had used the chamberpot upon sneaking into her room, and she made use of it now, dumping it – cold urine, enameled iron and all – out of the window and onto the man’s head. He howled like a wet cat before bursting into laughter again, but she didn’t wait around to see what he would do next. She slammed the windows shut and latched them with shaking fingers.

Turning back towards the bed, she saw her little brother. He rested his head on both palms, elbows planted sleepily on the bed. His straw-like hair stuck up at all angles, and his eyes were wide. 

“Sosi, do you know who that was?”

She sat down on the bed. “Yes.” She pressed her hands over her eyes, and started to cry. 

Beorn Mogen had been called many things in his time.

Shaman. (He would correct those who would bother to listen. He had Sami blood and studied in the North, but he was not one of the reborn and restitched. Not of that kind, at least.)

Magician. (He would correct those who would make such an error with great vehemence. And, frequently, with fire.)

Demon. (He would laugh.)

Duke. (An accurate if irritating necessity. The Europeans would treat with no man without a title, and it made a great many things… easier.)

A disgusting old reprobate. (This was his wife, and if anyone had the right he figured it was her.) 

But the title that mattered to him was Magus.

This was also the word that battered against Sonia’s heart as the silent tears rolled down her cheeks. The name clanged in her ears like a broken bell, ringing on and on and out of tune. She never raised her voice. She stopped the cats from eating mice when she could, chasing them out with a broom instead. Her magic was like herself, a shy and gentle thing that worked best when no one was watching.

“And I pushed the Magus out the window,” she said, her words a moan.

“And emptied the piss pot on him,” Josef helpfully added.

“What am I going to do?” she wailed.

“He sure did howl.” Josef rolled on the bed and laughed. But he sobered quickly. “Don’t cry, Sosi.” He wound his arms around her neck and kissed her cheek. “He wasn’t supposed to be here anyway. He won’t stay mad. No one can stay mad at you.” And since the whole world was that simple to a boy of five, he buried his face in her hair for a minute, squeezed her again, and then went to bury himself in her quilts. 

She lay down next to him, but did not find peace so quickly. The Kostka family were comfortable and happy. But they were neither wealthy nor powerful, in either worldly or magical terms.

The Magus, on the other hand? If this world’s magic users had a king, it would be…

Well, no. Such a thing would be ontologically impossible. The witches would never tolerate a man. The magicians would never tolerate a woman. Most of the world’s practitioners, who fit neither category, wouldn’t tolerate the existence of any superior human much less a supreme one. For that matter, the werewolves would never tolerate a human. However, a group of individuals cannot exist in any geographical or metaphysical proximity without the intervention of politics, and where there are politics violence is likely if not probable. The Magus existed, then, to minimize the likelihood of violence, mop it up when it occurred, and do whatever possible to keep the rest of the world sleeping soundly at night and thinking that witches, magicians, and werewolves lived in fairy stories and nowhere else.

If they knew the truth of fairy stories, after all, they would never sleep again. Especially the stories involving fairies. 

He had once, she had heard, punished a man by flaying him. And she had…

She shook her head wordlessly. Then she turned, crawled into bed next to her brother, and cried and worried until at last, a little before dawn, she sank exhausted into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Her mother woke her after ten in the morning. 

“Sonia? Sonia! You must get up.” Her mother’s voice was frantic as she shook Sonia. As the girl sat up, Mrs. Kostka moved to the wardrobe and began going through her dresses. 

“You must wear the blue,” she said. “The lace is torn at the hem, but he won’t notice.”

“Who won’t, mama?” Sonia was still half asleep and memory had not yet dripped back into her conscious mind, but she was catching her mother’s panic. 

“Get up girl,” Mrs Kostka said. “He’s here!”

Sonia obeyed, stripping out of her night rail and putting up her arms so her mother could pull her stays and petticoats over her head. “Who’s here?”

“The Duke,” her mother said. “The Dane!” 

Memory crashed back then, and Sonia’s knees wobbled under her. 

Mrs. Kostka did not notice in her haste. “He asked to speak to your father, and you. In that order.” 

Sonia’s mouth was a desert. Fortunately her mother sent in the maid, and she was expected to do nothing else but stand still as they dressed her, wound her hair around her head in a quick braid crown, and hung golden bobs on her ears. Then her mother kissed her, beamed at her, wished her good fortune, and sent her down the stairs.

When she reached the bottom of the stairs, her father was waiting for her. He was outwardly calmer than her mother had been, but he cleared his throat three times before beginning, “My dear. My dear, dear girl.”

“What is wrong, father?” she asked.

“Nothing is wrong,” he said quickly. Too quickly. “Quite the opposite. That is. It might. I mean to say…” 

He sighed. “This is not how we planned any of this. Your mother and I…  Well. It isn’t for me to say.”

The tears Sonia was holding back started to spill out now. “What’s going on?”

Her father cupped her face in one hand and smiled. “The Magus wishes to see you,” he said. “The rest, he will explain.” He kissed her forehead, then added, “Remember we love you. And remember your duty.”

She walked into the parlor as if she were walking up the scaffold. She opened the door with trembling fingers, and inside was, as she knew he would be, the man from the night before.

Not that he looked at all the same. He looked much older now that she could see him clearly. His face was heavily lined and his skin tan from many years in the sun. His hair, braided neatly now, was a flaxen color that tended towards silver as often as not. He was dressed regally in a dark blue velvet suit trimmed with gold braid and a gold brocade waistcoat. He gave a grave nod when she entered, and she dropped into a deep curtsy.

“Your grace,” she said, her eyes fixed on the floor and her voice breaking, “I cannot apologize enough for any offense…”

“It’s nothing,” Beorn said. “I was drunk, and deserved it. Now come in, and sit.” 

She rose from her curtsy and did as he bade her, her mind whirling like clockwork with a missing gear. 

The duke sat opposite her, leaned back in the chair, watched her for a moment and then said, “I wish to speak to you of matrimony.”

Sonia took a moment to be certain she had heard him properly. “I…thought your grace was already married.”

He blinked, then laughed, a broad, boisterous laugh that almost made her smile in response. Almost. “I am. And were I not, I certainly wouldn’t look to undertake it again. No, I want to talk to you about my boy.”

It took her a breath to realize she had heard him correctly. “I beg your pardon?”

“My son. I want you to marry him.”

She stood back up, propelled by shock and, once again, anger. “I beg your pardon?”

Beorn pulled a pipe out of his pocket, tapped it on his hand, and lit it. “It’s a straightforward matter. I have a son. To be precise, I have many sons. But I have only one heir, and before long he will need an heir of his own. This requires a wife, and I’ve chosen you.”

“You. Have chosen me?” A small voice in the back of her mind was telling her that she was supposed to be flattered, that she should quell her temper and remember her duty, as her father had commanded. But between last night and this morning, she had lost the ability to be anything but incensed by this man, whoever he was, and his high handedness.

“I like you,” Beorn said. “You’re quiet, which the boy will like, and you have a backbone, which he’ll need.”

“I see,” Sonia said. “And what about me?”

“What about you?” Beorn asked. “You’ll have a suite and a staff of your own, a large allowance, an endowment when you produce an heir. Oh, and you’ll like the boy.”

“Really.”

“He’s nothing like me.”

“And what does he say to this?”

“I haven’t asked him.”

“You haven’t…”

“He’ll do as he’s told. And I know him. He’ll like you, as I said.”

“Are you completely insane?” she asked, sputtering. 

“Probably. It goes with the job, I’m afraid. So?”

It was an act of will to keep her mouth from hanging open. “So what?”

“Will you marry my son or not?”

“When the willow bears grapes!” she said indignantly. 

“Is that a no then?”

“You invade my room, in the middle of the night, act like a boor… worse than, even, and then you come here and simply… announce that I am to marry your son, sight unseen, with no courtship…”

He stood. “I’ll leave you to think about it then.”

She jumped to her feet as well. “Think about it? There is nothing to think about.”

He smiled, like a governess at an unruly child. “We’ll talk again soon.”

He opened the door and went out into the foyer. He found her parents, as was to be expected, waiting. 

Her father took one look at her face and said to the Duke, “Clearly my daughter is… overwhelmed…”

“She is a shy girl,” her mother added.

“She needs time to adjust to the idea… such a change in station…” her father said, and Sonia’s stomach plunged. She knew that tone. It was how her father bargained, wheedling over a point in a trade deal or a contract, when the deal was done but the finer points were still being haggled. 

Beorn waved a hand lazily. “Of course, of course,” he said. “Speak to her. I’ll be back in ten days. She will come with me then, and we’ll make the final arrangements.”

And then he put on his hat, and walked out the door.

That Dag Mogen was Beorn’s son had never been disputed. Even if one were to suspect that the Duchess Catherine would be bold enough to cuckold her husband (she was, but didn’t, considering Beorn to be entirely too much man for one woman for a lifetime), Beorn’s one legitimate son bore a strong physical resemblance to him. True, Dag was neither as tall nor as burly as his father. But few men were. 

That they shared a striking similarity of features is fortuitous, because they were in all other capacities entirely different men. At twenty-four, Dag was a quiet man, not given to outbursts of temper or bombast. Standing as he did in Beorn’s shadow, he was often underestimated, and he was a complete cypher even to his own father.

So when Beorn sat down at the dinner table one evening, poured a goblet-full of wine, and said, “I’ve found you a wife,” Dag responded with little more than a slight lifting of the eyebrows.

“Indeed, father,” said Dag. “Might I inquire as to the lady’s name?”

“Sonia,” Beorn replied, even as Catherine began to protest.

“Was I to have no word of this?” she said as her cutlery clattered against the china.

“I’m telling you now,” Beorn said, genuinely confused as to what he had done wrong this time.

“I hope you handled it with more delicacy with the girl,” Catherine said.

“She still needs convincing,” Beorn said.

“So that’s a ‘No’,” Catherine said.

Dag cleared his throat. “I will, of course, obey, Father, but I do insist on getting the bride’s consent first.”

Dag spoke with a perfectly straight face, but Beorn couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being laughed at. 

“I have her father’s consent,” Beorn said. “The girl will fall into line.” As an afterthought, he added, “Perhaps you could see to that.”

“That might be best, yes,” Dag said. He ate the rest of his meal quickly and in silence. 

After the boy had excused himself, Beorn said to his wife, “He’s going to see her.”

“So what if he is,” said Catherine.

“The boy is strange,” said Beorn.

“How could he be anything else?” Catherine said, gesturing about her.

“Catherine, he’s friends with a succubus.”

The duchess fixed her husband with a stony glare. “It’s a perfectly decent friendship,” she said as only an angry Englishwoman could.

“You’re not supposed to be friends with them,” Beorn said.

“He doesn’t tumble anything that crosses his path. Only you would think that strange.” When her husband’s only response was a grunt, she said, “Speaking of your great many progeny, we have a number of other weddings to see to this year.”

“Really? Whose?”

“Erik will turn thirty this year,” she said. “I thought another English marriage would be wise, and he’s fluent. There was that girl you liked for Dag at first…”

“Leah,” Beorn said. “She won’t do.”

“Why not?” Catherine asked. 

“She won’t do,” he repeated.

“Bad fate?” she said. He only grunted, which she took as confirmation. Long years of marriage had allowed them the kind of shorthand  needed to get around magical vows of silence. “I’ll make further inquiries, then. And two of the girls are marriageable…”

Beorn waved a hand. “See to their dowries,” he said, and poured another glass of wine. “But keep our hands out of it, unless they ask.” 

His sons had obligations. The girls, he thought, were best off where they were, near their mothers and away from the court. A woman’s magic was learned best at her mother’s side, and some things were too sacred even for his hands to mar.

The succubus in question was known as The Countess. Of what, no one knew, and she went by no other name. 

She was a demon, after all, and her Name was a closely guarded secret.

Under Catherine’s influence, the Magus’ home had become a stately place where rules of decorum were as strictly kept as could be managed in a court that encompassed such a variety of species. In this setting, the Countess remained a kind of bright, ornamental bird, known for her shocking attire as much as her salacious nature. When Dag found her that evening she was wearing a dress that trailed four feet behind her made of sapphire gauze and little else. Her hair was black, long and straight, adorned here and there with jeweled butterflies that flapped their wings in a wave of silent pulses. Their pace was languid and rippled down the long cascade of her back. Her skin was clear and smooth and the light, glistening brown of a southern beach’s sand. 

Her eyes today were violet behind heavy lids. Dag found that unsettling, although he was too thoughtful to say so. The Countess could change her appearance at will, but her tendency to change some features on a daily basis made him uneasy. And who had violet eyes? It was artifice for artifice’s sake, and the effort was too visible for his preference.

Then again, he didn’t pretend the effort was for him.

That question was long settled, and the relationship between the prince and the demoness was of long standing. 

He had first met her – really met her – when he was perhaps eight. Children held, by their nature, very little interest for her in any way, and Catherine Mogen’s own sense of decorum meant she kept her son well away from the Countess. But she was reading in the Conservatory one day when she felt eyes upon her. Looking up she found this solemn boy staring at her from behind a palm frond, his eyes curious, but, she thought, without the judgment she had grown to expect from most humans.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you lost?”

“No,” he said. “I got lost in the North Woods once. But not in the house. Not yet, anyway.”

“Glad to hear it,” she said. She went back to her book. The child kept watching her, but said nothing. After a while longer she said, “Is there something you want? Surely you’ve heard I eat little boys.” 

“No you don’t,” he said. 

“No, I don’t,” she said. “But how do you know that?”

“My father told me,” he said.

“I’m sure he did,” she said.

“He doesn’t like you,” said the boy.

“No, he doesn’t,” said the succubus.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because he doesn’t like what he can’t control,” she said with a wave and a rattle of bangles.

Dag frowned slightly, his eyebrows drawing together in an expression far beyond his years. “But that’s everything.”

The Countess’ gaze turned sharp. She looked him over again, more carefully than she ever had. “Yes. And now you know more of him than he knows of himself. Aren’t you… unexpected.”

“I am said to take after my mother,” Dag said.

“You don’t,” the Countess responded. “They only say that because you’re not like him.” She thought for a minute, took the boy by the chin, and said, “It’s Soren you take after. Your great-grandfather. But I suppose I am one of only a few who remember him. Not surprising, since he has been dead for nearly seventy years.” Dag smiled at that, and she closed her book and waved him towards her. “Now, tell me. What else have you heard about me?”

Thus began a long and unexpected friendship. Dag had a quick and subtle mind. The Countess had nearly seven hundred years of political expertise and more need of companionship than she would ever confess.

And she as a succubus. So when Dag learned he had a wife to win, he went to seek advice from his oldest friend. She greeted him warmly, kissing his cheek as she always had (although now she had to rise up on her toes to do it), and said, “You look troubled.”

“I’m getting married, it seems,” he said.

“Congratulations?” she said.

“My father has chosen her,” he said.

“Ah,” she answered.

“And he has already spoken to her,” he said.

“Oh, shit,” said the Countess.

“You see my problem,” said Dag.

“I take it the dear lady was not won over by his charms,” she said.

“According to Fetch, she emptied a chamberpot on him,” he said.

“Oh, I like her,” said the Countess.

“I imagine I will as well,” said Dag. “He is rather insistent on this, and I believe he has my interests in mind.”

She gave him A Look, and he shrugged. “He is a good father in some capacities.”

“Biologically, if nothing else,” she said.

“Yes, well.”

“And you’ve come for my advice on how to actually woo her,” said the Countess, the amusement plain on her face. “Aren’t there… human manuals on this sort of thing? Marriage isn’t my forte.”

“There may be,” Dag conceded. “But I very much doubt they cover this contingency.”

“Probably not,” she said. “She’s refused the match, then?” 

“Her family has agreed to it, but it appears she is unwilling.”

The Countess thought for a moment. “And she has not met you?”

“No,” said Dag.

She smiled. “This is simple then.” She accented her words with another flick of the wrist and flash of jeweled bands. “She hasn’t refused you. She has refused Beorn’s son.”

“Yes,” Dag said, “But the two are one and the same.”

“Technically true,” she said. “But she doesn’t know that. You, therefore, have an opportunity.”

“So you’re suggesting…”

“She hates Beorn. I can’t say I blame her. It suggests she has good sense. Thus she refuses to marry his son. To win her, you simply must be something else.”

Dag’s eyebrows drew together. “You would have me deceive her.”

“My child, this is a miserable world, and it has produced a particularly miserable situation for the both of you. I would have you conceive a means by which something of it may be salvaged.” When he hesitated further, she added, “Merely give yourselves a chance to meet without prejudice. If you truly won’t suit, we’ll think of a way to manage your father.”

He frowned. “If I could think of another alternative…”

“You wouldn’t have come to a lust demon for advice on marriage,” the Countess finished for him.

“Yes,” he said, smiling ruefully. “So where do we begin?”

3 thoughts on “When the Willow Bears Grapes, Part 1

  1. All 4 of these characters are delightful, though perhaps Dag holds the edge at the moment. I am looking forward to the willow grapes though.

    Like

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